It gives me the utmost joy to learn that someone who once wrote the line “Spread your wings and let me come inside” has become a knight of the realm.
Rod Stewart has long been our Lord Rochester of Rock – half his charm lying in the sheer lusty filth of the man, the songs that refer to “ludes” and “hot legs” and “hard-ons” that “hurt like hell”.
Over the course of a 55-year career, he has embraced every rock’n’roll cliche imaginable and a few more – the penchant for blondes and the tight, tight trousers; the models, the wives, the ludicrous hair, the passion for football and leopard print and tartan. There were the rumours (denied) of ingesting semen, the verified tales of taking cocaine anally, and the teenage encounter with an older woman at Beaulieu jazz festival that inspired one of his biggest hits.
Were these antics the only cause to think of him, we might regard Stewart simply as a slightly more melodic Peter Stringfellow. But for every ludicrous sartorial decision, every high-profile liaison or smutty lyric, Stewart has given us double in musical delight.
From his early days as a harmonica player, busking around central London with folk singer Wizz Jones, through his Rod the Mod days, his turns with the Jeff Beck Group and the Faces and on to his immensely successful solo career, Stewart has proved a magical live performer, a remarkable songwriter and, perhaps more than anything, possessed of an exquisite vocal delivery.
Stewart’s songs have never been mere exercises in bawdiness. The crasser lines, of which there are many (the lyrics of Attractive Female Wanted alone provide a large wedge of them) have always been delivered with a lick of humour and a wink. But they have always been counterweighted, too, by a kind of guttural poetry, a sweet, lurching majesty – an eye for all the warm, feeble, silly human things we do: the young girl growing old, the quick, sharp knowledge of all “the things that keep a young man alive” in Every Picture Tells a Story.
But much of Stewart’s wonder has always lain in his voice: it is a threadbare thing, it has a hoarseness and a desperation that might be down to hard living or might be desire, longing and hope. It is far from perfect; it does not twirl, trill or undulate, but it carries a profound tenderness and a compassion – something kind, warm and close.
Stewart has said it was hearing Sam Cooke in the early 60s that most influenced his style of singing, and while the two artists differ considerably, they share a sense of barely contained emotion, a wildness that is kept just inside the lines of a song.
Yet it is in its most broken, line-crossing moments that I love Stewart’s voice the most – in the staggered delivery of Reason to Believe, or in the final half-whinnied cry of “Maggie!” in Maggie May. In these moments he is that lusty figure still – but it is a lust that cries out for more than sex, spandex and fleeting romance, it is a yearning for belief, belonging and something better.
It is this meeting of sex and wildness, fury and yearning, that is the true essence of rock’n’roll. So let us honour it, celebrate it, spread our wings and let it come inside. Congratulations, Sir Rod, you filthy, magical, sweet-voiced thing.
This article was written by Laura Barton, for theguardian.com on Friday 10th June 2016 22.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010