I am old enough to remember when Rod Stewart was the coolest rock star in the UK. With The Faces and when they were merely playing as his solo band he and Ron Wood, now a Rolling Stone, would prance around the Top of the Pops’ studio all jack the lad, down to earth and what a voice. Hit singles like Maggie May and You Wear It Well and The Faces’ Cindy Incidentally were the solid songs in a Glam Rock pop chart that is only remembered fondly for sentimental, rather than artistic reasons. By the late seventies however D’Ya Think I’m Sexy had tarnished Stewart’s artist with Hollywood glitz, glamour and gold diggin’. The eighties struggled too but his record from the obligatory unplugged phenomenon of the early nineties reminded us of the talent and now he is an elderly keeper of the old songs, his voice a perfect vehicle for the classics both rock n roll and crooner.
Sessions 1971-1998 is a marvellous monument to a Stewart’s talent. Indeed it reminds you that even in those dodgy years he still had a voice and a knack to either write or choose a good song. At 30 quid for the box, or 16 quid to download, it is a veritable bargain for 63 songs. And even if there are some songs that you don’t need to hear twice there are many interesting artefacts, rare tracks, unreleased songs and alternative versions that will help you to rediscover Rod and remind you of his place in the history of British rock music. There are too many to name but early versions of his early tracks like Maggie May are an interesting insight to the development of songs; the acoustic versions of You’re in My Heart and the b side Rosie are lovely; his piano versions of Chris Rea’s Windy Town and John Lennon’s In My Life are stunning; and unreleased covers like Frankie Miller’s When I’m Away from You, The Call’s Let the Day Begin, Bob Dylan’s This Wheel’s On Fire and Elvis Costello’s The Long Journey Home are well worth the listen.
Over the past summer I got round to reading a Rod Stewart biography for the first time. It was a fascinating experience. Having read many rock biographies of some depth, due to my interest in theo-musicology, I was taken by how songs were given a couple of sentences and girl friends were given entire chapters! It was a sign of the lack of depth that writers judged Stewart’s work. Not that there isn’t depth. His song cycle The Killing Of Georgie Pts 1 & 2, finished on this collection with the previously unreleased Part 3, was maybe one of the first songs about the gay issue in mainstream pop and yet it didn’t even warrant a contextual perspective.
On Sessions... the interesting content is probably more likely to come in his choice of covers. The aforementioned Let The Day Begin was a massive hit for The Call in 1989 and it’s prayerful heart, “Here’s to you my little loves, with blessings from above, let the day begin,” is far from the only prayer here, joined by John Martyn’s May You Never and a piano version of Stewart’s re-write of Dylan on Forever Young. Dylan’s Day Off is also a prayer to the Blessed One and has to be one of the few uses of the liturgical word intercession in a pop song but sadly loses its transcendence in perhaps the worst lines ever recorded, “Play to the whistle/You really make me bristle...” Oh dear! Dylan’s Groom Still Waiting At The Altar is the most theological of the songs here and another intriguing choice of cover. Rod has been doing Dylan ever since he could sing but this one is from Dylan’s Christian trilogy, if originally only a b-side, before being added to Shot Of Love later on. The theology of “But I know God has mercy on them who are slandered and humiliated” certainly outstrips, “You got legs right up to your neck/You’re making me a physical wreck” from Hot Legs!
All in all, a wonderful box of sessions with way more treasure than junk; good Christmas present!