A Tragedy Inspired Al Stewart's 'Year of the Cat'

Frank Mastropolo

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British singer-songwriter Al Stewart does not produce stereotypical pop songs. His compositions are often complex; short stories are set to music woven with historical references. In John Davies’ book Lyrics and Limericks, Stewart said that content is most important to him.

“Content is its raison d’etre rather than style. So what I like in a song, and I think I’m in a minority here because most people don’t care, but what I want is original content. 

“In other words I want a song to be about something that a song hasn’t been about before and I want it to be written in language which is different from the normal run-of-the-mill pop music language. These are the two priorities when I write a song.”

Stewart explains that he usually writes the music first, even before he comes up with the song’s title. He often writes four or five different sets of lyrics per song.

“What usually comes first is an idea, like I’m going to make this about the Hungarian Revolution for example. Then I write the music and then I fill in the lyrics.”

That’s how Stewart wrote 1976’s “Year of the Cat,” one of his biggest hits. The lyrics tell the story of a tourist’s romantic adventure with a woman he met in a marketplace. Inspired by a piano riff by his co-writer, Peter Wood, Stewart first wrote the song as “Foot of the Stage” after attending a performance by Tony Hancock, a British comedian who suffered from depression. 

Tony Hancock in The Blood Donor

Stewart told Neville Judd in Al Stewart: True Life Adventures of a Folk Troubadour that Hancock shared his pain that night with the audience.

“He came on stage and he said, ‘I don’t want to be here. I’m just totally pissed off with my life. I’m a complete loser, this is stupid. I don’t know why I don’t just end it all right here.’

“And they all laughed because this was the character he played… this sort of down-and-out character. And I looked at him and I thought, ‘Oh my God, He means it. This is for real.’”

When Hancock committed suicide in 1968, Stewart decided he did not want to take advantage of the tragedy. Weaving together the discovery of a Vietnamese astrology book opened to the Year of the Cat and a man’s story about meeting a woman in North Africa, Stewart abandoned the Hancock tale and wrote “Year of the Cat.”

"Year of the Cat" by Al Stewart

In January 1976, Stewart started to record his next album. Up to then, Stewart had been an interesting but largely unknown folk-rock artist. For the new LP, he teamed with producer Alan Parsons, who helped create a new sound for Stewart. In a promotional radio interview, Parsons explained how he introduced Stewart to a more jazz-flavored style.

“He always tended to base his music around acoustic instruments, mainly because of his folk background. In fact, the only departure from acoustic instruments at this point was to use the electric guitar up front, in solos, etc. 

“But while we were making Al’s next album, I made a suggestion to use an old friend of mine, Phil Kenzie, to put a sax solo on the LP’s title track. And Al said he’d never heard a sax in his music before, but kind of went along with the idea. And the result was a song which virtually broke Al worldwide: ‘Year Of The Cat.’”

The single, released in 1977, reached number eight on the Billboard chart and has become a standard of classic rock radio. Stewart told Pause & Play that after recording “Year of the Cat,” he knew his new jazzy approach would work.

“I thought it was pretty good. I had finished it at nine o’clock in the morning and I was living in an apartment in West Hollywood and I had been in the studio all night with Alan Parsons mixing this thing. And I brought it back and I couldn’t go to bed. 

“I had not heard it on my home system; it’s one thing to listen to a record in a studio because everything sounds great through big speakers, but I wanted to listen to it through tiny little speakers. I remember putting it on at nine in the morning for one more time, then around ten in the morning I thought ‘This sounds pretty damn good’ and I went to sleep.”

But Stewart says the album’s success didn’t immediately change his life for the better.

“The record was so expensive to make, and because of all the promo tours we did, I think it personally cost me a quarter of a million dollars. You had to pay the record company back, you had to pay the producer. 

“It worked out that years later, during the period when I was having successful records, I basically broke even on the entire thing. Whereas years later, when I was just going out with an acoustic guitar and wasn’t really doing records anymore, you make money. So go figure.”

Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022

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Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022. He is also the author of the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 writer and producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

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