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Cod Rod or rock god? imagine… Rod Stewart: Can’t Stop Me Now ~ July 9, BBC1 (Review)

July 11, 2013

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Lost in La-la-land? a mid-’70s Rod Stewart poses with then squeeze and movie star Britt Ekland (plus an obligatory football) on the diving board of his Los Angeles home’s swimming pool

The trouble with Rod Stewart, and has been for decades now, is that he comes with baggage. All right, all major pop/ rock artists come with baggage, but Rod’s is so large it’d fill the baggage hold of a Boeing 747 all on its own. For more than 30 years now, he has in too many critical circles and with too many music listeners been a byword for ill-judged on- and off-stage excess; seemingly a bloated parody of himself, whose dating of and marriages to a string of beautiful, leggy blondes and siring a brood of sprogs (a veritable transatlantic Stewart clan of his own) has overshadowed the talent he possesses. But, as Rod Stewart: Can’t Stop Me Now (the latest in the Alan Yentob-fronted imagine… strand of arts films for BBC1) highlights, and reminded me, that obfuscates the truth about old Rod.

Indeed, it’s very easy to dislike and dismiss Stewart. An almost Cliff Richard-like ‘Peter Pan of rock’ he’s played up to a laddish persona ever since he properly established it in the early ’70s as  the Faces frontman, alongside several-year partner-in-crime guitarist Ronnie Wood, having alienated too many casual fans when he jet-set off to Los Angeles in the mid-’70s after the Faces’ demise and set up house with one of the most glamorous girls on the planet Britt Ekland, losing his cheeky, charming wag tag overnight as he became rock’s enfant terrible releasing MOR-tastic mediocre pop tat.

It wasn’t always that way, of course. Sensibly, Can’t Stop Me Now starts at the beginning, detailing at first Rod’s rise from the youngest sibling of a shopkeeper in post-war North London to a member of jazz/ blues scene pioneer Long John Baldry’s band. Before this early breakthrough, though, the green Rod dabbled with football (a mainstay past-time for life, much like his highly unfashionable love of model railways and much more fashionable love of appealing fillies), then being a Beatnik – he attended CND marches, but that seems to be where any active interest in politics ended – before he made the move to Mod-dom and was discovered by Baldry while busking on a Tube train; the latter almost mistaking him for a tramp.

Although, thanks to impressively copious archive Beeb footage, presumably gleaned from a mid-’60s docu of which he was the subject, Rod ploughed all his modest earnings of this period in to a post office savings account, because he mum told him to. And, like a good boy, he always did what his mum told him to – Yentob happily returns time and again to the theme of family’s perpetual importance to Rod, despite his subject’s departure for LA pretty early on in the story, where he still lives for nine months of the year today.

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Yentob’s film’s unquestionably at its best when interesting itself in Stewart’s actual talent. It first does so when addressing his time with Baldry’s evolving jazz/ blues outfit, with whom he achieved small-time notoriety as a red-hot singer obsessed with late ’50s/ early ’60s black soul as he impressively belted out the blues for Baldry’s band (and cutting 1964’s non-charting Good Morning Little Schoolgirl). Here it focuses on the excitement first generated by Rod’s genuine gift – that voice. To listen to a young Rod is to be instantly reminded of contemporary late ’60s talent Joe Cocker; both their blues-applied vocals being full of power, passion and brilliance.

This is most obvious, of course, on the acclaimed Truth (1968), the debut LP of Stewart’s next band, the legendary Jeff Beck Group; Beck’s immediate post-Yardbirds project that saw Rod team up with mate Ronnie Wood for the first time. Truth is an awesome album, Beck’s and Wood’s guitar work at times innovative genius and Rod’s voice absolutely never better than on tracks such as You Shook Me, Morning Dew, Blues Deluxe and Shapes Of Things (listen to the latter in the clip above).

However, Stewart and Wood – the latter joining the former for a combo-interview with Yentob – reveal that the group, despite acknowledging they cut a swathe across the US on a Stateside tour (of which their opening gig was a daunting date at New York’s notorious Filmore East hippie stronghold) and pre-empted heavy metal by massively inspiring the soon-to-be-formed Led Zeppelin, was undermined by poor management. A foreshadow of the band’s demise surely being that they half-inched food from London greasy spoons as they were only occasionally paid.

Wood was the first to leave the band and Stewart soon followed his pal – to the entity that grew out of the embers of Mod leaders The Small Faces (following singer Steve Marriott’s tragic death from a house fire owing to smoking in bed), namely the Faces. By Rod’s own admission, this band was a bunch of yobs, suiting him down to the ground. But while their forever affectionate place in rock fans’ hearts is deserved for their off-stage antics mirroring those on-stage (audiences were invited both on to the stage during gigs and back to their hotel rooms afterwards), their legendary status is deserved for their taking the early ’70s rock scene by the scruff of the neck and, in an era of singer-songwriter and prog-rock navel-gazing, ensuring it rocked again in garish outfits and with marvellous tunes such as Cindy Incidentally (1973) and their anthem Stay With Me (1971) – the latter supposedly written by Wood (music) and Stewart (lyrics) backstage one night.

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Forever Faces: Ronnie Wood strums and Stewart plays along before a Chez Rod interview

Despite what may have been said and written over the years, here (from the horse’s mouth himself) we learn it was Wood once again who jumped first, replacing Mick Taylor at short notice in The Rolling Stones and leading every Face (including Rod himself, reluctantly apparently; he’d have remained in the Faces  ‘forever’) to conclude that Stewart’s trajectory was ultimately as a solo artist. After all, by ’75 he’d released three hugely successful albums, which had spawned all-time classics Maggie May (1971’s chart-topping sensation on both sides of the pond) and You Wear It Well and Handbags And Gladrags (both 1972).

From here, of course, it arguably went tits-up – at least quality-wise. Rod may now have been on his way to becoming the richest Celtic fan in the world, but his LA-based alienation from his Faces-fed adoring Brit fans and pairing off with Britt not only saw him take on the guise he’s stubbornly, nay self-satisfyingly, filled for 30-odd years, but also release some truly crap music. The two surely can’t be a coincidence. He may have learnt a great deal from the switched-on, experienced Ekland (as he thoughtfully admits in the film), but output such as the rightly derided Sailing (1975) and Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright) (1976) really shouldn’t be allowed to be excused by a cheeky grin or a cheap mug at the documentary’s camera.

While this period of his career could be said to be saved by the rare quality of the self-penned likes of The Killing Of Georgie (Part I and II) (1976) – revealed to be about the sad early death of a Faces-era friend – and I Don’t Wanna Talk About It (1976), it did lead for better or worse into Rod’s truly-don’t-give-a-sh*t late ’70s/ early ’80s period that spewed out the admittedly far from serious, but irritatingly half-arsed Hot Legs (1977) and Da Ya Think I’m Sexy (1978) (see video clip below).

The latter hit, as Yentob points out, proved to be the effort that broke the camel’s back, or to be more precise pushed the camp self-parody too far, its video’s over-featuring of Rod’s leather-trousered-posterior being unforgettably lampooned, as it was, by Kenny Everett on primetime TV. As Stewart fan ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris (oddly then) delightfully recalls, Stewart’s reputation would never be the same again.

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Much of the rest of the film focuses on Rod’s post-millennial career – a resurgence sales-wise certainly, with his ‘American Songbook’ series of albums pulling in the moolah big-time, of course, even if they’ve received a (rightly) lukewarm response from the critics, while his latest album Time, his first self-penned record in decades and from one of whose songs the film takes its title, is his first chart-topper since the ’70s. Rod’s a very happy bunny nowadays, it seems; selling music, having kids again with current leggy blonde wife, the smart, beautiful photographer Penny Lancaster, and holding soccer matches for extended family and friends whenever he returns to his Essex pile with its full-sized football pitch.

One must surely ask then, why does Yentob not probe a little more into Rod’s darker or less revered moments? It’s interesting to learn his separation and eventual divorce from New Zealand model Rachel Hunter in the early ’00s after several years of marriage sent him into a genuine depression; out of discretion the host doesn’t go further on the subject. Fair enough. But then, this time out of courtesy to his interviewee, he doesn’t ask more about the mutually agreed ‘lost period’ of Stewart’s career – the ’80s.

Adrift with banal pop tunes and videos of models in bikinis around swimming pools, this was clearly his creative nadir (even though it did produce 1981’s marvellous Young Turks), but why? What was the deal? Was he simply focusing too much on marrying, dating and cheating on women? Or was anything else going on? We don’t find out. Instead, we learn everything recovered nicely by ’89 in the shape of the covering of Tom Waites’ Downtown Train – the hits and, thus, Rod was back for good.

Criticisms aside, though, this film works because it gives us two significant reasons why Rod Stewart still matters; why anyone should still give two hoots about him. First, he once had an amazing voice amazingly applied with Long John Baldry, The Jeff Beck Group and the Faces, playing a pivotal role then in rock music’s development at a critical time, and second, like it or not, after 50-ish years he’s still here, properly doing his thing. Da ya still think he’s sexy? Probably not , but like The Stones, he’s still hanging around and is thus hard to ignore – and surely shouldn’t be.

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For a short time, you can watch imagine… Rod Stewart: Can’t Stop Me Now on the BBC iPlayer here (UK and Northern Ireland only)

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