To mark Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, here’s my on-the-spot report of his two Rolling Thunder concerts at Springfield, Massachusetts, from November 6, 1975. At almost 4,000 words, it’s far and away the longest show review I ever wrote for Melody Maker. I even kept the ticket, below. The footnotes are all that I’ve added from the original story, as printed over three pages of MM, issue dated November 15. 

You need more than a weather man to know which way Bob Dylan blows on what is being called, somewhat nationalistically, his bicentennial gesture to the musical heritage of America.

        Like the will o’ the wisp he is, Mr Dylan has astounded observers by embarking on a fly-by-night tour of the north eastern states, playing halls of modest proportions at short notice accompanied by an entourage of up to 15 musicians in various combinations.

        It seems as if Dylan is deliberately denouncing the ballyhoo that surrounded his 1974 tour of America with The Band, a tour that visited baseball arenas throughout the country and enabled hundreds of thousands of fans to watch his first advertised public appearances since the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969.

        Many artists have expressed a desire to return to the intimate club or small hall, but few have gone ahead. Dylan has done just that.

        In the past week he has played to stunned audiences in Massachusetts, some of whom found it difficult to believe that up there on stage was Bob Dylan, often treating them to an a la carte dinner in surroundings more suited to a ham sandwich and half of bitter.

        A great deal of secrecy surrounds this tour. Not even the musicians themselves know where they are playing next, and none of the concerts are booked more than five days in advance, a precaution designed to minimise the risk of ticket touting, box-office hysteria and extensive publicity.

        Similarly, the tour is billed as the “Rolling Thunder Revue”, playing down Dylan’s star role and giving equal importance, on handbills, to other musicians on the tour like Joan Baez, Bob Neuwirth and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, or New York beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

        The tour opened last week in Plymouth, Mass, a town that likes to call itself ‘America’s Home Town’ as this was the spot where the pilgrims landed from the Mayflower in 1620. Whether this town was chosen deliberately is, like many of the myths that surround Dylan, a matter of conjecture, but it seems appropriate for this historic trek around New England. 

        At Plymouth, Dylan and his entourage played two concerts before an audience who had bought their tickets with a certain amount of scepticism. From there the tour moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where the concerts were held in the largest hall the tour will visit – a 10,000-seater auditorium that played host to two shows, both on the same evening.

        One concert began at 5pm and the second at 10pm. Future plans include visits to Stockbridge (which gained in notoriety as the setting for Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Alice’s Restaurant’), Burlington, Waterbury and New Haven. There is at least one day’s break between shows and changes are likely to occur at short notice.

        The inspiration for the Rolling Thunder Revue has come directly from Dylan’s recent unofficial musical activity in Greenwich Village clubs and cafés, notably the recent reopened Other End. 

        Throughout July, Dylan was living in the Village in a loft on Houston Street and by night he could be seen shuffling around the clubs that spiral outwards from Bleecker Street – the singer’s old stomping ground in pre-superstar days.

        His most regular port of call was the Other End, a club that holds just 250 people, and on July 4 – Independence Day in the USA – Dylan joined his old friend Bob Neuwirth on stage (somewhat reluctantly) for a jam session.

        Dylan only sang harmony that night, but the ensuing week brought out many of the musicians on the current tour: Rob Stoner on bass, Steve Soles on guitar, and Mick Ronson, as unlikely a musician as anyone can imagine, who happened to drop by with his (then) running mate Ian Hunter. 

        Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was another who joined in these unofficial sessions, one of which reportedly went on until 6am when the police moved in to break things up. (New York closing time is 4am.)

        It was during this week that Dylan suggested everyone tour together, although no one took him seriously at first. During August, Dylan went into the studio to work on his next album (1), as yet unreleased, and September was spent in California. 

        He returned to New York in October determined to undertake the proposed tour. Next, he called up personnel, swearing them to secrecy, to handle bookings, and turned to Stoner to organise the band. It was at this point that Dylan called up Joan Baez, who was keen to join in, while Stoner contacted various others who would he interested. 

        Rehearsal time was booked at Studio Instrument Rentals in Midtown Manhattan and various personnel who came from out of town checked into the Grammercy Park Hotel at the bottom of Lexington Avenue. 

        In late October, Dylan and some of the cast of thousands turned up to catch David Blue at the Other End and various other musicians were conscripted, among them Ronee Blakley who plays violin and who had a starring role as a country singer in the movie Nashville, and Roger McGuinn, who played guitar to Dylan’s piano and Allen Ginsberg’s singing, when the club shut. Ginsberg, too, was add to the line-up.

        The following night the entire crew showed up at Folk City, another Bleecker Street club, and jammed away.

        Three more days were then spent on intensive rehearsal before the crew climbed aboard a Greyhound bus and headed out to Plymouth where the Memorial Hall had been booked for a Joan Baez concert. According to reports the hall cost just $250 to hire per night. That’s about £125 (2), and is actually $100 (about £50) more than the regular rate, a sum negotiated by the hall management after the Dylan entourage assured them that the Rolling Thunder Revue was capable of filling the balcony as well as the floor seating.

        Tickets at the 1,800-seater hall cost just $7.50 (about £3.75). At Madison Square Garden, where Dylan played with The Band on January 31, 1974, the top ticket price was $9.50.

        The $7.50 price is standard throughout the tour which means nobody will make a great deal of money from the concerts, which are expected to last a month give or take a few days.

        Even so, $7.50 is a steep price to pay in the small towns on the itinerary where bar bands play for free and an artist with as much as a recording contract would be pushing things at five dollars. But Bob Dylan… well he’s setting a huge precedent by appearing in the first place, let alone by raising the standard of living for the fortunate fans who realised he was appearing in the first place.

* * *

The record shop in the centre of town seemed a likely place to discover just where Bob Dylan was playing in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Thursday evening. The oldish guy behind the country looked puzzled.

        “Bob Dylan? Is he playing here tonight?”

        He turned to his friend, another fellow of mature years.

        “Yeah,” said shop assistant number two. “Bob’s playing the Civic Centre tonight. Bob Dylan and Joan er… no. Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin (3). That’s right. They’re playing here tonight.”

        Springfield is one of the biggest towns in Massachusetts, second only to Boston and, like the capital, it is a college town, population 169,000 – enough people, you would assume, to sell out a couple of Bob Dylan shows at their 10,000-seater Civic Center. 

        But no. Two hours before the Rolling Thunder took the stage for their 5pm performance there were still seats available for both that and the 10pm show. In the lobby of this modern auditorium a small line of kids queued for the remaining tickets. 

        Outside the building a giant sign advertised the Rolling Thunder package, but inside the venue the advertising was more specific. “Dylan and Baez” tickets read the notice over the box-office window.

        These tickets had been on sale for almost a week and hadn’t all been sold, a situation that is barely credible when one thinks back to the hysteria that surrounded the business of acquiring tickets for Dylan’s concerts with The Band at Madison Square Garden last year. 

        There was no hysteria and no inflated prices offered by touts outside: it could have been any middleweight group appearing at the Civic Center, the kind of band where audiences leave the final decision about going to the last minute, depending on such variable factors as the weather, cost and money available. 

        I waited in line and bought two tickets (4) for the 5pm show at $7.50 each. In front of me were two girls wanting tickets for the 10pm show who changed their minds when the ticket-seller told them no good seats were available. Better seats were to be had, in fact, for the early concert. 

        Outside the hall I bought two tickets for the second show, good seats that were offered at $10 each by a guy with about a dozen to sell. He even had a floor plan so he could show his potential customers exactly where they would be sitting.

        To put all this into some kind of perspective, this guy was making $2.50 profit on his tickets – or about 33% profit. At Madison Square Garden tours would consider business bad if 200% profit wasn’t obtainable with an artist of Bob Dylan’s stature. 

        I bought my tickets in the firm belief that that a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush, especially after having driven for four hours (5) to see as much of Dylan as possible. Before each concert some tickets were actually being offered at less than their face value, or so I heard later.

        The first concert at Springfield did not sell out entirely – there were about 300 vacant seats at the very back of the floor and up in the remotest balconies. The second show did sell out, about two hours before Bobby Neuwirth and his band shambled, unannounced, on to the stage.

        It is quite possible, of course that fans stay away because of the unlikelihood that tickets will still be available on the day of the show. 

        Certainly, in the annals, of modern-day tours by artists of Dylan’s magnitude, there has never been a a situation parallel to this series of concerts.

* * *

Both shows began with songs by Neuwirth and his efficient little back-up bad that, of course, included Mick Ronson of lead guitar.

Ronson may have forgotten his past in the delirium of playing with Dylan and friends – he’s been quoted recently as saying, “Everything I did before is bullshit compared to this” – but he still looks like the archetypical British lead guitarist with well-kempt blonde hair and an arrogant stance that contracts with the happy-go-lucky attitude of the surrounding folkies. 

But he’s a great asset to this band and other combinations of musicians that appear during the three-and-a-half-hour show. He seems to be the only ‘electric’ guitarist in the bunch, and his cutting solos are a constant and necessary factor in the success of the Thunder Revue. 

The opening routine was identical at both concerts and it wasn’t until Dylan appeared, after about an hour, that the show loosened up.

Apart from Ronson, Neuwirth’s band comprises “Rockin’” Rob Stoner on bass, T-Bone Burnett on guitar, David Mansfield on steel guitar and violin, Steve Soles on guitar, and two drummers Howie Wyeth and Luther Rix. 

Each member of the band gets at least one chance to solo before the appearance of Dylan. First it was Neuwirth singing ‘Good Love Is Hard To Find’ and a trucking song of uncertain title, then T-Bone with a gimmicky piece called ‘The Werewolves Of London’ (6), and finally Stoner with a rocking little ditty about the New York Yankees baseball team called Catfish, which included a nifty bass solo. 

Ronson’s solo spot was ‘Is There Life On Mars’ – not the David Bowie song but a completely new tune written by Rosco West. Either way, it contrasted sharply with the rest of the material, featuring spacey lead guitar and rumbling vocals not unlike the pre-Young Americans Bowie. 

After Neuwirth introduced the band, Ronee Blakly waltzed on in a bright blue top and duetted with Neuwirth on a song about the death of Hank Williams. Next Ronee played an unannounced song of her own at the piano, a rather doomy piece that interrupted the momentum of the show, but Neuwirth quickly brought the concert back into focus by singing a Kris Kristofferson song about Ramblin’ Jack Elliott before brining on the man himself. 

Elliott then sang two songs, both folksy finger-picking pieces and then called the band back for a bluegrass number. The band was now enlarged to include Roger McGuinn on banjo and Scarlet Rivera, who’s been playing with Dylan in the studio, on violin.

        Ramblin’ Jack rambled off and from the left of the stage appeared a shortish guy in a wide-brimmed hat carrying a sunburst acoustic Gibson guitar. The audience erupted as the band kicked in on cue and Bob Dylan, grinning slightly but not acknowledging the ovation, began the words to ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’.

The song was sung gently, and Neuwirth duetted with Dylan on the chorus lines. Dylan, wearing faded jeans, a light shirt and dark brown waistcoat, pushed hard at his guitar, holding the instrument away from his body like a rifle and forcing the song along with a perpetual motion between his right foot and right arm. At the end Neuwirth said simply “Bob Dylan”, and everyone went bananas once again.

“He’s so small,” said someone in the row behind me, and indeed he was, crouching and delivering with all the urgency of his last tour with The Band. But on this show the voice seems deeper and fuller, with less rasp and throat.

He’s singing clearer, sharper and with the same bite, but the relentless tempo that The Band has set Dylan in the past has been exchanged for a mellower approach from the musicians on this tour. 

The result is a more relaxed Dylan, as reflected in the second concert on Thursday night when he kidded about on stage with Neuwirth and spoke to the audience between songs. What he said was vague enough but it was a welcome change from the mute approach of 1974.

“Go away from my window, leave at your chosen speed,” and Dylan was into ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ before you had a chance to recover. Here the band joined in on the choruses and Ronson came forward for a note perfect solo, playing alongside Dylan as if the pair had worked together since Newport. To end the song Dylan played some willowy blues on the mouth-harp which prompted another howling ovation.

The Mexican-sounding ‘Romance In Durango’ – which Dylan dedicated to Sam Peckinpah – came next, a fairly lightweight sing-along interlude before the first half closed with a new song, ‘Isis’. This long song tells a wandering story about Egypt, pyramids and tombs – an urgent, spooky reminder that brought back the tension lost momentarily on ‘Durango’. 

This picture was shot by Bob Gruen in Springfield on the night, 
and was used to accompany my story in Melody Maker

Dylan and Joan Baez opened the second half together singing ‘Baby, You Been On My Mind’ before the curtains were raised. It’s quite apparent they retain a marked sympathy for each other: they dress alike, almost in some brother and sister combination, and Baez frequently rests her arm on Dylan’s shoulders. 

Together they sang a new, unidentified, Dylan love song (7) and then ‘I Shall Be Released’ which was dedicated to the Band’s Richard Manuel. (8)

Baez’s solo spot came next, beginning with her song to Dylan, ‘Diamonds And Rust’ which, by the nature of the event, assumed an eerie significance. 

Unaccompanied, she sang ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ before the band returned and backed her up on ‘Long Black Veil’, the traditional song covered by The Band on their first LP. Baez’s solo spot closed with ‘Please Come Back To Boston’ before she introduced Roger McGuinn for his solo spot on ‘Chestnut Mare’.

McGuinn, playing his 12-string electric Rickenbacker, recreated the jangling effect of The Byrd’s sound and turned to Ronson for vocal help on the choruses. 

Next Baez returned for a sing-along version of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, encouraging the audience to join in, which they did.

For the next half hour Dylan re-emerged in the spotlight, firstly on his own and later accompanied by a small group comprising Neuwirth, Rivera, Stoner and Wyeth. This was the most crucial part of the evening, featuring both old songs and new, as yet unheard, material that will comprise Dylan’s next album. It also changes from night to night.

At the first show Dylan opened with ‘I Don’t Believe You’, huddled over his acoustic guitar and perched on small stool. His voice sounded mellow and rounded, but again the bite was there in his harp playing at the end of the song. The band joined him for a new song entitled ‘Little Sister’, one of several romantic ballads he has been writing recently. 

Next, he sang his new single, ‘Hurricane’, a very lengthy protest about the imprisonment of former boxing champion Rubin Carter, punctuated with insistent violin riffs between verses and delivered at a ferocious pace. (One also feels impressed at the way Dylan remembers the lyrics.)

Two more new love songs followed, the first titled ‘One More Cup Of Coffee Before I Go’ and the second, obviously written about his wife, called ‘Sara’, which he pronounced “Say-rah” throughout.

This song is perhaps the highlight of the whole evening, a huge insight into Dylan’s relationship with his wife, and it included some beautiful lyrics. There are lines about “sitting in the Chelsea hotel writing ‘Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’ for you”, and little couplets of tender, descriptive details about playing on the beach at Malibu with his children…

“Sara, Sara, sweet lover of my life

“Radiant jewel, mystical wife,

“Fabulous virgin with arrow and bow,

“Don’t ever leave me wherever I go.”

The tension is relaxed when the whole band return for Dylan to sing ‘Just Like A Woman’, dragging out the choruses and rasping on the word “g…i…r…l” at the end of each stanza. Ronson again takes a solo before the song segued into ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’, a harsher version than on the single.

Finally, everyone arrived back on stage, including a hitherto unseen Allen Ginsberg, portly and bearded, to join in on Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’, with each soloist taking a version and Dylan, weaving and gnomelike beneath his absurdly large hat, leaving stage mid-song.

“There will be no encore as we are running very late,” shrieked Baez in her ‘organising’ voice as the house lights were turned up and the band lurched into the last chorus of Woody’s alternative American anthem. Then the curtain fell and it was all over.

* * *

Between shows I grabbed a pizza across the street in a sleazy little Italian café filled with Dylan fans. ‘George Jackson’ was playing the jukebox but this was soon overtaken by a live tape of the show recorded on some guy’s Sony portable. He upped the volume and the whole café listened to a poor-quality recording that could well turn into a bootleg of the show we’d just seen. (9)

Back in the hall, the second show varied considerably from the first, with all the musicians, and Dylan in particular, in a lighter mood throughout. The result was a more relaxed concert during the lighter passages and a more atmospheric mood during the stronger moments. Dylan’s solo efforts were especially brilliant this time, holding the audience in breathless anticipation and admiring silence during his new numbers. 

Arlo Guthrie provided the first surprise, coming on after Ramblin’ Jack’s two songs and yodelling his way through ‘Got A Feeling Called The Blues’ before Dylan sung his first song again (again ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’). 

He included ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ during the first half and, after the interval, reappeared with Joan Baez singing ‘The Times They Are A Changing’ instead of ‘Baby, You’ve Been On My Mind’. 

Baez included her ‘Joe Hill’ song during her solo spot, and Dylan began his second half routine with ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’ instead of ‘I Don’t Believe You’. 

Those may be the facts but the music can’t be reduced to statistics. Perhaps it was because the second show audience seemed older and more reverent, but the musicians were inspired by the occasion and they handled the songs with more energy and respect for the star of the show. 

And the star was in virtuoso form, even talking to his audience in vague asides: after ‘Masterpiece’ he sashayed up to the mike and announced in a deep voice: “Thank you everybody out there. I hope you make it to the West Indian islands.”

And later, before ‘Durango’, he silenced the crowd with a wave and told us all that “raw lust does not hold a candle to true love.”

He also made a rare political statement. Just before breaking into ‘Hurricane’ during the second half, Dylan stated: “I hear Massachusetts is the only state that didn’t vote for Nixon. Is that true?” After the cheers died down he responded, “Well, neither did we.”

His control of the audience during the two love songs was complete, especially on the highly personal ‘Sara’, which prompted the guy next to me to clutch his girl very tightly and announce to all within earshot: “That’s the best fucking song I’ve heard in my life.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. (10)

Again, the show ended on ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with each soloist taking a verse and Ramblin’ Jack taking more than anyone else because he knew the words better than anyone else. 

And again, Joan Baez announced that there wouldn’t be an encore, which there wasn’t even though the second show crowd clapped on for a good ten minutes and had to be told to leave twice. 

At the end of the concert I saw at Madison Square Garden last year, Dylan received a similar ovation after which he reappeared on the stage without The Band, changed from his dark suit into an ice-hockey jersey. Obviously moved by the crowd scene he turned to the mike, hesitated, and finally said, “Thank you. See you next year.”

I, for one, never expected that promise to be kept. But Dylan has kept it after all.


(1) Desire

(2) Yes, there were two dollars to the pound in 1975.

(3) He was evidently unaware that Janis died in 1970. 

(4) The second for photographer Bob Gruen who accompanied me. 

(5) About 150 miles, but speed limits and traffic held us up. 

(6) The Warren Zevon song, as yet unreleased.

(7) Subsequently identified as 'Never Let Me Go'. 

(8) Rick Danko sang the same song at Manuel's funeral in 1986. 

(9) In the caféI met Larry Sloman who would write a book about Rolling Thunder called On The Road With Bob Dylan

(10) At that moment anyway. 



If this year’s list of acts to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is anything to go by, my skill at picking winners is getting better. Three of those for whom I voted – Tina Turner, Carole King and Todd Rundgren – made the cut, alongside The Go-Gos, Jay Z and Foo Fighters. The other two for whom I voted but who lost out were The New York Dolls and Dionne Warwick, though I have no doubt they’ll make the grade in the fullness of time; hopefully – in the case of the Dolls – while David Johansen, the last surviving Doll, is still with us.

        It’s taken Todd many a long year to get in, though Tina and Carole have long been there in diverse modes, Tina as one half of Ike & Tina since 1991 and Carole with her former husband and composing partner Gerry Goffin in the songwriters’ category since 1990. Jay-Z and Foo Fighters get in at their first bid, it being 25 years since both released their debut albums, the minimum period to qualify for nomination. Unless I’m mistaken, The Go-Gos haven’t been nominated before, even though their debut LP arrived in 1981.

        These acts make it into the performers’ category, the main one, but I’m gratified to note that Kraftwerk, denied induction for years despite my eternally loyal support, have won an ‘Early Influence Award’, which is certainly justified. It’ll be interesting to see if any of them turn up to claim it or whether the concept of the Rock & Roll of Fame is simply too indigestible for Ralf Hütter’s delicate anti-Rock sensibilities. 

        Among the losers this year are a couple of Brits from the opposite ends of our musical spectrum, Iron Maiden and Kate Bush. The former did well in the popular vote whereby anyone can go on to the R&RHoF website and nominate one of the acts but no doubt fell down due to the nominating committee’s traditional antipathy towards metal acts. Kate fared poorly in the popular vote which isn’t surprising as she’s a bit too quirky for American tastes, and if she had got in its likely there would have been an issue over her performing at the ceremony. Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti actually came second in the popular vote (after Tina) but wasn’t nominated, which suggests that who fans vote for holds little sway with the final judgement. 

        Being a voter for the R&RHoF is an ‘honorary’ position. We’re not paid and no favours are granted beyond an opportunity to listen to selected works by the nominees via a link to their website. It could be argued that if you need to listen to an artist’s music before casting your vote, you really ought not to be voting in the first place, but despite getting a bit long in the tooth I was familiar with the work of 14 of the 16 acts nominated. The other two were rappers (Jay-Z and LL Cool J) whose genre as a whole is not to my taste. 

        Each year I vote I ponder over whether or not I’m getting too old for the job but I keep going nonetheless. If I do resign I’ll do so as a protest against Richard Thompson and Slade never having been nominated, let alone inducted. Every year for as long as I can remember I’ve banged on about the injustice of this but no one has taken a blind bit of notice. However, if I did resign I wouldn’t even be able to vent my spleen on this issue, so I beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past, as I read somewhere. 



By the summer of 1967 Cat Stevens was an established name on the British pop scene but the scene was changing fast. On June 1 The Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album now widely acclaimed as the zenith of their career. According to the Encyclopedia of Popular Music published by Oxford University Press, Sgt Pepper “revolutionised, altered and reinvented the boundaries of 20th century popular music, style and graphic art”, and over 50 years later its place at the heart of the Swinging Sixties remains unchallenged. The Beatles in the UK – and Bob Dylan in America – were leading the charge of young musicians determined to develop their work into an art form way beyond the disposable pop that in the past had done little more than provide accompaniment for ballroom dancing or cause teenage girls to scream their heads off. 

Cat Stevens found himself stranded between the two stools. 

On the one hand he was a handsome young pop star promoted by his advisors to appeal to young girls, traditionally the strategic market for singers of his age and demographic. A Fan Club had been launched, of which Cat was President, and its magazine Pause – a pun on the word paws, as in cat’s paws – was crammed with trivial information designed to appeal to teenage girls for whom Cat’s olive Mediterranean complexion was as key to his success as the records he made. The August 1967 issue includes a list of members seeking pen pals, all but one of whom are girls aged between 13 and 18. One member, Dee Rider, reports on a visit to the flat above his parents’ restaurant, The Moulin Rouge in Shaftesbury Avenue, where Cat still lived. In closing her report, she breathlessly recounts how at the end of her stay Cat, “leaned over and kissed my cheek. ‘Don’t tell the club members that,’ he said. Mr President, Sir, you must be joking. I couldn’t possibly keep that to myself.”

On the other hand, Cat Stevens was a gifted and unusually prolific songwriter with a mind of his own that was beginning to question the milieu in which he found himself. In some respects, the only other singer-songwriter with whom the Cat Stevens of 1967 could be compared was his Deram label-mate David Bowie. Both were earnest young singers who composed their own material and both were seeking to develop their own musical niche in this rapidly changing environment. In the fullness of time both would discover that niche and become as massively popular as they were esteemed for the merits of their work, but for differing reasons they would have to wait until the golden years beckoned. In the meantime, while the Syd Barrett-led Pink Floyd could be found exploring the limits of psychedelia at the UFO Club on London’s Tottenham Court Road and Procol Harum – another Deram act – topped the charts with the deeply enigmatic ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’, that year’s Eurovision Song Contest was won by Britain’s Sandie Shaw singing ‘Puppet On A String’, a song that would not have been out of place amid the chirpy repertoire of Fifties hitmaker Alma Cogan. 

This dichotomy is best illustrated by the list of artists who topped the UK charts during 1967: Tom Jones, The Monkees, Petula Clark, Engelbert Humperdinck (twice), Frank Sinatra and his daughter Nancy, The Tremeloes, Procol Harum, The Beatles (twice), Scott Mackenzie, The Bee Gees, The Foundations and, in December, Long John Baldry whose maudlin ballad ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’, far removed from the rootsy blues for which he was best known, seemed fabricated to make Baldry appeal to pensioners. Meanwhile members of The Rolling Stones were in and out of jail on drugs charges and ‘A Day In The Life’, the closing track on Sgt Pepper, now widely regarded as the greatest song The Beatles ever recorded, was banned by the BBC for including the line, ‘I’d love to turn you on’. 

In this uncertain climate Cat Stevens played his manager and record producer what many consider to be the finest song he wrote during this early part of his career. Mike Hurst was stunned when Cat unveiled ‘First Cut Is The Deepest’; doubly so when Cat told him he didn’t want it as his next single. Instead he wanted to record a newer song, ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’, which reached number six in the charts in April. 

        An element of controversy surrounded Cat Stevens’ third single. ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’ 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 – invariably seen biting their fingernails or grinning sheepishly – behind a screen and invisible to the panel. “He was sitting behind the curtain and all these people were making stupid remarks about guns,” recalls Hurst. “He was almost in tears, ‘I didn’t mean it like that,’ he said to me, and I said, ‘I know you didn’t but other people are obviously seeing it.’ I never thought of it like that either.”

        In fact, neither Cat nor Hurst had even considered the possibility that they could be accused of spreading violence but when the record was played on the show, the now disgraced DJ Jimmy Saville, posing as a paragon of virtue, launched into a duplicitous attack on records that encouraged violence. “At the end of Jimmy Saville’s sermon all the jury still voted the record a hit,” adds Hurst. 

        In hindsight, Hurst would admit that his stewardship of Cat Stevens’ career was hitting a rocky patch. “In retrospect, of course, I can see all the things I did that were wrong, as much as I can see all the things that I did that were right,” he says today. “‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’ was, to me, nothing to do with guns really, as Cat always said. He was using the imagery of the gun for someone who is in a bad temper, ‘I’m gonna fix this and I’m not gonna back down’, all those things. What I heard in the song was nothing to do with any of that. It was the sort of Hollywood type movie soundtrack that lent itself to that song. It was like an early Ennio Morricone movie score. So, I threw the kitchen sink at it.”

        ‘Throwing the kitchen sink’ at the songs of Cat Stevens was a strategy that would soon backfire for Hurst, pitting manager against client in a creative dispute that saw them go their separate ways before the year was out. ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’ would be the last Hurst-produced top ten hit he would enjoy and as it ascended the charts during April, Cat embarked on his first and last pop package tour.

* * *


* * *

During May of 1967 Cat Stevens 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, for handling the management of artists signed to the first company. The first singer to be signed was Canadian-born Peter Horgan who recorded under the name of Peter Jane. Friends from their childhood days, he and Cat had started learning the guitar around the same time and had met through their older brothers, both of whom were in the clothing trade, and a shared a love of Dylan and bluesman Leadbelly. Cat’s production of Jane’s ‘Emperors And Armies’ on CBS made no impression on the charts, however, but in an accompanying press release Cat was quoted as saying: “I see this as the first step in the direction I want to go – toward more singing, more writing and more production work.”

        The only other artist Cat produced was Rangoon-born Sasha Caro, aka Rick Minas, but his recording of ‘Grade 3, Section 2’ on Decca was another also-ran, and Sasha/Rick left music to become an accountant. Cat also signed a Birmingham group called Yellow Raincoat to his Doric production company, using them as a backing band on isolated live appearances, including a 48-hour ‘Love In’ at the Palais Des Sports in Paris on November 15, 1967, when he shared the bill with Johnny Hallyday, France’s number one rock star. He 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.

Far more successful was P.P. Arnold’s recording of ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’, the song that Mike Hurst felt ought to have been Cat’s third single in preference to ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’. Although it reached no higher than 18 in the UK charts, it was widely seen in the music business as a significant statement from a rapidly maturing songwriter. “It’s probably the greatest song he’s ever written,” says Hurst today. “He played me ‘First Cut’ after the first album was out. And I listened to it and said, ‘Bloody great. Do you want to do it as a single?’ ‘No, I got better stuff coming,’ he replied.”

Hurst not only knew a great song when he heard it but knew also that it had immense potential as a vehicle to promote Cat Stevens as a songwriter above and beyond his success as a singer. “So, I’m sitting in my office thinking, ‘What am I going to do with this song’ and I get a telephone call from Andrew Oldham and he says, ‘I’ve got this girl singer from The Ikettes, Ike and Tina’s Turner’s girls, P.P. Arnold is her name and I’m looking for a song. Have you got anything? I’d love a Cat Stevens’ song.’”

Andrew Oldham, of course, had just relinquished his management of The Rolling Stones to the controversial Allen Klein and, with his business partner Tony Calder, established Immediate Records, one of the first truly independent labels in the UK. 

“I spoke to Steve,” continued Hurst. “I asked him whether he was absolutely sure he didn’t want to do ‘First Cut’ as a single. ‘No,’ he said. I said, ‘OK, I’m going to take this in to Andrew Oldham for this girl.’ He said, ‘OK.’ He wasn’t very excited about it. Andrew loved it immediately. I said there was one stipulation. I wanted to produce it. ‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘I’m gonna do that.’ So I said nope, you don’t get the song unless I produce it. We control it, Steve and me. So he agreed finally.”

Hurst was surprised that Cat failed to attend the P.P. Arnold session at Olympic Studios in Barnes. “He had no interest, and for this session at Olympic I had a massive wall of sound, like Phil Spector, two drummers, two keyboard players, two bass players, fantastic and I ended up with this record which again, strangely, like ‘I Love My Dog’ wasn’t a huge hit, but everybody I’ve ever spoken to ever since loves that record.”

‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’ would go on to become a standard, thus validating Hurst’s initial impression of the song. Recorded by many artists over the years, Rod Stewart took it to number one in the UK charts in 1977, as one side of a double A-sided single with ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’, and in 2003 Sheryl Crow’s version stayed on the US Billboard charts for 36 weeks. Others who have recorded it include Jamaican singer Norma Fraser, Britain’s Keith Hampshire, whose version was number one in Canada in 1973, and Swedish rap artist Papa Dee. 

Although Cat Stevens made an early demo recording of the song for Hurst, he didn’t record a full band version until October of 1967. Playing alongside him in the studio were ‘Big’ Jim Sullivan, every UK record producer’s first choice on guitar, Herbie Flowers on bass and Chris Hunt on drums. It appeared on his second album, New Masters, released the following December.

Clearly a song written from the point of view of a jilted lover, ‘First Cut’ lives on in the pantheon of truly great ‘heartbreak’ songs, but Mike Hurst was never under the impression that Cat wrote it as a result of some personal experience. “I think that like a lot of great songwriters, he can conjure things up out of nowhere. To the best of my knowledge that song was not written from any personal experience. He was too young. I know it doesn’t preclude it but I just think he is one of that unique group of people who can churn out these songs. He’s just an on-the-money songwriter, like going back to the Brill Building. Steve is in that league.”

* * *

In some respects, New Masters can be seen as something of an anti-climax to this first phase of Cat Stevens’ career. Nevertheless, it includes ‘First Cut’ and a number of other songs that demonstrate Cat Stevens’ versatility, prolificacy and vivid imagination. Rather than being conceived as a proper album, New Masters was more a collection of songs that were compiled by the record company to capitalise on Cat’s popularity but, as a rift between Cat and his producer developed during early 1968, his label seemed to lost heart with the result that it failed to chart and is now unjustly cast aside as little more than a footnote in its creator’s illustrious career. It didn’t help that the album was recorded in an atmosphere of impending gloom with the artist and his producer having to adjourn the sessions in order to attend meetings with lawyers to resolve business issues between them. 

Notwithstanding the problems that clouded its production, hiding amongst tracks that might otherwise have been consigned as B-sides are a handful of songs that signpost the promise that awaited Cat Stevens in the next decade. Alongside ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’ was ‘Blackness Of The Night’ which, absent of strings and an increasingly busy arrangement, could happily sit alongside many of the songs of his next three, more acclaimed, albums. A gentle, pleasingly melodic ballad, accompanied at first only by Cat’s arpeggiated guitar, it talks of looking towards the future after present struggles have been overcome and the ‘bad bad world’ – not unlike the ‘wild world’ he would sing about on 1970’s Tea For The Tillerman – left behind. ‘Here Comes My Wife’, which would be released as a single in October 1968, long after Hurst’s relationship with Stevens had ended, boasts a fine pop melody and the lyrics about the impending arrival of an annoying spouse can be seen as an allegory about the deterioration of their association.

“The trouble with the second album was that before a note was even struck or sung it was all going horribly wrong,” concedes Hurst. “One was palpably my fault, and the other wasn’t. The one that was my fault is that he wanted to be something else. It was 1968, and he wanted to be what he eventually became. He wanted to be a proper singer songwriter, pouring his soul out, just him and a guitar. I couldn’t see that because I wanted to do the bigger arrangements. I was wrong and I’ve always admitted that. I was totally wrong. Which is why I don’t feel that bad about what happened.”

        “I was trying hard to write the next hit song but showbusiness wore me down and my records weren’t selling so much anymore,” Cat would admit in a subsequent interview. “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.”

        A 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,” continues 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 Cat Stevens 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 and illustrates perfectly the dilemma that Cat was facing. 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 an increasingly sensitive soul like Cat Stevens, ‘Kitty’ steers an unsteady course towards variety entertainment. It appeared as if his professional advisers were determined to turn him into a minor league ballad singer with teenybop aspirations, a sort of cross between Engelbert Humperdinck and Davy Jones of The Monkees. 

Matters came to a head during a business meeting between Hurst, Cat and David, Cat’s older brother who was now taking a growing interest in the career of his musical sibling. With the opposing parties facing one another across Hurst’s desk, David accused Hurst of profiting unduly from his management of Cat, an allegation that Hurst strenuously denied. Heated words were exchanged before Cat and David left Hurst’s office, slamming the door behind them. Their next appointment was with a lawyer. 

        “The final break actually came when the booking agent that Mike had appointed wanted me to go into pantomime over Christmas,” said Cat. “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.”

        “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.”

        Cat and his brother hired the services of Oscar Beusalinck, an experienced entertainment lawyer who wrote to Hurst claiming that his contract with Cat had been signed before he had reached the age of 21 (which it had), and that being with a minor, it was not binding in law. When Hurst pointed out that the contract had been countersigned by Cat Stevens’ father and mother, Beusalinck responded by claiming that because the former was Greek and the latter Swedish neither could understand English, a statement that Hurst found preposterous. 

        “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’d 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 unjust amount through expenses that were being charged to him. “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.”

        Oscar Beusalinck further claimed that in managing Cat Stevens as well as producing his records and handing his song publishing, Hurst had placed himself in a position where there was a conflict of interest. “That was the reason I didn’t have a leg to stands on,” says Hurst. “That’s why I didn’t go to court. After that this became the norm. No manager was allowed to do all those things. Well it’s all come around again. Look at Simon Cowell. He owns everything!” 

        Released on December 1, 1968, New Masters received little support from Decca in view of the ongoing litigation between Stevens and Hurst. Although the label missed out with David Bowie, another of their early signings whom they dropped from the roster after one album, they soon hit pay dirt with Ten Years After and The Moody Blues, both of whom now occupied most of their time. 

        On the cover of New Masters Cat Stevens is photographed wearing a black Regency-style jacket trimmed with pearls over a white shirt, its lace frill held in place by a diamond broach attached to his collar in the manner of a restoration aristocrat. This time there were no effusive sleeve notes from its producer, but in 2003 the original 12 tracks were augmented by a further 11 that included two subsequent singles and their B-sides. 

        The behind-the-scenes issues surrounding its release were not made public at the time and Melody Maker adopted a kind approach in their review of the album. “The music certainly deserves recognition,” wrote their anonymous critic. “Cat is singing better than ever and his voice has peculiar characteristics which are difficult to nail down. The songs are often beautiful and picturesque.”

        Deram released a sixth Cat Stevens single ‘Lovely City (When Do You Laugh)’ in February which failed to reach the top 50, as did two further singles, ‘Here Comes My Wife’ in October and ‘Where Are You’ the following June. Maurice Gibb of The Bee Gees reviewed ‘Here Comes My Wife’ in Melody Maker’s Blind Date feature on October 19. “This guy is beautiful when he sings those songs of his,” he said. “This will be a hit but not as big as ‘Matthew And Son’. It’s very over-arranged. I’d like to have heard a lot more of his voice. I prefer the things he does when the arrangements are not so merry. He’s a very good songwriter though.”

        This brief burst of activity turned out to be false start but there is a little-known postscript to the Hurst/Stevens relationship. In mid-1969, after Cat had been absent from the charts for almost two years, Decca approached Hurst with a view to re-establishing their former relationship. “Decca had somehow secured Steve’s services for a further two years before he went into hospital but had been shocked and probably discouraged by his illness,” explains Hurst. “Their original intention was to carry on recording Steve with another producer but after his illness they called me up and asked me to make another record with him.

        “He came up to my offices and played me a couple of songs on guitar and said he wanted to record them very basically, just him and his guitar and nothing else on the track. I told him to forget it but he insisted that that was the way he wanted to record in future – no big arrangements, just him and his guitar. In the end we compromised and recorded two songs with just acoustic guitar and a small string section. The record was called ‘Where Are You’ and Decca put it out towards the end of 1969. I happen to think it’s a really lovely record. It’s a very thought-provoking record from him. 

        “Nothing happened with it at all. After that, Steve said he knew what he wanted to do and that was to record very simply. I disagreed with him and we decided to go our own separate ways from then on. He was right of course, as his later success proved. And that was the end, all over. I didn’t see him again for years, for years and years.”

        By this time Cat Stevens had acquired a new manager in Barry Krost, whose client list included actors and models, and signed a new record contract with Island Records. Hurst and Stevens duly lost touch with each other, the former to carry on producing records by such diverse artists a Manfred Mann, the Ryan Twins, The Move, P.P. Arnold and Shakin’ Stevens, while the latter went into temporary obscurity while he recovered from a bout of tuberculosis.

        Of Cat Stevens’ subsequent success Hurst remains pragmatic. “You couldn’t miss him, could you?” he laughs. “Those records he made, Teaser and Tillerman, they were fantastic but that was then. What I did in the sixties was right for the sixties. What he did for the seventies was right for the seventies.”

* * *


* * *

The circumstances surrounding Steve’s illness were kept relatively secret – even Mike Hurst wasn’t told until much later – and only a small news item in the music press for the week ending March 9, 1968, indicated that anything was amiss. All the London music papers carried a story to the effect that Cat Stevens had been rushed into the Harley Street Nursing Home the previous Saturday.

        “He had been troubled by a cough for a week and on Friday went to a specialist for X-rays,” read a report circulated by his PR Mike Gill. “When the results were known he was found to be suffering from chronic pneumonia and at once taken to the nursing home.”

        This was to be the last mention of Cat Stevens in the music press for eight months.

        “TB ruined my dream and put a halt to my career,” Cat would say later. “I was back on earth, stuck in hospital and that was a big lesson. While I was in hospital I had a lot of time to reflect. Death was on my mind. This was during the Flower Power/Maharishi period and along with many others I became interested in Eastern religious philosophy. I had a book with me called The Secret Path and it talked about death, the life beyond and the way to achieve peace.”

        In the decade that followed Mike Hurst and Cat Stevens met just once, quite by chance, in an American restaurant in Chelsea’s Kings Road in 1976. “We had a hamburger together and talked about old times,” recalls Hurst.

        “I think there’s one thing that I taught him that stayed with him when he was very famous and which may go some way to explaining the way he is today. I’d always had this thing about how stars should be untouchable to the public and all the way through the two years I was with him I stuck with that theory. I told him not to go out to clubs, not to be seen by anybody unless he was performing. I even hauled him out of a few clubs in the West End until he promised never go to out like that again.

        “I taught him the value of keeping a low profile in public and it seems that he took that particular lesson to heart.”



The Cat Stevens that introduced himself to the world in 1966 was a very different character to the one that found global fame four years later as a dashing, guitar-playing troubadour, let alone the man he is today. In keeping with the times, when ‘I Love My Dog’ was released in October that year Cat resembled a young Regency dandy in his black velvet frock coat and pristine white shirt with Mandarin collar, a dark Beatle fringe and modish sunglasses partially obscuring the olive skin he’d inherited from his Greek father. He was just 18, not long out of Hammersmith Art College and about to enter a curiously restrained two-year apprenticeship in the world of pop.

        It was a propitious moment to embark on a music career. ‘I Love My Dog’ was released at a time when the charts were enjoying a burst of creativity that has seldom been equalled, with sixties legends like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who jostling for position amidst American acts from the Tamla Motown label in Detroit, Stax in Memphis and the newly arrived guitar maestro Jimi Hendrix. The increasing complexity and sophistication of The Beatles’ records had acted as an inspiration to others and, as Cat Stevens’ debut single scratched its way to a highest placing of number 27 in the singles listing that November, the top spot was held securely by ‘Good Vibrations’, The Beach Boys’ shimmering collage of cutting-edge creativity. But it was not an inauspicious debut: most initial efforts never make the charts at all.

        Only the opening bars of ‘I Love My Dog’ and the fact that he wrote it himself betray a hint of what was to come. A brief acoustic guitar figure, no more than half a dozen notes, sounds remarkably like the sound of songs he would compose and record in the early seventies, songs like ‘Lady D’Arbanville’, ‘Moonshadow’ and ‘Father And Son’ that would clinch Cat Stevens’ position at the high table of singer songwriters. Then the guitar is lost in the production and ‘I Love My Dog’ becomes just another catchy pop song, typical for its time and one of several that Stevens would record during this early, often forgotten, phase of a career – and a life – quite unlike any other in the evolving history of popular music.

* * *

To his fans he would be known as Cat and later in life he would change his name to Yusuf, but to his family and friends he was Steve. Born on July 21, 1948, in Middlesex Hospital on Goodge Street, he was christened Steven Demetri Georgiou, the youngest of three children of Stavros, a Greek Cypriot, and his Swedish wife Ingrid, nèe Wickman. Together with his older siblings, brother David and sister Anita, he was raised in a flat above the family’s Greek restaurant The Moulin Rouge, just north of Cambridge Circus in Central London. 

Several major roads intersect at this busy hub, and Covent Garden, then London’s principal produce market, is a few minutes’ walk away. It’s a lively and cosmopolitan part of the city, its pubs and restaurants catering to a thriving nightlife, bookstores occupying every corner and shops selling musical instruments spilling out from Denmark Street on to Charing Cross Road. There can be no question that the neighbourhood where Steven Demetri learned to walk exerted a powerful influence on his young soul. 

“My playground was a triangle, somewhere between Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and the British Museum,” he wrote in the book Why I Still Carry A Guitar. “That was where my life began.”

In an interview conducted not long after he began recording he spoke of feeling different to other children his age. “As a child I used to climb to the tops of buildings in the area where I lived and from there I could see almost every sight that London had to offer. I was always writing funny little stories about what I saw and I began to see London as being like the fluctuating weather in as much as everything could happen all in one day. I never wrote much about forests and fields because there were none to see.”

By the age of eight Steve was working in the family restaurant. “My father came from a small village in Cyprus,” Steve wrote. “He was a smart, hardworking man… [I] inherited his work ethic… and began serving as a waiter and mopping the floors to earn an extra bit of pocket money.”

        Shaftsbury Avenue, the heart of London’s Theatreland, was his to explore and as a boy he’d sneak into theatres to catch performances of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and a South African musical called King Kong that was promoted as a ‘jazz opera’. Of West Side Story, an updating of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, he said, “The effect was just incredible. It was such a great concept... just being in that scene, the kind of gang scene of the times combined with the passion of the music. That was really hot and it got me going.” Songs from musicals such as this that told stories would become a key influence on the songwriting style Steve would eventually develop. 

Raised as a Christian, Steve’s inquisitive mind struggled with the dogmatic nature of his Catholic school and he and his friends would occasionally play truant to experience the hustle and bustle of city life. “It was the easiest thing in the world to step out of my own front door and straight to the stage door of the theatre across the road or Tin Pan Alley, rather than go to church.”

Nevertheless, it was the church that offered an introduction to music, ‘Jerusalem’, with its rousing patriotic theme based on a poem by William Blake, a particular favourite. “We sang hymns in the morning and I used to go to church every Sunday and on Tuesdays too,” said Steve. “I used to love the stories about Jesus and the disciples but there were a lot of things I didn’t understand. Like a lot of kids, I had many questions but no easy answers. I was shy as a child and found it difficult to express myself. It made me isolated and instead of playing games with the rest of the children I preferred to stay at home and draw. I found it easier to communicate my feelings through art.”

        From the age of five Steve attended the Drury Lane Roman Catholic School and later transferred to Northampton Secondary Modern School in nearby Old Street. His formal education was completed at the Hugh Middleton School in Islington, but uninspiring music teachers failed to recognise any latent talent in him. The only subject in which Steve excelled was art, an affinity partially motivated by his uncle Hugo in Sweden, who was a painter. 

        This talent for drawing and illustration seemed at first to be his calling in life; a way of expressing himself and channeling his powerful imagination. He spent endless hours sketching and even had a few illustrations published in small magazines. With thoughts of pursuing a career in this field, he enrolled at Hammersmith Art College. Slowly but surely, however, music was encroaching into his life. 

        “Music crept up on me very slowly until finally I couldn’t do without it,” he told Roy Carr of New Musical Express in 1972. “In fact I couldn’t draw or paint without it. I used to go upstairs and listen to my sister’s Anita’s records, things like Porgy and Bess, occasionally Jimmy Clayton records, Little Richard records, all the singles by Buddy Holly. I just used to sit there listening to these records while I painted.”

        Then came The Beatles.

        At over fifty years remove it is difficult to overstate the profound impact that the arrival of John, Paul, George and Ringo from Liverpool had on the UK, most especially on those in their teens and twenties. Steve would have just turned 15, the perfect age, when ‘She Loves You’ rocketed to the top of the UK charts and signalled the start of Beatlemania as it became known. All over the country Beatles fans went crazy for the group, queuing outside venues overnight to see them, following them wherever they went, causing disturbances everywhere. The Beatles weren’t off the front pages for the rest of the year, and the following year America and Australia fell to their charms. Suddenly and without precedent the whirlwind that was The Beatles blew away the cobwebs of the past and the Sixties began to swing. 

        Steve was not immune. He was 15 when he persuaded his father to buy him an £8 guitar from a shop on Denmark Street but instead of trying to learn the songs he heard on the radio he began to compose his own. But he was still torn between art and music. “I didn’t take to the guitar at first,” he says. “My finger ends were hurting but I picked it up again later and began practising. For some reason it came easier to me the second time but I never thought of myself as a guitarist or even a singer. I thought I could become a songwriter.”

        By the end of the first year at Hammersmith Art College music had taken over from his studies. He would take his guitar to the college and, instead of attending lectures, sit on the fire escape and practise. “After a year the art school said to me: ‘Look you’ve done nothing so you’ve got to do the whole course again.’ So I decided that I’d split and I did just that.”

        The only legacy of note that Steve took from Hammersmith is the nickname Cat, bestowed upon him by girlfriend there who decided it suited his feline features. Although he was unconvinced by the name, he stuck with it, perhaps realising that, linked with a variation on Steven, it might serve him well. 

        Meanwhile, Steve and his friend Peter Horgan (later Peter Janes) had been introduced to the music of Bob Dylan by Peter’s older brother who ran a folk club called Les Cousins. Located in the basement of a restaurant in Soho’s Greek Street, Les Cousins would become a key meeting place for musicians from the British folk revival of the mid-sixties. It welcomed those less inclined towards the more staid traditional folk venues, and among those who performed there were Al Stewart, Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Roy Harper, Sandy Denny and even Paul Simon, visiting from New York. 

        Much as he enjoyed these singers with their guitar accompaniment, he was also drawn to rhythm and blues artists like Alexis Korner, Long John Baldry and Bo Diddley, whose choppy ‘shave and a haircut – two bits’ rhythm would forever be a source of fascination and inspiration. To this end he graduated to the Scene Club in Ham Yard near Piccadilly Circus and the Marquee Club, which had lately moved to Wardour Street from its original site in Oxford Street. Both were Mod strongholds where The High Numbers, soon to become The Who, performed between record sessions presided over by London’s brightest and best informed young disc jockey, Guy Stevens. Steve was one of the many in the sea of Modishly cropped heads who were under age so he forged his membership card to gain entry but it was from the Scene Club that his simmering musical ambition first took tangible form in the recruitment of a few friends to form an ad hoc group.

        This was the JAS Trime, named after three friends – James, Andrew and Steve – though it was more conceptual than tangible.  “We all picked an instrument but nobody actually bought one except me,” says Steve. “They just hummed the notes in imitation to their chosen instruments. We were very naive at the time. We chose Trime as being another word for trio.

        “Finally we got to the point where I got a gig at this club I used to hang out in because we painted the murals on the walls and managed to buy a drum and Andrew got hold of some maracas so we had a line-up of guitar, one tom-tom and a maraca shaker. The night of the gig I took about twelve Purple Hearts and went down there and started singing. It was terrible. From what I can remember the audience was patently bored all night.”

        In July of 1964 Steve felt sufficiently emboldened to perform a solo show at the Black Horse, a pub in Rathbone Place. With the encouragement of his elder brother David further solo engagements followed though facing an audience was never easy. “I used to try and make myself go up on stage to sing my songs in the folk-clubs but I had no guts,” he was to admit later. “I was always too embarrassed so I went away feeling sick with myself and wrote more songs.”

        At home above the restaurant Steve continued to write his own songs. The first, he recalls, was called ‘Darling No’, and with David’s encouragement he recorded a demo disc at Regent Sound, the same basement studio in Denmark Street where The Rolling Stones had made their earliest recordings. “I thought it was a terrific song I’d written called ‘Back To The Good Old Times’ with a flipside called ‘Everything’s Piling On’. It gave me the goose pimples just to see my name typed on the label.”

        Steve’s optimism was short-lived. It was 1965, he was 17, and unwilling to consider getting a traditional job. “It was either art or music or working in the restaurant. I could survive on that,” he said. “My mother always encouraged me but my father never really took my music seriously until he heard one of my records on the radio.”

        David doubled his efforts, trying his luck with NEMS, Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein’s stable of stars, Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Oldham and record producer Mickie Most. All turned him down. There was a glimmer of hope at the offices of Ardmore & Beechwood, the music publisher that allowed John Lennon & Paul McCartney to slip through their fingers when they jumped ship to Dick James Music. They bought a handful of Steve’s songs for £30 each but they soon lost interest, allowing Cat Stevens to slip their fingers too.

* * *

Half way through a charity concert for Syrian refugees at the Central Hall in Westminster in June 2016 Yusuf Islam paused between songs. “I want to introduce you to somebody,” he said, “without whom I wouldn’t be standing here today. It’s the man who gave me my start in the business and it’s the man who made sure that I’m doing what I’m doing now. Please, Mike Hurst.” 

“The whole place cheered,” says Mike Hurst today. “I was with my eldest son Tim and he said he was so proud of me. It was just fantastic.”

It’s likely that many of the 2,000 fans there to witness this rare appearance by Yusuf didn’t have a clue who Mike Hurst was. Only a handful would have been old enough to have watched Thank Your Lucky Stars on ITV in 1962 when Mike, toting an acoustic guitar, stood on the left of a girl in a hooped skirt with a blonde bouffant hairstyle, her brother on the right with another acoustic, and heard them sing their number five hit ‘Island Of Dreams’. The trio were called The Springfields. The girl, Dusty, went on to become acclaimed as the greatest British female singer of her generation, her brother Tom a songwriter and the third member of the trio, Mike Hurst, the record producer who discovered Cat Stevens.

There was a false start and an element of mischief in the circumstances that led to Cat Stevens signing with Decca and accepting Hurst as his manager and record producer. The rather bewildering scenario involves a wallpaper salesman from South Shields called Bert Shallet, wealthy film producer Nat Cohen, who was Shallet’s father-in-law, and an American on the make called Jim Economedes who was Hurst’s boss. “Jim had been an engineer at Capitol Records in Los Angeles and he came here to rip off record companies for as much as possible,” says Hurst. “He did a bloody good job too. He was very clever, and he employed me because I wanted to be a record producer. He’d never produced a record in his life.”

Bert Shallet had somehow come across Cat Stevens and, using his father-in-law’s money, decided to become his manager. The first task, he decided, was to record him and he approached Economedes in the hope he might obtain a record contract. “So I met Cat for the first time at Bert’s house in Portland Place,” says Hurst. “The first thing that struck me was that I just loved his name. ‘Whatever you do, don’t change it,’ I told him. So Bert said, ‘I wanna do some sessions with him. Will you produce him?’”

Hurst took Cat into Pye Studios near Marble Arch and asked him to play some of his songs. “He played ‘Here Comes My Baby’, ‘Come On And Dance’ and two others. ‘Here Comes My Baby’ was the only recognizable one, so we did that and I took the tapes back to Jim. He said, ‘Nah, I don’t like him. He’s no good.’ I said, ‘You gotta be kidding.’ Jim said, ‘Nah, it’s the other kid we want… Mike Bolan.’”

‘Mike’ Bolan, of course, was Marc Bolan with whom Hurst had already recorded two tracks, ‘The Wizard’ and ‘Third Degree’. “So Jim made that decision there and then. He wanted nothing to do with Cat Stevens. He was going to concentrate on Marc Bolan. Bert went off with his tail between his legs. Then Jim’s company fell apart at the seams. He’d ripped off too many people in too short a time. That all finished. He ran away. The bailiffs arrived the day after he split.”

So Mike Hurst forgot all about Cat Stevens. He’d been offered a position in the A&R department of Vanguard Records in San Francisco and was all set to go, packing his suitcases, waiting on his green card, his wife and three children looking forward to a life of sunshine, hamburgers and coke. Then there was a knock at the door of his house, number 7, Priory Road in North London. “Standing there was Cat, with a guitar case,” says Hurst. “He said, ‘Are you still interested in me?’ I said, ‘Sure. Play me some new stuff.’ So he sat down and played ‘I Love My Dog’. That just blew me away. I said, ‘That’s fantastic. Let’s do that.’ He said, ‘Really?’ I told him I’d find some money to do the session.”

Hurst put his American plans on hold and went to see Dick Rowe, the head of A&R at Decca Records, cheekily asking him fund a three-hour session with Mike D’Abo so they could record a song called ‘Going Going Gone’. It was a lie, of course. Hurst intended to use the session to record Cat singing ‘I Love My Dog’. 

“I found an arranger called Alan Tew, sat down with him and Cat and we went through ‘I Love My Dog’. I can remember vividly to this day what I wanted out of that record. It was 1965 and people were prepared to be adventurous. I didn’t want a solid drumbeat, I wanted it all concentrated on the bass. Alan wrote this down. It was only nine musicians, including a contra bass clarinet, a real gutsy sound.”

An unusual arrangement was pieced together by Cat, Hurst and Alan Tew. A cellist echoed the melody behind Steve’s chorus and instead of a steady backbeat, cymbals and snare dictated the tempo, helped along by a resounding timpani.

  “We went into the studio. I had John Paul Jones on bass, Andy White was on drums, Big Jim Sullivan on guitar, Jim Lawless on percussion. We started running it through and I have to tell you… I was petrified. It was the first really solo independent production I’d ever done and I knew I had three hours, and it was the first time that Steve had done it too. I listened to this arrangement coming back through the speaker and it sounded awful. On the fourth or fifth take, suddenly it all gelled. I thought, that sounds great. We finished the session. We had 15 minutes left and I suddenly realised we didn’t have a B-side. 

“I said to Steve, ‘What have you got? Just you, as we didn’t have another arrangement.’ He just started singing, ‘Getting hung up all day on smiles, walking down Portobello Road for miles’. He sang it accompanied only by his own guitar. I thought, ‘Yes. Really nice. Thank you. I’ve got a B-side.’ So the next thing I did was go straight up to the cutting engineer at Decca and say, ‘Run me off an acetate’. It took him about three hours.”

Hurst was all too well aware that his underhand method of recording Cat would be discovered sooner or later, so he decided to take the bull by the horn and march straight into Dick Rowe’s office to confess. The next day, while Cat and business partner Chris Brough waited outside in his Triumph Herald car, he did just that. “I walked up to Dick Rowe and said, ‘Look I told you a lie…’ He said, ‘I trusted you… you’ve done something you should never have done, you’ve destroyed my trust in you, blah blah blah’, all that crap. I said, ‘Just listen to the record Dick,’ so he puts the record on. He puts the arm on and after about 30 seconds he says, ‘Right’ and he takes the thing off the turntable. I thought, ‘He doesn’t bloody like it.’ He picks up another phone. ‘Can I talk to Sir Edward please?’ ‘Sir Edward, would you like to come down for a moment?’ I thought, ‘Bloody hell, he’s even got the chairman down to give me a bollocking.’”

Sir Edward was Sir Edward Lewis, the managing director at Decca. “He listened to the whole thing and, well, dear old Sir Edward… how could he know? He was a stockbroker originally but I know a great record man and he was one. He took the arm off and he said, ‘My boy, you’re a genius.’ I said, ‘So you like it Sir Edward?’ He said, ‘Like it? We’re going to use it to launch Deram Records.’”

* * *

Deram Records was a new subsidiary of Decca, launched in the autumn of 1966 as an outlet for new signings who were younger and perhaps more radical in their approach to those on the long-established Decca label. In the event Cat’s single was not the very first single released on Deram but the second (catalogue number DM 102), but it was certainly the label’s first success. Thanks to pirate radio – “Kenny Everett and Dave Cash on Radio London played the backside off it,” says Hurst – it began to sell, eventually broaching the top 30. “It made a lot of noise because it was different, a different style of record, what I would call a more adventurous production. It had a bit of American west coast in there which I always loved.”

The huge popularity of pirate radio – broadcast illegally from ships moored offshore – was an embarrassment to both the government, who would ban it with the passing of the 1967 Marine Offences Act, and the BBC, who would then fill the vacuum with Radio 1. Nevertheless, for a brief period in the mid-sixties the pirates ruled the radio waves with audiences of between 10 and 15 million. Aside from TV shows like Top Of The Pops and Ready Steady Go!, the other major promotional tool for rock and pop artists was the music press which was thriving in an era when the national press ignored all but the most popular groups like The Beatles and Rolling Stones and even then were more inclined to cover arrests for drug offences than news of their latest record. 

        The first editorial mention of Cat Stevens to appear in the British pop press was in Melody Maker on October 22. A brief anonymous feature revealed that his real name was Steve Adams, that he had written over 40 songs and that his ambition was to write a musical. “‘I Love My Dog’ was written some time ago,” Steve told the MM’s interviewer. “I had the melody but I didn’t want to waste it on corny lyrics. Despite what some people say I don’t think the song is corny. It has a meaning for me. Actually I can’t own a dog… it is unhygienic in a restaurant. I did have one called Columbus but I had to get rid of it.”

In fact Cat was obliged to pose for publicity shots with Mike Hurst’s dog Shelley, one of 4.7 million pet dogs kept by households in 1965, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, a substantial market if Cat’s intention was to appeal to dog owners. The provision of a dog is not something generally expected of record producers or managers, but by this time Hurst had offered his services in both capacities and negotiated a £5,000 advance from Decca against a royalty that rose from six to eight percent. He did a separate production deal for himself with Decca. The next order of business was a follow-up. 

“He kept playing me songs,” says Hurst. “That’s what I loved about him. He was a music machine. When I said we need a follow-up to ‘I Love My Dog’ he played me a couple. He played me a thing called ‘School Is Out’, which I liked. Then he played something else, and then he launched into ‘Matthew And Son’. I listened to that and I said, ‘What is that about? Why is it called “Matthew And Son” and he said, ‘Have you read Charles Dickens?’ ‘Yes’, and he said, ‘Domby And Son’, so I said, ‘So you’ve read Charles Dickens?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I’ve just heard the name from a Charles Dickens book’. 

“So I went back into the studio with him and, of course, now I could do anything. I want a session, I want two sessions, I want three sessions, no problem Mike. I want 20 musicians. So we worked the arrangement out, and Steve was great. He picked out the riff on acoustic guitar and I thought, ‘What instrument will go well with that?’ A harp. Nobody really uses a harp.”

Hurst acknowledges that Cat was fairly confident in the studio, at least for a musician with so little experience. “To be absolutely fair I’d say it was a three-way split on the arrangement between Steve, Alan Tew and myself. We all shoved our tuppence-halfpenny-worth in. In the end, as the producer I had the deciding vote but when we did ‘Matthew And Son’, that was pure magic. I reckon it took six or seven takes. I listened to it in the studio with Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, the engineer, and as he and I sat there mixing it he said, ‘Yeah’. We both knew it was a hit.”

Having mixed the track Hurst took it to Tony Hall, the head of promotions at Decca. “He didn’t like it, said it wasn’t a patch on ‘I Love My Dog’. He said it was too poppy, which was ridiculous. So I said, in my new assertive role, that’s the single. That’s what I want out. Dick Rowe said, ‘Tony’s probably right but we will go with it.’ Two or three weeks before release I went back to Tony Hall and asked, ‘How’s it going on the radio stations?’ ‘As I thought, Radio Caroline says it’s not as good as ‘I Love My Dog’. They’re only going to play it for a week and if it doesn’t get any result in sales they’ll take it off. Then I went into Radio London myself. I saw Alan Keen, he played it and said the same. He said he’d give it a week but if we didn’t get the sales he’d have to take it off. 

“So a week later I was in my back garden at 7 Priory Road and on it came. I think it was Dave Cash, who was a great friend of mine. Dave talked the bollocks off it. ‘Oh man, fantastic, this is Cat Stevens’ follow up to “I Love My Dog”, listen to this.” 

The following Tuesday Steve did Pop Inn, a radio show down compered by Keith Fordyce and broadcast from the BBC Studios in Lower Regent Street. “We had Steve doing an interview and then they played the record in front of an audience. We walked out into the foyer there and Tony Hall was there. He came running down the stairs. ‘Mike… Mike,’ he yelled. ‘It’s incredible. We’ve sold 80,000 records before lunch.’”

Hurst turned to Steve. ”That’s it,” he told him. “We’re away. Done and dusted. It went to number two and that really did do it for him.” 

All that prevented ‘Matthew And Son’ from reaching the top was ‘I’m A Believer’ by The Monkees, the US made-for-TV quartet whose star was firmly in the ascendant. Their British-born lead singer Davy Jones had jetted into London from California that same month to grab the headlines by revealing that, unlike Cat Stevens, his group did not play on their own records.

* * *

Concerned that his client might lack the required appeal when required to perform in front of a live audience, Mike Hurst arranged a brief series of dates in Scotland, a few dates in provincial England and three shows at the Paris Olympia in mid-December. “We used a group called George Bean & The Runners as a supporting act and they backed Steve for his part of the show,” says Hurst. “He hated it… absolutely loathed it and I didn’t blame him at all. They were virtually living in a van all the time… most uncomfortable.”

These shows were a preview of Cat’s most important showcase to date, a two-week season at Brian Epstein’s Savile Theatre in London sharing a bill with Georgie Fame, Julie Felix and Sounds Incorporated. The season was called “Fame in ‘67 Show” and, by all accounts, there was a pantomime atmosphere to the fourteen concerts. The run opened on Boxing Day.

        By a not so curious coincidence, ‘Matthew And Son’ was reviewed in Melody Maker’s Blind Date feature by guest reviewers Georgie Fame and Julie Felix. For the Blind Date an MM writer would play a record to the guests without telling them the name of the artist. Both recognised it immediately, of course. Julie commented: “I have to get ready for my spot when I hear him sing this one in the show. I put my dress on and go to the wings.” Georgie Fame seemed to have been won over by Cat: “The other side is great as well. It’s not a good trumpet thing that comes out better in the show than on the record. It will definitely be a hit. I was never anti-Cat Stevens but now I’m completely knocked out. Unanimous hit.”

        The success of ‘Matthew And Son’ prompted a flurry of further interest from the weekly music press. Melody Maker’s Chris Welch interviewed Cat in the Red Lion pub behind the paper’s Fleet Street offices. “You have to be yourself to stay alive in the business,” he told Welch. “You mustn’t start believing what people say about you or you’re in trouble. Believe in yourself – that’s very important. I’m not worried about having an image or not. I want fans to like the good things about me and forget the bad things. I suppose they see me as someone new and wonder what I’m like. Material is the most important thing and I’m lucky because I’ve got Me and Me writes songs for myself. I love writing songs. When I feel down I start to write.”

        Jeremy Pascall from New Musical Express asked Cat how he felt about the Saville Theatre season. “I enjoyed doing it,” he said. “You gotta be up there alone with the orchestra down there in the pit and nothing to support you. It’s up to you to hold the audience.” In NME’s Lifelines column Cat said that his professional ambition was, “to have one of my songs in everyone’s home.”

* * *

The next order of business was to follow up ‘Matthew And Son’ with an album, and to this end Mike Hurst booked two weeks at Decca’s studios on Broadhurst Gardens in West Hampstead. Fourteen tracks were recorded over 12 days. He looks back on the sessions fondly. “It was time of great creativity,” he says. “We did two or three tracks a day. It came together very easily, with some great musicians, among them Jim Sullivan on guitar. I have to say that I’m still so proud of that album. The production is as clear as a bloody bell.”

The ease with which it was recorded can be explained by the deluge of songs that poured out of Cat Stevens. “He was a pure songwriter,” says Hurst. “I made sure he had the leeway to do what he wanted. With most other artists I’ve produced I’ve had to look around for material but with Steve, not once did I think, ‘Oh, we need to find songs from elsewhere. I need to talk to other writers.’ It never even crossed my mind to do that, no suggestion at all, nothing.”

        Matthew And Son was released in March 1967 and reached number seven in the LP charts. As well as a slew of new songs, it included both of Cat’s hit singles, their respective B-sides and a version of ‘Here Comes My Baby’, which became a number four hit for The Tremeloes. Mike Hurst wrote the liner notes and thanked everyone who was associated with Cat’s 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 photograph on the front, taken on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, showed a young man on the cusp of a career that in its twists and turns would be unprecedented in popular music.