Short Bits is a new regular irregular feature that is what the name implies: shorter than my features. Short Bits has yet to evolve into whatever it’ll ultimately be, but is intended to focus on a single specific album, artist, song, or tidbit of rock history that hasn’t yet been covered in a feature, with an eye towards the more obscure. It covers any genre, any era, 1940’s to 2000’s.
Short Bits 1
Al Stewart: Love Chronicles
When Al Stewart is remembered, which is seldomly, it is usually for a pair of late 70’s soft rock hits, “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages”. Both went top-10 in America, and for a very brief moment in history Stewart flirted with international stardom. Alas for him, his emergence was a little too late; the end of the 1970’s were a harsh time for singer/songwriters with folkie roots, and his career stalled. His last top-40 single, “Midnight Rocks” was released in 1980, and while Stewart has continued to release albums ever since, none have left much of an impact.
Few people reading this are likely to be inspired to seek out anything beyond his two biggest hits (top-40 completists may want “Midnight Rocks” and “Song on the Radio” as well), but Stewart actually has one of the more unusual and compelling releases of the late 1960’s, his 1969 sophomore album, Love Chronicles.
The Glasgow-born Stewart’s Love Chronicles, released on Epic, is best known for co-starring Jimmy Page; on it, Page explores some of the same eerie folk textures he’d realize more fully on Led Zeppelin III the following year. What many listeners may not realize is that Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings and Martin Lamble (better known as most of Fairport Convention) play the primary supporting roles on the album. Due to record label contracts, they appear under pseudonyms.
It also earns a footnote in rock history as the first major-label release to include the word “fuck” (“fucking”, actually), in the title track, a strangely compelling 18-minute folk-rock memoir of Stewart’s previous love affairs. Due to this inclusion, which Stewart refused to change, the album’s release was delayed for nearly 15 months, during which time Martin Lamble died in an auto accident.
Despite Page and Fairport Convention’s presence, and that infamous title track, Love Chronicles never made much of an impact in the U.S. (where it was released in 1970), and was soon out of print and remains to this day a difficult album to find in the shops, although it has appeared occasionally on CD in the years since.
Why should anyone care? Because Love Chronicles, which Melody Maker dubbed “Folk Album of the Year” for 1969, is still a startlingly good listen, even more so on the strength of the other five songs on it. “In Brooklyn”, the leadoff cut, is a ragged, loose-limbed, jangly electric number with pretty outre lyrics: “I know I’m back in the city/You can tell by the smell of the hamburger stand in the rain”. “Old Compton Street Blues” is an acoustic based tune with some crisp lead guitar from Page and a bluesy chord progression even as it stays rooted in folk-rock. “The Ballad of Mary Foster” is a ballad in the traditional sense; a story song that moves briskly over an acoustic guitar and light percussion base that sounds like Led Zep III as sung by Donovan. “Life and Life Only” is perhaps the hardest hitting thing here; another acoustic/electric folk ballad character sketch with an ominous descending progression and crying lead guitar. “You Should Have Listened to Al” is the most uptempo song, a catchy, self-depreciating breakup song with a hooky chorus and chiming folk rock guitar.
“Love Chronicles” itself is worth the price of admission. It opens with heroic-sounding acoustic strumming and Stewart’s narrative, and is punctuated with distorted and echoed guitar licks from Page. Stewart’s chronicle could certainly be called indulgent, but there’s a certain naivete and honesty in what amounts to a long shaggy dog tale. Stewart has an amusing eye for detail; after losing his virginity, he notes “I missed the bus and walked 12 miles home and it really didn’t seem far”. Despite the F-word, the tone is gentle and confidential; while the song certainly wanders over 18 minutes as it undergoes changes in motif, tempo, and mood, it never loses sight of its goal, and the overall effect is quite charming without being cloying. And if the mind wanders from the tale, there’s plenty of tasty guitar to focus on.
Lyrically, almost everything here is a richly detailed portrait piece of the sort few musicians do anymore. While Love Chronicles will probably never be included in anyone’s “Best of the 60’s” list, it would be a shame to let it vanish into history entirely. Fairport Convention fans will immediately appreciate the vaguely Celtic vibe to this British Isles folk rock, and anyone who likes Jimmy Page’s acoustic work should give this a spin as well.
Sorry, no Amazon link. Apparently, it’s as out of print as you can get.
Listen to Al Stewart: Life and Life Only (1969)