Al Stewart - Biography
By Nick Castro
Al Stewart is a British folk-rock songwriter, who began in the 60's, and has continued to regularly play concerts to this day. He was born in 1945 and raised in Dorset, UK. While still a youth, Stewart shared the same guitar instructor as Robert Fripp, who recalls him as a good player. On Stewart's first single he enlisted, then still largely unknown, guitarist Jimmy Page.
Stewart's first album was Bed-Sitter Images (1967 - CBS), which had songs orchestrated by Alexander Faris. Production duties were held by Roy Guest. His next record was Love Chronicles (1969 - CBS), which is often remembered as the first mainstream record to use the word "fucking" in a song. On this album appears Jimmy Page as well as players from Fairport Convention such as bassist Ashley Hutchings and guitarists Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol, credited respectively as Mervyn Prestwyck and Simon Breckenridge. Apparently, Stewart was going through a state of depression while writing this record and it can be heard in the sparse arrangement of the songs, which are tales of love and loss.
Zero She Flies (1970 - CBS), the third album by Stewart, is the first where Stewart began to incorporate historical references, which would become a large part of his lyrical content. On it, he includes a song, "Manuscript", which recalls the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914. This album tried to achieve shorter songs which could actually be played on the radio. Stewart's subsequent album was Orange (1972 - CBS), which is seen as marking a change, from personal songs being the majority, to thematically political ones taking the lead. Rick Wakeman, who had just left the Strawbs and joined Yes, played piano on this Stewart album.
Past, Present and Future (1973 - CBS) was the first Stewart album to have all of the songs based on historical events, which includes songs about Nostradamus, Warren Harding, Ernst Röhm, Louis Mountbatten, Stalin, WWII and Christine Keeler. This was also the first album to be properly released by an American label, Janus Records. It featured musicians Dave Swarbrick, of Fairport Convention and Wakeman again on piano. His following album was Modern Times (1975 - CBS), which featured Nicol once again as well as Gerry Conway, of Fotheringay, Alan Parsons and famous session musician Tim Renwick.
Stewart's most successful album was Year of the Cat (1976 - RCA), which was the mark of his next phase. His music became, the rare combination of, more accessible and, as many would argue, better overall. The record buying audience agreed and this album still receives airplay regularly with the title track "Year of the Cat", which was co-written by Peter Wood who would become a close writing partner with Stewart. Alan Parsons engineered and produced this record. The cover art was by hipgnosis, who did famous covers for Alan Parson Project, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Led Zeppelin. Time Passages (1978 - RCA), also produced by Parsons, had a hit with the title track. It was during this time that Stewart moved to Los Angeles, his home since.
His next albums are 2 Carrots (1980 - Arista) and his live album Live/Indian Summer (1981 - Arista), which was recorded at The Roxy in Hollywood. These records suffered from his declining popularity and Arista dropped Stewart. He remained on RCA in England and he continued to make records for smaller American labels. His next were Russians and Americans (1984 - Passport) and Last Days of the Century (1988 - Enigma). His next Rhymes in Rooms (1992 - EMI) was an acoustic live album. Then came Famous Last Words (1993 - EMI), Between the Wars (1995 - EMI) and Down in the Cellar (2000). His two newest albums are A Beach Full of Shells (2005 - EMI) and Sparks of Ancient Light (2008 - EMI).