The Admiralty Lights is a super deluxe career-spanning boxset of legendary singer-songwriter Al Stewart’s work. Comprising 50 discs, the collection features Al’s 21 studio albums (remastered from the original tape transfers), housed in original sleeves and presented in deluxe LP style jackets. Also included are 18 discs featuring never-before-heard live concert recordings from 1970 to 2009, 3 discs of rare BBC Sessions from 1965 – 1972 and 8 discs of Demos, Outtakes and Rarities, offering a rare inside look into Al’s world. Unsurprisingly limited to 2000 copies, this was a one time pressing worldwide. And whilst I wasn’t privileged enough to be one of the 2,000 I did get a glimpse of this astonishing archive.
Al Stewart’s sixty-year career in music has made him one of the most successful folk-rock artists the British Isles have ever produced. The Admiralty Lights shines a light on how that Skiffle-mad kid from Bournemouth conquered the world. Stewart’s 60-year career in music has made him one of the most successful folk-rock artists from the UK< and this set follows the now-legendary singer-songwriter from humble beginnings in 1964, to global stardom in the ’70s (we’ll come to that sax solo later I’m sure….) through to his most recent recordings in 2009.
It’s hard to know where to start, where to go next, and where to finish. I had the pleasure of listening to 67 tracks in prep for this review.
His 1967 debut ‘Bedsitter Images’ has its Dylan influences they say, the follow up ‘Love Chronicles’ in 1969 saw Stewart backed by Fairport Convention alongside appearances from Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, and then in 1973 ‘Present & Future’ had guests like Rick Wakeman and Queen’s Roger Taylor. Then come the celebrated Alan Parsons years, commencing with ‘Modern Times’ (1975) which in turn sowed the seeds for its magnificent follow up, the perennial classic ‘Year of the Cat’ (1976) before concluding with 1978’s ‘Time Passages’ (not covered here – instead we look at “A Beach Full of Shells”). What is amazing as you listen back is how fully formed Stewart’s music and persona is. Right from the beginning, the storytelling is there, the voice inimitable, the style and panache of the first album’s title track with it’s orchestration and intense musicianship, its concise 3:22 minutes almost unbelievable given how much is contained within it. There’s the majestic waltz of “Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres”, the psychedelic throwback of “The Carmichaels”, the cinematic “Pretty Golden Hair”, delicate folk in “Denise at 16”, “Samuel Oh How you’ve Changed” and the cleverly orchestrated “Cleave to Me”. Yes the poppy “Scandinavian Girl” and others are dated, but remain charming nevertheless, and “Ivich” reveals his finger-picking guitar talents whilst the darker 6 minute “Beleeka Doodle Day” is a foretelling of lengthier epics to come.
The album and title track ‘Love Chronicles’ immediately make you think or the wordsmithery of the likes of Paul Simon and aforementioned Dylan, albeit more detailed storytelling in style. And does anyone here the singing accent and equate it to a laterday Neil Tennant maybe? It remains quintesentially english in language and emotion albeit evoking Brooklyn scenario when covering his american dalliance. What with a contractually disguised Fairport Convention supporting, and occasional Jimmy Page sessioning his solos, perhaps no surprise. The poetic wordsmith arguably indulgently looks at his own historical love-life in a number of songs. But in others he creates such an evocative scenario – the tragic ‘Old Compton Street Blues’ (Page on fire here btw), the morose ‘Life and Life Only’ and the epic, derivative in-part ‘The Ballad of Mary Foster’ from Gloucester (no need to shirk the obvious rhyme, eh?). Apparently Al Stewart disowned the record in the mid-70’s, maybe whilst in the middle of his successful AoR/MoR period, but history has a way of writing its own story – this album may sound of its time – that’s the point – but it is another milestone in an epic career, a record that stands alone, upright and distinguished.
We bypass ‘Zero She Flies’ (1970), the first to have a historical perspective, “Manuscript” referring to the outbreak of World War I . The expression “zero she flies” btw comes from early aviation and refers to the flight of a plane (typically a biplane) flying blind but exactly on course through darkness or dense fog. We also bypass ‘Orange’, generally regarded as a ‘transitional album’ between the confessional folk sounds of his first three albums and the historically themed albums of his more successful mid-1970s period. This album fyi includes a certain Rick Wakeman on piano as well as future Elvis Costello and the Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas.
And so our next album in the set is ‘Past Present and Future’. In the programme for the UK concert tour that promoted the album, Stewart is quoted as saying “My first four albums have been, for me, an apprenticeship. The new album…..is my thesis”. The growth in both musical and story terms is telling, right from the off with “Old Admirals”, a greater depth through new keyboard sounds, brass band and mellotron adding colour to the tale. Each track is fulfilling, whether an epic or the concise throwback “Warren Harding” with its jolly steel band break, or the retro “Soho” or “Terminal Eyes,” a post-mortem suicide song written and performed a la “I Am the Walrus.”. As often happens with albums, certainly in the ’70’s, those shorter songs suffer, possibly undeservedly to the epics that were sought after by the proglodytes among us (equally valid for Genesis, Yes and other prog fans). But the epics do include The ten-minute “Nostradamus” is his modern interpretation of the French mystic’s prophecies looking at his own lifetime. Different tempos and opportunity to revisit his excellent guitar abilities, and albeit maybe overlong, it is a portent of what’s to come. Apt, some might say. The standout is “Roads To Moscow.” about Germany’s 1941 invasion of Russia in 1941 seen through the eyes of a doomed soldier. Cinematic lyrics, orchestration make this much deeper and sought after. Released in October 1973 in the UK and in May 1974 in the US, it began to encroach on the album charts. A bolder approach from his previous, folkier work, an approach incorporating concept and historical themes, the road to success was in sight.
Next comes ‘Modern Times’, produced by Alan Parsons and issued by CBS in Britain and Janus in the States, following Past, Present And Future as his sixth album. This time round, while Stewart continued writing “at an arm’s length” (as he put it back then) about people, places, and events outside his own experience, he took two major decisions – shorter songs and less epic production. The aim was for a folk-rock record with fewer musicians and more direct music. Stewart describes those musicians as follows (back in 1992): “Of the key musicians, Dave Ellis played acoustic guitar on ‘Next Time.’ Simon Nicol, of course, was from Fairport Convention. Tim Renwick and members of his band Quiver were on Orange as well as PP&F. His guitar style is almost ideal for folk-rock, and I think this album is his finest moment of any of my albums. Pete Wingfield soon had his own hit single in America with ‘Eighteen With A Bullet’. Peter Wood was on Orange, too. He was in Quiver with Iain and Gavin Sutherland, and later co-wrote ‘Year of the Cat’ with me. Peter was on several things here. George Ford means a lot more to oldies freaks in England — his brother, Emile Ford, and his group The Checkmates had several huge hits in the early ‘60s. They were absolutely enormous. George was The Checkmates’ bass player, age 17 at the time. I didn’t find any of this out till we did Modern Times. Barry De Souza was a fairly well-known session drummer (Wakeman fans know well….-Ed), and Gerry Conway was in Fotheringay with Sandy Denny, Trevor Lucas, and Jerry Donahue. Gerry later worked for Cat Stevens and Jethro Tull and did a tour with me. Isaac Guillory played guitar on ‘What’s Going On?’; he’s the Cuban-American I met in Amsterdam who was on ‘Roads to Moscow’. And Graham Smith was a harmonica player from the early British folk scene; he’s done quite a lot of live work with me over the years.” I wonder if it is the Parsons influence that gives the songs such space and also clarity for Stewart’s voice? Tim Renwick’s guitar certainly has a prominence, certainly on the poppy “Carol” with layered and funky guitar. “Sirens of Titan” has a slight spaghetti western feel courtesy of a harpsichord hook whereas “What’s Going On” harks back to his folkier days. “Not The One” is a catchy tune with added interest through BJ Cole’s pedal steel. “Next Time” shows its blues roots and “Apple Cider Reconstruction” is jaunty. And decades before its resurgence as a genre, we go a little sea shanty with “The Dark Rolling Sea” before closing off with the epic title track.
And so we come to the album we’ve all been waiting for – ‘Year of the Cat’. In a word – epic. You want more? The trademark Stewart traits remain, especially the historic stories told through songs, but this album has moved into a soft, easy listening rock rather than an enhanced folk songwriting storyteller. Alan Parson, who I think was fresh from his own album success by now, augments this album with such a smooth production and uses the strings so well to create gloriously memorable arrangements. (check out the guitar lick opening “Midas Shadow” for a crossover of Stewart and Parsons). The core band included Peter White (guitar), Tim Renwick (guitar), Stuart Elliot (drums), George Ford (bass) and Peter Wood (keyboards) who co-wrote the title track. Yes there is a commercial sound to the album, but there is so much depth to enjoy. Not just the ones on every compilation, but the whole album. A classic album that concludes with the iconic and perennial favourite “Year Of The Cat.” And yes, THAT sax solo!
Finally we come to another inclusion in the pantheon of distinguished Al Stewart studio albums – the highly acclaimed 2005 release ‘A Beach Full Of Shells’. His 15th album, no less. He collaborates with Laurence Juber, a one-time member of Paul McCartney’s Wings, who is involved in song arrangements, and there is no let up in the historical aspect to his songs, each one a wonderfully self-contained vignette of life in the period. Juber playes both acoustic and electric guitar, and they’re joined by keyboard player Jim Cox, bassist Dominic Genova and drummer Michael Jochum, as well as string players (‘The Section String Quartet’). Modern yet reminiscent of his classic era, and sounding in just as fine fettle. “The Immelman Turn” (check out the definition) is set in the 1920s about an aviator with a daredevil reputation who never made it back from one particular flight. “Royal Courtship” is a wonderful tale of courtship across royal courts where communication had to be carried out through diplomatic intermediaries. Where else can you hear lyrics with words like “amanuensis,” “majordomo,” or”vizier.” “Rain Barrel” is political intrigue with the lead character hiding in a barrel in a consulate somewhere waiting for an escape. “Somewhere in England 1915” is classic Stewart descriptive yet not necessarily telling us much. And then you switch to a different period of history and different musical style in “Class of ’58” a reunion of old rock and rollers. The string quartet come to the fore in “Out in the Snow” set in an arctic wilderness, adrift on an ice floe. Another descriptive word for Stewart is charming, and nowhere more so that on “My Egyptian Couch” but he can equally generate a rockier setting, as in the 1960’s scene of “Gina in the Kings Road”, recalling a favorite hippie girl.
Each album is a wonderful listening experience full of the dream like, poetic lyrical wordplay that is the singer-songwriter’s hallmark. It has been an absolute pleasure to go on the journey, to recall personal memories, to hear Stewart’s own memories played out in song, and to wallow in evocative, lush songscapes. You should try it sometime.
The Admiralty Lights: Complete Studio, Live and Rare 1964 – 2009 features every Al Stewart studio release, from 1967’s Bedsitter Images through to 2008’s Sparks Of Ancient Light, spread over 21 discs. As well as that there are a further 18 discs of live recordings featuring never-before-heard live concert recordings from 1970 to 2009, three discs of BBC Sessions from 1965 – 1972 and a further eight discs of demos, outtakes and rarities from 1964 – 2008.
Far too many to list here – check out above for more info.