Sunday, 9 December 2012

Rod STEWART: Greatest Hits


(#220: 8 December 1979, 5 weeks)

Track listing: Hot Legs/Maggie May/Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?/You’re In My Heart (The Final Acclaim)/Sailing/I Don’t Want To Talk About It/Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright)/The Killing Of Georgie (Part [sic] I And II)/The First Cut Is The Deepest/I Was Only Joking

(Author’s Note: The spine of the original vinyl edition optimistically lists the album’s title as Greatest Hits Vol 1 but this appears nowhere else on the record or its sleeve)


Let’s start with the Rod Stewart Greatest Hits Merchandising inset that comes with my copy of the record (catalogue number: Riva RODTV 1). Among the goods on offer are a T-shirt and sweat shirt, both of which are “Available in Shocking Pink or Jet Black.” Then there’s a calendar/poster: “A real first of its kind…A different picture of Rod each month to keep you going through the year.” There is the option of a black satin jacket: “‘Rod Stewart’ logostyle on left hand breast – be the envy of your friends this winter and stay warm with ‘Hot Rod,’” or if you fancy stretching yourself, or your credulity, you could have gone for a “REAL SILVER OR GOLD PENDANT OR BROOCH…Superbly made item based on Rod’s autograph individually made by craftsmen to each specific order. Don’t miss a unique chance to buy something to really turn on the girl or guy in your life” – yours for only £29.75 (gold) or £18.50 (silver) plus VAT and postage and packing. We see the items being modelled by a vacantly grinning Donny and Marie wannabe pair trying to convince us that (a) they’re happy and (b) they really dig “Hot Rod” (the calendar, with pictures that look as though they were drawn by Ronnie Wood, is also displayed). The record that accompanies this advertisement is almost an accessory before one even gets around to playing it.

If this were the kind of blog on which I’d want to get 40,000 hits a day, plus ringing celebrity endorsements and probably a book contract – I’m not saying I wouldn’t want any of these, but to quote Bernstein in Citizen Kane: “It’s the easiest thing in the world to make a lot of money – that is, if all you want is to make a lot of money” – I’d take the easy road, post a lot of YouTube links, ring out a few clichés and talk about how, well here we are at the end of the seventies and who better to see us out of this turbulent decade than one of its most reliable hitmakers, returning to do a lap of honour with the songs a generation loved (and before anybody asks me “What about The Wall?,” I regret to inform you that in Britain it peaked at #3, no match for the Christmas/Woolworth’s/television-friendly familiarity of Abba or Hot Rod). Basically this is a best of the Warner Brothers years, with only the obligatory “Maggie May” to remind us that he had a life before 1975 and Britt Ekland (and in truth the record, which objectively is a lot more playable and consistent than its parent albums, could have done without the over-familiarity of this song, which had already appeared on three previous number one albums in the seventies, even if it reminds us of Stewart’s strange obsession with “school” which of course dates back to his 1964 reading of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” Oh, and how it’s always The Woman’s fault, but more of that later). Of these ten tracks, only four are new to this tale; and for reasons of perverse logic I am going to start with some partially recycled observations on the most recent one.

It’s not just the Britt factor that makes me think of Peter Sellers – a man who would barely survive into the eighties – in connection with Rod; in both Roger Lewis’ original book The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers and the incomplete romp of a film inspired by the same, the great comic actor is revealed as essentially a kid who never grew up, who wanted nothing more than to get his end off without any complicated paybacks such as pregnancy, fathering or commitment. However, whereas, as Lewis earnestly proves, there was a substantial reserve of evil flowing within Sellers’ mind, the news a few years ago that Rod might become a judge on The Ex-Factor - which has, to date, not happened – was greeted in one newspaper with the headline “Silly Old Rod.” Yes, Hot Rod may be old and silly, but somehow he has remained loveable; his public carpeting of Russell Brand over allegations of carnal knowledge of his daughter was the polar opposite of Sellers, who never avoided an opportunity to run as far from his children, both physically and mentally, as possible.

“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” execrable title spelling excluded, is routinely derided as the most laughable of Rod’s hits – his funniest and most entertaining hit, 1978’s Scotland World Cup Squad collaboration “Ole Ola,” is sadly absent from this collection – although it’s actually the least sufferable of his half-dozen British chart-toppers; spectators routinely took the title and chorus (“If you want my body/And you think I’m sexy”) to mean Rod himself, still trying it on in his thirties (a feeling aided rather than dispelled by the accompanying video), and laughed it off as a crass chasing of the disco ambulance. But despite, or because of, its legally-acknowledged lift (“Inspired by Jorge Ben,” the inner sleeve diplomatically states), the song does quite a good job of re-placing Hot Rod in the international lounge bar of late seventies vapidity; you can imagine Stewart and Sellers propping up the bar at about three in the morning – and it could have happened, as they were both involved in the 1972 Royal Albert Hall staging of the Who’s Tommy - blearily exchanging anecdotes and comparing notes on each other’s performance, cufflinks slipping into the cognac.

The record’s arrangement is skilful, too; initial exposure to the threateningly rumbling doubled-up bassline and the “Sound And Vision”-style drop-in string synthesisers suggested that this might be Stewart’s own Low, a depersonalised wander in the bleached corridors of whatever was left of his soul (as it happens, the parent album, Blondes Have More Fun, was exactly that, but in completely the wrong way). However, the song is not about Stewart himself; it’s a rather touching one-night pick-up scenario with a nervous chap wondering if he’s doing the right thing, understanding her body language correctly, doing his utmost not to come over like a creepy careerist (“Give me a dime, so I can ‘phone my mother”). They retreat to his “high rise apartment” – no more squalid “Maggie May”-style Soho basements – and seem to have a good night, albeit soundtracked somewhat unsexily by a ‘phoned-in sax solo. The morning after verse is well handled – “Outside it’s cold, misty and it’s raining/They got each other, neither one’s complaining” – with the real prospect that this will turn out to be something of considerably more value than a one-night stand; he apologises for being “out of milk and coffee,” but she’s fine about it (“Never mind sugar” – a nice triple entendre - “we can watch the early movie”) and they prosper.

The augmentation of a (synthesised?) soprano towards the record’s end is a nice little reference to Joe Meek, for whom the teenager Rod cut some early sides. However – and it’s a big “however” – what lets the record down and stops it from being a great pop single is Rod’s own performance; the absurd and out of place “Sugar, sugar” ad libs at the beginning, the exaggerated inverted commas (“Two total strangers BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT THEY’RE THINKING nudge nudge and, as it were, wink wink”) of his delivery and the unnecessary standard posturing to which he yields at fadeout. It would take him another two years to perfect the electro-Rod equation with 1981’s “Young Turks” which works precisely because it’s one of the few Rod Stewart records where you forget that it’s Rod singing.

In addition, the Tonight’s The Night album cover does not present Rod wearing a terrible pink satin jacket – or is it a dressing gown? – with nothing on underneath. Shocking Pink indeed.

Which leaves three tracks salvaged – if that’s the word to use in this context – from his non-chart topping 1977 album Foot Loose & Fancy Free. A concept album, no less, about – guess what? – a Jack the Lad who loves ‘em and leaves ‘em but realises he’s really no good on the “love” side of things. Autobiographical? Self-revealing? And if so, which self is being revealed? Time to bring in reader Tom Albrighton, who wrote the following in a comment he made about my entry on A Night On The Town:

“Rod is the libertine dandy: loved by lads, protected by patriarchy, led by desire and puzzled by censure (if not completely oblivious to it). His catchphrase, of course, is ‘it’s all just a bit of fun.’ He is institutional, inevitable chauvinism, endorsed and entrenched for generation on generation.”

Tom ends his comment with the heartfelt plea: “Please let him end.” Actually, it might not just be Rod we have to let “end” here (and, appearances on Various Artists compilations notwithstanding, this is not Rod's last word on Then Play Long), and any ending might need to be compulsory.

Of these three songs, “You’re In My Heart” is the most passable, even though Richard Greene’s violin reminds us that really it’s nothing but a shadow of what he was once capable of doing or expressing; the football references seem pasted on and the grammatical pardons are unfounded. His extended chat-up lines wouldn’t, I think, turn on the oven, let alone big-bosomed ladies with Dutch accents. Even here we find the rather telltale line: “You’re every schoolboy’s dream.”

“Hot Legs” is vile, beyond redemption – even, or especially, if it’s a pisstake of Stones machoness, though I doubt that he has the wit about him to do a “Tie Your Mother Down” – with a sputum bellow climax chorus of “I love you ho-NEYYYYY!” which elicits only a weary sigh of “Yes Rod, now get in the queue please, that’s a good fellow.” The video, which features an appallingly dungaree-clad/Brillo pad-haired Rod cavorting to an unattributed pair of legs which may not even belong to a human being, is redeemed only by the stern old black dude who gives him periodic disapproving/disbelieving stares. In Britain it was released as half of a double-sided single with “I Was Only Joking.”

No doubt Rod intended this latter song to be a naked Hamlet-style confessional, a dropping of all guards and façades, looking back over his raving, impermanent life and realising with increasing desperation that it’s all been for nothing. In any other circumstance this would have been a sober and symbolic closing down of the seventies, and maybe even of rock music per se; instruments gradually drop out until Rod is left, alone, confused and fourth-walling, knowing that pouring his heart out in a song isn’t enough if you have no heart to pour out.

But here it sounds like a pallid excuse – too little, too late - and – though not Rod Stewart’s fault - a step away from Goering in the dock at Nuremberg protesting that the Nazis didn’t mean to kill six million of them. Because I have gone through something like 148 albums from this decade, those seventies, and it is a story whose first lines are almost “I ain’t foolin’, I’m gonna send ya back to schoolin’,” and this demon has not gone away (“Are you still in school?”).

It is a demon which has pervaded almost every major “rock” album this tale has tackled throughout the seventies, and quite a few non-rock ones as well, and perhaps is prevalent throughout the whole of this tale I’ve been trying to tell; the idea that rock and maybe pop music as a whole has been primarily aimed to have its main impact on a demographic of young people only just becoming aware of things to do with adulthood and specifically sexuality. Confused and insecure, they seek refuge in easy one-remove idolatry; screaming at singers and groups, using pop as a testing ground for their own sense of sensitivity and then, having grown up a little, seeing how they can function when faced with a real person of their age from the opposite sex. Pop as a stepping stone to maturity; it makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is the omission of that key phrase “of their age” because pop and rock have repeatedly proved themselves over the years to be venal, scavenging, unrepentant, a way of keeping young people and in particular young women down, instead of freeing them, thus leaving them ripe for exploitation. “School’s out for EVER!” said Alice Cooper in 1972, but nobody was listening in that sense; again and again it’s the girls who get the stick, or get accused of acting the come-on, on the part of supposedly hapless and helpless adult males. And this leads to something which can only be described as evil and oppressive.

It is not my intention to use Rod Stewart as a stock target for everything that was bad about the seventies – and so bad do they seem now that it’s hard to distinguish any good – but he has unwittingly provided the closing chapter to a story I hope never to have to tell again. In the comment I quoted above, Tom Albrighton also refers to “Jimmy Savile’s savage vileness,” and as the decade now seems to be congealing, from a British viewpoint, into a plot too horrific even for David Peace to contemplate, it does seem as though the Savile virus is bringing down the curtain on this era for good. I don’t mind admitting that compiling some of these seventies entries has, frankly, given me the creeps; and, as we now know, seventies television and radio appears to have comprised nothing but creeps, of whatever stripe.

Can anyone watch the Top Of The Pops reruns without wanting to reach for the sick bag? Week after week, presenter after presenter making lewd comments to the vulnerable and young studio audience, interspersed with cheap performances from lousy artists because most of the good hits were made by Americans or Europeans too busy to come over here, or British acts too famous to have to bother with the show. Lousy artists, in addition, whom one now views with an increasingly suspicious eye – where’s the entertainment in watching some prannet posturing through their two-and-a-half minutes of moderate fame and wondering whether or not they are “safe”? The misappropriation of the term “camp” to mean spending half an hour of your life that you’ll never get back again watching crap because, hey, it’s so bad it’s…bad?

But this was pervasive all through the so-called Golden Age of British Television Entertainment – that fatal mixture of salacious and sanctimonious – such that I feel all of it should be locked in a vault and only let out again on request. The memories were so much better than the reality. Let Top Of The Pops be leased out to YouTube or UK Gold for whoever wants to watch it; otherwise, let it stay buried. Watch the 1976 Morecambe And Wise Christmas Show and try not thinking how fucked up a place seventies Britain was that this was considered the apogee of “light entertainment”; a show which in large part muses about the end of the world.

But rock, rock, rock; school, school, school (though not the great American educational series School House Rocks); girls, girls, girls, and I remember why I never really got into rock in the first place. It seems diseased, decadent, destructive; the stories are out there, in authorised and unauthorised biographies, and I don’t even want to think about them or whether they’re true or who perpetrated them. All I can think of is how few of these 148 albums (or of all 220 albums) I’d want to listen to again; so many of them sound manufactured in the horrible, Philip K Dick meaning of the term, so many sound superfluous, prematurely senile or pant-pant-at-their-age vile.

POP – Protect Other People, People’s Own Protection.

What if that bubble burst, or was false to begin with?

Yes, I’m using “Hot Legs” as a stick with which to beat the rest of Then Play Long, and “I Was Only Joking” as a, um, rod to poke at the fallacy that Not Meaning It/Having A Laugh is IN ITSELF enough.

I hear ANOTHER seventies, one that starts with “Golden Hair” and ends with The Wall and walking back to Cambridge.

Or MY seventies, which I am now convinced more than ever was the right choice.

But these have been the seventies, told by someone who was sceptical about the whole story from the beginning but gave it the fairest of chances. And as we stand there are three more whole decades to come, as well as 20% of a fourth one – and is there the hope of any real change? I fear there will not be. Because it is my belief that “we” were wrong, that rock and pop were wrong, and that maybe you were wrong. This almost certainly won’t be the last thing I write on Then Play Long; it is, as an Irishman once said, too late to stop now. Like Captain Butler of old, I now intend to spend whatever is left of the time I have on this planet trying to find whether there is still any evidence in the world of laughable, anachronistic notions like honour, decency and mutual respect. And I have to conclude – reluctantly, but I am concluding – that when the whole thing comes down, and come down it should, that I think I always preferred listening to jazz, and preferred reading books to listening to any kind of music.

A new phase is about to begin, and it is time for a new voice to make herself known.

4 comments:

Robin Carmody said...

Marcello,

I must thank you for what you have achieved with this blog, and for this piece especially. I know a lot of bullshit came down between us, and I deserved it; I was going through a stupid, lost phase back then. This is just to express my appreciation for what you have done here, and my gratitude at having come to understand it.

londonlee said...

I'm always wary of judging the past through modern eyes, and finding out about Savile, Gary Glitter, DLT, and whoever is next, does feel like my youth is being besmirched but I wouldn't let them spoil the whole thing.

Tremendous piece, though.

Tom Albrighton said...

Another cracker, and I’m honoured to have my words incorporated in it. But, looking at your closing paras, I’m alarmed at the thought that I might have contributed, however tangentially, to any change in course. Because I really hope that TPL continues exactly as before, but with some better source material to work on.

Yes, some of the 70s was bad, and you’re right to look the monster in the face. But there was plenty of good too. There was disco, a liberating force in pop that came to dominate it completely. There was prog, which was lovable if not always listenable. There was the gentler, non-predatory side of rock. There was ABBA. And there was that other movement, to which the whole decade so often gets reduced.

For all its vigorously protested viscerality, punk was the music of ideas. Ideas that were had in bedrooms, colleges and, yes, art schools up and down the country. The Pistols’ admittedly reductive musical idea was that there was nothing to say, had never been anything to say, that Eddie Cochran hadn’t already said. But the real point was who John Lydon was, or how he was – edgy, questioning, ‘oddly asexual’ as Simon Reynolds observes. This was ascetic music of the head: the diametric opposite of Rod, with his manifest self-love and his louche, indulgent music of the body. (I thought you were very generous not to mention that, in the video for ‘Hot Legs’, we get an extended shot of Rod from under the straddled pins.)

The Pistols’ own ‘ending’ of rock turned out to be the beginning of post-punk’s exploration of ideas – musical, lyrical, political. From now on, pop started saying ‘What if?’ rather than ‘Let’s just’. And people bought the records. OK, Bowie had done most of it years before, but Paul and George Martin had invented half of the 70s too, and it didn’t mean there was nothing worth listening to. In the 80s, punk + Bowie + disco = some amazing music.

Everyone loves the music of their teenage years, so that’s hardly objective. And I’m not saying the 80s represent wall-to-wall, unalloyed musical excellence. But things got better – at least from the trough represented by Rod.

Keep on keeping on.

George said...

Well – I wasn’t expecting that. I thought this would be a piss take of silly old Rod and it turned into some kind of millennial doomsday tract. And…….I can see exactly why. You’ve gone some way towards summing up my own unbelievably convoluted feelings about the 70s. For all the nasty stuff currently being uncovered, that decade still feels to me to be “my time”. The ends of it frame my passage from childhood to a rather sad adulthood. And, for me, the 70s perfectly convey that sense of something squandered. Two words sum it up: “soft porn”. The whole decade seems to beckon with a sweet promise …and it’s all a sickly dream. AND YET I can’t simply dismiss it because somewhere under all the soft focus shimmer there’s a sense of something that might have been.

But in the end it was complacent cuteness that ruled the day. And it’s not Morecambe and Wise but all those bourgeois sitcoms that embody the betrayal. We had cute self-sufficiency with The Good Life, cute protest with Citizen Smith, and even cute racism with Love Thy Neighbour. But underneath it all the rats were nibbling away at the social fabric. Cue Thatcher and Reagan.