"Tea For the Tillerman" Launches Quality Record Pressing Plant

Poor misunderstood Steven Demetre Georgiou/Cat Stevens/Yusef Islam. Like Bob Marley or Barack Obama, he’s a “hybrid” and subject to misinterpretation and fear-mongering.

Born of a Greek-Cypriot dad and a Swedish mom, he was half Greek Orthodox and half Baptist and now he’s a devout Muslim.

In between, he’s had a remarkable and tumultuous career as a pop star. He’s had backup artists on his albums ranging from Peter Gabriel to Biff Rose. He’s cited influences as wide-ranging as the Gershwins, Leonard Bernstein and Muddy Waters.

He dated Carly Simon (“Anticipation” was about him, not the difficulties involved in coaxing Heinz Ketchup from the bottle) and his songs were featured in the unforgettable cult film “Harold and Maude” starring the great Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort.

He almost died twice: first, before his career took off, from a bout with Tuberculosis in the UK and later in 1976 he almost drowned in the ocean off of Malibu. When he sings “But I might die tonight,” he sings from experience!

Without going into all of the details, let’s just agree that his first great album was Mona Bone Jackon issued originally on Island Records in the UK and A&M in America. A vinyl reissue from Mobile Fidelity is scheduled for release sometime this year.

His follow up, Tea For the Tillerman also originally on Island and A&M is considered by most to be his greatest record as well as  a Top 10 Billboard hit. Like all true classics, the cover art (drawn by the then Mr. Stevens) is a perfect fit for the music.

Acoustic Sounds/Analogue Productions’ Chad Kassem chose the album as the first release pressed at his new Salina, Kansas state of the art Quality Record Pressings  pressing facility. Some on-line grumbling asked “why this?”

The answer is simple: it remains a great, enduring piece of folk/rock, brilliantly performed and recorded. Original pink label Island pressings are still much sought after for both sound and the superior gatefold presentation.

There  have been a few reissues including a Japanese JVC pressed Mobile Fidelity issue and a flat profile UHQR edition. Though the master tape had been lost since it was last used for a 1999 CD reissue—part of a Cat Stevens reissue series overseen by the original producer, Paul Samwell-Smith and mastered by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound—Kassem was determined to find it and use it for his first vinyl release.

Thanks to a lot of leg and detective work, the pristine original analog master tape was found and used by George Marino, who cut lacquers at Sterling Sound, the mastering house where it was originally cut by Sterling Sound founder Lee Hulko, for both the U.S. and UK first editions. Hulko’s original mastering notes were on file at Sterling and used as a reference by Marino.

The original was cut using a Telefunken M10 playback deck and a Neumann VMS 66 lathe and SX68 cutter head. Marino used an Ampex ATR-102 deck, Neumann VMS80 lathe and SX74 cutter head.

Despite starting with the same cut, the pink label edition sounds vastly superior in every way, evidently because of superior plating and pressing quality, even though indie A&M was among the more meticulous, sound conscious record labels at the time.

Kassem was also determined to reproduce as closely as possible the original gatefold packaging featuring a laminated outer jacket and an opaque, cloth-like inner one that was used only for the first pressing. Subsequent ones featured lamination inside and out.

What makes this music special and capable of enduring through the decades? For one thing, the songs have memorable melodies, even the ones built upon two chord vamps like the opener, “Where Do the Children Play,” a prescient, still relevant song about the environment, overdevelopment and whatever else you wish to read into it. The production and sound remain spectacular and the arrangements, combining strummed acoustic guitars, strings arranged by Del Newman, stand up bass and drums sets the perfect stage for Stevens’ simultaneously tender and gruff vocalizing.

The impeccably orchestrated arrangements include syncopated and dynamic flourishes played out on drums and strings that were and remain unusual for this musical genre.

Speaking of being misunderstood, when I was on the radio in the early 1970s, the hit “Wild World” was actually banned from the progressive rock station as being “a sexist break-up song” because of it’s supposed general condescension and lines like “I’ll always remember you like a child, girl.” Supposedly it’s about his breakup with girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville (sung about on Mona Bone Jakon).

But in retrospect, the only line that would lead one to believe it was a “break-up” song is the ambiguous opening line “Now that I’ve lost everything to you,” and indeed, perhaps it is a sexist break-up song, but it could just as easily be about a song to a daughter venturing out into the world for the first time. Considering the cover art, and another song on the album, “Father and Son,” that’s an equally probable interpretation—it certainly is a better one in 2011!

There’s melancholy in “Sad Lisa,” and majestic spiritual yearning (a hint of what was to come) in the “Miles From Nowhere.”

There’s not a second wasted on the first side and so many arrangement nooks and crannies to be discovered on this superbly dynamic, spacious and detailed re-mastering and pressing.

Side two begins with the short “stop and smell the flowers” of “But I Might Die Tonight,” followed by “Longer Boats,” another song with both hippie and religious overtones and then comes the exquisite “Into White” that sounds inspired by the imagery of The Incredible String Band. “On the Road to Find Out” returns to the search for spiritual fulfillment but that’s followed by the settled satisfaction of the old man’s message on “Father and Son.”

 The title song is a short, joyous gospel-influenced denouement to end an endlessly entertaining journey that holds up fully every play forty-one years later!

I remember buying my pink label Island copy at a small record store called The Depot, next to a train station in a small suburban Boston suburb, the name of which escapes me.

Upon taking the expensive record out of the jacket I was disappointed to see the same STERLING stamp and LH marking on the inner groove area as on my A&M copy. I consoled myself with the far superior packaging and that iconic pink Island label.

The first play on my Dual 1219 brought gasps because the sound was so far superior to the A&M. It was razor sharp in the best sense of the word, with black backgrounds and a dynamic thrust missing from the lackluster American pressing. Wow!

And wow again listening to this impeccably pressed on 200g vinyl reissue. The attack of the pick on the guitar strings is astonishingly clean and detailed. Depth is pronounced and because of both the blackness of the backdrop and the precision of both the state of the art plating and the technological breakthroughs achieved in the retro-fitted presses, the resolution of low level detail reveals a host of details that are either buried or glossed over on the other versions I’ve heard and own.

If you have the UHQR edition, you’ll find this similar in one way: there’s nothing “mellow” about the overall production and when the music gets loud (and Marino lets it get so) it can get a bit hard, but better that than to soften it and lose the clarity, focus and detail of this superb recording, especially in the quieter passages where the resolution of low level detail is astonishing.

If your system is bright, this may sound a bit bright, especially if you can’t get the bottom octaves, but as your rig gets better, this record will only keep sounding better and better.

As for Cat Stevens, he went on to record a string of equally fine records, similar in tone and formula to this one, including Teaser and the Firecat, that contained more hits (“Peace Train,” “Morning Has Broken,” and “Moon Shadow”) than did Tea for the Tillerman, and Catch Bull at Four, followed by a few more albums that were somewhat less distinguished.

Audio Fidelity issues a twenty song, two LP live set of his 1976 “Majikat” tour (AFZLP2 040) containing many of his most well-liked tunes. It was his farewell to the world as Cat Stevens and listening makes it clear that he was dispirited and going through the motions much of the time, though there are sparks of the old Cat there too.

A year later he converted to Islam, taking the name Yusef Islam and forsaking his pop music career, though he did do a benefit for UNICEF at Wembley Stadium in 1979 and has been involved in charitable work ever since.

Controversy followed as he was accused of aiding the terrorist group Hamas, which he denied and he is reputedly said to have been okay with the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, but again he denied that, saying he was “joking” and his comments had been improperly edited.

After 9/11 he condemned the attack and he sang an a cappella version of “Peace Train” during the “Concert For New York” pre-concert show that was an unforgettable moment (among dozens during the concert proper) for his fans.

He was ridiculously put on the terror watch list and in 2004 the commercial plane he was on bound for Washington D.C. was diverted to Maine where he was escorted off and sent back to the U.K.

Since then he’s become more active in the secular music world but his piety seems to inhibit his expression, though his live performances have been generally well-received.

He made a bizarre and somewhat uncomfortable appearance at the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” where he performed “Peace Train” tentatively while Ozzie sang “Crazy Train” with the O’Jays finishing up with “Love Train.” You had to see it to believe it.

None of that takes away from his rich period between 1969 and the mid-seventies when he produced some of the most memorable and enduring folk-rock records of the rock era. Analogue Productions will release them over the next year.

Tea For the Tillerman is a great choice for an inaugural album to launch a new pressing plant in my opinion, and if this release is any indication of what we can expect from Chad Kassem’s new venture, we’re in for some great vinyl!!!!! (Please read my story about a visit to the new pressing plant in the August issue of Stereophile magazine).

The release has been delayed until August 1st, 2011 but it will be well worth the wait!

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