There is a very good reason why “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is a cliché. For the most recent illustration, one needn’t look further than the latest Rod Stewart career overview, The Definitive Rod Stewart.
Warner Bros. released its first Rod Stewart compilation in 1979. Entitled Greatest Hits, it reviewed the first five years of Stewart’s hit-filled run at the label. Photographed by renowned photographer, Claude Mougin, Stewart wore a hot pink robe and looked every bit the self-satisfied rock star on the album cover. And with good reason—after successfully emerging as a solo artist from the Faces, Stewart wracked up two of the biggest number one hits of the 1970s, “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright)” and “Da Ya Thing I’m Sexy?”, and a chart-topping album, Blondes Have More Fun (1978). Like the caped emblem on a Rolls Royce, Greatest Hits capped off a heady decade for Rod Stewart, World-Class Superstar.
Something was amiss on Greatest Hits, however, and it took mere seconds to spot the one song that didn’t quite belong—“Maggie May”. Though it was Stewart’s first number one hit, culled from the excellent Every Picture Tells a Story (1971) album, it was the only hit on Greatest Hits that accounted for his five-album tenure on Mercury Records. “Maggie May” just didn’t fit the paradigm of Stewart’s 1975-1979 period, which marked his transition from a naughty, folksy blues-rocker to a raunchy, commercial pop-rock artist. (The song had already appeared on the 1976 Mercury-only compilation, The Best of Rod Stewart.) Hearing “Maggie May” sandwiched between “Hot Legs” and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” was like adding an ingredient from an entirely different recipe.
Almost 30 years since Greatest Hits landed in record stores in time for the holiday shopping season, Warner Bros. is releasing another Rod Stewart compilation that suffers from a similar stylistic dislocation. The Definitive Rod Stewart , while ambitious in its two-disc scope, serves up only five portions of Stewart’s exemplary Mercury period while devoting 25 tracks to his Warner Bros. output, from Atlantic Crossing (1975) through Unplugged…and Seated (1993). It’s an unbalanced set, in that one doesn’t find latter-day hits such as “Rhythm of My Heart” or “Infatuation” included on Mercury/Universal compilations.
The Definitive Rod Stewart is also redundant, since Warner Bros. previously released two more than satisfactory single-disc compilations, The Very Best of Rod Stewart, Volume I (2001) and an Encore follow-up in 2003 that, collectively, are a more dynamic compilation than The Definitive Rod Stewart . Since the label has strategically (and unnecessarily) removed Volume I from circulation, listeners wishing for Stewart’s biggest Warner Bros. hits must now settle for The Definitive Rod Stewart. (Note: The Definitive Rod Stewart comes in two editions. There is a two-disc set, reviewed here, and a deluxe edition that adds a DVD with 14 videos. If you must splurge, spend the extra bucks to get the DVD edition. At least videos offer a new facet to the spread of available compilations.)
For all it seeks to cover, The Definitive Rod Stewart still feels like it’s missing some tracks. Here’s what is noticeably absent on The Definitive Rod Stewart : a pair of hits from Out of Order (1988) (“Lost in You” and “Crazy About Her”), the far superior original version of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” from Atlantic Crossing, “Ain’t Love a Bitch” from Blondes Have More Fun, “Broken Arrow” from Vagabond Heart (1991), the title track to If We Fall in Love Tonight (1996), and Stewart’s versions of “Your Song” (from the 1991 Elton John and Bernie Taupin tribute, Two Rooms) and “That’s What Friends Are For” from the Ron Howard film, Night Shift (1982). Trimming the Mercury tracks from this set would have at least made room for some of these cuts, creating a more cohesive compilation.
It’s hard to argue the merits of individual songs that appear here, though those who already have their mind made up about Rod Stewart probably won’t be converted on the basis of the adult contemporary mainstay “Baby Jane” or the torchy “My Heart Can’t Tell You No”. For younger generations who may only know Stewart as the suited crooner of the American songbook, The Definitive Rod Stewart is an elementary primer, even if Stewart himself might be embarrassed by “Love Touch” or the ear-splitting yelps at the end of “Tonight I’m Yours (Don’t Hurt Me)”.
For all the commercial concessions that mark Stewart’s legacy, there are songs like “The Killing of Georgie (Parts I and II)” that momentarily bury the image of Stewart as spandex-clad Eros strutting around the stage. The song told the story of a gay protagonist who is brutally murdered by a New Jersey gang on 53rd St. and Third Avenue in New York. Stewart’s courageous tackling of the subject matter is embroidered by a sensitive performance that rightfully earned him the “Storyteller” tag that served as the title of his 1989 box set.
The Definitive Rod Stewart seeks to have the final word on Rod Stewart but in doing so, emphasizes just how multi-faceted his career has been. From “handbags and gladrags” to “foot, loose and fancy free”, perhaps no one collection could ever possibly be definitive unless spotlighting specific eras. Like the Greatest Hits of 30 years ago, The Definitive Rod Stewart , despite its bounty of hits, falls shy of delivering in full.