When Rod Stewart Was the Coolest (No, Really!)

By Jessica Wheeler, AliveTampaBay Columnist

What if I told you Rod Stewart used to be cool? Really, really cool? What if I told you that he’d recorded more truly great albums than Elton John, or Fleetwood Mac, or Led Zeppelin? If you’re only familiar with the Rod Stewart of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” or his phase as a singer of standards, this might be an unthinkable concept, but I assure you it’s true. In honor of his July 8 show at Tampa’s Amalie Arena, let’s flash back to a woefully untold chapter in the life of rock’s one time brightest star.

If you were to dig around in a used book store and you uncovered a copy of Rolling Stone’s Illustrated History of Rock & Roll from 1980, you could turn to the entry for Rod Stewart and find this passage:

“Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely. Once the most compassionate presence in music, he has become a bilious self-parody – and sells more records than ever […] a writer who offered profound lyricism and fabulous self-deprecating humour, teller of tall tales and honest heartbreaker, he had an unmatched eye for the tiny details around which lives turn, shatter, and reform […] and a voice to make those details indelible. [… His solo 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.”

“Wait a second,” you might think. “Everyman? The guy who sings ‘Hot Legs’ is an everyman? Really?” Yes, really.

Rod Stewart left his middle class upbringing at age 16 and embraced a bohemian life of leftist politics, folk music, and rhythm and blues. He worked a series of jobs, including a stint as a gravedigger, while he honed his singing voice and established himself in the London music scene. After a few failed solo singles and a few more failed groups, he was asked to join the Jeff Beck Group in 1967. Jeff Beck had just left the Yardbirds after a successful run with the popular band, and wanted to explore a heavier sound with a powerhouse vocalist. Rod fit this bill. He recorded two albums with the group, Truth and Beck-Ola; both are classics of the hard rock genre. This phase of his career is best exemplified by “Plynth (Water Down the Drain)” a song co-written by Stewart.

Stewart left the Jeff Beck Group in 1969. He was signed to a solo contract with Mercury Records, and almost simultaneously was asked to join the English blues rock group Faces. Modeled after bluesy bands like the Rolling Stones, Faces exuded a shambling, good-time charm typified by songs that related shaggy-dog stories of drunkenness and debauchery. His next album would be his first solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down. With a few rockers and a lot of delicate, sensitive ballads, the album consisted of half covers, half songs written by Stewart, with perhaps the most famous track being a cover of Mike D’Abo’s “Handbags and Gladrags.”

Faces released their first album, First Step, in 1970, and it was quickly followed by Stewart’s second solo album, Gasoline Alley. This time, his solo album included contributions from the other members of Faces, blurring the line between his solo and band career. This album was similar musically to his first, and earned equally good reviews for his songwriting. Here he is performing an impromptu acapella version of the title track.

Faces’ career got a boost with the release of their second album, Long Player. It included “Had Me A Real Good Time,” a song co-written by Stewart that provides an excellent example of their good time ethos. Full of humor and a raucous swagger, the song was quickly embraced by their cult of fans.

Members of Faces again guest-starred on Stewart’s third solo album, Every Picture Tells a Story. With songs like “Maggie May” and “Reason to Believe,” the album was Stewart’s breakthrough hit, with “Maggie May” hitting number one in the US and the UK. The album earned rave reviews for its high quality songs and well-chosen arrangements, with the title track being a particular highlight.

Stewart’s third release of 1971 was Faces’ album A Nod Is As Good as a Wink…To a Blind Horse. It included “Stay With Me,” which reached the US top 20, giving Faces their only US hit.

His fourth solo album, Never a Dull Moment, was released in 1972 and included the hit “You Wear it Well.” It also included a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel.” The album’s reviews were every bit as positive as the ones for his previous album, and again featured members of Faces.

The final Faces album, Ooh La La, was released in 1973. Stewart left the band and took his solo albums in a different direction, focusing on more conventional songs and pop hits. His reviews took a downturn, but his album sales continued to increase as he saw success through the late 1970s and into the 80s and 90s. Along the way, the high quality work of his earlier career was overshadowed by his hit recordings. As Rolling Stone noted, Stewart seemed to have abandoned his original ideas. But he’d recorded two classic albums with Jeff Beck Group, four classics with Faces, and four truly great solo albums, resulting in a total of 10 stone cold classic albums. Who else can say that they have 10 truly great albums? Led Zeppelin only recorded nine albums, and not all of them are great. Fleetwood Mac had its share of classics, but 10 albums? Nope. Even a musical institution like Elton John doesn’t quite clock in at 10. Do you believe me now? If not, take one last look at Faces performing Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed.” They take an already lovely song and turn it into something transcendent. Anyone who can do this is the very epitome of cool.

Jessica Wheeler is a columnist for AliveTampaBay.

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