Does Rod Stewart know something his peers don’t? Is he really savvier than the rest, or is it just that he has accepted the writing on the wall, while so many of his equally legendary friends refuse to read it?
It’s hard to figure, but Stewart, now 62, is surely onto something. Compare his rather astounding commercial resurrection these past few years with recent flops from Elton John and the Who.
Surely everyone is aware of the immense success of Stewart’s four “Great American Songbook” albums, interchangeable standards sets that have all been certified at least platinum (often several times over) and which combined have sold more than 17 million copies worldwide.
And most of us are aware that to solidify this triumph of branding and profit-making, the singer, once again under the direction of industry guru Clive Davis, next turned to a different set of oldies for the recently released “Still the Same ... Great Rock Classics of Our Time.”
Critics may find the title debatable—John Waite’s “Missing You” and Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache” are classics?—but it hardly matters: Rod’s fans new and old seem to love the idea.
Not as much as in France, Stewart told me by phone from Palm Beach, Fla., while on a five-day break after eight weeks of touring. In France, “Still the Same” has sold more copies than all four “Songbooks” combined.
But here the album did enter Billboard’s albums chart in its debut week—and five months since its release, it is steadily approaching the million-sold mark.
Meanwhile, the Who’s “Endless Wire,” the band’s well-reviewed first new album in nearly a quarter-century, rapidly tumbled off the charts, and Elton’s acclaimed “The Captain & the Kid”—a sequel to his 1975 blockbuster “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy”—had barely sold 100,000 copies after an eight-week period that spanned the typically lucrative holiday rush.
“Just terrible,” Stewart says of the fate of Elton’s latest. “I know he was really devastated by that, `cause I was down at his house before it came out, and he had put so much work into it, so much faith. He tried to promote it as best he could—and it just didn’t sell.
“And I was the first one to call him up when mine got to No. 1,” he added, letting out a raspy chuckle, to let you know he’s only playfully sparring in the press with the guy he sometimes calls Sharon. “Got to do it, haven’t you? He would do it to me. Still got that rivalry.”
Granted, Stewart admits, “Landing at No. 1 is not a big deal anymore.” Not in the SoundScan age, where some weeks an album boasting fewer than 150,000 copies sold will top the charts simply because it’s new. Chart-action data is arguably more accurate now, but, setting aside phenomena like Daughtry and Norah Jones, the mere achievement of reaching the top seems less remarkable these days.
“There’s been something like 40 No. 1s in the last year on Billboard,” Stewart notes. “It’s cause for celebration when you reach that, sure, but it’s not like when (1971’s) `Every Picture Tells a Story’ was there for seven or eight weeks. It’s all changed so much now.”
For rockers who primarily appeal to boomers, it seems a certain type of album is needed to accomplish such a feat. “The problem,” Stewart believes, “is that of the people of my age group—and that would include Elton’s and the Stones’ and the Who’s—no one seems to want to listen to what we’ve got to say, especially radio stations.”
That’s why he pursued the standards idea so doggedly in the first place. Long considered a gifted interpreter, perhaps more than an original songwriter, Stewart sensed that his rock career “had fallen on stony ground,” as he once put it.
“I thought, `I’ve got to think of something different to do. And I had wanted to do these songbook albums since I was at Warner Bros. But (label president) Mo Ostin would always say, `No, that’s just not gonna sell.’ (David) Geffen, too—he loved my voice, but didn’t think these things would do well.
“Clive (Davis) was the only one who really believed in it. He could see that—and I quote him all the time on this now—every album someone of my age makes has got to be an event.”
Yet weren’t Elton’s and the Who’s last efforts events?
For every smash that fulfills Davis’ rule—Bob Seger’s “Face the Promise,” his first album in 11 years for Capitol (not Davis’ J Records) is another “event” that went platinum—there are at least three that prove it wrong. The harsh reality gunning down most new works from elder rock acts, Stewart has noticed, is that “it’s original material being presented to an audience that doesn’t care much to hear new material.”
Enter Rod the Not-So-Mod to give `em what they want: another album of familiar tunes backed by an all-rock, all-hits tour—in the round, no less.
But is this what Stewart wants for himself? Does he feel a sense of artistic satisfaction to match his runaway success, or is he just happy to ride a gravy train?
“Well, I like to think the two can go hand in hand. I also like to think I’ve never recorded anything that I truly and utterly dislike, although I came close in the early `90s. I think you can do it—have commercial success, critical success and keep yourself happy.
“Having said that, I would dearly love to make my own rock record.”
His last properly rocking one, the mildly underrated “When We Were the New Boys,” came almost a decade ago; 2001’s “Human” was a forgettable disaster. “If I can find the right person to write with, I’d go back to that. I still think I’ve got enough imagination and history behind me to write some good songs.
“Whether anyone will play `em or not is another thing.”
That’s partly why it’s hard to turn away from a cash cow. “Still the Same” is Stewart’s first rock record to top the charts since 1978’s “Blondes Have More Fun,” which gave us the love-it-or-loathe-it smash “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” So it’s not entirely surprising that Stewart says he enjoys the seemingly golden push-and-pull rapport he has developed with Davis.
“Still the Same,” for instance, “was totally Clive’s idea. I went into his office and said I’d love to do a soul album,” one focused on obscurities from the likes of Joe Tex, Solomon Burke and one of Stewart’s heroes, David Ruffin. A natural move for a guy who built his reputation by emulating such greats.
“But Clive said, `No, I think it’s about time you reminded people what a great interpreter of rock songs you are, so we’re going to select a few songs from the `70s.’ And I thought, `Well, that’s not a bad idea.’ Besides, I was certainly happy with the `American Songbook’ albums. I don’t think the critics liked them very much, but the audience loved `em.
“Those are the only albums of mine I play, actually. I’ll put them on, have a glass of wine, pat meself on me back.”
It was “such a wonderful risk to do them,” he explains. Davis, however, “does come up with dreadful ideas sometimes.” Initially he wanted Stewart to tackle the Elton & Kiki Dee duet “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.”
“Can you imagine?” Stewart says incredulously.
“Meanwhile, we did this brilliant version of `Me and Bobby McGee,’ but Clive said, `I think we’ll get in trouble with this one.’ But that’s only because he’s still living with Janis (Joplin). He discovered her, but she’s gone. Let’s move on.”
Still, for all the compromise inherent in their process, Stewart intends to stay on this path, taking small stylistic risks. “I would love to do a country record next,” he says. “It’s not so foreign to me. `You’re in My Heart’—that was a country song, really. I’d love to do some old Hank Williams tunes.”
Could be another smash. But will Davis really let him record it?
“I think he might give me my way this time”—he started laughing—“because I’m out of contract.”