And so we welcome to the stage a true rock icon, a man who sells albums and fills stadiums to this day. Sir Rod Stewart. (I’m assuming he’s a ‘Sir’. Sort it out, Queenie, if he isn’t.)
Maggie May / Reason to Believe, by Rod Stewart (his 1st of six #1s)
5 weeks, from 3rd October – 7th November 1971
This was his very first solo single release to make the charts. Straight to the top with a bullet, with what is his most famous song? I don’t think I’ve ever heard the ‘single’ version of ‘Maggie May’, which is a full two minutes shorter than the extended version I grew up with. It’s the same intro, albeit condensed, a confident acoustic riff, then two emphatic drumbeats announcing that the story is ready to begin. Wake up Maggie, I think I got something to say to you…
Young Rod has been seduced by an older woman, spent a summer with her, and is now starting to wake up to the harsh realities of their relationship. It’s late September and I really should be back at school… ‘Maggie May’ is famously based on Stewart’s encounter with a real woman, at a Jazz festival when he was sixteen. Getting away from the slightly predatory story – imagine if the genders were reversed – the lyrics capture perfectly the voice of a callous teen, coupled with some corny rhymes: I laughed at all your jokes, My love you didn’t need to coax… And then the classic: The morning sun when it’s in your face really shows your age… Harsh!
He loves her, but wishes he’d never seen her face. We’ve all been there. Young Rod sounds like a bit of a tearaway – his options post-Maggie are either becoming a roadie or making a living out of playing pool… I’m sure he’ll be fine, and get over the heartbreak. Anyway, the whole song is basically him rehearsing what he’s going to say to Maggie. He hasn’t broke it off just yet! It hinges on the opening and closing lines: I think I’ve got something to say to you… and I’ll get on back home, One of these days…
Unfortunately, the single version cuts the best verse, the one with the: You turned into a lover and mother what a lover you wore me out! line. Maybe that would have been too ripe for daytime radio. Then comes the solo, and the mandolin outro, one of the Celtic-sounding elements that often pop up in Rod Stewart’s music. It’s an undeniable classic, one that – cliched but true – still sounds fresh today. One that no amount of terrible pub karaoke versions can ruin. And while the woman may have been real, her name wasn’t ‘Maggie May’ – she was a famous Liverpudlian prostitute. I’m sure the actual ‘Maggie’ was delighted by the comparison…
It’s been a long old while since we had a double-‘A’ hit the top of the charts – not since Louis Armstrong in 1968. On the flip we have Rod’s cover of ‘Reason to Believe’, a song I’m certain I’ve never heard before. It opens with a lonesome piano, before the vocals come in. Both these songs are very much focused on Stewart’s voice. Which is fair enough, as he does have one of the best.
If I listen, Long enough, To you… I’d find a way, To believe, That it’s all true… In ‘Maggie May’, he was trying to convince himself to leave someone. In this song, he’s trying to talk himself into staying, despite knowing that his lover lied: straight faced, while I cried… He needs a reason to believe in her. The two songs work well together, both in terms of the sound and the lyrical theme.
A fiddle gives this record the country feel that the mandolin gave ‘Maggie May’. Then midway through, we’re left with just the voice. Someone like you, Makes it hard to live, Without, Somebody else… It’s a nice song, that slowly grows on the listener; but it’s no ‘Maggie May’. Technically, ‘Reason to Believe’ was the song first pushed to radio when the disc was released, but the song on the other side quickly won through. Maybe it was because The Carpenters had released a version of the song the year before – a classic Carpentersy-country version – while the folky original had been recorded in 1965, by Tim Hardin, that the label thought ‘Reason…’ might have caught people’s attention quicker.
For, while this was Rod Stewart’s first charting single, it wasn’t his first attempt at a solo career. He’d been releasing singles since 1964, and had spent the sixties busking, playing session gigs and jumping between bands. Then came The Jeff Beck Group, in which he met Ronnie Wood, and then The Faces (basically The Small Faces minus lead singer Steve Marriott), with whom he was having hits alongside his solo work in the early seventies. After this huge five-week #1 smash there will be no looking back for Rod – he’ll go on to become one of the decades’ biggest stars, on either side of the Atlantic, and we’ll be meeting him plenty more times in the months to come.