Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Baffled Dancers: Cat Stevens: "Matthew And Son"

The hijacking of pop music for other ends is commonly called New Pop, and New Pop has its forbears - those who came before it to act as examples and inspirations for those to come. Cat Stevens may be best known for his early 70s folk anthems, but here in '67, he's a friendly forbear.

This is a pop song - the horns and tinkling piano and sparkling melody all make sure of that - it's a commercial pop song and sounds like it comes from a musical (West Side Story was a big influence on Stevens). But as you can see here, the public - namely, the kids - who heard it were unsure what the heck to make of it. There is Stevens, a junior member of the swinging London scene, all velvet and lacy frills, singing about crushing capitalism as if he was Heaven 17 or something. The audience is baffled and confused, because this kind of thing...is not done. This, to borrow a phrase, is not a love song. Stevens dances about and smiles as if he knows exactly what he's doing, and the kids who are used to happy songs to dance to hear lyrics like "There's a five minute break and that's all you take/For a cup of cold coffee and a piece of cake" which is the precise opposite of 'groovy' or 'cool' or 'far out'. "They've been working all day, all day, all day!" he sings as if the workers were as happy as the seven dwarfs, when in reality they are wage slaves and take their work home, unable (due to their boss' orders?) to get it out of their heads.

That Stevens is doing this and having a hit with it comes from several things - he was a pin-up of the time (believe it or not); it's a darn catchy number; and the drudgery portrayed here is the very thing that the psychedelic scene is trying so hard to push against - the all-work no-play straight world that gives no importance or space to anything approaching enjoyment, adventure or even rest. In a way all of Stevens' other songs are a reproach to this one, and to see him a-swingin' away here is poignant. He, the artist, is able to escape what he is depicting, whereas how many in the audience actually work in such places? What is it like to have your life portrayed in a seemingly-cheery-sounding song while you're trying to dance to it? Art is supposed to be a mirror held up to nature, and here the mirror is being held up to them. This is Art, to be sure, and the audience look as if they are still trying to make up their minds about it*.

That the song is a mere depiction and not overtly a protest song is even more confusing - rock 'n' roll ("Summertime Blues" "Yakety Yak") is all about protest, always has been, always will be. But this is pop, isn't it? The crossroads are getting bigger all the time, with crumbs of cake leading trails to who knows where.

*I wonder if the '67 audience in general listened to lyrics and got them or just wanted something to whistle/dance to as they did in the 50s. Certainly the careers of the balladeers depended on lyrics, so I tend to think they were heard, if not always understood.

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