Bournemouth Lad Makes Good

Technically rock ’n’ roll broke out in the United States in 1956, with Elvis, but I was a little young for that. For me, it really came in ’58, around about. I loved Elvis, obviously. I loved the Everly Brothers. I loved Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, and Duane Eddy almost more than any of the others because he inspired me to buy my first guitar.

In England at the time, in the two years leading up to the Beatles, the biggest band was the Shadows. Everybody played the Shadows’ hits, and I started playing them, too. They weren’t that hard to do, which is the glory of it. We all started playing “Apache.” I could play it fairly competently, so when I left school I was in demand as a guitar player. I played in six different bands in less than two years in the British town of Bournemouth.

During that time — early ’63 to late ’64 — the Beatles came along and changed the world forever. All of a sudden my ability to play the Shadows’ hits went out the window. Nobody cared anymore. Then it was, “Can you play ‘Twist and Shout?’” — which fortunately for me is not very hard. So, yes, of course I could play it. I spent two years in the trenches, in Bournemouth, playing Beatles songs. And in the summer of 1963 I managed to get backstage and meet John Lennon. That was major. Think about it: You’re standing backstage, in the middle of English Beatle mania, with John Lennon, with his guitar around your neck. That felt pretty damn good. I thought, “This is an omen. It’s going to be good.” Later that year my band opened for the Rolling Stones, and so I met them, too. So by the end of ’63, I had met the Stones and most of the Beatles. I thought, “Oh, I’ve got to have a go at this” — which is the upside of the story. Call that part “Young lad makes good.”

But there was a downside, too, it turned out. I was completely useless at playing in beat groups. I could play the notes, but I didn’t look right, and I had the wrong education. I had been a polite public school boy, and everybody was wearing leather jackets, swearing, getting drunk and taking drugs, and spending time with  disreputable women. All of which I admired deeply, but none of which I had any ability for.

I was either rescued or doomed, I’m not sure which, by Bob Dylan. He was unaware of this, of course, but his records were starting to turn up in Bournemouth. I had “The Freewheelin’ ” and learnt all these crazy songs, and I began interspersing them into the beat group shows. It became clear to me that I just wasn’t going to be able to get in on the British invasion — something I’ve regretted ever since. All I wanted back in 1964 was to join the Hollies and tour America. But because this wasn’t happening, and I was stuck in a band making five quid a night in Bournemouth, I thought, “Maybe I’m doing the wrong thing.” I went up to London and discovered all these little folk clubs, where all you had to be able to do was play Bob Dylan songs, and I got a regular gig right away.

I was staying in this little flat in the East End of London that was rented out by a social worker, and she let folk singers stay there for free. I was living there, and through the door walks Paul Simon, who apparently stayed there every time he came to England. Paul played all these folk clubs, and he was becoming known on the English folk scene, but he hadn’t broken through yet. Because I saw how Paul wrote songs, I began to think in terms of writing my own songs. I stopped being “Al Beatle,” and I started being “Al Folk Singer,” just like that, that quickly.

Everyone starts by writing love songs, so I wrote love songs. I fell in love, and I wrote an 18-minute song, an epic love song; this is “Love Chronicles,” and it became the Melody Maker Folk Album of the Year. It had Jimmy Page playing on it, which is very cool. So this is all well and good, but then my relationship broke up and I was devastated. I was writing more love songs, but now they were incredibly depressing. I was doing it as therapy and it didn’t really work.

So I consciously thought, “What can I write about that aren’t love songs?” And from a very early age I’d been reading history. While I was writing all these love songs, I’d been staying up all night reading history books. Especially after my relationship broke up, I’d get a bottle of vodka and a Solzhenitsyn book, and just read, absorbing it all. Eventually it started coming out in songs. I wrote “Roads to Moscow,” which basically is a combination of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and Lydia Chukovskaya’s “The Deserted House.” And when I played it, people just went ape. I thought, “I’ll make a historical folk rock record. If nobody buys it, then so be it.” I called it “Past, Present and Future,” and it immediately outsold the first four albums put together, and kicked me into a whole different dimension. I’d been playing in clubs and colleges, and I was promoted to concert halls.

After “Past, Present and Future,” I got quite ambitious, and I thought, “What’s beyond this?” And what was beyond this was America. But no one from the English folk clubs had ever translated into America. The only people that had ever made it were Donovan and Cat Stevens, and they’d been pretty much pop stars. I thought, “Can this be done?” I met a disc jockey — Luke O’Reilly, who was English, but was a disc jockey on a radio station in Philadelphia — and he said, “It can be done, but you’ve got to do exactly what I say.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Guitar solos.” I said, “I may be a lyricist, but I’ve always loved great guitar players.” So we called Tim Renwick. The album was called “Modern Times,” and that whole album had great guitar solos. It was much more accessible to Americans than “Past, Present and Future.” Then Luke said we should come over and tour, and go to every radio station that would have us.

“Modern Times” actually made the American top 30, which was astounding to me. It sold 150,000 copies, and we were at No. 28 in Billboard. It got to No. 30 in England, too, so it was a top 30 album on both sides of the Atlantic, which was totally new to me. Nothing I’d done before had ever cracked the top 100. “Modern Times” was produced by Alan Parsons, so it sounded good. We needed a great producer, and we got one. We needed a great guitar player, and we got one. And I needed to keep the lyrical standard up, which I think I did.

So the next thing was to make another album, and I said I wanted an album that sounds great, is accessible, has guitar solos and still has the depth that you get from writing about history. That album became “Year of the Cat.”

“Year of the Cat” sold 2 million copies, but because I’d signed a terrible deal with this little American label, Janus, I saw very little money from it. It didn’t really even pay to keep the band on the road. But then my lawyer discovered that Janus had failed to renew my contract, so I was free, and Clive Davis offered me a million dollars to join Arista. That was great, but we immediately began to hear things like, “It has to have 120 beats per minute, and three choruses and two saxophone solos, and we want something that sounds like ‘Year of the Cat.’ ” We gave them “Time Passages,” and it sold a million copies.

We did three albums for Arista, but by 1980, I was ready for something completely different. It was so expensive to take the band on the road, and we weren’t selling as many records, plus I was half-deaf from saxophones. We climbed the mountain and came down the other side, and I needed to take a break. I have various obsessions — music, history, literature and also wine. I spent the 80’s collecting wine, going to tastings, speaking in France and even made an offer on a winery.

During that time, I actually made two albums, but frankly they weren’t very good. I played a few gigs. But after nine years I felt rejuvenated from all the time off and ready to play acoustic guitar again. I did a live acoustic album with Peter White called “Rhymes in Rooms,” and it sold very well. I realized this was what people wanted; they didn’t want me playing with a band anymore. This turned out to be a great move, because if you have to have a band, you either have to try to get so much money that no promoter will look at you, or you have to pay them nothing, which doesn’t work either.

I love rock ’n’ roll, but I got over trying to do it. I just thought I was more effective playing acoustically. It gave me more scope for lyric writing. I met another great acoustic guitar player, Laurence Juber, who is nonpareil, and used to be in Wings. If he’s good enough for Paul McCartney, he’s good enough for me. I started playing with Laurence, and that worked so well that we made four albums together, and those are four of my favorite albums. I’ve also done a live album, “Uncorked,” with Dave Nachmanoff, my touring guitar player, which has sold consistently well.

At different times of my life, I’ve been a folk singer, I’ve been a sort of sub-pop star — I can’t say rock star — and I’ve been knee deep in the wine business. Now I’m a folk singer again. I’ve gone round in a circle, different things in different decades. There’s a constant about history, and literature, and music, and wine, and of course love affairs. Call it wine, women and song, with a little bit of history and literature thrown in.

It’s a total privilege to be able to make a living writing songs and performing them. I’ve always felt that and I still do, and it’s not one I take for granted, either. Especially now that I’m about to play the Royal Albert Hall again.

Authors

  • Al Stewart

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute