Time Capsule: Cat Stevens, Teaser and the Firecat

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we’re looking at Cat Stevens’ follow-up to his commercial breakthrough, a project with all-time folk-pop classics but whose most popular song was marred by a controversy surrounding its maker in the 1980s.

Music Reviews Cat Stevens
Time Capsule: Cat Stevens, Teaser and the Firecat

Long before selling 100 million records, netting over 2 billion streams (“Wild World” and “Father and Son” alone have over a billion) and scoring Harold and Maude, Cat Stevens—born Steven Demetre Georgiou, now known as Yusuf Islam—was a teen performer playing in pubs and coffee houses around London. It was around then, in the mid-1960s, that Stevens abandoned his birth name. “I couldn’t imagine anyone going to the record store and asking for ‘that Steven Demetre Georgiou album,’” he told Salon in 1999. And by the time he turned 18 in 1966, Mike Hurst of the Springfields discovered Stevens and got him a record deal with Deram, an imprint of Decca. His debut album Matthew and Son, hit #7 on the UK Albums chart, the title-track went all the way to #2 and “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun” soared to #6. The non-single “Here Comes My Baby” remains a staple of baroque pop history.

Around that same time, Stevens was playing shows with everyone from Jimi Hendrix to the Spencer Davis Group to the Small Faces. His sophomore album, New Masters, failed to chart—despite containing the now revered classic “The First Cut is the Deepest,” which has been covered by Rod Stewart, Sheryl Crow, P.P. Arnold and many others (and would nab Stevens a Songwriter of the Year ASCAP award in both 2005 and 2006, over 40 years after demoing the song for the first time). After contracting tuberculosis in 1969 and nearly dying from it, Stevens started gravitating towards spirituality—taking up meditation and exploring metaphysics. During his recovery and spiritual awakening, it’s been said that he wrote over 40 songs. Deram Records dropped Stevens from his contract, which allowed him to ink a deal with Island Records after fascinating founder Chris Blackwell away during an audition.

Few folk singer-songwriters of the era had a two-year period quite as prolific and successful as Cat Stevens had in 1970 and 1971. In April of the former, he put out Mona Bone Jakon, a supremely underrated album that featured one of Stevens’ greatest songs: “Trouble.” The LP charted in the UK, US and Australia and even went Platinum in Germany. It marked Stevens’ first-ever collaboration with producer and Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, and the tracks proved that the Englishman had come a long way from his pub-playing days in London. The work was darker, attentive—giving Stevens crucial separation from his American peers, like Paul Simon and James Taylor. The songs were solemn like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon but polished like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks—a recipe that would galvanize Stevens’ career in a flash.

Cut to November 1970 and Stevens got his commercial breakthrough: Tea for the Tillerman, the masterpiece that emboldened the singer-songwriter’s musical immortality. And it was a dynamic, sure-fire hit, even though Village Voice dynamo Robert Christgau was lukewarm on the project, citing that the songs lacked the “dry delicacy” of Mona Bone Jakon. But Rolling Stone loved it, and critic Ben Gerson considered Stevens’ songs to “effortlessly resonate beyond their artfully simple lyrics and hooks.” Shouldered by his two most popular songs, “Wild World” and “Father and Son,” Tea for the Tillerman’s legacy was etched in stone. But Stevens had one more masterpiece left in the tank, and it would be his magnum opus: Teaser and the Firecat.

Though Teaser and the Firecat lacks the cultural thunderstorm of a heartaching track like “Father and Son,” the album is far more complete on the whole. It was a far more commercially successful album than its predecessor, peaking at #2 on both the UK and US album charts and hitting #1 in Australia (Tea for the Tillerman only peaked at #20 in the UK and #8 in the US). And, in the States, the album has been certified Platinum three times. If Tea for the Tillerman vaulted Stevens into the echelons of his peers, then Teaser and the Firecat sent him skyrocketing past them all. It’s an album that is on-par, if not better, than something like Sweet Baby James, Bryter Layter or Starsailor; a project that explored Stevens’ pop sensibilities far more than anything he’d done prior, and it showed that the folk troubadour had a bit of a knack for the game.

Teaser and the Firecat kicks off with the greatest sub-two-minute song ever recorded: “The Wind,” which has been featured in films like Rushmore and Almost Famous. It’s a short-but-sweet folk ditty about self-reliance and self-confidence. “I listen to my words, but they fall far below,” Stevens sings atop his own isolated guitar strumming. “I let my music take me where my heart wants to go. I’ve swam upon the devil’s lake, but never, never, never, never. I’ll never make the same mistake.” The song exists as quickly as it came, but “The Wind” gnaws at the beating-heart of Cat Stevens’ ingenue, how he can wrap you around his finger with the same get-up he’d utilize in a coffee shop or on a street corner. “Morning Has Broken,” a Christian hymn from the Great Depression, was composed by Eleanor Farjeon and set to the tune of a Scottish Gaelic song “Bunessan.” Though often sung at funeral services, Stevens’ translation of the gospel song is much less choral—containing a piano arrangement from Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman and a subtle hue of harmonium from Stevens himself. “Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning,” Stevens sings. “Born of the one light Eden saw play, praise with elation, praise every morning—God’s recreation of the new day.”

What a song like “Morning Has Broken” captures is Stevens’ ability to make non-secular music accessible to anyone who identifies with any spirituality. The song is a tome in that way, how it praises the art of singing and rejoices at the hope of a new day—rather than let its warmth skew in favor of one denominal pathway. Stevens approaches non-secular standards with a touch of modernity, as if he’s deconstructing the folk songbook and separating it piece by piece. “Morning Has Broken” soared up the charts, too, hitting #6 on the Hot 100 and #9 on the UK OCC—achieving successes similar to that of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” the year prior.

Side one of Teaser and the Firecat is a unique entry in Stevens’ catalog during this era, if only because it doesn’t contain either a charting hit or a song many listeners would default as one of his very best. After “The Wind,” tracks like “Rubylove,” “If I Laugh,” “Changes IV” and “How Can I Tell You” all arrive as dependable folk compositions that rarely stretch out. “Changes IV” especially sounds like a forefather of the stomp-clap era of folk music that would arrive some 40 years later, while “How Can I Tell You” is a pensive, still ballad about a bygone lover. “It always ends up to one thing, honey, when I look and you’re not there,” Stevens sings, while he plays a harpsichord, Andy Roberts plays a Kriwaczek string organ and Linda Lewis sings angelically in the background. “Rubylove” and “If I Laugh” are interchangeable and sublime, allowing Stevens to simmer in his own compositional gifts—as he beckons dual bouzoukis from Andreas Toumazis and Angelos Hatzipavli on the former, which is partially sung by Stevens in Greek. “You’ll be my love, you’ll be my sky above,” he confesses. “You’ll be my life, you’ll be day and night.” This is as experimental as Stevens gets on the record, though he doesn’t leave his comfort zone too far behind.

It’s side two of Teaser and the Firecat, however, that cements the record as one of Stevens’ best—as the back-half of the tracklist quakes through “Tuesday’s Dead,” “Morning Has Broken,” “Bitterblue,” “Moonshadow” and “Peace Train.” There’s much introspection on the last 20 minutes of the album, an energy sparked by “Tuesday’s Dead” and Stevens’ towering abilities to paint beautiful landscapes in his songs while also questioning the higher powers beyond him. “Now, every second on the nose, the humdrum of the city grows, reaching out beyond the throes of our time,” he sings, championing the potential of the world to straighten itself out (“We must try to shake it down, do our best to break the ground, try to turn the world around one more time”). You can read into the lyrics however you please, but it’s hard to ignore Stevens’ pleas for a harmonious future, one that’s not captained by demigods or zealots. “What’s my sex? What’s my name? All in all, it’s all the same,” he reckons. “Everybody plays a different game, that is all. The man may live, the man may die, searching for the question why. But, if he tries to rule the sky, he must fall.” And with the fullest arrangement on the entire record—featuring guitar, marimba, percussion and backing vocals—it’s one of Stevens’ greatest triumphs.

Teaser and the Firecat ends on a grand penultimate and ultimate song pairing, one of the most successful of the 1970s altogether: “Moonshadow” and “Peace Train,” both charting hits. I used to sing the former with my childhood best friend David, who’d learned how to play it on guitar. Once, we put on a small performance for my parents—it’s the only time I’ve ever sung in front of anyone but David. But “Moonshadow” is a semblance of peace, a song written about Stevens’ holiday stay in Spain. “I was a kid from the West End [of London]—bright lights, etc.,” he told Chris Isaak in 2009. “I never got to see the moon on its own in the dark, there were always streetlamps. So there I was on the edge of the water on a beautiful night with the moon glowing, and suddenly I looked down and saw my shadow. I thought that was so cool, I’d never seen it before.” Finding stillness in an untouched, once-in-a-lifetime pastoral, Stevens sings some of his most hopeful couplets. “And if I ever lose my hands, lose my plough, lose my land,” he cries out. “Oh, if I ever lose my hands, I won’t have to work no more. And I ever lose my eyes, if my colors all run dry, I won’t have to cry no more.” With a thudding breakdown during the bridge, he delivers the sweetest line of his career: “‘Did it take long to find me?’ I asked the faithful light.”

Few artists can claim a finale that is subsequently as revered and marred like “Peace Train.” Not only did it become Stevens’ first-ever #1 hit on the Hot 100, but the song’s message has been debated in conversations about Stevens’ real attitudes toward peace, too, with Christgau chastising it in 1972, saying that “when Stevens informs the world that we’re all on a peace train, I get annoyed. We’re not, and if Stevens ever stops shaking his head long enough to see clearly for a second, he might realize it.” “Now I’ve been crying lately, thinkin’ about the world as it is,’ Stevens sang in 1971. “Why must we go on hating? Why can’t we live in bliss?” But, when Ayatollah Khomeini announced a fatwa upon author Salman Rushdie after his book The Satanic Verses (on the grounds of blasphemy), Stevens came out in support of the fatwa and the subsequent assassination attempts and death threats against Rushdie in 1989 (“He must be killed. The Qur’an makes it clear—if someone defames the prophet, then he must die,” he told students at Kingston University). Global outrage soon set in; 10,000 Maniacs scrubbed their cover of “Peace Train” from their 1987 album In My Tribe, radio stations took Stevens’ music out of rotation, KFI-AM host Tom Leykis called for a mass burning of the songwriter’s records.

In the 30 years since the incident, Stevens has gone on record about his statements multiple times, with Rolling Stone and the BBC, and has attempted to rewrite the past (including going by Yusuf as a means of distancing himself from the controversy)—citing his identity as a “new Muslim” (though he’d been converted since 1978) speaking on the “legal view according to my limited knowledge of the Scriptural texts, based directly on the historical commentaries of the Qur’an” and claiming that he was “cleverly framed.” “If you ask a Bible student to quote the legal punishment of a person who commits blasphemy in the Bible, he would be dishonest if he didn’t mention Leviticus 24:16,” he told Rolling Stone. In 2010, Rushdie spoke of Stevens after the musician made an appearance at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, saying that “he’s not a good person. It may be that he once sang ‘Peace Train,’ but he hasn’t been Cat Stevens for a long time… He’s a different guy now.”

While Stevens vocalized support for Rushdie after the author was stabbed multiple times just before giving a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in New York in 2022, what Rushdie said years ago about who the Cat Stevens of the past was and who the Yusuf Islam of the now is speaks greatly of how we consume art and continue to hold the people who made it accountable. “Peace Train,” which was written, recorded and released while the Vietnam War still raged on in Southeast Asia, holds a similar energy to John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” in that the men who wrote them have gotten into bed with threats of violence and patterns of abuse.

So what does that mean for the validity and attitude of “Peace Train” 53 years later, and do Stevens’ past remarks cloud the work done more than a decade before “Cat Stevens Gives Support to Call for Death of Rushdie” landed in the pages of The New York Times? Teaser and the Firecat may be the best album Cat Stevens ever made, but the rest of the question still remains unanswered—as the songwriter’s currency in modern pop folklore was reinstated through songs appearing in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, his inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019 and his beloved performance on NPR’s Tiny Desk series in 2014, a video with a forgiving comment section packed top-to-bottom with brief, stirring stories of how his music has touched nearly every corner of the modern world. And this year alone, he has been unwavering in his support for Palestine, even speaking at rallies in London as recent as last month. What hue the demerit of 1989 is on Stevens’ legacy is up to the rest of us to darken.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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