I was inspired to write about this song by hearing it on Sounds of the Sixties this morning. It’s a classic piece of mid-Sixties pop, the second single and biggest success for Greek Cypriot/Swedish Steven Demetriou, who took the stage name of Cat Stevens after his girlfriend described his eyes as being like those of a cat.
There’s an air of familiarity about this songs that suggests it may be one of the few I actually heard during the Sixties, though I can only reliably date my knowledge of it to the Seventies, and Radio 1’s generous Golden Oldie’s policy. Whether that came before or after Stevens’ post-tuberculosis return to recording with a vastly different, more mellow and spiritual concern, starting from ‘My Lady d’Arbanville’, I’ve no idea now,
Stevens was in the process of forging an adult career as a singer/songwriter, purveyor of serious albums of primarily acoustic, spiritual songs. After coming close to death from tuberculosis, it’s certainly not a surprising twist, but in his first coming, Stevens had been a pop singer: bold, brash, light-hearted, handsome, frilly-shirted and dynamic, which made his return all the more startling by being the exact opposite of this young pop dandy.
It’s hardly surprising that I should find myself preferring the pop singer, the unselfconscious teen idol with a gift for melody and rhythm, and an energy that inhabited his music. And why not? ‘Matthew and Son’ is a near perfect pop single, a smash that deserved to go all the way, and not be held off the top by the Monkees’ ‘I’m a Believer’. It’s smooth, it’s pacey, it’s got the simplest yet most addictive of short melodies, it’s orchestrated in a way that doesn’t remove any of the energy of the rhythm section, and Stevens is flying with the vocals, building to a great, almost yearning rise as he echoes the title into the fade. This is a work of genius.
And yet it’s one of the strangest pop smashes of the decade. It’s like it’s two halves of two great songs, fitted together, except that the screw has slightly stripped its thread so that there’s a lack of flush between the two parts.
Musically, it starts with a rippling, repeated, descending piano phrase, supplemented and almost taken over by the initial, austere strings that suddenly gives way to the rhythm, a three-note solo bass guitar pulse, also repeated. Stevens comes in over the top, short, staccato words, echoing the pulse, before a solo horn blows a swirling phrase, in isolation.
Stevens resumes the verse, the horn accompanying the bass, drums joining in, another four short lines, before the horn repeats its solo phrase and Steven booms into the chorus with the orchestra holding his voice. The title starts the chorus, which modulates into a repeating line, ‘they’ve been working all day, all day, all day’ which bleeds into the horn riff, before slowing, soothing…
This leads us back into another verse, shorter, two lines only, alliteration sprinkled throughout the second line, this time the drums taking the beat over from the bass, then it’s that horn phrase and the chorus again, horns and strings playing counter melodies. Then the riff, the slowdown, the soothe…
This time into a slow, plaintive middle eight, three lines, longer lines, flowing, Stevens’ voice building in tempo and passion until the song races off with horns furious again,
And then drops into a repeat of the initial riff on strings, Stevens intoning the title and repeating the ‘working all day’ line until the song unexpectedly drops into that piano ripple, before coming up strong as he blast into the fade, the sound getting bigger and bigger as it gets further away until it’s all gone.
I don’t usually go into that kind of depth on the Jukebox, but I wanted to show how this seamlessly perfect pop tune is a succession of differing sounds and instrumentation, Frankensteined into a whole that works to enormous effect. There’s an element of calculation to it, the perfection is too neat, the juxtapositions too well organised for this not to have been written with a commercial ear, a professional ear. Stevens wrote the song, but it was Mike Hurst who arranged it, and I can hear that freshness being channeled to brilliant effect.
And I’ve gone on so long about the music because I also want to go on about its other half, the slightly disconnected lyrics. ‘Matthew and Son’: what’s that all about then?
It’s about somewhere people go to work. It’s a place of employment. And for such a dynamic piece of pop, it’s a strangely, misfittingly passive story. What Matthew and Son do, what they make is never explained: all we’re told is that ‘there’s always something new’. They’ve been around for at least fifty years, employ people who’ve been there that long, so this isn’t a new business, it doesn’t have new attitudes, it isn’t something in Carnaby Street as you may have imagined from Stevens’ shirt. It sounds Victorian.
Wherever it is, whatever it does, it’s a strict employer. Stevens opens with people rushing to be in work on time, the second verse refers to a five minute break with only cold coffee and a slice to eat, how no-one dares to ask for a raise, despite the financial struggles they face…
But that’s all. A seemingly dynamic picture that implies, with the song’s motion, with the song’s existence in January 1967, Swinging London, that all this will change, because this is a time of change, yet the words hang there. Having set this up, all Stevens can do is to repeat the firm’s name, and that ‘They’ve been working all day, all day, all day’.
It’s like catching a glimpse through the window of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s counting house, and then turning away: Marley’s Ghost will not visit here, nor any others.
Active song, static words. In the end, the only thing that we can hang onto is the horn riff, inviting, demanding that your hips start to move, that even non-dancers be affected by this infectiously pacey song. There was a real Matthew and Son, Henry Matthew and Son, Tailors, where Steven Demetriou’s girlfriend worked, where she had to spend more time than he liked. The song is about wage-slavery.
And in the face of all my contemporaries with their earnest albums in those long-gone early Seventies, there is more life and living in this two minutes and forty seconds that in all of ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ and its contemplative successors put together.