The Guardian- As told to Dave Simpson
Rod Stewart: ‘I don’t mind the piss being taken out of me.’ Photograph: Penny Lancaster
Answering Guardian readers’ questions, the singer discusses his epic railway modelling, his admiration of the Sex Pistols and the secrets of his hair regime
Did you have any heroes in the beginning of your career that you wanted to move or look like? JoeHill
I didn’t look at singers and think: “That’s how I want to move,” but I sorta wanted to sound like ’em. I started off with Eddie Cochran – that rough-edged voice – and moved on to Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack and David Ruffin. I went from being a beatnik to a mod with long hair.
Born to Boogie on the new album [The Tears of Hercules] is about Marc Bolan. We used to go to the hairdresser’s together. I did the 1971 Weeley festival when I was in the Faces and Maggie May was No 1 and he was in T Rex, and he was good enough to come in the dressing room and admit that he didn’t want to follow us. Not many stars would have done that. We became great mates. I loved his music. It was easier for him to wear sequins and whatever in Putney than up north.
You recently revealed you were shipping your stunning model railway to the UK. How do you transport such a project? DoubleRDiner
It’s a model city [based on New York and Chicago] that took me 23 years to build. It’s 60ft long by 25ft wide. Bigger than most people’s houses. It’s taken seven months to move. A lot of it had to be rebuilt, because you can’t move a model railroad. It’s very expensive, but worth it, ’cos it’s my favourite hobby and I work on it every day. I was born in Highgate, north London, and out of my window I could see railway lines and, beyond that, football pitches. I once said that I’d rather be on the cover of Railway Modeller than Rolling Stone magazine and Rolling Stone haven’t spoken to me since.
Which five songs do you never tire of singing? Nigglypat58
I love them all. They’re my babies. There was a time I got tired of singing Da Ya Think I’m Sexy? because it was so critically put-down, but it made people happy, so what’s wrong with that? It still puts a smile on people’s faces when I sing it.
Can you tell us anything more about the man who inspired The Killing of Georgie and how closely the song’s lyrics stick to what really happened? MissidahoPotato
As a gay kid growing up in Glasgow, it meant so much to hear you singing something so passionate, if heartbreaking, about gay people. Were you nervous about how the song would be received? Trumansdad
It’s a song about a guy who befriended the Faces. A very good-looking gay black guy who turned us on to so much great music. In the 70s, being gay was dangerous. Whether he got murdered because he was gay or black or robbed, I don’t know, but it was in Lower Manhattan. I think the only resistance was from the good old BBC, but they resist anything that might be risque. They didn’t realise I was helping a lot of people. It gives me more satisfaction than anything when gay guys say: “In the 70s, when it came out, it was a really black period of my life and you’ve no idea how much this song helped me.”
I’ve been in law enforcement for 18 years. How do you feel about Penny [Lancaster, Rod’s wife, a special constable] being in this field, especially in this day and age? JbirdHuck7
A few years ago, she went out on the beat with real police for a TV special. She had a few frights – a woman drug addict chased her with a needle trying to stab her – but she loved it. She passed her exams and the physical stuff, such as a bleep test, to see how strong her heart is. During training, guys would swear at her and charge at her like they were rioters, but I’m so proud of her. She wants to look after the city she loves, which is London. Go girl! She’s 6ft 2in, so I don’t have to worry about her.
How much did Kenny Everett’s impression of you in leopardskin trousers sting at the time? johnnyfingers
When he had an inflating bum? [Laughs.] I loved it! Brilliant. I don’t mind the piss being taken out of me. I really don’t. I’ve still got those trousers.
Is it true that you were paid for your legendary vocal on Python Lee Jackson’s In a Broken Dream with a set of car seat covers? doowenday
My mate worked for Marcos cars and I had one of their little sports cars. He was trying to get into managing rock groups and this lot came from Australia, but they had this song which the singer couldn’t sing. My mate said: “Can you come and do a demo for me?” They had no money, so he offered me a set of carpets for the car. I sang it in two takes and never heard anything more about it until A$AP Rocky sampled it in Everyday. My boys love that, but ’cos it’s A$AP Rocky, not because of me.
I throughly enjoyed Elton John’s account, in his autobiography, of his endless attempts to show you up and upstage you. Which is your favourite – and do you have a favourite retaliation? mattyjj
Some of them were very public, but the one where he showed me up the most was in private. We used to live 20 minutes from each other in Berkshire, so for Christmas I bought him a pop-up fridge from Harrods. You pressed a button and there’d be steam and lights and a bottle of champagne. It cost me £600; a lot of money in the 70s. We swapped presents and he said: “Oh very nice, dear, thank you.” He gave me a Rembrandt painting! I’ve never felt so stingy. He’s eternally the most generous person I’ve ever known. I’m not sure what the best one I’ve done on “her” is … he’s usually got one over on me. I can’t bear it. We communicate through the press now, but we love each other. That’s what counts.
How long does it take to achieve the full Rod Stewart hair? Punkawallah
Two minutes! Get the hairdryer, put a bit of product in it, dry it upside down to make it all stand up, then put a bit of wax on, which didn’t exist when I started this haircut, making it stand up using sugar and water. I started it, so I’m gonna finish it.
Your 1977 single I Don’t Want to Talk About It famously kept the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen off the No 1 spot. From your understanding of the backroom machinations, was it a fair fight? McScootikins
I didn’t really care who came in at No 1 or No 2. [The Pistols’ manager] Malcolm McLaren kicked up a huge fuss and said I was a thieving, lying sod, but if there was any shenanigans I’d own up to it. God Save the Queen was brilliant. I loved the Sex Pistols and thank them for giving Bowie and Elton and me and all the rest of us a good kick up the arse. They showed that music can be made by anybody.
I was moved by your rendition of Grace, which tells the story of a leader of the Easter rising marrying in jail just before his execution. Can you say how you came to this song and what it means to you? timothyogrady1
About eight years ago, I heard the Celtic supporters singing it at the Scottish Cup final and just fell in love with it. It’s about Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford, who were married in prison in 15 minutes with guards with fixed bayonets either side of them. He was taken out the next morning and shot. I visited Kilmainham jail and all the relevant spots to do with the uprising and I watched a programme on Netflix called Rebellion and gave myself a history lesson. The BBC think it’s an IRA song. Of course it isn’t. There’s nothing in it to offend. It’s one of the most gorgeous love songs I’ve ever sung. When I sing it in places like New York, where there’s a lot of Irish people, you can hear a pin drop.
Did you turn down any songs that you wish you had recorded or record any that you wish you hadn’t? MarkStewart
The only one I was a bit sad over was That’s What Friends Are For, which was a big hit for Elton and Stevie Wonder [with Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight], ’cos I did the original. The record company didn’t see it as a single, but then they got hold of it. No hard feelings or anything. Their version was good, but not as good as mine. That bloody Elton John again! [Laughs.]
How important was [the British rhythm and blues singer] Long John Baldry to your career? artistian
He was everything. Absolutely everything. He not only got me started … He found me drunk, singing on Twickenham railway station, playing harmonica. I’d just been to see his show. He came over and he was a bit like Stephen Fry. Well spoken. Cyril Davies and the All Stars were the key blues band, before the Stones and everything, but Cyril had died and John said: “Young man, I need someone to open the show for me.” I was only 16 or 17 so I said: “You’ll have to ask me mum.” So he came round to see my mum with a bunch of flowers and she loved him. They were playing all the universities and my mum told him I could do it “as long as he’s home by 11 o’clock”. How could I do that if we were playing Newcastle University?! But he was such a polite, well-mannered gentleman that he wooed her over. She loved him. The whole family did. I loved him so much. It’s time I wrote a song about him.
Will we see a movie of your life like Queen’s [Bohemian Rhapsody] and Elton’s [Rocket Man]? guy1h1
Well, I’m praying someone will make a biopic. There’s been rumours, but nothing yet. My two sons could play the younger me. They haven’t got the hair, but nowadays the wigs look very normal. Look at Elton’s barnet!
What Celtic game gave you the most pleasure and why? Ghilliedhu
When they beat Barcelona in the Champions League in Glasgow 2-1, in 2012. I was seen – and you can see it on YouTube – crying my eyes out like a baby. I didn’t know the cameras were on me, but I was just so emotionally overcome. Great questions, readers! A big difference to the usual boring shit.
The Tears of Hercules is out now on Warner Records