Cat Stevens and Zeus – Part 1

By Nick Warburton

By late 1967, teen sensation Cat Stevens had become seriously disheartened by the state of his pop career. Only 19 years old, the fledging singer/songwriter had become an overnight success when the timeless ‘Matthew & Son’ hit number 2 spot in the UK singles’ chart.

Cat Stevens – Matthew and Son (French EP, Deram, 1967)

However, when his latest 7” outing, the experimental ‘A Bad Night’ stalled at number 20 and his stage musical Mexican Flower was turned down by West End theatres, Stevens briefly turned his attention to record production. Hiring Birmingham psych exponents The Yellow Rainbow, he produced two long lost recordings of his songs. Nick Warburton reports on this little known chapter of his career and the band that fell under his wing.

Cat Stevens’s aspirations to produce records were first made public in late summer when NME writer Norrie Drummond interviewed the singer in the music magazine’s 18 August issue and found him at a “crossroads” in his career.

Under the headline “Cat is Sad”, Stevens told Drummond: “I’m not going to do very much in the next month or so, except perhaps recording and writing. I also want to concentrate on record production, which has been taking up a lot of time recently.”

The first fruits of this new found interest appeared on a single written and recorded by his friend, and former singing partner, folky Peter Janes for the CBS label – ‘Emperors and Armies’ c/w ‘Go Home Ulla’.

Peter Janes, Emperors and Armies/Go Home Ulla, Picture Sleeve

Buoyed by this experience and with touring commitments looming, Stevens’s next side venture came about after his brother, manager David Gordon, acted on a tip and travelled to Birmingham in early October to check out psychedelic sensation The Yellow Rainbow.

“We were playing at the Holly Bush pub in Quinton when David Gordon came up and introduced himself as being Cat Stevens’s brother in the interval,” remembers lead guitarist Mick ‘Sprike’ Hopkins (b. 3 January 1946, Great Barr, West Midlands).

“He said that Cat Stevens was interested in using us as his backing group but also to record us.” “It is an opportunity knocks thing,” adds singer Ed Pilling (b. 13 January 1948, Kingstanding, West Midlands).

“A guy comes from London, from Cat Stevens, and wants you to go on tour with him; you’re not going to turn it down.”

Formed around January 1967, and originally known as The Wages of Sin, the Birmingham-based quintet had already cut an impossibly rare, German-only single while working as resident band at the Paletten club in Fulda near Frankfurt that spring.

Wages of Sin, early 1967, Clockwise from centre: Ed Pilling, Mick Hopkins, Tony Clarkson, Brian Pilling and Jimmy Skidmore

Coupling raucous versions of ‘Hey Joe’ (a recent UK hit for The Jimi Hendrix Experience) and Cream’s ‘N.S.U.’, The Wages of Sin gave the two covers their own unique touch. Returning home to work for the John Singer Agency, they swiftly became a leading attraction on the West Midlands’ club scene.

Sheri Wykes and her friend Glynis were instantly hooked and over the months followed the band to each and every venue, even becoming close friends with the musicians.

“Their music was perfect for the time,” says Sheri. “They used to do The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’ and ‘So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star’ and were the only band in the Midlands playing this music. The Move did but they’d left Birmingham.”

Over the spring and early summer, The Wages of Sin continued to gig incessantly on the local scene and even ventured back to Fulda for a second, shorter stint at the Palleten club during June. In Birmingham, their local popularity led to a prestigious support slot with Lulu at the famous Cedar Club on 17 April.

Wages of Sin, Hey Joe/NSU, Picture Sleeve

“John Bonham and I used to drink together at the Cedar Club,” says Ed Pilling, looking back. “It was a great place for musicians to go after hours, after they have finished playing because it didn’t open until one in the morning.”

Then, in early August 1967, The Wages of Sin embraced the ‘Summer of Love’ by morphing in to The Yellow Rainbow, inspiring Roy Wood (who’d learnt his chops from Hopkins in Gerry Levene & The Avengers), to pen a song for The Move with the same title.

“I’d known him for years because he’d played with me in The Avengers and he said, ‘Oh, that’s given me an idea for a song’,” remembers Hopkins.

Roy Wood

Wood wasn’t the only famous connection to the band members. Future Led Zeppelin sticks man John Bonham had been the first choice drummer but turned down the offer to complete the line-up.

“We put it to Bonham and John wasn’t that interested,” remembers bass player Tony Clarkson (b. 15 July 1945, Kingstanding, West Midlands), who had played alongside Bonham and Hopkins in The Nicky James Movement and The Way of Life. “He wanted to stay with The Way of Life because he had a full gig booked.”

Nicky James Movement from late 1965. Mick Hopkins (bottom right), Tony Clarkson (bottom left) and John Bonham (top left)

Jimmy Skidmore, who had played with a pre-Locomotive Norman Haines in The Delmore Lee Sound, filled the drum stool instead.

But the real stars in The Yellow Rainbow were siblings Ed and Brian Pilling (b. 26 December 1949, Kingstanding, West Midlands), who’d returned to the UK after many years in Toronto, Canada, where they’d played and recorded with local band, The Pretty Ones with Greg Godovitz.

By early November 1967, Stevens had signed The Yellow Rainbow to an agency deal with his Doric Management Company, placing the band on a retainer and housing the musicians above the family’s restaurant, the Moulin Rouge, on Shaftsbury Avenue.

Cat Stevens Melody Maker 18 November 1967

Taking the liberty of re-christening them Zeus, Stevens secured a showcase gig for his new protégés at the Middle Earth on 10 November.

Zeus at Middle Earth, 10 November 1967

The show was a warm-up for the more prestigious La Fenêtre Rose Festival – a mammoth Love-In, held at the Palais Des Sports in Paris the following weekend, featuring The Soft Machine, Dantalion’s Chariot, Keith West and Tomorrow, and The Spencer Davis Group.

Recorded and broadcast for French TV, Zeus debuted as Stevens’s new back up band and also played a solo set (an excerpt of Stevens and the band performing ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’ has surfaced on YouTube).

“We know it was broadcast on French TV,” says Clarkson. [When The World of OZ] were recording down at West Hampstead [a year later] and John Lodge and The Moodies were down there, I bumped into him in the canteen and he said, ‘I’ve seen you on TV the other day in France’. At that point that was the only TV work I had done.”

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Intensive rehearsals had taken place at the Marquee in the weeks preceding the concert and the relaxed environment served as a backdrop for the band to finally meet their new boss.

“The first time we met him…he walks in, in his fur coat and dark glasses and we’re all star struck,’ remembers Ed Pilling.

By the close of ‘67, however, Stevens had become increasingly disillusioned with the trappings of pop stardom and the pressure to come up with more hits.

The second part of  Nick Warburton’s Cat Stevens and Zeus feature can be found here: