Will Birch

Will Birch, writer and lyricist, drummer and songwriter with the Kursaal Flyers and
The Records, author of No Sleep Till Canvey Island - The Great Pub Rock Revolution
and Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography - out now!

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Rod Stewart
 The Graveyard Shift


Ever since the concurrent dawns of Association Football and the Music Hall,
the male school leaver with no qualification other than the flair and imagination to avoid a 'proper job' has often been attracted to one of these escape routes.  Rod Stewart, typically it seems, had a foot in both camps.

Born of loving parents as World War Two was grinding to its conclusion, Rod, the youngest of five children, enjoyed the twin benefits of doting parents and living over a sweet shop.  At school his distinctive features also played a significant role, for no matter how insulting the playground taunts: "long nose"..."hunchback"...and worst of all - "skinny", Rod was able to dazzle with his skills on the football pitch.

Stewart senior encouraged his son's sporting talent and a flirtation with professional football ensued.  The year was 1961 and Rod fancied his chances with third division Brentford, perhaps unaware that a rigorous apprenticeship always preceded the real thing.  "He trained with us for a week or two," recalls Brentford Deputy President Eric White, "and he may even have kicked a ball around with the juniors, but there is no record of Rod Stewart ever having signed to Brentford.  Unfortunately, nobody at the club remembers his time here."

The brush with Brentford had lasted about 10 minutes.  Music was now tugging at Rod's strides, though it was not Sam Cooke's words, but those of philosopher Bertrand Russell that were ringing in his ears as he was lured into the early ’60s protest movement.  Rod became a weekend beatnik, and armed with his £42 Levin Jumbo acoustic guitar, began to frequent CND rallies and hootenannies.

Folk singer Val Berry recalls the scene.  "We all used to converge on Soho from the suburbs and meet in coffee bars like Sam Widges and The Partisan.  I first met Rod in the Gyre And Gimble in Villiers Street, summer 1961.  He had long, blond hair, dressed like a beat and was very funny.  On one occasion we all bundled into his friend Kenny Knight's Nash Metropolitan and set off for Southend.  At a transport cafe on the A127 the truckers picked on Rod's long hair, shouting 'Oi! Jesus!'  To their amusement, Rod dropped to his knees, waved his hands in the air and screamed 'Hallelujah!' "  

Musically, Rod was turned on by the rootsy stuff: Woodie Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy and The Carter Family and songs like Midnight Special and San Francisco Bay Blues.  “Ramblin' Jack Elliott was his hero,” recalls Val, “and if he listened to any rock'n'roll he didn't let on.  Same with football: it wasn't hip.  We all completely rejected commercial music.  By '63 we got around to busking.  We were squatting on a Thames Sailing Barge called the Louise on the River Adur at Shoreham.  Clive Palmer, who later joined The Incredible String Band, was also there.  We'd all go into Brighton and busk under the Guinness clock.  There were two or three good singers who got pennies, but Rod and I got half-crowns!  Also, in 1963 we went on the Aldermaston march, though Rod now says he only marched for the girls."

Protest and pussy aside, these experiences surely furnished Rod with the inspiration for his semi-autobiographical songs of the early ’70s, as did his excursions across the Channel - a tentative few days in Paris, followed by more adventurous trips to Italy and Spain, from whence he was deported.  He arrived home stinking, but after a good scrub and a haircut, dumped the beat-bum look and emerged Modlike.

A succession of dispiriting jobs followed, none of which had the ring of vocation: sign writer, with his brother Bob; maker of picture frames; and apprentice gravedigger at Highgate Cemetery.  The latter involved a bizarre initiation ceremony: Rod was temporarily shut in an occupied coffin, curing him forever, apparently, of the fear of death.

Despite Rod’s musical weaning on folk, R&B was also close to his heart.  Clues to an early identity crisis can be detected in a photograph taken early in 1963.  Although Rod is clutching a five-string banjo, perhaps inspired by Clive Palmer or his idol, the folk legend Derrol Adams, his enormous rock'n'roll beak protrudes from beneath an attempted Beatle thatch.

So the duffel coat and sandals were now giving way to a far sexier proposition: the London R&B explosion, spearheaded by Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated and Cyril Davies And His R&B All Stars, featuring Long John Baldry, later to become a key figure in Rod's development.  Influenced by the emerging Rolling Stones, the precocious Rod, harp in hip pocket, swung like Tarzan from one opportunity to another, hanging at all the appropriate clubs and tartishly elbowing his way into conversations.  This fervent schmoozing lead to an invitation in October 1963 to join The Dimensions, a young London R&B group.

Dimensions' bassist Louis Cennamo recalls the circumstances. "Our guitarist Gary Leport got him in, they were at school together.  Rod was the first guy I'd seen with a bouffant.  He wore a black cord Pierre Cardin jacket and when asked, he would describe himself as an Ultra-Modernist!  Rod was also very funny and he kept us amused in traffic jams by opening the back door of the Dormobile and simply rolling out onto the road!" 

Rod sang a bit and played harmonica, but The Dimensions were a group without a date sheet.  Through Malcolm Nixon, a mutual agent, they hooked up with gig-rich Brummy singer Jimmy Powell.  Rod was soon reduced to the role of 'warm-up man'. 

An oft-reported episode in Rod's early career occurred at this point.  Chris Blackwell had brought Jamaican singer Millie to London to record under the direction of guitarist Ernest Ranglin and members of The Dimensions were involved.  The result was Millie's hit My Boy Lollipop.  To quash an old chestnut, Cennamo confirms that it was not Rod (nor Jimmy Powell) that played the hit's distinctive harmonica solo, but Dimension Peter Hogman. 

By December 1963 Rod had become disillusioned by his diminishing role and quit the group.  Later, The Dimensions left Powell en bloc.

Rod was an admirer of Long John Baldry and a chance encounter lead to the next phase of his career.  On Sunday January 5, 1964, after an evening on Eel Pie Island, Rod met Baldry on Twickenham railway station.  Baldry was still with the R&B All Stars, but leader Cyril Davies was ill with leukaemia. 

"I was sitting on a bench playing harmonica and singing Smokestack Lightning loudly," recalled Rod some years later.  "Baldry came along the platform and called out: "Young man!  You have a good voice, why don't you join my band!"  Baldry invited Rod to sit in with the All Stars at the Marquee that Tuesday, January 7.  Sadly, that night UK R&B founding father Cyril Davies collapsed and died.  Baldry decided to carry on, renaming the band The Hoochie Coochie Men, with Rod as his vocal lieutenant. 

At first, Rod was shy and suffered from stage fright.  As John Baldry recalls "In the beginning people were saying "he's awful" and they couldn't believe his shyness.  He stood with his back to the audience."  But Rod's flamboyant image was to become a great asset to the Hoochie Coochie Men and he quickly attracted his own following.  He stayed with the Hoochie Coochie Men for nine eventful months and during this time made his recording debut (duetting on the Baldry b-side Up Above My Head).  Director Francis Megahy filmed the group on tour and the results were eventually broadcast on November 2, 1965 in a 30-minute television documentary titled Rod The Mod.

In October 1964, Rod Stewart released his debut single Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and quit Baldry's band.  His gravity-defying hairstyle was quickly evolving: while he was promoting Schoolgirl on Ready Steady Go, the lacquered bouffant was so precariously styled that on taking a bow, he was obliged to hold the structure in place whilst returning to the upright position.   Despite the visual impact, Schoolgirl flopped and Rod hooked up with Southampton's The Soul Agents for a fruitless six-month stint.

Piecing together Rod's movements during the early days of British R&B, one often encounters a wall of silence amongst those who once touched the hem of his garment.  One exception is Mickey Waller, legendary drummer with Rod in many a winning aggregation.  Waller, a former member of the R&B All Stars, was in 1965 a member of The Brian Auger Trinity, with bassist Ricky Brown.  Jazz pianist Auger had acquired a Hammond organ and the Trinity were specialising in Jimmy Smith-style instrumentals.  "We were managed by R&B mogul Giorgio Gomelsky," recalls Waller.  "Gomelsky and Auger were hatching plans with Long John Baldry to launch Steampacket, an R&B supergroup .  It was John who wanted to bring in Rod and in turn, Brian Auger suggested a third singer, Julie Driscoll." 

"I remembered Rod from the Hoochie Coochie Men where he wore a blazer and striped trousers, which contrasted with the R&B crowd, most of whom dressed like slobs."

In the intense atmosphere of the then-dry Marquee, Steampacket were state-of-the art.  With Auger's ferocious Hammond sound filling the place, Baldry, Stewart and Driscoll worked the lip of the stage, offering Motown medleys, Nina Simone, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett faves and a handful of songs by the Man Who'd Become Main for Rod Stewart - Sam Cooke.  But no matter how exiting the onstage action, the lack of a recording contract and original material stymied Steampacket.  True to form, Rod enjoyed a parallel solo career whilst a member of the group, releasing two singles - The Day Will Come and Sam Cooke's Shake.

In the summer of 1966, Steampacket were booked for a season in the South of France.  To make the trip viable, Auger was obliged to prune the line-up.  Through a series of management misunderstandings, Stewart was let go and thus the girls of St Tropez were saved from a wretch like Rod.   Witnessing Rod's exit from Steampacket, and sensing his star potential, promoters Rik and John Gunnell (Flamingo Club, Geno Washington) offered him a place in a new group they were creating. 

Shotgun Express was modelled along similar lines to Steampacket.  This time Rod would share vocals with Beryl Marsden, and enjoy the high-powered backing of organist Peter Bardens's group, which initially included Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood.  Shotgun Express occupied Rod for six months, during which time the group released I Could Feel The Whole World Turn Around, a reasonable record in a blueprint-for-Blue-Mink kind of way, before disbanding somewhat disgruntled in November 1966.

Rod was now approaching 22, had been in five name groups, made records for several major labels and was more familiar than most with the graffiti on the Marquee dressing room wall.  Just as a return to gravedigging was starting to look like a sensible option, the call came from Jeff Beck. 

The prototype line-up of the Jeff Beck Group was one of the most inspired in the history of British rock, but even on paper it looked highly combustible.  The rhythm section was to consist of ex-Pretty Things drummer Viv Prince and former Shadow Jet Harris on bass.  It did not get beyond the rehearsal room and the pressure was on Beck to assemble a more realistic line-up.  Retaining Stewart, he hired bassist Ronnie Wood and drummer Ray Cook, and the quartet was rushed out on tour. 

Mickey Waller witnessed the Beck Group's disastrous debut at Finsbury Park Astoria in March 1967, supporting the Small Faces and Roy Orbison.  "They were under-rehearsed and the group failed to complete their set," recalls Waller.  Cook was fired the following day; his parents, who had just bought him a new drum set especially for the tour, went to the tabloids and dragged Beck's name through the mud.  Shortly after, drummer Aynsley Dunbar was drafted in but soon left to form his own blues combo Retaliation.   Rod suggested his Steampacket colleague Mickey Waller as a replacement and, having just failed an audition with Hendrix (only to witness his young protégé Mitch Mitchell get the job), Waller was delighted.

With a stable line-up, the Jeff Beck Group consolidated their position with numerous club dates and an impressive performance at the 1967 Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival.  Before long however, Rod was pursuing further solo recording, this time with Immediate, where label boss and Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham paired Rod with Manfred Mann frontman Mike D'Abo.

D'Abo had written the fabulous Handbags And Gladrags, which Rod immediately wanted, but the song was earmarked for Chris Farlowe.  Instead, another D'Abo composition, Little Miss Understood, was recorded and released in March 1968.  Following its failure to chart, Oldham set Rod to work with Mick Jagger, who was in the mood for a spot of producing.  The resultant session, produced in part by Jagger, yielded Working In A Coal Mine and Come Home Baby.  Never officially released, it featured Rod with co-vocalist P P Arnold fronting a backing group consisting of Ronnie Wood, Keith Emerson, Mickey Waller and Keith Richards. 

Meanwhile, The Jeff Beck Group was recording its debut LP Truth, often described as the heavy metal blueprint, and in June 1968 was about to undertake its first US tour.   Waller: "Truth was recorded very quickly, since it  was material we had been playing live.  Keith Moon also plays on some of it.  We opened at the Fillmore East In New York.  Rod was suffering a bit from nerves and almost lost his voice, but the audience reaction was great.  We also got some good press reviews."  However, there was some confusion in the public's mind about who did what in the group.  Legend has it that after one show, an Epic Records executive greeted Rod with a Tap-like "Great show Jeff." 

The Jeff Beck Group caught the mood of the moment, consolidating groundwork done by The Yardbirds and Cream.  They were accompanied on the tour by road manager Peter Grant, then also involved in the assembling of Led Zeppelin, on whom they were to have significant influence.  The US tour also became a springboard for Stewart’s subsequent solo career.  He was spotted by Mercury’s house producer Lou Reizner, who signed him to the label in October 1968, by which time Rod’s frustration must have been at its peak as he witnessed Jeff Beck and former associates Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger all achieve chart action that year.

Rod continued with Beck for a further nine months during which time he was asked to sing on a demo of In A Broken Dream by Dandelion’s Australian recording act Python Lee Jackson.  Three years later, at the height of Rod’s fame, the recording was released and became a hit.  In the summer of 1969, Wood and Waller were fired by Beck.  "I think Jeff was seeking the ultimate heavy rhythm section," opines Waller.  "In the States he met musicians like Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice from Vanilla Fudge and considered working with them." 

After a proposed supergroup consisting Stewart, Beck, Bogert and Appice didn't work out, Beck-Ola, the follow up to Truth, was recorded with new drummer Tony Newman. 

However, the sackings of Wood and Waller weighed heavy on Rod's conscience and added to his restlessness.  With a solo deal at Mercury under his belt, Rod Stewart quit Beck in July 1969.  Meanwhile, Ronnie Wood had accepted an offer to join the Small Faces to replace the departing Steve Marriott.  After weeks of rehearsals in the summer of 1969, it was becoming apparent that despite some vocal talent in the group - chiefly Ronnie Lane's - what the Faces needed most of all was a lead singer and front man.  Someone who was experienced yet hungry.  Someone with a bit of onstage swagger, an outstanding voice, and a great haircut....

Will Birch

Thanks to Pete Frame, Johnny Jones, Harry Shapiro and John Gray.

Will Birch © willbirch.com
First published in Mojo, May 1995

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