The Story of Dogged Determination Behind Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat”

Decades after its 1976 release, “Year of the Cat” is Al Stewart’s most recognizable hit. Yet there was nothing inevitable about the song’s completion, much less its enduring popularity. Even when Stewart managed to finish writing and recording “Year of the Cat,” he did his best to hide it from listeners. Realizing the largely instrumental, six-and-a-half minute song would have an uphill climb towards commercial recognition, Stewart placed the song in the final spot of his Year of the Cat album.

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What began as a wordless piano melody took years to become the song that would eventually be known and loved by millions. Here’s the step-by-step account of how “Year of the Cat” came to be.

A Song Built Around the Intro

The first part of “Year of the Cat” to be written was the 34-second piano intro, and Stewart didn’t write it. It was a piece that Stewart’s pianist Peter Wood would play regularly during sound checks. After hearing it several times, Stewart became enamored of it and asked Wood if he would mind if he wrote some lyrics for it. On different occasions, Stewart has said that Wood agreed to let him use the melody for a song and that he did not agree. Whichever way it actually happened, the melody became the cornerstone for “Year of the Cat,” and Wood received a co-writing credit.

Finding the Right Story to Tell

Stewart has said that it’s not unusual for him to write several different sets of lyrics for a song, and that was the case for “Year of the Cat.” Initially, he thought he had a set of lyrics ready to pair with the piano melody. Even before Stewart released his debut album Bedsitter Images in 1967, he had written some lyrics about the English comedian Tony Hancock. Called “The Foot of the Stage,” the song was inspired by one of Hancock’s performances that left Stewart concerned for the comedian’s well-being. (Hancock would die of an intentional drug overdose in 1968.)

Stewart used the Hancock-inspired lyrics for “The Foot of the Stage” with Wood’s piano melody and sent the song to some American record executives. After getting feedback that the song wouldn’t resonate with American audiences who were unfamiliar with Hancock, Stewart had to write new lyrics for the tune. He was miffed by the executives’ response, so he wrote another English-themed song called “Horse of the Year.” Predictably, they nixed that one, too.

Inspiration from An Astrology Book and Casablanca

Still looking for the right story for his song, Stewart got a boost when he spotted his girlfriend’s Vietnamese astrology book. She had left it open on a page for a chapter on the Year of the Cat, and Stewart realized the phrase would make a good lyric. He continued to struggle to flesh out a lyric around the concept. According to Songfacts, Stewart explained prior to a performance of the song that he toyed around with writing a song that was literally about cats.

Stewart knew that the cat-themed song wouldn’t work, but fortunately for him, he received inspiration from a movie on his television. Casablanca was airing, and from that happenstance, he found words for the first verse.

On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime

Casablanca provides the setting for “Year of the Cat,” but the song doesn’t recreate the movie. The location is merely a backdrop for Stewart to tell his story about a man who ditches all of his plans to be with a woman who inexplicably Comes out of the sun in a silk dress running / Like a watercolor in the rain. Similarly, the “year of the cat” is not central to the story. The phrase only adds to the intrigue of Stewart’s mysterious character.

Don’t bother asking for explanations
She’ll just tell you that she came
In the Year of the Cat

The Impact of “Year of the Cat”

Stewart may have tucked “Year of the Cat” away at the back of the album, but radio stations found it and helped to make it a No. 8 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. It was Stewart’s first single to chart in any country. Its success helped to propel the album Year of the Cat to No. 5 on the Billboard 200. In March 1977, Year of the Cat became Stewart’s first Platinum album in the U.S. His follow-up, Time Passages, would be his only other album to receive Platinum certification.

“Year of the Cat” has been covered numerous times, including by Prog Collective featuring Billy Sherwood (Yes) and David Sancious (E Street Band, Peter Gabriel, Sting). The cover appeared on Prog Collective’s 2022 album, Songs We Were Taught. In 2020, Purple Disco Machine sampled “Year of the Cat’s” piano melody for “In My Arms.” The song has been used in the film Running with Scissors (2006) and in the HBO series Hello Ladies.

There may not be much of a lesson in Stewart’s surreal lyrics for “Year of the Cat,” but there are a couple of morals to the story behind the song’s making. Stewart’s unflagging determination to find the right lyrics to go with “Year of the Cat’s” melody eventually paid off, providing us with a great example of the power of persistence. We can also learn from the song’s commercial success, which occurred in spite of Stewart’s reluctance to showcase the tune. If you create something with quality, people may find and appreciate it, whether or not you think they will.

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Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

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