On the opposite side of the road to where I get my hair cut in the Surrey village of East Horsley is a Woking Hospice charity shop where I used to take resilient clothes that no longer fitted our kids. I sometimes buy used CDs there for just £1 each and one day last week I came across this, still in its cellophane wrapping, ie brand new, which is most unusual and wouldn’t have pleased Rod had he been shopping there for cut-price CDs too.
I used to love Rod Stewart’s music. Gasoline Alley was a fixture on my turntable around the time I joined Melody Maker in 1970, swiftly followed by Every Picture Tells A Story, the album that personifies Rod in his pomp. I tended to prefer his folksy songs over the rock’n’roll covers, songs like ‘Only A Hobo’, ‘Reason To Believe’ and, my all time Rod favourite, ‘Mandolin Wind’, but those first four solo albums were all gorgeous, simply devoid of duff tracks, and it seemed to me that his use of mandolins echoed the pastoral feel of The Band, rivalling even the exquisite ‘Rockin’ Chair’ from their second album. Rod wasn’t prolific but what he did write was thoughtful, homespun and, like the covers, always in the best possible taste.
I just about wore out his first four solo albums and while the first three Faces albums could be a bit patchy the best tracks were as good as Rod’s. Things started to slip with Smiler (1974) where quality control was lacking somehow, and although the love songs he wrote on subsequent LPs found a ready audience with his female fans I lost interest as he morphed into a flashy rock’n’roll playboy, all loud clothes, yellow Lamborghinis and leggy blondes.
I met him several times in the early seventies. He’d paid his dues the proper way, rising up from the clubs, but he was a bit of a cocky bugger, a sort of cross between a cockney Jack the Lad (which he wasn’t, of course) and a canny Scotsman (which he was, sort of) whose wallet remained firmly shut at all times. I’d been a big supporter of The Faces, writing glowing reviews of shows in both the UK and US, and he seemed well disposed towards us on Melody Maker, not least because he won the Top Male Singer award in, I think, 1972, and came to the presentation. He liked to be the centre of attention. He wallowed in applause. I suppose he had every right to be a cocky bugger.
He had a house at Windsor around that time and occasionally dropped into the Fox & Hounds, a pub in Englefield Green, near Egham, where I once lived and still had friends. I used to go back there from time to time to see them and one night I was there when Rod turned up. He wasn’t expecting to see me and looked at me warily, as if I was stalking him, which I wasn't of course. Unlike in rock environs, chance encounters between music writers and rock stars like this, in out of the way places, can be slightly awkward, as was this. I watched as people bought him drinks and he invariably asked for a large brandy, but he never bought one back which caused a bit of muttering amongst the locals. I suppose he was used to lackeys buying him drinks and had difficulty adjusting to a different environment. That night when he left the pub he found he’d left the lights of his Lamborghini on and the battery was flat, so he went back into the pub and asked for a push. No one volunteered and there were a few smirks but I felt a sort of filial duty to someone from what was now my world and went outside to take a look. Of course there was no way in hell that one person could push a Lamborghini, even a yellow one, so he had to get a cab back home and, presumably, return the following day with a mechanic, all of which would have cost him considerably more than a round of drinks.
I think there was a touch of the emperor’s new clothes about the way in which his relationship with the press deteriorated. He didn’t like criticism. The last time I interviewed him was in a big hotel suite New York in 1974, when Smiler came out, and he was on the defensive, perhaps sensing that the tide was turning and the goodwill he’d enjoyed from the press was at an end. In the past he’d been chatty, friendly, but now he was behaving as if he expected the interview to turn into an argument. “Well, what do you want to know?” he asked when I switched on my tape recorder. He was unnecessarily abrupt, almost aggressive, and I’d been a supporter. He didn’t trust us writers any longer.
The only Rod Stewart music I’ve listened to in the past 30 years has been the triple CD-set Reason To Believe which includes his first five solo LPs and a few bonus tracks. The acquisition of You’re In My Heart last week wasn’t an introduction to later songs, of course, because they’re everywhere and, truth to tell, the orchestration suits songs like ‘Tonight’s The Night’ and ‘You’re In My Heart’. ‘Maggie May’, which opens the set, is the only Rod standard with newly recorded vocals. It begins serenely, the first verse taken as a prelude, before settling into the familiar rhythm as the morning sun shows your age. Drums aside, the backing track from the song that topped the UK and US simultaneously is replaced by chunky strings and not until the slide guitar solo and a trace of mandolin during the false ending are we back in the summer of 1971. It is pleasing to note that Rod’s pipes are up to a more than passable reproduction of his vocal from that year.
Rod duets with Robbie Williams on ‘It Takes Two’, turning it into a full tilt rock’n’roll song in which the strings are largely drowned out by electric guitars. At an overlong 4.27 it isn’t a patch on Marvin and Kim Weston – their classic version was only 2.56, incidentally – the Motown spring is missing, and couldn’t he have found a girl to sing with? Tina? Adele? The perfect fit would have been Amy Winehouse of course.
Thereafter, until the final track, we are in familiar territory, Rod evidently having decided it was unnecessary to record new vocal tracks to ‘Sailing’ (cheesier than ever), ‘Reason To Believe’ (delightful), ‘Handbags And Gladrags’ (lovely), ‘Tonight’s The Night’ (ok, if you like that kind of thing), ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ (ditto), ‘First Cut Is The Deepest’ (nice but no improvement on the [wonderful] original), ‘You’re In My Heart’ (see ‘Tonight’s…’), ‘I Was Only Joking’ (ok, but a bit long), ‘Young Turks’ (surprisingly rhythmic), ‘Forever Young’ (schmaltzy, with Rod’s amended Dylan lyrics still an irritation), ‘Rhythm Of My Heart’ (forgettable) and ‘Have I Told You Lately’ (lovely, though I prefer Van). The final track is a new song, ‘Stop Loving Her Today’, a tender weepie about blighted romance in the style of his arm-waving ballads.
As a general rule overdubbed strings on existing vocal tracks seem to me like extreme repackaging. I heard – but didn’t buy – some of the Elvis tracks that were orchestrated a year or two ago, largely because it was mostly ballads and my Elvis is rock Elvis. Mostly out of curiosity and because I’m a big fan, I bought the Beach Boys with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra CD but, in truth, didn’t think the orchestra added much to Brian Wilson’s superb productions anyway. Rod’s excursion into this world, perhaps predictable after his Great American Songbook albums, is the best of the three and for £1 at a charity shop I’m not complaining. But where was ‘Mandolin Wind’?