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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Artist Profile: Al Stewart, Two Decades of A Songwriter

"I didnt make any money when we had the hits. If you break even you are lucky. .....when we went to Japan we had 28 people. It is easy to see how you can lose money."

 Opening Remarks

Al Stewart writes songs. That is what he does.  He did have some chart success in the late 1970's, but that was brief. At the end of the day, he is a folk singer/songwriter and always did the same thing, and still does.
He gained success because he hooked up with a producer, Alan Parsons, who knew how to turn his type of music into popular hits.
The concept album, something he has always done and something that meshed well when he hooked up with Alan Parsons, who was already doing a lot of that. While Al Stewart was a fine performer he really was a better writer and composer. The concept album was something that worked very well within his style of composing long songs deep in historical content. 
He once said I can't write a song that is 3 minutes long. It isn't me.  

 "They all run over six minutes. I cant write short songs."


Alastair Ian Stewart was born September 5,  1945 in Glasgow, Scotland

 Though born in Glasgow he grew up in the town of Wimborne Minster, Dorset, England after moving from Scotland with his mother.

Born in Scotland, raised in Dorset and gaining fame in London, Stewart moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s. He married in the mid-1990s, and he, his wife and their two daughters moved to Marin County, California.

Stewart came to stardom as part of the British folk revival in the 1960s and 1970s, and developed his own unique style of combining folk-rock songs with delicately woven tales of the great characters and events from history.

Stewart was a key figure in a fertile era in British music and he appears throughout the musical folklore of the age. He played at the first ever Glastonbury Festival in 1970,  and knew Yoko Ono before she met John Lennon.

Stewart shared a London apartment with a young Paul Simon, and hosted at the legendary Les Cousins folk club in London in the 1960s

He has worked with Peter White, Alan Parsons, Jimmy Page, Richard Thompson, Rick Wakeman, Tori Amos and Tim Renwick and recently has played with Dave Nachmanoff and former Wings lead-guitarist Laurence Juber.


Having bought his first guitar from future Police guitarist Andy Summers, Stewart traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic guitar when he was offered a weekly slot at Bunjies Coffee House in London's Soho in 1965.

"When Bob Dylan came along his thing was writing lyrics. I could do that a lot easier than playing the guitar. ...After seeing Jimi Hendrix one night I actually sold my electric guitar....I really wanted to be a top 10 hit guy,..but I wasn't very good at it. When Dylan came along I said to myself. "I can do that"."

From there, he went on to compete at the Les Cousins folk club on Greek Street, where he played alongside Cat Stevens, Bert Jansch, Van Morrison, Roy Harper and Ralph McTell

It was at this time that Stewart also met Yoko Ono, who persuaded him to part with the only £100 he had in the world to put towards her film entitled No 4, a compilation of naked bottoms.

Stewart's first record was the single "The Elf" (backed with a version of the Yardbirds' "Turn into Earth"), which was released in 1966 on Decca Records, and included guitar work from Jimmy Page (later of the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin), the first of many leading guitarists Stewart worked with.

Stewart then signed to Columbia Records (CBS in the UK), for whom he released six albums. Though the first four of these attracted relatively little commercial interest, Stewart's popularity and cult-following grew steadily through albums that contain some of Stewart's most incisive and introspective songwriting.

Stewart's debut album Bed-Sitter Images was released on LP in 1967

Love Chronicles (1969) was notable for the 18-minute title track, an anguished autobiographical tale of sexual encounters that was the first mainstream record release ever to include the word "fucking". It was voted "Folk Album of the Year" by the UK music magazine Melody Maker, and also features Jimmy Page and Richard Thompson on guitar.

 Largely written during a deep depression, the songwriting on Love Chronicles is generally stark and features what is usually credited as the first use of the word "f***ing" in popular commercial music. At least one song, "Old Compton Street Blues", was apparently recorded with a heavy cold.

His third album, Zero She Flies followed in 1970 and included a number of shorter songs which ranged from acoustic ballads and instrumentals to songs that featured electric lead guitar.

The term "zero she flies" comes from early aviation and refers to the flight of a plane (typically a biplane) flying blind but exactly on course through darkness or dense fog.

It is notable for being the first of his albums to include a song with historical references, namely "Manuscript" which refers to the events which led to the outbreak of World War I.

 In 1970, Stewart jumped into a car with fellow musician Ian Anderson and headed to the small town of Pilton, Somerset. There, at Michael Eavis's Worthy Farm, Stewart performed at the first ever Glastonbury festival to a field of 1,000 hippies.

On the back of his growing success, Stewart released Orange in 1972. It was written after a tumultuous break-up with his girlfriend and muse, Mandi, and was very much a transitional album, combining songs in Stewart's confessional style with more intimations of the historical themes that he would increasingly adopt.

The fifth release, Past, Present and Future (1973), was Stewart's first album to receive a proper release in the United States, via Janus Records. It echoed a traditional historical storytelling style and contained the song "Nostradamus," a long (9:43) track in which Stewart tied into the re-discovery of the claimed seer's writings by referring to selected possible predictions about twentieth century people and events. While too long for mainstream radio airplay at that time, the song became a hit on many U.S. college/university radio stations, which were flexible about running times.

On the U.K. concert tour that promoted the album, Stewart is quoted as saying

 "My first four albums have been, for me, an apprenticeship. The new my thesis".

 Modern Times is Al Stewart's sixth studio album, released in 1975.

 The blonde woman on the album cover is Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour's first wife, Ginger. The Cord automobile Stewart is sitting in belonged to Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.
Centered in the cover, holding a mirror reflecting a bright light toward the viewer, as on Stewart's previous album, Past, Present and Future, the U. S. version of the album features the Marvel Comics character Doctor Strange.

It was also the first album where Alan Parsons was involved, which would lead later to his greatest commercial success. 

"I knew Alan. I was sitting with him in a restaurant in 1974. I said I am making a new record would you like to produce it? He said yes. That was all there was to it."

 "Sirens of Titan" is based on the novel of the same name by Kurt Vonnegut.

 Year of the Cat is the seventh studio album by Al Stewart, released in 1976 and engineered by Alan Parsons; it is considered his masterpiece. Its sales helped by the hit single "Year of the Cat", "one of those 'mysterious woman' songs," co-written by Peter Wood. The album reached #5 on the Billboard charts.

 The title track derives from a song Stewart wrote in 1966 called "Foot of the Stage" with prescient lyrics about Tony Hancock, one of Britain's favorite comedians who tragically committed suicide two years later.When Stewart discovered that Hancock was not well-known in the United States, he went back to his original title "Year of the Cat".

 Stewart had all of the music and orchestration written and completely recorded before he even had a title of any of the songs. He stated that he has done this for 6 of his albums, and he often writes four different sets of lyrics for each song.

 "I don't idolize guitars. I use them to write songs. To me that is what it's all about."

The other single from the album was "On the Border". 

Stewart wrote "Lord Grenville" about the Elizabethan sailor and explorer Sir Richard Grenville. 

Time Passages is the eighth studio album by Stewart, released in 1978. It is the follow-up Year of the Cat. The album, like its predecessor, was produced by Alan Parsons. The album reached #10 on the Billboard charts. The title track reached #7, and "A song on the radio", another song from the album reached #29 on the charts and continues to get major airplay to this day.

The album's title track  reached #7 on the Billboard charts.

 and "End of the Day" were both co-written by Peter White.

 "A Man For All Seasons" refers to Sir Thomas More, statesman under Henry VIII of England and a Catholic martyr.

 "The Palace of Versailles" is about the residence of the French Kings and the site of the beginnings of the French Revolution.

 "Life in Dark Water" - references the Marie Celeste, an American brigantine merchant ship famous for having been discovered in 1872 in the Atlantic Ocean, unmanned and apparently abandoned (one lifeboat was missing), despite the fact that the weather was fine and her crew had been experienced and able seamen.

 24 Carrots is the ninth studio album by Stewart, released in 1980. The single Midnight Rocks reached the top 30 on the Billboard charts in 1980, reaching #24.

 24 Carrots did not sell as well than its two immediate predecessors and Stewart was dropped by his record label Arista and his popularity declined. Despite his lower profile and waning commercial success, he continued to tour the world, record albums, and maintain a loyal fanbase. There was a four-year gap between his next two albums, the highly political Russians and Americans (1984) and the upbeat pop-oriented Last Days of the Century (1988), which appeared on smaller labels and had lower sales than his previous works.

"90 percent of my job is spent sitting either in airports or on airplanes. I, what, spend 75 minutes on stage and I usually clock up about 12 hours flying and traveling and waiting in order to get to those 75 minutes on stage. The other day it took me 19 hours to get from L.A. to Albany. Left at 7:00 in the morning and got there at 2:00 the following morning. It drives me nuts, because the gig is not what I'm paid for — what I'm paid for is pushing around baggage and sitting in airports. So I write about airplanes because that's where I spend so much of my time."

 In 1995, Stewart was invited to play at the 25th anniversary Glastonbury festival, taking to the same stage he had graced in 1970 at the first ever festival.
Stewart and guitarist Dave Nachmanoff released a live album, Uncorked (Live with Dave Nachmanoff) on Stewart's label, Wallaby Trails Recordings, in 2009.
Stewart and Nachmanoff played the Glastonbury Festival 40th anniversary in June 2010 on the Acoustic stage.

 On occasion, Stewart has set poems to music, such as "My Enemies Have Sweet Voices" (lyrics by the poet Pete Morgan) on the 1970 album Zero She Flies. During his 1999 UK tour, Stewart invited Morgan to read the lyrics as he performed this song in the Leeds City Varieties Theatre show of 7 November 1999.


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