I first clapped eyes on Rod Stewart in 1971. I first clapped ears on him later the same year, at my cousin Mike’s birthday party, held in the living room of his parents’ council house on the western edge of Bath. Living room? Of course. There was no such thing as a lounge in Mike’s part of town, unless it was a polite reference to my uncle’s post-pint Sabbath slump on the settee. As opposed to a sofa. Like lounges, sofas were for posh buggers.
And that was the point. When Rod unveiled Maggie May on Top Of The Pops alongside his fellow Faces, with additional input from an output-less John Peel on pretend mandolin, there was nothing posh, let alone glam or otherworldly or cosmically androgynous about his performance. Agreed, he twirled his microphone stand and stuck his hand through his hair and played football during the instrumental bit. What he definitely did not do was pose and pout and preen and prance around like a parade-ring pony Pop Star. And that shook me to my 11-year-old bones. It turned out that the new normal was… normal. Bruce Springsteen would soon pull the same ‘bloke next door’ stunt on the other side of the pond, to even more startling effect.
What I saw on Top Of The Pops that night hit me harder than anything I heard, although Maggie May quickly flooded my veins under cover of darkness the way all great music does. It was only when Mike, his mates, sundry girlfriends and an extended cast of middle-aged family members congregated for the birthday do, and their high-spirited drinking was accompanied by repeated spins of the astonishing album Every Picture Tells A Story, that I realised what was happening in my musical world. Long before I first encountered the overused phrase ‘all of human life is here’, I found myself listening to an account of human life that, in so far as I understood it at that very early stage of development, was entirely recognisable and pretty much complete.
I bought the record immediately, with money begged from my mother, and played it to death. Six months later, I was Oliver Twisting my heart out once again. There was a new Rod collection in the local branch of Woolworths and I needed to hear it. ‘Mum… sorry to ask… do you think…?'
In many respects, Never A Dull Moment mirrored its predecessor. The Every Picture title track had its lusty-young-man’s-rite-of-passage companion piece in Italian Girls, blessed with the same warm mix of brass-necked cheek, ballsy defiance and soft-centred vulnerability. For That’s All Right, read Twistin’ The Night Away. If Every Picture had a Dylan cover in Tomorrow Is A Long Time, the follow-up album had one in Mama You Been On My Mind. There was even another Maggie May in You Wear It Well, which, against the most distant odds ever dreamed up by Ladbroke’s, was very nearly as good.
The departure from the tried and tested was a sudden shift from folksy-bluesy good-natured rock to something approaching pure aching soul in the shape of I’d Rather Go Blind. It was a risky move – Stewart has openly confessed that the decision to take on the 1968 Etta James classic caused him no end of trouble and strife – but it worked. In the space of four minutes, some of it voice-free, he propelled himself into the front rank of modern-day male singers. None of his peers and few of his predecessors could have made a better fist of the phrasing and shaping of the words. Otis Redding himself would have stood him a beer on the strength of it.
Something told me it was over
When I saw you and him talking
Something deep down in my soul said 'Cry boy'
When I saw you and him out walking
The key to all this is restraint. The ‘less is more’ theory of pop-rock vocalising has its dedicated followers, but they are few in number when set against the massed legions of motor-mouthed extemporisers. If you need proof, listen to Etta James herself. The lady could sing, no doubt about it, and she can be forgiven pretty much anything on the basis that she co-wrote this song in the first place. (Not that you would know it without conducting a little research. The germ of the idea came from her friend Ellington Jordan, a convicted robber whom she was visiting in prison, and they co-operated in bringing it to fruition, but as Etta was having her issues with the tax authorities, she thought it prudent to stick the name of her then boyfriend, Billy Foster, on the credit list.)
But when she performs I’d Rather Go Blind, she generally digs deep into the Aretha playbook and stretches some of the lines to the limits of elasticity. Stewart does the opposite. Towards the end of the number, just when the vocal gymnasts would have been throwing out their double back somersaults on the four-inch beam, he simply shuts up. For 30 seconds or so, there is not so much as a peep from him. The effect, to my ear, is shattering. Is it possible to sing beautifully while not singing at all? You bet it is.
I was just, I was just sitting here thinking
Of your kiss and your warm embrace
When the reflection in the glass that I held to my lips
Revealed the tears I had on my face
And so we arrive at the heart of it: Stewart’s creative relationship with Ronnie Wood, whose guitar licks are as spare and sensitive as Rod’s voice, yet equally characterful and generous in filling the wordless space. Underpinning his musicianship is a mastery of technique, but the key elements are sound and feel and an innate understanding of what to leave out.
Much the same can be said of Ian McLagan’s unfussy organ work, the tender bass playing of Pete Sears, Micky Waller’s straight-down-the-line drumming and the glorious contribution of an uncredited brass section presumably thrown together by the arranger Jimmy Horowitz. Every time I listen, I ask the same question: who the hell are those guys? They could be the Memphis Horns at their most serene, but the album was recorded in Middlesex, not Tennessee, and it surely cannot be true that the mighty engine-stokers of Stax crossed the Atlantic to play incognito.
It is said that this was a one-take performance and it sounds like it, not just in a good way but in the very best of ways. Had Stewart and Wood and half a dozen close buddies simply gathered together late one night and recorded this precious gem in their communal living room – very definitely not a lounge – it could not have come across as more informal, more immediate or more deeply expressive.
Rod might have achieved anything and everything off the back of I’d Rather Go Blind. What he gave us was Hot Legs and a catalogue of accompanying codswallop. Jesus H Christ on a mountain.
Chris Hewett is a career journalist who spent nearly 20 years as rugby union correspondent of The Independent newspaper. In his late teens, he joined the Bristol Evening Post as a trainee reporter and covered a variety of subjects – crime, health, the local arts scene, rugby and cricket – before heading for Fleet Street. His musical talent, such as it was, led him towards the drums. Only after a decade of playing a full-sized Slingerland kit in the back bedroom of his parents’ small terraced house did he realise that he was not Max Weinberg or Stewart Copeland, let alone Buddy Rich or Elvin Jones. Much to the relief of the neighbours, he reluctantly turned to the typewriter. It was a lot quieter.
Ian Tasker on the Etta James original
Phil Shaw on Ronnie Lane's Debris