When I was 20 a friend of mine lent me 2 Al Stewart albums – Bed Sitter Images and Love Chronicles. We did that kind of thing back then…the culture amongst teenagers was that we’d buy records on a Saturday at HMV or one of the 2 second hand record shops in Wolverhampton, and then we’d play them for each other, or maybe record them on cassette and give them to each other. Many of us still did this well into our 20’s…I probably would never have stopped if my record collection hadn’t been stolen.
Bed Sitter Images was fantastic – a clear example of a record company investing in a young artist’s debut and it has elaborate orchestration on its many fine songs. But Love Chronicles I immediately considered a masterpiece.
So with that in mind I’ve decided to use it as the basis of the first of a series of essays on albums that have been hugely influential in my life. Partly because I enjoy writing and partly because it gives me time to appreciate them and share my joy. You’ll be able to see these on the first Monday of each month here on the MD Blog…
I nearly didn’t get to hear it (Love Chronicles that is)…whilst picking up the 2 records to take them home I dropped and just managed to catch them, prompting Mark’s Dad to say “He’s a big lad, you don’t want to upset him”. Happily neither disc was harmed.
The album starts in New York city with the tale of the young Englishman observing the comings and goings of the Big Apple natives between the narrative of his romantic exploits with a harmonica-playing astrology student. His observational skills and his choices of adjectives take the listener straight there. It’s a fantastic opening number: upbeat and catchy. In my early days of busking I used to sing “In Brooklyn” and enjoyed it vastly…I think I still know all the words!
Next up comes another observational piece. “Old Compton Street Blues” has a beautiful haunting melody with a melancholic descending bass that perfectly fits the story of the young, beautiful model who “really did have something that the others never had”, whilst following her decline through destitution, rejection and prostitution into middle age.
Let’s talk about the musicians on this record. I was a Led Zeppelin fan years before I heard these songs, and both Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones play on the title track (we’ll come to THAT later), but most of the album is played by members of Fairport Convention; Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Martin Lamble (recorded before his fatal car crash, though the album was released later that year) and Ashley Hutchings, although under pseudonyms, so they didn’t get in trouble with their record company…this did mean that I was unaware that they were performing on this album until much later…It was around this time that I got really into Fairport and regularly attended their Cropredy Festival but somehow didn’t realise they were on one of my favourite records.
The 3rd track is another song I used to play a lot in my busking days, and performed at my first ever solo gig. “The Ballad of Mary Foster” is a terrific story of a husband and wife growing apart, but where most songwriters would stick to the relationship, Stewart delves into the whole life stories of both parts…the first part being David Foster’s story, and then we zap over into a completely different rhythm, tempo, mood and tune (which may be familiar to Dylan fans and folk music know-alls). The band drops out and Mary Foster’s story is told just to an acoustic guitar. Amazing amounts of detail are listed as her whole life is told. Always brings a tear to my eye this one!
For me the absolute highlight of the album is “Life and Life Only” – again it’s the descriptive detail and back stories of the characters that make it so powerful. From sitting on a wall at Bournmouth beach and looking at a few people Stewart manages to imagine every detail of their lives, assert that “sometimes it must get lonely” and then muse “who will I be?”
Side 2 begins with the song that, to me, sounds like the record company said “But we have to have a hit single on this thing!” You should have listened to Al is that – a good song, but a poppy dancey sort of affair that feels a little out of place in this aural gallery….so for my side 2 always started with…
Love Chronicles. Ok, I am a sucker for excessively long and complex compositions with lots of guitar solos…and at 18 minutes Love Chronicles fits the bill. And it’s a story – a true story. And perfectly told. With humour, honesty, humility and intimate detail we are taken through the narrator’s love life from “passing sticky sweets under the table” at kindergarten through teenage crushes and crushing heartbreaks to mature relationsh where ”it grew to be less like fucking and more like making love”. Ending with a big rousing thank you to all the girls he ever knew. With an almost gospel feeling B3 Hammond to finish off the album on a mega-high.
The album is largely a singer-songwriter affair with an acoustic guitar base and that is absolutely my go to genre…in fact this album generally is the exact blueprint of how I best like music to sound…except for the production. Unfortunately this was recorded in the days when stereo was new and multi-tracking was in its infancy…though contemporary with some great sounding albums (Led Zeppelin 2 for example), this has a terrible tinny acoustic guitar sound, and the band sounds like it was recorded live in a rehearsal room. Even the 2007 remastering for digital release doesn’t save it.
What does save it – and more – is the genius of the songwriting combined with a fantastic band who seem to be allowed to just let rip and express the compositions however they see fit. Most people associate Al Stewart with the classic “Year of the Cat” (great album)…but for me this is his best. I just love this album.
Note: The digital release of this album as seen below on Spotify has additional tracks (Jackdaw, She Follows and Fantasy). I HATE when albums are re-released with additional tracks…put them on a new album FFS…so press the stop button after the organ dies out on Love Chronicles for the whole experience!