Rod Stewart started his solo career with four extraordinary albums. The Rod Stewart Album (UK title: An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down) was released in 1969, and even though the folk boom was in the past, the folk influence on the record is strong. It’s all acoustic, right down to Stewart’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” which kicks anyhow. The best-known track on the album is probably “Handbags and Gladrags,” which became a hit in the States in 1972, just missing the Top 40 in the spring.
Gasoline Alley (1970) is another all-acoustic album. It sounds like the setlist for an ambitious young musician on the rise—which Stewart would have been at the time—, bashing away in clubs and dreaming of the bigtime, featuring covers of the Stones’ “It’s All Over Now,” Elton John’s “Country Comfort,” and Bob Dylan’s “Only a Hobo,” as well as the show-stopping “Cut Across Shorty.” Allmusic.com says, “It’s an album that celebrates tradition while moving it into the present and never once does it disown the past.”
Stewart’s break into the bigtime came with Every Picture Tells a Story in 1971. It compares favorably to the very best albums made by anybody in the 1970s, and side two—“Maggie May,” “Mandolin Wind,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” and “Reason to Believe” is probably one of the 10 greatest album sides ever recorded. It’s a harder-rockin’ record than its predecessors, and it never gets old.
Never a Dull Moment was released in 1972. Now that the young musician on the rise has made it, he’s developed a swagger, but it ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up, and he can. “You Wear It Well” was the only big hit on the record, although “Angel” and “Twistin’ the Night Away” (the Sam Cooke song) both charted. But “True Blue” would have been a better choice as a single than either of the latter, and “I’d Rather Go Blind” is a complete knockout. Allmusic observes: “He never got quite this good ever again.” And they’re right. There’s a real sense of craftsmanship in these first four records that starts to slip away after that.
That’s not to say he didn’t continue working hard on his music—only that the results are more uneven. There’s no doubting that he came to enjoy the trappings of celebrity, and a little too much at that. And there must certainly be a point for many artists, once they’re set for life, that the temptation to relax can become too much to resist, even though they try to resist it.
What happened in the studio from those white-hot years of the early 70s until about the time Rod started phoning in standards records is revealed on a new Rhino box set called The Rod Stewart Sessions: 1971-1998, which is just out. It’s a collection of early versions and alternate takes of familiar tracks from “Maggie May” onward, as well as unreleased songs, 68 tracks in all. Allmusic.com says, “for those curious listeners who decide to wade into these deep waters, they will indeed find a sharp, engaged, interpretive singer and songwriter, the artist who has been obscured in the wake of Rod’s superstardom.” The album’s co-producer says, “Admirers of particular eras of Rod’s career may be surprised to discover, upon listening to this box, that there is far less difference between the Rod of 1971 and the Rod of 1998—and all the years between them—than they had previously believed.”
The early versions and alternates are fascinating in the way that early versions and alternates often are—it’s interesting to contemplate the differences and why the changes were made (although in the case of the early “Maggie May” below, it’s pretty clear that this lyric was never intended to be final). As for the unreleased stuff, it’s not a surprise that some of it, even from later years, compares favorably with Rod’s earliest work. Even the worst albums the man recorded—1980’s Foolish Behaviour comes to mind, or his interchangeable late 80s albums—frequently contained a cut or two that reminded me of Rod’s early 70s glory days, and made the stuff surrounding them pale in comparison. So naturally, some of the leftovers are good enough to make you wonder why they got left off the released albums in the first place. If you’re a hardcore Stewart fan, you’ll be tempted by this box. For the rest of the world, it’s too bad there’s not a single disc of highlights, because the 15 best tracks from the box would make a mighty good set on their own.
“Maggie May” (early version; same backing track, different mix, a completely different lyric)/Rod Stewart
“Dylan’s Day Off” (from the sessions for When We Were the New Boys, recorded in 1997)/Rod Stewart (buy the box here)