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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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