Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Rod Stewart Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Many professional music critics are fond of overgeneralizing and saying that Rod Stewart never made anything worth listening to after his tenure with Mercury Records from 1969 through 1974 and that he became, in their words, “a sell-out.” That attitude, however, is one that reeks of snobbery and isn’t exactly a fair assessment of his later discs. It’s true, yes, that Rod never rocked quite as hard in later years as he did on those earliest albums. Rod’s later discs were unquestionably more in an adult-contemporary-pop vein than a rock one. But, despite what many hipper-than-thou critics may tell you, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. [Heck, even one of the coolest art-rockers of all, Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, would trade in his more abrasive, hard-rocking earlier sound for a considerable mellower, almost ambient brand of pop after the ‘70s ended.] It’s also undeniable that Rod made a greater effort from the late ‘70s onwards to greatly expand and play to his female fan base than he had before. And it’s also true that his albums in later years only occasionally felt like the elaborate album pieces that most of his Mercury albums did. But let’s give Rod the Mod his due: “hip” or not, Stewart remained one of the more consistently dependable singles artists to come out of the classic-rock era and continue to score radio hits into the ’90s, and for those of us not ashamed to admit we like pop just as much as rock, you have to admit – a lot of those ‘80s and ‘90s sides of his are actually really, really fun singles, whether you’re talking about the new-wave experiments of early ‘80s cuts like “Young Turks” or “Tonight I’m Yours (Don’t Hurt Me),” the lite tropical flavor of “Love Touch,” the nostalgia of 1991’s soulful “The Motown Song” or the wistful folk of 1998’s “Ooh La La,” and rare indeed is the Stewart studio album that didn’t have at least one or two really solid singles to redeem it. Even his recent standards-heavy barrage of cover albums over the last fifteen years isn’t entirely without its charms. So what say we take a different approach here from most critics and not hold it against him that he hasn’t spent the entirety of his career continuing to churn out carbon copies of Every Picture Tells a Story and judge these albums on their own merits, shall we? Join us as we sift through his full body of work, starting right at the beginning …

The Rod Stewart Album (1969, Mercury; belatedly issued in the U.K. in 1970 with the alternate title An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down)

A –

Fresh off a critically-lauded stint as the lead singer for the Jeff Beck Group (Rod appears on their albums Truth and Beck-Ola), Rod would simultaneously join the Small Faces (newly rechristened the Faces after the departure of Steve Marriott, Rod’s Jeff Beck Group bandmate Ron Wood also joining at the same time as Rod) and begin a solo career, alternating between Faces albums and solo outings for the next five years. Wisely, Rod recruits his Faces bandmates Wood and pianist Ian McLagan as part of his backing band here, the Jeff Beck Group’s Micky Waller handling all the drum work. The disc starts off with a radical reworking of “Street Fighting Man” that doesn’t quite have the impact and the grit of the Rolling Stones’ original but still boasts a whole lot of character and helps to effectively introduce Rod’s early persona of one part raucous rocker and one part folkie. Better still are the ballad “Handbags and Gladrags” (penned by former Manfred Mann lead singer Mike d’Abo, who also plays piano on the track) and the muscular rock groove of the Rod original “An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down.” It’s not quite as good as the three albums that would follow it, but it’s still a solid and very promising debut disc from Rod, whose skills as both a songwriter and an interpreter are already apparent.

Gasoline Alley (1970, Mercury)

A +

A very underrated album, there may not be any hits here per se, but nearly every last song here is a knockout. Using most of his Faces bandmates – including Wood, McLagan, Ronnie Lane, and future Who drummer Kenney Jones – as instrumental backing, Rod tears through many a fine cover here, including renditions of Elton John’s “Country Comfort,” the Valentinos’ “It’s All Over Now” (later an early hit for the Rolling Stones), the Small Faces’ “My Way of Giving,” and a show-stopping, hard-driving version of Eddie Cochran’s “Cut Across Shorty” that benefits mightily from Micky Waller’s muscular drumming on the cut. But Rod continues to grow exponentially as a songwriter, and his originals here are fabulous, be it the lovely, folk-tinged sounds of the ballad “Lady Day” and the waltz “Jo’s Lament” or, even better, the infectious electric folk of the title cut, a co-write with Wood. 

Every Picture Tells a Story (1971, Mercury)

A +

It’s tempting to call this album slightly overrated, if only because critics are so fond of this disc that it’s caused them to severely underrate everything that Rod has made since then, but there’s no denying that this is Rod’s masterpiece. Not only is it his artistic high water mark, it was also his commercial breakthrough as a solo artist, and the disc would yield several noteworthy hits, including the now-classic mandolin-drenched chart-topping rock of Rod’s self-penned “Maggie May,” a gritty rock makeover (co-credited to the Faces) of the Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” and a passionate reading of folkie Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe.” As fabulous though those singles are, the surrounding album cuts are every bit as essential, especially the hard-rocking title cut (which might be Rod’s greatest moment as a vocalist and also features British blues legend Long John Baldry and Stone the Crows’ Maggie Bell on backing vocals, drummer Micky Waller also turning in what is arguably the greatest performance of his career), the lovely “Mandolin Wind” (which makes an unexpected but effective transformation in its closing minute into a driving rocker akin to the title cut), and a great cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.” There is so much to be admired in the craft here that even the rustic, bare-bones rendition of “Amazing Grace” (tucked – and typically in unlisted fashion, depending on the pressing – between a cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and the aforementioned Dylan cover), while not exactly the most commercial of fare, is performed with such utter passion that it ends up being just as unforgettable a moment.  Even the most casual of Rod fans should not be without a copy of this album, as this is every bit as solid from start to finish as any greatest-hits disc. 

Never a Dull Moment (1972, Mercury)

A +

Often portrayed by critics as a lesser version of Every Picture Tells a Story, you could actually make a solid case that Never a Dull Moment is at least every bit as good as that album. If nothing else, it’s more fun than that album, Rod taking himself much less seriously here and seeming noticeably more playful, and since Rod is still in fine form here as a songwriter and the disc sports a virtually identical supporting cast as its predecessor, there’s no significant drop-off in quality, either. The disc gets off to an amazing start with the surprisingly muscular, electric-piano-dominated rock strut of “True Blue,” one of the most criminally underrated non-singles of Rod’s entire post-Every Picture Tells a Story output. It’d be hard to top the sheer fun factor of that cut, but Rod nearly does that on the very next cut, the playful toe-tapping acoustic folk of “Lost Paraguayos,” which steals a trick from “Mandolin Wind” from the prior album and unexpectedly morphs into a rocker halfway through, Micky Waller just as lively as ever. Other highlights include the near-Top-Ten hit “You Wear It Well,” penned by Stewart with his “Maggie May” co-writer Martin Quittenton; a great, soulful cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel”; a passionate rendering of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind”; a gently-rocking rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Mama, You Been on My Mind”; and the driving Ron Wood co-write “Italian Girls,” as raucous a rocker as any Faces side. Stewart also closes the disc on an equally fun note with a muscular cover of his idol Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away.” This is one of Rod’s most underrated albums.

Smiler (1974, Mercury)

B

A much better album than its reputation suggests, there’s no denying that this is a dramatically inferior album to the previous four, but it’s also far from being a train wreck. It’s also not exactly true that Rod is completely coasting here, as critics so often say about this disc – yes, there are some signs of formula here, not in the least since this is the second album in a row to feature both a Dylan cover (in this case, a lovely rendition of “Girl from the North Country”) and a Sam Cooke cover, but Rod does try some new things, including adding a horn section.  If anything, it suffers simply from having too much material, and it’s likely that the album would have received far better reviews had Rod simply excised the ill-advised cover of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” retitled “A Natural Man” here, and the pointless instrumental rendition of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” (yes, the My Fair Lady tune.)  The remainder of the material is actually pretty underrated, especially the driving folk-rock of the Stewart-Quittenton original “Farewell,” the horn-laden, pounding rocker “Dixie Toot” (a Ron Wood co-write that boasts the most unforgettable chorus on the album), and the tropical-flavored, steel-drum-laden, album-closing ballad “Mine for Me,” penned by Paul McCartney, who also sings backup on the cut.  Elton John pops up here as well, providing piano and backup vocals on “Let Me Be Your Car,” penned by Elton and Bernie Taupin especially for Rod.  It’s a shame that no one thought to include Rod’s fantastic and soulful cover of Maxine Brown’s “Oh! No Not My Baby” and the equally appealing original “Jodie,” both of which had already appeared on an excellent non-LP single released at the end of 1973, as the album might have benefitted greatly from their presence, but even without those songs, there are still enough minor gems here (especially “Farewell” and “Dixie Toot”) to make you wonder why in the world so many critics dislike this album.

Atlantic Crossing (1975, Warner Bros.)

B –

Ditching his longtime home of Mercury for a new deal with Warner Brothers, Rod also bids farewell here to the Faces, instead surrounding himself with a bunch of session legends that includes members of Booker T. and the M.G.’s and the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Rod’s also no longer writing with Martin Quittenton (the co-writer of such classics as “Maggie May” and “You Wear It Well”), sadly, and he’s no longer producing himself, either, instead leaving production duties entirely to Tom Dowd. All these changes result in a much glossier Rod Stewart, one who’s also largely abandoned the more folk-oriented sounds of his discs on Mercury. Unfortunately, the absence of both the Faces and Quittenton means that this is a spottier – and not nearly as fun – outing than nearly any of the Mercury albums, and this album –  which is divided into a “fast half” and a “slow half,” the latter being the superior of the two sides, the former being plagued by a poor, reggae-tinged remake of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” and plenty of filler – is consequently fairly overrated by easily-bored critics who were just relieved to see Rod shake up his formula andkick off the disc with a song as unsuitable-for-radio-play as the tasteless “Three Time Loser,” at that. Like Smiler, there aren’t any American hit singles here to speak of, but the disc has a fair number of overlooked gems, especially the rocker “Stone Cold Sober” (co-written with Steve Cropper and strangely not released as a single, though it’s arguably the catchiest song here), the ballad “It’s Not the Spotlight” (written in part by the legendary Gerry Goffin) and Rod’s affecting covers of the Sutherland Brothers’ ballad “Sailing” and Crazy Horse’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.”