The first single from Rod Stewart’s album A Spanner in the Works, the Tom Petty composition “Leave Virgina Alone,” could be considered his first single in a very long time so greatly aligned with the remembered sound of Rod’s “classic” period of folk-tinged rock (1969-72). It’s almost totally acoustic, save a few notable guitar lines that sort of emulate Ron Wood’s slide work on early Rod albums.

I actually have this on cassingle (or at least I had it). I ran out and bought it after I saw Rod debut the single in the US on an episode of Saturday Night Live. As I recall, I was immediately struck by how joyous he seemed during the performance, and how well that lifted the song up. The recorded version is a bit more subtle than the SNL one: Rod gives a restrained, straight-ahead performance that, interestingly, leans towards his more ballad-related deliveries even with the bright, fast-paced tempo of the backing track. Stewart’s focus here is on softer tones, the enunciation of (and sometimes lingering on) each syllable, with no real vocal gymnastics or improvisation — which are hallmarks of his “rocker” vocals. He really only deals out louder expressions in the song’s final minute, during the final repetition of the chorus. All in all, it’s a solid song with a fitting vocal performance that Rod makes sound so easy. It was a definite “should have been” hit, but peaked at only #52 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Two notes re: Rod and this album that may interest only me. At the time that Spanner came out, Stewart gave an interview in which he said that while he had a Petty composition and a Dylan cover (“Sweetheart Like You”) on the album, he really wasn’t a Petty fan, and preferred Tom Waits as a composer to Dylan, because Waits songs were better songs for singers (Stewart covers Waits’ “Hang on St. Christopher” on Spanner). I thought this was a really striking comment, as well as an odd thing to do when one’s first single had just been released: it was basically like saying “Yeah, Petty…he’s no great shakes, really. But I thought I’d throw him a bone and accept the song he brought me. Whatever….By the way, it’s the first single, check it out!”

The second thing that strikes me is the title of the album itself. Since spanner is slang for wrench, the title translates to “a wrench in the works,” that is, things screwing up — not a good thing, indeed. Of course, the title has a double meaning, as spanner also refers positively to a career-spanning work. And it’s true that the album, more than his works from the preceding 15 years or so, incorporates sounds associated with other parts of his recording career, such as his arrangement of the Gaelic traditional “Purple Heather” (which will likely be covered in a future week), and R&B tribute “Muddy, Sam and Otis”. Of course, while it’s used as a pun, the term spanner and its slang association within the album title simply cannot be escaped, which makes its use all the more curious.

The academic in me feels like Rod’s sending a message to most music critics, saying, “You want me to sing stuff like you like? Fine, here’s a few tunes. But, sorry, don’t expect this to be a ‘return to form’ — it’s just a wrench I’m throwing into the works of what I really want to do with my career.” Considering the trajectory his recordings have taken in the years since Spanner, my suspicions might be true: after this album, and the slicker (but also somewhat nostalgic) When We Were the New Boys, Stewart returned to more straightforward pop, and then moved on to mainly recording standards from the “Great American Songbook,” with three albums of “traditionals,” and one of MOR classic rock.

Join me again next week, when Rod gets some help from another gentleman who, like both Stewart and Petty, is a fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Famer.