I love to dance, and I have absolutely no problem dancing with myself.
On one of my last trips to Las Vegas, I surprised a ragged group of early-morning gamblers by dancing the entire length of the casino walkway at the Bellagio. The motivating moment came right when I stepped off the elevator and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” started blasting out of the casino music system. I didn’t think, I didn’t stop to see if anyone was watching, I just caught the beat and started dancing towards the lobby. I remember a few blank stares from the old men sipping their Bloody Marys at the Pai Gow poker table and appreciative smiles from the much younger security guards. I arrived at the lobby a tad early, so I just finished my routine on the slick part of the floor before stepping onto carpet and heading to the taxi stand as if nothing unusual had happened.
And from my perspective, nothing unusual had happened. I guess I’m kind of like a kid in that way: when I have the urge to dance, I dance, and I don’t care whether it’s on the dance floor or on my way to the ladies’ room at work or when I catch a hint of a tune in the air as I stroll around the neighborhood. I think it’s weird that we accept spontaneity in children but think an adult who starts dancing on the street, corridor or walkway is a person in urgent need of mental health treatment.
Fuck that. If you want to hang out with me, be prepared for impromptu spurts of dancing. If you find that disturbing, hang out with someone else.
The problem I’ve run into lately is that there hasn’t been much in the way of good dance music lately—at least in the way I would define good dance music. I favor R&B-based rock and 60’s soul music, two genres that aren’t particularly popular at the moment. My favorite bands to dance to are The Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and my favorite soul-inspired dance music comes from Aretha, The Temptations and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. It’s hard to find to a dance club with a DJ or a band laying down that kind of stuff, especially here in Euro-Beat Land, but it was getting harder and harder in the States before I left. The only places on the Vegas strip that consistently featured 60’s-70’s rock and soul (live or through the sound system) were Mandalay Bay and Margaritaville; the rest had all gone hip-hop, a genre I find as boring as a bad fuck.
Billy Idol’s music lies somewhere on the fringes of my dancing tastes; there are some songs that immediately propel my ass out of the seat and some songs that reek too much of disco glitz for me to bother. It makes sense when you consider that Billy Idol himself has always existed somewhere on the fringes—not quite a rocker, not quite a punk, not quite a pop singer. Like the band he came from, he doesn’t seem to belong in the era he inhabited. Generation X would have been much better off as a British Invasion band; I place Billy Idol in that brief space from 1959 to 1963 after Buddy Holly died but before The Beatles arrived. That was a particularly weak period for rock ‘n’ roll (many were predicting its impending doom) but a great time for dance music. Billy’s melding of Gene-Vincent-style rock with classic dance tropes might have played well in that era, especially with die-hard rockers clinging to fond memories of “Be-Bop-a-Lula” and pre-Army Elvis. I find it interesting that Billy’s family had temporarily relocated to Long Island during that time, and though he doesn’t name any of that era’s stars as influences in his autobiography, perhaps the omnipresent pop music blaring out of car and home radios may have left an impression on his still-developing brain as he wandered around the neighborhood.
Along with the mid-80’s version of Robert Palmer, Billy Idol eventually became a major purveyor of what is called “dance-rock,” a genre defined by Wikipedia as “a post-disco genre connected with pop rock and post-punk with fewer rhythm and blues influences, originated in the early 1980s, following the mainstream death of punk and disco.” Sifting through the genre-babble, we find one compelling truth which explains why Billy Idol will remain forever on my fringes: the absence of grounding in R&B. Still, he did produce some of the better dance music of the 1980’s, and in honor of his contributions to dance, I will judge his work by using the gold standard of critical judgement in play during the late 50’s and early 60’s: The Rate-a-Record segment from American Bandstand. I will adhere to the traditional scoring system, rating each song on a scale of 35 to 98, which means a 70 will at least earn Billy the honored designation, “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” However, there will be no song-by-song score-averaging on the chalkboard, because a.) I’m not inviting anyone else to participate b) I don’t own a chalkboard and d.) This is my fucking blog and what I say goes! However, I will give Billy an aggregate average score at the end of the review to confirm or disconfirm the dance king hypothesis.
One more note before I literally get my ass in gear. This greatest hits collection was released in 2001, and at that time, Billy Idol hadn’t released a studio album in eight years. That final studio effort was the infamous Cyberpunk, an experimental electronic album that many consider the rock equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I don’t think it was that bad, but it sure as fuck wasn’t Radiohead. There is one song in the collection from Cyberpunk, but you’ll have to wait for my thoughts on that because, miracle of miracles, the compilers present the songs in chronological order. Hallefuckinglujah! Can we get those geniuses to take a look at Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy and sort out that mess?
Just a thought. Let’s get our butts into gear!
“Dancing with Myself”: In an interview with Rolling Stone, Billy claimed that this song was “really is about people being in a disenfranchised world where they’re left bereft, dancing with their own reflections.” Yeah, okay, whatever, Billy. If you read his autobiography, stunningly titled Dancing with Myself, you will run across numerous instances where Billy attempts to imbue his life with literary, philosophical and historical significance, as many aging rockers are wont to do as they look back on a life where they spent a lot more time on drugs and in vaginas than in the library or at Left Bank cafés. Billy also agreed with the assertion that the song was about jacking off, conceding that there was “some sort of masturbatory element” in play. Now we’re getting into Freud territory, and HEY! I THOUGHT THIS WAS A FUCKING DANCE PARTY!
Let’s just say that all rock ‘n’ roll is about disenfranchisement, the existential angst attached to a meaningless bourgeois existence, sex, sex, sex and move the fuck on.
The evolution of the song reflects Billy’s journey away from punk and into the bright lights of MTV-influenced stardom. The original 1979 Generation X version can be described as choppy at best, while the update on Kiss Me Deadly is pretty close to the popular rendition in form and structure. All Billy did take that second Generation X version and tinker with the mix, raising bass levels (yay!) and his vocal (good idea) while easing up on the guitar (makes sense). The mythical version of the story ends with “and it became Billy’s first hit in America,” an assertion that depends entirely on how you define “hit.” I would argue that making #27 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart might qualify as a “squeaker,” but hardly a “hit.”
Still, the song does kick ass, and it has many of the ingredients you’ll find in any great dance song. One: a clarion call to get your ass out of your seat (the strong introductory beat and assertive opening guitar riff)—a passage just long enough to take one last swig of your favorite cocktail and lead your honey to the dance floor. Two: easy-to-grasp catchphrases (in this case the title) and wordless vocalizations (oh-ho-oh-oh) that even the dancer on her fifth Long Island iced tea can use to occasionally reconnect with reality. Three: stop-time segments. “Dancing with Myself” offers two forms of stop-time; the least important are the two breaks where the band cuts out and Billy does his imitation of either Elvis, Gene Vincent or both. The most important is that glorious moment when most of the band cuts out and it’s just bass, drums, clapping hands and you. This is the moment when dancers scream with delight, where they experience a moment of virtual nakedness with nothing intervening between body and rhythm. It’s always a mistake to end these titillating segments by shifting immediately back into overdrive, and Billy avoids that faux pas by slipping it in slowly through the re-introduction of the oh-ho-oh-ohs. Now we have the start of a strong build, and after a while, you can’t wait for the band to fucking let it rip. Although the song falls somewhere between dance floor and mosh pit, I loved my time in the mosh pit (still do, when I can find one) and my teenage years were set to music at higher speeds than what is considered normal. BANDSTAND SCORE: 80.
“Mony Mony”: This is almost cheating, but apparently Billy needed a follow-up to “Dancing with Myself” and didn’t have a decent enough original on hand. Tommy James and the Shondells were among the last purveyors of rock-oriented dance until the hippies took over and instead of babes shaking their asses to driving beats there were babes with long hair tucked into floral headbands spinning around in circles in fields of poppies as sitar music wafted through the air. This was the time when even The Stones lost touch with their rhythmic core, and tripping supplanted dancing in the world of rock. Motown was still cooking, though, and considering this historical cleavage between rock and soul inspired me to come up with a better way to understand the Rate-a-Record scale, both in terms of virtues and limitations:
“Strawberry Fields Forever” is a 35. “Chain of Fools” is a 98. Got it?
Like the Rascals, Tommy shifted to mellower music, producing the lovely but not particularly danceable “Crimson and Clover” and “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” But before he realigned his chakras to conform the demands of the enlightened ones, he left the listening audience with one last chance to shimmy, twist and frug. “Mony Mony” (so named because Tommy looked out on the New York skyline while writing the song and espied the Mutual of New York Building) was built for no other purpose than dance. The lyrics exist to serve the beat; the words only make sense when you’re in the rhythmic trance and can’t expend any effort trying to put together a coherent thought. The phrase “mony mony” is euphonious and echoes the word “moaning,” reminding listeners of the thrill of an orgasm. We hear “shoot” and “shot,” a nod to the penises in the audience, and few dance songs would be complete with at least one “feel all right” (“Mony Mony” has ten, plus three “feel so good”s).
The song was a natural for Billy, and he comes through with a spirited, faithful-to-the-original performance. The song opens with the bass-driven stop time we heard in “Dancing in the Streets,” but here it’s repeated later in the song, indicating that Billy believed he’d found a winning formula, a “signature sound.” That in itself makes the song less appealing to me, but when you’re in the heat of the dance moment, you really don’t give a shit about rock star marketization. The only mystery is why on earth the compilers included the studio version instead of the much stronger live version that hit the top of the charts a few years later. Oh, well, I can only work with what I’ve got—oh, bullshit. BANDSTAND SCORE, STUDIO VERSION: 70. BANDSTAND SCORE, LIVE VERSION: 85.
“Hot in the City”: As will become painfully obvious as we proceed through the timeline, a lot of Billy’s songs consist of repurposed themes from songs of the 50’s and 60’s. Here we have the hot-summer-night theme where the young and horny descend on a city to celebrate the fact that they’re young and horny and have descended on the city. Born in 1955, Billy qualifies as a Baby Boomer, so we have the ludicrous couplet “Don’t be afraid of the world we made/On a hot summer night” to remind us of that generation’s self-professed omnipotence. You made a whole world just by getting drunk and fucking? Wow! You people really are far fucking out!
“Hot in the City” also features built-in flexibility in that wherever Billy traveled he could endear himself to the crowd by replacing “I can really feel the heat now . . . New York!” with “Kansas City!” or “Billings!” or “Dogtown, Alabama!” or “Chicken, Alaska!” The latter city fits the theme very well with their welcoming sign, “I Got Laid in Chicken, Alaska.” According to Billy’s bio, if he wasn’t doing drugs or on the stage or in the studio, he was fucking. Sometimes in the studio. Yeah. No shit.
Most of the song is somewhere between a slow dance number and a let’s-take-it-down-a-notch song to allow the sweat to dry. At one point shortly after the halfway mark, the band changes the rhythm, ripping you away from your partner so you can get the sweat dripping again . . . then it’s back to tweenerville. The shift improves the song’s listenability by making it more interesting, but we’re more concerned with the dancing experience on this show. BANDSTAND SCORE: 50.
“White Wedding”: Billy goes goth in a mystery-laden minor-key mood piece where the only story (if you can call it that) can be found in the campy video featuring chicks in full-body patent leather, a barbed wire wedding ring and an exploding kitchen. The lyrics are largely in the form of questions but I haven’t been able to find the Jeopardy answers to help my readers make sense of it all. Point: Billy Idol was more performance artist than lyricist, and his songs are mostly designed to invoke mood rather than increase your understanding. “White Wedding” is a horror movie set to music, designed simply to titillate.
So, turn off your language processing center, focus on Phil Feit’s seriously hot bass guitar and let your legs and ass do the rest. BANDSTAND SCORE: 81.
“Rebel Yell”: Billy Idol’s most original contribution to music was inspired when Billy was hanging out with The Stones at VH1 and observed them guzzling down a bottle of Rebel Yell Bourbon Whisky. “Great song title,” he thought. “Great band name,” I would have thought had I been there, but then again, maybe not because I was less than a year old at the time.
I have to confess I loathe the so-1980’s synth intro, which sounds terribly cheesy in comparison to the kick-ass rock that follows. Once they finally get there, Billy and the boys have my full attention with the pulsating beat and sharp guitar punctuations. Billy delivers the opening lines in low heat, but that moment when he breaks the pattern and takes an octave leap to growl out “Pray help from above!” gives me tingles in my sweet spot. Quick story line: horny babe shows up at Billy’s pad, says “Fuck me!” and then they fuck. I love stories with happy endings! But it gets better—it turns out she’s a hold-nothing-back screamer, which may lead to some problems with Billy’s neighbors, but believe me, if you’re the one inspiring those screams, you couldn’t give a flying fuck about the neighbors . . . unless they want to join in the fun.
Here’s a tip about screamers. The first time is hot. The second time you think, “Hey, I must be pretty good in the sack to inspire such passion!” When the third time comes around, it finally dawns on you that your performance has nothing to do with it—the scream is just the broad’s “sexual brand.” End the relationship immediately.
“Rebel Yell” does have its flaws in addition to the synth. The bridge makes no sense whatsoever, as we leave the bedroom to go to . . . 7-11?
He lives in his own heaven
Collects it to go from the 7-11
Well he’s out all night to collect a fare
Just so long, just so long, it don’t mess up his hair
And I suppose that Billy’s use of the phrase “in the midnight hour” may call into question my claim that “Rebel Yell” is his most original contribution, but you know what? I’m sticking with that claim. You figure it out. BANDSTAND SCORE: 90.
“Eyes Without a Face”: Hmm. This is low dance disco number full of shimmery sounds and girlfriend Perri Lister doing call-and-response lines in not-particularly convincing French. Once again, the bridge proves to be a challenge for Billy, as he interrupts both mood and story line by introducing a double-time guitar over the slow beat, and relocates the song to Las Vegas. There’s a seriously exaggerated interpretation of the lyrics on Songfacts that attempts to connect the song to the plot line in a horrid French film with the same title featuring a plastic surgeon who abducts pretty women and slices off parts of their faces to graft onto his disfigured daughter. Methinks Billy liked the title, period, and attempts to transform the perception of this song into an artistic statement about the deficiencies of modern love are like trying to assign the same lofty status to a Viagra commercial. Sorry—the words are as shallow as the slick music and the rhythmic interruption was a really, really bad idea. BANDSTAND SCORE: 40.
“Flesh for Fantasy”: If someone’s going to try to tell me that Billy wrote this one about how tragic it is that modern existence means a world where we build superficial relationships based on physical attraction, and rather than achieving true intimacy, we cling to fantasies that can never be fully realized, I’m gonna . . . I’m gonna . . . Aargh! I can’t scream because then you’ll all think I’m a fake screamer and no one will ever fuck me again!
Sorry. Mid-review tension release.
Look. Billy Idol songs are not deep or particularly insightful. Titillation is the name of the game, and post-recording commentary on their “hidden meaning” is nonsense squared. The only words in this song you need to pay attention to in this song are “flesh,” “fantasy,” and “it’s after midnight.” Put it all together and you should be able to grasp the “meaning.”
This one sounds like a knock-off of a David Bowie disco-era song, and it seriously sucks. While it has a nice beat, Billy’s man-up voice on the chorus makes him sound like the last person I’d want fantasizing about my flesh. BANDSTAND SCORE: 50.
“Catch My Fall”: Ah, the “be there when I stumble” song, a theme explored by Chrissie Hynde, Pat Benatar dozens of others. What saves the song in the Rate the Record scoring model is a solid bass-driven rhythm and a few sprinkles of sax. Billy delivers his vocal in a comparatively subdued manner, and the only catchphrase a dancer can sing to is “If I should stumble, catch my fall.” Not exactly what you want to say to reassure your dance partner. BANDSTAND SCORE: 65.
“To Be a Lover”: Billy does his very best Elvis imitation over a curious mix of disco, soul and sprightly piano and winds up cracking the Top 10, which says more about the quality of pop music in the 80’s than musical excellence. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, though. BANDSTAND SCORE: 70.
“Don’t Need a Gun”: I deeply appreciate any and every anti-gun song every written, but this is a pretty weak protest in comparison to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special.” For one thing, Billy has a hard time staying on message, throwing in superfluous references to Gene Vincent, Elvis and Johnnie Ray in between equally irrelevant titillation lines (“Just need your love and I feel that heat yeah).” When he finally gets to the point, he suggests “When the other man has none/You don’t need a gun,” implying, “But if you both have guns, fire away!” The last thing I want to dance to is a dumb song that reaffirms the value of old-time Western shootouts. BANDSTAND SCORE: 35.
“Sweet Sixteen”: Where have I heard that phrase before? Chuck Berry? B. B. King? The Blue Mountaineers? And what the fuck is this? Disco country music? Well, Billy did express his admiration for Tex Ritter in his bio, so I guess he finally got to play out a long-standing fantasy. Billy called it a “heartfelt lament” about his lost relationship with Perri Lister (who was a teeny bit older than sixteen). Okay, but the tale in the song is about the guy who built a castle in Florida in honor of a woman who blew him off. Not exactly a metaphor likely to evoke much empathy from your average listener, and the rhythm is pure square dance. Wake up and smell the hay? No thanks. BANDSTAND SCORE: 35.
“Cradle of Love”: Billy’s only #1 mainstream rock hit in the U. S. is a slickly-produced dance-rock number about robbing the cradle, the act of fucking and sometimes marrying an underage girl. To his credit, Billy thought the song was crap, too, often replacing the line “It’s easy, I know how to please me” with “It’s cheesy, this song is so cheesy” in live performances. To put it mildly, I hate this fucking song, and looking back at this juncture in modern music history, Nirvana couldn’t have entered the scene soon enough. BANDSTAND SCORE: 35.
“L. A. Woman”: This is a spirited, somewhat faithful and sanitized version of The Doors’ blues-jazz influenced original. The critical difference is Billy Idol is not Jim Morrison, so you miss the many nuances Morrison could apply to a vocal. There’s also a certain breeziness in The Doors’ version that I find absolutely delightful. Still, it’s a very solid dance number, so we’re going to help Billy out of his Rate-the-Record slump on this one. BANDSTAND SCORE: 75.
“Shock to the System”: As promised way back at the beginning of this review, here’s my review of the single from the controversial Cyberpunk album. Okay . . . I like the ferocious rhythm, which could definitely inspire heavy bruising in the mosh pit. The various electronic and natural parts come together pretty well, all things considered. The problem with the song is that it’s a fragment of a half-baked idea that winds up saying nothing. Billy told MTV that he had already written lyrics for the song when the Rodney King riots filled his TV screen and “inspired” him. Uh uh. Sure. Here’s what he wrote about the riots:
It was a night
Hell of a night, L.A., it really was
Oh what a riot
I said yeah, come on
It makes my life feel real
Fear police and civil corruption oh yeah
Is there a man who would be king
And the world stood still
Ah yeah loud
You can rock this land baby
I said yeah, come on baby
Shock to the system
I’m sorry, but does that stream of gibberish say anything at all? I think Billy was trying to exploit the riots in an attempt to stay relevant as his career was in full fade. It didn’t work, but I won’t let it affect the Rate-a-Record Score. BANDSTAND SCORE: 80.
“Rebel Yell” (live and acoustic): I’m not going to score this one, as getting credit twice for a highly-rated song would skew the final average in Billy’s favor and render my statistical analysis meaningless. I will say that “Rebel Yell” works as well on an acoustic guitar as it does on electric guitar—the song’s ass-kicking power is buried deep in its genes.
“Don’t You (Forget About Me)”: And I won’t score this obvious bonus track to skew the final average in the other direction. Memorable it is not. Forgettable it is.
Okay! Let’s see how Billy did! 80, oops—can’t count the score for the live version of “Mony, Mony” . . . okay, he’s going up, up . . . uh oh . . . bad stretch there . . . can he pull victory from the jaws of defeat?
AGGREGATE BANDSTAND SCORE: 61.14
Aww. Sorry, Billy. You didn’t make the cut that would have earned you the highly-prized and sought-after “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” designation for the entire compilation, but hey! Look on the bright side! You would have creamed any Radiohead or Pink Floyd album on the Rate-a-Record scale!
What? You want to know where you went wrong? Well, it’s pretty obvious that most of your best stuff came early in your solo career . . . and once you found yourself on top you followed the old saw, “Don’t mess with success.” The music became pretty formulaic, the lyrics never rose above mediocre, and to be honest, you don’t sing the later-period songs with half the enthusiasm you brought to the early hits. I’m not a psychologist, but I think the problem was you spent too much time and energy being Billy Idol, when what you really needed to do is connect with William Michael Albert Broad—you know—that kid who spent part of his childhood in Long Island, the one who got all excited when “She Loves You” blasted through his crappy little radio, the young lad who listened to everything from Robert Johnson to Camelot. Sounds like that kid had a pretty broad perspective on life that could have helped make your music more diverse and engaging—less image, more substance—you know, that kind of thing.
Oh, no—I don’t want you to lose the danceability factor, but let me give you something to think about: sex isn’t all about titillation, and it’s a lot more satisfying when you engage body, brain and good ol’ fashioned human emotion.
When it’s too hot to fuck, there’s always Scrabble.
Several times this summer Alicia and I have either played host to or dropped in on my parents for an evening of cold drinks, blowing fans, music and Scrabble. We usually play as a foursome in English, but sometimes we play using a French version I picked up in Quebec a couple of years ago. Because Dad’s still learning French, we give him triple points when he comes up with any word that would satisfy the scholars of l’Académie française.
On this particular night, the ladies decided to play a Spanish version that Alicia has had forever, and dad volunteered to serve as bartender, waiter and DJ. It was my turn; Dad had just changed records and took the empty seat next to me to take in the action. While my left brain concentrated on the tiles, I was only vaguely aware that the music on the stereo had stimulated my second chakra, resulting in involuntary behavior that irritated the shit out of my mother.
“Stop tapping and . . . wiggling, or whatever you’re doing down there.”
“Sorry.” I narrowed my eyes in a vain attempt to power up the left brain, but after about thirty seconds, I couldn’t help myself when my favorite belt-out line in the song arrived.
“She claimed that it just ain’t natural!” I sang at the top of my lungs.
My mother narrowed her eyes and sternly admonished me: “Are we here to play or to watch you try out for the chorus line?”
“Okay, okay—Dad, find something that doesn’t make me horny.”
“Tough assignment, since everything seems to make you horny.”
“Then here’s your chance to throw a little Dylan on the turntable. Nothing dries me up quite like Bob Dylan.”
Dad slipped into the living room, and soon the sounds of Blood on the Tracks wafted through the air. Returning to his seat, he said, “I’ve never understood why you haven’t reviewed that album.”
“Dad, we’ve been through it a zillion times—you got your Dylan review, now—”
“I’m not talking about Dylan. I’m talking about Every Picture.”
I looked at him like he was crazy. “I already did that. Right after Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. Look it up.”
He left the room to access the computer and came back a few minutes later. “Not there.”
“Let me see that.” I got up and traipsed over to the little anteroom where they keep the computer, performed a dozen search variations and came up empty. No Rod Stewart. No Maggie May. No Every Picture Tells a Story. I logged into my dashboard and scanned through the seventy or so drafts I have on file . . . and damn, there it was. I saw that the file was last edited on September 1, 2013, and when I opened it I found a half-finished review that began with a detailed history of how the Small Faces imploded, split into Faces and Humble Pie, and when the dust had settled, Rod Stewart was in prime position to turn himself into a household name.
I traveled back in my head to September 2013 to figure out what had happened. In the four months prior to September 1, I’d relocated to a different continent, lived in two different residences, changed jobs twice, enrolled in a Master’s program and wrote an average of three reviews a week. I wrote at such a frantic pace because I wasn’t getting nearly enough action, as Alicia wouldn’t join me in Paris until mid-September. It’s no mystery why Rod Stewart dropped off my radar.
When I realized my oversight, I felt really bad about it, a reaction that people in my generation would find puzzling. Milennials generally dismiss Rod Stewart because they know him as a modern lounge singer who plays to the withering libidos of middle-aged women in the same vein as Tom Jones, Barry White and Barry Manilow (I thought Manilow coming out of the closet was one of the funniest fucking things I’ve heard in my life). I’ve never understood the attraction, but some women have told me that Rod Stewart excites the maternal instinct because he looks like a guy who could use some old-fashioned home cooking to put some meat on his very prominent bones. Others have mentioned the prominence of another very large bone when he wears form-fitting lamé pants. I have no maternal instincts and think dick size is seriously overrated, so if I were to run into Rod Stewart and he asked me, “Da ya think I’m sexy?” I’d say, “No, not in the least. Sorry.”
Not wanting to dent his star-studded ego, I would add, “But I think you were one of the best lead singers of your generation,” which is why I feel bad about neglecting him. From a 10-year period beginning with his work on Jeff Beck’s Truth to the allegedly sexy or satiric Blondes Have More Fun, Rod Stewart was on top of his game. His sandpapery voice and sense of command over his material made it virtually impossible for people not to take notice. In his best material, you really do get the sense that he loves nothing more than singing blues-tinged rock ‘n’ roll.
Every Picture Tells a Story is considered his masterpiece by Baby Boomer critics everywhere, a fact that says more about that generation’s gift for hyperbole than the quality of the album. I would call it an album with high points and low points, which is pretty much what I’d say about any record. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the perfect album. I took a quick look at my Desert Island Disks and there are no albums on that list without at least one less-than-satisfying song. Every Picture Tells a Story is a pretty good album, one you can listen to without an overwhelming urge to pick up the needle and move to the next track. At its worst, it’s passable; at its best, it kicks ass.
There are few songs that kick ass as well as “Every Picture Tells a Story,” the embodiment of heavy musical foreplay combined with one of the best narrative stories in rock history. The critics generally consider this Rod Stewart’s finest moment, and while that’s a good topic for trivial debate while you’re waiting out a delayed flight, I’m definitely of the opinion that this is one of Ron Wood’s finest moments. “Goddamn, who’s playing that acoustic?” Ron Wood. “Fuck, who is that fabulous bass player?” Ron Wood. “And who’s laying out those hot electric guitar licks?” Ron Wood. “By the way, who wrote this song?” Rod Stewart and . . . Ron Wood. I think Wood’s co-writing contributions were fundamental to the song’s success, because when you’re dealing with a set of loosely-structured non-standard verses and a cascade of constantly changing rhythms and dynamics, it’s not about hitting the right notes at the right time, but about feel—and Ronnie knew how the song was supposed to feel.
Following Wood’s lead rather than the other way around, Micky Waller caught the feel on the drums, enthusiastically embracing the verse pattern that oscillates between stutter-stop half-time bass-snare patterns and a few seconds of straight-out drive. The varied rhythmic structure supports the storyline beautifully, with the stutter-stop segment often used to support the set-up lines and the drive segments employed to deliver the impact lines:
(stutter) Spent time feelin’ inferior (drive) standing in front of my mirror
(stutter) Combed my hair in a thousand ways, (drive) but I came out lookin’ just the same
(stutter) Down along the left bank, minding my own, (drive) was knocked down by a human stampede
(stutter) Got arrested for inciting a peaceful riot, (drive) when all I wanted was a cup of tea
And if Rod needs to expand the verse to make a few more points (as in, “I was accused . . . I moved on”), the band just extends the drive segment a few more bars to fit them in. The refusal to tie the story to a strict metrical pattern makes the narrative sound more natural, as if you’re sharing pints in a pub with Rod as he tells you about his travels.
The intensity of the pattern eases a bit when Rod hooks up with Shanghai Lil and delivers the unfortunate line, “I fell in love with a slit-eyed lady.” While I think the line is probably true to the character of a young man with limited cross-cultural experience and competence, it still makes me cringe, like reading the N-word in Huckleberry Finn. In the following verse, where the tempo slows and the percussion is reduced to an occasional half-hearted cymbal hit while Ron Wood’s acoustic guitar takes over, Rod’s self-reflective vocal is gorgeously supported beautifully by Maggie Bell’s high harmonies . . . but the harmonies vanish when he delivers yet another unfortunate line, “The women I’ve known I wouldn’t let tie my shoe” (ugh). The true meaning of that apparently misogynistic utterance comes through in subsequent line, “They wouldn’t give you the time of day.” This tells us that the kid hasn’t learned to handle rejection, so he disses women in general. Whether or not he truly hates women is uncertain (obviously he’s hot for Shanghai Lil), but for a young man to blame his lack-of-nookie problem on “all women” is a pretty standard character trait of that demographic (Google the word “incel” to learn more). Denise Sullivan of AllMusic wasn’t far off when she described the song as “a racist, sexist slice of vintage rock & roll about a rover with a woman in every port who eventually finds his way home,” but it’s also a true-to-life character sketch of a confused, ignorant young man during that period in history.
We leave the lyrical flaws behind as we experience one of the great finishes of all time, heralded by a smooth acceleration in tempo and the reappearance the stutter-drive pattern. This is where the narrator gives us the moral of the story, where Rod Stewart completely takes over and delivers a performance that sends chills up and down my spine:
And if they had the words I could tell to you
To help you on your way down the road
I couldn’t quote you no Dickens, Shelley or Keats
‘Cause it’s all been said before
Make the best out of the bad, just laugh it off—hah!
You didn’t have to come here anyway
That “hah!” is a knockout moment, but the oft-neglected following line fills me with sheer delight. Hey! You made your choices. Stop whining! You didn’t have to come here anyway, asshole! The energy poured into the driving fade is off-the-charts, a superb ending to brilliant rhythmic composition. But what holds it all together is Rod Stewart’s vocal, and if you ever want to demonstrate to someone what it sounds like when a vocalist has complete command of the material, slip “Every Picture Tells a Story” on the turntable and let Rod Stewart take it from there.
“Seems Like a Long Time” had been buried on the Brewer & Shipley album that gave us the novelty song, “One Toke Over the Line.” Their version qualifies as “moderately pleasant,” but this Ted Anderson song deserved a more soulful treatment, and Rod Stewart delivers. Though the song has no religious leanings, Rod turns it into more of a gospel experience with the assistance of “Madeline Bell and Friends,” who offer up supporting “vocal abrasives.” The lyrics are a bit skimpy, focused primarily on the quirk in human perception that causes us to feel that bad times drag on forever while good times seem to come and go in a flash. The first two verses are generic (long nights, hard times); the final verse deals specifically with war, and though the word “Vietnam” is missing from the text, the timing and context make that connection rather obvious. Rod Stewart demonstrates his capacity to handle the slow stuff as well as the rough stuff, and both Ron Wood (guitar) and Pete Sears (piano) are excellent in their supporting roles. The extended vocal play in the middle of the piece does seem to go on a bit too long, but it does serve to isolate the anti-war verse, giving it more prominence in the composition.
Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” comes next, and Rod gives this classic a spirited treatment characterized by a killer acoustic slide intro from Ron Wood and a honky-tonk feel enhanced by Pete Sears on the 88’s. Rod does a more-than-credible job on the vocal—and his enthusiasm for the song is obvious—but I still prefer the more varied tones and dynamics of Elvis Presley’s version. The acoustic slide serves as a superb baseline for a truncated version of “Amazing Grace,” where Rod handles his brief vocal role with moving sincerity. He again applies his empathetic ability to Dylan’s somewhat obscure “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” a piece with a strong country feel enhanced by electric slide, acoustic guitar and fiddle. It’s a nice performance but really, they should have placed this song deeper in the track order to avoid having two “long time” songs in close proximity. When I set up the album on my iPod in preparation for another long transatlantic flight, I changed the song’s placement by flip-flopping it with “Mandolin Wind” and found myself delighted with the result.
Following a perfectly lovely thirty-two second bit of baroque guitar from Martin Quittenton entitled “Henry,” we encounter a brief moment of silence before we hear the 12-string-dominated intro to “Maggie May.” If there was ever a universal song in terms of crossover appeal, this is it—and it feels like I’ve heard this song everywhere, in all kinds of unexpected places, throughout my life. I’ve heard it while waiting for the novocaine to kick in at a dental appointment; while waiting for a table in a restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky; playing out of a boom box in Abidjan; and in the rotation on hard rock, classic rock, pop and pseudo easy listening stations back in the days when I lived in the States and rented cars equipped with Sirius on pleasure trips. I think there are many reasons why “Maggie May” made the leap from B-side status (Rod’s cover of “Reason to Believe” was the A-side) to become one of the most enduring songs of all time:
- It’s a great story filled with vivid images (“The morning sun when it’s in your face really shows your age,” “All you did was wreck my bed and in the morning kick me in the head.”).
- Like many a great film, it’s steeped in the ambivalence of the lead character, creating dramatic tension.
- It’s a true story, based on Rod’s first time in the sheets, and the feelings expressed in the song have the sound of truth from experience.
- The narrator is an average bloke and he relates his story in everyday language without trying to aim for poetry. He relates, we can relate.
- Rod Stewart, unlike most rock singers, articulates clearly enough to enable the listener to hear every word of the story. If Mick Jagger had done “Maggie May,” we’d be wondering what the hell he was singing about.
- The song deals with an older woman having sex with a young stud, and according to both my father and my mother, this became quite the thing in the early 70’s when women started to appreciate the reproductive freedom made possible by The Pill. Apparently, the “rules” prior to liberation were than men were supposed to choose women their age or younger and that it was a taboo for women to go after younger men. “Maggie May” helped make the practice socially acceptable, much to the delight of millions of middle-aged women whose hubbies preferred to putter around on the golf course rather than use their putters to make the little woman happy.
- The stunning appearance of Ray Jackson’s mandolin after the story has been told is a remarkably effective emotional synthesis. Compared to an acoustic guitar, the mandolin is a fairly limited instrument because of the absence of bass overtones. On the other hand, too much compensating bass from a bass guitar can overwhelm the thinner tones of the instrument. Ron Wood supplies just the right amount of bottom by toning down his instrument and playing the minimum number of notes to give the mandolin more prominence. The effect is magical and evocative, a sweet sound tinged with melancholy that reflects the young man’s transitional emotional state.
I know people all over the world may have hit the point where the overexposure of “Maggie May” makes it difficult to appreciate the song anymore, but trust me—it’s still a remarkable piece of work.
I was quite surprised to read the overwhelming praise heaped upon “Mandolin Wind” by respected industry music critics. John Mendelsohn said it was “nearly as good” as “Maggie May,” while Stephen Erlewine described it as “unbearably poignant.” Well, at least he got the “unbearable” right, so we’ll give him half credit. In truth, it’s a rather pedestrian faux-western song that strains one’s credibility. What qualifications did London-born Rod Stewart possess to write about waiting out a cold and bitter winter on the Great American Plains? I’ll bet the closest he ever came to that experience was waiting out a non-functioning radiator in an English country inn. And of course, the little woman is a fucking hero for obediently spreading her legs to warm the cockles of her dumb ass hubby who got them both stuck in the middle of nowhere with buffalo dropping like flies a few feet from their doorstep. And what the hell is a “mandolin wind,” anyway? How does it blow? What sounds does it make? If you’re going to try to tell me that it’s the sound of a mandolin wafting over the wind, I’m going to return your assertion with a look of utter disdain and ask you how the fuck could they have heard a mandolin drift through their windows in the middle of a howling blizzard! “A beautiful, touching folk rock tale of love during a brutal winter on the American frontier” my ass. Compared to the you-are-there feelings evoked by “Every Picture Tells a Story” and “Maggie May,” “Mandolin Wind” sounds like something a little boy who spent too much time watching reruns of Bonanza would have come up with. All I can say about “Mandolin Wind” is “it must be a guy thing,” but I will admit that the tune itself is rather catchy.
Shifting gears but not mood, if I could go back in time equipped with unlimited power to establish reasonable boundaries to song selection, I would have permanently banned British rockers from ever covering songs by The Temptations. Rod’s cover of “(I Know) I’m Losing You” can be added to the wall of shame that includes The Stones’ cover of “My Girl,” and Rod’s “contribution” is made even worse by the era fetish with pointless drum solos. I’ll give him credit for a vocal that expresses deep admiration for the original, but I would have advised him to keep his admiration to himself and wait about twenty-five years for a karaoke club to open up down the street.
Our journey ends with Rod’s cover of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe,” another song that earned Rod’s deepest admiration. Like many of the folk artists of the day, Tim Hardin was more songwriter than singer, but his performance on the original is heartfelt, touching and backed by a perfectly lovely arrangement with piano and strings. Rod Stewart’s interpretation is also heartfelt, revealing his profound respect for the song and songwriter. He also successfully expresses the vulnerability of a man betrayed but held in place by overwhelming desire for the woman who betrayed him. The weakness in the Stewart version is in the arrangement, particularly in the melodramatic use of the organ. Lose that ridiculous instrument and it’s a dead heat; as it is, it falls short of improving on the original.
As I asserted earlier, there are no perfect albums. One of the great errors I’ve noticed in music criticism is the “halo effect,” a bias that occurs when a critic falls passionately in love with one or two songs and therefore everything else on the album must be the greatest music ever conceived. I think that’s why the reviews for Every Picture Tells a Story are so over-the-top, which is both unfortunate and dehumanizing. Human beings aren’t perfect, so how on earth can we expect perfect albums? It’s more accurate to say that the majority of the songs on Every Picture Tells a Story are winners, and two of those songs qualify as truly great rock ‘n’ roll compositions.
In my book, that qualifies as a noteworthy achievement.