‘Switch On Summer From A Slot Machine . . .’

On the way to the library the other day, I heard Cat Stevens’ “Where Do The Children Play” coming from the radio speakers, as if my good friends at WXYG were reminding me that I promised a while back to write a little bit about Stevens and his work.

I haven’t forgotten, but as I dig through Stevens’ work – both as Cat Stevens and as Yusuf Islam – I find myself adrift. With a couple of exceptions, I never paid much attention to Stevens’ music. For about a year, I listened occasionally to the 1971 album Teaser & The Firecat until my sister took it and her other albums with her when she got married. I heard and enjoyed 1970’s Tea For The Tillerman at many friends’ homes from 1970 onward, and finally got my own copy in the late 1970s. A few other Cat Stevens albums came home during my vinyl madness in the 1990s (although I think they’ve stayed on the shelves after being played once). And I’ve gotten digital copies of both Tillerman and Teaser.

Stevens’ pre-1970 work doesn’t interest me. I’ve heard enough of the later 1970s stuff to know that it’s not essential, at least not for me, and I’ve heard both post-2000 albums the singer released under his current name of Yusuf Islam. Those are pleasant, and maybe with enough listenings, they’d find their ways inside me and matter to me. Maybe.

I’m not saying that Cat Stevens’ work after 1971 is without merit. Maybe what’s at work here is the well-known bit about the music of our youth being always more important than the music that comes by later, but I find little in Cat Stevens’ post-1971 catalog that moves me. And even Teaser & The Firecat is an album that I like but don’t love.

Tea For The Tillerman is different story. Over the years, it’s come to be one of my essential albums, one I do love. Part of my affection for the album no doubt is because it reminds me of Easter weekend 1974 in Poitiers, France. (I traveled to Poitiers from Denmark on the invitation of a young lady whom I’d met in Vienna. By the time I got to Poitiers, she’d moved on to Munich, but her friends welcomed me and included me in their Easter celebrations, with Tea For The Tillerman playing frequently in the background.) Part of that affection is that the album sounds like 1970, and that’s musically an important year to me.

Beyond those reasons, I think Tea For The Tillerman matters to me because it’s one of the great singer/songwriter albums and is far and away better than anything else Cat Stevens ever released. (For what it’s worth, those who vote on such things for the various Rolling Stone rankings think so, too: In the magazine’s latest listing [2012] of the 500 greatest albums, Tea For The Tillerman ranks No. 208 and none of Stevens’ other albums are listed.) From the above-mentioned “Where Do The Children Play” through the No. 11 hit “Wild World” on to the closing title track, the album shines.

Here’s “Where Do The Children Play,” and just hearing it this morning makes me want to go cue up the entire album once more. I’ll likely do that later today.

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3 Responses to “‘Switch On Summer From A Slot Machine . . .’”

  1. David Lenander says:

    I think Mona Bone Jakon is almost as good, and I think I like both Teaser & Foreigner better than you do. Though I’ll admit to being impressed with the latter more than I ever actually *listened* to it. But sometimes I really liked it when I did. But I probably like at least parts of Jakon better than anything on Tea. I did feel at the time that Catch Bull was just marking time, pleasant but repeating the same things with less effect. And none of the later albums did so much for me, Buddha, the Numbers one, etc.

  2. Vintage Spins says:

    I like his mid-60s, 2nd-wave Brit Invasion songs: ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’, ‘Matthew and Son’ and even ‘I Love My Dog” (“. . . as much as I love you . . . .” I remember that Stevens’ ‘Tea For the Tillerman’ album was HUGE when it came out. Apart from that one, though, I’m afraid most of the music that I recall from the ’70s was of the over-produced, “look at me, I’m a songwriter” variety that seemed to take itself SO seriously.

  3. Yah Shure says:

    Speaking of WXYG, I just about fell over yesterday, when I heard them play Renaissance’s “Carpet Of The Sun.” First time I’ve ever heard it on a non-college station.

    I’m also a fan of ‘Mona Bone Jakon,’ having been treated to a few of the songs during screenings of ‘Harold And Maude’ at the Westgate Theater. When I found a used copy shortly thereafter, “Lady D’Arbanville” rang a bell. Never did figure out where I’d heard it before.

    “Matthew And Son” was a favorite during the few weeks KDWB played it as an uncharted extra in 1967. I second David’s comment about ‘Catch Bull At Four’ being something of a comedown. It didn’t help that the album’s contents were listed on the label of only on one side of the record (as “this” and “that” sides.)

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