In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In the summer of 1961, Rod Stewart climbed into a drainage pipe in the south of England. Stewart, a 16-year-old London dropout and aspiring footballer, was with a few friends, and they were all sneaking into the Beaulieu Jazz Festival, one of the first big festivals in the UK. (Stewart later said that this was when he “just coming out of [his] beatnik phase, wondering whether [he] should become a mod.”) When the friends got into the festival, they went straight for the beer tent, where Stewart met an older woman, who — again, per Stewart — “was something of a sexual predator.” That day, Stewart and the older woman snuck off somewhere, and Stewart lost his virginity: “It was over in a few seconds.” A decade later, Stewart took that experience and made one hell of a song out of it.
In that decade, Rod Stewart had done a lot of things. He’d started protesting for left-wing causes, getting arrested a few times. He’d drifted around Europe, getting himself deported from Spain. He’d moved in with an art student and fathered a daughter, who was put up for adoption. He’d discovered Otis Redding and gone all-in on the mod thing. And he’d started playing music.
Stewart had started out in 1963, playing harmonica in a group called the Dimensions. He’d bounced around the London scene, getting into short-lived collaborations with future members of the Kinks and Fleetwood Mac. Eventually, he’d teamed up with Jeff Beck, the ex-Yardbirds guitar hero, and begun singing in the Jeff Beck Group.
When that band broke up in 1969, Stewart and his Jeff Beck Group bandmate Ronnie Wood (still six years away from becoming a Rolling Stone) joined the Small Faces, a pretty great London band who were huge in the UK and who’d had some success in the US. Frontman Steve Marriott had just left the band to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton. So Wood and Stewart came in to replace him, and the Small Faces became the Faces, leaning into Stonesian blues-choogle and enjoying another pretty-great run. (The Faces’ highest-charting song was 1971’s “Stay With Me,” which peaked at #17.) But Stewart had also started recording his own solo albums in 1969. And thanks to the song that Stewart wrote about that afternoon in 1961, his solo records soon came to overshadow anything the Faces did.
Stewart co-wrote “Maggie May” with Martin Quittenton, guitarist for the blues-rock band Steamhammer. Ray Jackson, of the folk group Lindesfarne, improvised the mandolin intro. (Jackson only got session-musician pay for that, and no songwriting credit, and he was pissed off about that for decades.) For two albums, Stewart had been figuring out his own solo style, which built folk instrumentation and sloppily cluttered rock arrangements around his beautifully whiskeyed white-soul rasp. On paper, that combination looks a little too neatly triangulated, but that’s not how it sounds. It comes out organic, as if Stewart had drunkenly stumbled upon this sound. Every Picture Tells A Story, the album that gave us “Maggie May,” remains an absolute motherfucking front-to-back burner. Nobody sounded anything like Rod Stewart. Probably, nobody could.
“Maggie May” is the sound of a guy processing a formative experience. Something has happened, and he’s not sure how it’ll affect his life, but he knows he’ll never be the same again. He’s mad about it, but he’s not sure why he’s mad. There’s no chorus to the song, no structure. It’s not contrived. It’s more of a freeform unburdening, a wild parade of accusations and equivocations and confessions of love. It’s quite a ride.
“Wake up, Maggie, I think I’ve got something to say to you,” Stewart starts out, as if this has been keeping him up all night, even though he’s too conflicted to articulate what he needs to say. Stewart is nebulously pissed off: “I know I keep you amused, but I feel I’m being used.” He’s cruelly petty: “The morning sun, when it’s in your face, really shows your age.” But he’s also completely caught up in her: “You stole my heart, I couldn’t leave you if I tried.” The music is a warm, affectionate reel, a sign that Stewart’s looking at all this with a happy glow rather than a seething rage. And yet he ends it all unmoored and regretful: “Maggie, I wished I’d never seen your face / I’ll get on back home one of these days.” He never did, of course. He kept rambling.
As Tom Ewing’s “Maggie May” review points out, there’s a great lyrical trick toward the end of the song. Stewart is thinking about what he can do with his life now that it’s been totally upended. He thinks about going back to school, or about becoming a pool hustler, like his father. (Stewart’s real father was a master builder.) But then he hits on another idea: “Or find myself a rock ‘n’ roll band that needs a helping hand.” And just like that, “Maggie May” becomes Rod Stewart’s superhero origin story.
Stewart might not have meant for “Maggie May” to become that. He wasn’t crazy about the song, and neither was the label; it started out as the B-side to his single “Reason To Believe.” But radio DJs liked the B-side better, and it took off, turning Stewart, in short order, into a star. Stewart would stick around with the Faces until the band’s 1975 breakup, maintaining his more-popular solo career at the same time. But he was just starting on his journey to becoming the drunk uncle of pop music. We’ll see him again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Blur’s vaguely cheeky 1992 cover of “Maggie May”:
THE NUMBER TWOS: The Carpenters’ intense, wistful version of Delaney & Bonnie’s “Superstar” peaked at #2 behind “Maggie May.” It’s an 8.