The Year of the Cat. A Mysterious Adventure Through the Zodiac


“Year of the Cat” is a hit song by British singer-songwriter Al Stewart, released in 1976. Stewart co-wrote the song with guitarist Peter Wood. It appears on Stewart’s album Year of the Cat.

The song tells the story of a man’s romantic encounter with a mysterious woman in an exotic marketplace. With its vivid imagery and jazz-influenced instrumentation, “Year of the Cat” became Stewart’s breakthrough hit in the United States. It reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1977.

The song’s title refers to the Vietnamese Zodiac calendar year of the cat, which occurred in 1975. Though the lyrics contain no direct references to the Vietnam War, the war likely influenced the song’s worldview and tone. “Year of the Cat” evokes both the excitement and uncertainty of the mid-1970s era.

Lyrics Overview

“Year of the Cat” tells the story of a man visiting an exotic marketplace when he becomes captivated by a mysterious woman, often referred to as the “cat.” The lyrics use vivid imagery to describe the setting and the woman’s alluring yet enigmatic presence. The chorus serves as the main refrain, with the title line “Year of the Cat” referring to the feeling of being drawn in by this exotic, tempting figure. While open to interpretation, the lyrics seem to use the “year of the cat” as a metaphor for being seduced by someone or something that is beautiful yet unknown. The lyrical narrative follows the man as he pursues the mysterious woman through the market, leading to an intimate encounter by the “waters of the Nile.” The song ends on an ambiguous note, with it unclear if their meeting was just a passing moment or the start of something more lasting.

Historical References

The song “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart makes subtle references to the tumultuous historical events of the late 1960s, including the Vietnam War and the counterculture revolution. Though the lyrics describe a romantic encounter in an exotic locale, the year is likely around 1969 according to one interpretation (Wikipedia). The tagline “in the year of the cat” may be a nod to the Vietnamese zodiac, in which 1969 was the year of the cat (Medium).

The atmosphere of social and political upheaval in the late 60s, including anti-war protests and the counterculture movement, casts an underlying aura throughout the romantic adventure described in the lyrics. References to “a crowd of young boys” following the protagonist, “revolution blooming”, and the sense of exploration and escape connect the song to the cultural zeitgeist of the time.

Literary Influences

The song contains vivid imagery and symbolism that draws from various literary works. According to Al Stewart, the song was partially inspired by the 1907 novel The Education of Cyrus by Honore de Balzac, which uses the metaphor of a “year of the cat” to refer to a formative, coming-of-age year in a person’s life.

The song’s lyrics also reference the works of Beat generation authors like Jack Kerouac. The protagonist journeys on the road like characters in Kerouac’s seminal novel On The Road, searching for meaning and experience. References to “rainy dawns” and “magic in the air” evoke the dreamlike, mystical atmosphere captured in the writings of Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg.

The song’s exotic setting and mysticism are reminiscent of works like William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. The visual motifs like “silken girls” and “incense fires” reflect the rich sensory imagery these authors used to immerse readers in their fantastical realms.

Overall, “Year of the Cat” masterfully weaves together literary influences to transport listeners to an imaginative world filled with discovery.

Jazz Instrumentation

One of the most distinctive aspects of “Year of the Cat” is its prominent use of jazz instrumentation, especially the saxophone. The song opens with a saxophone riff that is both melancholy and catchy. This sets the moody, evocative tone for the lyrics that follow. The saxophone is played by Phil Kenzie, a well-known British saxophonist who worked with many major artists in the 1970s.

The centerpiece of the instrumentation is the iconic saxophone solo in the middle of the song. Drawing inspiration from jazz greats before him, Kenzie delivers an emotional, soaring solo that conjures up vivid imagery complementing the lyrics. His fluid playing evokes a sense of mystery and adventure, transporting the listener to faraway lands. The solo elevates an already strong song into something transcendent.

In addition to the saxophone, “Year of the Cat” makes use of rhythm and instrumentation strongly influenced by jazz. The drums, bass, guitar and piano all work together to create a subtle, complex rhythm that drives the song along. There are shades of jazz legends like Dave Brubeck in the deft time signatures and rhythms used. The instrumentation gives the song dynamism and energy, while retaining a smooth, mellow groove.


There are several popular theories about the meaning of “Year of the Cat.” According to the Music Fans Stack Exchange, many believe it is a metaphor for Stewart being seduced by a mysterious woman, represented by the cat. The exotic setting and imagery depict the passions and sensations of this seductive encounter. Others on SongMeanings suggest the lyrics describe how only a man could fall in love so suddenly, just at the sight of an alluring woman, without knowing her beforehand.

Some analyses point to the lyrical references to astrology and the Chinese zodiac, noting that 1976 was the Year of the Cat in the 12-year cycle. From this view, the song is about paths crossing at an appointed time and the serendipity of meeting someone new. The cat represents the woman’s astrological sign. Still others think the song is more generally about romantic adventures while traveling abroad.


“Year of the Cat” was released as the first single from Stewart’s album of the same name in July 1976 in the UK and October 1976 in the US It became Stewart’s biggest hit, peaking at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for two weeks in February 1977. The single reached #31 on the UK charts. In the US, the Year of the Cat album was certified platinum in March 1977, indicating sales of over 1 million copies

The song received positive reviews from music critics. AllMusic described it as “one of those glorious, melodic anomalies that defy classification or trends” and Stewart’s “masterpiece.” Rolling Stone called it “haunting” and “mesmerizing.” Reviewers praised the evocative lyrics, jazz-influenced instrumentation, and Stewart’s vocal performance


“Year of the Cat” has had a lasting cultural legacy since its release in 1976. The song has been covered by numerous artists over the decades, putting their own spin on the jazz-inflected folk rock classic. Some of the most notable covers include versions by Gin Blossoms, Gerard Joling, and The Davis Sisters.

Al Stewart’s enduring hit has also been featured in films, TV shows, and commercials. For example, “Year of the Cat” appeared on the soundtracks for the movies The Year of the Dog in 2007 and Adventureland in 2009. On television, the song was used in episodes of That ’70s Show and Stranger Things, exposing it to new generations of viewers.

According to, “Year of the Cat” has over 60 recorded versions by different artists, demonstrating the song’s lasting appeal and influence. It remains a classic radio staple and continues to inspire new interpretations decades after its initial success.

Al Stewart Commentary

Al Stewart has provided some insight into the meaning of “Year of the Cat” over the years. In an interview with Songfacts, Stewart explained that the song is about a young man traveling to an exotic foreign land and having a romantic encounter with a mysterious woman. The “year of the cat” refers to the Vietnamese zodiac, in which the Cat is one of the 12 animal signs. Stewart envisioned the song as a “travelogue” of sorts, describing the young man’s adventures in this foreign land.

Stewart has said the lyrical imagery was influenced by his own travels to exotic locales like Casablanca, Morocco. The song captures the sense of adventure and mysticism the narrator feels as he explores this unfamiliar place. At the core, it’s a song about crossing boundaries, taking risks, and embracing new experiences.

In discussing the jazz instrumentation featured on the recording, Stewart has credited saxophonist Phil Kenzie with coming up with the iconic solo. Stewart gave Kenzie free rein to improvise during the break, and what emerged was one of the most memorable sax solos in pop music history.

Overall, Stewart seems proud of “Year of the Cat” as one of his most enduring songs. He embraces the air of mystery around the lyrics, preferring to let listeners interpret the narrative andmeaning for themselves. But his comments shed some light on the inspirations behind this classic.


“Year of the Cat” has endured as a captivating and evocative piece of jazz-rock fusion. The intricate lyrics weave together lush imagery and multiple historical and literary references into an impressionistic narrative open to myriad interpretations. The jazz instrumentation and haunting melody further shape the mysterious, exotic mood. While the meaning behind the elaborate metaphors and symbolism remains elusive, the poetic nature of the words combined with Al Stewart’s distinctive vocals and the smooth, mellow arrangements create a hypnotic, cinematic listening experience. The song transports the listener to faraway lands and bygone eras. Ultimately, “Year of the Cat” stands as a prime example of Stewart’s literate songcraft which continues to intrigue and delight fans decades after its 1976 release.

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