Steve’s first album Matthew And Son contained 14 tracks and was released in February to mixed reviews. It was not a commercial success, probably because it contained both hit singles, their respective “B” sides and a rather listless version of ‘Here Comes My Baby’. Mike Hurst wrote the liner notes and thanked everyone who was associated with Stevens” career including Chris Brough, now Stevens’ co-manager, and engineer Vic Smith who, as Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, would produce a string of crack singles for the Jam fifteen years later.
“The first Cat Stevens album is not outstanding, nor is that surprising,” wrote Melody Maker’s anonymous reviewer. “Cat’s songwriting is a funny thing – some are good, intricate and cleverly thought out, others are basic, simple and a little boring. When one of the simple songs is coupled with an enormous Alan Tew/Mike Hurst arrangement – all thundering strings and stops and starts – it sounds a little pretentious. It’s a good LP of characteristic Stevens music but given a little more variation, less of the shammy orchestration and sound and an extra punchy vocal, it could have been a world beater.”
An element of controversy surrounded Steve’s next single ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’, which had its first public airing in March on Juke Box Jury, then the most popular televised pop programme in the UK. A feature of the show was to invite artists to appear but to keep their presence secret until after their record had been played. While the jury commented on their efforts the camera would focus on the subject of their remarks (who was usually seen biting their fingernails or evoking similar stressful characteristics) behind a screen and invisible to the panel.
Hurst: “We hadn’t even considered the possibility that we could be accused of spreading violence but when the record was played on the show, Jimmy Savile launched into an attack on records that encouraged violence. Steve was there behind the screen with the camera on him, cringing with embarrassment and shaking with nerves, but at the end of Savile’s sermon all the jury voted the record a hit.”
So did Chris Welch, Melody Maker’s singles reviewer, who’d evidently forgiven Steve for his parsimony in the pub. ”Undoubtedly Cat’s best record to date,” he wrote. “The arrangement is even more exciting and busy than ‘I Love My Dog’ and you’ll feel quite exhausted trying to take it all in. Alan Tew’s musical direction has almost drowned out poor Cat, but nevertheless, he’s in there with some good rebellious lyrics which should get the younger generation queuing up to buy this record.”
Welch and the JBJ panellists were correct in their predictions. Violent or not, ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’ reached a respectable number six in the charts during April, the same month that saw Stevens on the road in his first and last pop package tour.
From March 31 to April 30, opening at the Finsbury Park Astoria (later the Rainbow) and closing at Tooting Granada, Steve appeared throughout Britain on a bill that was headlined by The Walker Brothers and also featured the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Engelbert Humperdinck. On this occasion Steve was backed by The Quotations, another Decca act, who included in their number bassist Johnny Gustafson and drummer Micky Waller and who also provided backing material for the stars of the show, The Walker Brothers, Scott Engel, John Maus and Gary Leeds.
The performers were just as ill-matched then as they appear today, with Hendrix – touring the UK proper for the first time – upsetting The Walker Brothers with his extraordinary stagemanship and Stevens performing nervously to isolated screams from fans of the handsome Walkers.
The ever vigilant Chris Welch was present at the opening night. “Cat Stevens has improved tremendously stagewise and looked very cool and confident,” he wrote later. “Even when wearing a cowboy hat and gun for ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’. He was competently backed by The Quotations featuring some very fine drumming from Micky Waller.”
There is a photograph from the tour in which Steve is flanked by Hendrix, Gary Leeds and Humperdinck. He holds a pistol, the stage prop for ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’, and gazes abstractly to the left of the camera, unsure of his position in such company, evidently bemused at the direction his career is taking. There is evidence to suggest that he was in awe of his fellow performers: he later admitted to holding open a door for Scott Walker and peering inside the Walker Brothers’ dressing room to confirm their existence in flesh and blood.
With three hit records under his belt, Cat Stevens had become an established name in the pop world by the summer of 1967. His earnings were reported to have reached £1,000 a week, received variously from record and songwriting royalties, stage performances and TV appearances both at home and in Europe – notably France, Germany and Holland – where the records had enjoyed success on a scale almost equal to that of the UK.
“We were always flying out to the Continent for TV appearances and the money, with expenses, was very good,” says Hurst. “Steve was always very conscientious with his money, even to the point of meanness. I think he inherited his love of money from his father who would count the takings from the restaurant at the end of an evening while Steve was watching.
“Steve would never spend his own money on anything unless he really had to. The songwriting was where he made it most. The Tremeloes’ record sold very well in America... it made him a small fortune.”
With such matters in mind Steve continued to live with his family above the restaurant in Shaftesbury Avenue where ample space had by now been converted into a small flat for his private use. “I remember saying to myself ‘Now if only I can save ten thousand pounds I’d be all right.’ The material things were important to me,” admitted Steve.
During May Steve formed his own production company (Cat Stevens Productions Ltd) for the purpose of recording other artists performing his songs and a second company (Doric Productions Ltd) for handling the management of artists signed to the first company. Two singers were signed – Peter James and Sasha Caro. Neither made any impression on the charts when records produced by Steve (‘Emperors And Armies’ by James on CBS and ‘Grade 3, Section 2’ by Caro on Decca) were released later in the year. Steve was also reported to be planning to write the score for a stage musical entitled A Mexican Flower but like many subsequent involvements in stage musicals, it never came to fruition.
The busy summer schedule represented a climax to the first phase of Cat Stevens’ career. From this point onwards he would slip gradually from grace: his next three singles were relative failures, his relationship with Mike Hurst and arranger Alan Tew soured and the follow-up album to Matthew And Son was recorded – and received – in an atmosphere of impending gloom. To cap it all, Steve contracted tuberculosis, which effectively set his career back by almost two years.
“I was trying hard to write the next hit song but showbusiness wore me down and my records weren’t selling so much any more,” he says. “I felt lonely out there and I began to drink and smoke heavily. I needed at least one bottle of brandy or wine to get me up on stage and I was staying up late and chasing after girls... the life of a star. I became dangerously ill and the result was tuberculosis.”
The fourth single ‘A Bad Night’ was released in July. “Because the other singles had such a lot of energy and unusual arrangements ploughed into them, the ideas were running out by this time,” says Hurst. “‘A Bad Night’ was totally outlandish... we went over the top. That record has three tempo changes and three different arrangements played by three different sets of studio musicians. It was so complicated that people just weren’t interested in it... it didn’t hit them right between the eyes as the others had done.
“It was very much a showbusiness record. People in the industry liked it but that’s typical of a common mistake that people make. It was a musicians’ record and not a record for the public.”
Pop singer Anita Harris, reviewing ‘A Bad Night’ in Melody Maker’s Blind Date feature, agreed: “They’ve got a whole variety show here,” she opined. “It’s a lot of fun but I don’t think it’s to be taken seriously.”
‘A Bad Night’, the first single by Steve to be recorded at Olympic Studios in Barnes in preference to Decca’s West Hampstead facility, reached Number 20 on the singles charts. ‘Kitty’, the fifth Deram single released five months later, rose no higher than Number 48. In the meantime Steve had signed a Birmingham group called Yellow Raincoat to his Doric production company, used them as a backing band on isolated live appearances (including a 48-hour ‘Love In’ at the Palais Des Sports in Paris) and made the decision to leave Mike Hurst and his associates.
‘Kitty’ illustrates perfectly the dilemma that Steve was facing and goes some way to explaining his declining fortunes. Like ‘A Bad Night’ it was over-produced to the point of absurdity with bombastic brass crowding the chorus as it lurches through unsubtle orchestrations and a dated razzamatazz arrangement. For a sensitive soul like Cat Stevens, ‘Kitty’ just blunders along, steering a direct course towards variety entertainment. It appeared as if his professional advisers were determined to turn Steve into a minor league ballad singer with teeny bop aspirations, a sort of cross between Engelbert Humperdinck and David Cassidy.
“The final break actually came when the agent that Mike had appointed wanted me to go into pantomime over Christmas,” says Steve. “When I refused the agent told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life. I’m pretty sure it was Cinderella and I was being lined up for the role of Buttons.”
Thus were formed the seeds of dissatisfaction between Cat Stevens and the business advisors who controlled his career. The relationship was terminated some months before Steve contracted TB.
“It was the same old argument and the finger can be pointed equally at both sides of the equation,” says Hurst. “By this time Steve had been offered fortunes from all over the place and if you were an artist you would probably feel the same way as he did which was to get rid of the people he had been involved with up to now and move onwards. That is exactly what happened in 1968... that year was one long interminable legal wrangle for me.”
Steve hired the services of an experienced entertainment lawyer called Oscar Beusalinck, a senior partner in the firm of Edward Oldman and Co., who wrote to Hurst claiming that his contract with Cat Stevens had been signed before Steve had reached the age of 21 (which it had), and that being with a minor, it was not binding in law.
“Our relationship ended with a good deal of acrimony,” admits Hurst. “We did the second album with lawyers actually in the studio. It was horrendous. Steve had to do the album under the Decca contract and Decca insisted that it was recorded at their own studios in order to keep the costs down. They realised it might be their last shot with him because of the contractual problems between him and me. Steve wanted to use Olympic studios again but Decca wouldn’t let him.
“The sadness of the whole affair from my point of view was the letter from his solicitors that claimed I hadn’t furthered Steve’s career. I don’t think he would have said that to my face but that’s what was said legally and I blew my top... a year and a half ago he had been earning ten pounds a week waiting tables at the family restaurant and now he was earning one thousand pounds a week. If that isn’t furthering someone’s career I don’t know what is.”
Steve, on the other hand, felt that his earnings were being reduced by an inordinate amount through expenses. “I had to pay a percentage to Mike, a percentage to the agent, the office costs and everything else,” he says. “They even made me pay for the advertising of the records in those days.”
“The lawyers said that his increased income had nothing to do with it,” says Hurst. “Steve was a minor and shouldn’t have signed the contract with me in the first place. There was no argument for me against that because a minor was someone under 21 in those days, not 18 as it is today. That was that end of business.”