Underrated Stewart songs to hear before you go

Underrated Stewart songs to hear before you go

Rod Stewart will perform some of his classics, including "Maggie May," on Thursday, July 16 at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater.  Wikimedia Commons

Rod Stewart will perform at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater on Thursday, July 16. The show’s official billing as “Rod Stewart: The Hits” gives reasonable assurance that one will leave the Amphitheater having heard “Maggie May,” “Young Turks” and “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright).” But since 1963, 70-year-old Rod the Mod has been a member of seven bands, released 29 solo studio albums, delivered 103 singles and sold over 100 million records worldwide. A new album, “Another Country,” is scheduled for release in October.

To put it mildly, Stewart simply won’t have time to get to a whole lot of lesser-known tracks Thursday night. The following songs, presented in chronological order of release, never quite nabbed the ubiquitous acclaim of “Forever Young” or “Have I Told You Lately,” but they are indispensable in fully appreciating Rod’s odyssey from a spiky-haired mod-rocker from suburban London to the slightly shorter, but still spiky-haired soul-crooner on stage Thursday night.

“Up Above My Head” – 1964

Stewart was originally slated to lend only backup vocal support to Long John Baldry and the Hoochie Coochie Men’s unhinged take on this 1940s gospel number. Baldry had asked Stewart to sit in with his group after being impressed with Stewart’s harmonica playing outside a London railway station. But Stewart’s frayed, chirping yelp on the single, his first recorded work, demands equal billing with Baldry’s own molasses growl. Stewart’s urgent echo of Baldry’s every line borders on crazed glossolalia as a torpedo of jubilant hand-claps and trebly guitar stabs race toward the heavens.

“Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl” – 1964

Before signing a solo recording contract in August of 1964, Stewart had been living on a houseboat and digging graves for a London cemetery. The blues standard he pegged for in his first solo single release drips with innuendo, but Stewart imbues the track with a subtle sense of ominous menace, the echo effect on his soon-to-be trademark rasp, giving the impression that he is singing from the other end of a dark, spooky hallway. John Paul Jones, later of Led Zeppelin fame, plays bass on the track.

“Spanish Boots” – 1969

Stewart served two years as the lead vocalist of the Jeff Beck Group. On “Spanish Boots,” a track he co-wrote with Beck and future Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, Stewart pits his abrasive howl in a ferocious struggle against Beck’s squealing guitar as Wood’s bass guitar and Tony Newman’s drums heave along beneath the fray. Later on in the same year, Stewart joined up again with Wood to revive disintegrating band, the Small Faces, as The Faces, with which he would tour and record throughout the following six years.

“In a Broken Dream” – 1970

Australian band Python Lee Jackson brought in Stewart to sing lead vocals on this sweeping manifesto of a single. The track’s solemn introduction informed the bass rhythm on I Monster’s 2003 trip hop hit “Daydream in Blue,” and Stewart’s delivery alternates between the tender hums of a reassuring matron and the pleading whisper of a shattered man. Python Lee Jackson released the track in 1970, but the song had actually been recorded in 1968 before Stewart had yet attained relative acclaim with the Jeff Beck Group and Faces, so the band reimbursed Stewart’s contribution with only a new set of seat covers for his car.

“Italian Girls” – 1972

This barnstorming rock ‘n’ roller from “Never a Dull Moment” shakes and stutters its way through an over-driven riff reminiscent of “Sticky Fingers”-era Rolling Stones. The year prior, album “Every Picture Tells a Story” catapulted Stewart into international fame on the strength of “Maggie May,” and Stewart would record two of his next three albums at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama.

“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” – 1978

I know, I know. This single from “Blondes Have More Fun” went to Number One in the U.S. and U.K. en route to selling over a million units, and still receives soft rock radio airplay today. Hardly a deep cut, but from the moment of its release, Stewart’s sultry interpretation of disco has been ridiculed as a plastic, arrogant sell-out. Here’s something you may not know: Stewart donated all royalty payment rights from the song to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Besides, it was the late 1970s — everybody was trying out the disco thing. The Rolling Stones did it with “Miss You” and Pink Floyd did it with “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” and neither band caught near as much flak for the move as Rod did.

“Gi’ Me Wings” – 1980

Billy the Kid meets Billy Idol on this track, Stewart’s riff on the then-burgeoning new wave scene.

“Sexual Religion” – 2013

Stewart had a cancerous growth surgically removed from his thyroid gland in 2000, and he had to re-learn how to sing as part of the recovery process. In the decade that followed, he released several albums full of highly orchestrated covers of jazz and pop standards. But on 2013’s “Time” he returned to writing and recording original songs. “Sexual Religion” pulses with wah-wah guitar, bright synthesizer whooshes and the vocal support of a full choir. The song’s subject matter? Exactly what you think it is.

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