The song “Year of the Cat” began as “Foot of the Stage”, a song written by Stewart in 1966 after seeing a performance by comedian Tony Hancock whose patter about “being a complete loser” who might as well “end it all right here” drew laughs from the audience: Stewart’s intuitive response that Hancock was in genuine despair led to the writing of “Foot of the Stage”. Stewart is quoted:
He came on stage and he said ‘I don’t want to be here. I’m just totally pissed off with my life. I’m a complete loser, this is stupid. I don’t know why I don’t just end it all right here.’ And they all laughed, because is was the character he played… this sort of down-and-out character. And I looked at him and I thought, Oh my god, He means it. This is for real.” Hancock killed himself in 1968 with a drug overdose. Many of Stewart’s songs have alternate lyrics, and he wasn’t happy with the Hancock-inspired words, as he didn’t want to take advantage of the man’s tragedy, and besides, no one in America knew who Hancock was.
It was the melody for this never-recorded song which Stewart set the lyrics of “Year of the Cat” to in 1975.
The acoustic lead is played by Peter White with Tim Renwick then taking the electric lead. Recording engineer Alan Parsons, who also recorded Pink Floyds “Dark Side Of The Moon” and formed the Alan Parsons Project, had Phil Kenzie add the saxophone part of the song — and by doing so transformed the original folk concept into the jazz-influenced ballad that put Al Stewart onto the charts. According to Al Stewart on an episode of In the Studio with Redbeard (which devoted an episode to the making of the Year of the Cat album), Phil Kenzie was watching a movie and didn’t want to be bothered with going to do session work; but as a favour to Alan Parsons he went to Abbey Road, and the sax solos were recorded in one or two takes, after which Phil left the studio to go back home and watch the rest of his movie. Al also told Redbeard that he didn’t like the sax solos at first but grew to like them.
When he played Royal Albert Hall on May 16, 2015, Stewart talked about this song:
This one came about in a really strange way. Tim Renwick previously played in a band called The Sutherland Brothers, and they had a keyboard player called Peter Wood. I was touring in America in 1975 and Peter Wood continually, at every soundcheck I ever went to, he played this riff on the piano. After I heard it about 14 times I said, ‘You know, there’s something about that. It sounds kind of haunting and nice. Can I write some lyrics to it?” And he said: “Sure, go and write some lyrics.’
Somehow or other, in between all of that and Vietnamese astrology, we came up with this. Thank you, Peter Wood, for writing the music. He’s no longer with us but thank you, Peter.
Pianist Peter Wood was given a co-writing credit on the song in recognition of his piano riff on the recorded track.
But that was the easy bit. The difficult bit was writing the lyrics. Eventually, I came up with a set of lyrics about an English comedian called Tony Hancock and the song was called ‘Foot of the Stage.’ He committed suicide in Australia and I saw him right before he went there and I knew there was something terribly wrong. And so, I wrote this song about him and the chorus was:
Your tears fell down like rain
At the foot of the stage
The American record company said, ‘We’ve never heard of Tony Hancock. We don’t know who he is.’ So, then I thought, ‘Well, that’s annoying so I’ll take the piss out of them.’ So, I wrote a song about Princess Anne called “Horse of the Year”
Princess Anne rode off
On the horse of the year
They didn’t like that either.
I was beginning to lose my mind because I had this piece of music forever and I couldn’t think of any words. I had a girlfriend at the time and she had a book on Vietnamese astrology, which was kind of obscure, and it was open at a chapter called ‘The Year of the Cat.’ Now that’s, I think, the year of the rabbit in Chinese astrology. I’m not too sure. I don’t know a whole lot about a whole lot of things but I recognize a song title when I see one and that was a song title.
But then another problem: what do you do? ‘The Year of the Cat.’ OK, well:
I used to have a ginger Tabby
And now I have a ginger Tom
The first one made me crabby
The new one…
I thought, ‘You can’t write about cats, it’s ridiculous.’ And I was absolutely lost and then the Casablanca movie came on television and I thought, ‘I’ll grab Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre and see where it goes.
The 1942 Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca produced a huge hit with “As Time Goes By,” but “Year of the Cat” is the most popular song that is based on the film itself. In Casablanca Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the owner of a Moroccan nightclub that attracts refugees desperate to escape Nazi-occupied Europe. Peter Lorre, as the scheming Ugarte, takes advantage of their plight by murdering two German couriers for letters of transit that will secure the buyer passage to neutral Portugal:
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime
Rick is thrown for a loop when an old flame, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), walks through the door.
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain
Ilsa needs the letters so her husband, a fugitive Czech Resistance leader, can flee to safety. Rick and Ilsa rekindle their romance and consider staying together, but he convinces her to leave with her husband.
You know sometime you’re bound to leave her
But for now you’re going to stay