AL STEWART    

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7th May 2016

 

Song writing

 

Q: Last night on stage you mentioned that sometimes you appear to be singing about one thing but appear to be singing about another. I always thought your lyrics were rather clear; could you give me an example of what has been misinterpreted?

 

AS: Yes I’ll give you two examples. The second song was called Antarctica:

 

Who knows what the powers may be
That cause a man to go
Mindless of the dangers
Out across the virgin snow

 

Seduced by this ambition
I easily forget
The hopeless quest of Shackleton
The dreamlike death of Scott

 

It must be about Antarctica right because I mentioned Shackleton and Scott?

 

Q: Yes.

 

AS: Ok, it isn’t. It’s about a very chilly woman who wouldn’t sleep with me. Now listen to it again with that in mind (repeats lyrics). You see?

 

Q: Yes and Shackleton* is one of my heroes as well.

 

AS: There you go. Made three attempts to get to the South Pole and failed all three times – nearly died on the third one as well.

 

Q: Well that whole Endurance** story is incredible isn’t it?

 

AS: Yes! In a rowing boat for 700 miles! South Georgia Island…incredible. Now, another example, the third song was called Flying Sorcery.

 

You wrapped me up in a leather coat
And you took me for a ride
We were drifting with the tail-wind
When the runway came in sight
The clouds came up to gather us
And the cockpit turned to white
When I looked the sky was empty
I suppose you never saw the landing-lights

 

Is it about aeroplanes? No, it’s a love song. I think that should answer your question.

 

Q: It certainly does but it throws up another one. How many of your historical references are not what they seem?

 

AS: I don’t write obvious. Some of them are pretty factual historically. Roads To Moscow is about the Russian Front in 1941 and that one because I mention Gudarian and Orel***, that one does follow but some of them definitely don’t. Some of them are tongue-in-cheek and I’m actually being humorous at the expense of historical events that I thought were more funny than serious.

 

Q: I have to ask you about a couple of others then: The Last Day Of June 1941…

 

AS: Oh yes of course that’s factual. It has to be because that was the Night Of The Long Knives. ††

 

Q: Football Hero?

 

AS: You’ve done some research! I couldn’t resist that one. It was all based around the punch line obviously

 

Many years from now when his name’s recalled,

Everyone will say, he should have passed the ball

 

I think with Football Hero, I just sat down at the piano…sometimes you sit down and you just start writing and the story writes itself. I didn’t know where that song was going. I had the bit about the favourite player on the field…

 

(In the center of the field stands the favorite player)

 

…but when I began writing it I didn’t know what sport we were talking about. It could have been anything, Ice Hockey for example and it was only when I got to ‘He should have passed the ball’  that I realized I was writing about a Football player. That song wrote itself without any help from me whatsoever. It just appeared on the paper in front of me.

 

Q: Being English myself, I have to ask, do you have a favourite team?

 

AS: Yes I do: The Denver Broncos and they won the Superbowl this year! I have followed them for over thirty years.

 

Q: Well then we have a double celebration because I’m Leicester born and bred.

 

AS: Well you did well this year but I almost had another celebration. My insignificant little team – I grew up in Bournemouth – also did very well.

 

Q: Yes they did.

 

AS: I don’t follow the English football though – I do follow the Broncos and I couldn’t believe they won the Superbowl…just couldn’t believe it.

 

Q: Let’s get back to the songwriting. Your earlier songs, things like The Ballad Of Mary Foster or Old Compton Street Blues, Scandinavian Girl, were they real people?

 

AS: You’re going back a long way; I’ve got to think about it. No on Mary Foster, No on Old Compton Street Blues. Scandinavian Girl was like a very early girlfriend of mine so yes.

 

 Q: Catherine Of Oregon is a nice play on words by the way.

 

AS: That could have got a lot worse because I was thinking of doing another song called Anne of Cleveland. †† (laughs)

 

Q: I love it. You referenced Lonnie Donegan in that song as well: did you ever have a skiffle group?

 

AS: I did play skiffle but I wasn’t in a band. I was still at school, about thirteen years old or something. I remember learning all the words to The Grand Coolee Dam and I used to sing it incessantly (sings)

 

Well, the world has seven wonders that the trav'lers always tell

 

Every time I was forced to do a lesson, I would break into the Grand Coulee Dam. This went on for about six months or something.

 

Q: The best version I ever heard of that was when Lonnie Donegan did it on the Six-Five…

 

AS: …Special!

 

Q: The film!

 

AS: Yes and the is a moment in that performance where the cameras are on the bass player and the drummer and at that exact moment, the bass come up in the mix and then the drums come up in the mix. I was a kid and I didn’t know you could do things like that and in my young self I was terribly impressed by that. How did they do that? (Al smiles and looks away, seemingly lost in the memory of that moment). I can even do the intro with Pete Murray and Josephine Douglas.

 

Q: How many times have you seen that film?

 

AS: Quite a lot (laughs).

 

History

 

Q: I know you love history so I’ll ask you a bit about yours. Once again referring to last night you mentioned you opened for The Stones…

 

AS: I did. It was at Reading Town Hall and it was October 24th or something like that in 1963. (N.B. According to the The Rolling Stones Database, they played there on 27th December 1963) I was in a band called Dave La Caz and the G-Men. We opened for The Rolling Stones and shared a dressing room with them. Brian Jones got out his old lime green Gretsch and let me play it for about half an hour while we were talking and answering questions. It was really nice. They had just released their second single; I Wanna Be Your Man (Released 1st November 1963). We were a south coast band and the promoter was looking for a cheap support band so it was ‘Here’s £20 boys – knock yourselves out’.

 

Q: How was the audience? Did they treat you with respect?

 

AS: We were not terrible so it was all right but everyone was there to see The Stones including us! (laughs)

 

Q: Much is written about the Folk scene in ‘60’s the USA; not much is written about the British one.

 

AS: No it’s not; I’m shocked. I thought we had some equals to the Americans and I thought Sandy Denny could out-sing anybody on the American scene and I thought Bert Jansch could out-play anyone on the American scene and we had some terrific writers; Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention, Ralph McTell…I mean, come on! For some reason, we got everyone from America and lots of Canadians too but it didn’t translate back and I don’t know why that was.

 

Q: Just overshadowed by The Beatles et al?

 

AS: America is such a big country. Before Year Of The Cat I spent a lot of time criss-crossing the country touring with Linda Ronstadt and people like that and it was shocking to me that you could have such a big following in one town and then you’d go a hundred miles down the road (160km) and they’d never heard of you. It was brought home to me by Bruce Springsteen when he played in Philadelphia at the Forum which is 18,000 seats and when I got over to Seattle the promoter told me that they had Bruce Springsteen and he drew 38 people (laughs). This was as he was breaking. He was already a God in Philadelphia but they had never heard of him on the west coast. That does explain the English folk scene because even though Fairport might have had a handful of places where they made some traction, they didn’t go everywhere and I think that what worked for me was that I went everywhere. Also, every single day, my manager made me go to three radio stations no matter where we were. It was the first thing we did when we went into town and the last thing at night. Even after the show we were still hitting radio stations and he said ‘You think you’re here to play gigs but frankly, you could read from the dictionary on stage and I wouldn’t care; you can alienate the audience and it wouldn’t matter; we are only here to meet radio people. When we go back to England and release the new record and we’ve hit a hundred radio stations, they are all going to play it.’ He was exactly right because when the next record came out, Year Of The Cat, they all played it. None of my peers knew that and I was managed by a Disc Jockey who had been on the radio so he knew exactly what to do but my colleagues didn’t so none of them broke the USA but they could have done.

 

Q: Les Cousins was the folk equivalent of Rock and Roll’s 2i’s Coffee Bar where The Shadows and many others started. That was obviously the place to play but what were the other places the Folk artists used to play around London?

 

AS: There were. Cousins’ was the one that mattered. I played in Bunjies Coffee bar which was the other side of Cambridge Circus (27 Litchfield Street, London) and there was The Hanging Lamp in Richmond and a few places like that but Cousins’ where Bert and all the serious people played.

 

Q: So what was the actual scene like? Were you drawing big crowds?

 

AS: I began as the compare. I was nineteen, had just moved to London and I’m fairly chatty and Phil who ran it in those days didn’t want to do the all-nighters which were midnight to 6am on Fridays and midnight to 7am on Saturdays so being nineteen I said I’d do it. All you would do is put the main guest on and then just put people on through the night. It was full of people arriving with guitars and I’d give them three songs each and then round about four o’clock in the morning I could put myself on because no one cared. I wasn’t being booked in those days because I wasn’t known. I was paid £2 a week a free cheese and tomato sandwich and all the coffee I could drink. (laughs)

 

A couple of your recordings

 

Q: The Elf…

 

AS: Woagh…you go back a long way! That was like 1922! (laughs)

 

Q: Was that recorded at Decca’s studios in Broadhurst Gardens?

 

AS: Yes it was. Oh wait a second…was it? I frankly don’t know. Mike Leander produced it.

 

Q: It actually says ‘Directed by Mike Leander’…

 

AS: Well that’s him being a little snooty I think. (laughs)

 

Q: Ok. The B-Side was Turn To Earth – who chose that and why?

 

AS: Mike. It was written by Paul Samwell-Smith and Rosemary Simon. I guess he was friends with Paul Samwell-Smith.

 

Q: The reason I asked is because Jimmy Page played on those tracks

 

AS: Yes he did; he went ‘chunk’ on the B-Side. (laughs)

 

Q: … and he had just joined The Yardbirds around that time….

 

AS: Yes. There must be a connection here; maybe Mike was angling to produce The Yardbirds. I don’t know the politics but there must have been something going on. I nearly joined Led Zeppelin actually at that session because I got on so well with Jimmy. I had known he was in Neil Christian and the Crusaders which a lot of people didn’t know so he was charmed by that and after we had talked for about an hour, showing each other guitar tunings and me telling him about Bert Jansch, he looked at me very meaningfully and said he was thinking of forming a band and he was looking for a bass player. Looking back on it, I should have probably said to myself ‘How hard is it to play the bass?’ but what I actually said was ‘Good luck’. (laughs)

 

Q: I was going to ask you about Love Chronicles of course by which time he had formed Led Zeppelin.

 

AS: Yeah Jimmy played on that of course. That was good because on all the other recordings, the guitars are Richard Thompson and Jimmy just came in for the title track. It’s eighteen minutes long and I swear, he listened to it once and said ‘Ok.’ (laughs) That was it and we did a take. I’m not even sure we did two takes – it was just that quick. He came with someone who I thought was his roadie, a very big guy, driving Jimmy’s Rolls Royce (I was very impressed) carrying his guitar case and as we’re getting ready for the session, I asked Jimmy if he wanted a cup of tea and he said ‘sounds good’ so I turned around to this guy and said ‘Could you get us a couple of cups of tea?’ He looked at me a little bit put out and then said ‘ok’: It was Peter Grant. (laughs) I didn’t know and you know Peter had this reputation of being a really hard case and I just blithely sent him off to get tea. I think that was quite an achievement. (laughs) I don’t think it was really anything to do with me though: I think it was that Jimmy wanted a cup of tea.

 

Q: The News From Spain: how did Rick Wakeman end up on that?

 

AS: John Anthony produced it and he had done some other stuff that Rick had played on. It was right around the same time he played on Life On Mars for David Bowie and Rick was in and out of that studio all the time (Trident). I don’t think he was in Yes at that time.

 

Your Forrest Gump Box of Chocolate Questions

 

Q: I have to mention your man Kazz, (Al’s accompanist for these shows, Marc Macisso) one man shouldn’t have all that talent.

 

AS: You should tell him: he’ll be pleased.

 

Q: Is there anything he doesn’t play?

 

AS: Well he doesn’t play guitar! (smiles) Well, he sort of does but not that well.

 

Q: Technology got the better of him last night though.

 

AS: What happened?

 

Q: At the end of Fever he went to turn off his backing track and it fell off the stand.

 

AS: Oh yeah. Well I figure if he comes all this way he should do a song.

 

Q: How do you two work out the arrangements of your songs?

 

AS: Well it’s interesting. I work with Kazz but I also work with a lot of other people and try to be flexible. I can play solo obviously because I grew up doing that in the Folk clubs and work mostly with another guitar player called Dave Nachmanoff and sometimes with Laurence Jubar who was with Wings and sometimes Peter White. I can also work with a band like Ambrosia if they want and because I’m always working with so many guitar players I thought Kazz would be a breath of fresh air because of all the instruments he can play. (Kazz is sitting in the background and Al mentions to him he is being complimented)

 

MM: Thank you! Let me sit down. (Kazz briefly joins the interview).

 

Q: I mentioned to Al earlier, the technology got you at the end of Fever last night.

 

MM: It did – the iPhone fell off the stand. The Pause button is very small and I was trying to get it and finally I just unplugged it because it was going to go to the next track.

 

Q: Which was…?

 

MM: Europa.

 

AS: It’s just your way of getting an extra song in there. (all laugh)

 

MM: You could have an extra sake.

 

Q: What went through your mind when you walked on stage at the 25th Glastonbury?

 

AS: That was the middle one – nothing. It was pouring with rain and it was pretty primitive with these plastic sheets and the water was coming in everywhere. It wasn’t actually raining on me on stage but my only thought was keeping my guitar dry as I was trying to get to the stage without getting totally soaked so it was a weather related incident.

 

Q: Did you ever play the Troubadour near Earl’s Court?

 

AS: Yes. I played there a lot. It was run by a couple of guys from the old Folk scene there called Red Sullivan and Martin Windsor. There are a million reasons why they wouldn’t tolerate a young upstart because there was a lot of the old guys there with beards – actually from the ‘50s Folk scene – were members of the Communist party and they were traditionalists and if you even touched a guitar, you were a moron and a Pop artist. They had no time for you but Red and Martin bless them kind of befriended me and let me come and play there and I eventually got to know them very well. It was an interesting thing because I went to a Boarding school and there it was ‘Stewart! This is terribly infra dig!’ (laughs) playing the guitar and everything and I thought I had to get out of the place because they didn’t understand anything. I thought I’d find a spiritual home when I left school and started playing music and there it was exactly the opposite ‘Oh! Fucking toff!’ (laughs) so by the time I was eighteen I was totally confused because everybody hated me and I didn’t think I had done anything wrong! All I wanted to do was play music and the social situation at the time in England was so radical and I obviously didn’t fit into any of it. I was being shot at by both sides. (laughs)

 

Q: What’s the rarest bottle of wine you have in your collection?

 

AS: Aah…I have some that are rare but that doesn’t mean they are expensive. If you’re talking about production then the smallest is probably a Grands Classés in St Emilion and something nobody has ever heard of called Cos Saint-Martin which has a production of three hundred cases per year. I have a case of the ’05 and the ’09 which means I have 1/300th of both those entire vintages so that is somewhat rare. Now of course that is not particularly valuable because it’s a tiny little château in Saint Emilion that I have heard of and no one else has and I rather like it.

 

Q: Please forgive my lack of knowledge on this subject but how many bottles are in a case?

 

AS: Twelve.

 

Q: If I only had twelve bottles I’d be rather conservative about drinking it.

 

AS: Well no because I could probably buy more because no one has heard of it but it happens to make very good wine. I know this because I am a Master Councilor of French Bordeaux.  I don’t know if you knew that.

 

Q: I did not.

 

AS: Yes I got very serious about it at one point and I thought I could do it for a living but the last time I had a hobby and turned it into a living, it became a job and with wine I never wanted to do that. The question you didn’t ask me and were trying to ask me is ‘What is the rarest bottle of wine that you’ve drunk?’ The answer to that is a wine that there might be six bottles of in the world – I doubt there are many more. I drank it on its 200th anniversary and it was an 1811 Château d'Yquem which sold at auction just before that for $106,000. Of course it wasn’t my bottle of wine. I was invited to a tasting and had to fly to Toronto from Los Angeles just to taste it.

 

Q: $106,000?

 

AS; Yeah. It’s probably gone up since then because now there are only five.(laughs)

 

Q: Sir Richard Grenville/Amy Johnson/ Sir John Fisher/Henry VIII/Elvis/Shackleton and Scott/Ernst Rohm…who do you think song writers are going to be writing about in a hundred years time from this era?

 

AS: That’s very interesting. I can’t do it. I have a cut-off point where I don’t touch anything for at least thirty years after it has happened because it changes. To give you the perfect example, the public perception of Dwight Eisenhower is now 100 degrees away from what it was when I was young. He was thought of as somewhat slow-witted, didn’t know anything about politics, didn’t know what the Russians were doing and spent all his time playing golf whereas it turns out he was a really smart person which I suspected at the time but during his presidency people thought he didn’t know anything. If you look at Presidents, he’s gone from the bottom of the table into probably the top ten now and if I had written about him in the ‘60s I would have got it completely wrong so I have this thing where I don’t write about current events and you end up writing ‘Think of all the hate there is in Red China’ ††† and you’re Barry McQuire and I don’t want to be that. (laughs) There is a Statute of Limitations before you understand what people are doing. They declassify papers and then as an historian you have a chance to say this person was over-ratted or under-ratted. I can’t name you anybody from the first fourteen years of the twentieth century who has really survived as a respected poet; you would have to go all the way back to Rupert Brooke. The Edwardian poets are completely out of fashion, largely because they tried to shoehorn words into sentences and ended up doing it all backwards. Instead of saying ‘You are the light of my life and I love you so’ they would say something like ‘Oh light! Love that I am that is so that I have’ - totally grammatically upside-down. It’s horrible writing and none of them have survived but at the time they were very highly regarded so to pick who is going to be significant in 100 years times...I hope the Beatles. Here’s a shocker: The biggest band in the world when I left school in the ‘60s was The Beatles and the most successful book was Lord Of The Rings. Fast forward forty years later and the number one album is 1’s by The Beatles and the number one film was Lord Of The Rings. Now I like to think that this hasn’t happened before and if I go back the other way to 1925, there is nothing there apart from maybe Louis Armstrong but even he was just starting out. So for my generation, there is something there in the music and literature that has lasted way beyond I thought it could have.

 

Q: Mr Stewart, a very interesting observation and a good way to end. Thank you for your time.

 

 AS: Thank you.

 

 

* Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton  was a polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic.

 

**The name of Shackleton’s ship.

 

*** Heinz Guderian was a German general during World War II: Orel is a city in Russia.

 

† A purge that took place in Nazi Germany from June 30 to July 2, 1934, when the Nazi regime carried out a series of political extra-judicial executions.

 

††Both references to the Wives of British King Henry VIII, Katerine of Aragon and Anne of  Cleeves.

 

†††Eve Of Destruction by Zagar & Evans