Counterbalance No. 143: Rod Stewart - 'Every Picture Tells a Story'
If I listened long enough to the 143rd most acclaimed album of all time, I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true. Does Rod Stewart’s 1971 smash lie straight-faced while we cry? Counterbalance investigates.
Klinger: In all of rock lore, there are few stories more compelling—more shocking even—than that of Rod Stewart. After years of knocking around the London R&B/Blues scene, and a fruitful time as the lead singer for the Jeff Beck Group, Stewart had emerged as one of the finest musical interpreters of his generation. He was able to take a huge range of styles, from folk to gospel and wring pathos, joy, or longing from them, and often all three in the same song. He had the voice of a (then) modern-day Sam Cooke, and the right instincts to make him a force in the roots-based rock sound of his time. Not only that, he was developing as an emotive and sensitive songwriter in his own right, although he still had a certain callow tendency to work through. All in all, though, his career was just beginning to blossom in the early 1970s.
Sadly though, it all went awry in 1976, when Rod Stewart was kidnapped by evil space aliens and replaced with a near-exact replica. This fake Rod Stewart looked, and at times even sounded, just like the original. The only difference was that this "Rodplica" was almost completely devoid of soul. In the years that followed, fake Rod went on to record a string of trashy disco hits, plastic pop smashes, and a string of standards albums that became a favorite of the Oprah Nation. Meanwhile, the real Rod Stewart remains trapped on a spaceship somewhere, delivering touching interpretations of folk songs and penning wistful odes for his alien overlords.
At least that's how I've chosen to see it.
Mendelsohn: Wait, so, the Rod Stewart that made Every Picture Tells a Story and the Rod Stewart that released a bunch of crappy music are the same guy? I was always under the impression that the cool Rod Stewart had met an untimely death (mostly likely run over by Keith Moon or something like that) and that some punter with the same name seized an opportunity to cash in. This is certainly disappointing.
And don't go comparing Rod Stewart to Sam Cooke. That's insulting to the estimable, silky-voiced Mr. Cooke.
Klinger: The comparison is apt, and not just because Stewart consistently cites Cooke as an influence. Good singing is, in many ways, good acting, and both Stewart and Cooke were able to bring humor and pathos to their performances, regardless of who wrote the actual songs. Sure, I love Sam Cooke and he is certainly the better singer, but I cannot for the life of me understand how someone can listen to Every Picture Tells a Story and not hear that he was a singer of terrific compassion—even when he wasn't always a similarly compassionate lyricist (looking at you right now, "Maggie May").
Mendelsohn: Stewart has a strong and unique voice, I'll give him that. But is that all we need to make it past the criterati? So, what, the dude has some vocal chops, had all the right influences and women found him irresistible. In my mind, I think Stewart was just faking it until he started making it and then he turned around and released "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"
This record does not belong here—regardless of the transgressions against my ears that Stewart continues to insist on releasing—I'm at a loss for why we are having this conversation. Is it because Stewart somehow managed to find a happy medium between David Bowie and the Rolling Stones? Was it his animal sexuality? There isn't an original thought on this record worthy of praise. As you noted his lyrics are lacking and the majority of the song he recorded are covers—a trend he continues to mine.
I don't mind that he's recording other people's material—that really isn't an issue for me. We've seen many artists on the great who've met great success recording songs they didn't write. Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, even Michael Jackson. I wouldn't put Stewart in that group.
Klinger: Wait, no, I said he had a tendency toward callowness in his lyrics. "Maggie May" might be written from the perspective of a jerk, and we might well wonder if Stewart is aware of that or not. And of course he can veer between a beautifully observed line about how he sincerely thought he was so complete (and look how wrong you can be) and a jaw-droppingly embarrassing reference to a "slant-eyed lady". Yikes.
But so far you haven't offered up anything about this specific record that makes it unworthy of praise—other than the fact you don't like Rod Stewart. And I get that. The music he's released the whole time you've been alive has been, for the most part, absurd. But his early Mercury albums (and most of his Faces output) clearly place him on the Rolling Stones trajectory, and for reasons that go well beyond the sturdy support from Ron Wood. I guess if all you want to hear is preening, that's all you're going to hear.
Whenever I hear this album, I'm stunned by the interplay of the musicians on here—the way Wood's guitars and plunky bass weave in and out with Martin Quittenton's guitar and Mick Waller’s drums, and then the way all the musicians stop and start, coming in at perfectly orchestrated times to soar away, crafting a mood and a tension without going over the top. Go back and listen to "Mandolin Wind" and see what I mean (and notice he delivers the goods lyrically as well, as he creates a heartbreaking scene that's as bleak and as beautiful as a Dorothea Lange photograph come to life).
Mendelsohn: I don't like Rod Stewart. The only Faces song that I like is "Oh La La" and that happens to be one of the songs that Rod Stewart refused to sing. Vocal duties fell to Ron Wood, who, by the way, does an excellent job. If there is one redeeming quality to Every Picture Tells a Story, it is the musicians that Stewart was smart enough, or lucky enough, to surround himself with. Wood's guitar is more expressive than Stewart at almost every turn. The back and forth between Wood and Ian McLagan on "(I Know) I'm Losing You" is fantastic—taking a solid Motown record and turning it into a deliciously filthy exhibition of rock 'n' roll. For me, the real star of the record is Wood and his guitar work. Check out the slide work on "That's All Right". Makes me wonder why they needed Stewart in the first place.
Klinger: Well, maybe it's because Stewart supplies the strong, unique voice and vocal chops that even you conceded he possesses. And it's not as if the lead singer was sitting over in the break room waiting for the musicians to get done playing before he came in to sing. It's pretty clear that this was a group effort throughout, and Stewart had a hand in the arrangements. When you go back and listen to the original Tim Hardin version of "Reason to Believe" and realize just what this group did with it, it's really pretty astonishing. To take what had been a fairly standard-sounding folk number and manage re-present it, showcasing the depth of heartache that was always there in the lyrics—that takes an interpretive ability that most singers just don't have.
Look, I don't know what caused Stewart to squander his gift, but he did—and to such a degree that he's left countless people wondering if he ever really had it at all. We may never know, but it's as close as pop music gets to tragedy without anybody actually dying. As I'm hearing what you're saying, it appears that you like every individual component to this album, but you don't like the album. And that's mostly down to the fact that you can't get past the lead singer's colossal baggage. Understandable, I suppose, but unfortunate.
Mendelsohn: I know it's unfortunate. And I know we shouldn't be comparing an artist's work against itself. But if there was any artist who's continued output would be worthy of stripping him of any critical cachet, I would think it would be Rod Stewart. He's released five editions of The Great American Songbook. Five, Klinger. He also refuses to cut that crazy mullet thing he's been sporting since the late '60s. None of which has anything to do with anything. I don't think there is any question as to why this record is on the great list. You've done an excellent job of laying it out point by point despite my refusal to listen to rational reasoning. My greatest fear is that I will end up liking this album and then I will like Rod Stewart. That weighs heavily on my soul, Klinger.
In the end, I find myself hoping that you are right and that one day, the real Rod Stewart will break free from his interstellar captors, return to Earth, destroy his doppelgänger, and reclaim his rightful place. Until that day comes, I will remain steadfast in my irrational hatred for Rod Stewart and all of his music. Even if it isn't half-bad.