An Afternoon with Alun
It’s difficult to quantify the immense contribution that Alun Davies has made to Yusuf / Cat Stevens’ career. Not only do his delicate guitar playing and thoughtful vocal harmonies compliment Yusuf’s style perfectly but he has been a crucial friend and support from the time that the two first started working together. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Yusuf’s music and career without Alun by his side.
On February 21st 2018 I had the great privilege of spending an afternoon with Alun and his wonderful wife Val in their south London home. Over tea and cake we discussed the early days of working with Yusuf and explored how Alun’s personal relationship with one of the most influential singer-songwriters in the history of popular music began to blossom.
In this piece I shall attempt to give a summary of what was a truly enlightening and, at points, incredibly amusing conversation.
I started off by asking Alun about whether he had any recollections of first meeting Yusuf. He explained to me that it all started when he was called in to do a session by his friend Paul Samwell-Smith, ex-bassist of The Yardbirds and by then a fairly well established producer.
Alun – “The first meeting with Yusuf was in Barnes at the studio there, Olympic as was, on a Sunday afternoon I think… that was the very first time. It was as straightforward as being booked for a session by Paul and dragging myself there a little unwillingly because the last thing I remember about him (Yusuf), he was in a white suit on telly doing ‘I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun’ and I wasn’t that impressed with the image really… it sort of spoiled the song.”
Alun’s wife Val explained to me that she and Alun were both very aware of Yusuf, or Cat Stevens as he then was, and that they’d actually had a close encounter with him not too long before Alun got booked for the session.
Val – “We bumped into him, it couldn’t have been that long before, at the Speakeasy which was the muso’s nightclub that everybody went to. We were coming out… we’d gone there with John Mark, a friend of Alun’s, and Steve (Yusuf) was just coming in and I was like ‘oh my goodness it’s Cat Stevens!’ I was really quite impressed because I liked his songs. And that was it, the next thing we know he was doing a session.”
Despite any preconceptions that he might have had, Alun’s impressions of Yusuf were very positive after their first session working together. Yusuf looked very different than he had either on TV or outside the nightclub, his hair was longer and he had grown his beard. The two got on well at the session with Alun reporting to Val, when he got home, about what a nice guy Yusuf was. It was, therefore, with great pleasure that Alun received another call from Paul.
Alun – “Paul invited me to go over to his house, his flat, and he’d invited Yusuf as well. He intended to lay out the rest of the album and albums to be, though I didn’t know it at the time. He (Paul) said ‘he’ll show us some other material that he’s been writing’. Yusuf sat down in Paul’s flat with his guitar, sat on the floor, and just played 50 songs, something like that. Without reciting the whole index of songs it was about the next two, two and a half albums.”
Clearly this was a landmark moment for Alun. He was very active in the folk scene and had already worked with a variety of skilled and semi-successful musicians but the quantity and quality of music that was pouring out of the young performer sat before him was unmistakably something incredibly special.
Alun’s description of Paul’s involvement was starting to build a clear picture. I was getting the distinct impression that Paul had somewhat earmarked Alun as a potential musical partner for Yusuf. I decided to explore the issue a bit and asked Alun whether Paul may have decided that he would be a good fit prior to any sort of audition or even their first session.
Alun – “Yes, I’d worked with Paul on a friend’s songs, Jeremy Taylor, and Paul was also the producer for a BBC series I worked on. I think he noticed that I went the extra mile. They wanted some filler tracks on the outro. I said ‘well I’ve got something that could do a 30 second slot’, sort of a Beach Boys thing. Paul said ‘oh yeah that should do’ and it did. Also, he knew that intellectually I could be on a certain plane.”
From the musical relationship that developed between Alun and Yusuf it’s evident that Paul was a successful match-maker. He understood that for Yusuf to flourish as an artist he would need someone beside him who could understand where he was coming from, support him musically, and someone who would give his all to the project. Alun was the perfect man for the job.
As the conversation continued I wanted to investigate the nature of the relationship that was forming between the two young men. I asked Alun about the camaraderie that was beginning to emerge but he he was quick to correct me.
Alun – “I wouldn’t have used the word camaraderie really, it was finding a brother y’know. There was no embarrassment at playing anything to each other. Whether it be silly jokes, children’s songs, or potentially over-grandiose compositions.”
This notion of openness and honesty between the two really resonated with me. I’ve long believed that a crucial element of artistic creation is the ability to let all ideas flow out free from any shame. Afterwards you pick through it all to find the best bits. If you censor your ideas, as well as censoring some of the awkward stuff you may well inadvertently censor some of the good stuff too. It was fascinating to learn that Alun and Yusuf operated with this level of freedom of expression. I was also intrigued about the idea of the “silly jokes” and wanted to know more.
Val – “He’s (Yusuf) always been very clever with words and very funny. We did used to laugh a lot. He was always making up little tunes for the girls.” (Alun and Val’s, at the time, young daughters)
Remarkably, Alun was actually able to recall one of the songs that Yusuf would sing to their daughters and gave a short rendition of what they referred to as ‘The Yellow Boots Song’. Apparently, Yusuf used to wear a pair of yellow wellies that inspired a song that was a real favourite of the children.
Alun – “I’ve got my new yellow boots
Yellow boots on
Yellow boots, yellow boots
I love my yellow boots”
It was a real pleasure to witness the joy that accompanied these stories of the past. I was also moved by the enormous love that both Alun and Val clearly have for Yusuf. He was far more than just another musician that Alun worked with and the intimacy that was established early on in their lives together has evidently endured.
Val – “Above everything else, the thing with Steve (Yusuf) was… we were very friendly, the whole family. I mean, he grew up with our girls and we grew up with his brother, sister, mum and dad. We consider ourselves family.”
As the conversation developed I started to ask Alun about the early experiences of live performance with Yusuf. He explained that because it was just the two of them with acoustic guitars they would pretty much rehearse anywhere at the drop of a hat. They then gave their first performance at the Plumpton Folk Festival and followed it up with a number of television appearances, mainly to support “Lady D’Arbanville” which was the stand-out commercial success of off Mona Bone Jakon. The song was a big hit in mainland Europe which took the two of them across the channel where shows didn’t always run smoothly.
Alun – “We did a, a real scungey club in Belgium, it was a very noisy crowd. They basically just wanted to hear “Lady D’Arbanville”, I think we played it twice and the promoter, who provided the PA and all the rest of it, tried to welch on the deal and get away with not paying us. It was the first time I actually strong-armed someone for payment, I called him outside.”
This story had us all in fits of laughter and when I said that it sounded very much like Alun wouldn’t stand for anyone messing them around they were both quick to let me know that Yusuf’s West End upbringing made him just as capable of looking after himself too!
Following this brief run of shows and TV appearances in the UK and mainland Europe, Yusuf and Alun were quickly off to the States in support of Steve Winwood and Dave Mason’s band, Traffic. Val painted a vivid picture of waving the two of them off at Heathrow.
Val – “We were living in Wimbledon then and Cat picked us up. We got to Heathrow and Alun had a guitar and one suitcase and I think Steve (Yusuf) had a guitar and a slightly bigger suitcase. Al had about forty quid and I think Steve had about a hundred or something. It wasn’t very much. There were no roadies, no manager, there was nothing. They just had their tickets. I can still see the pair of them going to get on the plane and that was it! Of course in those days, obviously we didn’t have mobile phones. Alun and I just communicated by letter”
She went on to explain that she would find out where they were going to be staying and how long it would take the post to get there. She’d then send her letters ahead for him to receive as he arrived in a new city. I must confess that I found this part of the story profoundly romantic.
One of the other anecdotes that Alun told me about the American trip related to another factor that had brought them together early in their relationship, their mutual love of musicals. I explained that I hadn’t always been aware of the significant influence that musical theatre has had upon Yusuf’s music but that its impact upon his style is becoming ever clearer to me.
Alun – “Well, on the first American tour, with Traffic, after a week in early winter in New York, we found ourselves in Florida and it was boiling hot. We were channel hopping on the TV and discovered that they were showing “Oklahoma”. Instead of going out into the sunshine, which we craved really, there was “Oklahoma”, it was just fantastic. They didn’t show films like that in Britain in 1970. We rejoiced in the discovery that we both loved musicals, unashamedly. They’re good and that’s all you have to say about it!”
My time with Alun and Val was drawing to a close and I expressed my considerable gratitude for the hospitality they’d shown me. They really had gone to great lengths to make me feel welcome and to support me with my research into the early stages of Yusuf and Alun’s career together. Val made sure I had an endless supply of tea and snacks and Alun had shown me the collection of original artwork from the Teaser and the Firecat children’s book that Yusuf gave to their daughters. To my considerable delight he also showed me his 1963 Epiphone acoustic guitar. It was his main instrument throughout his career and you’ll see him with in countless photos and videos. As a guitarist myself it was an enormous treat to get to hold such a wonderful artefact and one that has contributed immeasurably to Yusuf’s music.
Before I left I had to ask Alun a key question and one that I suspect we’d all like to know the answer to, does he have a favourite Yusuf song? The answer seemed somehow very poignant.
Alun – “How Can I Tell You?”
Thank you again to Alun and Val for being so generous with their time and for the insights into their relationship with Yusuf. I can honestly say that theirs is a home bursting with love and music and that I learned a considerable amount from them. Alun is a fairly modest individual – he continues to play the role of Tillerman, being a professional gardener of some repute in the leafy Kingston area – but we the fans recognise that his sensitive guitar work and wonderful musicianship have given so much colour to Yusuf’s music throughout the years. Therefore, I know I speak for all of us when I express my deep thanks, admiration and love.
– Hallam Kite