Tony Kingsbury: My Al Stewart Chronicles
"By way of putting these ramblings into context let me explain that I am English, have a degree in history and can, therefore, only write in anecdotes.
Al and I go back a long way (I shall not be tempted to say that he goes back further than I do!), to 1967 in fact. It was in December of that year that I first heard of Al, when a singer called Hratch performed Al's 'Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres' at a local school 'folk evening'. Hratch, it transpired, had taken over Al's residency at Bunjies Coffee House in London's Soho. Much taken with this performance I, along with a small coach party of school friends, undertook to visit the den of vice that is Soho to see Hratch. Early evening, sitting in the coffee bar we thought we overheard someone say that Hratch was ill and not appearing. Too shy to enquire further, in case we were abducted and sold into slavery, we panicked. A cursory glance through the bible that was the Melody Maker and we spied that Fairport Convention were doing a turn at the Marquee supported by no less a mortal than Al Stewart. Off we set. NB. This was a bold move as it required us to go even further into the heart of Soho. We never looked back - two evenings that changed our world!
We were 16 and still at school but fortunes were to be made out of this new discovery that was 'folk music' - our fortunes (we were young and foolish!). We started a school folk club, playing Buffy St Marie records at lunchtime in the chemistry lab, and began organising regular folk evenings, our ultimate ambition to put on Al at some point. But horror of horrors his fee was three times the budget permitted by the headmaster. We took a chance and on 7th February 1970 Al appeared at Leyton High School in East London. Rather helpfully he brought with him the wholly wonderful but sadly late Dave Mudge, and Tim Clutterbuck, who did a spot including Dave's song 'Lowly Lo' (which later formed the basis for Al's 'Modern Times'. It was a triumph - a profitable triumph at that! The headmaster chose to gloss over the expenditure column as a consequence. Al's rather exciting version of Chuck Berry's 'Memphis Tennessee' was recorded that night, and is to be found only on our compilation CD of live concert performances. It can be purchased by clicking here!
I saw Al perform many times. The memory plays tricks but I seem to remember being at Les Cousins (again in Soho - we'd got the hang of it by then) when Al unveiled 'Love Chronicles'. I was rather surprised recently when the proprietor of this very publication told me of Al's interest in American Football. The rather disparaging remarks in this song about all things sporty had persuaded me that anything other than lifting a bottle from the rack was too energetic for our hero - how wrong you can be. I remember being at Sidcup Roman Catholic Community Centre when Al's first band, featuring the late great Isaac Guillory, played their last concert. I remember Al phoning one Sunday afternoon to enquire if it would be alright if he visited our folk club that night. This was after the success of 'Year of the Cat' which Al duly performed that night. A chap was overheard to say in the loo, 'blimey they must have paid a fortune to get 'im - 'e's a star.' Later that night the 'star' wanted nothing more than a tin of my wife's finest Heinz baked beans (they don't make 'em like that in the US apparently).
Mind you, all this friendliness was put in jeopardy at a very early stage. I asked Al at a club if he 'could' play 'Denise At 16' (off the 'Bedsitter Images' album) - this elicited the reply 'of course I can I wrote it'. 'Smart arse' was only one of many phrases that sprang to mind. I found myself at Al's place in Belsize Park, London one evening - Al had spent the day recording some tracks for 'Orange.' I was invited to comment on the day's labours but was unenthusiastic (doesn't everyone need to play Al's material a few times for the full effect?) - it was a very subdued evening after that.
We became quite matey with Al's manager from the 'old days' - Julia Creasey. Julia had a little office off of Bond Street in London, in amongst the posh shops. An office she shared with Asgard (presumably the same Asgard that Al is now working through). Asgard did rock - I remember chancing upon some very scarey looking member of Hawkwind in the office one day. Our excitement was such that we failed to spot the car being towed from outside the office!
We organised a number of concerts with Al who persists in associating us with Walthamstow, probably the least successful of the lot. Excuses excuses but we started to promote it late due to a mix up during a period of management change for Al, then we had a power failure requiring a late start. One of the more successful was in Ongar when Al brought with him the Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn.
One of the concerts that sticks in my memory was at the huge Rainbow in Finsbury Park, north London. Whether it was the best of Al's concerts I'd seen is difficult to judge all these years on but it feels like it was. Huge audience, very long show with Al solo and with the first band. Didn't promote that one though - bugger!
We have a radio show in the UK called 'Desert Island Discs'. I spend many happy hours on the train to work trying to decide which 8 tracks would be essential to my survival on said desert island. An infuriating task (not to say pointless). I regularly conclude that Al must be in there somewhere but which track? My choice will owe more to nostalgia than anything rational. It may have to be 'Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres' - who cares,I can't swim at all let alone whilst carrying 8 CDs, a CD player and a generator!
..or should it be 'Beleeka Doodle Day?"