30 Day Song Challenge, Day 14 – “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart

The subject for Day 14 of my 30 Day Song Challenge is “A song from the 1970s“, and my pick is “Year of the Cat” by Scottish singer-songwriter Al Stewart. The lead single from Stewart’s album of the same name, the song was released in July 1976 in the UK, and October 1976 in the U.S. It peaked at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary charts in early 1977, and was also a top 10 hit in Canada, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Surprisingly, it would be Stewart’s only song to chart in his native UK, where it peaked at a disappointing #31. The album peaked at #5 on the Billboard 200 Album chart.

I was going through a break-up at the time the song came out, and though I was only 22, I felt anxious and confused about the direction my life was taking, almost like I was having a mid-life crisis. Consequently, the songs that really resonated with me in the early months of 1977 were Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” and “Dreams”, and Stewart’s “Year of the Cat”. I loved the song’s hauntingly beautiful melody, gorgeous arrangement, lush instrumentation, enchanting lyrics, and Stewart’s beguiling vocals. “Dreams” and “Year of the Cat” are my two favorite songs of 1977.

The song has kind of an interesting back story I discovered researching for this post. Stewart took the melody for “Year of the Cat” from “Foot of the Stage”, an unreleased song he wrote in 1966 after seeing a performance by comedian Tony Hancock, who joked about being a complete loser who might as well end it all right here (and sadly, later committed suicide). Nine years later, while touring the southern U.S. with Linda Ronstadt in 1975 (which according to a review by Katherine Hernandez of a concert Stewart gave in Edmonds, Washington in November 2017, was not a happy experience), he heard the tour pianist Peter Wood repeatedly playing a catchy chord progression during soundchecks that sounded somewhat similar to his original melody for “Foot of the Stage”. Stewart asked Wood if he could incorporate his piano notes into a song, and ended up giving Wood writing credit for “Year of the Cat”.

The song was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in January 1976, under the direction of engineer/musician Alan Parsons, who produced the track. In addition to Stewart, who sang vocals and played guitar and keyboards, Tim Renwick played both lead acoustic and electric guitars, George Ford played bass, Peter Wood and Don Lobster played additional keyboards, Stuart Elliot played drums and percussion, Andrew Powell played string arrangements, Bobby Bruce played violin, Marion Driscoll played triangle, and Phil Kenzie played alto saxophone. His marvelous sax solos transformed the song’s original folk concept into the jazz-influenced ballad that made it a big hit. Surprisingly, Stewart told Dallas radio program In the Studio with Redbeard that he didn’t like those sax solos at first but eventually grew to like them. (Wikipedia)

The song’s lyrics describe a male tourist who encounters a mysterious silk-clad woman while visiting a market in an exotic country. She promptly carries him off to a romantic adventure, which he willingly participates in, captivated by her charms. Upon waking the next day beside her, he discovers that his tour bus has left without him, and decides to stay where he is for now, in the year of the cat. The lyrics also make references to Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, which Stewart was inspired to include after watching the film Casablanca. As for the song’s title, in the Vietnamese zodiac, the Cat is one of the twelve signs, and corresponds to the Rabbit sign in the Chinese zodiac. At the time of the song’s release, the most recent Year of the Rabbit had been February 11, 1975 to January 30, 1976, thus, the song was written and recorded in the Vietnamese Year of the Cat. (Songfacts)

On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain
Don't bother asking for explanations
She'll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat

She doesn't give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow 'till your sense of which direction
Completely disappears
By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls
There's a hidden door she leads you to
These days, she says, I feel my life
Just like a river running through
The year of the cat

While she looks at you so cooly
And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea
She comes in incense and patchouli
So you take her, to find what's waiting inside
The year of the cat

Well morning comes and you're still with her
And the bus and the tourists are gone
And you've thrown away your choice you've lost your ticket
So you have to stay on
But the drum-beat strains of the night remain
In the rhythm of the newborn day
You know sometime you're bound to leave her
But for now you're going to stay
In the year of the cat

The album’s beautiful and whimsical cover art, designed by Hipgnosis and illustrator Colin Elgie, depicts a woman with an apparent obsession with cats reflected in a mirror as she dresses up as a cat, possibly for a costume party. The assortment of items displayed on her dresser all have cat motifs, and her cat’s tail is visible at the bottom.

Here’s a wonderful performance of the song by Stewart and fellow musicians at Daryl Hall’s home studio in upstate New York this past April.

10 thoughts on “30 Day Song Challenge, Day 14 – “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart

  1. Great pick and a song I hadn’t heard in a long time. I loved it the first time I heard it. It prompted me to get “Live/Indian Summer”, Stewart’s first live album from 1981, on vinyl. I think it was around the time it came out. Some of the other tunes I liked in particular were “Time Passages” and “On the Border”. I think I still do. I haven’t heard to these tunes in a very time!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Listening to Al Stewart’s easygoing blend of pleasing lyrics and music puts me in a positive frame of mind every time. His songs to me have to be listened in context to entire album.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve always loved the song and the entire album. In fact, I bought the recently released 5.1 surround sound version of it. ❤

    I was never sure if they truncated the radio version of the song because of the racy lyrics or the overall song length… perhaps both. This whole stanza was only found on the album version:

    “Well She looks at you so coolly,
    And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea,
    She comes in Incense and Patchouli,
    So you take her, to find what’s waiting inside,
    The Year of the Cat”

    So interesting to learn the history of the creation of our favorite songs.

    Liked by 1 person

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