Hey, I am just writing what everyone’s thinking right? A once-great singer and possibly an even better songwriter who, mostly under his own name but also as lead singer with The Faces (who just about epitomized rock and roll at the time, being packed to the brim with rowdy guitar ably provided by future Rolling Stone Ron Wood and featuring one of the most solid rhythm sections of all time in bassist/songwriter Ronnie Lane and drummer Kenny Jones with Ian McLagan’s Jerry-Lee-Lewis-on-speed piano stylings, after all), released some of the greatest albums of the early ’70’s, albums filled with both touching and heart-rending songs of pained love and loss and an equal amount of hard rocking songs which look at the other side of the coin, the lusty and bawdy side of loving the opposite sex set to raucous Chuck Berry-style guitar work and Stewart’s trademark prickly sagebrush voice accompanied by countless bluesy whoops and hollers. Then, unfortunately 1975 just had to arrive, and with it, Stewart’s break with the musical hurricane known as The Faces, who all-too-often seemed to serve as his secondary music outlet and obligation.
Where the “Rod Stewart” solo albums were “big statements” and “important works of art” the albums Stewart made with The Faces were designated as nothing but a rampaging beer blast put on vinyl. Since then, Stewart has managed to record a succession of mostly disappointing albums with only the occasional bright spot, at least, for the most part. A Night On The Town and Footloose and Fancy Free didn’t seem like such a large step down at the time in the mid-’70’s, but fans should have seen it coming just from the cover art itself. Pictures of a preening Stewart in all of his sartorial finery, the playful narcissism of the Faces drawn out to the nth degree. The albums which followed can only be considered trash and I am being generous. Album after album of pure ego devoid of any of the humility and heartfelt sentiment which were the hallmarks of his work up to that time. Worse, he began blaming those rowdy Faces for holding him back, making him record those terrible rock and roll songs when all Stewart really wanted to do was be the rock and roll version of Al Jolson. Well, Stewart became Jolson: a well-heeled superstar to the masses but a corny joke to those who knew about his greatness. Stewart is still tainted by his legendary ambitiousness today. When he does manage to record a great song or a decent album, these are passed off as flukes and people point to his godawful American Songbook albums as the “real” Stewart who has betrayed his rock and roll craft. Worse, the Songbook albums sell like gangbusters and his ’90’s rock albums (which were, for the most part, very credible works) sell poorly. Shit, if I were Stewart now, why wouldn’t I give trash to the masses if that’s all they want? Money’s money, right?
So, this being known, why would anyone want to buy a 4-CD retrospective of Stewart’s leftovers? I mean, after the first disc which covers up to about 1975 or so, the rest of the cuts are outtakes from mostly horrid albums anyway. Think about it: songs that weren’t deemed good enough for the albums Blondes Have More Fun, Foolish Behaviour or Body Wishes, albums filled with so much dreck listening to a recording of someone’s spleen exploding would be considered two cuts above! But one must remember Stewart’s once-promising history to get a clue as to why listening to this potential boxset-full-of-chum might just be worth your while. And, since few take the time to bother or, at this point, feel Stewart is worth the mental effort, I am here to help.
First, some history.
After Stewart’s musical apprenticeship as a part of a handful of interchangeable British blues bands with and without British legend Long John Baldry from whom he first earned his performing nom de rock’s “Rod The Mod” and “The Mod’s Delight”, Stewart parlayed his distinctive “two-roosters-fighting-it-out-in-a-tailpipe” voice into a stint as Jeff Beck’s vocalist on two outstanding albums billed as Jeff Beck Group. Still finding his footing as a performer, Stewart notably stood facing away from the audience while performing with Beck, trying to cultivate a holier-than-thou stage presence while in all honesty terribly shy and afraid of whether the audience would be receptive to his vocals. It’s hard to imagine Stewart feeling shy about anything, but that is just another example of how he has managed to change his persona over the years. After the Beck Group imploded due to Beck’s mercurial emotional state and Beck’s tyrannical methods of running a band, bandmate Ron Wood (who played bass in the Jeff Beck Group) invited Stewart to come down and watch him rehearse with the Small Faces, whom Wood was trying to help prop up after the defection by their former leader Steve Marriott, who ran off to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton.
At first, Stewart watched from the wings, not invited to sing, as the band played groove after groove, song after song, with no one stepping up to take the microphone. After a while, it was Wood and drummer Kenny Jones who had had enough of Stewart just watching and demanded he come down and sing with them, a decision which frightened the other bandmembers Lane and MacLagan, who wanted no more preening lead vocalists, still feeling the sting of Marriot’s departure. Once Stewart let yawp, the die was cast. The Faces got rid of the “Small” and shifted their focus from the psychedelic hoo-hah of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake by their previous incarnation, to a blend of rock, boogie and blues more in tune with The Rolling Stones than anything else. Of course, Stewart never told the band he had recently signed a solo deal with Mercury Records, at least, not until he had already became a member of the band. So, the Faces were left with the same deal they had tried to avoid: a lead singer who could possibly bolt from the band if his solo career started going well. Fortunately, success was really not a problem in the beginning of the pairing.
While The Faces became famous for their raucous live performances, their first few albums did little business as they transitioned from psyche-poppers into raunch and rollers and Stewart’s debut was a decent enough album that received very tepid reviews. The thing is, Stewart improved quicker. With his second album Gasoline Alley, Stewart proved he was not only one of the best new rock and roll singers around, but that he was quite capable of not only picking great material to cover, but was able to come up with his own, equally excellent, material as well. That it was often co-written and often performed with his fellow Faces moonlighting on his solo albums was also interesting as members of the Faces (mostly Ronnie Lane) often accused Stewart of saving his best material for his own albums and taking songs co-written with fellow bandmembers and cutting it for himself, and not saving it for Faces discs. By the time Stewart hit his high point with Every Picture Tells A Story, The Faces knew the writing was on the wall. The band still managed to pull it together to come up with a couple great albums – A Nod Is As Good As A Wink (To A Blind Horse) and Ooh La La – but they were crumbling as first bassist Ronnie Lane (the true heart of the band) quit and then Wood went on tour with The Rolling Stones but not before cutting a few of his own solo albums. Soon Wood would announce he was leaving, committing once-and-for-all to the Stones and not wanting to play games with Stewart, who wouldn’t commit to staying with The Faces. Stewart was finally alone, the so-called solo star he always wanted to be and soon denounced the Faces as ruffians who held him back and, in their place, hired a bunch of session hacks who he couldn’t challange and didn’t have the cred to challange him.
The comfortable relationship lasted until about the mid-80’s as Stewart and his interchangeable hacks finally found their brand of commercial crap had run it’s course. For the first time in about fifteen years, Stewart couldn’t chart a song to save his pampered life(style) and changes in the business had finally doomed his vapid style. So what did Stewart do? Simply fire his band and hire another set of studio wizards. Stewart also did something else though: he woke up to the fact he was looked upon as a joke. Whether he ever truly realized his music was horrid will probably never be known, but Stewart changed his style back towards his classic years and openly confessed to not being proud of a lot of the things he recorded from the mid ’70’s to the mid ’80’s. Deep down people love someone struggling, and soon Stewart was back on the charts again with his late ’80’s album Out Of Order and the next few albums saw Stewart cracking the charts again quite vigorously – sometimes with better songs, sometimes not, but his career seemed rejuvenated. For a time, anyway. The late ’90’s reared their ugly head and once again Stewart was passe. Since then, he struggled to find his way, recording various albums in various style but clicking most of all with a four album set of Standards recorded with his inimitable vocal styling. Stewart, by all accounts, will always remain a legend. But to say his work touches the hearts of his fans, well, maybe since his fans are all now well over sixty and are barely able to remember when he actually meant something.
At least, until people start checking out this boxset, which may stir both good and bad memories for Stewart’s fans. The good being what he was capable of and the bad being what he later became.
As I mentioned above, the first CD covers Stewart’s classic work which in most critics’ eyes ranges from the albums The Rod Stewart Album (his first solo album) to Smiler and maybe Atlantic Crossing (his first album of relatively “meh” material) if we are feelking especially generous to the Rooster-Headed One. As expected, this CD borders on fantastic, featuring out-takes and unreleased versions of Stewart’s most well-loved songs like “Maggie May”, “You Wear It Well” and “Angel.” These are not only tracks that remind you how great Stewart was but almost make you angry as they more often remind you how far he’s slipped. It’s almost comical to hear some of the outtakes, as obviously the music was recorded before Stewart had the lyrics finished and some of the lines he uses in the “scratch” vocals are simply hilarious. If nothing else, these songs give you an idea of Stewart’s songwriting process and diehard fans will find these cuts invaluable while casual fans will, no doubt, enjoy them more for the sexual humor.
The next CD covers the years from the albums A Night On The Town to his horrid live album from 1980 or, as I like to look at it, the years where Stewart totally betrayed every fan he ever had. While A Night On The Town and Footloose and Fancy Free seemed like only minor slip-ups at the time (and not totally horrible ones – at least, that’s what we thought) they ended up as harbingers as to what was to come. They had the beginnings of the narcicism and self-absorption which would taint Stewart’s work for the next few decades but, amazingly as this set proves, still had plenty of great songs from Stewart. “The Killing of Georgie”, “Scarred and Scared” and “Oh God, I Wish I Was Home Tonight” are all excellent tracks from Stewart, shining like gems among the many turds on the albums on which they were originally released. These unreleased versions add even more nuances and shadings to the songs, fostering the notion that out of the five or so Stewart albums of this period, one fantastic album could actually be culled.
The third disc runs the gamut from Stewart’s absolute rock-bottom (the excreble Body Wishes) to his commercial and artistic renaissance (or as close as Stewart will ever get) Out Of Order at the end of the ’80’s. This is the only toss-away disc of this set. The bad songs are beyond evil and the songs from his resurgence are not different enough from their album counterparts to really warrant much attention. There is a haunting piano-and-voice-only version of the Beatles “In My Life” that almost makes the rest of the crap on the disc worthwhile, but it is one song out of many so I can’t really recommend it.
The fourth disc will surprise you. The disc begins by recapping some demo versions of songs originally meant for an album which was never released. Though the songs did eventually surface on other albums, the versions here are not only very heartfelt and warm but often radically different than the final released versions. Included is a rocking re-do of a song he cut as a guest vocalist for the band Python Lee Jackson called “In A Broken Dream.” On board for the cut are David Gilmour on guitar, John Paul Jones on Keys, Nick Lowe on bass and Pete Thomas from The Attractions on drums. Let me tell you, the songs is just a whomping rock tune that revisits Stewart’s glory years in magnificent fashion. Though Stewart is slightly less energetic than way back then, his vocals are still spot-on and Gilmour shreds on guitar as if his life depended on it. The rest of the songs on the disc cover Stewart’s post-Unplugged albums of the ’90’s, albums that are actually quite good for the most part, constructed of mostly songs written by others as Stewart himself has largely given up songwriting. Filled with interesting song choices and a more solid work than yhou might think (especially on the vastly underrated When We Were The New Boys from 1997, when Stewart took inspiration from the then-current crop of Brit-pop acts, covering songs by Blur, Oasis, Nick Lowe and others) the set brings Stewart almost full circle. He can never re-caputre the innocense of his early solo career. He’s had way too much success to put himself in that place mentally ever again, but he remains a very fine interpreter of others’ material, and when his choices are good, one can almost hear the old Stewart crop up again, which is weird to hear after all of these years.
So, returning to our beginning, Rod Stewart may suck. Just not all the time, and maybe not as much as you think. Though this set contains some of the same amount of overreaching, over maudlin, steeped-in-saccharine work as any of his post-Smiler albums, there is enough great work from Stewart (both from when he was actually an incredible artist and a surprising amount from the eras when you would have swore he’d become nothing more than a musical zombie shuffling through his career without caring a whit about his work) shining through to give you hope. Hope the next set of songs will finally be the ones where Stewart abandons all the trappings of his fame and the ugly pretense and smarminess and smugness clogging his work and remembers what he felt like when he was just another singer on the streets of England back in the late ’60’s/early ’70’s when every lyric he wrote was an amazing slice of life where the magic in all of the little details and nuances Stewart drew out of the most mundane aspects of existence was able to bring the listener to a razor-sharp connection to his songs. If anything, the outtakes and demos on this album show the listener Stewart himself remembers, sometimes only long enough to get to the end of the song but in some cases, that’s enough. Certainly enough to recommend this set, as the ratio of greatness to clunkers is surprisingly good and may just convince some old Stewart fans that there may be a chance for redemption yet, though, let’s just say I wouldn’t hold my breath, okay?
Just buy this set and be damn happy you’re getting some good quality Rod Stewart for a change.