He took guitar lessons from Robert Fripp, set out to destroy his old self with an album he hoped would fail, then made the resulting niche his own – Al Stewart's prog credentials ring loud

Al Stewart
(Image credit: Getty Images)

While he’s best known in some circles for his 70s American radio hits Year Of The Cat and Time Passages, Al Stewart is also revered for his progressive approach to songs about historical people and events. Talking to Prog In 2014, he admitted to believing that a history teacher with a guitar could do it better.

Al Stewart might be the only progressively minded singer‑songwriter whose specialist subjects include both Eddie Cochran and the Trojan War. The seasoned folk figurehead is still at the top of his performing game in 2014, but in his mind, the dateline is often rather earlier.

“This thing about living in what people call the present, I’ve never really understood it,” he says with a hearty laugh. “I know I’m terribly bad at it. I can’t really get through the day without living in at least several different time zones. I might start the day in 1648 and end it in 100BC.

“Everything I see, and touch and hear and feel, is connected to some other time. It’s like I’ve just spent a lot of time daydreaming and time travelling, so it comes out in the songs.”

Therein beats the heart of Stewart’s prog credentials. To some, he’s the inveterate folkie who had Paul Simon as a roommate and came to prominence on the 1960s acoustic circuit. To others, he’s the darling of 1970s American FM radio with Year Of The Cat and Time Passages.

But Stewart’s mastery of the historical epic, of panoramic songscapes bulging with biographical detail and archival inspiration, sets him apart from all other writers. His songbook is illustrated by the spirit of experimentation, even if he’s mildly surprised to qualify for our pages.

“To me, the prog bands were Camel, or something like that,” he muses. “People who could play tons of solos, very musical and with lots of different time signatures, technical stuff. I’m not sure any of my stuff qualifies for that.”

On closer inspection of his early years, Stewart can identify the point where he changed from accomplished balladeer to intrepid chronicler. That will be revealed after the engagingly articulate songsmith, born in Glasgow in 1945 but brought up in south-west England, has gleefully shared another certain qualification.

“I have an interesting prog rock credential which you might not know,” he confides. “I grew up just outside Wimborne, in Dorset. I used to take the bus with another kid who was roughly my own age, and I ended up taking 10 guitar lessons from him. I never managed to learn very much, but he was always trying to teach me. This, of course, was Robert Fripp.

“I did a radio show around ’68 where Fripp came in and played guitar, so I have actually performed live with Robert. He says about me, and he didn’t say it to me – it was an interview he did, or something, because he’s got a lot of students, the League Of Crafty Guitarists – and they said, ‘Have any of your pupils been successful?’ And he said, ‘Only one of them ever made it, and that was Al Stewart, and he did it by ignoring everything I ever tried to teach him.’”

His early London haunts as a player were such folk staples as Bunjies Coffee Shop, Les Cousins folk club and the Troubadour, where he hung out with many a kindred spirit, from Sandy Denny to Roy Harper.

“When I came to London and got involved in the folk scene, I could see that the rockers couldn’t care less about acoustic music,” he says. “Then when I met the folkies, they thought rock’n’roll was heathen, stupid stuff. And I thought, ‘Why can’t you love both of them? Even better, why can’t you put them together?’”

Late 1967 brought his debut album, whose title, Bed-sitter Images, helped define Stewart’s initial, intimate style. As his catalogue grew, there was an impromptu cameo at the first Glastonbury Festival in 1970.

The seeds of an ambitious new approach were sown with Love Chronicles, the 18-minute title song on Stewart’s second album, with guitar by Jimmy Page. “It stopped when it was finished,” says Stewart. “There was no compunction to bring it in under three minutes.”

On vinyl, a lasting transition happened after 1972’s Orange, which featured both Tim Renwick on guitar and Rick Wakeman on piano. “I made four albums which were basically all love songs,” Stewart recalls. “I’d just had a disastrous break-up, and Orange is all about that, but it’s love songs. What happened after that is where everything immediately took a detour.

“There’s a song on Orange called Night Of The 4th Of May. It’s a confessional love song, and the reviewer for Melody Maker said, ‘Oh God, you made the night too long.’ And I thought, ‘He’s right.’ I could have gone on for the next 20 years writing miserable love songs, but I thought, ‘I can’t do this any more, I’ve got to do something else,’ and the only something else I was interested in was history.

“So the very next record became Past, Present & Future, and it was all historical songs. I thought, ‘This has absolutely no commercial application whatsoever.’ You’ve got a 10-minute song about Nostradamus, an eight-minute song about the German invasion of Russia in World War II, a song about Jacky Fisher, the guy in charge of the British Navy right before World War I. You’ve got all these things, they’re just not commercial. And the record came out and it outsold the first four put together. It just took off. I thought, ‘This is nuts.’

“It was almost a self-destructive thing – I set out basically to destroy the old Al Stewart, who’d written all these love songs, by doing this historical album that I thought would fade into immediate obscurity. It still sells – God knows how many it’s sold now – but over the years that thing has just kept going. And I would think I get asked more for Roads To Moscow than any other song I’ve ever written.”

Past, Present & Future took Stewart into fresh territory. “After that I didn’t play folk clubs any more, I did mostly colleges and concerts,” he says. “I started playing at the Festival Hall, and hoity-toity things like that. But that record had a magic to it, so I would say that’s where the change is.

“The difference between Love Chronicles and Orange is that with the first, this love affair was still going on, and with the second, it was over. They’re two sides of the same coin, whereas Past, Present & Future was something completely different.”

Then along came Alan Parsons. “We were in a restaurant, Alan was a big food and wine guy, and so was I, and we were having dinner. I happened to mention that I was making another record and I said, ‘How would you like to produce it?’ because I got along with him fine and he seemed to be a great producer and engineer. So he said, ‘Oh, OK,’ and that was the end of the conversation – we went back to talking about wine. It was about a five-second thing. The first one he did was Modern Times.”

Rewarded by Stewart’s new focus on endless appearances at US radio stations for promotion, Modern Times made the Billboard Top 30 without a hit single, and it prepared the ground for the phenomenon that Year Of The Cat became.

“If you look at that record, it begins with a six-minute song about Sir Richard Grenville, who fought a Spanish fleet in the late 16th century off the Azores. This is an absolutely prototypical Al Stewart historical song. It goes on in that spirit. You’ve got One Stage Before, which I think was about reincarnation, and Flying Sorcery, which is an extended aviation allegory. I think the only thing on that record which was obviously commercial was the title track, except that was six minutes and 40 seconds. How mainstream is that?

“That thing was in Peru, Brazil, Hong Kong, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada, America; it was everywhere. I think it even sold 26,000 copies in El Salvador, and that’s hard to do,” Stewart laughs.

“There was one territory in the entire world where that wasn’t a Top 10 hit, and that was the UK. I think RCA threw that away because they insisted on having this horrible edit.”

Stewart followed it up with another US million-seller in the Time Passages album, before the 1980s heralded a rather lower profile, with subsequent albums inspired by his varied interests, ranging from politics to wine. He remains busy on the road, but hasn’t made a studio album since 2008’s Sparks Of Ancient Light.

“The artists I like are the ones where you can listen to one line and you immediately know who it is – couldn’t be anyone else. They do this largely by being experimental, whether it’s Hendrix on the guitar, or Joanna Newsom to name a modern one. You immediately know who it is.

“I was in Capitol Records Studios doing that album and [seasoned guitarist] Waddy Wachtel comes in and starts talking, because I’d met him before. He says, ‘I was walking down the corridor, I heard this and I immediately knew it was Al Stewart.’ And it was a track he’d never heard before, Hanno The Navigator. And I thought, ‘Yes, that’s what I’m aiming at.’”

His self-styled historical progginess was again evident on Sparks…, with tales inspired by President Eisenhower, former British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury and others. “I really don’t know why more people don’t do historical songs,” he muses. “It seems to have been given to me, and you can make a decent living doing this.

“I’ve always thought there are probably teachers in minor colleges, out in the counties somewhere, that are scraping by, and if they’d learn three chords on the guitar they could do my job. I have absolutely no idea why no one’s picked up on it, but I’m perfectly happy to have this little baby as my own.”

Studio work is not necessarily a thing of the past. “I always say that if people start buying records again, then I’ll start making them again, but at the moment they’re not,” Stewart says. “Most of the stuff is live. People don’t seem to buy records any more, so the answer is to go out and play, which I prefer anyway. Actually, I never really liked making records. You never quite get it the way you hear it in your head, whereas if it’s live, you play it and you forget it – it’s done.”

On stage, Stewart remains ever the attraction, as he has been for half a century. “We do as well, if not better,” he says. “Last year we did the Albert Hall and we had over 3,500 people there, which is moving it along for an old folk singer.”

Paul Sexton

Prog Magazine contributor Paul Sexton is a London-based journalist, broadcaster and author who started writing for the national UK music press while still at school in 1977. He has written for all of the British quality press, most regularly for The Times and Sunday Times, as well as for Radio Times, Billboard, Music Week and many others. Sexton has made countless documentaries and shows for BBC Radio 2 and inflight programming for such airlines as Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific. He contributes to Universal's uDiscoverMusic site and has compiled numerous sleeve notes for the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and other major artists. He is the author of Prince: A Portrait of the Artist in Memories & Memorabilia and, in rare moments away from music, supports his local Sutton United FC and, inexplicably, Crewe Alexandra FC.