Thursday, March 1, 2012
Classic Albums: The Rod Stewart Album/An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down
A big part of growing old is realizing that the world is much more complex than we think it is at first glance. As a lad, I'd always thought of Rod Stewart as the worst purveyor of Top 40 pap, a peddler of the aural equivalent of Velveeta. There had been a couple of clues that there was more than met the eye however. I'd hear "Maggie May" on the radio, with its bittersweet story and folky melodies, and wonder how the same man responsible for "Love Touch" could sing such a sublime song. I also remember hearing the Jeff Beck Group's balls to the wall cover of "I Ain't Superstitious," surprised that the singer belting it out with supreme bluesiness was the same man who crooned "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?, the apotheosis of seventies tastelessness.
The curiosity piqued by "Maggie May" and "I Ain't Supersitious" led my to buy Every Picture Tells a Story and to delve into The Faces (the group he sang for in his early career, for the uninitiated), and I never looked back. My love of Stewart's output in The Faces, Jeff Beck Group, and solo from 1968 to 1974 became a kind of personal evangelical mission for me, and like the apostles of yore, the unbelievers slammed their doors in my face on more than one occasion. But lo, my ministry survives, and it is my fervent hope that after reading this post, you will listen to early Rod Stewart with open ears and an open heart.
Stewart's first four solo albums are all well worth buying (The Rod Stewart Album, Gasoline Alley, Every Picture Tells a Story, and Never a Dull Moment), but I'd like to highlight his first, since it's so easy to overlook. This might be partly do the bland title, which was a change from the British version, An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down. Evidently that title reeked too much of Blighty for Yankee ears. On this record pioneers his mix of folk, blues, and rock and roll, and I especially like how he takes folk song forms and makes them fast and loud. During the 1960s folk music took on a reverential air, this album returns it to its raucous roots as the people's music, just as it punches up the blues and rescues that genre from the overwrought jamming and guitar pyrotechnics of the era (Beck and Clapton, I'm looking at you.)
A great example on this album is his cover of "Man of Constant Sorrow," a tune many might be more familiar with today due to its use in O Brother, Where Art Thou? He gives the lament some vocal punch, and Ron Wood's beautiful slide guitar backing takes it to another level unenvisioned in its original form. On the bluesier side, the record opens with another cover, that of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man," sung with a directness that strips away most of Jagger's cloying affectations.
It's not all roots music, though. Side one closes out with "Handbags and Gladrags," an affecting pop ballad complete with orchestral backing. Side two has prog rocker extraordinaire Keith Emerson along for the ride, playing a mean organ on "I Wouldn't Ever Change a Thing." With its complex and shifting time signatures, this song shows how good progressive rock can be if it is wedded to song structures and feeling, rather than just an episode in muso wanking. "An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down" is a loose, jolly rocker that previews the sound that would soon be perfected by The Faces. (Future Face Ian McLagen pumps out some killer piano on this one.)
My absolute favorite song on this album, however, has to be "Dirty Old Town," a cover of folkie Ewan MacColl's tribute to the north of England industrial town of Salford, which closes the album out. For anyone who has lived in the Rust Belt, whether it be Pittsburgh or Lancashire, this tune evokes the acrid air, utilitarian buildings, and fatalism of the region better than any other. Right before I moved out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I listened to this song constantly for that reason. When I hear it today it makes me miss Michigan like nothing else.
One of the great mysteries of music is how the artist capable of creating something as uniformly amazing as his first solo album could go on to be become shorthand for lame-ass cruddy pop music shite. Even though Rod turned to the dark side for good, please listen to his early music "without prejudice" (as George Michael would say). You won't be disappointed.