Sunday 20 May 2012

Rod STEWART: A Night On The Town

(#170: 10 July 1976, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright)/The First Cut Is The Deepest/Fool For You/The Killing Of Georgie (Part I And II)/The Balltrap/Pretty Flamingo/Big Bayou/The Wild Side Of Life/Trade Winds

“Unhappy faces behind a painted smile,
Heartache and loneliness dressed up in modern style”
(“Trade Winds”)

When did Rod Stewart stop being a human being and become a drawing? This isn’t the first of his albums to feature himself as a cover painting, but nonetheless it is an improvisation on Renoir’s “Bal du Moulin de la Galette” in that his grinning face is inserted in the middle. He is looking towards a woman with child but the woman is taking no notice of him, speaking instead to the man sitting opposite. Everyone in the picture appears to be having a good time but keen eyes may note that Stewart is the only one bearing an unambiguous smile. On the reverse is a photograph of Stewart, taken at dawn, still in his boater and cravat, holding his glass of non-sparkling champagne, staring with dead eyes at the camera. The unasked question is inevitable: is all this worth it?

There is an answer buried within A Night On The Town, but it’s not an easy one to find. Now settled in Los Angeles, and with Britt Ekland, something or someone at his shoulder presumably reminded him that he was Rod Stewart and that he’d better have something to say. The record uses more or less the same musicians as Atlantic Crossing, though most of it was recorded at the Cherokee studios in Hollywood, with only “First Cut” being cut at Muscle Shoals (and string and some vocal overdubs/retakes done at Miami). The personnel are listed as per an old public school register; D. Dunn, S. Cropper, special guest J. Walsh and so forth. Stalwart A. Newmark and W. Weeks are also present, and all that is missing is H. Hancock with some funky Moog spider jiving. Stewart gives a little more of himself in the credits than on Crossing, paying due tribute to Al Jackson and thanking “B.E. for her multilingual vocal appliances.”

Still, I’m not sure exactly what Stewart’s fans were expecting from the record. “Tonight’s The Night” was the album’s lead single in Britain, while in the States it spent seven weeks at number one over Christmas. No doubt some were anticipating the inception of his Barry White phase, since it appears to celebrate unbridled lust and sex, even though most of its lyric reads like military orders, full of instructions to his would-be lover on what and what not to do. The opening sequence of out-of-tempo guitar, electric piano, organ and harp is a leitmotif that regularly reappears, in slightly different forms, throughout key points on the record. Stewart reverses the old blues tropes (“Stay away from my window/Stay away from my back door too”), turning them from dread to anticipation. His “come inside” on the line “Spread your wings and let me come inside” sounds rather forceful, and one’s face freezes at “Don’t say a word, my virgin child” (to which saxophonist Jerry Jumonville immediately responds with a sarcastic groan; Ekland was more or less the same age as Stewart and by no means a virgin in 1976). Instead of fleeing the premises for fear there might be a head in the refrigerator, Ekland responds with some half-hearted French come-ons; scarcely “Je T’Aime,” but the backdrop of hissing organ and panting guitar leaves no room for misinterpretation.

But instead of recasting Stewart as some kind of Brentford Walrus of Love, A Night On The Town seems to spend the rest of its time rebutting this initial manifesto; after all, there’s no evidence in the song that Stewart ever makes it out of the bedroom. Instead we get his take on Cat Stevens’ “First Cut,” issued as the other half of a double A-side to Crossing’s “I Don’t Want To Talk About It,” a number one single in the UK some ten months later. While the reasoning behind this coupling is logical – an intense song about the end of an affair, and an intense song about trying to begin something new in light of previous failure – amazingly, Stewart doesn’t quite nail it. He does try – indeed the whole song swivels around the concept of trying – but the arrangement is too intrusive, with machine-gun drums rattling into the second chorus and a solo guitar arising from the other side. Moreover, the most bothersome thing about Stewart’s performance is the baffling “Whoo!” he issues prior to the final choruses, as if to signify…exhaustion, or frustration at being unable to love again? Either way, we are faced with a song celebrating sexual initiation followed by a song concerning potential sexual inadequacy.

“Fool For You” isn’t too dissimilar in tempo and arrangement from the Stones’ “Fool To Cry,” and is not quite as convincing; there is over-fruity electric piano and organ and generally Stewart relies too much on overfamiliar devices such as framing the song in the context of a letter. But this is no Maggie May from whom he is taking leave; he talks about the mysterious woman wanting St Tropez, Chanel and Cartier, he is anguished by seeing her in the “national press/On the arm of so and so” and is slowly realising that he has been sucked into a falsehood from which he cannot instantly escape; hence his voice wavers on the “Pride” in the line “Pride won’t let me stay,” each chorus finds the music stopping altogether for a pause while Stewart sings “Guess I’ll always love you for the rest of my life,” as though he has to coax his own confessional, and there is real hurt palpable as he digs into the “ca-y-yare” of “I don’t care what your friends say.” Despite all this, he concludes with an off-mike “So long, baby” and departs with a bout of whistling.

I have little to say here about “The Killing Of Georgie,” since as an unedited single it made #2 in the UK (and thus falls under Lena’s remit), but having little to say is not the same as having nothing to say, since this appears to be one of the album’s lunged-for twin peaks; that is, Stewart was clearly duty-bound to conclude each side of the record with a Major Statement. As a song, never mind a statement, “Georgie” is too close to Dylan for comfort; in great part “Simple Twist Of Fate,” in lesser part “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” and in minute part “Hurricane” (and I note the considerable influence of “Walk On The Wild Side”). As “the first hit single to feature an openly gay protagonist” (innumerable editions of Guinness) “Georgie” is also unsatisfactory, since it runs on the already (in 1976) tired, though well-meaning, conceit of portraying gays as de facto victims. Although Georgie is the only character on the record who finds true love, he has a pretty miserable and shitty life overall, grabbing his brief moment when he can (and as he advises Stewart). I’m afraid I can find no greater message in the song than, when out at night in mid-seventies New York, it was perhaps not the best idea to take a short cut home. Hence the drawn-out coda is ponderous and claustrophobic, only Georgie’s comment that “Youth’s a mask but it don’t last” bearing direct relevance to the themes of the record as a whole.

In reverse order to Crossing, side one is the Slow Half and side two the Fast Half, and it’s with the latter that we find a deeper problem. Taken superficially – blasting it out of the car on a hot July afternoon – tracks 5-8 are among the most convincing rockers Stewart ever made. With Tower of Power horn blasts and on-the-spot playing, Primal Scream would be proud to make an album even half as rocking as this sequence. Stewart has a ball in “The Balltrap,” telling his one-night client where to get off – again, note, sex is not enough - and the whole band seems to bounce off his enthusiasm. But his downward laugh of “C’mon honey!” is curiously mirthless, although Joe Walsh’s guitar is like an aural trampoline, and by the time Stewart gets to his Tarzany “Owwoooowowwww!” he’s already halfway down Park Lane. His noble attempt to toughen up the flimsy “Pretty Flamingo” nearly comes off – he lends the line “Crimson dress that clings so tight” a lewdness which Paul Jones wouldn’t even have considered, and is mildly reproachful on the second “If she just would.” He yelps his way out of the song (“Come on, baby! Arf! Aarf!”) but alas the pointless brass and string arrangement halts the flow of desire, and the flute solo is, to put it mildly, out of place.

“The Big Bayou” is the most intriguing track in this sequence; Stewart neatly inverts the desperate craving of Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” (“I spent all my hard-earned money I had saved to get me there”) in that he makes the journey but finds there is nothing to see but yet more illusions. He goes through Memphis, Nashville and Hollywood before deciding that he would have been better off staying at home. David Lindberg’s unmistakeable guitar rides the song like a stubborn pigeon. At the end Stewart even takes a sideways backward glance at “Maggie May”: “I’m gonna catch a southbound train home/One of these days.” I am not sure about the hillbilly tendencies of the string section as the song pulls out, except as a sort of bridge to his version of “Wild Side Of Life” (the album’s third cover version, again looking back to a time when none of this seemed to matter to Stewart). Very different from Status Quo’s near-contemporaneous reading, Stewart emphasises a rock beat and uses it as a moral stick to beat over the head of the “honky tonk angel” he is leaving – it’s there once more, sex being no substitute for love, no more of this business. An uncredited violinist does their best to fill the Dick Powell role. The lead guitar (or guitars?) puts a greater intent into the performance than Stewart seems to want to express.

The final track is not fast at all, but does resemble what Brits of my generation would term the “Mike Yarwood moment”; after this one-man variety show, trying his hand at anything and everything, Stewart solemnly turns to the audience and says “And this is me” – and it is time for the sermon, complete with misplaced gospel choir. “Trade Winds” attempts to be a State of the Nation address; he looks around and sees a not dissimilar sight to Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver being about to be released in cinemas). Stewart puts rhetorical emphasis on the “mor” of “tomorrow’s youth” so tight he could grit his teeth to dust. He turns the “you” of the climactic “The choice is up to you” into three hurting notes and vowels. The choir gets in the way (“Love is what you really need”) and the whole finally drifts away into what sounds like the anti-“Sailing”; instead of the latter’s careful optimism, we see nothing but the end. Stewart comments on “Unhappy people living in sin and shame/Reflections of myself”…and that’s as near to an actual confessional we are likely to get on this record; all this money, all these women, all this supposed power, and yes, none of it makes him happy.

The more pressing question is whether this sort of thing makes any audience happy, or just reassured, and after careful re-listening I have to say that it’s no longer enough. At the beginning of Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm album, reference is made to a quote from Edith Piaf: “Use your faults, use your defects; then you’re going to be a star.” In other words, embrace your flaws. The trouble with Rod Stewart’s music of this period is that it is, perversely, flawless; there are no mistakes and therefore no scars. The undoubted ability of the musicians, particularly on side two of A Night On The Town (and one has to ask after listening to this; what sort of night and what kind of town?), is too pronounced; they are in many ways too good, in ways that are confining. The Faces tripped over themselves more often than not, musically, but the point is that their approach suited Rod. Given that the evolution of Rod the self-contained solo mogul was pretty much Rod’s idea – remember how he didn’t even bother to turn up for half the sessions on Ooh La La? – I can put the blame for this decline at his feet only. Be careful what you wish for, as the homily goes. Since many of these musicians played with palpably more commitment and interest on contemporaneous records by the likes of Jackson Browne and Steely Dan, I must also conclude that the players do not connect with Stewart on a basic level – certainly the fast tracks “rock” but if you listen any more closely there is something missing. The musicians are playing the songs but not engaging with them, and maybe they never could. There is none of the symbiosis arising from being in a close-knit working band (which is why Springsteen and the E Street Band sound so natural); one cannot picture Stewart hanging out in the bar with Steve Cropper or Roger Hawkins. Perhaps they were seeking something more challenging than playing “Wild Side Of Life” for the ten thousandth time.

More pressing, though, is the question of what the Rod Stewart of 1976 was about. Like so many other musicians this survey of 1976 has covered so far, I am sure – and “Trade Winds” as good as makes it explicit – that Stewart knew that things were changing, that a big shift was on the horizon. But look at it from his perspective; he is in a happy permanent relationship (for now), already has more money than he can ever hope to spend – and if there’s something that critics (and eventually punters) don’t like, it’s extended moans about how tough life is when you’re rich and famous (see, in good time, the strangely parallel case of Mike Skinner). It certainly didn’t wash well in 1976 – the troubled musings of a multimillionaire sex bomb – and I’m not convinced that it does now. You can tell Stewart is trying – he is virtually straining at every sinew to make this record work – but I previously cited A Night On The Town as a primary reason why punk had to happen, and see no reason to change my views now. These were extremely troubled times, and a new generation was coming up, without two pennies to rub together (as had been the case with Stewart scarcely five years previously) and feeling exceptionally infuriated by the spectacle of rich rock stars bemoaning their lot. In some senses I think of Ekland’s previous long-term partner in comparison; like Peter Sellers, in 1976 loping his way through the last few wretched years of his life, via endless Clouseau romps (and how fitting, incidentally, that the man who played the Pink Panther theme, Plas Johnson, is the tenor soloist on “Trade Winds”) to a sort of international hotel lobby anonymity, to all intents and purposes a living death. Stewart wisely never went that far, but all I hear on this record is an earnest man, lost, with too large a bank balance and too cushy a life to gain either our sympathy or our empathy. Even if they are still quoting Isley Brothers lyrics.