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    Josh Mound

    The Best Version Of… Cat Stevens's Tea For The Tillerman



    In March of 1968, Cat Stevens was diagnosed with tuberculosis and a collapsed lung. He spent the better part of the next year receiving treatment and recovering — first at the Harley Street Clinic in London, then at King Edward VII Sanatorium Hospital in the Sussex countryside.


    Less than two years earlier, the eighteen-year-old Stevens rocketed to the top of the U.K. singles charts with his first single, “I Love My Dog.” Within a few months, two other, bigger singles followed. But in the midst of a personal — and, eventually, legal — conflict with manager/producer Mike Hurst over the direction of his sound, Stevens’s next few singles tanked, and his second full-length album didn’t make a dent in the charts in the U.K. or elsewhere. Even though he wrote his own songs, Stevens was seen as a teenybopper at a time when rock musicians were beginning to assert themselves as artists.


    At King Edward, Stevens had to confront the possibility that at the age of 20 he was both washed-up and facing death. “To go from the show business environment and find you are in hospital, getting injections day in and day out, and people around you are dying, it certainly changes your perspective,” Stevens said later. “I got down to thinking about myself. It seemed almost as if I had my eyes shut.”


    While he was convalescing, Stevens’s friend sent him The Secret Path by Paul Brunton, billed as “a practical guide to the spiritual wisdom of the East.” “I read that book once and thought about it, and I used it to meditate,” Stevens told Circus magazine in 1971. “There was nowhere that was quiet enough in the hospital. I had to creep out and there was this cow shed with a couch in it. I used to go in there and lock the door, then sit down and think. It was completely silent and that is where it came to me. It just happened. You reach that moment and you see it and say, ‘Of course!’ Then everything sprung from there like light.”


    The Secret Path was the beginning of a transformation in Stevens that would culminate in his conversion to Islam in 1977 and subsequent retirement from the music industry. (For clarity, when using quotes from before his conversion, I’ll credit them to Cat Stevens; when using quotes from after his conversion, I’ll credit them to his post-conversion name, Yusuf Islam.)


    “My convalescence gave me a chance to grow and develop, to grow a beard, which I didn’t have before. And symbolically that was to change my identity,” Islam told Classic Rock magazine in 2004. “When I came back, I found a whole new group of friends who understood me for being more than just a pop singer.”


    The most significant effect of Stevens’s tuberculous respite and spiritual awakening was a reconsideration of the direction of both his life and his music. “Getting sick completely changed the course of my life,” Islam told Guitar World in 2021:


    I mean, up to that point, I’d been living kind of a shell of a life. I had not really developed an identity. And I’d been kept in my [early career signature-garb of] tuxedos, if you like, by the business and the agencies around me at the time. And so this was a chance for me to break free of the image and to kind of find myself. And I was looking very, very deeply into my psyche of who I was… and that spiritual exploration began in the hospital. But the illness didn’t stop me [writing] and, in fact, I started writing very soon.


    The new, acoustic songs penned by Stevens were in some ways simpler musically than his previous work. “I decided to start again with my approach,” he explained to Rolling Stone’s Ben Fong-Torres in 1971, “to go right back to what I started to do. [Now] I take exactly what I do [naturally] and do that.”


    Chastened by his twin brushes with fame and death, Stevens’s new songs also came from a different place lyrically. “I started reflecting and all of the songs came out of that reality,” Islam told Sound on Sound in 2020. “It wasn’t put on at all, and I think that’s why they’ve got longevity.”


    The first evidence of his new direction came with Mona Bone Jakon, released April 1970. With a Stevens-painted cover, the support of producer Paul Samwell-Smith, and the contribution of guitarist Alun Davies, it announced Stevens’s new sound and set the template for the three additional albums he’d release in the next two-and-a-half years. Tracks like “Maybe You’re Right” and “Trouble” — with their sparse, acoustic-based arrangements and plainspoken philosophizing — made clear that the new Stevens wasn’t the same artist as the one who’d become a teen idol in the U.K. just a few years before. Jakon nonetheless reached just number 63 on the U.K. album charts, falling off after a month, and barely cracked the Billboard 200 in the U.S.


    It would take Stevens’s next album to alter his commercial prospects.


    Released in November of 1970, just seven months after Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman was a global smash that established Stevens as a major artist in the U.S. for the first time. It landed at number eight on the Billboard year-end album rankings, stayed in the charts for 79 weeks, and would go on to sell more than three million albums in America. Stevens’s next album, 1971’s Teaser and the Firecat, would land at number two in the U.S. Its follow-up, 1972’s Catch Bull at Four, would reach number one, capping an incredible two years for Stevens.


    While each of the albums in this run has its individual virtues, none could top Tea for the Tillerman, the subject of this edition of “The Best Version Of….”


    Tillerman remains Stevens’s most beloved albums. It was included in Consequence of Sound’s “Top 100 Albums Ever,” Robert Dimery’s ubiquitous 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, multiple iterations of Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “200 Definitive Albums“ list.


    Tillerman is considered one of best sounding albums of the era, too. Universal’s Bill Levenson told ICE magazine in 2000 that Tillerman has “always been [an] audiophile benchmark record,” and it received an honorable mention in Stereophile’s 2002 “40 Essential Albums“ ranking.


    Together, Stevens and Samwell-Smith helped to define the sound of the singer-songwriter movement of the early-’70s. These “new troubadours,” as Time called them in a March 1971 cover story, represented a “startling change” from raucous, revolution sound of ‘60s rock:


    Over the last year a far gentler variety of rock sound has begun to soothe the land. Why? Theories abound, few of them satisfactory. The fading out of ear-numbing, mind-blowing acid rock, some say, is related to the softening of the youth revolution. Its decline is variously viewed as a symptom of either progress toward harmony and thoughtfulness or a tragic slide from activist rage into a mood of “enlightened apathy.” There is also the desire for individual expression on the part of talented rock musicians too long cooped up in their communal palaces of sound. Many of them came to realize that the higher the decibel rate, the less creative subtlety possible for composers and performers alike. In any case, rock could hardly have gotten more frenzied…. What all of them seem to want most is an intimate mixture of lyricism and personal expression — the often exquisitely melodic reflections of a private “I.”


    Some fans rejected the inward turn of artists like James Taylor, the main subject of Time’s report. But few could accuse Stevens of what critics saw as the singer-songwriters’ “enlightened apathy.” Stevens’s personal journey laid bare a deep concern for the state of the world. He may have sung about transcending the corporeal, but his goal wasn’t to leave his fans behind. As Islam explained to VH1, “Songs like ‘But I Might Die Tonight’ and ‘On the Road to Find Out,’ these were these are songs which were reflecting I think a general interest in which was in my generation for more answers than we’d been given.”


    “[My music was popular] particularly [with] the lone bedsitter who was trying to figure it all out, the way I was,” Islam reflected in 2004. “And the terms of reference had changed in the seventies. It was a new age and we were defining that age. And singers and poets do in some sense speak for the soul of a generation.”


    Yet by announcing Stevens as a global artistic and commercial force, Tillerman also exacerbated the pressures that would hasten Stevens’s retirement from pop music just eight year later. “It was a roller coaster,” Islam told GQ’s Thomas Barrie in 2020:


    Once it began, it was non-stop, it went faster and faster. My success was an incredibly large thing to deal with. When it came to my fourth album [Tea For The Tillerman], it just went “Wham!” and zoomed up in the Billboard charts. That shook me and I didn’t feel that comfortable. I didn’t want to be nailed into any particular goal. I didn’t want to feel I was a product, which tends to be the thing that happens when you get to a certain stature. Or you become a kind of a hologram of yourself: you don’t really live or breathe any more, you’re doing it for public.


    Stevens was born Steven Georgiou in July of 1948 in central London to a Greek father and a Swedish mother. His parents ran a restaurant in London’s West End and lived above it. “My parents sold lunchtime café food and there was a downstairs restaurant that did stuff like burgers, fish and chips, and spaghetti bolognese and mixed grills,” Islam recalled to Record Collector in 2020:


    Mum was in charge of the sandwiches and pastries that she made, fantastic Swedish rock cakes and macaroons. I served at the tables. All of us did: me, my older sister Anita, and my brother David. In retrospect I did have an unusual upbringing. I was a cockney kid raised Greek Orthodox and Baptist who then went to St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic primary school in Covent Garden, just off Drury Lane. It prepared me to take an observer’s stance on life because I wasn’t quite anything; I was a lot of things. At school I could participate in lessons, but I couldn’t attend Catholic Mass.


    Stevens’s parents divorced when he was eight, and he moved with his mother to Sweden. In Sweden, he developed an interest in art. But they soon returned to London, where his now-divorced parents resumed living together above the family’s restaurant. “I was lucky all the way through school,” Stevens told Stereo Review in 1972, “and I’ve always been in a position where people were following me and observing what I was doing. In school I was ‘the artist boy.’ I was beat up, but I was noticed.”


    Given that the family’s restaurant was just down the street from the Shaftesbury Theatre, one of Stevens’s earliest musical influences was West Side Story. “I think [West Side Story songwriter Leonard] Bernstein was a very strong influence that stayed with me in many ways,” Stevens told Sounds magazine’s Penny Valentine in 1971:


    I just used to listen to the West Side Story music, and the whole comparative feeling between his New York and my London was so obvious. It was the same feeling. I got that jaggedness, that staccato from it. It really satisfied me because that was my whole existence, the area that I was brought up in. That really appealed to me, but also I fell for the really soft feeling in music. I think one of the first records I really listened to was…[George Gershwin’s] Porgy and Bess, the operatic one. I really loved it because Gershwin had this lovely flow but then he’d have that jolt with it as well — shock element. And also he worked with black people, and that was great because that gave it a freedom. If he’d used white singers it would have clamped it down slightly. I think earlier influences than that, well, Buddy Holly. I always liked him. One of the first records I bought was “Peggy Sue.”


    Other early favorites, according to Stevens, were Leadbelly and Nina Simone.


    When The Beatles ignited Britain in 1963, the 15-year-old Stevens began playing the family’s disused baby grand piano and convinced his father to buy him his first guitar. The Beatles led to Bob Dylan and folk guitar. “Early on, I was impressed by the Bert Jansch clique: John Renbourn, Davey Graham…,” Islam told Guitar World in 2021:


    I remember that everybody could play “Anji” [by Davey Graham], and I loved that kind of folk thing. But, of course, The Beatles were absolutely dominating everything for me — the skill of the writing. The problem was I never had an electric guitar, so it was always acoustic. So I tended to write on an acoustic, and I was always more of a rhythm guitarist than a solo player. I couldn’t do that [solo]. As you experiment with chords, it starts to get boring when you can only do simple strumming. And that’s where fingerstyle does the job. You’re on a chord, it’s a simple thing, you’ve got the shape right but now you can make it sing in a different way. I never really learnt the intricacies of fingerpicking properly. I mean, even today, I’m shy of playing in front of someone like Paul Simon because I never learned anything properly. But the way I did it was kind of unique and that’s why I suppose it works in my songs.


    Stevens’s limitations as a guitarist meant that he began writing his own songs almost as soon as he began playing guitar. “[I was] too lazy to learn other people’s,” he matter-of-factly confessed to Circus in 1971.


    Taking the stage name Cat Stevens, the teen began performing in London coffee shops and clubs. In 1966, he auditioned for Hurst, formerly of the British vocal group The Springfields, who signed Stevens to a management contract, produced Stevens’s lyrically endearing “I Love My Dog” (which featured a melody partially plagiarized from saxophonist Yusef Lateef’s 1961 instrumental “The Plum Blossom”) in a harp- and cello-heavy arrangement, and helped him get a deal with Decca subsidiary Deram Records.


    Stevens’s rise was meteoric. “Dog” reached number 28 on the U.K. singles charts. Three months later, “Matthew and Son” made it to number two. Less than three months after that, “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun hit number six. Buoyed by these singles, his debut album, Matthew and Son, landed at number seven on the U.K. album charts.


    But his fall was almost as quick. Released in July of 1967, the non-album single, “A Bad Night,” peaked at number 20. “Kitty,” the first single from his second album, New Masters, peaked eight spots lower. The album itself didn’t chart at all, despite containing “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” which would be a hit for P.P. Arnold in 1967, Rod Stewart in 1977, and Sheryl Crow in 2003.


    By the time New Masters was recorded, Stevens and Hurst were squaring off in court. Stevens and his lawyer argued that he’d signed the contract with Hurst while he was a minor, and the court found in his favor.


    Come 1969, Cat Stevens was free of both Hurst and tuberculosis, and with the help of his brother David Gordon, Stevens set about taking control of his career. Or at least what was left of it. “My agent, Harold Davidson, wanted to put you into pantomime if you weren’t having hit records anymore,” Islam remembered. “That was the next step as far as he was concerned — to get me to play Buttons.”


    Even if no one else besides his brother believed in Stevens, he believed in himself. So, it seemed, did Stevens’s new manager, Barry Krost. Krost helped arrange an audition with Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell. “He sat down and, you know, played me a song. And I liked it. It was nice. He played me another song, and again it was fine,” Blackwell told VH1 in 2000. “And then third song he played was called ‘Father and Son,’ and I thought, ‘Wow this is incredible, this song.’ Just the way he was — just there on his own with an acoustic guitar just playing the songs [and] singing — they were complete; they didn’t need anything more to my ear.”


    Islam credits Blackwell with allowing him to take control of his career. “Signing to Island Records was the greatest liberating opportunity I ever had in my career, certainly up to that point,” he told Guitar World:


    It was like, ‘Now you can do whatever you want.’ And Chris Blackwell was absolutely bowled over by my songwriting, because by that time I’d written things like ‘Father And Son’ and ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ and he’d listened to quite a few of them…. Chris gave me all the freedom I wanted and – not only that – when it came to the record cover, he said, ‘Well, you’re an artist – why don’t you draw it?’ I couldn’t have asked for anything more! He gave us the freedom to do things like that.


    The circumstance Stevens now found himself in with Blackwell and Island stood in stark contrast with his experience with Hurst and Deram. “Every time I came up with an idea they’d counteract it with their own idea, and I’d never get what I wanted done,” Stevens told Valentine:


    I realized that wasn’t what I wanted things to sound like at the time, but I always went along with it. I was much too submissive. I agreed with them too much, but then it got to a point where I was so messed up, my whole feeling for music had gone. I was just writing songs to make singles, to be on television — these were the things I was led to believe were right to do.”


    Stevens knew that he didn’t want his Island albums to sound like the one’s he’d recorded with Hurst for Deram. “I used to dread recording sessions,” Stevens remembered to Circus. “For days before, I’d spend sleepless nights fearing having to walk into a studio and face a mass of blank uncomprehending and unsympathetic session men who would go mechanically through there chore, put down a technically perfect, but totally antiseptic piece of recording of my music, and then drift off into the next session for the next guy.”


    His new sound would be more less produced, more stripped-down. “The second time round I realized that some of my best songs were down on demos,” he told Valentine. “Those were the best, with just me double tracking, playing piano, guitar. I realized that was the way.”


    Paul Samwell-Smith was Blackwell’s opportune suggestion for the producer to bring Stevens’s new sound to life. As a bassist, Samwell-Smith had been one of The Yardbirds founding members. While still a member, Samwell-Smith co-produced The Yardbirds’ 1966 album before leaving the group to focus on production full-time. When he met up with Stevens, Samwell-Smith’s most notable non-Yardbirds production credit was English prog-rock band Renaissance’s debut. But according to biographer David Evans, before beginning his work with Stevens, Samwell-Smith had been listening to Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.


    “I took a gamble on the producer,” Stevens told Valentine. “I heard the work Paul Samwell-Smith had done for Renaissance. I liked his sound and thought I’d try him, and he had the musicians.”


    The musicians that Samwell-Smith brought in — guitarist Alun Davies, bassist John Ryan, and drummer Harvey Burns — would serve as Stevens’s backing band for both Mona Bone Jakon and Tea for the Tillerman.


    The pairing of Stevens with Samwell-Smith — who would helm all of Stevens’s albums from Jakon through Catch a Bull at Four — proved to a match made in sonic heaven. “Paul has a very clear mind,” Stevens told Circus. “He can see things clear. He’s very technical. Immensely so. I’m just ‘anything as long as it feels good and sounds good.’”


    While Hurst had been eager to swaddle Stevens’s sparse demos in orchestration, Samwell-Smith was willing to embrace Stevens’s preference for simplicity. “I could always say, ‘Steve go sit and just do the song vocal and guitar or vocal and piano’…,” he told VH1. “You can build around that so easily, and that was always for me the core of our work together.”


    With the support of Island and the expertise of Samwell-Smith, Stevens was able to devote more time to honing his sound. “In the Decca days I was doing three tracks in a session,” Islam remembered to Mojo’s Colin Irwin in 2000, “but now I could spend an evening doing one track, which showed they believed in me.”


    The two months that Stevens and Samwell-Smith worked on Mono Bone Jakon was positively leisurely compared to Stevens’s pace with Decca. “Steve was a perfectionist in the studio,” Davies told VH1. “Having got the take he wanted, [he] would then trace it home to 2:00 in the morning.”


    They spent even more time recording its follow up, Tea for the Tillerman. The precise amount, though, is up for debate. In 1971, Stevens told Valentine that “Tillerman took four months to get the whole thing together.” In more recent interviews, Samwell-Smith has pegged it as either five months (both to biographer Evans and in the liner notes to the 2008 2 CD “Deluxe” edition of Tillerman) or seven months (to VH1 in 2000). Even though Tillerman was released exactly seven months after Jakon, Stevens had few touring or promotional commitments in early 1970. Assuming recording for Tillerman began almost immediately after Jakon, something in the four-to-five-month range seems likely.


    This longer timeline suited both the increasingly meticulous Stevens and Samwell-Smith, who was keeping track of the escalating sonic achievements of late-’60s pop music. “[After Jakon] we then went to work on Tea for the Tillerman, and that took a long time,” Samwell-Smith told VH1. “We were actually in and out of studio — not all the time of course — for about seven months [sic], which was much more like it from my point of view, because I’d heard that Simon and Garfunkel spent sort-of 800 recording hours on Bridge Over Troubled Water, and I thought, ‘Well it can’t be proper unless you do that.’”


    “[Recording] takes work,” Stevens explained to Hit Parade in December 1971:


    Immediately [when] you get a song, you want to put in drums; you want to put in bass. You think “How am I going to…” That doesn’t work anymore. At least not for me. I like to be surprised. it has to fit perfectly — not just drums, rhythm. It has to be much more than that — the awareness you get sometimes into a song. That’s why sometimes I break into the middle, completely, suddenly. You’ve got people [hooked then]. The moment it stops, it begins. It’s like you don’t have to play so loud. In fact, the quieter you play the more people will listen.”


    Tea for the Tillerman was recorded across three studios. “We used Morgan in Willesden, Olympic in Barnes, and Island in Basing Street,” Islam recalled to Record Collector in 2020. “Morgan was great, very musician-friendly, comfortable with a café, so you could stop a session and grab a bite. It was more like a living room. Olympic had wooden parquet floors. It was less personal and a lot bigger…. I found it less intimate. Island was okay but didn’t have much character. The offices were great, though: open plan with Habitat decoration, exposed brick and a community feel. I guess they were all hippies. Portobello Road was ‘round the corner.”


    Morgan Studios used a solid-state Cadac desk and a 3M tape machine. Prior to Tillerman, the self-titled albums by Blind Faith and Free, Led Zeppelin II, The Kinks’ Lola, and Jethro Tull’s Stand Up had been recorded there, wholly or partly.

    By 1970, Olympic already was one of the world’s most famous recording studios, having become the de facto home studio of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones, among other luminaries. The Beatles also used Olympic to record tracks like “All You Need Is Love” and “Something.” In addition to offering rooms of varying dimensions, Olympic was known for its sold-state mixing consoles designed by Dick Swettenham, who served as Olympic’s technical director. The wrap-around layout of Swettenham’s consoles was influenced by Olympic’s senior engineer Keith Grant, who asked Swettenham to make the studio’s boards more accessible. “The problem with that first ‘flat’ Dick Swettenham desk, and the problem with most desks to this day, is that if you want to do some things, you’ve got to stand up, go tweakle, tweakle, tweakle, and then sit down again,” Grant told Sound on Sound in 2012. “I’m basically sedentary, which is a posh word for being lazy! But if you’re adjusting an EQ, you want to adjust it from where you’re sitting. You don’t want to be standing up and moving four foot forward into the sound pitch while adjusting the EQ, because when you sit down it sounds different. So we designed the desk so everything was in your hands and you didn’t have to move your head more than necessary.”


    In 1970, Island Studios at Basing Street was the least renowned of those used for Tillerman, having just been opened the previous year by the label’s founder Chris Blackwell. In time, a litany of legendary ‘70s albums, including Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die, Led Zeppelin’s IV, and The Wailers’ Burnin’ would be recorded, either in whole or in part, at Island. Eager to establish Island Studios as a cutting-edge location, Blackwell lured Swettenham away from Olympic by helping to found Swettenham’s Helios Audio. Island featured Swettenham’s first Helios-branded wraparound console. He would go on to sell them to studios across the world with the (perhaps apocryphal) slogan ”Studios install Neve. Musicians install Helios.”


    Olympic and Island each used 16-track 3M tape machines, too.


    “Both albums [Jakon and Tillerman] were recorded onto 3M or Studer machines on 16-track two-inch tape at 15 inches per second,” Samwell-Smith explained in the liner notes to the liner notes to the 2008 2CD “Deluxe” edition of Tillerman, “with Dolby noise reduction and mixed onto quarter-inch tape at 15 IPS with Dolby [noise reduction]. “


    According to Sound on Sound’s Joe Matera, Samwell-Smith “played with the Dolby system during mastering to add compression and treble to the entire mix.” (Exactly how he did this isn’t clear, though producer/engineer André Perry has speculated that Samwell-Smith didn’t decode the Dolby noise reduction in order to create “a very present, dynamic, bright sound.”)


    Stevens’s voice and acoustic guitar — usually a jumbo-bodied Gibson — served as the foundation for most tracks on Tillerman.


    Despite the time spent polishing Tillerman, most of Stevens’s lead vocals were single-tracked, with double-tracking reserved for backing tracks. “I’m not overly keen about [double-tracking] on the lead vocal…,” Samwell-Smith told Sound on Sound in 2020. ”My favorite of all is to have a single‑tracked voice in your face that is telling the story. That is my favorite means of production, but it is lovely to use double tracking when it can decorate or accentuate the main vocal.”


    With Stevens’s solo vocal anchored in the center of most songs, Samwell-Smith worked to spread his and Davies’ acoustic guitars across the soundstage. “I learned very early on a trick that I got from Joni Mitchell where she would play the acoustic guitar and sing in one pass through,” he explained:


    Then she would again play the same acoustic guitar part exactly the same, all the way through. And, of course, because the guitar’s pitch varied slightly between takes, that gave it a wonderful rich, slightly 12‑string sound. So I love doing that… As with the vocals, I like having well‑recorded acoustic guitars. I used to experiment doing stereo back in the day, like on “On The Road To Find Out” and stuff like that, where I would use a stereo acoustic guitar, so long as it didn’t negatively impact on the vocal.


    Guitarist Alun Davies fleshed out Stevens’s guitar parts with his own acoustic work. “[Davies and I] got on just so perfectly,” Islam told Guitar World, “because he had this intricacy that could fill out all the gaps in my chord playing, and he gave them another dimension. And so it was just a perfect partnership.”


    This simple vocals-acoustic framework was augmented by bassist John Ryan and drummer Harvey Burns on most tracks. Sometimes Stevens also added keyboards, and a few cuts feature violin from John Rostein or strings arranged by Del Newman. But the overarching sound of Tillerman is an uncluttered, (deceptively) simple sonic palette that serves to underscore the tenor of Stevens’s lyrics, which grappled with the stress and destruction wrought by modern life.


    The instruments were there to support the song and nothing more. “I wasn’t there to be the big drummer...,” Burns remembered in the liner notes to the 50th anniversary deluxe box set:


    I allowed myself to be affected by the atmosphere and by what he wanted...  If someone’s really, really clear — I don’t just mean about what they want but about who they are personally and musically — that makes it very, very easy to accompany them. It’s very easy to work with people who know what they want and appreciate what you do…. I think I put drums on mostly after it had all been recorded. I remember often just sitting there with the headphones on, which was great for me because it gave me a chance to feel into it and maybe do two or three takes without involving the whole group. Interestingly, many of them were first or second takes…. Looking back on it, everything just seemed to work.”


    Tea for the Tillerman’s opening track, “Where Do the Children Play?” announced these themes plainly, creating one of the era’s most unsuspecting environmental anthems. In the liner notes to the 2008 On the Road to Find Out box, Islam describes the song as “harking back to my time in Shaftesbury Avenue, where there was no real playground nearby. And even in my school we played mostly in the basement. And the lyrics speak for themselves about ecology, and the looming dangers of an over-technologicalized society; that was basically it.”


    “Where Do the Children Play?” opens with a strummed acoustic in the right channel, a picked acoustic in the center-left, and a gentle electric piano in the far left channel. The center acoustic plays the track’s main riff, which the keyboard partly mirrors, partly complicates. Before the vocals begin, Ryan’s bass enters as the instruments play through the track’s descending root notes. An organ enters deep in the right channel, mirroring the electric piano’s figure.


    With subtle reverb that splashes left and right, Stevens’s voice enters in the center channel at the half-minute mark:


    Well I think it’s fine

    Building jumbo planes

    Or taking a ride on a cosmic train

    Switch on summer from a slot machine

    Yes, get what you want to if you want

    ‘Cause you can get anything


    When the chorus begins, Stevens’s vocals are doubled:


    I know we’ve come a long way

    We’re changing day to day

    But tell me, where do the children play?


    As the chorus ends, the electric piano, organ, and picked acoustic join again on the track’s main riff. Shifting into the second verse, Stevens expands the track’s sonics with vibes buried deep in the right channel. The track builds more after the third chorus, when wordless backing vocals enter, followed by a subtle string arrangement buried deep in the mix. On the final verse, Burns’s loping drums enter with a thunderous roll.


    In the “Deluxe” edition’s liner notes, Samwell-Smith recalled the recording of “Where Do the Children Play?”:


    As with so many of these recordings, the basic track was recorded with just guitars and voice; Steve played the basic guitar, Alun Davies the second guitar…. After laying down the basic track, everything else was overdubbed later, individually, which is why the drums lurch a little (very different from today’s computerized methods). Steve played the electric piano and the vibraphone, and we did the backing vocals together, which were actually a little flat, but when mixed back and with a little reverb, quite moody. Wonderful string arrangement from Del Newman, who also first worked with Steve on Mona Bone, and who wrote the string arrangements for many of his albums.


    The highlight of “Where Do the Children Play?” is Stevens’s impassioned vocal, which builds to a mutli-tracked crescendo on the last chorus as Stevens reaches down for the low note that ends the chorus’s question.


    The next track on Tea for the Tillerman follows in the footsteps of “I Love My Dog,” once again showing that Stevens has a knack for crafting atypical love songs. In “Hard Headed Woman,” Stevens years for a “hard-headed woman…who will take me for myself.” The lyrics seem to reflect both Stevens’s newfound spiritual quest for substance and his skepticism that, given the realities of pop star hangers-on, anyone he meets will love him for who he really is. As he told Creem’s Michele Straubing in 1971, “‘Hard Headed Woman’ is a strange one. I don’t really know who a hard-headed woman really is. I’ll find out one day. It’s weird. I mean, most of my songs I just let them come and figure them out later.”


    Perhaps fittingly, Islam later dedicated “Hard Headed Woman” to his wife, Fawzia, whom entered into an arranged marriage with in 1979. She supposedly hadn’t even heard of Cat Stevens when they met, and they’ve now been married for over four decades.


    “Hard Headed Woman” opens with Stevens vamping “a hard, hard, hard” in the left channel and an acoustic riff, picked close to the bridge, in the right channel. Ryan and Burns enter temporarily alongside a second guitar before all except Ryan’s bass, a strummed acoustic, and Stevens’s voice drop out. As the first verse progresses, a subtle string arrangement enters. Soon, overdubbed guitars and an uncredited woman’s backing vocals dart in and out the mix.


    According to Samwell-Smith, “The opening line sung by Steve was actually a little improv he sang to warm up while waiting for the tape machine to start up, so we kept it — sometimes the best things are accidental. The backing vocals were sung by Steve and a young lady who came to the studio to help with a couple of tracks — I mixed the two voices together to give the vocals a softer and more feminine feeling.”


    The track gains steam on the bridge, where Stevens laments “fine feathered friends” whose “friendliness depends on how you do.” Burns’s drums reenter and Newman’s strings assume a more prominent place in the mix. This arrangement continues through the penultimate chorus, before the drums once again drop away, allowing the song to end on note of gentle yearning.


    The third track on Tillerman, “Wild World,” gave Stevens his first top-40 single in the U.S. and helped propel Tea for the Tillerman up the album charts. But it almost didn’t make it onto the album. “Chris Blackwell loved the song and he wanted Jimmy Cliff to do it,” Islam remembered to Guitar World:


    So I produced that song for Jimmy, and he had a hit with it and it went very well. And in America they were screaming for me to release my version of it. I said okay, but for me it was a little bit like the kind of commercial song that I used to write in the early days of my ‘60s career. So I was slightly averse to that being representative of me.  


    Despite the song’s commercial potential, Samwell-Smith was similarly skeptical. “We did the backing track quite early on, and then he went off and recorded it with Jimmy Cliff,” he recalled in the liner notes to On the Road to Find Out. “That had been released, and then I wasn’t all that interested in our version. But we put the track on, and it sounded bloody great. So we finished it and stuck it on the album.”


    One of the densest arrangements on Tillerman, “Wild World” opens with choppy, muted acoustic guitars spread across the soundstage. Ryan’s chugging bass sets the pace, and a beautifully recorded piano sits deep in the center of the mix. A bevy of Stevens’s overdubs “la-las” mirror the staccato piano riff, mixed far left and far right.


    Lyrically, “Wild World” dealt with Stevens’s breakup with Patti D’Arbanville, who allegedly left Stevens for Mick Jagger. “‘Wild World’ was really my parting song with my girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville,” Islam told Billboard in 2019:


    We’d had some great times together, but I started recording and she was doing her modeling and it just became like two different worlds. And because I’d had such an experience of almost falling off the planet, I knew there were a lot of dangers out there. So it was kind of me talking to myself about the second career I was about to embark on and also talking to her about her career. We’d basically split at that point, and that was the ode to our parting.


    Alternately tender and condescending, bitter and caring, “Wild World” opens with Stevens singing:


    Now that I’ve lost everything to you
    You say you wanna start something new
    And it’s breakin’ my heart you’re leavin’
    Baby, I’m grievin’
    But if you wanna leave, take good care
    Hope you have a lot of nice things to wear
    But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there


    As the song shifts from the verse to the chorus, the track’s catchy descending guitar/piano riff takes over and Burns enters with a cymbal splash and propulsive hi-hat work. Keeping with the divide between solo vocals on the verse and multitracked vocals on the chorus, a stack of Stevenses sing:


    Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world
    And 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


    With each invocation of “world,” the song’s signature riff repeats. For good reason, Davies memory of the track is “sticky swamp guitars, brilliant recording.”


    Samwell-Smith remembered the recoding the “Deluxe” liner notes:


    For this track Steve’s guitar was an Ovation, and I used the electric pickup signal on the left of the stereo and the acoustic microphone signal on the right, which gave it a very present and immediate sound. Another drums and bass overdub job. Wonderful drum track coaxed out of Harvey Burns the drummer by Steve, standing in front of the drum kit conducting, and the double bass from John Ryan growls wonderfully throughout. John’s bass was held together with band-aids and duct tape, and you can hear it rattling.


    The fourth track on Tillerman, “Sad Lisa,” opens with one of the album’s most unique sounds — a warbly piano panned far left. “We recorded the grand piano normally,” Samwell-Smith noted in 2008, “and then put it through a speaker used by Hammond Organs — called a Leslie — which has rotating speakers and which gives the slightly dreamy and watery feel to the track.”


    Stevens’s delicate vocal sits in the center of the mix with plenty of space. Sparse picked acoustic from Davies enters on the right before lush strings — arranged by Newman and recorded at Olympic — enter. At the midway point in the track, Rostein contributes a keening violin solo.


    Lyrically, “Sad Lisa” is, at first blush, an offer of comfort to a dejected friend. “[Lisa] was a Swedish au pair for our family when we lived above the café,” Islam told Record Collector:


    Maybe she was dreaming about a boyfriend. I wrote that first time on the piano in our living room bought as a present for my sister’s birthday. I was learning guitar and tried to transcribe the chords I knew for piano, though I never had a tutor or any lessons. I thought it had a beautiful, almost classical melody and a French lilt like those melancholy ballads they excel at.


    However, in 1971 Stevens told Creem, “I think ‘Sad Lisa’ reflects me very much. I say it’s Lisa but I suppose basically I’m talking about myself on that one.”


    The next track on Tillerman, “Miles From Nowhere,” represents Stevens’s post-tuberculosis spiritual awakening and serves as the album’s centerpiece. “It defines where I was at that particular time,” Islam told Entertainment Weekly in 2020:


    I can’t say I’m at that place anymore, but that doesn’t mean there are no mountains to climb. Once you’ve started this search for higher meaning, that never stops. You can’t. I don’t think there’s an end to knowledge. But that’s [still] me in the song. That’s my bones. That’s my inner construct. Whoever I am today is because there was this construction of my identity, which obviously took time to happen. It’s the same as looking at the foundation of a building. You’ve got to have a foundation. That’s what it is. It’s what made me who I am.


    Opening with a strummed acoustic in the left channel, the guitar pans to the center. A tinkling piano replaces the guitar in the left channel before disappearing and reappearing in the on the far-right.


    Stevens’s voice sits in the center, swaddled in a tasteful echo:


    Miles from nowhere

    Guess I’ll take my time

    Oh yeah, to reach there


    Look up at the mountain

    I have to climb

    Oh yeah, to reach there


    On “oh yeah,” a chorus of Stevens and Samwell-Smith on backing vocals fade in, spread far left and far right, leaving Stevens’s lead vocal to belt:


    Lord, my body has been a good friend

    But I won’t need it when I reach the end


    With the end of that line, the backing vocals gain steam. As Stevens’s delivers the lyrics below, Ryan’s bass enters, and both the piano and acoustic guitar become more insistent.


    Miles from nowhere
    Guess I’ll take my time
    Oh yeah, to reach there


    With “reach there” Burns’s drums crash in, locked in sync with Stevens’s galloping piano. As the song rushes forward, Stevens sings:


    I creep through the valleys
    And I grope through the woods
    ‘Cause I know when I find it my honey
    It’s gonna make me feel good, yes
    I love everything
    So don’t it make you feel sad
    ‘Cause I’ll drink to you, my baby
    I’ll think to that, I’ll think to that


    The song then retreats as the drums drop away and the piano and guitar become less insistent. Rising and falling, “Miles From Nowhere” repeats this process another round. Throughout, the highlight of “Miles” is Stevens’s vocal and piano playing. “How did he find time to play piano like Floyd Cramer?” Davies marveled in the liner notes to the “Deluxe” edition of Tillerman.


    “Miles” is also one of the best sounding cuts on Tillerman. Every sound is pristine, the noise floor is negligible, and the mix layered, yet spacious.


    “This was — again — Steve playing guitar and singing,” Samwell-Smith recalled in 2008. “I think this time with drums live, and then overdubbing the piano. We did the backing vocals together. (I always loved doing backing voices on my productions — a chance to get on the other side of the microphone, but without being in the spotlight).”


    Lyrically, a searching spirituality suffuses “Miles From Nowhere.” Stevens’s impassioned vocal wrings every emotion from the words, which gesture at the release of the afterlife without pointing to any particular faith. “I wouldn’t say I believe in reincarnation or coming back, but just a bashing about,” Stevens mused to Creem in 1971:


    I believe in a physical wall if you like. If you don’t have the right answer when you get to this wall, you’ll be bounced back again, you know.  If you don’t know what the wall is, you can see the wall, but you can’t see over the top of it.  And if you really see the top of it and then look over you see the whole wall, and the wall disappears and you can go through.  But there’s a definite kind of spectrum.... I mean just keeping on being human and everything is a struggle for a start. I still think I’ve got a long way to go —  a long matter of lifetimes, I think.


    For as evident as Stevens’s raw talent was on early releases like “I Love My Dog,” even the best of them didn’t display the soulfulness of tracks like “Miles From Nowhere,” which managed to speak to the New Age’s amorphous religiosity without getting bogged down in proscriptive rostrums.


    If “Miles From Nowhere” concerned shaking the bounds of the physical world, the sixth song on Tillerman and the opening track on the album’s second side, “But I Might Die Tonight,” deals with making the most of our time when we’re here.


    Clocking in under two minutes, the untraditionally structured “But I Might Die Tonight” is broken into two verses that grapple with the Faustian bargain of modern wage labor:


    I don’t want to work away

    Doing just what they all say

    “Work hard boy and you’ll find

    One day you’ll have a job like mine”

    ‘Cause I know for sure

    Nobody should be that poor

    To say yes or sink low

    Because you happen to say so, say so, you say so


    I don’t want to work away

    Doing just what they all say

    “Work hard boy and you’ll find

    One day you’ll have a job like mine

    Job like mine, a job like mine

    Be wise, look ahead

    Use your eyes” he said

    “Be straight, think right”

    But I might die tonight!


    Reflecting on the track to Record Collector, Islam noted, “There is an element of a dialogue, a touch of Buddhism. Also, something of William Blake’s dark satanic mills updated. The idea being, ‘I am not just a number, I don’t want to keep on being part of a workplace.’”


    “‘But I Might Die Tonight’ has a message that’s consistently relevant to so many people,” he elaborated to Entertainment Weekly:


    We talk about corporate companies, and they’re getting bigger and more monstrous as time goes on. Now they’re bigger and more powerful than governments! Either you belong to a company or you don’t belong. If you don’t belong to a company, you’re in the danger zone. You’re likely to be wiped off. That song is talking about people who feel that life is in somebody else’s hands. You’ve got to take ownership, because you might die tonight. That’s a very powerful message.


    Originally penned for Jerzy Skolimowski’s acclaimed 1970 film Deep End, “But I Might Die Tonight” was recorded in a marathon 26-hour session alongside incidental music for the soundtrack. It opens with a wash of cymbals buried deep in the mix, a languid acoustic bassline from Ryan front-and center, a reverb-heavy fingerpicked acoustic from Davies in the left left-center, piano from Stevens placed far right, and wordless backing vocals from Stevens laid across the soundstage.


    As Stevens delivers the first lines, all but the piano, acoustic, and cymbals drop away. After “job like mine,” the bass reenters. With “say so,” a second lead vocal, higher in register, from Stevens begins in the center-left, and Davies switches from picking to strumming. Burns’s drums enter at the same moment and serve as one of the track’s highlights, accentuating lyrics such as “job like mine” to great effect. As the track progresses, more and more vocal overdubs from Stevens join, with a stack of Stevenses delivering the song’s final lines.


    The seventh track on Tillerman, “Longer Boats,” begins with a cacophony of discussion and tape delay. Soon, beautifully executed harmony vocals by Stevens, Davies, and Samwell-Smith, supported only by congas and handclaps, enter:


    Longer boats are coming to win us

    They’re coming to win us, they’re coming to win us

    Longer boats are coming to win us

    Hold on to the shore, they’ll be taking the key from the door


    Inspired by Stevens’s fascination with UFOs, the melody, arrangement, and performance elevate the track’s oblique lyrics.


    Following the sparse intro, Davies’s fingerpicked acoustic enters on the right, soon joined by Stevens’s on the left. The guitars then pan across the soundstage, creating a wobbly, ethereal effect. “Fingernails on new strings propel us towards a fleet of flying saucers,” Davies recalled in the liner notes to the “Deluxe” CD. “Chanting earthlings lend support.”


    The vocals reenter next, soon supported by a deeply buried organ. “[‘Longer Boats’ was] recorded at Island Basing Street Studios,” according to Samwell-Smith. “An amazing basic track — two guitars — Alun Davies and Steve playing together, with live vocal, and Steve overdubbing the Hammond organ. The three of us then tracked the voices — four tracks with three voices on each. Drums and bass were added later.”


    But beyond the hypnotically repetitive refrain, the real highlight of “Longer Boats” comes from the rhythm section. Halfway through the track, Ryan joins with his acoustic bass. Loping and crisp, it’s one of his finest moments on the record. With only thirty seconds left in the track, Burns enters with a rollicking drum roll before settling into a brief Levon Helm-esque pocket. The groove is so satisfying that it’s a pity that Stevens and Samwell-Smith didn’t fit “Longer Boats” with a “Hey Jude”- or “Atlantis”-style extended outro.


    Tillerman shifts downward with the contemplative “Into White.” With its circular fingerpicking pattern, lyrics longing for “a simple garden with acres of sky,” and plaintive violin from Rostein, “Into White” owes more to the British folk exemplified by the likes of Fairport Convention and Pentangle than to the American singer-songwriters to which Stevens was most often compared.


    “This is one of my favorite songs on the album, and it always has been,” Islam told Entertainment Weekly in 2020. “It’s a very folky tune. It paints a picture — which I always tried to do with my songs — but it does it very vividly. I was always a fan of Van Gogh, and that’s my Van Gogh tribute in a way.”


    Ostensibly a track about life on the road, the third-to-last track on Tillerman, “On the Road to Find Out,” doubled as a metaphor for Stevens’s ongoing spiritual journey. “Steve and Alun went to Scotland to do a gig, Aberdeen I think, and I went along for the ride,” Samwell-Smith recounted in the “Deluxe” edition’s liner notes. “A long wait in the dressing room on a grey and rainy afternoon led to Steve putting this track together with Alun.”


    The track starts with Davies playing harmonics over Stevens’s ascending chord progression. One of the most joyous cuts on Tillerman, “Road” unfolds for a minute and a half without any percussion, pushed forward by Stevens’s infectious, wordless backing vocals. When Burns finally enters, his toms are buried deep in the mix. The drums drop in and out of the mix for the remainder of the track, slowly building in volume with each reentry. Punctuated by cymbal crashes, the drums are pounding by the end of the track, as Stevens’s wails, “Yes the answer lies within, so why not take a look now? / Kick out the devil’s sin, pick up, pick up a good book now.”


    Particularly in retrospect, that line assumed renewed important to Islam. “As you pass through different thresholds of life, you look at some of the memories, and for me the songs that represent those memories…you see another dimension,” he said in 2020:


    One very obvious example would be “On the Road to Find Out,” which almost foretold, in very prescriptive terms, what was going to happen to me and my [faith]. “Yes, the answer lies within, so why not take a look now/Kick out the devil’s sin. Pickup a good book now.” Before I received any book, I was writing about this book that was going to change my life. And wow.


    The penultimate song on Tillerman is perhaps its most famous track, even though it wasn’t a radio hit. Few of Stevens’s songs have had the enduring power of “Father and Son.” Structured as a conversation between the title’s characters, the track began life as a song for a play about the Russian Revolution that Stevens’s was toying with. As Islam explained to GQ in 2020:


    “Father and Son” is probably the most prominent and profound song on the album. It doesn’t necessarily refer to my dad. It was originally written for a musical…. [During my recovery from tuberculosis] I came back to my original ambition, which was to become a composer of musicals. I was living in the West End and musicals were a big thing in my life. I got together with Nigel Hawthorne and we started writing this musical called Revolussia. Essentially, it was about Nicholas and Alexander, the last tsars of Russia, and against that there’s another story about this family in the farmland, in the country. And the father, of course, basically wants to keep things as they are, while the son is really inspired by the revolution. He wants to join. And so that’s the inspiration for that song. That’s why I’m able to represent both sides — though I feel that my preference, my emphasis, was on the son’s side, and the father’s arguments were not quite as strong as the son’s, which is interesting. Change is basically the theme of the song.


    While Islam disclaimed the track’s personal connection to GQ, in other interviews he’s made clear that “Father and Son” was, at least in part, about his relationship with his own father. “I’ve never really understood my father,” Stevens told Disc & Echo in 1972, “but he always let me do whatever I wanted—he let me go. ‘Father And Son’ is for those people who can’t break loose.”


    “I think everything that I write should be personal, otherwise I wouldn’t do it,” he elaborated to Pop Musique that same year. “The songs that I [wrote]…that weren’t personal never worked. ‘Father and Son’ is as much about my relations with my father as my relations with society.”


    Like the best of Stevens’s songs, “Father and Son” escapes the aforementioned “enlightened apathy” trap by translating on both personal and political levels. It’s about Stevens’s relationship with his father, and about the listener’s relationship with theirs. It’s about the Russian Revolution, and any political divide that might fall along generational lines.


    ‘Father and Son’ is saying your offspring don’t see things the way you do — that’s from the father’s point of view,” Islam told Entertainment Weekly:


    From the son’s point of view, your father can’t see it the way you see it. It’s a kind of conflict, but  talks about change. The father doesn’t want change. And the son’s whole life has been about change up until that point. Youth is always taking different turns so quickly, and suddenly you’re in a new scenario you’ve never seen or experienced before. That’s what youth is. It’s great. The song is an ever-living testament to the differences that we represent to each other, especially in terms of age with fathers and sons, and also with traditions. Traditions have a big impact on our lives, and sometimes you’ve got to walk away from that tradition. You’ll find something better.


    Throughout the years, Stevens has made clear that he identifies with the son more than the father. As Islam told GQ, “I’ve never really adopted the [view of the] father — even though I look much closer to his persona now, with the grey beard and everything.”


    Despite this, Stevens’s empathetic rendering of both sides of the dialogue lets the listener find their own meaning in the track, and it’s nonspecific-yet-identifiable political overtones give the lyrics continued social relevance. “It’s a powerful song, whatever way you approach it,” Islam continued:


    You can take many different positions on it. Some people relate it to their own parents, and their own family, but also against the backdrop right now. That’s the great thing about youth — it has a fresh take on life. It comes in, brand new, and says, “Well, OK, what’s going on? Why are you doing this? Isn’t there a better way?” The child is daring with all kinds of questions, being able to challenge the status quo, which is what we’re facing when we’re born into a system. For instance, on the racist issue [and the global Black Lives Matter protests]. People are saying, “Why are we continuing to go down this route? It’s not leading towards anything positive, so why can’t we all look at our ideals and revisit them?” And that’s great. I mean, that’s the message of the song. Let’s look at our ideals. And let’s see if we’re in the right place now; if we’re not, let’s move.


    Mirroring the lyrical dialogue, “Father and Son” opens with an exchange between Stevens’s strummed acoustic, mixed far right, and Davies’s, mixed far left. As Stevens plays the intro’s simple chord change, Davies answers with the track’s memorable four-note riff. Burns punctuates the end of each of Stevens’s strums with muted cymbal splash, mixed by Samwell-Smith left and to the back. After the first round of Stevens’s and Davies’s guitar exchange, Ryan in the center. His sliding acoustic bassline provides the low-end connective tissue that links Stevens’s and Davies’s parts together.


    “The song that touched a universal nerve,” Davies remembered in 2008. “The hesitant guitar fills grew in assurance at the sight of Paul’s face beaming encouragement through the glass.”


    This basic arrangement continues throughout the first verse, sung from the perspective of the father, which begins, “It’s not time to make a change / Just relax, take it easy / You’re still young, that’s your fault / There’s so much you have to know.”


    As the track switches to the son’s view near the 1:15 mark, Burns enters with on his kit with a subtle brushed snare. After Stevens delivers the final line of the son’s first verse (“From the moment I could talk / I was ordered to listen / Now there’s a way / And I know that I have to go away / I know, I have to go”), the track shifts to an instrumental bridge. Burns provides a more muscular drum track, Davies takes a judicious solo, and Stevens’s overdubbed piano, which had subtly supported his rhythm guitar through the second verse, assumes a larger role.


    With the third verse, all but the acoustic guitars and bass recede. Stevens’s lead vocal from the father’s perspective is now complemented by a distant backing vocal from the son’s point-of-view:


    It’s not time to make a change (Away, away, away)

    Just sit down, take it slowly

    You’re still young, that’s your fault (I know)

    There’s so much you have to go through (I have to make this decision)

    Find a girl, settle down (Alone)

    If you want you can marry

    Look at me (No) I am old, but I’m happy


    As “Father and Son” builds into the final verse, the drums and piano reenter. Now, the lead vocal represents the son and the backing vocal the father:


    All the times that I’ve cried (Stay, stay, stay)

    Keeping all the things I knew inside

    It’s hard

    But it’s harder to ignore it (Why must you go)

    If they were right, I’d agree (And make this decision)

    But it’s them they know, not me (Alone)

    Now there’s a way

    And I know that I have to go away

    I know, I have to go


    In addition to its moving lyrics and clever arrangement, “Father and Son” is one of the album’s sonic highlights. Each part is cleanly recorded and well-placed. There’s no better case for Tea for the Tillerman’s place on an audiophile’s shelf than “Father and Son.”


    Tillerman ends with its most idiosyncratic and memorable cut. Clocking in at barely over a minute and consisting of one verse, the title track refers the album’s cover, painted by Stevens, which depicts a jovial bearded man drinking tea as two children play in a tree behind him:


    Bring tea for the Tillerman

    Steak for the sun

    Wine for the woman who made the rain come

    Seagulls sing your hearts away

    ‘Cause while the sinners sin, the children play

    Oh Lord, how they play and play

    For that happy day, for that happy day


    Opening with Stevens’s noodling on the piano, then slowly easing into the lyrics, the song ends with a dynamic blast of overdubbed backing vocals on the final “happy day.”


    “[It was] recorded at Island Basing Street Studios, around the same time as ‘Longer Boats,’” Samwell-Smith wrote in the liner notes to the “Deluxe” CD. “Steve did the basic piano and voice, then Steve and I did the backing voices between us, twelve tracks with the two of us doing high, medium and low voices. I wanted to pay homage to ‘Oh Happy Day’ by the Edwin Hawkins Singers.”

    Despite the track’s short length and reference to the album’s cover and title, it was far from an afterthought. The painting and title followed the song, not the other way around. “I just had some little bits of song, and then I made the drawing,” Stevens told Pop Musique. “That went very well. That agreed very well with the LP.”


    According to biographer Evans, Island’s Chris Blackwell initially was upset that Tillerman came in at £2,000 over the album’s modest £5,000 budget. But those concerns abated as soon as soon as Blackwell heard what Stevens and Samwell-Smith had concocted. “One of the best moments of my life in the record business was hearing the playback of Tea for the Tillerman,” he recalled to VH1. “I remember very clearly hearing it and hearing the first track then thinking, ‘Wow this is fantastic,’ and the second and the third and the fourth and the fifth. I’d never heard a record as good as that.”


    Within months of Tea for the Tillerman’s November 1970 release, that iconic cover could be seen in the windows of record stores across the U.S., cementing Stevens as an international star. By April of ‘71, not only was Tillerman installed near the top of the charts, but both Jakon and a compilation of Stevens’s two Deram albums had entered the Billboard 200.


    Though record-buyers seemed to catch onto the album before reviewers, Tillerman also received mostly enthusiastic reviews. Rolling Stone’s Ben Gerson, for example, wrote, “Cat’s melodies and lyrics are disarmingly, deceptively simple. He seems to fasten without effort onto tunes with a life of their own, tunes of small beginnings and wide resonances…. If you’ve been listening to Donovan, Joni Mitchell, et al., though not necessarily these people, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be listening to Cat Stevens.”


    While listeners in 1971 looking to follow Gerson’s recommendation and pick up Tillerman had one choice — the original vinyl mastered by Sterling Sound’s Lee Hulko — today’s digital audiophiles have an overwhelming number of choices.


    By my count, there are at least 11 distinct versions of Tea for the Tillerman. Because of the overwhelming number, I’m going to go through each in deliberative detail, rather than just quickly listing them.


    The 1st digital release of Tea for the Tillerman came very early in the history of CDs. In 1983, Tillerman was released as CD-4280 in A&M’s Audio Master Plus (AM+) Series. This disc was repressed in 1984. Both of these first releases were manufactured in Japan. The CD-4280 AM+ CD was rereleased many, many, many, many, many, many, many times after. Sometime these discs were labeled CD-4280 DIDX583. In all cases, the discs’ artwork is nearly identical, and all used the CD-4280 label and AM+ branding.


    The problem is that the CD-4280 CDs are not all the same mastering. The CD-4280 DIDX583 release with the 7/88 1DA1 matrix is the same mastering as the original Japanese CD-4280 disc. However, the CD-4280 DIDX583 release with the 21A4 matrix is a different mastering.


    Making matters more confusing, the Columbia House CD-504280/576488T release also contains the 21A4 mastering, in a slightly level-adjusted form. Taking a quick peek at several tracks from the CD-4280 21A4 (light grey) and the CD-504289 (white) after using Har-Bal to match their loudness levels, we can see that the discs are identical, save for some miniscule deviation below 20Hz:


    Har-Bal CD-4280 21A4 vs CD-504280.gif



    Is it possible that these discs sound somewhat different? Yes. If there were only four or five other versions of Tillerman, I’d keep these separate. But given the overwhelming number of Tillerman masterings, these are close enough that I’m comfortable calling them the same mastering. Were this version to be crowed the TBVO champion, I’d dissect these small differences in order to select the “best of the best.”


    Taken all together, I’m labeling the mastering contained on the original Japan and 1D1A iterations of CD-4280 AM+ discs the 1st digital version of Tea for the Tillerman, and the mastering contained on the CD-4280 21A4 and CD-504289 discs as the 2nd digital version of the album.


    The actual release order of the next few versions aren’t quite clear. So let’s start with the one with a firm release date.


    The 3rd version of Tillerman is Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s 1988 disc. It was released in the Ultradisc and Ultradisc II brandings. In both cases, the mastering is identical. Simple enough.


    The 4thversion of Tillerman is the 842 352-2 CD with the yellow Island logo. It’s not quite clear when this version was first released. The earliest claimed date in Discogs is 1990.


    The 5th version of Tillerman is the 842 352-2 (IMCD 36) “Island Masters” disc. This disc was rereleased on several occasions, and — like the third version — the precise date of its first pressing isn’t clear. It’s very, very close, but not identical to the above yellow Island logo disc’s mastering. Compare the 842 352-2 CD yellow Island logo disc (yellow) with the 842 352-2 IMCD 36 “Island Masters” CD (dark orange) once their levels are matched:


    Har-Bal Yellow Island vs Island Masters.gif



    These discs are very similar, but different enough that it’s hard to call them the same mastering. The differences in the low end are small, but uneven, and the differences above 4kHz are notable. It seems likely that these discs feature the same basic transfer and mastering, but somewhere one of them was tweaked.


    On the other hand, the 258 153 / CID 9135 variant of the “Island Masters” disc is close enough that I’m comfortable saying that it’s the same mastering as the IMCD 36 disc. Take a look at the 842 352-2 (IMCD 36) Island Masters CD (dark orange) versus the 258 153 / CID 9135 (light orange) CD:


    Har-Bal Island Masters vs CID 9135.gif



    There are some very, very low-level deviations in the upper-treble. However, overall the equalization is the same, and it seems likely that these are simply level-adjusted versions of the same mastering.


    The 6th version of Tea for the Tillerman is the 2000 remaster, marketed as part of either the “Island Remasters“ of the “Cat Stevens Remasters,” depending on whether the CD was issued by Island or A&M. In both cases, the included audio was “mastered from the original two-track analog master tapes by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound, New York, December 1999.” Upon its release, Bill Levinson — the producer who oversaw Universal’s reissue program — told ICE magazine:


    Over the last five or so years, we’ve been pulling together the best sources from A&M and Island [Stevens’ U.S. and U.K. labels, respectively]. All the albums have been remastered from the original two-track masters…. Even the old Mobile Fidelity versions are not even close to the job done by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound on these. You’ll be amazed when you hear them.


    This same mastering was reused for the 2008 2CD “Deluxe Edition,” which includes the album on the first disc and demos and live cuts on the second disc. (The liner notes of the 2008 “Deluxe Edition” say that the release was “mastered from the original two-track analog master tapes by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound, New York, June 2008,” but one presumes that claim is referring to the bonus tracks, since the first disc features the same mastering as the 2000 CD.)


    The 7th version of Tillerman is the 2011 Analogue Productions hybrid SACD. According to the liner notes, the disc was “mastered at Sterling Sound by George Marino.” Upon its release, this SACD proved to be controversial after online sleuths (including Archimago) noted that the DSD layer seemed to be sourced from a 48kHz PCM file. Thanks, in part, to Audiophile Style’s own firedog, Acoustic Sounds was able to clarify that the DSD layer of the SACD was, indeed, sourced from PCM files. The updated page for the SACD now reads:


    Mastered by George Marino at Sterling Sound from the original analog master tapes to vinyl and PCM. The DSD was sourced from the PCM. George listened to all of the different A/D converters he had before he chose which to use, and he felt the George Massenburg GML 20 bit A/D produced the best and most synergistic sound for the project.


    “I think we’ve gotten something quite a bit better than what was originally issued,” Marino says. “I think this version is much more representative of what was on the tape. And that’s not a criticism of what was originally done.”


    No mention is made in the liner notes or on the site about if and how the CD layer and DSD layer differ. However, Har-Bal indicates that — once the DSD layer is sampled at 16/44.1 PCM— they’re the same.1 (More on the importance of comparing masterings at the same sample rate later.)


    The story of the 8th version of Tea for the Tillerman has hints of intrigue, but ultimately reveals itself to be relatively banal. In 2012, Tillerman was made available as both a 24/96 and a 24/192 download on hi-res sites like HDTracks. The accompanying “about” information on HDTracks read:


    We are so fortunate that Ted Jensen, who originally mastered Tea for the Tillerman, for compact disc, was available to do these hi-res transfers. Ted was kind enough to share some information about the process:

    “The tapes are in still excellent condition, the Dolby A encoded BASF tape used has held up very well compared with other formulations used in the mid 70’s and later. The tapes sound excellent. I’ve done no limiting or compression on these files at all. Playback was done on an Ampex ATR100, and the A/D converter was a prototype MSB unit that David Chesky was good enough to loan us.” — Ted Jensen, Sterling Sound


    The included PDF liner notes (which seem to no longer be included with downloads) were identical to the booklet from the 2008 2CD “Deluxe” edition.


    In most cases, the 24/96 and 24/192 versions of a hi-res release are the same mastering, and there’s nothing to indicate on HDTracks or any other download site — at the time of initial release or today — that the 24/96 and 24/192 downloads are different. Moreover, Qobuz streaming’s only hi-res version of Tillerman is the 24/192 download, suggesting that no one there was under the impression that the 24/96 one also was needed.


    However, in a 2013 blog post, Mark Waldrep found small equalization differences between the two downloads. The only other hint that the files could be different came from Absolute Sound, which proclaimed in a print review that the 24/192 download sounded superior to the 24/96, noting its “extra dollop of analog-like ease, as well as significantly lower noise floor.”

    Yet, the 24/96 and 24/192 downloads have the same track times and identical DR and R128 dynamic range scores. Going to the source, I messaged Jensen on Instagram, and he replied, “I remember doing a 192k version, but I don’t know if HD tracks 96k version is derived from that or if it was from a previous mastering. Sorry, wish I could be of more help. It was quite a while ago, so it’s hard to remember the details.”


    When placed into Har-Bal, the 24/96 and 24/192 files do show differences in the “Spectrum” view that I commonly use for my graphs. But the two files are identical in the “Histogram” view. These two visualizations are calculated differently, and it’s rare for the “Histogram” view not to show a difference if the masterings truly are different. For example, take a look at the 842 352-2 CD yellow Island logo CD (yellow) and the 842 352-2 (IMCD 36) Island Masters CD (dark orange):


    Spectrum vs Histogram Illustration.gif



    The small differences show up in both Spectrum and Histogram view. In contrast, take a look at the 24/192 download (dark green) versus the 24/96 download (light green):


    Spectrum vs Histogram HiRes.gif



    Significant differences in the Spectrum view, but almost identical in the Histogram view. This seeming difference is actually a quirk of viewing different sample rates on the same graph in Har-Bal. After downsampling the 24/192 files to 24/96 with XLD, the downsampled files look identical to the authentic HDTracks 24/96 downloads in Har-Bal.


    Realizing that this had something to with how the math behind Har-Bal’s frequency analysis handles different sample rates, I reached out to Har-Bal’s developer Paavo Jumppanen. He explained:


    The analysis engine has a fixed line resolution using 8192 [point] periodograms to calculate spectrum content. As such the spectrum resolution is proportional to sampling rate and is approximately 2 * (sampling rate) / 8192 = 10.7 Hz for 44.144kHz, or 23.4Hz for 192kHz. That is why the analysis cannot be the same…. The one at 192kHz will or should look like a smeared version of the one at 96kHz. It’s essentially like looking at two images of the same thing but one with half the pixel resolution.


    Offering his thoughts on the (lack of) value going from 96k to 192k, Jumppanen continued:


    I can perhaps understand having a 96kHz version of Tea for the Tillerman but sampling at 192kHz will give you nothing extra ‘cos there isn’t going to be any useful content off the master tape above 50Khz, whilst there just might be some, albeit small, above 25kHz. I guess audiophiles will justify it on the basis of being “smoother,” but the mathematics says otherwise. If there is no content above 50kHz they will be the same apart from the 192kHz one having more noise from the band above 50KHz. In a sample viewpoint the higher sampling rate one will look smoother, but when the signal is reconstructed through the reconstruction filter they will be equally smooth. That is essentially what is done with oversampling DAC conversion. You over-sample the signal so you can put it through a near brick wall digital reconstruction filter before conversion the analog to make the analog filter reconstruction requires a lot easier to achieve.


    Ultimately, the differences seen in the 24/96 and 24/192 downloads displayed by Waldrep’s software (and Har-Bal) aren’t capturing actual differences in the mastering.


    The 9th and 10th versions of Tillerman are, like the 2011 SACD, the work of Analogue Productions. In 2013, AP released a single rate (DSD64) DSD download of Tillerman. This release prompted many fans to speculate that the download featured the same mastering as the aforementioned SACD, especially given that, like the SACD, the DSD64 download is mastered by George Marino, and the release page features the same “quite a bit better” quote from Marino used to promote the SACD. However, after inquiries by fans, Acoustic Sounds attempted to clarify the download’s source. According to the updated description, the DSD64 files were: “Mastered by George Marino at Sterling Sound. Download files authored direct to native DSD from analog tape by Gus Skinas.” What exactly this means is anyone’s guess. In an email to firedog, Acoustic Sounds wrote, “For the DSD download version of Tea For the Tillerman, the DSD files were authored direct to pure DSD from analog tape mastered by George Marino. The download version is based on a fully analog source captured to 100% pure DSD.” While that hardly makes things crystal clear, it seems likely that Marino mastered the DSD files and Skinas edited them. The 9th version, then, is this Marino-Skinas DSD64 download. Two years later, in 2015, AP released yet another version of Tillman. This time, it came in the form of a double DSD (DSD128) download, which the description straightforwardly credits as: “Double DSD file created from the original analog master tape by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound.” This Smith mastering is the 10th version of Tillerman, at least by my count.


    The 11th and final version of Tillerman is the 2020 50th anniversary mastering. According to promotional materials, this mastering was done “by Geoff Pesche at Abbey Road, overseen by original producer Paul Samwell-Smith.” This 50th anniversary mastering can be found on a single-disc release, a two CD release with a second disc of bonus tracks, and a massive “Super Deluxe” box set. The latter includes five CDs, one Blu-Ray, two 12-inch vinyl, a lavish book, and a smattering of memorabilia. The CDs contain the 2020 remaster, a 2020 remix, Islam’s re-interpretation of Tillerman, and two CDs of demos and live cuts. The Blu-Ray contains video of several of these live performances, along with 24/48 audio of both the 2020 remaster and the 2020 remix. The two 12-inches contain, respectively, the 2020 mix and the live performances from the Troubadour in December 1970 (also found on the fifth CD).




    To summarize, here are the versions we’re looking at, along with the colors I’ll use for the graphs:


    1. CD-4280 Japan and CD-4280 DIDX 583 1D1A – Light Green
    2. CD-4280 DIDX 583 21A4 and CD504280/576488T – Light Gray
    3. MFSL – Light Blue
    4. 842 352-2 yellow Island - Yellow
    5. 842 352-2 (IMCD 36) Island masters and 258 153 / CID 9135 - Orange
    6. 2000 and 2008 Deluxe - Purple
    7. 2011 Analogue Productions SACD – Blue
    8. 2012 24/192 and 24/96 downloads – Dark Green
    9. 2013 Analogue Productions DSD64 download - Pink
    10. 2015 Analogue DSD128 download - Red
    11. 2020 50th anniversary – Brown


    First, let’s take a look at dynamic range of each version, measured by both R128 dynamic range and crest factor DR score2:


    TBVO - Tillerman - Dynamic Range Table.png


    There are some differences, but overall none of these masterings seem to be brickwalled. Based on the numbers, the most compressed version seems to be the 2000 remaster. We'll take a closer look at that in the subjective analysis.


    To begin our subjective comparison, let’s take a look versions one (light green) and two (light grey) against each other in Har-Bal on a selection of tracks:


    Har-Bal 1D1A vs 21A4.gif



    By the standards of most TBVOs, these are significant differences. However, as we’ll see, these are relatively minor EQ differences for Tillerman versions. That said, when comparing level-matched, time-aligned WAVs of the 1D1A and 21A4 version, they sound very different, and the graphs capture that well.


    Simply put, they’re both very imperfect masterings. Neither has much low bass — a fact that’s apparent and frustrating even on warm-titled headphones or a speaker setup with good low-end response. When descending bass/keyboards riff enters at the beginning of “Where Do the Children Play?” the listen is left decidedly underwhelmed on both CDs. That said, 21A4 has substantially more mid-bass and midrange than the 1D1A. This alone gives it a clear advantage over the 1D1A CD, which sounds flat and tinny, with an EQ profile that puts disproportionate emphasis on the acoustic guitars. Unfortunately, the 21A4 also rolls off too much high end, making it sound somewhat boxy and removing too much articulation from Stevens’s voice.


    If forced to choose, I’d go with the 21A4, despite its flaws. The 1D1A is simply too treble heavy, which also has the subjective effect of narrowing the soundstage appreciably, since many of the instruments that benefit from a full low end are mixed to the sides on Tillerman.


    Though it’s debatable how audible polarity differences are, it’s also worth mentioning at this point that the various versions of Tillerman feature opposite polarities. The 1D1A, for example, has the opposite polarity of the 21A4. Digging a little deeper into the polarity issue, rips of the original vinyl feature the same polarity as the 1DA1. A majority of the digital versions also feature this polarity. However, it seems far from clear-cut. The two Ted Jensen masterings, for example, have opposing polarities. Which is correct? I’m not sure.


    With that out of the way, let’s bring in the MFSL CD (light blue) and compare it to the 21A4 (light grey):


    Har-Bal 21A4 vs MFSL.gif



    The MFSL does a nice job of filling in the low end and restores some of the treble that the 21A4 lopped off of the 1D1A. Beyond restoring the thump to the entry of the bass and keyboard on “Where Do the Children Play?”, the MFSL also makes the keyboard parts — which seem to fall in the range EQ’d away by both the 1D1A and the 21A4 — much more intelligible. Whether through a better tonal balance, better transfer, or both, it’s also much easier on the MFSL to hear the separate vocal overdubs on the chorus of “Children.” Switching quickly from the MFSL to either of the previous two versions, Stevens voice moves from right in front of the listener to the bottom of a deep well. The same general pattern is true on “Miles From Nowhere.” The MFSL alsp gives the kick drum some much-needed thump and allows short-delay echo on Stevens’s voice to come across clearly. For those keeping track, the MFSL features the same polarity as the 21A4 (that is, both feature opposite polarity from the 1D1A CD).


    The MFSL is, in short, not just a little bit better than the 21A4 CD. It’s dramatically better. But it has one notable issue. There are quite a few tape imperfections scattered throughout Tillerman, and for the most part these are consistent across versions. Unfortunately, the MFSL does seem to have a unique flaw in the form of what sounds like a digital click near the 44-second mark of “On the Road to Find Out,” just before the “hit the rowdy road” line. This click is present on pressings of the MFSL disc and, while it’s not a deal-breaker, it’s also not ideal.


    With the MFSL having mounted a healthy lead, let’s bring in the fourth version: the 842 352-2 CD with yellow Island Records logo. In the graph below, the MFSL is light blue and the 842 CD is — you guessed it — yellow:


    Har-Bal MFSL vs Yellow Island.gif



    At first glance, the yellow Island CD seems like a clear improvement over the 21A4 CD. It has a touch more bass on most tracks and restores the lost treble. Compared to the MFSL, it’s still somewhat bass-shy. It also overshoots the MFSL’s high end on most tracks — by a large margin on “Wild World.” Perhaps of note, too, is that the Yellow Island CD also features opposite polarity. So how does it sound?


    In short, it’s an improvement over the first two versions, but it can’t top the MFSL. Like the 21A4 version, the yellow Island CD can’t match the vocal clarity of the MFSL. It also tends to bury instruments like the electric piano and vibes. Moreover, whether due to EQ or polarity, its soundstage is considerably narrower than the MFSL’s on most tracks. Finally, it’s just less transparent than the MFSL CD. On the sparse middle section of “Miles From Nowhere” that begins around the 1:40 mark, everything from Stevens’s vocals to the acoustic guitars are more realistic on the MFSL. The yellow Island CD just sounds flatter and more veiled.


    With the MFSL (light blue) still in the lead, let’s throw the IMCD 36 “Island Masters” disc (dark orange) into the mix:


    Har-Bal IMCD 36 vs MFSL.gif



    Given the similarity of the Island Masters’ disc to the yellow Island CD, it’s no surprise that these graphs look very similar to the graphs above. They sound similar, too. Like the yellow Island CD, the Island Masters disc features the opposite polarity of the first CD release and the MFSL. While the Har-Bal graphs show small EQ differences from the yellow Island CD, and while Audacity indicates that the Island Masters disc has a few trimmed peaks relative to the yellow Island CD, I doubt I could reliably tell them apart in most realistic scenarios. In short, all of the observations how the yellow Island disc compares to the MFSL apply to the IMCD 36 disc, too. The MFSL remains the clear winner.


    Next up is the mastering used on the 2000 remaster and the 2008 “Deluxe” 2CD edition. This is the first of two distinct masterings done by Ted Jensen. It’s fitting that at this point in the TBVO we’re pitting it against the MFSL CD, because (as noted above) when the 2000 remaster was released, Universal’s Bill Levenson argued that the MFSL was “not even close” to this then-new mastering.


    Let’s start by taking peek at the 2000 remaster (purple) versus the MFSL (light blue) in Har-Bal:


    Har Bal MFSL vs 2000 Remaster.gif



    Generally, the 2000 remaster has significantly more sub-bass, and the MFSL has more energy in the bass and lower-midrange, while the high-end differences are hard to summarize.


    As the dynamic range table above showed, the 2000 remaster tended to be the outlier on a few tracks. So let’s take a look at some waveforms of a few tracks. The MFSL is on top in blue, and the 2000 remaster is on the bottom in black:


    Waveform MFSL vs 2000 Remaster.gif



    The additional compression and limiting on the 2000 remaster is especially evident when looking at the lopped peaks on “Father and Son.” Overall, that’s a mark against the 2000 remaster. As the waveforms indicate, too, the 2000 CD includes the more commonly used polarity, which is opposite of the MFSL’s.


    How does it sound?


    The 2000 CD is much more well-balanced and transparent than most of the versions we’ve encountered. When it comes to such key factors as being able to separate the vocal overdubs on the chorus of “Where Do the Children Play?” the 2000 CD trounces most of the early digital masters. However, the MFSL still tops it, Levenson’s comments to the contrary. The MFSL conveys more depth and a greater sense of the studio space than the 2000 CD. The MFSL also tends to project a slightly wider soundstage, too. Taken together, this adds up a greater realism. On “Miles from Nowhere,” for example, both the acoustic guitars and the drums and cymbals are more three-dimensional and tonally accurate on the MFSL. The compressed dynamics of the 2000 CD also work against it. Louder parts of songs—such as the end of
    “Children” and “Miles” — sound flat and subdued on the 2000 CD relative to the MFSL disc, illustrating the costs of added compression to an album with large volume swings like Tillerman.


    The next entry into this TBVO comparison is the first of several Tillerman masterings by Analogue Productions. Will this audiophile label be able to give MFSL a run for its money?


    As noted above, the 2011 Analogue Productions SACD was mastered by George Marino. Marino converted the original master tapes to 24/48 PCM, and these files were the source for both layers of the disc.


    Let’s take a look at how the SACD’s Redbook layer (dark blue), which includes the same mastering as its DSD layer, compares to the MFSL CD (light) blue:


    Har-Bal MFSL vs AP SACD.gif



    Overall, the Audio Fidelity SACD’s tonal balance takes a step back in the direction of the original CDs. In fact, on most tracks its equalization is incredibly close to the yellow Island CDs. Compared to the MFSL CD, the Audio Fidelity SACD has somewhat more energy above, and somewhat less energy below, the upper-midrange, with an inflection point around 1500 Hz.


    How do these two audiophile masterings compare subjectively?


    Overall, the Analogue Productions SACD sounds like the yellow Island CD with the benefit of a much better transfer. On some tracks, the SACD has virtues that the MFSL lacks. For example, on “Miles From Nowhere,” the SACD removes a touch of bloat from the bass. However, as a whole that track still sounds better on the MFSL. Small nuances standout more on the MFSL. For example, the layers within the wordless backing vocals on “Where Do the Children Play?” and “Miles From Nowhere” are more easily discernable and more lifelike on the MFSL. The Mobile Fidelity disc also displays more front-to-back depth, an observation that seems especially notable given that my assumption is always that more recent analog-to-digital transfers tend to evince more depth. In part because of this depth issue and in part because of the differences in equalization, Burns’s drums sound flat and tinny at key moments on the SACD, such as the denouement of “Children.”


    For completeness’s sake, it’s worth noting that the SACD has the 1DA1 disc’s polarity. And, while this is nitpicking in the context of the “loudness wars,” the SACD (bottom, black) does feature slightly more limiting than the MFSL disc (top, blue):


    Waveform MFSL vs SACD.gif



    Are these differences dramatic? No. Would they prevent the selection of the SACD if it were otherwise superior? Of course not. However, given that the MFSL disc exceeds the Analogue Productions SACD in most other ways, it’s merely another mark in favor of keeping the MFSL CD in the lead.


    Now it’s time to turn to Ted Jensen’s second mastering: the 2012 hi-res download that caused so much confusion as to whether the 24/96 and 24/192 versions were, in fact, different masterings. Now that we know they’re the same — and that sample rates serious impact how Har-Bal and other analysis software display frequency response – let’s downsample Jensen’s hi-res mastering to 16/44.1 (dark green) and see how it compares to the MFSL (light blue) in Har-Bal:


    Har-Bal MFSL vs Hi-Res Download.gif



    Like the SACD, the Jensen-mastered hi-res download tends to have less low end and more high end than the MFSL, with a rough inflation point of 1 kHz. However, the hi-res download is slightly closer to the MFSL’s EQ balance than the SACD was, with a touch more bass and a touch less treble than the SACD.


    Before getting to the subjective comparison, it’s worth addressing another criticism of the hi-res download. In addition to the 24/96 versus 24/192 mastering confusion, Waldrep also lamented that Jensen’s hi-res mastering of Tillerman had moments of digital clipping. I, too, found that this was the case. However, these peaks are few and far between. Moreover, Jensen was telling the truth when he said that he’d done “no limiting or compression on these files at all.” Even with a few clipped peaks, the volume-matched waveforms of Jensen’s hi-res mastering (bottom, green) and the MFSL CD (top, blue) look nearly identical and use the same polarity:


    Waveform MFSL vs Hi-Res.gif



    Is the Jensen-mastered hi-res download the version to dethrone the MFSL CD? It’s certainly the toughest competition for the MFSL yet, by a significant margin. Overall, the hi-res download is a beautiful transfer of the tape, mastered to be somewhat drier than the MFSL CD, meaning that it shows both less tape hiss and less room sound and reverberation on most tracks. However, at times that makes it sound a bit veiled relative to the MFSL. It also lacks the MFSL’s harder-hitting low end. But the care that went into the hi-res mastering and, perhaps, the advantage of modern A/D converters, shows. It’s a suburb version of Tillerman.


    In many ways, comparing the MFSL CD with Jensen’s hi-res version demonstrates that mastering Tillerman involves tradeoffs. For example, on “Where Do the Children Play?” the hi-res version presents a more well-balanced acoustic guitar sound that does a better job of capturing some of the strings’ nuances. However, Stevens’s vocals are more lifelike on the MFSL, which also continues to do a better job of letting the listener separate the layers of overdubs on the song’s chorus. Likewise, on “Miles from Nowhere,” the decay of the slap echo on Stevens’s voice on the chorus isn’t as nuanced on the hi-res download. But Stevens’s “Floyd Cramer” piano at the end of the track sounds just a bit more realistic and three-dimensional on the hi-res download. That said, on a few tracks, the MFSL narrowly keeps the advantage across the board. For example, on “On the Road to Find Out,” the “nah-nah-nah” background vocals sound clearer, the acoustic guitars have the requisite amount of bite, and the deep-mixed tambourine is easier to isolate. But we’re talking about modest differences that mostly come down to a matter of taste. Crucially, the Jensen hi-res mastering does the best job, besides the MFSL, of front-to-back layering and left-to-right imaging, especially on speakers. Does this have something to do with the MFSL and the download both using the less-common polarity? Perhaps. Though I can’t say for sure.


    Given the above, I’m sticking with the MFSL as the leading TBVO candidate, but not without a little uncertainty. Audiophiles would be very lucky, indeed, if most albums had a mastering that’s 90 percent as good as the hi-res download of Tillerman.


    Next up, we have two more entries from Analogue Productions. Both are DSD downloads. One is the Marino-Skinas DSD64 download from 2013, and the other is the Ryan Smith DSD128 download from 2015. Given that the Marino SACD came out in 2011, that means that AP put out three distinct masterings of Tillerman within approximately four years.


    Examining the Marino-Skinas DSD64 download first, it’s worth revisiting fans’ suspicion that it was the same mastering as the SACD. Here’s the SACD (dark blue) and the DSD64 download (pink) compare:


    Har-Bal AP SACD vs DSD64 Download.gif



    Is it fair to say these are different masterings? Yes. Is the equalization really that different, given the differences are almost exclusively in the sub-bass? Probably not. What’s the story behind AP releasing two masterings that are so similar, only a few years apart, while stressing that they’re each unique? Your guess is as good as mine.


    Regardless, I can’t say that my evaluation of the DSD64 download is any different from my evaluation of the SACD. The MFSL is better, as is Jensen’s hi-res download.


    What about Smith’s 2015 DSD128 mastering? Well, let’s see how it (red) differs from the DSD64 download (pink):


    Har-Bal DSD64 vs DSD128.gif



    Once again, a very similar mastering from Analogue Productions. Relative to the MFSL, the DSD128 won’t look much different than the graph comparing the SACD and the MFSL. That said, the DSD128 download seems unquestionably different from both the SACD and the DSD64 download. On hint of those differences can be seen in the waveforms. Compare the MFSL CD (top, blue) to the DSD64 download (middle, black) and the DSD128 download (bottom, red).


    Waveform - MFSL vs DSD64 vs DSD128.gif



    While its subtle on some tracks and more noticeable on others (such as “Father and Son”), the Smith-mastered DSD128 download is slightly more dynamic than the DSD64 download (and, though it’s not pictured, the SACD). Moreover, all three Analogue Productions releases use the opposite polarity of both the MFSL CD and the Jensen hi-res mastering.


    Does the DSD128 release sound much different from the DSD64 one? Subjectively, just a little bit. While we’re getting murky territory here, I’d venture to say that the DSD128 download sounds just a bit smoother than its DSD64 counterpart. Acoustic bass parts and layered backing vocals have just a bit more resolution on the DSD128 release, and its soundstage seems ever-so-slightly wider. Are these differences large? No. But I think (emphasis on “think”) they’re meaningful.


    That said, both of the Analogue Productions DSD downloads rank behind the MFSL CD and the Jensen hi-res download. Does that mean they’re poor masterings — especially the DSD128 download? Of course not. But to my ears they’re just not quite as good. Notably, the delta between the MFSL and Jensen download, on the one hand, and the two Analogue Production downloads, on the other, seem to be larger on speakers than on headphones. The DSD downloads sound flatter (front-to-back) and the location of the instruments (left-to-right) are more amorphous compared to both the MFSL CD and the Jensen download. Once again, could this be a polarity issue? Possibly.


    That leaves one final mastering, with the MFSL still in the lead and the Jensen 24-bit download a close second. That final mastering is the one contained on both the lavish, incredibly well-executed 50th anniversary “Super Deluxe” box set, as well as the more parsimonious (and cheaper) corresponding releases. (For those who want to hear all of the “Super Deluxe” box’s bonus material, the entire set is streaming on Qobuz.) As noted earlier, this 50th anniversary mastering was done by Abbey Road’s Geoff Pesche and overseen by Paul Samwell-Smith.


    How does its equalization (brown) compare to the MFSL’s (light blue)?


    Har-Bal MFSL vs 2020.gif



    In relation to the MFSL disc, the 2020 remaster looks a lot like some of the previous versions. The MFSL has a little more energy on the low end, and the 2020 CD has as little more energy on the high end, with the inflection point falling in the 700-800 Hz range for most songs. Overall, the 2020 remaster nudges the tonality of the album back towards the two 842 352-2 CDs.


    Before getting to the final subjective comparison, let’s see how the waveforms of 2020 remaster (bottom, black) looks in comparison to those from Jensen’s hi-res mastering (middle, green) and the MFSL CD (top, blue):


    Waveform - MFSL vs HiRes vs 2020.gif



    Overall, the 2020 remaster has more limiting than either the MFSL or the Jensen hi-res download. However, while that’s a bit of a strike against it, a better transfer and master could easily trump those small dynamic differences. Whether it matters or not, the 2020 remastering uses the more common polarity (the opposite one used by both the MFSL and Jensen’s hi-res download).


    But how does it sound?


    In short, the 2020 remastering of Tillerman sounds superb. It has perhaps the most detailed rendering of Ryan’s acoustic bass. Overall, all of the instruments sound clear and nuanced on the 50th anniversary version of Tillerman. It pulls out the entry of the strings on “Where Do the Children Play?” near the 2:30 mark, for example, better than any other version. It also displays excellent imaging and depth, perhaps putting to rest the idea that polarity is the deciding factor there. Notably, it also presents Stevens’s voice the best of all versions — aside from the MFSL.


    The MFSL still separates Stevens’s lead vocal overdubs on “Where Do the Children Play?” and the layered backing vocals used on numerous songs better than either the Jensen download or the 2020 remastering. Simply put, the MFSL excels at capturing Stevens’s voice. The MFSL also still conveys the impact of the many dramatic dynamic swings on Tillerman best.


    At the end of this long journey through the many, many digital versions of Tea for the Tillerman, we’re left with three outstanding versions. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but all three are masterings that should make even the most “loudness wars”-jaded audiophile thrilled.

    I think I’d ultimately still give the MFSL CD the top spot by a slight margin. The vocals and dynamics are so important on Tillerman, and it does those better than release without sacrificing much in the way of instrumental detail. However, the Jensen hi-res download and the 50th anniversary remaster are tied for a close second-place, and I could easily see others preferring either of those to the MFSL. Since those two versions can be streamed on Qobuz, they’re also more readily available than the out-of-print MFSL CD. But true Tillerman fanatics likely still will want to hear the MFSL disc for themselves before deciding on their favorite.


    This Tea for the Tillerman TBVO has been my longest, most convoluted analysis yet. But it’s no surprise that Tillerman has been remastered so many times or that fans and audiophiles have been passionate about sussing out the best version.

    Tillerman is a special album, one that’s had enduring appeal for a half century.


    “I was just following my heart, and the music was coming out and was being dressed absolutely appropriately with the musicians that I had, and kept very sparse and pure,” Islam reflected in 2004. “It was a very purist period of songwriting and recording. I had a feeling there was something special, but I didn’t know how people would take it.”




    1. In order to analyze the DSD layer of SACDs, I use a PlayStation 3 to rip the SACD to an ISO. Then I use Sonore’s ISO2DSD to extract the DSD from the ISO. Finally, I use Sonore’s DSD2FLAC, XLD, TraX, or DSDMaster to convert the DSD files to PCM. (All software solutions produce PCM files with identical equalization.)

    2. I’m excluding “The Easy Blues” from this table since some releases split it into two tracks.

    3. For the subjective analyses, all CD editions were ripped with XLD and played with Audirvana. The main DAC used was a Berkeley Audio Reference Series Alpha DAC with the most recent firmware. I also mixed in a Crane Song Solaris DAC and the Matrix Sabre Pro. Amplification came from a Bryston 4B Cubed power amplifier and a Benchmark HPA4 preamp/headphone headphone amplifier. Most listening was done on KEF Reference 1 speakers with an SVS SB-13 Ultra subwoofer and a diverse set of headphones, including Focal Utopia, ZMF Vérité Closed, and Audio-Technica ATH-ADX500. To make comparing these masterings easier, I lined up the level-adjusted versions of each in Audacity and used its solo function for instantaneous switching.






    About the Author

    jm.pngJosh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.






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    Another masterpiece @JoshM! I have only a couple of these versions. Tillerman wasn't an album I fully appreciated until very recently. This is just fantastic stuff!

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    Thanks for this monumental comparison, Josh! Incredibly helpful.


    Would you be so kind as to share the Qobuz links for the "Jensen hi-res download" and the "50th anniversary remaster."

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    This album (along with Suitner's Beethoven's 9th) were the first CDs I bought in 1984 (still have that disc).  I can't tell you how often I listened to them (mainly because I couldn't afford any CDs after buying that Nakamichi OMS-5 CD player as a freshman in college...ouch)  Truly epic album.  Thank you for this deep dive

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    Amazing scholarship!!! I was always aware of Cat’s music, but it wasn’t until I recently saw him live on his Cat’s Attic tour that the beauty and depth of his songs was revealed to me. He’s among my favorites now.

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    10 minutes ago, Archimago said:

    Brilliant work @JoshM!


    This is an audiophile masterpiece! 👍


    Thank you. It means a lot coming from you!

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    21 minutes ago, Synfreak said:

    What a great review! Almost unbelievable how much work must have been gone into this article.


    Time for a re-listen session :-)

    Thank you. Every TBVO is a labor of love — and (depending on how convoluted the mastering history is) maybe a little frustration!

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    Excellent detailed article. Have to say I compared the MFSL(Ultradisc II Gold) to HD tracks 2012 24/192. And do prefer the HD. I find these days the MFSL's dated somewhat with a bassy preference. At the same volume the MFSL stage was smaller turning MFSL up it enlarged and recording clearer but with a background brightness, with bass overlay. I have several other MFSL's and they all have a similar signature. In saying that they were the best until hi res masters appeared. Vocals and treble has more detail and prescence on 24/192 recordings. Instruments better balance. I do not have the latest 50th version. You are right Josh at the end of the day its what you prefer as your end sound.  Robert

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    Great article! I’ve always preferred the AP 2015 SACD /DSD, now I’ll need to get all OCD and once again compare it to the MFSL and the Qobuz DSD 128 download (these are the 3 versions I own). 

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    On 3/18/2022 at 5:15 PM, robocop said:

    Excellent detailed article. Have to say I compared the MFSL(Ultradisc II Gold) to HD tracks 2012 24/192. And do prefer the HD. I find these days the MFSL's dated somewhat with a bassy preference. At the same volume the MFSL stage was smaller turning MFSL up it enlarged and recording clearer but with a background brightness, with bass overlay. I have several other MFSL's and they all have a similar signature. In saying that they were the best until hi res masters appeared. Vocals and treble has more detail and prescence on 24/192 recordings. Instruments better balance. I do not have the latest 50th version. You are right Josh at the end of the day its what you prefer as your end sound.  Robert


    This was a really tough call. Audiophiles are lucky to have at least three great masterings for this album. 

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    Yes, what an amazing article!


    I'll throw in a tuppence here ... audio friend up the road was very heavy into the vinyl world some years ago; and he told me of his efforts to get a "good pressing!" of Tillerman, on vinyl - he constantly raided the used shops in the area, because his belief was that the premium SQ was with a very specific LP label run, by Island. Which he eventually snagged - but oh, boy! It was noisy, really noisy - it had seen many hard years under a needle - pops and crackles were through the roof.


    But, the quality of that mastering still shone through. In spite of "the rain constantly falling on the roof", the actual sound of the voice and instruments were as I recalled, way back in my teenage years, hearing it in a room with others, on a basic record player ...

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    These are such amazing write ups.   Really appreciate all the effort and evaluation you put into these and i like learning more about recording and mastering from your research.   I have the mobile fidelity version and that glitch on "On the Road to Find Out" annoys me to no end (and mars an otherwise great sounding disc).  Has the glitch been removed on your two runner ups?

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    12 minutes ago, coegh said:

    These are such amazing write ups.   Really appreciate all the effort and evaluation you put into these and i like learning more about recording and mastering from your research.   I have the mobile fidelity version and that glitch on "On the Road to Find Out" annoys me to no end (and mars an otherwise great sounding disc).  Has the glitch been removed on your two runner ups?


    Yes, the glitch is only on the MFSL. So that's a point in favor of the two alternate picks.

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