As Rod Stewart so memorably put it with his 1969 album title – An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down. Probably true.
He could have added – An Old Pop Song Won’t Ever Let You Down Either. Though in a way Handbags and Gladrags did. For him. And didn’t.
Confused? You will be.
Depending on which rock/pop generation you grew up with (or through) the “no, no, you are talking nonsense, this was the best version” argument will rage.
The song was actually written in 1967 by former A Band of Angels member Mike d’Abo who was by then the lead vocalist with the well established but sometimes troubled former blues band Manfred Mann (named after their sometimes troubled former bluesman founder Manfred Mann).
With the opening lyrics of “Ever seen a blind man cross the road trying to make the other side? Ever seen a young girl growing old trying to make herself a bride? “
It was clearly not a moon in June boy meets girl ditty.
In a 2003 interview with The Sunday Express, d’Abo, who also co-wrote The Foundations’ classic Build Me Up Buttercup, explained that Handbags and Gladrags was meant to suggest that fashion and style weren’t everything, a message that bucked the trend in youth culture at the time.
“I knew it was a social comment,” he said. “The moral of the song is saying to a teenage girl that the way to happiness is not through being trendy. There are deeper values.” How true even today.
As the lyrics say: “But once you think you’re in you’re out, Cause you don’t mean a single thing without the handbags and the gladrags that your granddad had to sweat so you could buy.”
Having recently charted with the lightweight Semi Detached Suburban Mr James (a last minute change from Mr Jones so as not to upset the departed original Manfred Mann frontman Paul Jones) and Ha Ha Said The Clown, it clearly wasn’t quite up the band’s street (well, not until 2003 when they included their version on an album).
So, one step forward please the rasping vocals of Chris Farlowe whose previous finest moment is, of course, his chart topping anthem Out of Time (written by Jagger and Richards) – a song which is still helping him do the oldies circuit today.
Handbags came 18 months after that smash and, apart from an Out Of Time re-issue in 1975 was his last chart hit – peaking at 33. Remarkable really that it’s still so well known.
Then again, it’s not all down to his version is it?
Two years later, in 1969, Rod Stewart recorded a version of the song for the album An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down. Arranged by Mike d’Abo, who also played piano on the recording, it failed to do much in the United States, until it was re-released as a single in 1972, and managed to peak at 42 in the Billboard Hot 100. In 1993, he recorded a live version of the song during his session for MTV Unplugged. This version was included on the album Unplugged…and Seated. When introducing the song on the 2004 live recording of One Night Only! Rod Stewart Live at Royal Albert Hall, Stewart asked the audience to recall who “else did it” and then stated “I did it first!”
Except, of course, he didn’t. And although adopted by his British fans, it was never a hit single for Stewart in the UK.
Another two years on, in 1971, Bill Chase and his jazz/rock fusion group Chase recorded a version as a single. It was included on their 1971 debut album Chase.
To a newer generation of listeners though the 2001 version by Welsh rock band Stereophonics is the definitive interpretation. Released originally as a single, it was subsequently added to their previous album’s re-release Just Enough Education to Perform and on their first compilation album.
The band had originally recorded their version as a demo “for a laugh”, but after the record company heard it they saw the potential of it being a single. Despite receiving some criticism (and accusations in some quarters that the band was “selling out”), it became one of their most successful singles: in Ireland it peaked at number three and it was certified gold in the UK where it reached number four.
The song was released as a single on 3 December 2001. Five different releases were made available – two CDs, a maxi-CD, vinyl and cassette.
To many people though the song will forever be associated as The Office theme song. In 2000, a version of Handbags and Gladrags was specifically arranged by Big George as the theme song on the BBC comedy series. Three versions were recorded – a short, instrumental piece as the opening titles theme, a short, vocal piece as the closing titles theme and an alternative full studio version. Both vocal versions feature the vocal performance of Waysted vocalist Fin Muir but in episode four of the first series a version performed by Ricky Gervais (in character as David Brent) was featured over the end credits.
Along the way even the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (2004) and Engelbert Humperdinck (2007) have had a go at d’Abo’s “social comment.”
|Rhythm & Blues, Blue-eyed Soul
|17 November 1967
|Rod Sterwart, The Sterophonics