Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” was one of the biggest hits of 1977. It was spearheaded by an irresistible piano riff composed and played by Peter Wood and included a fabulous mid-song instrumental consisting of successive portions of orchestral strings, acoustic guitar played by Peter White, electric lead guitar played by Tim Renwick and finally a searing saxophone played by Phil Kenzie. Clocking in at 6:40 a single version had to be created that truncated the introduction and instrumentals down to 4:38.
The unusual lyrics portray a fellow visiting a faraway exotic country who runs into an enchanting, sultry young woman. She inexplicably links arms with him without even allowing him the opportunity to question her motives or the reason for her desires. Her appearance and fragrance are intoxicating. He follows her until he’s completely lost in a foreign land. She steers him toward a clandestine romantic encounter. Waking up the next day he realizes his fellow tourists have left without him, tour bus and all. That plus a lost ticket means a stay far longer than he anticipated.
The song did not start out that way.
Ever heard of a song named “Foot of the Stage”? I thought so. The reason you haven’t is because that was the original version of “Year of the Cat”. Al Stewart wrote the lyrics a decade earlier after watching British comedian Tony Hancock perform In Bournemouth, England. This was not your average comic performance. Hancock suffered from depression and it showed in his performance. As Stewart himself described it, “He came on stage and he said ‘I don’t want to be here. I’m just totally pissed off with my life. I’m a complete loser, this is stupid. I don’t know why I don’t just end it all right here.’ And they all laughed, because is was the character he played… this sort of down-and-out character. And I looked at him and I thought, Oh my god, He means it. This is for real.”
This heart-wrenching encounter caused Stewart to write the first draft of what would later (after much mutation) become a top ten smash. But the first draft had lyrics such as “Your tears fall down like rain at the foot of the stage”. This was portentous: Hancock committed suicide two years later from a drug overdose.
“Foot of the Stage” was never recorded. Stewart was reluctant to profit from Hancock’s demise. He also realized it wouldn’t help to write a song about a comedian no one in America had ever heard of. But Stewart salvaged the song anyway, writing the lyrics of what is now “Year of the Cat” to it. His love of the movie “Casablanca” inspired this new version, including references to Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre. Then he kept the lyrics while he and Peter Wood rewrote the music
I don’t know about you but I’m grateful we never heard the original version. The dreamy vignette Stewart composed was vastly more palatable than a song about a comedian who suffered from alcoholism and depression and eventually took his own life. Now if only “Year of the Cat” had been the original version and Tony Hancock recovered from his emotional illness everything would have been just peachy. Ah, if only… Presto. Instant top-ten smash.