24
Jan 07

ROD STEWART – “Maggie May”

FT + Popular26 comments • 5,773 views

#305, 9th October 1971

“Maggie May” doesn’t have a chorus. That isn’t necessarily the first thing you notice about it – you’re more likely to pick up on a ringing phrase, or a particular blaze or choke in Rod’s voice, or on the thumped double-beats that kick-start each verse. But nonetheless, there it is – or isn’t – an absence of chorus. So there’s little space or inclination for Rod to collect his thoughts or swallow his feelings. The song rambles, part harangue, part misty-eyed memory, part licking wounds, pausing only to restart at once – yeah, and another thing!

The record reminds me a little of “Stan”, whose chorus is a detached formality, a pause to let time pass and the protagonist get crazier. Rod doesn’t get any crazier, but like Stan he’s still lunging wildly, jumping from cruelty (“The morning light really shows yer age”) to need (“In my eyes you’re everything”) to bitterness (“Maggie I wish I’d never seen your face”), loving and hating with no ability to process it all.

I’m concentrating on the lyric because it’s a radical lyric, so direct and conversational and muddled. And in another way it’s not so radical – Maggie is the song’s second great absence, her side of the conversation unspoken. We don’t get an image of her, just of her impact on the singer (and even then it’s hard to fathom exactly what she’s done that’s so awful, probably because Rod’s trying to rationalise his own sudden absence, the surge of dissatisfaction which pulls the song from its mandolin dreams and wakes Maggie to break her). It’s a record that demands an answer record.*

Even erasing Maggie’s agency, this is a bold and vulnerable record, a mix of incoherent blurt and laddish recoil. It’s almost emo, except Rod cleverly pulls back at the end with that sentimental verse about going back to school, or playing pool, or finding a band “that needs a helping hand”. This is the real masterstroke – suddenly the song isn’t just about an older woman, or a doomed affair, it’s also the Secret Origin of Rod Stewart – he’s singing the song to explain how he is the way he is. A myth – half lad, half bruised lover – is born, one that’s sustained its maker ever since. In a decade full of self-inventing stars, this is one of the neatest, cleverest and least-remarked-on gestures.

*Suzanne Vega gave it one. So did Rod, with the sort-of sequel “You Wear It Well”. And Lester Bangs, I’m told, wrote a half-review half-short story from Maggie’s point of view.

{democracy:31}

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Comments

  1. 1
    Lex on 24 Jan 2007 #

    Suzanne Vega’s answer record is really good!

    I can’t get past Rod’s voice though this review makes me feel more kindly to this song than I ever have before.

  2. 2
    Rosie on 25 Jan 2007 #

    I’ve never been much of a Rod Stewart fan and this used to make me wince, but like Lex I feel more kindly-disposed to it now I’ve been hearing it again.

    What it brings back is the sense of rebellion that came to me along with the rest of my school cohort in the Upper Sixth, with our own room – not a purpose-built sixth-form centre but a converted 1930s classroom in which every rule we could think of was torn up and pushed under the carpet along with the mountain of dog-ends. (The year below us got the sixth-form centre, we got the reputation as the worst and most unmanageable yeargroup ever to have passed through the school.) The song captures that rebelliousness nicely.

    Let’s not forget that this was a double A-side, the other half being a cover of Tim Hardin’s Reason To Believe. It wasn’t played much on the radio and to my mind it completely undermined the delicacy of Hardin’s original. I still believe in Tim Hardin to this day – not many remember him, unfortunately.

  3. 3
    Tom on 25 Jan 2007 #

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard the Hardin original – I know, and quite like, the Rod Stewart version, and really like Glenn Campbell’s smoothie take on it.

  4. 4
    Steve Mannion on 25 Jan 2007 #

    this review has actually convinced me it should be at least a 9. erm, nice one!

  5. 5
    Erithian on 25 Jan 2007 #

    This one, for me, is an absolute feast – great lyric, great melody, great production. For a good, oh, six years after this Rod didn’t put a foot wrong. A pity now to see him carrying on with material ill-suited to a voice that’s less strong than it used to be, and doing the old standards with rather less panache than Robbie (IMHO).

    So with this the second great new act of the 70s introduces himself to the No 1 lists, and like Bolan it’s a sound you can hardly imagine having heard in the 60s. At a remove of a few years, because I was too young to identify with the experience, this sounds to me like a commentary saying, OK, the 60s party is over and you’re more or less intact, so (in the cold light of the early 70s) what are you going to do now – get on back to school or start another party? We know what Rod’s answer was!

  6. 6
    Erithian on 25 Jan 2007 #

    And of course the third great new 70s act is coming right up.

    Number 2 Watch – the two records that stalled at 2 behind Rod were Redbone’s “Witch Queen of New Orleans” and Middle of the Road’s “Tweedledee, Tweedledum”. Another nursery rhyme title, but a better song then “Chirpy..”. “If you knew the reason for the fighting you would never understand…” – now that HAS to have been about Vietnam!

  7. 7
    intothefireuk on 25 Jan 2007 #

    I’ve never been that enamoured with Maggie May. It could be because my first impression of it would have probably been from that TOTP when Rod was kicking a football around and John Peel was hamming up the Mandolin playing. It’s also been fairly omni-present on most UK radio stations since and that may have led me to unfairly dismiss it. I am inclined though to give it another listen in the light of Tom’s excellent observations.

    BTW I would have sacrificed at least one of Rods weeks at number one for Witch Queen Of New Orleans !

  8. 8
    Daniel_Rf on 26 Jan 2007 #

    Hardin’s “Reason To Believe” seconded – I like the strings, and Tim’s wimpy voice actually quite adds to it.

    This is a good record but I like “You Wear It Well” better by a considerable margin.

  9. 9
    Martin Skidmore on 26 Jan 2007 #

    I love this record and would have given it 9. Actually I didn’t know it was officially a double-A, and I love Rod’s Reason To Believe enough that that would have made it a 10 – that’s my favourite Rod track. I think he was a really great singer, totally derivative of Sam Cooke but with all his great qualities excepting originality, and his rock style was more in tune with me then (not yet a teenager when this came out). I think his early-mid ’70s recordings, solo and with the Faces, make a really exceptional body of work, not at all wrecked by three decades of tat since.

  10. 10
    Marcello Carlin on 26 Jan 2007 #

    Point of order: “Reason To Believe” was originally the A-side and was listed as such in the first two weeks the single was on the chart, but since both sales and airplay were going towards the B-side the single was officially flipped.

  11. 11
    Doctor Mod on 26 Jan 2007 #

    I’ve been sitting here for awhile trying to process my feelings about this song. I loved it when it was new and played the Every Picture Tells a Story LP incessantly. Nowadays, I don’t think I have a copy in my possession, and even though I now can hardly endure Rod Stewart, I still would give it an 8 or a 9.

    I’m not sure I can explain these contradictory responses to myself–much less anyone else–but it’s worth a try. In 1971, “Maggie May” was radically different from anything else on the radio. Stewart was a fresh entity (at least in the US)–his voice was unique and his personality (to which we had not yet been overexposed) still seemed rather charming. It’s hard to believe that the lyrics were quite daring then, but I still think the lyrics (including the love/hate contrarieties) are more about loss of innocence than anything else–loving and hating the “de-virginizer” is probably not an uncommon response.

    But I also recall that a big part of the plaisir du disque was the instrumental arrangement, combining the hip and the quaint–I, for one, think the mandolin enhances the recording–effectively echoing the constrast of newly-found worldliness and lost innocence.

    By the time of “Tonight’s the Night,” Rod was starting to become a bore, but that’s another story altogether.

  12. 12
    Brian in Canada on 26 Jan 2007 #

    Ironic that this should appear just now as my sister, also Maggie , died last week and this was her favourite song and the date of the chart Oct 09 , is my birth day. Voodoo.

    All that aside….at 18 we were well into ” The Rod Stewart Album” and “Every Picture Tells A Story” and except for Maggie May being played a lot , still, these albums still stand the test of time. Mostly because the songs are strong and the musicianship is top flight.

    I don’t think anyone had heard such a voice before or since , with the exception of Bonnie Tyler. That de-flowered, haphazard vagabond image that Rod had , and the hair , did a lot for him here. I think that everything that Tom said about the song is right and I’m sure that Rod knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote it and I can’t even imagine why anyone would think that ” Reason to Believe ” ( although it’s a great number ) could even come close to Maggie.

  13. 13
    Caledonianne on 17 Jul 2007 #

    I was 12 when this was around, and thought it was a bit scary at the time to be honest, though the mandolin marked it out even then as special.

    These days I love it on Unplugged…and unseated. And so did my 75-year old mother as I drove her around Majorca a couple of years back.

    I also kinda like the American Classics stuff. It’s the Do ya think I’m Sexy?-era Rod that I can’t stand.

    In my (then) neck of the woods Rod was famous for always stopping off at The Wee Barrel pub in Paisley whenever a flight took him to Glasgow Airport. The punters loved him!

  14. 14
    Matthew on 17 Jan 2009 #

    Pop illiterate watch: up until this very day I always, always assumed that Rod Stewart’s hit was a cover of the Beatles’ Maggie May. It’s, er, rather a different kettle of fish really isn’t it? My face = eggier than ever.

  15. 15
    Waldo on 19 Oct 2009 #

    Loved both this and “Reason To Believe”, which was the given A-Side on Mercury Records. The plastic Jock pulled off a spectactular, with this single and the album “Every Picture Tells A Story” topping their respective charts whilst similtaneously doing the same trick in the US. I don’t for one moment think that this was a first (Beatles?/Presley?) but I’m too lazy to research.

    Even after all these years, I still consider MM to be one of Rod’s finest efforts and for me it hasn’t dated either. The only moan I have is that it stopped Redbone’s “Witch Queen…” from mounting the summit, which I thought was a belter and still do.

  16. 16
    Alan on 19 Oct 2009 #

    This, being at number 1, was on Pick of the Pops with our Dale this weekend gone. The chart run down itself was dismal – middle of the road’s other song, etc.

  17. 17
    punctum on 20 Oct 2009 #

    Gave up listening to dreary Dale ages ago – POTP must be the most sadomasochistic show on British radio (Mr Swern’s weekly mission: to unearth the most tedious charts in existence and play all the worst/most overplayed records in them).

    Gold’s From The Bottom To The Top was so much better – one chart played in full, guest from that chart in the studio, presenters who actually sounded interested in what they were doing – and it’s a shame that the nitwit Gold management axed the show for yet more hours of Radio Robot/DJ Voicetrack.

  18. 18
    Billy Smart on 20 Oct 2009 #

    Largely true, but the extraordinarily open ground of the 1971 charts means that Dale and Phil can never totally cock up a POTP for this year. On Saturday we got Redbone, CCS, Titanic, The Supremes, Middle Of The Road and Shirley Bassey in quick sucession: Magic!

  19. 19
    punctum on 11 Aug 2010 #

    My belated comments on this song, and its parent album:

    http://nobilliards.blogspot.com/2010/08/rod-stewart-every-picture-tells-story.html

  20. 20
    Paulito on 14 Jan 2011 #

    @#11 – Truth be told, Rod was becoming a bore as early as ’74. But there were still a few great moments to come – most notably “The Killing of Georgie Pt. 1”, his brave and moving elegy to a murdered gay friend (unfortunately, Pt. 2 is a rather less worthy coda).

  21. 21
    RDMcNamara on 1 Apr 2011 #

    ‘Can you spot John Peel in the band?’. The captions on this TOTP special aren’t even trying are they?…

  22. 22
    Lena on 31 Jul 2012 #

    What is said and what is heard: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/then-and-now-middle-of-road-tweedle-dee.html Thanks for reading everyone! Future entries coming soon…

  23. 23
    Lena on 2 Aug 2012 #

    Seaaon of the witch: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/maries-name-redbone-witch-queen-of-new.html Thanks for reading, tout le monde!

  24. 24
    hectorthebat on 20 Jun 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 5
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 256
    Jimmy Guterman (USA) – The 20 Best Rock and Roll Singles of All Time (1992) 3
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1970s (2001) 50
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 194
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 87
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 130
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 131
    Spin (USA) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1989) 8
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2000) 69
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1970s (2008)
    John Peel (UK) – Peelenium: Four Tracks from Each Year of the Last Century (1999)
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (1976) 39
    Q (UK) – 50 Greatest British Tracks (2005) 46
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 590
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Vox (UK) – 100 Records That Shook the World (1991)
    Zig Zag (UK) – Gillett & Frith’s Hot 100 Singles (1975)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 8
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Rolling Stone (France) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 70
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  25. 25
    Larry on 30 Oct 2014 #

    I remember when this and the album were massive, inescapable hits. But it wears well for me.

  26. 26
    phil6875 on 12 Apr 2015 #

    Famously Rod Stewart is one of only six artists to have simultaneously held the top spot in the U.S. and U.K. singles and albums charts and this is the track he did it with. ‘Every Picture Tells A Story’ being the album of course.

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