Grace of Rod
The indefatigable Rod Stewart sits down with Iain Shedden
Given Rod Stewart is now in his 71st year, it’s surprising that we haven’t had a football anthem from the singer’s pen before now. Better late than never, there it sits loud and proud, five songs into his new album, Another Country.
The track, We Can Win, comes with stirring fiddles, rousing, rumbling drums and a chorus, written by Stewart, designed to engage soccer stadium crowds from Manchester to Melbourne. “We can win, there’s no doubt about it,” comes the familiar rasp of a voice. “We can win, with faith in our hearts.” And then the clincher halfway through; 50,000 supporters of Stewart’s beloved Glasgow Celtic, united in the stands, chanting “C’mon you boys in green”. “The one track I’m really proud of is We Can
Win, because I’ve always wanted to write a track about football,” says Stewart.
Sadly for him, Stewart has had to retire from his lifelong passion of playing the game after his knees gave out. “If I played football on a Sunday morning then flew up to Vegas for a show I was limping on to the stage,” he says. “Words fail me how much I miss it. It’s not the same if you just go and watch. The beer doesn’t taste the same.”
His football retirement hasn’t been enough to stop him trying to build a pitch at Durrington House, his recently acquired 18th-century mansion in Essex, although he’s having trouble with the local heritage organisation. “They won’t let me lay an astroturf pitch,” he says forlornly.
Looking dapper, relaxed and fitter than a 70year-old with his rock history ought to look, Stewart is holding court and letting loose on a range of topics close to his heart in a suite in London’s Langham Hotel. Promoting his new record ends a busy year for the veteran English performer that has included stints in Las Vegas, an Australian tour and a show in London’s Hyde Park to a crowd of 60,000. If ever there were a poster boy for keeping the rock ’n’ roll flame burning brightly, it’s Rod the Mod.
Another Country, Stewart’s 29th studio album in a career spanning six decades, is a brother, in his words, to his previous effort, 2013’s Time, an album that marked his return as a rock and pop songwriter as well as performer following his lengthy and extremely lucrative diversion into the Great American Songbook during the noughties.
The new album, released this weekend, has love as its driving force, whether the songs are about his family and favourite football team ( We Can Win), his four-year-old son ( Batman
Superman Spiderman), Britain during World War II ( Way Back Home) or his wayward days as frontman for one of the loosest and fastest living bands in rock history, the Faces ( The
Drinking Song). The genesis of many of these songs lies in Stewart’s 2012 autobiography, Rod, or at least in the act of writing it, which entailed looking inward on a life and career that has made him one of the richest and most enduringly popular singers in history.
“I didn’t go in thinking, ‘ Ooh, better write down me life’,” Stewart says of the new material. “It’s just the way the songs come down. When you go into the process of making an album, to be perfectly honest you don’t know what the f..k you’re going to write about. For me it was a lost art because it had been 15 years since I’d written an album prior to Time. That all came around because I wrote the book. I realised then that I had so much to tell.”
As befits one of the world’s rare Cockney Scotsmen (he was born in London to a Scottish father and English mother), there is a Celtic (with a hard C) flavour simmering underneath and sometimes front and centre on some of the 15 songs that adorn the deluxe edition of An
other Country. “Acoustic guitars, mandolins and violins have featured on most of my albums going back way back when,” says Stewart, “but yes, the structure of the songs, the four on the floor — it’s just the way it came out.”
Stewart is grateful that after his proud march down the middle of the road with I’m in the Mood for Love, Someone to Watch Over Me,
What a Wonderful World and a total of four Songbook albums he has been able to reclaim if not his youth, then at least some of his credibility as a rock troubadour. That recent outing at Hyde Park was an opportunity to test those rock credentials by delving into a back catalogue that wasn’t Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, Hot Legs and Sailing, but tapped into lesser-known material, such as current single Love Is, Angel from his 1972 album Never a Dull Moment, and the Faces’ Ooh La La.
“I took a risk with that show, playing songs that weren’t that well known,” he says. “That’s opened up a whole new field for me with the set list. So for the moment the first half of the show will be those and the second half will be the hits like Maggie May.”
Also sneaking its way on to the set list as well as his new album, 46 years after he recorded it, is In a Broken Dream, the song released by the London band Python Lee Jackson with Stewart’s vocal in 1969, which has lately enjoyed a renaissance as a sample on rapper A$AP Rocky’s hit Everyday. “The story of that song is monumental,” says Stewart. “This mate of mine used to run a sports car company called Hexagon up in Highgate [in north London]. He said, ‘I know this band Python Lee Jackson. They’ve got a great song, but the singer can’t sing it, why don’t you come down and do a demo?’ I did the demo, two takes, forgot all about it. After Mag
gie May became a hit in 1971, sure enough the record company put out In a Broken Dream — and it did very well in the charts as well.”
He’s a fan of the new version, too. “I was suddenly put in the spotlight with a new audience, which is tremendous,” he says.
Last month at Ewhurst in Surrey, Stewart
IF YOU’D [TOLD ME AT] 17 THAT I’D BE DOING THIS WHEN I’M 70 ... RIDICULOUS ROD STEWART
and a few old mates took a step back in time, for a good cause and for fun, although not as rowdy or debauched an exercise as when the Faces were in their heyday in the early 1970s. The concert, in aid of Prostate Cancer UK, was organised by Faces drummer Kenney Jones, who was joined by Stewart and guitarist Ronnie Wood for a reunion of the surviving members. Keyboardist Ian McLagan died last year; bassist Ronnie Lane died in 1997.
Other than a performance at an awards ceremony in the 1990s, it was the first time the Faces had performed with Stewart in almost 40 years, although the others, including McLagan, did rope in Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall for a string of gigs in 2009 and 2010. The seven-song Surrey set, in front of a crowd of 5000, included band favourites Stay With Me, You Can Make
Me Dance and Sweet Little Rock ’n’ Roller. Stewart says he had reservations about doing it, not least about being able to replicate as a unit the so-shambolic-it-works rock aesthetic that was their trademark back in the day.
“I was full of self-doubt when we went into it,” he says, “because, you know, the Faces had a way of playing that was so loose, so unstructured … plus we were drunk when we did it. So I thought, ‘ Now we’re going to have to do it sober.’ But it went off really well and the most gratifying thing about it — apart from me and my brother together, me and Ronnie — was seeing the amount of freedom he had, without Keith [Richards, Wood’s Rolling Stones bandmate) there or anything. He was running around with a fag in his mouth, jumping up and down and I thought, ‘Yeah, go for it, mate.’
“Ronnie and I have this unique relationship. As my wife says, when we’re together we’re like a couple of schoolkids. Nobody else has to be in the room, and it could be 1972 again — a collision of noses and hairstyles.”
Another Country’s bluesy track The Drinking Song is a nod to that 70s era when, as he sings: “I’ve woken up with women that I hardly knew / wine is the cause of silly tattoos / I’ve raised hell where hell didn’t need raising.”
The pay-off, however, is that Stewart has no regrets about any of those things from his past, as the song’s chorus attests: “I’m glad I did what I did when I did it, make no mistake about that.”
“I made a few mistakes but I have no regrets about them,” he says. “Every line in the song is true. The only one that isn’t is that I didn’t get drunk when I had my tattoos done … but I know a lot of people who did.”
In sharp contrast to that trip down memory lane is the atmospheric ballad Batman Super
man Spiderman. It’s a sentimental ode to the youngest of his eight children, four-year-old Aiden, one of the two boys he has with his third wife, Penny Lancaster-Stewart. It’s a song that also has a history in his autobiography, a touch- stone to the relationship he had with his Scottish father.
“Oh yeah, my dad would tell me stories,” he says. “He told me football stories. I can’t remember if he told me about Bonnie Prince Charlie. He was in the merchant navy for a while and so he told me a lot about ships and about football.”
While recording and being on the road is still important to him at 70, Stewart is about to take the longest holiday he has had since he started performing as a teenager in London way back in the 1960s.
“I don’t have to sing another note until I go to Vegas in March,” he says. “It’s the longest period of time off I’ve ever had, so I’m looking forward to doing a lot of things I’ve wanted to do, like going to see Celtic more.”
The singer and his family split their time between homes in Los Angeles and London, but LA has priority. That’s where he’s looking forward to spending most family time over the next five months. “I structure my work life around them now,” he says. “Their school holidays are probably when I’ll work. Next summer I’ll do a tour of Europe and Britain, and they can be with me.
“In the old days it used to be the other way around, because you’re trying to build your career. ‘Where’s Dad? He’s touring again? He’s missed my birthday.’ That’s the way it had to be in those days.”
The break will also allow him time to rest his voice. He attributes his long-term success to that “very unique voice”. It’s hard to imagine the Stewart of old advocating water as the best medicine, but he swears by it now as a preserver of those famous vocal cords.
“I’ve discovered this recently and I would pass it on to any singer,” he says. “I’ve been suffering from reflux. If you eat too late it burns your voice. You may not know that if you don’t sing. Water is so important for would-be rock singers.”
Stewart isn’t looking too far ahead. There are those stadium shows across the world on the horizon next year — although nothing yet in Australia — but he’s not sure what his next album will be. All he knows is that he’s not quite ready to return to the Great American Songbook. “That’s in the ‘ one day I will do’ basket,” he says. “When I’m too old to rock.”
And so, with Another Country and random selections from that vast back catalogue, one of the world’s most enduring performers will just keep on keeping on. He wears it well.
“If you’d have been telling me when I was 16 and 17 that I’d be doing this when I’m 70 ... ridiculous,” he says. “As a kid I had no idea about being a musician. I had the inclination that I may play football, otherwise I was lost. I stumbled into it. My dad bought me a guitar. My brother took me to see Bill Haley and the Comets when I was about 11, so the seed was sown. In saying that, I had no idea it would turn out how it has turned out.”
Rod Stewart, above, and at a Celtic v Barcelona soccer match in Glasgow in 2012
Stewart as a young performer, above left, and, above right, with Ron Wood in the Faces in the 70s; below, Stewart on stage at the Rock in Rio music festival in Brazil last month, with a drum kit emblazoned with the Celtic Football Club logo