8 August, 1970
Guitarist Alun Davies recalls the day that Yusuf Islam - then still known as Cat Stevens -played what was hailed as his comeback gig. The setting was the Tenth National Jazz And Blues Festival, at Plumpton Race Course, in East Sussex.
“It was the first gig I did with Steve – that’s what I call him,” says Davies. “I’d been at Plumpton the year before, helping out a mate who had a bar there. And there I was on-stage, just the two of us with our acoustic guitars, Steve with his Everly Brothers Gibson and me with my Epiphone.”
Playing that afternoon, the duo delivered a fine set that included Fill My Eyes, Longer Boats, Father And Son, Maybe You’re Right and his first Island single, Lady D’Arbanville, the Number 8 hit dedicated to Patti D’Arbanville, the 16-year-old model who’d appeared in Warhol’s 1968 film Flesh.
It had been a while since Cat Stevens had last enjoyed chart success. In 1967 he’d achieved major artist status, logging a Top 10 chart album in Matthew And Son, along with four chart singles. Then, the teenager born Steven Georgiou, found himself battling against tuberculosis. Hospitalised, he spent a year recuperating. Dissatisfaction with the way the Deram label was handling his career, Stevens sought a more sympathetic home. Fortunately, Island boss Chris Blackwell was impressed with songs he’d written for a proposed musical. “He was really wowed and offered me a deal,” Stevens later recounted. “That’s how I started my second career.”
Lady D’Arbanville was culled from the sessions for Cat’s debut Island album, Mona Bona Jakon, produced by former Yardbird, Paul Samwell-Smith and released just a few weeks before the Plumpton show. It proved a complete departure; in place of the full “wrap-around” arrangements, there were spare, backing group fills created by Davies, bassist John Ryan and drummer Harvey Burns, plus a guesting Peter Gabriel on flute. But at Plumpton, Davies provided lone support, Stevens announcing Lady D’Arbanville as, “The song that’s made me a pop star again.” Yet he would receive an even more rapturous reception for the as-yet unreleased Father And Son, one newspaper reporting, “it went down so well that he just carried on with an extension of the song… without a doubt Cat Stevens gave the best solo performance of the entire weekend.”
That August the music press provided little doubt that Stevens was a star reborn. Mona Bone Jakon became a much-analysed album, with Cat being asked to explain the meaning of his self-drawn cover, which depicted a weeping dustbin. The illustration, dubbed The Dustbin Cried The Day The Dustman Died, was, according to Stevens, drawn to draw attention to the fact that “Dustbins are very underprivileged.” Later he would inform those who hung on his every word that the very title of the album was personal to him. “Mona Bone Jakon is another name for my penis. It’s the name I give it. It’s not some sort of secret vocabulary, it’s just something I made up.”
Meanwhile, Island Records were finding that signing Cat Stevens had benefits other than just providing high-selling records of his own. Another signing, Jimmy Cliff, had covered Cat’s Wild World – claimed by Stevens to be “a song about me” – and on August 8 Cliff’s version, actually produced by Cat, entered the UK singles chart, eventually peaking at 4 and giving the reggae star his highest UK chart placing.
New Film Project
Now in full stride, Stevens had further ambitions. As August came to a close he disclosed that he had been working on a film project. “I’m doing the theme music and a song for a movie produced by Jerzy Skolimowski. Jane Asher is in it and, if we get it finished in time, it’s being considered for the Venice Film Festival.”
Alun Davies remembers the soundtrack well. “It was for the film Deep End, I think we did that at Sound Techniques in Chelsea. We were there forever because Jerzy was waiting for the tapes to be mixed so that he could take them away. The session was one of the longest I ever did and spanned around 27 hours. There were large chunks of music, bits of editing, additional guitar here and there – it proved a real pressure job.”
The guitarist would play on eight more Cat Stevens albums, but by 1979 the singer had become a Muslim, adopted the name Yusuf Islam and had largely left the world of music behind. In 2006, however, he returned with new album An Other Cup – accompanied live and in the studio by Alun Davies.