Disappointing Albums, Music

51 disappointing albums: ‘Smiler’

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Each week TONY THOMPSON discusses a ‘disappointing album’: why it’s disappointing, what that means in the context of the band or musician’s career, and what that says about changing critical tastes.

One thing must be made clear,” he says, this is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but they are records that you need to hear.

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Rod Stewart was not cool when I was a teenager. I had been subjected to endless plays of the risible Tonight’s the Night when I first started listening to AM radio. I was just a child! Do You Think I’m Sexy wasn’t exactly Trout Mask Replica either and the snaps of him on the front of the magazines at supermarkets didn’t endear him to anyone under 40. He sucked. I would not have had a Rod Stewart album in the collection in 1981. I had to answer a lot of questions once when a punk kid from school came to my house and found Born to Run on the turntable. Imagine if he’d found Blondes Have More Fun. I would have had to change schools.

But like, I suspect, many others my age, I then discovered The Faces and in turn ended up picking up Gasoline Alley. Along with Never A Dull Moment one afternoon in a used record shop, I bought Rod Stewart’s Smiler. I had never heard of it and didn’t recognise the cover. It became a real favourite.

And yet, it would seem that Smiler is a VERY disappointing album. It was badly reviewed at the time and is considered the beginning of the end by fans of his early stuff. I don’t think Smiler is in the least disappointing but I’m including it here to address the apparent critical gap between me and everyone else.

Kids, don’t open your album with a barking dog. You’re just handing the critics a great line. But once Rover shuts up, Rod kicks into a seriously sleazy version of Chuck’s Sweet Little Rock’n’ Roller. It must be The Faces behind him, dragging the beat and sounding gloriously ragged and whiskey soaked. A bit later Elton John joins in on a John/Taupin original called Let Me Be Your Car. It’s a great duet on a Philadelphia Freedom tempo rocker. Elton John wasn’t very cool when I was a teenager either. Listening to the two of them belt this one out makes me wonder why these guys’ credibility went out with the 70s trash while The Rolling Stones and their limpid Emotional Rescues were able to hang in. Such is Rock and Roll, as Ned Kelly always said.

And speaking of Australian outlaws, did you catch the AC/DC cover on this album? It’s not really an AC/DC song but it probably could have been. Hard Road was the title song of Stevie Wright’s first solo effort, which appeared that same year. Wright’s version features its authors Vanda and Young, as well as little brother Malcolm. Rod gets points for picking up on a great rock and roll song and delivering it convincingly. Even before his 265th American Songbook album, he had proved himself to be a canny interpreter of songs. Hard Road is a Rod cover that should be better known.

As far as originals, we find him in great form with Ronnie Wood on Sailor. Woody’s solo albums are way better than those of his more famous band mates in The Stones and this song makes me wish that the two of them had worked together in tandem more often. Their other song on this album is the life affirming Dixie Toot, a tribute to music, parties, and the sort of good times that are so good that you lose your pants somewhere.

Why is it disappointing?

The critics all gave this record a long listen and thought carefully. They all agreed that it did not include Maggie May. It’s a loose record. He covers Bob Dylan, Carole King, and Sam Cooke. He throws in a few songs he wrote with his session guys and Ron Wood. It sounds a bit like it was recorded one boozy Saturday afternoon. But essentially, the problem seemed to be that the song Maggie May does not appear on this record.

Why should you hear it?

It doesn’t suck. Rod Stewart was cool and he was never more so in his solo career than he is on Smiler. The album that followed, Atlantic Crossing, really is the beginning of the end, or the beginning of his move into another sort of space in popular music. On this record, he sounds like he’s having fun singing the songs that he loves and enjoying the company of the musicians he calls friends. One of those friends is Paul McCartney who turns up with a bottle of Jamaican rum and a song called Mine for Me. It’s a lovely little soul pop tune punctuated with steel drums and some Caribbean chord changes. A fitting end to an album that is not so much disappointing as wildly underrated.

For the rest of this series, click here.

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