Tea for the Tillerman - Cat Stevens

Year of Release: 1970
Label: A&M (U.S.), Island (U.K.)
Genre: Folk Rock, Pop

Image of Cat Stevens at height of popularity (early 1970s).

British solo artist, Cat Stevens, released Tea for the Tillerman in early 1970. It would prove to be the definitive album of his career as well as a worldwide sensation. Its socially conscious lyrics as well as its unique, melancholic aura would come to define a chapter in classic folk-rock music. Its influence still has far reaching implications.

Vital Statistics
The album propelled Stevens to international fame when it rocketed to the eighth spot in the U.S.s' Pop Albums Chart. It quickly was recognized as a top-ten Billboard hit and in six months had sold more than 500,000 thousand records, qualifying for the RI AA's Gold award. The wildly popular single "Wild World" peaked at number 8 on the Pop Singles charts. in 2001 it received triple platinum status, meaning that the album had sold three million copies since its release. Furthermore, Rolling Stone included Tea for the Tillerman in there prestigious list of "500 best albums of all time" in 2003. The album also included significant tracks such as "Where Do the Children Play?" and "Father and Son", both of which are now considered classics. Four other songs were included in Hal Ashby and Colin Higgins' black comedy film, Harold and Maude in 1971.

The head of Island Records corporation, Chris Blackwell, was noted for saying that the single "Wild World" gave the album "enough kick" to get played on FM radio. He was also quoted for stating that Tea for the Tillerman "was the best album [we] ever made".

In 1970, Stevens knowingly sabotaged his original contract with the overbearing Deram Records. By breaking his ties with a studio and a producer that insisted upon unwanted orchestration and, as Stevens saw it, unnecessary technological interference, he was able to create his first truly personal album. Tea for the Tillerman blends Stevens' passionate, comfortable sound, with traditional folk-rock influence. The combination was remarkable. drawing on specific individuals' work, namely Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Paul Simon, Cat Stevens concocted an album that genuinely reflected his views as well as the doubts of a generation.

Technical Details
Due to Folk-Rock's characteristic technological simplicity, the album did not require as much production as other rock albums of the time such as the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,. In fact, this "back to basics" mentality was exactly what Stevens had in mind. He had no desire to electrify his playing in any way, shape or form. The era saw a development in technology resulting in tracks so complex, layered, and overdubbed that to re-create them in a live performance was nearly impossible. Although Stevens occasionally overdubs in order to bring out certain harmonies and to give his voice texture, the album has a general feel of familiarity, simplicity, and fluidity. The fact that it remains stylistically acoustic does not retract from the tangible power of the album. Unobtrusive does not necessarily correlate with an inability to communicate effectively. In regard to Stevens' technique, this principle definetely applies; his ability to create meaningful music stems from his understanding that simplicity can be genius.

Acoustic guitar is present throughout all of the tracks on the album. Occasionally other string instruments such as violin and cello are brought in to supplement his singing and guitar work. Other instruments pop in here and there in various songs. He plays piano, the occasional jubilant tambourine, and even incorporates a few saxophones once or twice. It is sometimes unclear when listening if there is ensemble participation or whether it is simply Stevens himself is overdubbing.

The album was originally released as a double sided vinyl record. It was recorded using analog technology, as were all albums of that time period.

Because Tea for the Tillerman was Stevens' first album proceeding his contraction and recovery from Tuberculosis in 1969, the lyrics and mood of the album showcased many new philosophical changes. New attention was paid to lyrical introspection. The overarching theme of peace and harmony certainly reflects his change in attitude following his illness. He asserted that being sick "certainly changes your perspective". He described feeling "almost as if I had my eyes shut."

Cultural Analysis
Cat Stevens embodies the quintessential anti-war, peace promoting, philanthropic, singer/songwriter so often related with the hippie revolution of the late 60s and early 70s. The melancholic mood of the album reflects the uncertainty of the time. It represents the frustration millions were feeling as a result of senseless violence in Vietnam and domestically. Everyday the country lost more young men to a conflict which many could see no end to. At home, the country had been simultaneously rocked by the tragic assassinations of Robert Kennedy and MLK. Stevens was among those who felt the need to express themselves musically. The lyrics which are most profoundly reflective of the culture of the time period are those of "Where do the Children Play?"

Well you roll on roads over fresh green grass.
For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas.
And you make them long, and you make them tough.
But they just go on and on, and it seems that you can't get off.

Oh, I know we've come a long way,
We're changing day to day,
But tell me, where do the children play?

Well you've cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air.
But will you keep on building higher
'til there's no more room up there?
Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry?
Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?

This song is questioning the path that humanity seems to be going down. It asks, "Where do the children play?", implying that we as a society have destroyed innocence. It also is a commentary on tyranny and the debilitating effects of conformity.These ideas were common in the writings of the 60s and 70s, however, Stevens crafts his lyrics in a certain way that make them unique.

By closely listening to the lyrics of other songs, it becomes clear that Cat Stevens yearned for spiritual direction. He seemed, as he puts it "lost", and in search of something that at the time was not clearly definable and rather elusive: religious contentment. He dabbled in the teachings of Buddhism, Zen, and Numerology, but never felt he had found his calling. When his brother, David Gordon, purchased him a copy of the Qur'an in Jerusalem in 1976, it set off a series of events which resulted in Stevens adopting the religion of Islam and changing his name and identity forever to Yusuf Islam. Other than Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, Stevens is probably the most famous of Muslim converts. Tea for the Tillerman immortalized him and opened the door to a world of renown. The sound, instrumentation, and lyrics of the album characterize him as an artist and as a pursuer of peace. Although he has altered his identity, he still plays around the world and has dedicated himself to philanthropic pursuits abroad. However, the music industry will always remember him as he was at the height of his influence and popularity: as Cat Stevens.