Rod Stewart, eh? It’s a name that divides crowds. You’ll either fondly recall the ’70s chart-topping rock classics – ‘Maggie May’, ‘Handbags and Gladrags’ and the like – or else you’ll have visions of leopard-printed, tight-trousered gyration, courtesy of ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ and the man’s various dalliances with leggy blonde models.
Yet both images are unfair because they ignore Stewart’s hugely influential early years, when he played with a prototype Kinks, hung out with The Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood and rocked with blues singer Long John Baldry. More importantly, he was – with Ronnie – also a member of both The Jeff Beck Group and Faces, whose unique sounds formed the core of what would later become heavy metal and punk rock respectively. Look at the histories of the biggest London rock and blues acts of the ’60s and ’70s and you’ll probably find Rod Stewart in there somewhere, as a colleague, friend or inspiration. All in all, Rod’s had a good time of it. As the man himself says: ‘The hardest part of my success? Oh, I don’t know. None of it is hard. I’ve had a blessed life.’
So it’s worth remembering that when Rod Stewart steps up to play at Dubai’s Sevens stadium this week, he’s bringing with him 40 years of history, knowledge and talent. So how, we ask, will he be showing that talent off over here? ‘I intend to pull out all the stops,’ he enthuses. ‘I’m going to sing all the classics and give it everything I’ve got. It’s been donkey’s years since I’ve been to Dubai and I’m thrilled to be coming back.’ And while some were wondering how the 65-year-old singer would handle the heat of the UAE in May, he has no such worries. ‘I’ve been rehearsing with the band, but more importantly I’ve been staying fit by working out with my trainer. Running around after my four-year old son, Alastair, keeps me on my toes too.’
The man shows no fear at all (‘Nothing frightens me. Nothing really does. I was tongue-tied the first time I met the [British] Royal Family, though…’). Then again, after beating thyroid cancer in 1999 – a battle that forced him to learn to sing all over again – everything has been put into perspective.
‘I think I’ve always had the view to value every moment of every day, but when you hear the word ‘cancer’, life seems much more precious. I say this a lot, but I cannot emphasise enough how important early detection of cancer is. If my doctors hadn’t caught my thyroid cancer so early on, the result could have been very different.’
Speaking of different results, Rod’s entire musical vocation may not have happened if – as his father had wanted – he had continued pursuing a career in football. He even had an apprenticeship at Brentford Football Club for a while, but packed it in after deciding it required too much commitment and a lifestyle that was far too healthy. And bearing in mind how his earlier work helped to create both the heavy metal and punk genres, we wonder how different music would be today if he’d stuck with soccer. ‘It’d be a lot less sexy,’ he chuckles. And football? ‘Ah, I don’t think I would have made too much of a difference there.’
Rod Stewart plays The Sevens stadium alongside Spandau Ballet on May 7. Tickets from www.timeouttickets.com
He wears it well
The life and times of Rod Stewart
1945: Roderick David Stewart is born into a family of five children in Highgate, North London.
1961: Rod gives up his apprenticeship at Brentford Football Club, much to his father’s disappointment.
1962: After a stint as lead singer of The Ray Davies Quartet, Rod is kicked out due to personality clashes; the band later becomes The Kinks.
1967: Former Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck invites Rod to join The Jeff Beck Group, alongside Ronnie Wood; the band’s sound became a prototype for heavy metal.
1969: Stewart joins a new band, Faces, whose lairysound is in stark contrast to his debut solo album, also released that year. Faces are later named by The Sex Pistols as a major inspiration.
1971: Rod releases ‘Maggie May’, his first UK number one single; he went on to have six more chart-toppers (plus 11 top 10s) between then and 1978’s ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’
1983: ‘Baby Jane’ becomes Rod’s last UK number one.
1998: After confessing that he’s ‘not a natural songwriter’, Stewart releases his last self-written tune, ‘Careless With Our Love’, on the album When We Were the New Boys; the other tracks are all covers.
2000: Rod undergoes surgery for thyroid cancer, and subsequently has to re-learn how to sing.
2002: Rod releases the first of his Great American Songbook cover albums, each of which goes platinum.
Of all the great pop acts of the 1980s, few have managed to weather the stormy seas of fame and credibility like Spandau Ballet. Emerging in 1980 with UK top-five single ‘To Cut a Long Story Short’, Spandau seemed like the bright new things of synth-pop. But it wasn’t until their third album, 1983’s True, that their music came alive with that now-familiar, sax-heavy, soulful sound. That change helped to propel ‘True’ and ‘Gold’ to the top of the charts and brought massive international success.
The pressures of fame took their toll on the band, though, and they split in 1990. And while each member enjoyed mixed success in other roles – Brits will recognise bassist Martin Kemp as devious club owner Steve Owen in soap opera EastEnders – it seemed Spandau Ballet would never get back together. Hopes of a reunion were further dashed in 1999 when singer Tony Hadley, saxophonist Steve Norman and drummer John Keeble attempted – and failed – to sue songwriter Gary Kemp for royalties.
But in March 2009 the band, having apparently reconciled their differences, reunited to a flurry of press interest and sold-out venues around the world. Now, one year on, their journey has brought them to Dubai, where we caught Martin for a chat.
A Spandau Ballet reunion used to seem unthinkable. What changed?
We all got a little older and wiser; I think time is a great healer, and in the big scheme of things our problems started to seem small. We’re like most families – we’ve had our ups and downs.
Were you ever worried that nobody would care?
We didn’t know what to expect – it was like, ‘Let’s dip our toe in a little bit and just see what happens,’ – but Spandau lasted 12 years and had more than 20 hits, so we hoped for the best.
The reunion caused a lot of interest in the UK press. Why do you think that was?
I think there was excitement because we come from an era that people remember with fondness, and our music was consistently good.
Are you working on a new album at the moment?
We’re not working on the new album just yet; we’ll wait until the end of the tour in July before we start thinking about any of our future projects.
So will this tour be a greatest hits set?
Yeah, this tour is based around a greatest hits show, which is why I think it’s been so successful – we have no new album to promote, so it’s just the songs that people know and love.
What makes ‘True’ and ‘Gold’ such timeless classics?
They’re timeless purely because they are great songs and have become as much a part of our lives as songs such as ‘Let’s Get it On’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
There was a petition a few years back to make ‘Gold’ the new British national anthem, on the basis that it’s a lot more fun to sing in a stadium than ‘God Save the Queen’. Thoughts?
National anthem? Why not! Maybe it could open the Olympics – that would be cool.
If, as ‘Gold’ says, I’m indestructible, how come I sprained my ankle last week?
You are indestructible… I wish you better.
Spandau Ballet play The Sevens stadium alongside Rod Stewart on May 7. Tickets from www.timeouttickets.com