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Black and white photo of the folk musician, Al Stewart, playing guitar on stage, profile view. The artist has a contemplative expression, is wearing a casual jacket over a collared shirt, and his focus seems directed towards the strings of his instrument. The lighting casts a soft glow on his figure, highlighting his features against a dark background.
Al Stewart, 1965. Photo credit: fRoots Archive

The Soho Tide: Al Stewart remembers

In this wonderful titbit from the fRoots Archives, Ian A. Anderson catches up with Al Stewart to see what he recalls from old Soho...

It’s 1965. Al Stewart arrives in London with a guitar and a few Dylan songs. Soon he’s living in the next room to Paul Simon, duetting with Peter Bellamy on Fugs songs, and Alex Campbell wants to kill him. Ian Anderson wonders where all this could possibly lead…

The simplified logo for fRoots magazine, made up of an F and an R on a maroon background.
Release Date
1 Jan 2014
From the fRoots Archive
This article, dating from Jan/Feb 2014, was originally published in fRoots Magazine, issue 367/8. fRoots ran from 1979-2019 (RIP). We republish it here on Tradfolk.co with kind permission.
Of all the survivors of the 1960s British ‘contemporary folk’ singer/songwriter scare, Al Stewart is among the few – alongside Ralph McTell and Robin Williamson – who still have all their musical skills and, apparently, their marbles intact. And Al was the most successful of them all.

He worked his way up from the smoky dives of mid-’60s Soho, through the folk clubs and into the early ’70s college circuit, and thence to America where years of hard work touring paid off with two platinum albums, Year Of The Cat and Time Passages. He’s made his home on the US West Coast ever since.

These days he returns to these shores for the occasional tour, usually with acoustic lead guitarist Dave Nachmanoff at his side, selling out halls around the country. On his most recent visit in October, he had the extra guitar whammy of the mighty Tim Renwick on hand when we caught up with him in Birmingham, since they were working up to performing the entire Year Of The Cat album at the Albert Hall. They were magnificent: Al’s voice and guitar skills remain unchanged by time, and he’s one of the most literate wordsmiths out there, especially with his trademark ‘historical folk rock’ that began all those years ago with the line, “Prince Louis Battenberg is burning the Admiralty lights down low…” on Manuscript from his third album Zero She Flies.

The life of somebody like Al is so detailed that a simple broad-brush career retrospective misses all the interesting detail. So when we did this pre-gig interview, it was specifically about those seminal Soho years in the ’60s. What did he find when he got there from Scotland via Bournemouth in 1965?

A black and white photograph capturing Al Stewart, folk musician, in mid-performance. He's holding a white guitar and speaking into a microphone, with the stand curving in front of him. The musician is wearing a dark jacket with a flower pinned to his lapel, suggesting a formal yet personal touch to his attire. The background is completely dark, focusing all attention on the musician and his instrument. His expression is animated, likely engaging with the audience or in the emotion of the song.
Al Stewart in 1965. Photo credit: Brian Shuel

“It’s weird, the first musician I saw in London – I’d just got off the train from Bournemouth and I was 19 – was Ray Sone from the Downliners Sect. I saw him in the street and he said something about a club where he was playing that night which turned out to be Studio 51. I went there and Mox [Gowland: legendary harmonica player] was there. Mox asked me ‘Can you play the piano?’ – I could busk, you know – and I said as long as it’s in C… and the next thing I know I’m backing Ray Sone and Moxy on some 12-bar blues and thinking ‘What is going on here?! I’ve just got off the train and I’m playing piano in a club in London.’”

A square black and white photograph of three members of The Young Tradition in a room with vintage wallpaper. On the left, a man with blonde hair, Pete Bellamy, leans back slightly as he sings or speaks, eyes closed, wearing a dark sweater and white trousers. In the center, a woman with curly hair looks off to the side, her mouth open as if captured mid-song or conversation. To the right, a man in a checkered shirt and dark trousers stands straight, holding what appears to be a microphone or recorder, looking attentively towards the others. The spontaneous moment seems to convey the group's camaraderie and passion for their art.
Young Tradition – Pete Bellamy left. Photo credit: Dave Yoxall/ fRoots Archive

“Somebody told me that there was this club called Bunjies Coffee Bar on Lichfield Street that had folk singers. I remember going down there – Lou Hart ran it, and he had an opening for Friday night. They had two people for each night. Peter Bellamy was one and they wanted someone to work with him because you took it in turns to sing songs. I remember him saying to me ‘Are you a folk singer?’ and I’d just been playing in a beat group [that of Tony Blackburn! Ed.], playing Twist And Shout three times a night. I knew half a dozen Bob Dylan songs and that’s about as close as I was to it, but I knew that the answer had to be ‘yes’. Having just been playing piano with Ray Sone and Moxy, yeah OK, I can do anything! So I said yes, and he said ‘Do you want to work here every Friday? We pay £3.’”

“So I found myself immediately matched with Peter Bellamy, and there can’t be two people who are further apart in style. Peter was singing hand-over-ear Norwich traditional songs and basically I worked my way through the whole of The Freewheeling… and a little bit of The Times They Are A Changing and that was it. This was before The Young Tradition. Royston and Heather used to come down but they hadn’t formed The Young Tradition yet. It was probably February or March of ’65. So Peter and I… at first I think we both thought the other was an alien… ‘What the hell are you doing on that guitar?’ ‘Well, what are you doing with your hand over your ear?’ But for some unknown reason – because we were no threat to each other and opposites tend to attract – we bonded over the Village Fugs. Peter loved the Village Fugs and so did I, so eventually we worked up a version of I Couldn’t Get High.”

A monochrome photograph showing a young folk musician (Al Stewart) seated with an acoustic guitar, performing into a microphone. The musician's casual attire and focused demeanor contribute to an intimate concert atmosphere. Slightly tousled hair frames the artist's expressive face as he appears deeply engaged with his music. Soft curtain drapery in the background contrasts with the musician's sharp form, bringing him into clear focus under the stage lighting.
Al Stewart performing in 1965. Photo credit: fRoots Archive

“We did that for a while and then one day Noel Murphy came in, and he knew three songs and one of them was ‘MacAlpine’s Fusiliers’ or something along those lines. So I was talking to Murphy, he’s a very engaging fellow, and he said there was a brand new folk club just opened up a couple of blocks away which turned out to be Les Cousins. So Murphy said ‘Do you want to go over and check it out?’ I went over with Noel, I went down the stairs – there were maybe 12 people down there and they were all crowded round one guy playing the guitar, and that of course was Bert Jansch. So I’m standing there and I’ve got my mouth open, thinking ‘What the fuck is this?’ Bert Jansch, I’d never heard anything like it, with all the snapping, clicking, banging… It totally floored me. Holy Moly!  So I’d work at Bunjies and then I’d go over and hang out at Cousins and watch the people.”

“I think it did all-nighters very quickly which is actually where I got my first gig. Phil, who used to run it before Andy Matheou, by about 3 o’clock in the morning he’d basically had it and wanted to go home. What he was looking for was someone who’d put people on and off, so I got the gig as the compère of the Cousins, which meant that around about 4 o’clock in the morning when everyone was asleep I could get up and do my own songs!”

One of the regulars at Les Cousins was a key figure of the day, Judith Piepe, who boarded itinerant folk singer/ guitarists at her house in the East End. Al became one of her lodgers.

Paul Simon had moved into the room next door to me. He was writing songs and I listened through the wall. I thought, ‘That doesn’t sound too difficult’.

Al Stewart

“The important thing here is that Paul Simon had moved into the room next door to me, and I was listening to Paul. This was at Judith Piepe’s, in probably May of ’65. Dellow Road. Because Paul was writing songs and I listened through the wall, and I thought, ‘That doesn’t sound too difficult.’ Paul would come out and play ‘Richard Cory’ or whatever he’d just written. I thought it was fantastic. The day before that he’d finished writing ‘Homeward Bound’ and I remember distinctly, my confident 19-year-old self, saying to Paul, ‘This is the hit. The one you wrote yesterday… rubbish. Throw that one away!’

“Artie Garfunkel came over and he was staying there too. Artie had decided to become a mathematician, I think – something out of music. So Paul made the solo album – The Paul Simon Songbook – and he wanted some cash so we went to Lorna Music that was this publisher. They walked in and Paul was trying to sell his publishing, because he’d written these songs and he thought ‘maybe I can get £5,000.’ He’s written ‘Sounds Of Silence’ and ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘I Am A Rock’, all of which are going to become huge but no-one knows. Lorna Music turned them down and said ‘You’ve gotta be joking, you’re a folk singer, nobody’s going to buy these songs.’ What I’d like to do at this point in my life is travel back in time with £5,000 in my pocket and buy them!”

Who else was around?

“Gerry Lockran, Johnny Silvo, Hratch…  Who else was around then? This raises one of the most fascinating questions, and it’s the lost name of English folk. By ’67 there was a guy who everyone looked up to, and I was told ‘this is the guy, he’s really, really good’. The guy’s name was Steve Derbyshire. I went to one of his gigs and the room was packed and people were attentive. He was this tall, strapping, good-looking guy (from memory – this was a long time ago) and the buzz that I was picking up was that if anyone is going to make it, it’s Steve Derbyshire. This is sometime in ’66. By the end of ’66 he’d vanished, and it’s a Shelagh McDonald story because we never hear of him again. He disappears from the entire scene, and unless he changed his name… Steve Derbyshire exits. I asked Bert about that, and Bert remembered him, too. He was a singer, with acoustic guitar. A little bit of blues. He was the hotshot.”

Jackson C Frank turned up in… it probably was ’65 because I was staying at Judith Piepe’s and she took me to The Barge in Richmond, I think it was, and Jackson was playing. We picked up Jackson and hauled him off and came back to Judith’s place. We became friends, and then Paul decided to produce Jackson’s album and I played on it. That was the first time I was ever on a record, playing lead guitar for Jackson Frank, which is so weird, but it’s nice because, you know, ‘produced by Paul Simon, second guitar Al Stewart’.”

I asked John Renbourn if he gave guitar lessons and he looked at me like I’d crawled out from under the carpet

Al Stewart

“There was the Scots Hoose that Bruce Dunnet ran. Bert Jansch and Les Bridger used to play there. And then round the corner there was this pub that was run by Martin Winsor, and I’d met Martin somewhere and I’d said ‘How can I get a gig?’ He said ‘I’ll pay you £2, come and play at my pub’, and I went to this pub and there was a guy playing guitar there and it turned out to be John Renbourn. And I thought Bert Jansch blew my mind! What is this man doing? And I’m still 19 and it’s still 1965. I asked John Renbourn if he gave guitar lessons and he looked at me like I’d crawled out from under the carpet and just said no, so I said fine. But Martin was very friendly, and he was also running the Troubadour with Redd Sullivan.”

This was before my time, but I get the impression that the whole Ewan MacColl / Singers’ Club clique was definitely not part of all this, probably the enemy…?

“I don’t think they were the enemy as much as we were the enemy. Teenagers with guitars – they didn’t like it. I remember Nigel Denver was quite nice to me. Redd and Martin, to their credit, were really nice to me, they were very encouraging, but there was Bob Davenport, people like that  – they were all members of the Communist Party, and this was anathema. Here comes this kid who’s been to a boarding school, and he’s got a guitar and he’s playing rock ’n’ roll. And Alex Campbell wanted to kill me, I mean he really wanted to kill me.”

Why? “I rubbed him the wrong way in some way. I remember being at the Cambridge Folk Festival and I was playing guitar, and Alex, he was spoiling for a fight! He came over and said ‘I betcha ten shillings you cannae play what I’m gonna hum for ya’. So I thought what the hell, I couldn’t care less. So he hummed a tune and I played it, and Alex paid me the 10 shillings. But that was pretty bad and I could tell he didn’t want to, and then immediately afterwards he said ‘How many albums have you made?’ and at the time I’d made two, this was in ’69. And I said ‘Two’ and he said ‘I’ve made 50!’ And it was right on the tip of my tongue to say ‘And how many did they sell?’ but I thought ‘Just don’t say it…’ So essentially, we – and it’s not just me, I’m talking about Roy Harper and Ralph McTell and all the other people – we were perceived as the enemy because (a) we weren’t Communists, and (b) we didn’t have beards and (c) we played guitars. How bad can it be? I think they thought we were Cliff Richard.”

Was Les Cousins a bit of a honeypot? Out in the sticks we got the impression fairly quickly that this was the hip, happening place. A lot of it was because it put its adverts in the Melody Maker Folk Forum every week, so we all made our pilgrimages and eventually became regulars.

“Well, it got such fabulous people. It was the 2i’s of folk. That’s the way to put it, I think. You could go down there and see Jimi Hendrix play down there. Van Morrison used to come. Cat Stevens when he was young – Steve Adams. I used to put him on stage and he only knew three songs… The height of it for me was when Andrew Loog Oldham walked down the steps, and of course I was the only one who recognised him because I was from rock ’n’ roll. The Rolling Stones’ manager is walking down the steps towards me. Oh! I made him sign a piece of paper. I don’t know what he was doing there.”

I had to push Nick Drake on stage one night because he just wouldn’t go.

Al Stewart

“All these great people were down there and, in the fullness of time, all the blues people played there. I even saw Dave Van Ronk there. Brilliant. Eric Andersen, Tom Rush played there. So I put a lot of these people on stage, including Paul Simon. I had to push Nick Drake on stage one night because he just wouldn’t go.”

Later on, there seemed to be a growing rivalry between artists.

“What happened, and this is not the ’60s but if you want to flip forward in time to the ’70s, it divided up into the bands – and by that I mean Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, the Incredible String Band, Pentangle, were all on one side, and then there were the singer-songwriters which essentially were myself, Roy Harper, Ralph McTell and John Martyn. We graduated out of the folk clubs and we started playing colleges and concerts, and then there was a rivalry because you’d arrive in Cardiff University or something and I’d be sitting there happily playing to 300 people and someone would say ‘Ralph was here last week and he had 1000!’”

A black and white photo of Al Stewart taken in 1968 at the Bristol Troubadour. He's seated, holding an acoustic guitar and appears to be tuning it or in the midst of playing, with a focused expression on his face. Another person is visible to the left, partially out of frame, pointing something towards the guitar, perhaps a recording device. The wall behind them is adorned with event posters, one clearly advertising the "Troubadour" venue. The image captures a candid moment, reflecting the informal and creative atmosphere of the folk music scene of the time.
Al Stewart at the Bristol Troubadour, 1968. Photo credit: fRoots Archive

“I never was conscious of any rivalry with Ralph, but certainly because Roy and I were both lyric writers I think we had each other thrown in each other’s faces a little bit by fans, or Melody Maker would print letters being rude to one or the other. Oddly enough in the middle of all this, I knew Roy pretty well, and we got on with each other fine. And Ralph’s a sweetheart anyway and easy to get on with. I think people make out rivalries when they’re not there, and so the press decided that there should be a rivalry here for who’s the king of the singer-songwriters. I don’t think there was that much between us.”

One really big difference between that era and the last decade is that, back then, you had to be the complete thing. Not only write songs, but you had to be a really good guitar player and be able to do the chat between the songs. If you couldn’t do all three of those you didn’t really stand a chance. John Renbourn never really had the chat but he had monstrous guitar stuff. Nick Drake was totally hopeless on stage. But now it seems that the guitar side has really gone.

Unless you could play ‘this guitar piece’Anji’ no-one would take you seriously.

Al Stewart

“If you look at John Martyn, Ralph, Roy and myself, exactly what you say is true. The first thing that I learned is that you’re not going to be taken seriously until you can play ‘Anji’. Not only could everyone who played there play ‘Anji’, but everyone in the first row of the audience could play ‘Anji’. I remember spending hours and hours and hours sitting in Judith Piepe’s living room just playing ‘Anji’. Even Paul Simon had to learn ‘Anji’, we all did. It was so crazy, unless you could play this guitar piece no-one would take you seriously. So we all got a lot better on acoustic guitar than we really needed to because we had to. It was an era when you couldn’t get work if you couldn’t play the guitar, so I started writing finger-style guitar instrumentals. I had no real interest in doing this, but it was cred, you know what I mean?”

So the first guy you meet is Peter Bellamy and you get on pretty well. You’re in there with somebody who is in a different genre of songs – songs that tell stories rather than songs that say “apartheid is bad” or “look-at-me-and-my-love-affair.” With Peter you would have encountered somebody doing traditional ballads with a story, historical ballads. Would that have had a subliminal effect on the sort of songs that you started writing?

“Yes, I think the folk scene influenced me to the extent that I began writing historical songs that I might not have done. That’s absolutely true. Because you can’t listen to 52 verses of ‘The Silkie’ [Roud 197] without wondering where it came from and why. And then there are all the traditional songs telling historical stories, so I must have been influenced by them. And just as a little sidebar to the whole thing, Peter Bellamy then goes on to record one of my songs, ‘Nostradamus’.”

“I just remember it as a time when there was something in the air. As Bob Dylan says, ‘You know something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones?’ We thought we knew what it was. We thought we’d discovered this meeting point between music and poetry, because most of the people who were on the folk scene were highly literate. They’d read the books that were in vogue at the time – Camus was huge, Simone de Beauvoir, all those people. Everyone I knew had read all those books, and so there was this juxtaposition of people who had a pretty fierce interest in literature and words combining with people who had a very fierce interest in playing musical instruments. It seemed as though the guys with the hands over the ears were yesterday’s news and people combining poetry with guitar playing were tomorrow. That’s how it seemed to me at 19. Every 19-year-old feels like that about whatever scene they’re in.”

A color photograph from 2013 featuring three smiling people. On the left, a woman with short grey hair and a playful expression, Maggie Holland, wearing a grey shirt with a colorful scarf. In the center, a man, Al Stewart, with light hair and a wide, cheerful smile, is dressed in a white and red striped shirt. To the right, a woman with long dark hair and a serene smile, Shelagh McDonald, is wearing a red coat. The trio exudes warmth and friendliness, likely at a social or musical event, with a homely interior setting in the background.
Maggie Holland, Al Stewart and Shelagh McDonald, 2013. Photo credit: D Henderson

Indeed, in retrospect that was an amazing moment in time in one place, and yet it was actually so small. Like they say, the punk scene in the mid-late ’70s was only about 100 people.

“Yeah, it was small. Pretty much everyone knew everyone. It’s like Mersey Beat in 1963… the whole British invasion came out of that. I do think there’s a time and a place where something is happening, and if you do know what it is, Mr Jones… The perfect quotation from Shakespeare says it all: ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune’ and this was the tide in the affairs of us.”

Thanks to Liz Arnold for prompts. This article was first published in fRoots 367/8, in Jan/Feb 2014. Discover more about the artist at alstewart.com.