Transcript 134–Maggie May

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and illness has ravaged my voice, but I’m powering through just because I love you.

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I’ve got some music video trivia for ye today: what do the videos for these songs have in common? They are:

A View to a Kill by Duran Duran

You’ll Be In My Heart by Phil Collins

Forever Man by Eric Clapton

And Everybody Have Fun Tonight by Wang Chung.

Want one more? Let’s go with Hip to be Square by Huey Lewis and the News.

What do the videos for those songs have in common?

I’ll have that answer at the end of the show.

Rod Stewart’s first big hit, “Maggie May,” like several other songs we’ve discussed in this space, wasn’t intended to be a hit. In fact, and ALSO like several other songs we’ve discussed in this space, it wasn’t even intended to be on the album.

So let us go back to those days of late 1970 to early 1971. Every Picture Tells a Story was Stewart’s third solo album, and because Stewart was still with the band Faces, all of that band’s members appeared at some point on the album. However, because of contractual restrictions, the album credits were left purposely vague. In fact, it’s possible, but not known for sure, that the entire band played on the cover of the Temptations’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You.”

The story behind Maggie May was told by Stewart himself in a 2007 interview with Q Magazine, and again in his autobiography, titled simply Rod. He wrote that when he was sixteen years old, he and a bunch of friends snuck into the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in the New Forest by crawling through an overflow sewage pipe.

Now, let me break away from Stewart’s story for a minute to tell you about the Beaulieu Jazz Festival. The festival ran in that British town from 1956 through 1961, on the grounds of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu’s home. And generally these were big Peace & Love-type events with the exception of the 1960 Festival. Nobody’s quite sure how it got started, but there was basically a clash of fans of different jazz styles during Mr. Acker Bilk’s performance. The arguments moved up to the stage itself and that’s when things got out of hand. It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, but it was definitely the worst, especially inasmuch as the BBC was broadcasting the event live on television before cutting away several minutes earlier than planned, with the announcer saying only “Things are getting quite out of hand.” 39 people were injured, some broadcast rigging was wrecked and an outbuilding set on fire. Since there was another festival the following year, it’s unclear why they stopped other than maybe its sponsor, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu had grown tired of holding them on his grounds. It’s also possible that having all these beatnik types come to town each year was just generally bad publicity.

At any rate, Stewart was at the festival in, by my math, that last festival in 1961 when, as he writes, (quote) “there on a secluded patch of grass, I lost my not-remotely-prized virginity with an older (and larger) woman who’d come on to me very strongly in the beer tent. How much older, I can’t tell you – but old enough to be highly disappointed by the brevity of the experience.” (unquote)

Now, when Stewart writes songs, he has a habit of composing the melody line first and then filling in the song lyrics later on, and that’s pretty much how “Maggie May” came to be. He and guitarist Martin Quittenton, who was with the band Steamhammer, had gotten together at Stewart’s house, and Quittenton played a few chords that caught Stewart’s attention. He started working out a vocal melody to go with those chords, and he temporarily plugged in the words to an old folk song called “Maggie Mae”—spelled M-A-E—and that’ll be important later, so keep it in the back of your head. That, in turn, got him thinking about that day ten years earlier when he met up with that older woman, and he started filling his notebook with idea, finally coming up with a story about a young adult who falls for an older woman and isn’t quite sure what to do next.

Now, I’m going to pause the story for a second and give you a personal recollection. I was about eight years old when this song came out, and I do remember it being played on the radio because my parents were into pop music. And I remember being quite confused by those opening lines, specifically the part about it being September and how he should be back in school. Eight-year-old me couldn’t solve the mystery: why didn’t his mother just MAKE him go to school? I don’t think I actually voiced my confusion, so it was awhile before I understood what was going on.

Okay, So Stewart gets a melody line together and they take it into the studio. For “Maggie May” he had Ron Wood and Ian McLagan from his band Faces—of which he was still a member, remember—plus Quittenton and Ray Jackson on the mandolin. Jackson had been hired for the track “Mandolin Wind”, and Stewart liked the way that worked out, so he decided he’d like to have mandolin on “Maggie May”. Jackson was asked to come up with something that they could use to end the song, and he was pretty much able to come up with something on the spot. And that’s kind of cool, but there’s a controversy attached to that that I’ll get to in a bit. Rounding out the band was Mickey Waller on drums, but here’s an interesting detail that I think actually adds to the song. Waller arrived at the recording session with the expectation that there would be a drum kit there, and in fact there was, but there weren’t any cymbals around. So they did what they could, getting the song nailed in two takes, and Waller had to come in a few days later and overdub the cymbal crashes. And for me, their extra prominence in punctuating the song is part of what makes it great. If he’d been banging on cymbals during the original recording, I think they’d be deeper in the mix. But instead, they’re practically out in front with Stewart’s voice, and I just love that.

The song runs at five minutes and forty-six seconds, if you include the mandolin introduction, and while it’s got a bunch of changes in it, it doesn’t really have a chorus as such, and pretty much everyone involved thought that it was a little bit of an oddball song, to the point where it was nearly left off the album. However, when they started to put the album together, they realized they were about five minutes short, and “Maggie May” was already in the can, so why not just throw it in and be done with it. Mercury Records didn’t think much of it either, so they released it as the B side of “Reason to Believe.” And how many times have I told this story? At some point a DJ flipped the record over—in this case it was at WOKY in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—and he decided he liked the B side better, and suddenly that’s the one getting all the airplay. And as the record caught on, Mercury was forced to release it as a single in its own right.

OK, let’s clean up a few details. That mandolin opening has its own title on the UK releases of the album, and it’s called “Henry”. That part of the song was written by Martin Quittendon and it was Stewart’s way of giving him a little bonus. Remember a few episodes back when I said one long song gets one song royalties while two shorter songs gets two song royalties? Same principle applied here, and it doesn’t matter that “Henry” is only 23 seconds long; it’s still a song in its own right.

Next: Ray Jackson’s story. Jackson came from the band Lindisfarne. Now, in 2003 he threatened to sue Stewart because he thought he deserved a partial writing credit for the song. Now, Stewart had hired Jackson on several occasions after the Every Picture Tells a Story sessions, but knew nothing about Jackson having a problem with the song. There were rumors and such in the 1980s, to the point where a representative for Stewart had to reply publicly that Jackson was a “work for hire” guy and he’d been compensated. I think what especially bugged Jackson is the way he’s credited on the back of the album. It reads: “The mandolin was played by the mandolin player in Lindisfarne. The name slips my mind” which, let’s face it, is kind of a jerk move. But in the end, Jackson didn’t sue, so who knows how important it really was to him.

And finally we have that folk song that provided the scratch lyric for Stewart called “Maggie Mae”, M A E. That folk song is specifically a Northern England folk song, from a little town called Liverpool, the hometown of four guys who also became famous musicians, and who also had a song called “Maggie Mae”, which appeared on the Let it Be album:


That original Maggie Mae was supposedly a prostitute who hung out on Lime Street in that town, and it’s one of those songs that have lots of variations. The earliest version of it goes to about 1905, but here’s a version that proved quite popular in 1956, when
A L Lloyd released it on an album called English Drinking Songs.


So you can hear the melody the Beatles used, if not quite the same words. But then again John and Paul were just doing a warmup and fooling around, and John liked to play with the lyrics that way. That said, Paul knows exactly what John is doing and is singing along, so he’s clearly sung it that way before. And while the full name “Maggie May” doesn’t appear in the lyrics to the song, Stewart liked the wordplay provided by spelling it M A Y, as in sometimes she would, and sometimes she wouldn’t.

The song became a huge hit, and at one point both “Maggie May” and the album Every Picture Tells a Story were in the Number One position in both the US and the UK, the first time that something like that had ever happened simultaneously. And Faces became Rod Stewart and Faces before he finally broke away altogether.


As far as covers of the song? Sure, there are about 45 of them out there, including Melissa Etheridge, Burton Cummings, Blur, and this one by the Pogues, which they recorded in 1987 during the sessions for their If I Should Fall From Grace With God album, but which didn’t make that album, so it didn’t see the light of day until it turned up in a box set in 2008.

And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what the videos for these songs had in common. We had:

A View to a Kill by Duran Duran

You’ll Be In My Heart by Phil Collins

Forever Man by Eric Clapton

Everybody Have Fun Tonight by Wang Chung.

and Hip to be Square by Huey Lewis and the News.

The common thread is that they were all directed by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme. You might remember them from alllll the way back to Episode One of this show as the writers of “I’m Not In Love.” Well, in 1979 they decided to direct their own video of their song “Englishman in New York,” which is NOT the same song performed by Sting some years later. From there they became involved in the production of videos for a number of artists…including the five I’ve mentioned here. I have to admit I don’t really remember the song “Englishman in New York,” but when I went back to watch the video, there were definitely parts of that which came back to my memories. I’ll link it at the website so you, too, can have a trip down Memory Lane. It’s a pretty innovative video, especially for its time.

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