When Rod Wuz Good

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If you’re a fan of ‘Great American Songbook’, look away now…Andrew Tanner checks out Rod Stewart: Rarities.

Has there been a more spectacular fall from grace in modern music? In 2013 Rod Stewart is fabulously rich and famous – but once upon a time he was great!

In the early 70’s on albums both as a solo artist and with The Faces Stewart was the Rock Vocalist par excellence, his rasping soulful vox driving a set of loose and raucous folk rocking classics. On songs like ‘(I Know) I’m Losing You’ and ‘Stay With Me’ you felt like you’d dropped in on the best band in the world having way too much fun. Rod was far from a one trick pony though – ‘Maggie May’, ‘You Wear It Well’, ‘Gasoline Alley’ and his cover of ‘Reason To Believe’ dripped real empathy and emotion. If there’s a more moving tribute to fidelity than ’Mandolin Wind’ I’ve yet to hear it. Of course, it didn’t hurt to have a voice as smoky and peaty as a tumbler of Laphroig telling the stories.

The 70’s Rod catalogue was nothing less than magic. Dobros rang, slide guitars soared, mandolins thrummed and basslines wandered happily all over the shop as Stewart sang of missed chances, rough and tumble adventures and hard bitten characters looking for a break. It was folk rock that didn’t compromise either side of that equation, and it was brilliant.

It is from this golden era that Rarities curates a collection of outtakes, early versions and odds and sods, revisiting Stewart’s 69-71 recordings for the Mercury label. Obsessives may already own the bulk of the tracks featured on Rarities, as several earlier anthologies feature many of the tracks contained on the 2-disc set. Apparently the only truly rare tracks here are the BBC recordings of ‘Country Comfort’ and ‘Maggie May’.

Of course these kind of sets are always a bit of a school fete lucky dip. You pays your money for the chance to gain some extra insight or glimpse of genius as it unfolded, or the brag rights to discovering that ‘lost classic’ nobody’s ever heard of. Sometimes you just end up with a bunch of songs that richly justify their earlier destination on the cutting room floor. Rarities is a bit of column A, a bit of column B.

Of interest are early versions of the songs that would define the singer’s Mercury era. Early alternate takes of ‘Maggie May’, ‘Seems Like A Long Time’, ‘You Wear It Well’, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ and ‘Farewell’ are all represented, and it’s fun to hear the slightly ropey arrangements and roughly sketched lyrics in play (we can only thank The Muse that the lyric ‘I don’t mean to tell ya that you look like a fella’ was ditched from the final version of Maggie May).

Other highlights include a lovely version of Labi Siffre’s ‘Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying’ that rides along atop a rolling ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ jangle. ‘Think I’ll Pack My Bags’ is an early version of ‘Mystify Me’, replete with Rod coaxing Ronnie Wood and band through the changes (‘nice flow’ he murmurs at one point). In a similar vein we hear a wonderfully loose early cut of ‘Farewell’, where Rod conducts proceedings, urging the band to ‘keep going’ and suggesting drummer Mick Waller ‘watch Ronnie Wood’ for his end cues.

If you’ve ever wondered what kind of C&W singer he would have made, Stewart’s ‘What Made Milwaukee Famous’ provides the answer, while ‘Everytime We Say Goodbye’ is a taster of Lounge Lizard Rod, still decades off into the future. Along with the syrupy string drenched version of ‘Pinball Wizard’ it’s a track that could well have been left undiscovered.

Rolling Stone magazine once famously wrote of Rod Stewart ‘rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely’. You don’t create that kind of bitterness without first inspiring a great love affair – and the best tracks on Rarities are the songs that started it all.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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