This song is a conversation between a father and son, with the father counseling his son to stay home, settle down and find a girl, telling him this is the path to happiness - after all, it worked for him. The son, though, feels compelled to leave and is frustrated because his dad makes no effort to understand why or even hear him out.
Stevens made up the story, but his relationship with his own father, Stavros Georgiou, was an influence on the song. His dad owned a restaurant in London and Cat (known to his dad as Steve Georgiou) worked there as a waiter right up until he signed a record deal at age 17. Stavros was hoping his son would join the family business.
When he appeared on The Chris Isaak Hour in 2009, Stevens said: "He was running a restaurant and I was a pop star, so I wasn't following the path that he laid out. But we certainly didn't have any antagonism between us. I loved him and he loved me."
Stevens veered away from his upbringing again in 1977 when he rejected Christianity and became a Muslim, changing his name to Yusuf Islam.
The generational divide that plays out in the lyric can apply to many families, but Stevens had a specific storyline in mind, writing it from the perspective of a father and son in a Russian family during the Russian Revolution (1917-1923). The son wants to join the revolution but his father wants him to stay home and work on the farm.
Stevens, a huge fan of showtunes, wrote it in 1969 for a musical he was working on called Revolussia, which was set during the Russian Revolution. The song was part of a scene where the son feels it is his calling to join in, but his father wants him to stay home. The musical never materialized, so the song ended up being the first one written for Stevens' Tea For The Tillerman album.
The song has a very unusual structure, which owes to its provenance as a number for a stage musical. There's no chorus, but the son's part is sung louder, providing a kind of hook. The dialogue is an interesting lyrical trick with the father and son expressing different perspectives on the situation.
In 2020, Yusuf Islam told Entertainment Weekly: "The song is a testament to the differences we represent to each other, especially in age and traditions. Traditions have a big impact on our lives, and sometimes you've got to walk away."
This is the song that got Stevens signed to Island Records. His first two albums were issued on Deram, a division of Decca. Stevens met with Island boss Chris Blackwell to talk about the musical he wrote this song for, but when Blackwell heard the song, he set his sights on getting Stevens on his label as an artist. Stevens' first Island release was Mona Bone Jakon earlier in 1970; it was not just a new label for Stevens, but a new producer as well, with former Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith taking the helm from Mike Hurst (ex-Springfields), who helped Stevens get his deal with Decca.
The Irish boy band Boyzone recorded "Father And Son" in 1995. Their version was a huge hit across Europe, going to #1 in Ireland and #2 in the UK. Stevens, who by this time had embraced the Islamic faith as Yusuf Islam for 18 years, was thrilled with the cover.
"I was in a Turkish restaurant one day and it came on the radio," He told Mojo, recalling the first time he heard it. "One of my children said, 'Dad, isn't that your song?' I said, 'Why, yes it is!' It turned out to be Boyzone. It's a nice version and I'm grateful it was a clean-cut group who did it. I went to meet them at Top Of The Pops and we had a nice time. They're a good bunch of lads."
This wasn't released as a single, but thanks in part to the Boyzone cover, it has endured as one of Stevens' most popular songs. It was used as the B-side of Stevens' hit "Moonshadow
The producers of the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge
wanted to use this song in the film and had some of the actors record it
, but Yusuf Islam wouldn't let them because the racy content of the movie clashed with his Muslim beliefs. Much of the plot was based on the song, and the script had to be rewritten when he refused permission. The song "Nature Boy," sung by David Bowie, was used instead.
An interesting sidebar: The restaurant that Islam's family owned in London was called the Moulin Rouge.
On The Flaming Lips' 2002 album Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, there is a song called "Fight Test" that sounds a lot like "Father And Son." In 2003, the song was released as a single in the UK and got a lot of attention. Faced with a lawsuit, The Flaming Lips agreed to split the royalties from "Fight Test" with Stevens.
In 2004, Ronan Keating of Boyzone released a new version of "Father And Son"
with Yusuf Islam as a duet partner. This version, released on Keating's 10 Years of Hits
compilation, rose to #2 in the UK.
Movies that have used this song include Omero (1982) and Pirate Radio (2009). It was also featured in a 2011 short film called Immigrants' Children Will Always Break Their Parents Hearts.
In 2017, director James Gunn used it in his film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, where it plays in the last scene. Gunn thought of the song after hearing Howard Stern play a (very lame) version of it on acoustic guitar coming out of break on his radio show.