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.