Fifty years on: Rod Stewart and Gasoline Alley
by Trevor Moore
This is the first of a monthly sequence of pieces that will link with Macman’s 2EARFM show.
You can hear him every week at 1600 on 107.5 MHz or 102.9 MHz. His shows always feature an eclectic mix of music from the time, as Elton John sang in Crocodile Rock “when rock was young … [when] … me and Suzie had so much fun, holding hands and skimming stones”. We were all there at one time or another.
We realised, Macman and I, probably assisted by a beverage or two, that it is 50 years since 1970. Now while that means we are incredibly old, it also means, as the T-shirt says, that we were around to hear all the good bands play. This Wednesday 17 June 2020 you can hear Macman play some tracks from an album that was critically acclaimed on its release in June 1970. When Langdon Winner reviewed this album for Rolling Stone in September 1970, he said of the singer that he “helps us to remember many of the small but extremely important experiences of life which our civilisation inclines us to forget. Compassion. Care for small things. The textures of sorrow. Remembrance of times past. Reverence for age.” I leave it to you to decide whether these comments are over the top as you listen to Macman’s show.
He was writing about Rod Stewart (more properly Sir Roderick David Stewart, CBE) and next Wednesday Macman will be playing tracks from Gasoline Alley. The magazine A History of Rock commented in 1983 that Stewart’s albums are “carefully constructed, his unique hoarse tones approaching soul, modern folk, R&B and his own simple but charming songs with power and passion.” When you listen to Gasoline Alley 50 years on, you can hear this. Stewart himself maintained for years afterwards that Gasoline Alley was the best thing he had ever done. The album showcases his strengths and maturity in his interpretation of songs like Dylan's Only A Hobo and Elton John's Country Comfort (both of which he covered before their composers) as well as on his own compositions. The title track is co-written with Ronnie Wood, later of course of The Rolling Stones. He covers the Womack-written It’s all over now, which was the Stones’ first number 1 in 1964, and by slowing down the tempo and softening it a little, he makes it a different song to the Stones’ version.
When he released Gasoline Alley, he was still playing with The Faces so perhaps it’s not surprising to find the Ronnie Lane-Steve Marriott song My Way of Giving that was a minor hit for Chris Farlowe in 1967. An interesting choice for the album is Cut Across Shorty which had been the B-side of Eddie Cochrane’s number 1 UK hit Three Steps to Heaven (incidentally the last song he ever recorded).
The Rod Stewart album that really made it for him was, of course, 1975’s Atlantic Crossing which closed with Gavin Sutherland’s anthemic Sailing and included the late great Danny Whitten’s, he of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, I Don’t Want to Talk About It. What strikes me about Rod Stewart is that, however egotistical his colleagues in The Faces found him, he did not shy away from covering other people’s songs. Maggie May (1971), co-written with Martin Quittenton, proves he is a good, perhaps even great songwriter, though there were those who at the time did not share’s Rod’s ear for a melody. Stewart told Q Magazine that “Maggie May was more or less a true story about the first woman I had sex with … it nearly got left off because the label said it didn't have a melody. I said, ‘well we've run out of time now, these are all the tracks we've recorded’. They said, ‘Alright, then, bring it on’. The record company didn't think it would be a hit, so they released it as the B-side of Reason to Believe. It was number 1 in the UK, the US, Australia and Canada going gold in the US and Canada.
But Stewart is not just a singer. If you listened to Macman’s show the other week (13 May 2020) you would have heard him play Millie’s My Boy Lollipop in memory of her death on 5 May 2020. Rod Stewart allegedly played the harmonica solo on this song though he has denied it. But he was an excellent harp player.
Rod, flanked by Dusty Springfield and Olivia Newton-John, probably late 1970s
He had a long apprenticeship. He was born on 10 January 1945 in North London to a non-musical family. His father wanted him to be a soccer player and, indeed, as a teenager he spent a month as an apprentice with Brentford FC. Although his family weren't interested in music, they had a collection of Al Jolson records. Rod has said that Jolson was his greatest influence, not so much for his voice but for his ability to sell a song. But Stewart also became interested in folk, the country blues of Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Big Bill Broonzy and R&B. It was the development of the R&B scene in London in the mid-1960s that gave Stewart the break he needed. Rumour has it that Stewart was singing drunkenly on the platform at Twickenham railway station when Long John Baldry, impressed with the sound, approached him and asked him to be the co-singer of a new group he was forming.
This band was The Hoochie Coochie Men (not to be confused with the Australian blues group of the same name) and they signed to Atlantic in 1964 releasing a single Up Above My Head I Hear Music. Soon after Stewart released a solo effort Good morning little schoolgirl which featured the future Led Zeppelin bassist, John Paul Jones. But the Yardbirds had released the same song and they had the hit. It was The Yardbirds manger, Giogio Gomelsky, put together Stewart’s next band, Steampacket with Long John Baldry, Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll.
Steampacket with Long John Baldry (so-called because he was over 2m tall), Julie Driscoll, Rod and Brian Auger, probably about 1965 But Stewart didn’t gell with them and left to form Shotgun Express. They released at least one single, I Could Feel the Whole World Turn Round which you can find on YouTube, but I would not recommend it; it would be 3 minutes of your life you wouldn’t get back again. This was in spite of Shotgun Express attracting as members Mick Fleetwood and Peter Green.
Clearly Rod realised that he needed be somewhere else and he left the band to join the Jeff Beck Group in 1967 singing on their first album Truth (1968). The Jeff Beck Group split up at the same time as Steve Marriott left The Small Faces to form Humble Pie. The remaining members of The Small Faces joined forces with Stewart and the Jeff Beck Group’s bassist, Ronnie Wood. Ronnie Wood switched to guitar and together with Stewart’s showmanship gave the band the panache and gusto that never translated to the record. Live, they were spectacular. Having said that their final album, 1973’s Ooh La La is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated albums of the 1970s. Stewart was running his solo career in parallel with The Faces. The Faces first album First Step and Stewart’s debut solo album An Old Raincoat Won't Ever Let You Down were released almost simultaneously in the spring of 1970. I think An Old Raincoat Won't Ever Let You Down was a warmup for Gasoline Alley, though Macman’s opinion of the album is more positive than mine. It opens with a somewhat weak cover of Street Fighting Man. The title track opens with a nice bass riff by Ronnie Wood but there isn’t much here. He put that right with Gasoline Alley and he’s never really looked back.
And some final pieces of trivia…
I have been unable to discover why Stewart picked Gasoline Alley as the title for his second album. Gasoline Alley is the name of the longest running comic strip in the US bit in the title track Stewart sings “I'm running home, down to Gasoline Alley where I was born.” There is a place called Gasoline Alley; it is a hamlet in Red Deer County, Alberta, Canada. Finally the Gasoline Alley Museum is a museum of old cars in Calgary, Alberta.
You can hear Stewart singing Can I Get a Witness with Steampacket on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64x62FEwEE8. Of course, the association between Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger came to its finest fruition in their cover of Dylan’s The Wheel’s on Fire which reached number 5 in the UK but only 106 in the US. It does not seem to have charted, at least significantly, in Australia.
Stewart sang guest vocals for the Australian group Python Lee Jackson on In a Broken Dream, recorded in April 1969 but not released until 1970. His payment was a set of seat covers for his car. It was re-released in 1972 peaking at No. 3 on the UK Singles Chart and No. 56 on the United States Billboard Hot 100. The re-release coincided with Stewart's release of You Wear It Well, his second solo single which reached number 1 in the UK.
When you listen to Macman’s show you will find that he has a love of rock ‘n’ trivia (well, we both do). He will be interested to know that Python Lee Jackson were discovered by the legendary late DJ, John Peel.
Finally, there is the question of the album cover. The album seems to have been released with two sets of artwork. Neither Macman nor I can discover whether the other artwork (pictured here) was released somewhere outside the UK.
And absolutely finally … Macman’s US-dwelling brother is a mine of useful information. He sent us a message that says “While I worked for Transatlantic [records], we hired a secretary called Maggie (not 100% sure of the surname) and apparently she was the Maggie May of the song. She certainly fitted Rod’s description of her …”. Well there you go. Don’t say you know of all the right people/