Graded on a Curve:
Rod Stewart,
The Best of Rod Stewart

Rod Stewart’s sad slide from brilliance to banality is enough to make a fella weep. From “Maggie May” and “You Wear It Well” to “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “Hot Legs” isn’t just sad, it’s a Greek tragedy. Defenders will say he was merely making concessions to update his sound in a bid to conquer the American pop charts. But “Hot Legs” was no concession–it was a crass sellout as shameless as Elvis Presley’s Stay Away, Joe.

Stewart’s downfall coincides with his departure from Mercury Records to Warner Bros. Records. But he didn’t just change record labels–he walked away from his muse as well. During the five-year run starting with 1969’s An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down and ending with 1974’s Smiler, Stewart produced a body of work that stands with the very best of the era’s singer/songwriters. And the 1975 compilation of Stewart’s tenure with Mercury Records, The Best of Rod Stewart, is the label’s attempt to provide an overview of those years.

Serious Stewart fans will have no use for The Best of Rod Stewart–they own and cherish Rod the Mod’s five Mercury Records’ LPs, and they’re as likely to play this one as they are his American Songbook stuff. And the comp has serious shortcomings, most having to do with song selection. But it’s a great way to raise the awareness of casual listeners inclined to judge Stewart by the likes of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” (quick answer: no) and the skin-crawling anthem of lecherous old cradle-robbers that is “Tonight’s the Night.”

The compilation’s biggest weakness (and it’s a significant one) stems from Mercury Records’ understandable but questionable decision to give, with one exception, each of Stewart’s five studio LPs equal representation. You get three songs apiece from 1969’s An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, 1970’s Gasoline Alley, 1971’s Every Picture Tells a Story, and 1974’s Smiler, but only two songs from 1972’s Never a Dull Moment (don’t ask me why). This decision makes The Best of Rod Stewart less a best-of than a promotional ploy to send listeners back to Stewart’s previous LPs, and serious fans are sure to go apoplectic over Mercury’s choices.

What sane human being would exclude Every Picture Tells a Story’s “Mandolin Wind” in favor of “Street Fighting Man” from An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down? Or the goofy but lovable Elton John cover “Let Me Be Your Car” in favor of the excellent Elton cover “Country Comfort”? And where in God’s name is “Lost Paraguayos” from Never a Dull Moment? Mercury’s failure to add this one to the two selections from the album is nothing less than perverse. And I could go on for days, as could anyone who love Stewart’s best work.

But even more questionable (and unforgivable in my opinion) was Mercury’s inclusion of the trifling B-Sides “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)” and “Jodie” (which was actually recorded by the Faces). Equally inexplicable are the inclusion of the okay-at-best non-album single “Oh! No Not My Baby” and the beyond-a-doubt worst ever version of “Pinball Wizard” from the 1973 sub-par compilation Sing it Again Rod. Stewart did his best work for Mercury, significantly increasing their profit margin, and their idea of showing their gratitude was by tossing chaff like “Pinball Wizard” on his greatest hits compilation. Shame on them.

All of that said, The Best of Rod Stewart has its strengths. Eight of its first nine cuts are unassailably brilliant, for starters. Stewart produced two of the best coming of age songs ever recorded in “Maggie May” (older woman wears out younger guy in bed) and “Every Picture Tells a Story” (young rogue sets out to see the world and after various misadventures falls in love).

The remaining seven tracks include the beautifully sad “Handbags and Gladrags and the wistful “An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down,” the hard rocking “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and the charming “Cut Across Shorty,” in which the little guy beats the big guy by cheating with the help of the of gal obliged to marry the winner. Other timeless songs include the tender-hearted “You Wear It Well,” the flee the altar rocker “Sailor,” and an excellent interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel.”

It’s easier to slag The Best of Rod Stewart than praise it, but as I said before–it offers an anemic but still serviceable cross section of the music produced by Rod before he started wiggling his butt. It breaks my heart to think there are people out there who associate Stewart primarily with “Tonight’s the Night,” “Hot Legs,” and “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.” He coulda been the greatest but he took a dive in the sixth round, leaving us all to pay the bookie for what should have been a sure-fire bet.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C

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