Forty years ago this week Every Picture Tells a Story arrived on American shores. It was Rod Stewart’s third solo album, but nobody was really counting at the time. That’s because Rod Stewart was everywhere in 1971, and his albums with his superb band Faces were rivaling those of The Rolling Stones as the best that rock ‘n roll could offer.
For anyone who knows Rod Stewart only from his cheesy pop ballads (“Tonight’s the Night,” “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”) and his incessantly bland covers of the songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and George Gershwin, it may come as something of a shock to know that at one point he was the greatest rock ‘n roll singer in the world. But he was. He proved it on this album, where he took a bunch of old and decidedly placid folk, country, and R&B songs, and simply rocked the shit out of them. The fact that he did this with fiddles, pedal steel, acoustic guitars, and mandolins as lead instruments (and, okay, the world’s most primitive drummer in Micky Waller) is all the more remarkable.
There are a few exemplary Stewart originals here – “Mandolin Wind,” the title track, and, of course, “Maggie May.” But it’s the covers that still astound me. Whether obscure (Ted Anderson, anyone?) or blazingly obvious (Bob Dylan, Elvis, The Temptations), Rod’s covers on this album remain the definitive versions of these songs. There are eight songs here, spread out over about forty-five minutes. Okay, so Rod had yet to figure out how to write a catchy three-minute single (and I, for one, am never going to forgive him “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” in spite of its admirable brevity). So he left a lot of room for the band to jam. Good thing, too, or we would have never heard Ronnie Wood’s finest six minutes as a guitarist on the title track, or Lindisfarne’s Ray Jackson play those poignant mandolin codas on “Maggie May” or “Mandolin Wind.” What we have here is as close to a perfect album as the seventies produced. If you’ve never heard it, do yourself a favor and discover one of the classics.