How Rod Stewart Survived the ’80s
In 1978, Rod Stewart's disco anthem "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" reached No. 1, selling two million copies in the U.S. The song, as well as the song's video, which featured Stewart in black spandex pants, alienated many of his older fans. But disco's days were numbered. Technological advances in digital recording and experimental music helped push New Wave and synth-pop toward the mainstream. New Wave's rapid-fire guitars and synth-pop's electronic riffs made disco seem stodgy in comparison.
"As the 1980s began, I faced musical challenges on a number of fronts," Stewart wrote in Rod: The Autobiography. "As far as music critics were concerned, I was about as welcome as a hole in a parachute. 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' and the surrounding hoopla had convinced the music writers that I had been led astray forever by the glitter of the disco ball and the Hollywood lifestyle and was irredeemable."
This resulted in empty seats at some of his concerts as the '80s dawned. "In America, I could always pull good crowds on the coasts," Stewart recalled. "But in the 1970s I had grown used to filling venues across the middle of the country, too, and now those audiences seemed to be on the wane. So this needed addressing."
Stewart blamed "too many late nights, too much partying, too much booze and a few too many dabs of recreational cocaine" for his loss of focus at the start of the decade.
Watch Rod Stewart Perform 'Passion'
To stay relevant, he incorporated touches of synth-pop into his 1980 LP, Foolish Behavior. The album, which contained some dance floor-ready tunes, reached No. 12 on the Billboard 200. Although five singles were released from the record, "Passion" was the only one to hit.
Tonight I'm Yours, released in 1981, was somewhat of a comeback album, a return to Stewart's rock roots. He replaced most of the band he'd employed since 1977 with more energetic rockers, and it showed: The LP spawned three hit singles in "Young Turks," "How Long?" and the title track.
Stewart had traded his spandex for rolled-up jacket sleeves by the early '80s, but the acclaim earned by Tonight I'm Yours was squandered by 1983's Body Wishes, a near-full embrace of synth-pop sounds. The three singles from the album – "Baby Jane," "What Am I Gonna Do (I'm So in Love With You)" and "Sweet Surrender" – failed to crack the Top 10, though the former made it to No. 14.
Watch Rod Stewart's 'Baby Jane' Video
Camouflage, released in 1984, marked Stewart's reunion with guitarist Jeff Beck on the track "Infatuation," which did reach the Top 10. "With 'Infatuation' I had a bona fide rock hit and a fairly emphatic statement, for anyone who needed one, that my so-called 'disco era' was over," Stewart wrote. "Camouflage also contained a cover of Jeff Fortgang's 'Some Guys Have All the Luck,' which I had heard Robert Palmer do, and fancied a stab at – throwing in a little hook from Clarence 'Frogman' Henry's 'Ain't Got No Home' for good measure, just to keep rhythm and blues fans on their toes. Even if the song hadn't been good, I probably would have had to record it, just so that headline writers could use the title in stories about me."
"Infatuation" and "Some Guys" turned out to be the best of an otherwise lackluster lot. People was especially cruel in its review: "Those seconds of silence between songs are among the most pleasurable moments on Camouflage," the magazine wrote.
Watch Rod Stewart's Perform 'Some Guys Have All the Luck'
In 1985, Stewart promoted Camouflage on tour at huge festivals like Rock in Rio, but he began to have some fears regarding his voice around this time. "Going out on the road for at least six months of every year was my idea of a life well lived, but it was clearly beginning to take its toll on my vocal cords," he recalled. "But what could I do? The band played so loudly. We kind of prided ourselves on it. The volume at which we played was a badge of honor. And I think this, too, in a way, was the legacy of 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' It was like: 'We'll show 'em. We're no disco pussies. We're a rock 'n' roll band. A loud, kick-ass rock 'n' roll band."
Stewart noted the day after a show, he felt as though he "had been gargling barbed wire." He started taking Prednisone, a steroid that reduces swelling of the vocal cords, among other things.
His steroid use turned into an addiction by the late-'80s. "It’s what you do when you’re in a bit of a pinch and need to do a show and you can’t sing," he told Mojo in 2013. Stewart battled this addiction into the '90s, and admitted he still takes the drug about once a year “if I’m really struggling. It gets you through the show."
Stewart shifted gears in 1986, releasing an album every two years instead of every one – a schedule he'd pretty much followed since his first album in the late '60s. But Rod Stewart, titled Every Beat of My Heart in the U.K., was a disappointment, with critics pointing out that the rock numbers were familiar-sounding and that the ballads were drowned in sap.
Watch Rod Stewart's 'Forever Young' Video
Then came 1988's Out of Order and its singles "Lost in You," a Top 5 hit, "Dynamite" and the future classic "Forever Young," which was almost left off the album. "We were going through the tracks and discussing overdubs, and we got to 'Forever Young' and I said, 'I'm not happy with this song. Let's bin it,'" Stewart revealed. "I wasn't sure it had a strong-enough hook. And suddenly, the engineer, a guy called Steve MacMillan, who had worked in dutiful silence through out the entire project and had never offered an opinion on anything, ever, piped up and said, 'I wouldn't get rid of that if I were you. It's the best song you've got.'
"A momentary silence fell while we all gaped in amazement at the fact that Steve had actually said something. And then we listened to the track again and realized he was right." The song became one of Stewart's most popular tracks.
Following the release of Out of Order, Warner Bros. executive Rob Dickins told Stewart that he had stopped putting his own stamp on incredible songs written by others in the '80s. "People want to hear you sing great songs," he told the singer. Stewart answered, "Well, find me a great song then."
Watch Rod Stewart's 'Downtown Train' Video
In mid-1989, Dickins brought Stewart a cassette of "Downtown Train," a song on Tom Waits' great 1985 album Rain Dogs. "It had a melody that connected emotionally and a lyric that absolutely ached with yearning," recalled Stewart. "Downtown Train" was released in November 1989 as part of Storyteller: The Complete Anthology, a four-disc box set that documented Stewart's career from 1964 through the present.
"It gave me a hit – Top 10 in the U.K. and No. 3 in Billboard – and it got me on the cover of Rolling Stone again," Stewart noted. "But, more important than any of that, it reminded a few people who I was and what I could do – a few people who, maybe, used to know but had forgotten, or maybe who had chosen to forget and turned away. And it reminded me too."
The song ended the '80s on a high note for Stewart, who would soon face new challenges in the coming decade.
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Gallery Credit: Dave Lifton