Cat Stevens – Tea for the Tillerman

Cat Stevens – Tea for the Tillerman
Released November, 1970

An English singer-songwriter, Cat Stevens, rode the folk wave of the early 70s and released a string of platinum albums and hits, many of which have since been covered by much loved artists. Without even realising it you’ve listened to a lot of Cat Stevens songs. He came to the attention of the public at the age of 19 with his song ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’. A couple of years later he contracted tuberculosis which landed him in hospital. It was here that he started to question the spiritual aspects of  life and turned to mediation, yoga and metaphysics. It was also around this time that he became disenchanted with his record company, so in an attempt to get out of his contract he became a ‘difficult star’ making outlandish requests in a hope they would drop him. It worked. With a new canon of songs written from his new viewpoint on life he signed to Island Records in 1970, who gave him complete creative control. He released his third album “Mona Bone Jakon” which had moderate success and was the first of his albums to have any real success in America.

Which brings us to this week’s album, “Tea for the Tillerman”, released just four months after “Mona Bone Jackson”. Here Stevens would start to further explore different spiritual themes in his lyrics to a folk-rock soundtrack. The combination worked and not only is it Steven’s most successful release, but has gone on to sell in excess of 3 million copies. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it at #206 in their “500 Greatest Albums of all Time” list.  It’s fair to say that “Tea for the Tillerman” has gone on to inspire many a young lad with a guitar in his bedroom.

When most people think of Cat Stevens however, they are usually drawn to his life after music. In 1977 Stevens converted to the Muslim faith, changed his name to Yusaf Islam and promptly retreated from the limelight as it did not sit in accordance with his newly found religious beliefs. It wasn’t until 1985 that he would start to play the odd benefit gig. In 1995 he returned to music in earnest and started releasing new material under the name Yusaf Islam. He has since gone on to say that his departure from the limelight and music was a little rushed and said upon his return “I can reconnect with the people I felt I abandoned, which I regret more than anything”. He has credited his son Muhammad Islam for his return to secular music after he brought a guitar back into his house and he rediscovered his love for songwriting. The whole conversion to Islam thing has brought about a lot of controversy in Stevens/Islam’s life, but we are not here to talk about these things, you have Wikipedia for that.

This week I learnt three things: 1. Cat Stevens is English. 2. He wrote A LOT of songs that I know purely through their covers. 3. The man can hold a tune. Upon my first couple of listen to “Tea for the Tillerman” I was surprised at just how many of the songs I recognised. The other thing that surprised me, not having consciously listened to his work before, was just how unique and strong his voice is. It definitely holds the album together. Whilst described as a folk-rock album I must say I was quite disappointed in it musically. Most of the songs prominently featured a rhythm guitar with a simple strum pattern and the odd arpeggio here or there. Nothing outstanding and at times quite pedestrian. The production was a little lacking also. The sound of the plectrum clicking against the strings in ‘Wild World’ is almost unbearable. Despite this it’s a hard album not to like. It’s simple and non-offensive, reflecting on many things that we’ve all pondered from time to time. Favourite songs for me were ‘Where Do the Children Play?’, ‘Sad Lisa’, and the wonderful but albeit short closing track ‘Tea for the Tillerman’. I enjoyed my time with Cat Stevens this week but I don’t see myself revisiting it any time soon.

I once lived with a guy who started every day by playing ‘Peace Train’ and ‘Father And Son’ at about 6am very loudly in the lounge room. Unsurprisingly, this led to quite a dislike for Cat Stevens that I’ve never really got over. After listening to “Tea For The Tillerman” a couple of times, I discovered that dislike is not something I’ve got over with time. This album was really hard for me to listen to. The majority of tracks almost sent me to sleep. You all know my feelings about folk music by now. Wikipedia classifies “Tea For The Tillerman” as “folk-rock”. I could only identify two tracks that could count as anything close to rock: ‘Miles From Nowhere’ and ‘But I Might Die Tonight’. If it wasn’t for these two tracks, I don’t know if I’d have the strength to listen all the way through. “Tea For The Tillerman” has two songs that are recognisable, ‘Father and Son’ and ‘Wild World’, though I’m sure I know ‘Wild World’ from a cover version… Maybe Maxi Priest? ‘Father and Son’ is an interesting one. A conversation between a father and son about the son leaving home to find his own way, with Steven’s telling the story from both sides. The interesting part for me is that Stevens was 22 when this album was released. “Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy”? I don’t think you’re fit to be giving advice. I’m not even sure why the title track exists. A song that’s one minute long and really gives nothing. Maybe Stevens didn’t know he could name an album without having a track by the same name? And he’s onto children playing again… Thanks, Cat Stevens, but no thanks. It’s not personal, but it’s time to make a change.

Whenever I think of Cat Stevens, I remember hearing my dad playing ‘Peace Train’ on record when I was a kid, and how happy the song made me feel, it’s so uplifting. Although ‘Peace Train’ was on another Cat Stevens album, I think that the ‘uplifting’ descriptor is poignant in general when describing the work of Cat Stevens, in particular his 1970 release, “Tea for the Tillerman”. Serving up a tasteful blend of piano ballads and acoustic guitar folk songs, the album focuses around themes of social issues, spirituality and love. The songs are accentuated with gospel-sounding backing vocals, and the occasional string section or violin. Most of the tracks have a happy theme, with  ‘Sad Lisa’, my favourite of the album, standing out as one of the slower and more heart-felt ballads. It also features a hauntingly-beautiful violin solo and string section that gives me goose bumps every time and piano playing that reminds me of Tori Amos.  Of course we can’t forget the two most-popular tracks of the album, and the ones that made it a best seller, ‘Father and Son’, and ‘Wild World’. It goes without saying that these ones are fantastic, but they weren’t really highlights of the album for me, I’ve heard them too many times over the years. I really loved ‘Longer Boats’, it has the sound of an African folk song and reminds me of Paul Simon. You can’t help but think it’s about death and the afterlife, but over the years there has been contention around the meaning of the song, with most arguing that Stevens said in an interview that the song related to an alien encounter that he had.Cool! Overall I enjoyed listening to “Tea for the Tillerman” and I hope to one day own it on vinyl. It’s definitely an album worthy of its place in the annals of classic music and cemented Stevens as one of the definitive song writers of his era.

I first heard ‘Father and Son’ when I was in my mid-teens, not quite the age of the second titular character. I liked it instantly, and loved Stevens’ vocal shift into the higher octave to signal the change of narrator. At the time of the song’s release, the youth of that era were beginning to realise that they had a voice, and a right to use it. While the generational difference between the two characters is expressed, it is done without animosity; each is merely stating their point of view. This theme of a divide between the old and the young recurs throughout “Tea For The Tillerman”. Opening song ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ mourns the cost of progress at the expense of childhood, while the closing title track ends with optimistic hope that the children will get to play. Stevens’ recent break-up with Patti D’Arbanville is further lamented in ‘Wild World’ and ‘Hard Headed Woman’, the former being a big favourite of mine. Another strong undercurrent is his quest for spiritual enlightenment with the songs ‘But I Might Die Tonight’ and ‘On The Road To Find Out’. Bizarrely, Cat Stevens became a Muslim seven years after this album came out and changed his name to Yusef Islam. He wouldn’t return to the music industry until the 21st century. With “Tea For The Tillerman” Cat Stevens’ transformation from late sixties pop dandy to bearded folk troubadour was complete. His singing style and knack for writing good melodies make him very easy to listen to. He can go from intense passion to quiet reflection within a single song without it feeling forced. The acoustic guitar is the centre of the album’s wonderful production, but the occasional splashes of piano and strings blend brilliantly. This is essential listening for fans of earthy folk ballads.

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