Wild World

“Your Song” wasn’t the only legendary ballad released at the end of 1970, although it took longer for “Wild World” to become a hit.

Not that Cat Stevens was new. Like Elton John he’d been kicking around a while, released music previously, but suddenly the stars aligned. To the hoi polloi they emerged fully formed, it was nearly a miracle, where did this music come from?

Now the truth is Cat Stevens had actually had a bit of success previously, it’s just that most people were unaware of it. Those who needed more bought imports of Elton’s “Empty Sky” and were disappointed. But when you went back and bought Cat Stevens’s earlier LP, “Mona Bone Jakon,” you found something darker than “Tea for the Tillerman,” more uneven, but with highlights just as good. It was kind of like “Hunky Dory” before the breakthrough of “Ziggy Stardust,” although the truth is “Ziggy” was nowhere near as big as either “Elton John” or “Tea for the Tillerman” in the U.S., Bowie had to make three more LPs before he had the giant hit “Rebel Rebel” off of “Diamond Dogs,” then again those paying attention, living for music, already knew who he was, it was only the johnny-come-latelies who were surprised, who now had to see Bowie in arenas instead of theatres.

But although the early successes, the earlier artistic peaks, of both Elton and Bowie were high, they continued to crest again and again over the years, Cat Stevens did not. Would Stevens have found the magic once again if he hadn’t retired? Possibly, but his albums kept getting worse. “Teaser and the Firecat” had three big hits, but it was a less satisfying listening experience, and a step down in quality. Then, despite making six more albums, Stevens only had two more hits, “Oh Very Young” from “Buddha and the Chocolate Box” and the non-album single “Another Saturday Night” and called it a day. It was big news, Cat’s religious conversion, because despite the internet today in the seventies music was the dominant cultural force, far exceeding television, and by the latter half of the decade the blockbuster era had flowered in film, and although there was corporate rock at the same time, there were still monumental albums, too many to list, and “Rolling Stone” had the impact and gravitas of a major newspaper.

Now the truth is Cat Stevens woke up a couple of years back and went on tour and if you didn’t see him you missed something special. And then he rerecorded “Tea for the Tillerman.” This should never be done. Artists are clueless as to what makes their albums hits, why the public gravitates towards them. Unless, of course, you’re going for a hit, but despite radio action those cuts rarely resonate throughout history, it’s the ones when you’re deep in your hole, doing your own thing, not worrying about the audience, that connect. And as Steven Wilson, the best remixer out there says, you don’t want to mess with the sound fans know. Acts are constantly telling him to tweak, to “improve” the sound. But Wilson says these remixes are for fans, and he wants them to sound identical, but clearer, that’s what they want. Despite reams of hype, nobody wanted a reimagined “Tea for the Tillerman,” but the original…

And speaking of originals, not only did “Mona Bone Jakon” precede “Tea for the Tillerman,” but “Matthew and Son” and “New Masters,” and Cat’s previous work, gained notice and at this point one must say “The First Cut Is the Deepest” is a standard, covered by many.

Also, in the seventies the film “Harold & Maude” became an art house classic and “Trouble” from “Mona Bone Jakon” played in one of the best scenes in the movie so if you look back at the era, the decade, the seventies, Cat Stevens was a big star.

But it all started with “Wild World.” That’s when most people got their first taste of his music. After all, the initial two LPs were on Deram and most people were completely unaware of them.

Now if you listen to “Elton John,” despite some raucous numbers, many of the greatest tracks are dark. With rich production from Gus Dudgeon and strings by Paul Buckmaster. But “Tea for the Tillerman” was different, the songs might have been dark at times, but the production was not, the album had a sunny tone, and as a result ultimately got played out and discarded, well relatively. People kept spinning those early Elton John albums but “Tea for the Tillerman” had been so overplayed, embraced by both casual fans and diehards, that you didn’t hear it. And now, decades later, revisiting it is jaw-dropping.

Now the truth is “Wild World” was the hit, but it’s not my favorite song on the album. I bought the album based on reviews, I was living in the hinterlands, far from commercial radio, I knew every cut on “Tea for the Tillerman” before I ever heard “Wild World” on the radio, and I remember exactly where it happened, April 21st 1971, on the way back from a gorgeous day at Stowe, in a parking lot in Burlington, a guy had the side door of his van opened, and the song was emanating. A connection was made in my brain, this song really is that big. But ultimately my favorite cut on the album was the final one, a minute five long, the title track.

“Oh lord, how they play and play

For that happy day, for that happy day”

It was just Cat and his piano. Quiet. And then the song built to a flourish, all excited, with backup vocals, and then it was done, and this was long before CD players, if you wanted to hear it again you had to get up and lift the needle. And for a one minute song you rarely did, so hearing “”Tea for the Tillerman” at the end of the LP was a treat, back when we listened to complete sides anyway.

Now strangely, fifty years on the biggest cut off of “Tea for Tillerman” is track 10, deep on the second side, “Father and Son,” now that the boomers are parents, at this point even grandparents.

And if I were going track by track, I’d have to singe out “Miles From Nowhere” and “Longer Boats,” and most especially “Hard Headed Woman,” never mind “Where Do the Children Play.”

But right there in the middle of the first side is “Wild World.”

“Now that I’ve lost everything to you

You say you want to start something new

And it’s breaking my heart that you’re leaving

Baby, I’m grieving”

This used to be the basic paradigm of songs from the blues era on. Broken relationship. Man on the losing end. How we got to this macho turnaround I’ll never know, actually I do know, but I can’t say, because of the woke police, I can’t be politically incorrect, I risk getting canceled, but whereas you could identify with the music of yore, today you often end up feeling inferior, kinda like surfing Instagram. And never forget, despite the bravura, men take breakups harder than women.

“But if you want to leave take good care

Hope you have a lot of nice things to wear

But then a lot of things turn bad out there”

Now wait just a minute here, he’s starting to sneer, turns out he’s angrier than he let on, he’s not only licking his wounds, he’s biting back, despite the pleasant “la la” music.

“You know I’ve seen a lot of what the world can do

And it’s breaking my heart in two

Because I never want to see you sad girl

Don’t be a bad girl”

He’s wiser, he’d protect her, but now she’s out on her own without his direction, he’s warning her she’s gonna take hits, get into trouble, even worse don’t encourage men, don’t change your personality, don’t go down the wrong roads.

“But if you want to leave take good care

Hope you make a lot of nice friends out there

But just remember there’s a lot of bad and beware”

This is just a spin on “You don’t know what you’re losing, you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone, you’re never going to find anybody better than me.”

“Oh, baby baby it’s a wild world

It’s hard to get by just upon a smile

Oh, baby baby it’s a wild world

And I’ll always remember you like a child girl yeah”

The truth is you can get very far just upon a smile. And the singer knows this. He resents this. The doors opening for his ex while he’s home licking his wounds. He’s warning her what’s out there, the bad to come, and says he doesn’t want to know what happens to her, when she grows up, when she loses her innocence, he’s going to remember her how she was with him, a child, who he probably tried to control. The guy in this song probably caused her to leave, by coddling her, trying to clip her wings. Then again, young love rarely lasts. Then again, it’s hard to get over your first.

Not that you know all this at age seventeen, when I was listening to “Wild World.” Your whole life is in front of you, you’re inexperienced, despite thinking you know it all. And the funny thing is I was brought up in an era of freedom, to be who you wanted to be, you could get by on minimum wage, you didn’t need a “career,” you also didn’t need to stay with someone if you were unhappy, and therefore it’s hard to find a boomer who isn’t divorced. And you’ll also find aged boomers who are alone, many with regrets, but there are no do-overs in life. Even worse, the one you fantasize about, who left you…unlike in the song most did quite well, had relatively happy lives, they were looking for the one before they settled down, they wanted to make a good choice, not stay with their first. Then again, not all stories have good endings.

So what you’ve got here is a legendary hit, a bedrock song, that plays all sunny, that people smile at when they hear it on the radio, but the truth is despite the lilting music, it’s really a downbeat number. Casual listeners think the singer is accepting the loss, wishing his ex good tidings, when the truth is just the opposite. But how many lovers scorned don’t have resentment.

And one thing is for sure, as we grew up we realized Cat was right, it was definitely a wild world out there and we’d give anything to be a child once again, with our hopes and dreams, our wherewithal still intact. But we’ve still got this music, which is why they call it classic rock. Is today’s music classic? I’ll let you decide.

Comments are closed