Friday, May 28, 2021

This Day in Rock History (Stewart Becomes Solo Superstar with ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’)

May 28, 1971—The LP Every Picture Tells a Story primarily featured song covers, but it was a tune co-written by Rod Stewartone that he considered leaving off the finished product—that propelled the 26-year-old to solo superstardom, after stints with the Hoochie Coochie Men, Steampacket, the Jeff Beck Group and The Faces.

As he had done with his solo studio album from the prior year, Gasoline Alley, Stewart included a composition by Bob Dylan, “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” on this new 10-song Mercury collection.

But the influence of Dylan may have been more strongly, if unconsciously, absorbed when the working-class son of a North London plumber let his creativity flow on what became the album’s monster hit, “Maggie May.” 

Recalling why he had reservations about including this song that he had recorded rapidly in the studio, Stewart remembered in his 2012 autobiography, Rod:

“It didn’t have a chorus. It just had these rambling verses. It didn’t really have a hook. How could you hope to have a hit single with a song that was all verse and no chorus and no hook? And it went on a bit: it was more than five minutes long, for God's sake, which was pretty much operatic by the standards of the pop single."

Perhaps he “should have known from listening to Bob Dylan,” Stewart reasoned, that “the lack of a catchy phrase in the middle,” not to mention a song exceeding the average length of a single, was not necessarily an impediment to significant radio time. (Indeed, see "Positively 4th Street" and “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”)

Nor was Stewart’s raspy voice an obstacle to success: Dylan’s vocals, likened to “a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire” by an unnamed Missouri folk singer cited by critic Nat Hentoff, had already proven that unconventional sounds could be tolerated if they were also expressive and evocative. Similarly, in the counterculture’s periodical bible, Rolling Stone, John Mendelsohn, reviewing the album, wrote that Stewart possessed “the most unique male voice in rock, a voice anyone could recognize instantly at five hundred paces through a Dixie cup….He’s got soul to spare.”

To Stewart’s surprise and delight, then, an American DJ (“allegedly in Cleveland, Ohio”) went with playing “Maggie May” rather than the designated single, a cover of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe.” It peaked at #1 on the Billboard U.S. singles chart in early October 1971.

I wonder, though, if there might have been another reason for Stewart’s initial hesitancy about releasing “Maggie May?” I was surprised to learn from Rod that, when recording the vocals on his own compositions, he has sometimes felt so vulnerable over revealing his feelings that he has the studio emptied out “of everyone except the engineer—the producer at a push.”

There could hardly be a more personal song than “Maggie May,” his semi-autobiographical memory of losing virginity at age 15 in the summer of 1961 at the Bealieu Jazz Festival to “an older (and larger) woman” who propositioned him in the beer tent.

It’s hard to believe that the randy rooster who has undoubtedly scored with the ladies in virtually every stop on his world tours could feel this way. But who are we to argue?

The album also conveyed Stewart’s bone-deep appreciation for blues, soul and folk. Produced by Stewart himself, it exhibited a raw, go-for-it quality that crackles with energy, especially on the title track, the singer’s episodic tale of careening across Europe as a teenager and what he learned from the opposite sex—a kind of Tom Jones for the age of rock ‘n’ roll.

“That whole album was done in 10 days, two weeks, about as long as it takes to get a drum sound right nowadays," Stewart recalled in an interview for Mojo Magazine in 1995. He trusted his backup musicians—guitarist Ron Wood, pianist Pete Sears, and fiddler Dick Powell—and they delivered to a man, perhaps none more so than acoustic guitarist Martin Quittenton, who not only co-wrote “Maggie May” with Stewart but contributed its memorable, and ultimately exhilarating, mandolin sound.

In the years since, Stewart has sometimes been maddeningly unmindful of his gifts, whether through roosterish posturing on “Hot Legs” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” or his early-millennium ill-advised turn towards “The Great American Songbook.”

But Every Picture Tells a Story demonstrates why fans on both sides of the Atlantic embraced him so ardently near the beginning of his journey. Or, as he put it in his ruminating 2012 song, “Can’t Stop Me Now”:

I stood up straight and sang for the record-company man, my enthusiasm filled the room
I was young and I was keen with that devil in my stream as I hollered out an old blues tune.

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