PART 2 – 1973 to 1978
Chapter 11 Year Of The Cat
Written by Al Stewart unless stated otherwise
Label & number: RCA RS1082 (UK); Janus JXS7022 (USA)
Release date: September 1976
Producer: Alan Parsons
Year Of The Cat
- Author(s): Al Stewart and Peter Wood
- Key: Em
- Duration: 6:40
- Lyrics 18
- Music 18
- Performance 18
- Production 18
- Likeability 18
- TOTAL 90%
On the Internet you can find many different interpretations of the lyrics to “Year Of The Cat”, some sensible, others bizarre. But what Al’s most famous song is definitely not about is British comedian Tony Hancock (1924-1968).
Originally to be called “Foot Of The Stage”, Al had previously written lyrics that traced the successful, but ultimately tragic, life of Hancock, notable for his 1950s BBC radio comedy Hancock’s Half Hour. A combination of depression, alcohol and “what-does-it-all-mean?” doubts led to Hancock’s suicide in June, 1968 in Sydney, Australia. Partly out of respect for Hancock, and because few people outside Britain would have heard of him, Al needed a different topic for the lyrics to accompany keyboard player Peter Wood’s memorable piano riff. Enter the world of oriental astrology mixed with Casablanca.
As early as line one Al refers to “a Bogart movie”. Humphrey DeForest Bogart was a New Yorker with English and Dutch heritage who became one of cinema’s most legendary actors and iconic stars. In 1942 he starred in Casablanca opposite the equally celebrated Ingrid Bergman. Set in the Second World War, the film tells the story of hero Rick’s (played by Bogart) inner conflict between love and virtue. He is torn between his love for Ilsa (Bergman) and helping her husband to flee Nazi persecution. Ultimately his desire to do “the right thing” wins the day. Ilsa joins her husband in departing from Casablanca, much to Rick’s regret.
Peter Lorre also appears in the film. Born Ladislav Lowenstein in Slovakia in 1904, he also fled the Germans by moving to London. He later settled in Hollywood where he became well known for his roles in horror and suspense movies, as well as the eerie, whining tone of his characteristically lispy voice.
The song’s title appears in Vietnamese astrology which, like Chinese astrology, has twelve signs of the zodiac. They’re virtually identical, with the exception of the second animal being the water buffalo instead of ox, and the fourth being the cat (in Vietnamese) rather than the rabbit. This astrology forms the basis of a complex system of fortune-telling, far too involved to explain in detail here. Suffice it to say that it brings together the twelve zodiacal animals, metal, wood, fire, earth, water and astronomical calendar cycles. The specific combination for any given individual is reputed to describe various characteristics; for example, someone born in the year of the snake is supposed to be meticulous, philosophical and patient - but also critical, judgmental and petty.
The phrase “year of the cat” serves no purpose other than as the title and hook. The lyrics have more in common with Casablanca (film and locale) than with oriental astrology. The story is a simple tale of boy-meets-girl in an exotic location, and the girl then sweeps him off his feet by taking him by the arm through the “hidden door”. This idea of the secret garden or other world beyond some threshold isn’t new, but using the setting of North Africa lends a heady and romantic flavour to lyrics that might otherwise have turned out to be banal.
The meeting takes place presumably in Casablanca, Morocco, following which the two lovers seek out “what’s waiting inside/The year of the cat”. In keeping with Morocco’s reputation as part of the hippy trail the girl comes in in “incense and patchouli”, both of which import a similar whiff in this voyage of discovery. Incense has various organic materials that give off generally fragrant odours when burned. One of the ingredients that can be used in incense is patchouli, a plant and oil with a particularly strong scent often used in perfume. Whatever the intention behind the lady’s use of incense and patchouli may be, her lover becomes stranded with her until he can obtain a ticket for the next bus out of town. So he has to stay on, conscious that one day he will leave her. For the time being, he’s going to stay in the “year of the cat”.
When Al wrote the song in 1975, it was the year of the cat in Vietnamese astrology. The year ran from 11th February, 1975 to 30th January, 1976. Some of the characteristics that might apply to someone connected to that year include creativity and compassion combined with naivety, insecurity, cunning and pessimism. Do you fit that description?
The piano intro lasts for 35 seconds, at which point it’s joined by acoustic and electric guitars, together with bass and drums – the staple rhythm section for soft-rock recordings at the time. That backing lasts a further 33 seconds until Al’s vocal enters at 1:08. The rhythm section has a gentle, relaxed feel, with all the instruments gelling seamlessly and effortlessly. The piano and electric guitar players occasionally throw in tasteful and subtle fills to add some variety and colour between vocal lines, rather than sticking rigidly to chord shapes. The bass part features a fitting eighth-note run over the C, B7 and Em chords of “Don’t bother asking for explanations” in verse one at 1:32. The track continues into the bridge, at the end of which the solos start (at 3:07) lasting for a minute and twenty three seconds.
Andrew Powell’s beautifully arranged strings pick up the essence of the piano riff/hook, and then glide into quarter-note triplets to complete the first of the four instrumental sections (see NOTATION 56). The strings are followed at 3:22 by a superb acoustic guitar solo from Peter White, played with the utmost class and feel. The solo isn’t complicated or difficult to play, but it makes the listener melt with its slurs, vibrato, grace notes and just a hint of reverb (see NOTATION 57).
Next is the electric guitar solo, at about 3:55 (see NOTATION 58). Most listeners will note that at this point in the recording they either have to turn down the volume slightly, or move further away from the speakers. Parsons certainly cranked up the overall loudness of the track at this point almost to distortion level. No actual distortion seems to occur on the original master recording or the top quality CD versions, but the level does rise considerably.
Finally, at 4:12 Phil Kenzie’s alto sax solo rounds off this part of the track (see NOTATION 59), creating in the space of a few seconds the record’s suitability for American AOR radio stations. But not all stations would be prepared to play a track lasting nearly seven minutes. An edited and much shorter version was issued as the single, but it lacks the full effect of the album version as a result of severely truncated introduction and solo sections. Similarly, the official sheet music omits the entire solo section.
Vocally, Al does a fine job with good feel and tuning. Once again the lead vocal line provides a classic example of his laid-back but expressive style; if it were a dessert it would be coconut and whipped cream – smooth with bits of rough contained in it! The performance is exactly right.
The recorded track sounds more complicated than it is. Constructed in a relatively straightforward way, it gives the impression of a major production effort. The piece consists of two verses, bridge, solos, final verse and solo/fade: a straightforward and common enough framework. Where the track succeeds so well is in its gradual and understated development from the piano riff in the intro, right up to the fade out some six minutes later.
It has some minor blemishes, though. First, the piano ought to be more prominent in the mix generally. It should be much louder in the intro, for the riff between the first two verses, and between verse two and the bridge. Nor is the sound very full. Presumably a grand piano was used for the session, but the instrument’s dynamic richness doesn’t come through. Instead, Peter Wood’s classic riff sounds regrettably thin at times. On some of the re-mastered digital versions of the record, the questionable e.q. (“equalisation”) of the piano occasionally results in harsh treble overtones creeping in.
The full album version of 6:40 comprises:
- intro: 1:08
- vocals: 2:48
- solos: (from 3:07 to 4:30) = 1:23
- ending + fade (after “Hmm, the year of the cat”): 1:21
From this it can be seen that the instrumental parts occupy some 3:52 of the recording, as against only 2:48 for the vocals. If the piano riff between the first two verses and between the second verse and bridge are added to the instrumental duration, the difference is even greater. The piano riff and vocal hook are key ingredients of the record’s success, in light of the fact that the vocals make up less than half of the total duration.
The strings part in the first half of the last verse from 4:31 is a melody in its own right that could easily form the basis for another song (see the viola part at NOTATION 60). In typically understated manner Alan Parsons pulls back for the remainder of that verse, the strings contributing a pleasing background behind another sax solo that continues into the fade-out.
The big one. The guv’nor. The real thing. The full Monty. The whole nine yards. The whole ten yards. The bee’s knees. The cat’s meow. The cat’s whiskers. Boss. Simply the best. Hot stuff. Neato. Cool. The whole “kitten” caboodle. And any other cliché you can think of to describe a total success, for these are apt descriptions of “Year Of The Cat”. It’s tempting to wonder how Al regards his most recognised track: probably as the progenitor of his extensive wine collection! The single was a chart success (reaching #8 on Billboard), with the album selling more than two million copies and peaking at #5. The song is a timeless classic middle-of-the-road pop song from the mid-70s. Everything about it pleases and its success is richly deserved, even if the recorded version does have some very minor flaws.
Attention all collectors: don’t bother with the MFSL Original Master Recording (CD) release. To my ears the best CD reproduction of the whole album is on the 2014 Japanese digital re-master by Parlophone (WPCR-15406). Also impressive are the Japanese RCA (BMG Music) version from 1986: R32P-1035 (PD 70005), and the 1991 Japanese EMI “Supermasters” CD (TOCP-6692). These three have the most presence of the many versions that I’ve heard.