2 CDs/1 DVD
2 out of 5 stars w/o DVD
2.5 out of 5 stars with DVD
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
First off, this is not a definitive anything. There's no representation of any of the career-building songs from either of Stewart's first two albums "An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down," or "Gasoline Alley." You want definitive? Listen closely to Rod the Mod's version of "Only A Hobo" or his romantic, rustic interpretation of Elton John's "Country Comforts" both of which can be found on "Gasoline Alley." In particular, I'm ragged out that "Handbags and Gladrags" wasn't included. "Ever seen a blind man cross the road, trying to make the other side? Ever seen a young girl growing old, trying to make herself a bride? So what becomes of you my love? When they have finally stripped you of the handbags and the gladrags that your poor old granddad had to sweat for you to buy." If the poverty stricken life depicted in "Handbags and Gladrags" doesn't get your tear ducts watering, Jack, you dead.
"The Definitive Rod Stewart" would lead you to believe that raspy Roddy didn't have a career before 1971's "Every Picture Tells A Story," which contained his May/December #1 single, "Maggie May." (Even Stewart has admitted he's shocked at the song's longevity, noting it has plenty of character, but no melody. Must be the balalaikas.) It wouldn't be a Rod Stewart collection - definitive, best of, greatest hits, essential or otherwise - without ole Maggie, but the many glaring omissions indicate the 31 songs here were chosen based on sales rather than merit.
Now for the good news. (Yes! There is some...) The 2CD "Definitive Rod Stewart" comes with a DVD of music videos, which gives you the opportunity to see the carrot-topped one performing with the likes of superhuman time keeper Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Cactus, Beck, Bogert & Appice, KGB) and blissful bassist Phil Chen (Jim Capaldi, Jess Roden).
The other two tunes from "Every Picture" included on "Definitive" are the aforementioned "Maggie May" and "Mandolin Wind." If you've never heard Maggie the ole warhorse, then I'm going to have to hold a mirror up to your mug to check your breathing. The breezy "Mandolin Wind" inspires memories of brisk winter weather and cuddling by the fire for warmth. (Yes, a man just used the word "cuddling.")
Rod the Mod was still the lead singer for The Faces when he began enjoying much greater fame as a solo artist. Oddly, The Faces (pianist Ian "Mac" McLagen, drummer Kenny Jones, bassist Ronnie Lane, and Ron Wood) appeared on Stewart's albums either whole hog or as individuals, which must have made them wonder why Stewart was charting with beautifully crafted hits and they were recording his half-realized pub songs. Maybe they didn't mind too much - The Faces were renowned for their drunken revelry and sloppy performances, so they may have been too stewed to notice Stewart's solo prosperity. Rod finally delivered for the band with "Stay With Me," which was co-written with Wood. "Stay With Me" is a four-minute Cliff Notes run through of a one night stand. "In the morning, please don't say you love me, 'cause you know I'll only kick you out the door. I know your name is Rita, 'cause your perfume is smelling sweeter, since when I saw you down on the floor." Macho? You betcha. Hard to deny that Rod has always been a bit of a pig. (After all, he did ask the musical question, "Do You Think I'm Sexy?" and then tried to answer it himself.) Wood's infectious chunky groove and McLagen's rolling rave up at the end of "Stay With Me" sent many a dance floor participant into a drunken spin. Try to ignore the lyrics and get in touch with your pub party girl.
Stewart's "You Wear It Well," from his fifth solo album, "Never A Dull Moment," starts out with a traditional slow-boil based arrangement similar to "Maggie May," then coalesces behind a swinging fiddle solo by Dickie Powell and more authoritative pounding by Waller. The thinness of the rest of the album indicated that Stewart was having problems straddling his drinking and touring with The Faces and his chart topping jet set solo career. He included two commendable covers, a percussion dominated version of Jimi Hendrix's "Angel" that lost none of the original's moving meaning, and Sam Cooke's "Twistin' the Night Away," which moved with a fervor that Sam never envisioned. Too bad neither cut is included on "Definitive."
The rest of the songs on Disc One tear through Stewart's solo career at break neck speed -- and rightfully so. After "Never A Dull Moment," there were plenty of frowns when fans listened to 1974's "Smiler," which thankfully isn't represented at all. Stewart bounced back a year later with "Atlantic Crossing," his strongest effort since "Every Picture Tells A Story." Produced by Tom Dowd, who directed the Allman Brothers' best albums, "Atlantic Crossing" had a unique marketing premise - a "fast half" and a "slow half." (This was back in the day of records, kids.)
Stewart scored big in England with his take on The Sutherland Brothers' "Sailing." "Sailing" skews dangerously close to the Scottish anthem "The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomen," but everything Gavin and Ian Sutherland wrote had a built in earwig - their songs reminded you of something you'd heard before, and their tunes were inhabited with habitually catchy hooks. (Hey, somebody should do a "definitive" collection of The Sutherland Brothers!) "Sailing" was first procured as the theme song for a BBC television series about life on board the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Ark Royal, then was adopted by soccer fans, becoming as omnipresent at matches as Steam's "Na Na Na Na Hey Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" has become in America at baseball games. It's the type of sentimental sing-along that will inspire you to throw an arm around your equally soused drinking buddy and sway to the beat.
Another song on "Atlantic Crossing," a remake of The Isley Brothers' "This Old Heart of Mine," was noteworthy for Al Jackson's lock step drum beat that made Stewart sound as soulful as Al Green (who Jackson drummed for when he wasn't playing with Booker T. & the M.G.s). But instead of Jackson's inspiring drum kick version, "Definitive" offers up the glitzy 1989 remake Stewart recorded with Ronnie Isley, which is undoubtedly included because it reached the top ten. This ole heart of mine'll take Al Jackson's version over Ronnie Isley's any day.
Stewart knew how good the material on "Atlantic Crossing" was, even if the public didn't. "I Don't Want to Talk About It," was yet another song from the album he revisited fourteen years after it was first released. The guaranteed-to-make-you-bawl sentiment of the song came from genuine hurt. Its composer, Danny Whitten, was a talented guitarist who guided Crazy Horse, Neil Young's back up band. Heroin turned Whitten into an unreliable ruin. He overdosed at 29, and "I Don't Want To Talk About It" not only came to symbolize his wasted talent, but his hopeless, sad life as well. "I can tell by the look in your eyes that you've probably been cryin' forever, and the stars in the sky don't mean nothin' to you, they're a mirror. I don't want to talk about it, how your broke my heart. If I stay here just a little bit longer, If I stay here won't you listen to may heart, my heart." The original version, bathed in sympathetic strings, worked seamlessly with Stewart's breathy, emotional vocal; the remake included on "Definitive" is earnest, but empty. Fourteen years down the road, Stewart doesn't have a care in the world and Whitten's a rock and roll asterisk, so Stewart doesn't feel the passion associated with the song anymore.
The remaining seven songs on the first disc show the slide into mediocrity that seeps in whenever an artist becomes too successful. Everything he or she blurts out sells a million copies no matter how regrettable it may be. A trio of overwrought songs from 1976's overrated "Night On The Town" reflect that Rod was enjoying his gossip column life with actress Britt Eklund too much to pay attention to how inane he sounded. Britt coos and whispers in French to Roddy like Pepe LePew in "Tonight's the Night," sending the song spiraling into the realm of too much information. Okay, you're sleeping with a beautiful woman, Roddy, I get it. I just wish you hadn't written a song about it that has all the attraction of stale escargot on a Ritz.
"The Killing of Georgie (Parts I and II)" is shapeless drivel about the bludgeoning to death of one of Stewart's gay friends. The people who'll take a real beating here will be anyone who sits through this rambling narrative that rips off a line from "Give Peace A Chance." And Roddy had the nerve not to not only kill Georgie once - he devised a second half of the song so he could kill him over and over again.
Stewart rebuilds his credibility with his take on Cat Stevens' "The First Cut Is The Deepest": "The first cut is the deepest, baby I know. 'Cause when it comes to being lucky she's cursed. When it comes to lovin' me, she's worse." Sheryl Crow's nasal chirp in her version turned "The First Cut" into a musical autopsy. After listening to her dissect Cat's classic, you'll appreciate Rod's more respectful rendition.
"You're In My Heart" and "I Was Joking" continued Stewart's slide into schmaltz. Ironically, the songs appeared on "Foot Loose and Fancy Free," which contained two of Rod's most outrageous sexual sizzlers, "Hot Legs" and "You're Insane," both of which were propelled by the bombastic drumming of Carmine Appice. "You're Insane" showed Stewart still possessed a ribald sense of humor ("You must be crazy or half insane, look at your eyeballs, street cocaine. You drink that white rum, you hit the roof. What do you expect, one-five-one proof.") Like it or not, "You're Insane" was in bad taste, so the folks who compiled this collection weren't off base leaving it out. The slightly less offensive "Hot Legs" with Rod screaming "I LOVE YOU HONNNAY!" like a rabid rooster is included.
"I Was Only Joking" takes a serious swipe at Stewart's inability to commit to a long-term relationship. Another interesting point about the song is its credit: Stewart/Grainger. I leave it to you movie buffs to figure that one out.
When randy Rod released 1978's "Blondes Have More Fun" and asked the question "Do You Think I'm Sexy?" hoping the answer was yes, I lost a lot or respect for him as an artist. His hair dye had finally leaked into his brain and turned him into a complete narcissist, making his lyrics uncomfortable to sit through. I repeat, Rod. I didn't need to know who you were sleeping with. But man, did "Sexy" have a groove. Give the credit to Rod's top-notch rhythm section of Appice and Phil Chen for tapping into the prevailing disco beat. Yes, I still play air bass along with Phil whenever I get to his solo. But the compilers of "Definitive" missed an opportunity again by excluding "Blondes Have More Fun," the raucous 50s rave up title track and Roddy's angry remake of The 4 Tops' "Standing In The Shadows Of Love" in which Appice sounds as if he's punishing his drums with cement blocks (and he never misses a beat doing it).
1980s "Foolish Behavior" yielded a # 5 single in "Passion," a stealthful, mysterious piece wrapped in whispers and a seductive beat. The LP's best cut (not included here, of course) was "Somebody Special," another world-weary search for love with a haunting back up vocal by Susan Grindell that had an element of sincerity missing in Stewart's late 70s material.
The first CD stumbles to a close with "Young Turks." I half expect to see a miniature car pull up with a bunch of clowns in it every time I hear it.
CD #2 marks Rod's transformation (or decline) from a serious artist to page six celebrity fodder. He was still making headlines, but now it was his support of soccer teams or twenty-year-old hotties that kept his name on people's lips. I'll give Stew high marks for recreating himself - he was one of the few classic artists who signed on for MTV's "Storytellers" phenomenon, and put on a relaxed, homey show. (The Bee Gees also put on a surprisingly good-natured acoustic performance. 10,000 Maniacs and Neil Young, artists who should have been comfortable in an intimate setting, looked and sounded as if they'd been plugged into Frigidaires.) Assisted by old mate Ron Wood, Stewart successfully revisited many of his early hits, two of which, Tim Hardin's "Reason To Believe" and Van Morrison's "Have I Told You Lately" are nestled in the grooves of Disc Two. I'm beginning to parrot myself, but this has to be said, the original version of "Reason To Believe" from "Every Picture Tells A Story" is a far superior performance. Stewart's crocodile tears rendition of "Have I Told You Lately" was phony, but Oscar worthy. Whenever a singer chokes up during a performance, it's a fast track to a gold record.
Too many of the other songs on the second disc are catchy, but slight. The synth and bass drum heavy "Baby Jane" gave Stewart another #1 record in England and showed that old carrot top still had some syrup in his pipes. The swerving sound effects in "Infatuation" brought to mind the undercover mystery of "Passion," and a version of Tom Waits' "Downtown Train" (with a notable assist from his old boss Jeff Beck) gave Rod another top 10 hit in 1989.
He copped another Tom Waits tome "Tom Taubert's Blues," which went code blue on the charts, yet is included here. No one, and I repeat, no one, should ever attempt o decode Tom Waits' gutter goulash. If you want to be part of an assisted suicide, play somebody a Tom Waits song. Even the weakest patient will find a way to put an end to their suffering in order to get away from Waits' "Gong Show" reject of a voice. Give Roddy some points for guiding "Downtown Train" up the Billboard tracks, but he should have jumped off of Waits' train to musical hell after that.
"The Motown Song" has the novelty of The Temptations name on the label, but by 1991 when the song was released on the "Vagabond Heart" album, group members Paul Williams (suicide in 1973) and David Ruffin (a bad dose of crack stopped his ticker three months after the song's release) had checked out of the group. Cancer-riddled Eddie Kendricks followed less than a year later, and Ruffin's estranged replacement, Dennis Edwards, was touring solo. So, if none of the four most notable singers in the group were with them, who were these guys? The group's inconsequential contribution amounts to a few bass notes. It might has well have been Bowser from Sha Na Na in the background. A better choice? Stewart's bull's-eye rendition of Robbie Robertson's "Broken Arrow" on the same album.
Notice a pattern here? A lot of Stewart's best songs are covers. Randy Roddy managed to recreate himself yet again in the twenty first century - as a crooner in the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin vein. Stewart once again showed his business acumen by tapping into the void in 40s music and creating a geyser of sales within the geezer generation. His first collection of standards, "It Had To Be You: The Great American Songbook" shipped triple platinum; a second volume reached #2 on the Billboard charts and the third volume, "Stardust: The Great American Songbook" hit #1, which meant Rod either has a lot of relatives buying "these foolish things" or the CD buying public was "bewitched, baffled and bewildered." Luckily for us, two fortunate twists of fate have occurred since Rod recorded his fourth top ten set of standards: 1) None of Rod's nauseating nostalgia numbers are included on "Definitive" and 2) he's since come to his senses and recorded "Still the Same," following the more logical course of singing classic rock covers that are far more enjoyable to listen to.
Rod TV...The Videos
Too many of the videos included on the third disc are lip synched -- and not that well either. The early videos, "Sailing," "I Don't Want To Talk About It," "The Killing of Georgie" and "The First Cut Is The Deepest" feature Rod alone. One vid's fine, Roddy, but four? Rod looks particularly uncomfortable in "Sailing." Dressed in a sailor's uniform and sitting and shivering on the bow of a ship as it cruises into New York harbor, he appears one strong gust of wind removed from pneumonia.
"Hot Legs" breaks the solo Rod skein. It's still lip synched, but at least you get to see the other members of Stewart's best back up band having fun "performing" the tune at a railway station in what appears to be Australia. Carmen Appice adeptly twirls his drum sticks like a majorette, and impish Phil Chen grins from ear to ear. The cat having the most fun is beret-wearing Gary Grainger, who does the Chuck Berry duck walk down the dusty railroad tracks.
The attraction of most of the videos will depend on your stomach for the outrageously mismatched clothes we wore in the 80s and those scary spiked hairdos, as well as your tolerance for Rod's very macho view of the world. As you might imagine, Stewart acts out "Do You Think I'm Sexy?" with a blonde who has a layered hairstyle so similar to his they almost look like twins (which certainly didn't help my enjoyment of the piece). "Young Turks" is particularly dated, with a throng of teens dancing and bouncing around the screen as if they're auditioning for "Flashdance" or an effeminate "West Side Story."
And yes, this has to be said...Rod (or somebody who got his okay) is still thumbing his nose at propriety by including "Ain't Love A Bitch," his bitter stab at Britt Eklund. If the song was any good, Rod might have stood a slight chance at getting away with the title. Skip it and avoid having your ears bitch slapped.
If you can navigate through the dross, you'll be rewarded with "If We Fall In Love Tonight," which is not only a great song that should have been included on the CD, but is also the best video, because it bothers to try and tell a story. Stewart plays a lonely photographer who shoots pictures of loving couples, young, old, black, white, friends, and relatives. It's a touching video because you get the people in it aren't actors and they really do love one another.
"Definitive" is for devout Stewart fans craving videos of young rowdy Roddy. This isn't a heinous collection, just a bit light in terms of quality. Okay, stay with me. I don't want to talk about it, but if you want the "definitive" Rod Stewart, make sure "Every Picture Tells A Story" and "Atlantic Crossing" are part of your collection.