Remember Cat Stevens? He came to prominence here in the early 1970s as a singer-songwriter responsible for such ethereal ballads as “Peace Train,” “Wild World,” “Moon Shadow” and “Morning Has Broken.” He was equally popular in his home country of England at the same time, but to his British fans he was probably more like Cat Stevens 2.0, a rocker revamped from the turbulent late 1960s.
“Peace Train” was Stevens’ third entrée into the 1971 American Top Ten, the song being gleaned from his million-selling album Teaser and the Firecat. Arriving at a time of social upheaval (especially concerning the unpopular Vietnam conflict), “Peace Train” brought a message of hope and encouragement to his followers. Infused with a Greek-influenced calypso beat and powered by handclaps, violins and a gospel-tinged chorus, Stevens’ hit offered an escape from the country’s malaise and a welcome to a world of tranquility and contentment via a metaphorical train ride. Who wouldn’t want to be on such a conveyance?
Born Steven Demetre Georgiou in 1948 in London, the youngest child of a Greek father and a Swedish mother, he developed a love of music and took to playing the family’s grand piano. But at 15, intoxicated by the success of the Beatles, he switched to the guitar and started creating tunes.
Stevens set his heart on becoming a songwriter in the same vein as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. He signed a publishing deal at 17 with a London music company and cut several original demos (demonstration records), including the future Tremeloes hit “Here Comes My Baby” and “The First Cut is the Deepest,” recorded later by Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow. He changed his stage name to Cat Stevens, in part because a girlfriend claimed he had eyes like a cat. Also, he has said, he couldn’t imagine anyone going into a record store to ask for a Steven Demetre Georgiou album.
Never a standout student, Stevens later dropped out of art college to become a velvet-suit-wearing teen idol who placed three rock singles high on the British record charts. What followed for him was a schedule of personal appearances, recording sessions and an indulgence in the seductive (and often destructive) world of the rock star.
He contracted tuberculosis and landed in a London hospital for a year-long recuperation. While taking stock of his life during that time, Stevens meditated, did yoga, became a vegetarian and considered different spiritual paths.
During his recovery, he composed numerous songs in an easy-going, folk-pop style, his new works more intimate than the hard-edged rockers that had first brought him fame in the UK. “In the old days, I was more concerned with melody,” Stevens said later. “Now it’s what I have to say.”
“Peace Train” became a fan favorite, and for a while Cat Stevens ended every concert with his beloved (and still-relevant) anthem, which opened with unabated optimism:
Now I’ve been happy lately/Thinking about the good things to come And I believe it could be/Something good has begun.