Leftover Rod

A couple of years ago, the process of writing about Rod Stewart’s career-spanning box of outtakes and alternates produced an outtake of its own. The following was a long middle section I took out of the post because I didn’t want the thing to be 1,500 words long. It was intended to be a brief rundown of Rod’s work and my reactions to it, but because I am an incurable gasbag, it became quite un-brief. For what it’s worth, here it is.

Smiler (1974) features the usual boatload of covers, from the pretty good (Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country”) to the catchy-but-slight (Paul McCartney’s “Mine for Me”) to the wretched (a gender-adjusted “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Man”). Atlantic Crossing (1975) is lots better, featuring beautiful interpretations of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” and “Sailing.” A Night on the Town (1976) represents a turn back to the past, with a handful of folk-inflected cuts, but also a nod toward the future, in the form of a mega-bazillion-selling Number One single, “Tonight’s the Night.” Footloose and Fancy Free (1977) contains one of the worst things Rod ever did, “Hot Legs,” and two of the best, “You’re in My Heart” and “I Was Only Joking,” but by this time, there’s the distinct feeling that he’s starting to phone it in.

Late 1978 is the critical point in Rod’s career. Blondes Have More Fun, withe the mega-bazillion-selling Number One single “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” created a lot of Rod Stewart haters, although the album isn’t a total loss. Despite its title, “Ain’t Love a Bitch” was released as a single and ain’t bad; his cover of the Four Tops’ “Standing in the Shadows of Love” was probably inevitable. And so I wasn’t ready to give up on Rod yet.

That had to wait for 1980, and for Foolish Behaviour. There’s quite literally nothing to this record except for “Oh God, I Wish I Was Home Tonight”; the big single, “Passion,” has none and inspires none. I hated this album with, uh, a passion, and I decided that Rod’s reputation wasn’t enough anymore—he was going to have to work harder to impress me in the future. And I’ll be damned if he didn’t. Tonight I’m Yours (1981) features the magnificent “Young Turks,” and more covers, of Ace’s “How Long” and Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.”

Absolutely Live (1982) is absolutely worthless, and Body Wishes (1983), apart from spawning one mid-chart single in “Baby Jane,” has got nothing to recommend it, either. Camouflage (1984) got help from Jeff Beck on guitar and featured a charming “Some Guys Have All the Luck.” By this time I had ceased to pay attention to Rod apart from his appearances on the singles chart, and even that ceased to be rewarding when he released “Love Touch,” from the 1986 album Every Beat of My Heart, which proves the adage that nothing is useless—it can always serve as a horrible example.

By 1988, I was working in elevator-music radio and was out of the pop music mainstream, so the Out of Order album missed me completely. But I was back in pop radio by 1991, and it’s a good thing, too, because Rod actually had a mini-renaissance during the first half of the 90s. Vagabond Heart (1991) features “The Motown Song,” which was his best single since “Young Turks” a decade before.

(Editor’s note: You want the version of “The Motown Song” that starts with Stewart singing “There’s a soul in the city.” The song features the Temptations, and on the single mix, you can actually hear them. On the album version, which does not start with Stewart singing, the Temps are buried, which seems kinda stupid. And on further review, I’d rank “The Motown Song” among the half-dozen best things Rod ever did.)

The 1993 reunion with Ron Wood, Unplugged . . . and Seated, sounded like a better idea in the planning than it turned out to be in the execution. “Cut Across Shorty” sounds great in this configuration, as does “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” but they were overshadowed by “Have I Told You Lately” and the godawful mess that is “Reason to Believe,” on which Rod screws up the lyrics and renders them meaningless. The 1995 album A Spanner in the Works is here in my office somewhere, but I’ve only listened to it three or four times.

I have never heard note one of the albums When We Were the New Boys (1998) and Human (2001). And what I have heard of the various Great American Songbook collections I’ve hated with the fire of a thousand suns.

And that’s where the outtake ends. If there’s somebody amongst the readership who can enlighten the entire class about the relative worth or worthlessness of Rod’s work over the last 15 years or so, I’d love to hear from them.

5 responses

  1. I can’t comment to the last fifteen years – and we share the same sentiment to the GAC collections – but for me, Rod’s 1989 cover of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train” was a startling moment of greatness.

    1. “Downtown Train” is one of the never-before-released tracks from the “Storyteller” box, which is a pretty good overview of Rod’s work. I also liked the updates of “This Old Heart of Mine” and “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” on that set. That’s where the brief early 90s renaissance begins.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more about Rod. I have his first 4 albums and they are magnificent. Every Picture Tells A Story is one of the greatest rock albums of all time but from thre it was all downhill. <A Spanner In the Works is good. It has some of the spirit of his early albums even if it doesn’t sound like them. I love “The Motown Song” too. Most of the rest is just junk, especially his take on The Great American Songbook collections. Listen to the originals or Michael Buble instead.

  3. It’s been years since I heard it and I’m not even sure that I still own a copy, but I seem to recall A Spanner In The Works being pretty good, perhaps not relative to his earlier stuff but certainly compared to much of his ’80s and ’90s output.

  4. On “Human,” I like his take on the Macy Gray composition “Smitten.” Agreed with the solid streak from “Downtown Train” through “The Motown Song.” (Although I know lots of folks don’t like “Forever Young” because of the did-he-or-didn’t-he-rip-off-Bob-Dylan issue, I like the song; I just wish it weren’t the only song of his from the late ’80s that our adult contemporary and oldies stations played.)

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