Al Stewart: ‘Past, Present And Future’ – Liner Notes, 1992 Reissue


The following is the set of liner notes written by Stephen K. Peeples in 1992 for Rhino Entertainment’s CD reissue of Past, Present And Future, the fifth album by British folk-rock singer/songwriter Al Stewart, originally released in the U.K. by CBS and by Janus in the U.S. in 1973.

The Background (as of 1992)

“My first four albums are quite different from all the rest — I’ve always regarded them as an apprenticeship,” notes British singer/songwriter Al Stewart today, 13 albums (not counting best-ofs) into his celebrated career. “Past, Present And Future, on the other hand, is the first one I’d really own up to.”

Born September 5, 1945, in Glasgow, Scotland, and raised in the village of Bournemouth, on the south English coast, Stewart came up through the London folk and folk-rock scene during the mid-1960s. Guitarist Duane Eddy, Bob Dylan, and existentialist writers including Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were among several of Stewart’s key inspirations.

Stewart’s Bedsitter Images (1967), Love Chronicles (1969, named Melody Maker’s “Folk Album of the Year”), Zero She Flies (1970), and Orange (1972) — all on CBS in the U.K. — primarily featured first-person love songs and confessionals written in the grand folk-rock tradition, often drawing from literary sources.

Those early works reflected Stewart’s deep affection for British folk, American folk-rock à la electric Dylan, and, inevitably, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Among the many notable musicians who played on those early Stewart efforts were Richard Thompson, Jimmy Page, Rick Wakeman, Phil Collins, and Brinsley Schwarz.

Critics and a growing audience applauded Stewart’s wordsmithing and musical taste, calling him the most literate writer in modern British pop — a true folk-rock bard. They cited his music as further evidence that literacy and rock ’n’ roll weren’t always mutually exclusive.

But with Past, Present And Future, released in the U.K. by CBS in 1973, he took his muse a step further. LP #5 was his first full foray into the historical folk-rock for which he’s most famous.

Stewart not only drew his ideas from personal experience and classic and contemporary literature, as before, but also from favorite figures and monumental events in history. Then, using his vivid lyric imagery, rich, mostly acoustic folk-rock instrumentation, and dramatic arrangements, he brought these stories to life. Cinematic, wide-screen music that stimulated the brain as well as the body — this was a very specialized genre Stewart defined with PP&F.

“History is something I use for a backdrop because ‘A meets B’ is just two-dimensional,” he explained the first time we spoke, in October ’76, at a restaurant near his place off the Sunset Strip. “But if I say, ‘A meets B in 1934,’ suddenly there’s a whole context. The image becomes three-dimensional.

“I’ve seen people combine rock with moving pictures, light shows, and things,” he added, “but not many people put rock together with literature and history. That’s even more obvious when you consider how gross most of the lyrics in rock ’n’ roll really are. They’ve got a long way to go.

“And yet all the sources of inspiration are right under the noses of anyone who wants to use them. There’s no reason why [rockers] can’t write better lyrics — apart from the common opinion that rock fans have to be stupid, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true.”

PP&F went over well with critics and fans alike in Britain during ’73 and ’74. It was also the first of his albums to sail across the Atlantic to the States — although the voyage took a year, and the album was released on the relatively small Janus label. That deal was engineered by Stewart’s new manager, Luke O’Reilly, an Englishman who’d earned fame in Philadelphia as a DJ on WMMR-FM.

“We took the album ‘round to all the majors, and they all turned it down,” Stewart recalled. “RCA laughed and said, ‘You’ve got to be joking — eight-minute songs about the invasion of Russia?’”

Undaunted, Janus released the album to coincide with Stewart’s first major American tour. With no singles and scant airplay, it floated as high as #133 on the Billboard charts during summer 1974. PP&F ultimately sold more than a million copies worldwide and is now considered a classic.

Stewart would, of course, go on to polish this historic folk-rock approach to a multi-platinum sheen with his next three albums — 1975’s transitional Modern Times (reissued by Rhino at the same time as PP&F), 1976’s epochal Year Of The Cat, 1978’s timeless Time Passages — and continue mining the vein for much of his subsequent work.

The Past, Present And Future Sessions

In April ’92, between rehearsals in L.A. for yet another series of gigs with long-time guitar partner Peter White (as documented by Al’s most recent album, February 1992’s live Rhymes In Rooms, on the Mesa/Rhino label), Stewart spent some time with me flashing back on Past, Present And Future.

“’Manuscript’ on my third album was actually the first historical folk-rock song I wrote,” he noted. “And eventually it occurred to me that putting history into folk-rock could be developed into a whole album. There may have been one or two songs that touched on the same area, but they were isolated. Doing a whole album had definitely not been done before.

“My original idea for Past, Present And Future was to take the various decades of the 20th century and write a song for each one. That soon proved limiting, and I modified it considerably. But even in that conceptual stage, PP&F was always going to be a historical folk-rock record.”

The sessions took place at London’s famed Trident Studios during late 1972-early ’73, with producer John Anthony (Genesis, Lindesfarne, Van Der Graaf Generator). “John also did Orange with me. I got to know him when he was the DJ at Middle Earth in Covent Garden, the psychedelic club in London during 1968.

“Of the musicians, Tim Renwick and other members of [popular British pub-rock band] Quiver had also been on Orange, and he’d go on to play guitar on my next three or four albums. I always liked his style — almost ideal for folk-rock.

“Bruce Thomas was the bassist in Quiver [and later with Elvis Costello’s Attractions]. Brian Odgers was a session bassist, and John Wilson — ‘Willie’ Wilson — was Quiver’s drummer. Peter Wood [piano accordion] went on to co-write ‘Year Of The Cat’ with me. He was in Quiver after the band teamed up with [British pop stars] Iain and Gavin Sutherland.

“Peter Berryman [second acoustic guitar] was in The Famous Jug Band. Isaac Guillory is a Cuban-American I met in Amsterdam; he played on ‘Roads To Moscow,’ and is now a fixture on the English acoustic guitar scene. B.J. Cole is well-known as a steel guitar player.

“Rick Wakeman had played keyboards on Orange. He’d worked with David Bowie, T. Rex, Cat Stevens, been in The Strawbs, and was in Yes when we did this album. Although he had absolutely nothing to do with the English folk scene, Rick did know how to play along with acoustic music.

“And he cracked jokes non-stop — these were the funniest sessions we ever had. Rick would even interrupt takes to tell us a joke, which did get disturbing after a while. You’d hear, ‘One, two, three…’ and then, ‘Ever hear the one about the…?’ And he’d be off. I remember Rick’s sense of humor more than anything else. He was definitely our comic relief.

“Alistair Anderson was also well-known around the English folk scene as a concertina player. And [Fairport Convention legend] Dave Swarbrick speaks for himself. I believe he played lead mandolin on the end of ‘Soho (Needless To Say),’ along with some rhythm by Haim Romano, whom I’d never heard of before, and haven’t since.

“I knew Francis Monkman [Moog synthesizer] very well. He was in the band Curved Air, and later in Skyy with John Williams. Francis lived just around the corner from me in Belsize Village and came to lunch every single day. Never said he was coming — just used to turn up at lunchtime. So we always made sure there was an extra portion.

“Singer Krysia Kocjan was in The Natural Acoustic Band. I went to see them, and she had this amazing voice, so I figured that we could put her on something. Krysia ended up on ‘Roads to Moscow’ and then ‘Nostradamus.’ The other vocalists were probably people John Anthony knew. He must have brought in the steel band for ‘Warren Harding’ as well.

“Richard Hewson arranged the strings and brass; he did a wonderful job on ‘Roads to Moscow.’ Roger Meddows Taylor is none other than Queen’s drummer. As I recall, John Anthony had produced one of the first Queen singles, and knew the band. I met Roger at a bar called Dingwalls. Someone invited him down for the sessions, and he played percussion.

“Mike Stone, who engineered, has become fairly well known as a producer [Queen, Journey, Asia]. In fact, the last time I saw John, he pointed out that Mike had spent most of this session making me tea.”


The Past, Present And Future Tracks

“OLD ADMIRALS” — “That’s my favorite on the album. I’d read an early two-volume biography about Admiral Sir John Fisher, titled The Life Of Lord Fisher, and the song traces his story.

“He was Britain’s first Sea Lord, the man most instrumental in bringing in the dreadnoughts prior to World War I, and therefore responsible for the modern British navy. He resigned in 1915 during World War I after a dispute with [Winston] Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, over how the Admiralty was being run.

“The story’s poignancy comes in after Fisher’s resignation. He knew more about the British navy than anyone. He was very headstrong, and no doubt suffered through his enforced retirement realizing that he could have prosecuted the war more successfully than his successors. But he was never called back into service.

“The line in the song — ‘Old Admirals that feel the wind and never put to sea’: I had this image that whenever a breeze lifted and blew across his veranda, Lord Fisher would be standing there looking out over the sea, wishing he were on deck once again. He was an exceptionally interesting guy, and probably at least 20 years ahead of his time.”

“WARREN HARDING” — “On the other hand, Harding [29th U.S. President, 1921-23] was about 20 years behind. On the surface, it may sound odd to hear steel drums in a song about Harding, but keep in mind what he spent most of his time doing — boozing and gambling and hanging out with the press until all hours of the morning.

“Harding certainly wasn’t very much into the serious business of governing. Corruption was rampant during his administration. He probably would’ve been happier running a bar. His slogan may have been ‘A Return to Normalcy,’ but the country got anything but with him. Harding was a man P.J. O’Rourke would call a ‘Republican Party animal.’ So, this isn’t a complex song, but the juxtaposition of the story and music was great fun.”

“SOHO (NEEDLESS TO SAY)” — “We go out of chronological order here, but in the mid-1960s, during my early days, I spent a while living and playing in Soho. I was doing Bunjie’s Coffee Bar from seven to ten on a Friday night, then running to play the all-nighter at Les Cousins from midnight to six in the morning, and again on Saturday from midnight to seven. So there was a period when I really saw daylight during the winter.

“In the song, there’s a kaleidoscope of crazy people who were around Soho at the time. ‘Going nowhere with nowhere to go’ — much of the time it did feel that way. But the mid-‘60s were fascinating.

“‘Soho’ is something of a throwback to the style of my first four albums, in the sense that it’s not a historic epic. I just thought it was written a lot better than the earlier songs. It has precedents in, shall we say, ‘Old Compton Street Blues,’ but is a lot better-written. Four years earlier, I’d never have been able to write, ‘Rainstorm, brainstorm, faces in the maelstrom/huddled by the puddles in the shadows where the trains run.’”

“THE LAST DAY OF JUNE 1934”—“I’m comparing the peacefulness and frivolity of England and Europe with the rearmament of Germany after World War I. June 30, 1934, was one of history’s longest, darkest nights. The elimination of Ernst Roehm [as a potential adversary] basically gave Hitler free rein to do what he wanted in Germany.

“And to a lesser extent, the song’s about the execution of Gregor Strasser, another of Hitler’s chief rivals within the Nazi party, on the same night [leaving Hitler in total control].

“Oddly enough, I’ve just relearned ‘The Last Day of June 1934’ for our current tour. I still really like it—it’s completely uncommercial. And with the neo-Nazi thing happening in Europe, I felt it was worth bringing up again.”

“POST WORLD WAR TWO BLUES”—“Since it came after Don McLean’s ‘American Pie,’ and has B.J. Cole’s steel guitar on it, this was called ‘English Pie’ by some wags in England. Others have referred to it as a country blues for British Baby Boomers.

“There are tons of people in here, some of whom may be familiar to Americans, some not. There’s Bevan, the Welsh Labor leader who brought in the National Health Service. Life With The Lions was a popular radio show. There’s Churchill and Lord Mountbatten, and [Prime Minister Harold] Macmillan. There’s the Suez Canal, Buddy Holly, TW3 [That Was The Week That Was, starring David Frost], and the scandalous Christine Keeler. ‘Ramona’ and ‘Desolation Row’ were Bob Dylan songs—he was obviously a big early influence. And on it goes.

“By the way, ‘Post World War Two Blues’ is the only song I’ve ever written in my sleep. I woke up about seven o’clock one morning with the chorus in my head. I’d actually been singing it in my sleep. So I got up, wrote the chorus down, went back to bed, and wrote the rest of it later that morning.”

“ROADS TO MOSCOW” — The idea had been bowling around in my head for something like four years. I’d been reading an endless series of Russian history books. General Guderian turns up in one line in this — I read his biography, Panzer Leader. Amazing book. I’d read William Shirer, Alexander Werth’s History Of Russia At War, 1941-45, Solzhenitsyn. Koestler, Chukovskaya…just endless. The influence of all of them is in there somewhere, but probably Solzhenitsyn than anything else. Being packed off to the Siberian labor camp—most of that comes from One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch.

“The song is more specifically about Hitler double-crossing his ally Stalin and invading Russia on June 22, 1941. Volumes have been written about this, but the Germans were supposed to have attacked on May 15. Had they not gotten sidetracked on another front, in Greece, history might’ve turned out far differently. When the Germans turned around and headed for Moscow in October, they ended up caught by winter, and freezing in the snow. They didn’t stand a chance. By Christmas, the Russians had stopped the Germans, and even pushed them back.

“There are different sections to the song’s arrangement because I wanted the song to ebb and flow, for dramatic effect. Pete Berryman actually calls this one my ‘Cecil B. DeMille thing.’”

“The rather abrupt cross-fade at the beginning wasn’t John Anthony’s fault. For some reason, he wasn’t there when I was mixing this. We had two different introductions and I wanted to use both, so I went from one to the other in a cross-fade which, in retrospect, I didn’t do very well.

“The solo vocalist in the background is Krysia Kocjan. She later changed her name to Krysia Kristianne in America and made an album with a band called Shot In The Dark. And, of course, they went on to appear on various other records that I made, 24 Carrots [1980] being the most notable.”

“TERMINAL EYES” — “My Beatles thing, circa 1972. Tears For Fears had a big hit years later with their own Beatles takeoff [“Sowing The Seeds Of Love,” 1989]. But this is my rewrite of Lennon’s ‘I Am The Walrus’ — stream-of-consciousness nonsense with some fun words.”

“NOSTRADAMUS” — The seed was planted as far back as September or October 1969, when I read a magazine article on Nostradamus, the 16th-century prophet and seer, by Erika Cheetham. It was very well-written and caught my imagination.

“Through the magazine, I was fortunate enough to get hold of Erika a few years later. She was then working on her first book, The Prophecies of Nostradamus [1973]. She’s since written two others [The Further Prophecies Of Nostradamus (1985) and The Final Prophecies Of Nostradamus (1989)].

“When I went ‘round to her place, Erika had her notes spread all over a table. I asked her to tell me what Nostradamus’ most interesting predictions were, then I put them into the song, so it pretty much follows the storyline of her first book. She also was kind enough to write a note for the record sleeve.

“I must say, though, that I’ve always been, and still am, completely noncommittal about the whole Nostradamus thing. I neither believe nor disbelieve. I have no idea if any of it is true, or if it’s all wishful thinking. I’ve never known. But I do know that, at the very least, it made a terrific idea for a song.

“‘Nostradamus’ has indeed caused its share of consternation over the years. One Nostradamus freak thought I’d reincarnated him from the dead. Another person wrote me a very nice letter saying that he’d been deaf for years, but that halfway through the guitar solo, his hearing had come back. All manner of strange manifestations happen when I play it. But as I said, I’m still completely noncommittal about the whole thing.

“Most of the guitars on this track were done by yours truly, even the backward-guitar seagull sounds. In those early days, I was playing ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ by Bob Dylan. For the central section of ‘Nostradamus’ — the instrumental passage — I took the middle section of ‘It’s Alright, Ma,’ and turned it into an epic.


“In my mind’s eye, I went into Past, Present And Future seeing it as a very uncommercial record,” Stewart said two decades later. “As it turned out, it was received far better than I’d expected. It sold better than the first four, probably even put together.

“Beyond that, though, it charted a whole new course for me, leading into Modern Times, Year Of The Cat, and Time Passages, right up to Rhymes In Rooms. I knew nothing of that then, of course, but Past, Present And Future was a terrifically important record for me.”

  • Stephen K. Peeples, 1992

Special thanks from the author to Al Stewart, Steve Chapman, Bonnie Covelli, James Austin, Michael Ochs, Barry Hansen, Carol Forsell, David Dash, Bill Peeples, and Reina Siciliano. Special thanks also to Rory Aronsky.

Grammy nominee Stephen K. Peeples is a multi-media writer-producer who was raised by career newspaper journalists and music-lovers in Miami and Los Angeles. He earned a Grammy nomination as co-producer of the “Monterey International Pop Festival” box set with Lou Adler and Geoff Gans (Rhino/MIPF, 1992); Peeples also wrote the liner notes booklet. Over the years, he has written liner notes for nearly a dozen more albums, including “Les Paul: The Legend & The Legacy,” Capitol Records’ acclaimed 4-CD box set (1991), and most recently, “Silver Raven” by the Kai Clark Band (2020). • Peeples was the original, award-winning writer/producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for Westwood One from 1988-1990, and writer/producer of hundreds of WW1 programs in the preceding five years. • His first music industry gig was as an Associate Editor (radio and West Coast country) at Cash Box magazine in Hollywood in 1975. He went on to be a Media Relations-PR executive for Capitol Records (1977-1980), Elektra/Asylum Records (1980-1983), and Rhino Entertainment (1992-1998). • Moving into the Digital Era, Peeples was Rhino’s first web editor (1996-1998), then elevated to content editor of Warner Music Group websites (1998-2001). • Based in the Santa Clarita Valley just north of L.A., Peeples was the award-winning Online Editor for The Signal newspaper’s website from 2007-2011, and wrote-hosted-co-produced SCVTV’s WAVE-nominated “House Blend” local music TV show from 2010-2015 (archived online and still airing in reruns). • The Santa Clarita journalist is now a News Editor at SCVTV’s, SVP/New Media for Rare Cool Stuff Unltd. and developing a biography of notorious Texas Artlaw Boyd Elder. • For more info and original stories, visit exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, subscribe to Peeples’ YouTube channel.

Article: Al Stewart: ‘Past, Present and Future’ – Liner Notes, 1992 Reissue
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Category: News and Reviews
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