❉ Revisit one of the definitive 1970s albums, in a new remaster by original producer Alan Parsons.
Continuing their remastering of Al Stewart’s back catalogue, March 2021 saw Esoteric Recordings present the 45th Anniversary edition of Al’s seminal Year of the Cat album, in a 4-disc deluxe edition, containing the remastered album, a 5.1 mix by the legendary Alan Parsons (producer of the original album) and a previously-unreleased concert from Seattle, October 1976, as well as a more affordable 2-disc edition comprising the remastered album (rounded off by 1975 demo Belsize Blues) and the first half of the Seattle set.
Released in October 1976, and housed in a classic Hipgnosis sleeve design, Year of the Cat was the second album that Al had worked on with Alan Parsons, the first being 1975’s Modern Times, which helped Al break America, and it saw Stewart move even further away from his folk roots. Utilising the skills of Modern Times’ session ace Tim Renwick, Cockney Rebel’s George Ford and Peter Wood, with the addition of Peter White and Ford’s Cockney Rebel bandmate Stuart Elliott the transition from folk to rock was complete.
However, the opener Lord Grenville harks back to his folk days, taking its inspiration from an actual historical event – Al would often take historical events as the starting point for many of his songs, in this case a naval battle off Azores in 1591. While the subject matter is one that bands like Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span would have undoubtedly tackled with a traditional sound, the use of a full rock band and Parsons’ contemporary production makes this track sit very firmly on the rock side of the fence.
The production is sublime, as to be expected from Parsons, and having a collaborator in the studio of Parsons’ calibre helped encourage Al’s song-writing, from the fantastic On the Border, inspired by contemporary events events that were happening in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, at the time and set off perfectly by Peter White’s Spanish guitar solo, to a brace of classic Stewart tracks, the wonderful If it Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave it and One Stage Before, which has Al ruminating on life, death and immortality.
Rounding off the album off in fine style is the wonderful Year of the Cat, complete with its superb sax solo. Al’s composition technique was to get the tune first, then write the words, and its lyrics, inspired by a book on Vietnamese astrology, were the third iteration, having started out being about tragic comedian Tony Hancock (rejected by RCA’s US office as they’d never heard of him!) before evolving into this gem of a track.
The second and third discs of the box set edition comprises a complete, previously unreleased concert recorded live at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre on 29 October 1976, newly remastered by Paschal Byrne. The band are really tight, and Al is on fine form throughout.
Luckily for fans on a budget, all the big numbers are on the 2-disc edition of this anniversary release, such as fantastic contemporary live versions of On the Border (where Peter White recreates his legendary Spanish guitar part), Broadway Hotel, Sand in Your Shoes and Year of the Cat as well as great live performances of gems from his previous album including Apple Cider Re-Constitution and Roads to Moscow.
This was a massive breakthrough album for Al and depending on how deep you want to dive, the choice of either the 2-disc or 4-disc set is a tricky one to make, as Esoteric’s 5.1 remastering series has been uniformly excellent, but whichever choice you make, this is a perfect time to reappraise this classic album, with its big hits that are still staples of UK national radio 45 years on.
❉ Al Stewart – ‘Year Of The Cat: 2CD Remastered & Expanded Edition’ (QECLEC22725) was released 26 March 2021 by Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click here to order from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Al Stewart – ‘Year Of The Cat, 3CD/1DVD 45th Anniversary Deluxe Edition’ (QECLEC42724) was released 26 March 2021 by Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records, RRP £49.99. CURRENTLY OUT OF STOCK.
❉ James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.
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