Rod Stewart (1979)

Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone be­trayed his talent so completely. Once the most compassionate presence in music, he has become a bilious self-parody—and sells more records than ever. A writer who offered profound lyricism and fabulous self-deprecating humor, teller of tall tales, and honest heartbreaker, he had an unmatched eye for the tiny details around which lives turn, shatter, and reform—the way a lover tears up drafts of a letter, the way a boy combs his hair in the mirror, the way a man in trouble looks for solace—and a voice to make those details indelible. Adopting the persona of a 19th-century Mon­tana homesteader waiting out a bad winter with his wife, of an old man watching his granddaughter squander his savings, of a young man hellbent to nowhere but finding love anyway, he removed all doubts: this is real, you said, this is how it is. Then, full of the rewards he received for his work, and seemingly without noticing, he exchanged passion for sentiment, the romance of sex for a tease, a reach for mysteries with tawdry posturing, and was last seen parading his riches, his fame and his smugness, a sort of hip Engelbert Humperdinck, a rock and roll Porifio Rubirosa. Perhaps it makes sense. When Rod Stew­art was learning the game, Simon Frith has said, the goal of show business was not to become a great artist, but to spend money and fuck movie stars. If it was necessary to become a great artist in order to get the money to spend and the stars to fuck, well, Rod was willing.Born in London in 1945, to working-class parents of Scottish descent, he first found his sound in the music of Sam Cooke, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Bob Dylan—whose scratchy voice validated Stewart’s own. He bummed across England and into Europe, played semi-pro soccer, dug graves, sang on the streets and found his way into the thriving British R&B scene of the mid-Sixties. He did time with the Five Dimensions (Chuck Berry called them the best backup band he ever had), Brian Auger, and John Baldry, and cut a few disappearing singles and unreleased sessions on his own. There seemed to be nothing to distinguish him from any other London shouter, save perhaps his rasp—and his taste in clothes, which earned him a title he has never quite lost: “Rod the Mod.”

In 1968 he appeared as vocal foil to Jeff Beck’s guitar, and though it was clear he was doing a job, gained solid notoriety for his all-edges delivery of blues, folk, and rock standards on the Beck group’s Truth and Beck-Ola. (The only hint of things to come was the despairing “I’ve Been Drinking,” not issued until after the band broke up.) Still in service to Beck, he took a chance to make a solo LP, borrowing guitarist Ron Wood and drummer Mick Waller from Beck, and recruiting guitarist Martin Quittenton and Small Faces’ keyboard man Ian McLagan. Playing around Stewart more than behind him, and never named as a group, they would become one of the finest rock and roll bands of all time.The Rod Stewart Album (1969), like Gasoline Alley (1970) and Every Picture Tells a Story (1971), was an uncanny combination of the folksinger’s gentle touch, the rocker’s assault on all things holy, and the soul man’s affirmation of the truth buried deep in every human heart. As Stewart gained confidence, and shifted the material from superbly chosen classics to his own compositions, these albums became something more: a statement about the possibilities of a decent life sparked always by a yearning for hard-earned good times. These albums were defined by two special qualities: warmth, which was redemptive, and modesty, which was liberating. If ever any rocker chose the role of Everyman and lived up to it, it was Rod Stewart.He didn’t play concerts with his solo-album band; instead, he and Ron Wood joined the Small Faces (soon renamed simply Faces), and made a series of let’s-go-get-drunk LPs that only increased one’s anticipation of the records with Stewart’s name on them. There, one could find a kaleidoscope of emotion and experience—hilarity, brashness, independence, dependence, regret, cowardice, fear, foolishness, delight, lust, anguish, defeat, tenderness, blood, toil, tears and sweat—every aspect of life, each set forth as necessary and valid, each rendered whole, as whole as Mick Waller’s drum roll at the close of the first verse of “Every Picture Tells a Story,” the fiddle in “Cut Across Shorty,” the mandolin in “Maggie May.” No matter what Stewart sang—Sam Cooke oldie, Eddie Cochran ballad, Dylan tune, his own tales of blown chances and reckless adventure—it had depth. He drew on feelings inaccessible to all but a very few, and never showed the strain.

Every Picture Tells a Story made him a star (both the LP and its single, “Maggie May,” topped the U.S. and U.K. charts simultaneously, the first such coup in pop history), and it can hold its ground with any rock and roll record ever made. Stewart’s band reached its peak here; even at its hardest, and it could be impossibly hard, there was a lightness in the sound, fun in the apocalypse, room to breathe as the Allies stormed the beach at Normandy. The title tune is one of the most ferocious performances anyone will hear, but, save for a few choruses, the music is only drums, bass and acoustic guitar.

That title tune—it’s a goof, the rhymes range from the off­hand to the ridiculous, but it’s also as elemental as “Whole Lotta Shakin’,” as inspiring as “Like a Rolling Stone,” as mov­ing as “Try a Little Tenderness.” There’s a moment, after Rod has called off the band and just before it moves back for the final lines, when you can hear a soft, spontaneous “Hey…” out of one speaker; it’s as if one of the musicians was so caught up in the story Rod was telling he couldn’t help but wish the singer and his lover well. I know no friendlier event, not on record, not in real life, and it may sum up everything Rod Stewart and his band had to say.From there the tale is not pleasant. Never a Dull Moment(1972) was a strong record, lifted high by “You Wear It Well” and “Twisting the Night Away,” but there was much missing: mainly that sense that life itself had been crammed onto a 12-inch piece of plastic. Smiler (1974), Stewart’s last LP with his original band, was just rock-star flimsy: accidental genius turned to formula. Stewart broke up the Faces, replaced his band with expensive American sessionmen, and, within a year, had left England for tax exile. In 1976 he was denounced by the rising punk rockers as the epitome of the corrupt star living off the gullibility of his audience, blowing his fans a kiss while his heart held only contempt. He provided no reason to make one think the punks were wrong.There have been more albums since—huge hits, some of them, pandering, sleazy records, the humor forced, the compassion just a gesture, the sexiness burned down to everyone else’s open shirt and stuffed crotch. Stewart bought himself a band—hacks incapable of playing a note that had not already been bled dry. Stewart seemed comfortable with them; they couldn’t push him, because they wouldn’t understand the idea. He couldn’t push them, even if he wanted to; they’d fall down.

And yet there is one exception, the hit single from the other­wise flaccid A Night on the Town (1976). That is “Tonight’s the Night,” a seduction song so transparent, helpless, and forthright that not even a cynic—which is what Stewart has made this fan—can resist it. The tune glows; you root for the singer, put yourself in his place, in the place of the woman he’s singing to. It’s not even an echo of his old music—it is new. And then it’s over.

The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, 1979, edited by Jim Miller
(cf. Van Morrison, Punk, Rock Films, The Beatles)


21 thoughts on “Rod Stewart (1979)

  1. I hated Rod Stewart growing up. If it wasn’t for this profile and others like the one Jimmy Guterman wrote, I would have never known that Stewart once made some of THE greatest records in rock ‘n’ roll well before my time.

  2. Maggie Mae, Mandolin Wind? Great. But Stewart was, even in 1971, padding his records with lazy ass covers. His I know I’m losing You is phony crap, his That’s Alright is condescending crap, his Reason to Believe is decent, but nowhere near as good as the Tim Hardin original.

  3. Lazy ass covers? Couldn’t disagree more. I love their covers from those first four “solo” albums. Their version of I Know I’m Losing You is on a very short list of Motown covers that can go toe to toe with the original. Their takes on Tomorrow is a Long Time and Only a Hobo are the definitive studio versions of those songs, and Mama You’ve Been on My Mind and Angel are beautiful tender recordings. Reason to Believe is a beautiful rendition of that song, and That’s All Right is a fun, charming and unpretentious goof. And there’s plenty more. He was a wonderful interpreter.

    • We’ll have to vehemently disagree. FWIW, I think his versions of ‘twistin’ the night away’ and ‘the first cut is the deepest’ are swell.

  4. Correction: the sublime “I’ve Been Drinking” was released in the UK (flipside of “Love Is Blue”!) in March 1968, nearly a year-and-a-half before the Jeff Beck Group split (on the eve of what would have been their appearance at Woodstock).

    Incorrection: “In conclusion, you might like to know that Jeff Beck’s new group debuted Friday, March 3rd. The line-up is Rod Stewart (vocals – ugh!!!), Ronnie Wood (b), Ray Cook (d). All I can say is God help him with Stewart aboard, a class Z singer!” – Valerie Wilmer, HIT PARADER, July 1967

  5. I’ll have this argument both ways. On the one hand, one of Stewart’s strengths, right from the start, has been as a covers artist. Tim Hardin’s version of “Reason to Believe” is nice, but Stewart owns it, just as he owns a few others as well, including “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” including a few I probably didn’t initially know were covers (I will add, however, that the Pogues stole “Dirty Old Town” from him and/or whoever he stole it from). And yet, the only two songs on Every Picture I tend to skip over (or anyway, songs I never feel an absolute need to hear) are the Elvis and Temptations covers. Both are okay for what they are, but lesser moments on an otherwise perfect record.

  6. “That’s All Right” isn’t a single, that’s for sure, but I like it in the context of the album (it brings out some very endearing qualities in this group of musicians). “I Know I’m Losing You” though is a killer for the break alone – this is where it really departs from the original arrangement, with the drum break (the second best display of drumming on this album next to the title track) and those wonderful low hummed notes that lead us up to that piano. It’s not just my favorite part of that performance, but one of my favorite parts of the album.

  7. I actually do agree that in the context of the album, “That’s All Right” is good knockabout stuff, and it belongs. Aside from what the band does (as you point out), Rod’s vocal performance in the Temptations cover is also phenomenal, but it’s just not a song I love, in either version. Melodically, maybe, it’s a little heavy-handed for me? I would love to have heard him do “I Wish it Would Rain.”

  8. The Rod Stewart/Faces version of “I Wish It Would Rain” is on the Faces’ live album “Coast to Coast: Overture and Beginners”.

  9. Pingback: The 27 Club Is Too Damn Small | janehalpern

  10. You all failed to mention the two best covers of this period–Dylan’s “Only a Hobo” from Gasoline Alley and “Mama You’ve Been on Mind” from Never a Dull Moment.

  11. A clip of Dan Rather interviewing Rod Stewart about the first sentence in this essay. (Not sure if this will work. Originally intended it for ‘Ask Greil’ but it wouldn’t embed or even link properly– maybe because the source is Facebook.)

  12. I remember a brief print interview – MUSICIAN Magazine, I think? – back in the ’90s where Rod acknowledged that Greil’s famous criticism had been correct… the implication being that he had now seen the light, and would henceforth apply himself a bit more. As I haven’t heard any of his ’90s-and-beyond albums (aside from bits of his GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK series), I can’t say whether he ever actually did or not.

  13. Rod Stewart had a strong relationship with Creem and its editors during the 70s and even into the 80s. I think he’s most definitely referring to Greil but is confusing him with Lester.

  14. Pingback: Rod Stewart Got the Last Laugh With ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’

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