50 Years Later: Revisiting Rod Stewart’s Enduring ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’

Even without the fifty-year hindsight now available, Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story (released 5/28/71) was destined to be one of, if not the most, pivotal long-player of his career. His third solo album following the dissolution of the Jeff Beck Group in 1969 was also the first he recorded in the wake of his enlistment into the (Small) Faces after the departure of Steve Marriott to form Humble Pie (with Peter Frampton). And while the presence of  kindred spirit guitarist and songwriter Ronnie Wood remained almost as prominent as on The Rod Steward Album and Gasoline Alley, “Rod The Mod’ also made room for his new bandmates on his cover of the Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You.”

That accommodation proved to be an omen of things to come for Stewart and Faces. The former did his best, at least at first, to maintain dual loyalties: that of a solo career and participation in the group’s own recording and touring. Yet it was only a matter of time before the explosive success of this third solo album, ignited by the romantic travelogue of “Maggie May,” rendered that balance precarious at best and virtually non-existent at worst: A Nod Is As Good As A Wink to a Blind Horse came out later this same year, redolent of all the boozy camaraderie the quintet ever captured on record, but hardly one iota was left by the time Ooh La La was released some eighteen months later.

The selection of material that was so inspired on the prior albums turned formulaic on Every Picture Tells A Story. And the performances followed suit: Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” is dangerously close to saccharine, sounding almost as forced as another cover from another era, Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” (the first single for Elvis Presley): the best moments of Stewart’s first pair of records under his own name were unadulterated moments of sheer abandon and this comes off as mere dutiful homage at best. In contrast, the title song contains what was the flamboyant vocalist’s trademark insouciance, albeit tongue in cheek: it is no coincidence Rod collaborated with Wood on the songwriting.

Nor that it was hardly surprising Stewart’s tender interpretation of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” tugged at heartstrings in an honest way the Dylan take did not. On the former, ‘Rod The Mod’s engrossing vocal recalled those he did when was staking his first claim to fame in El Becko’s group (and turned his back to the audience from the stage). Perhaps most grievous of all the faults in this collection, however, is the dilution of Rod Stewart’s roots in the folk milieu; having stood him in such good and stylish stead for the preceding records, right alongside moments of pure rock and roll drama—as when he rearranged the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” to such ingenious effect—Rod Stewart sounded all too willing to court, then embrace, the acceptance of the mainstream.

He would make two more records under his own name before the fateful move to enact his Atlantic Crossing in 1975, recording with American session players instead of the jolly kindred spirits that populated Never A Dull Moment and Smiler, albeit to increasingly less infectious effect. In more narrow retrospect than a half-century affords Every Picture Tells A Story, Rod Stewart’s love affair with the ‘Great American Songbook’ now seems an altogether sad fait accompli.

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