Sunday 1 August 2010

Rod STEWART: Every Picture Tells A Story

(#99: 2 October 1971, 4 weeks; 13 November 1971, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Every Picture Tells A Story/Seems Like A Long Time/That’s All Right/Tomorrow Is A Long Time/Maggie May/Mandolin Wind/(I Know) I’m Losing You/Reason To Believe

One of the most bothersome things about the soundalike album boom was that, although they helped democratise music to an extent, or at least confirmed music’s residual democratisation, its performers de facto didn’t tell you anything about themselves. And one does wonder; what were – are? – these singers’ ambitions, their dreams? What did they ultimately hope to communicate to us? Did they see session singing as a job for life – don’t mock; it’s a nice earner if you can get it – or merely a way of paying the bills until they managed to say what they wanted to say to us? Every singer starts out by basing themselves on another singer’s style – for instance in this instance, Sam Cooke – but would they want to spend their best years pretending to be somebody else, or did they internally boil over with frustration at never having had their say, never being given the opportunity to tell their story?

Rod Stewart knew this quandary better than most; like Elton John, he did his time on the Top Of The Pops/Hot Hits circuit while waiting for better things to come, even when the Faces were busy constituting themselves. And his brief “nonchalant” sleevenote to his best album tells us in its own semi-cheery way that the Faces were at this time definitely his main priority, the solo work (Every Picture was his third solo album) strictly considered as a side project, a way of channelling songs and moods which didn’t quite fit in with the Faces’ intended good-time rock stampede. He got by all accounts a lousy solo deal from Mercury Records – the advance, according to Ian MacLagan, was just enough to buy a Marcos kit car – and no one, least of all the singer himself, thought that this second career was ever going to get anywhere.

Hence it’s important to understand that Every Picture was recorded for next to nothing, almost in a throwaway manner; Stewart evidently didn’t feel that the record was going to shift substantial amounts of copies, and without the pressure of the expectation of huge sales, he was effectively free to do what he wished, to pick songs and musicians as the mood took him. Of the Faces, MacLagan (on organ, with Pete Sears from Long John Baldry’s touring band taking care of piano duties) and Ronnie Wood are more or less present throughout, while Ronnie Lane and Kenney Jones appear only on “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” the latter effectively a Faces performance (for contractual reasons, their presence is only suggested rather than confirmed in the sleevenote). Others include Stewart’s old Steampacket colleague, drummer Mickey Waller, Blodwyn Pig’s bassist Andy Pyle (replaced by Pentangle’s Danny Thompson on the acoustic tracks), session violinist Dick Powell and – crucially – classical guitarist and songwriter Martin Quittenton; basically, anybody he could rope in who was up for something a little different. The performances feel spontaneous, live (the occasional vocal or guitar overdub notwithstanding, this was indeed the case), unhurried and deep. It feels like eavesdropping into a roomful of friends, late into the night, the spirits gently flowing and the good humour unquenchable, swapping stories, woes and joys. The record appears ragged but is put together with a deceptive meticulousness, yet its rueful cavalier nature is best transmitted by means of the original LP issue; the Art Deco pastiche sleeve resembles something that might have been pulled out of a dusty charity shop rack after forty years’ residency – or perhaps one of those dirt-cheap greatest hits compilations to be found at petrol stations (again, don’t underestimate the power of niche marketing; one of the hundred best-selling American albums is the cassette-only Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits, which has amassed in excess of ten million sales over decades of truck stop and pharmacy transactions). It’s a record best listened to battered and bruised.

The lack of commercial expectations and pressures worked in the record and the singer’s favour; only three of its eight songs were composed or co-composed by Stewart himself (“Mandolin Wind,” the record’s deepest moment, is all his work) and the rest ranged from Crudup and Dylan through to Motown and Tim Hardin; a pocket history of the last twenty years or so of a certain, heartfelt strain of pop, all telegraphed through the vision of a hurt rogue. And it is this vision which is so sorely missing from the Top Of The Pops series, in that Stewart manages to cross the bridge from passive to active interpreter. The role of interpreter in popular music remains dangerously underrated; the Beatles taught us to worship the artist as creator, and music criticism has largely continued along these partially misbegotten lines, such that even the likes of Sinatra and Presley, who rarely, if ever, wrote their own material, are still looked down upon to a degree, and that most of the history of soul music is likewise bypassed in an auteurist hurry. But if in one sense it’s the song which matters, then the performer’s story matters just as much in another sense; how the personality, the very life, of the singer affects the root material and in turn how the singer as a totality affects his or her listeners. We look for alchemy, magic, revelations, and just because the singer didn’t write the song they’re singing doesn’t mean that they’re unable to access these and render them colourfully to us. Hardin’s original “Reason To Believe” is wary, resigned, trembling, confirmatory (despite or because of its rather jaunty tempo) but Stewart puts his microscope to the pain, slows everything down, magnifies it and whispers its concealed truths in our ear. He effectively re-composes the songs, as atoms might be reconstituted after a storm.

The record’s secret is given away practically at the beginning. The title track, co-written by Stewart and Wood, is one of the singer’s most euphoric rockers – although it is already noticeable, as with Who’s Next, that the main propulsive power is coming from the acoustic rather than the electric instruments. Acoustic guitar throbs into the song, with more than a feeling of “More Than A Feeling” (five years in advance) to its harmonic structure, and then the band vituperatively swipe into rock, like a spindlier Led Zeppelin (Stewart’s “Whoo!”s here and throughout the rest of the record rival both Freddy Cannon and Robert Plant in their merry ubiquity). The singer merrily details his roving exploits, the pickles into which he’s got across the world, but does he care? (“I was acCUSED! Whoo-HOO!,” his sated “eno-ho-hough”). Wood ticks off a brief solo, and after Stewart has found fulfilment with the “slit-eyed lady,” Maggie Bell, of Stone the Crows, abruptly makes her full-throated entrance (she is appositely credited on the sleeve with “vocal abrasions”). The song cools down and then builds up renewed steam as Stewart reaches its crux:

“I couldn’t quote you no Dickens, Shelley or Keats,
‘Cause it’s all been said before.
Make the best out of the bad, just laugh it off.
You didn’t have to come here anyway.”

With that – one of the wisest verses we will come across in this tale - there is nothing to do but for Stewart and Bell to turn the title and point (“Every picture tells a story, don’t it?”) into a chant midway between football pitch and holy shrine, their shouts half-desperate, half-ecstatic. The cry seems to want to get the world in Stewart’s parlour; please understand, it appears to be saying, that life is a joke and crap will happen but don’t take it that seriously, move on and remember not to forget how to smile. Otherwise we would hardly bear ourselves, as the piano and drum breakouts towards the extended fade demonstrate all too fully.

Much of the rest of the record is given over to examining just how crap – or just how great – life can get. Ted Anderson’s song “Seems Like A Long Time” emerges out of its chrysalis of “Handbags And Gladrags” piano and solemn drum roll; Waller gives an impatient grunt across his toms in response to Stewart’s “If you’ve ever waited for the sun”; the song’s lament gradually opens up to encompass not only the singer’s bedroom window, eternally bathed in hopeless night, but the wider world (“War time is only the other side of peace time”). Eventually another choral chant – this one much closer to “Hey Jude” – makes its gospelly entrance, audibly caressing and stirring up Stewart’s beaten-up heart (he’s nudging you frantically in the ninth rib, wanting you to realise what it is like to have the world cave in on him), led by “Mateus Rose,” a.k.a. Long John Baldry, the progenitor of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” to which this song could serve as a more considered cousin. Waller hits his snare with a resounding thunderbolt of rhetoric, after which Wood’s guitar whines into quietude. Piano and voice (with a few guitar ad libs) take the unease into the nearest thing to peace that they can approximate.

Good times duly rise again, however; Wood takes “That’s All Right” back to the Delta in his carefully picked introduction – he generally sounds as though he is already auditioning for the Stones – before drums and piano snap the gladness back into boogie. But in the same way that Presley once introduced the blues to the milkcow, there’s something else, and moreover something new, going on here, and not just the way in which Stewart cannot let the song go (compare with Presley’s “Stranger In My Own Home Town” two years earlier), or the way in which he sings the title in the second chorus, whose vowel manglings appear to invent Alex Turner a generation ahead of schedule, or his joyous hooligan snarl of “Get in there!” before Wood’s bipolar guitar self-duet and Waller’s short drum solo, or the way in which climax after climax is hammered into view like an inpatient Joseph Beuys – but in terms of what the rhythm section are doing. Pyle sounds like James Jamerson, Waller’s drums swing and sidestep rather than thwack on the count; this is nascent seventies Brit ladrock forcibly being reminded of its debt to Motown. What happens with this approach in relation to what happens with all else in this music will provide the innovation.

Martin Quittenton then returns for a careful (and, on the sleeve, unlisted) duet with Stewart on “Amazing Grace,” at the time a major hit for Judy Collins and a song whose aura of revelatory salvation (given its extremely political origins) is apt to recur in pop from time to time, either in chord structure (“Never Ever” by All Saints) or in emotional bequest (“I’m Not Alone” by Calvin Harris). Quittenton’s guitar vibrates on its drone and may well have provided the basis or inspiration for the international hit version by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards the following year. Stewart sings simply, as though he has been saved.

Powell, Quittenton, Thompson and Wood play on Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” and Stewart’s performance is tremendously moving performance, roving from thoughts of loneliness to ideations of retrieved beds, refound Others, and…as if we could ever be allowed to forget…the continued craving for settlement, for home. The happiness of nature, the knowledge of kinship, cannot compensate for her absence, but once again the singer is keen that we should absorb this loneliness, not confuse it with loneness, and realise how vital it is to remember the direction home; not to deny our previous callow youth but rather come to terms with what it represents, where it might cripple us and where and how it might still lead us. The lament, or warning, flickers gradually out of earshot in the manner of so many once bright butterflies.

How we deal with matters of both loneliness and youth are examined in more thorough detail on side two. “Maggie May” is one of those songs and performances whose virtues are liable to become buried, not just through overexposure but also in light of the singer’s subsequent history; how can we take his protestations of “being used” seriously when we know all about his later capers?

But if we can forget the future – goodness knows that the question of remembering Stewart’s future was more than adequately done in Lester Bangs’ short story inspired by the song – and remember a 1971 Rod Stewart who most likely was probably still surviving on mashed potatoes, then the hurt and deceptive radicalism of both song and performance are as truthful as anyone could sanely expect. The song itself is an extended emotional tug-of-war masquerading as an internal monologue, with some black humour to leaven the gasping uncertainty (for instance, the comedic understatement of “You stole my soul, and that’s a pain I can do without,” worthy of Tony Hancock). He is saving the older woman, or more probably she is saving him, and he doesn’t really comprehend or dig it; isn’t he supposed to be a Young Man and therefore Boss Stud Muffin? Well, even he doesn’t believe that; note the elliptical passing reference to the final verse of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” (“All I needed was a friend to lend a guiding hand”) and the inevitable Oedipal guilt (“But you turned into a mother and a lover”). He hates the fact that he loves her, that she so evidently needs him as much as, or more than, she “uses” him, and that his brain wants to get the hell away from there, as far away as the protagonist of Morrison’s “Madame George,” back to the train station and school and music, but that his gut knows that he will never leave her.

The song continues to resonate because it is a quite staggering admission of the final failure of the supposed supremacy of the “I’m A Man” kind of boy – and Rod, in almost every way, is going to stay a boy his whole life long; you can already glean that – which the post-Stones sixties were so eager to build up. In the company of most of its Top 40 colleagues – see those Top Of The Pops albums again – it’s easy to forget how different “Maggie May” was, a recitation so brisk and efficient that its unedited five-and-a-half-minute duration slips the listener’s mind. The bright celeste which chimes through the “back to school” final verse recalls Drake’s “Northern Sky,” but the real musical radicalism here is the rapprochement between English folk, British rock and, again, Motown – Lindisfarne’s mandolinist Ray Jackson is the song’s conscience and his commentary is cleverly symbiotic with Quittenton’s acoustic contributions, such that the listener hardly realises that the song’s historical scope ranges from medieval plainsong to up-to-the-minute singer/songwriter mores. Moreover, the top layer of the arrangement – guitars, mandolin, MacLagan’s admirably (stoically) patient organ (which reminds me more of John Cale than the celeste does) – is differently constructed to the bottom (rhythm) layer, whose displacements and off-centre accents are purely out of Motown. Then everything pauses for the final mandolin soliloquy (complete with shoulder-shrugging bass obbligato) before the singer, more exasperated than heartbroken, sighs his slow way out of the song. “I’ll get back home…one of these…days,” are his final words (a Lear-esque “Whooo-oooh” notwithstanding) and we realise that “Maggie May” is in its own way another farewell to the sixties, a time and perhaps a person now unattainable.

This would be remarkable enough in itself, but “Mandolin Wind” raises the game. Like so many of this period’s key songs, it is patient, happy to stop and start, to pause and consider. It is winter, the coldest for fourteen years. Blankets of electric guitar thicken the skies outside the forlorn wood cabin. And she hasn’t left him, not all that time – or is this meditation the necessary answer to “Maggie May”? They have stayed together, and found unexpected strength in each other, right through the worst times as well as the best – and Stewart gives us the finest and truest vocal performance of his career. Hear how his “steel guitar” melts into the hoarsest, most heartbreaking “love ya” you ever heard. Mandolin, pedal steel and tambourine form a sort of Yukon chorus and gradually develop a riff. The final verse (“Noticing your face was thin and pale”) seems bleak until you realise that this is something that they have lived through, survived. Stewart’s “Lordy” puts him in communion with the soul of Cooke, and when, after the most pregnant of pauses – have the candles flickered out? - Waller’s drums eventually spread into the song’s marrow like the freshest of blood transfusions, immediately doubling its tempo (and Waller’s performance on “Maggie May” mustn’t be overlooked; both admonitory and understanding when his drums need to be, Greil Marcus remarked that his drumming should be given the Nobel Prize – for quantum physics), the crimson happiness which this album has been seeking again becomes tactile – and it’s the same tempo and nearly the same key as the title track.

But then the Temptations; “(I Know) I’m Losing You” is a fevered variant on the (already) fevered “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” David Ruffin’s rasp growling grizzly, like an axe he hesitates to apply to his own heart. Wisely, the Faces don’t attempt to out-paranoid the original – that’s scarcely doable – but instead use the number as a pretext to find out more about themselves, as musicians and as a group. Guitar is joined by processed bass, then piano, then voice, and finally drums; MacLagan offers some ironic descents of commentary but the whole is much closer to 1971 than 1966 Temptations. Sears’ piano articulates all the paranoia that this reading requires, but just as the band are about to boil over the cliff face, the song suddenly stops. Then backing vocals seem to rise from the grave, followed by barrelhouse piano, Stewart’s voice and Jones’ toxic hissing cymbal. The song smashes its way back into existence. “Get OUT!” roars Stewart; Wood and Jones offer a thrashing backbeat, Jones then takes over alone (hasn’t anyone sampled this yet?) followed by Wood kicking back in as per Hendrix, before MacLagan brings everyone back to the tune (“Oh yeah!” exclaims an audibly relieved Stewart). The group slows down and quietly blows out for a resolved ending.

Finally, heartbreak and doubt haven’t been extinguished – all four of these second side songs are facing each other in a luminous multidirectional mirror – as we reach “Reason To Believe.” Sears’ piano once again demonstrates eloquent patience before Stewart and MacLagan’s organ take up the song. What’s it all about? Can he live with her or without her, or vice versa? Does he want somebody else, or just a clear explanation of the way things are? The song seems to defy the premature emotional wreaths as Waller once again knocks it into life, pursued very closely by Powell’s violin – but then that organ returns, followed by a plaintive piano…and, almost finally, Stewart’s voice, alone, if not in the world. “Someone like you…makes it hard to live…without…somebody else.” Piano, violin and bass return, one by one, before the rhythm reasserts itself and the piano drives the engine out of the record; things are looking down but really you know the people involved will end up laughing it all off and moving onwards. And that is Rod Stewart’s picturesque story, the first chapter as far as this tale is concerned but also the greatest and most far-reaching; the record on which his reputation and residual love depend almost entirely – remember what he once had to say, where and who he once was, as we move through the seventies with him, and how he managed to break through the screen of session anonymity (as though something like Python Lee Jackson’s “In A Broken Dream” could ever be “anonymous”) and tell himself as much as, or more than, us how much he wanted and needed that light, white and welcoming, through the dusty, muddied windows of that winter cabin, which could clearly have equally been a bedsit in Brentwood.