He'll never let you down: The Seventies may have been a terrible decade for pop music, but in retrospect, one man, Rod Stewart, stands out as a mentor for the young: a man of questionable taste in almost everything, except good pop music

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
YOU WANT classic early Seventies albums, I got 'em. The entire Al Green back catalogue, Let's Get It On, There's No Place Like America Today, Grievous Angel, After the Goldrush, Blood on the Tracks . . . Unimpeachable classics, every one, and while others may have to bury their Cat Stevens and James Taylor albums away when fashionable friends come round to borrow a cup of balsamic vinegar, I have nothing to hide. Those pre-Ramones years were difficult to pick your way through, but I seem to have managed it quite brilliantly. If there was a smarter, more forward-thinking, more retrospectively modish young teenager around than me between 1971 and 1975, I have yet to meet him.

Sadly, however, I am that commonplace phenomenon, Reinvented Man. Most of the Al Green back catalogue I bought in the early Eighties, the Gram Parsons at university in the late Seventies, the Curtis Mayfield from a car boot sale a few years ago, and so on. I didn't buy any of them at the time of their release. I thought that soul music was for wide-boys, country was for old people, and Bob Dylan was for girls.

These are a few of the albums I bought back then: McCartney; Led Zeppelin II; a Humble Pie live double, the title of which escapes me; the Curved Air record which had painting on the vinyl; Anyway by Family; Deep Purple in Rock; Tubular Bells; a Van der Graaf Generator album, purchased after I read a review in Melody Maker, and if I ever meet the journalist who wrote the review he can either refund me my pounds 2.19 or get biffed on the nose; Rory Gallagher and Every Picture Tells a Story, by Rod Stewart.

Every Picture Tells a Story is the only one of those that I still possess. All of the others have disappeared, stolen or flogged (although the Van der Graaf Generator album was certainly not stolen, and I can't imagine who would have bought it off me); some of them were flogged because I needed the money, others because they had absolutely no place in the ineffably cool collection I was in the process of assembling.

So how come Rod Stewart has survived? ''Now there was someone who never let you down,' a friend remarked sardonically when I owned up to my tragic affliction, and he has a point. Rod's track record is not without its blemishes. There was Britt Ekland, for a start. And tartan. And 'Ole Ola', his 1978 Scotland World Cup Song (the chorus - and I may be misquoting, but not by much - went something like 'Ole-Ole, Ole Ola/We're going to bring the World Cup back from over thar'). And 'D'Ya Think I'm Sexy'. And the Faces live album Overture and Beginners, which the NME commemorated with its annual 'Rod Stewart and the Faces Thanks-For-the-Live-Album-Lads-But-You-Really-Shouldn't-Have-bothered Award'. (The record ends with Stewart thanking the audience 'for your time . . . and your money', and you really have to hear the lascivious drawl in his voice to appreciate the full horror of the moment.) And the haircut. And his obsession with LA. And the champagne and straw boaters on album sleeves. And 'Sailing', which made a pretty decent football song but an interminable single. And several other blonde women who weren't Britt Ekland but might as well have been. And the couplet from the song 'Italian Girls' (on Never a Dull Moment) that goes: 'I was feeling kind of silly / When I stepped in some Caerphilly'. And the cover of the record Ooh La La, a pathetically cheap arrangement which allowed the purchaser to jiggle a tab and make a man's eyes go up and down in a supposedly hilarious manner. And the record itself, arguably the worst collection of songs ever released by anybody. And the all-purpose session-musician sub-Stones rock'n'roll plod-raunch that can be found on any of his post-Faces work, 'Hot Legs' being the template. And the Faces live shows, which were apt to end with the entire band lying in a drunken heap on the stage. He's hardly put a foot wrong, really.

I bought Every Picture Tells a Story in the Virgin shop in Oxford Street: there was only one Virgin shop then, situated right where the Megastore is now, except you had to walk through a shoe shop (or rather, a cowboy boot shop) and up some stairs to get to it. I lived 30 miles from Oxford Street, but this was still my nearest discount record store, and though the train fare cancelled out any savings I made, it was much more fun buying records there. There were headphones, and beanbags (although the beanbags were frequently occupied by dossers) and bootlegs, which I had never seen before.

And in any case, the length of the journey lent a proper gravity to the serious business of record-buying. Now, I indulge myself whenever I feel like it, even in times when I have had no money at all; there are occasions over the last 15 or so years when I have come back home yet again with a square-shaped carrier bag and felt sick with guilt and over-consumption. ('I haven't even played side two of the album I bought after work on Tuesday, so how come I've bought another one today?') In those Virgin days, I thought and read and talked for weeks before committing myself to something I would have to live with and listen to for months. (Mistakes, like the Van der Graaf Generator record, had to be paid for by the self-flagellation of listening to the thing and kidding myself that I liked it.)

Every Picture Tells a Story seemed a safe bet. I had heard 'Maggie May', of course, and knew that any album featuring a song like that would not be actively unpleasant; I could count on songs, and singing, and these seemed like reassuring virtues. And songs and singing was what I got: 'Maggie May', 'Reason to Believe', a beautiful cover of a Dylan song, 'Tomorrow is a Long Time', a decent stab at the Temptations' 'I Know I'm Losing You' (I didn't really approve of Rod singing a song by a Tamla Motown group - Motown was for sisters and people like that - but there were plenty of guitars, so I let it pass) . . . loads of stuff. There wasn't anything I didn't like, really. I played Every Picture Tells a Story to death, and then let it rest in peace.

But, like all the best teen icons, Rod wasn't a mere recording artiste, he was a lifestyle. You couldn't just listen to his music, forget about him, and put him away in the little and chronically over-familiar pile of records in your bedroom (I probably had about nine albums by then, and in truth I was pretty sick of all of them). He resonated. For a start, there was this football thing he had. At school, the sight of him kicking balls into the Top of the Pops audience excited a great deal of favourable comment; ever since punk, it has been de rigueur for bands to express an interest in the people's game, but back then, things were different, mostly because of the kind of music I was listening to. Few of the people I watched fooball with at Arsenal looked as if they knew who Humble Pie were; none of the people I watched Humble Pie with cared how Arsenal had got on. (I remember John Peel attempting to read out the football results at a late-summer Hyde Park concert, and getting booed for doing so.) When I went to see the Who, I saw that rock and football did not have to attract entirely separate audiences, but for the most part, the afghans at the gigs and the Crombies at the grounds never got to rub against each other; Rod Stewart was a godsend to the countless teenage boys who couldn't see why Ron Wood and Ron Harris should have to live on different planets.

And it was much easier to be Rod Stewart than it was to be Hendrix or Jagger or Jim Morrison. Tartan scarves were easier to find in Maidenhead than leather trousers, and Rod had never worn a dress, like Jagger had. There was no need to take heroin, or read Rimbaud, or play a guitar with your teeth, or know who Meher Baba was; all you needed to do to acquire Rodness was drink, sing, pick up girls and like football. It was easy.

We could all do that without having to go to LA or even Soho. (We weren't drinking or picking up girls yet, needless to say, or at least not properly, if you catch my drift. But we would, no problem, no need to worry about us, pal.) The photo on the gate-fold sleeve of Never a Dull Moment depicted Stewart's band lined up in a goalmouth; on Smiler, they were all raising pints outside a suitably cor-blimey-looking pub. This was transparently shameless ROD STEWART stuff and it is impossible to look at these photos now without cringing; we were being conned rotten, but we didn't know that then, and even if we did, we wouldn't have cared.

I went to see the Faces in 1971, at the Oval, but I cannot remember so much as a bum Ronnie Wood note now. (And the next time I saw them, at the Reading Festival, they left no impression, either. This may well have been a result of their liberal pre-gig refreshment policy.) In 1972, when I was 15, there was 'You Wear It Well', which, reassuringly, sounded exactly the same as 'Maggie May', but with its own tune, and the album Never a Dull Moment, and the Faces album A Nod's as Good as a Wink, and the single 'Stay With Me', and the single 'What's Made Milwaukee Famous', which came in a tartan picture sleeve, and the Python Lee Jackson single 'In A Broken Dream', which became the traditional bottom-groping finale to every village hall disco I went to. I didn't need to think about any other pop singers; there was enough Rod Stewart product to soak up all the record-buying money I had. (It was no use being a Stones fan, or a Dylan fan, or a Floyd fan - you had to wait years.)

A Nod's as Good as a Wink was dreadful, the usual admixture of tired Chuck Berryisms, duff lyrics and a chronic fluff-on-the-needle production; I didn't even like 'Stay With Me' that much, although it was OK if you wanted to pretend to share a microphone with a pal (then - as now, as far as I am able to tell from The Chart Show - you leant back, head on one side, with the arm furthest from the mike punching the air).

The solo stuff was different, much more tender, and certainly more wrought. The booze-and-football photos, it is clear now, were intended to compensate for the rampant sissiness of the recordings, the Bob Dylan covers ('Mama You Been on My Mind', 'Girl from the North Country'), the McCartney ballads ('Mine for Me'), and Stewart's own sentimental cod-Celtic songs. This was the stuff I preferred; indeed, I would still rather listen to a ballad than anything else, and maybe this is Rod's legacy to me.

They still sound surprisingly good, those three solo albums (Every Picture . . . , Never a Dull Moment and Smiler) that created the Hampden-and-bitter Stewart image. The cover versions are immaculate: so good, in fact, that when I sought out the originals (during that purist phase all Music Blokes go through, when we believe that originals must by definition be superior to the copies), I was disappointed by them. Sam Cooke's 'Bring It on Home to Me' didn't have that rollicking string arrangement; Dylan's 'Mama You Been on My Mind' was pretty but plain, and anyway Dylan couldn't sing.

And Stewart's voice still sounds great. Why Caucasians used to believe that rock stars with croaky voices - Stewart, Janis Joplin, Frankie Miller, Joe Cocker, Paul Young - are white soul singers remains one of life's impenetrable mysteries. (During the Eighties, thankfully, with the advent of the more honey-toned George Michael and Boy George, this perplexing claim ceased to be made.) Only the overrated Otis Redding sounds as though he is gargling through porridge; neither Al Green nor Marvin Gaye nor Aretha Franklin seems as distressed, as pained, as the Croakies. Surely one of the points of soul singing is its effortlessness? But Stewart pinches other things from black music traditions: his vocal mannerisms, his laughs and spoken asides, and the way he rides the beat and slides under and over the melody line . . . these are the tell-tale signs of somebody with a good record collection and a sharp pair of ears, and they set him apart from the opposition. And anyway, Stewart had grown up with folk (hence the Dylan and the Tim Hardin covers) as well as the more ubiquitous R&B. He wasn't a Jagger or an Elton John, but a straightforward, uncomplicated interpreter of popular songs: 15 years earlier, he might have been our answer to Dean Martin; 15 years later, he probably would have been a one-hit wonder for Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

Things went downhill fast after Smiler. There was one great last Faces' single, 'You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything', which swung in a way that most English rock songs do not (mostly, I discovered years later, because Stewart and Wood had liberated a huge chunk of a Bobby Womack song for their fade-out), and then the band split up. Ronnie Wood joined the Rolling Stones, a move which, distressingly, made a lot of sense. And a year or so later Atlantic Crossing was released. There was no football pitch or pub photo on the sleeve of this one: just a monstrous cartoon drawing of Stewart, wearing an improbable silver jump-suit and, well, crossing the Atlantic.

I had left school by this time. And I had also turned my back on the other Rod fans I had knocked around with in the fourth and fifth forms: I was off to university and they weren't, and I had started to hang around with people who made jokes about Existentialism (admittedly, the jokes consisted mainly of saying the word aloud, but they would not have amused the people with whom I had once shared an imaginary microphone). Had Rod met Britt by then? I don't remember. And in any case, Britt was not to blame for the self-parody which sucked Rod down and out; if it hadn't been her, it would have been someone else Farrah Fawcett, maybe, or some Seventies equivalent of that woman who knocks around with Michael Winner. Rod was hell-bent on making a berk of himself and he didn't need any help from Scandinavian bit-part actresses.

I bought Atlantic Crossing anyway, for its two aching ballads, 'I Don't Want to Talk About It' and 'It's Not the Spotlight', but it was the weakest of his solo work - and therefore of the entire Stewart oeuvre - to date. And then I went to college, and listened to punk and blues and soul and reggae, and it should have stopped there, but it didn't. My devotion intensified: I wore a Rod Stewart T-shirt that I'd bought for 50p, and I had a Rod Stewart poster on the wall of my college bedroom. It was, I guess, an ironic devotion - Rod had become a post-punk figure of fun by that time, and you would have to have been particularly imbecilic not to get the joke - but there was a glimmer of earnestness there, too: I was frightened by the Athena prints of Renoir and Matisse paintings that hung on my neighbours' walls, and of the classical music that I occasionally heard coming from their stereos, and used Rod as a kind of talisman to protect me from these evil and alien forces. So I stuck with it for a while, until I felt more comfortable with university and with myself, and then I gave up. I preferred the Tom Waits version of 'Downtown Train' - he still listens, you have to give him credit for that - and I haven't even bothered with the Unplugged album, which seemed aimed straight at me, and those like me.

But these are the records I own because of Rod: His California Album, by Bobby Bland, which is where Stewart first heard 'It's Not the Spotlight' (and though Stewart's version is flatter and less piquant than Bland's, Rod wisely didn't bother with Bland's unattractive trademark phlegm-clearing whoops), and maybe even 'If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don't Want to Be Right)'; my entire Bobby Womack collection; my Chuck Berry's Golden Decade; my Temptations' Greatest Hits; and my Sam Cooke album. I was introduced to the Isley Brothers ('This Old Heart of Mine'), Aretha Franklin ('You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman/Man'), and Crazy Horse ('I Don't Want to Talk about It'). And once I had been introduced to Aretha Franklin and Bobby Bland and the Temptations and Chuck Berry, I got to know B B King and the Four Tops and Atlantic Records and Chess Records and . . . He gave me a good start in life, and as a young man, a pop innocent, one cannot ask for anything more than that. If I had been similarly smitten by Elton John or James Taylor or Jethro Tull or Mike Oldfield, all of whom were competing for attention at around the same time, it is possible that I would have junked my entire record collection a decade or so ago.

The people who stick with pop the longest, it seems to me now, are those who entrust themselves at a tender age to somebody like Stewart, somebody who loves and listens to pop music. Those who fell for the Stones got to hear, if they could be bothered, Arthur Alexander and Solomon Burke and Don Covay (and if they got to hear Don Covay they would find themselves wondering what, precisely, Jagger had brought to the Sixties party). Those who went for Led Zeppelin went on to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Genesis and Pink Floyd led you up a blind alley: there was nowhere to go, and so a good many people I knew stopped dead. Today's youngsters, eh? Where are they heading for after they've chewed up the Sisters of Mercy or the Happy Mondays? (Suede and Teenage Fanclub, on the other hand . . .) Even after all these years, even after Britt and 'D'Ya Think I'm Sexy' and blah blah blah, I'd still like to buy Rod a drink; I'd like to sit him down and talk to him, not about Celtic or Jock Stein or Denis Law or ligaments or real ale, but about music. He knows much more than he's ever let on.

(Photograph omitted)

'Extracted from Idle Worship', an anthology compiled and edited by Chris Roberts, published on 12 September by Harper Collins, pounds 5.99