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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Rod Stewart "Maggie Mae" Song Analysis

I haven't done a song analysis for a while, so here's one from my Deconstructed Hits: Classic Rock book - Rod Stewart's big hit "Maggie Mae." As with all song analysis, it's broken down into the song, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

"The breakout song from Rod Stewart's first solo album Every Picture Tells A Story was "Maggie May," which eventually topped the charts in both the US and the UK and launched his solo career. The song was originally released as a B-side of another song from the album, “Reason To Believe,” but after DJ’s began playing “Maggie May” instead, the song was re-categorized as the A-side. 

The mandolin part featured on the intro of the song was played by Ray Jackson of Lindisfarne, who sued Stewart for back royalties in 2003 even though he was paid as a session player. Supposedly drummer Micky Waller broke his bass drum pedal and had to play it with a stick, which is the reason why it doesn’t have much punch. Ironically, the song was almost left off the album because the record label didn’t feel it had a strong enough melody, but had to be included in the end as Rod ran out of time to replace it.

“Maggie May” only has three sections, verse, chorus and solos, but the distinction between the verse and chorus isn’t very strong. The song form looks like this:

intro ➞ verse ➞ chorus ➞ verse ➞ chorus ➞ verse ➞ chorus ➞ solo ➞ verse ➞ chorus ➞ solo ➞ interlude ➞ outro

Rod’s record label didn’t feel that the melody was strong enough, and while that might not be true, the fact that there’s not much of a difference between the verse and chorus melody and there’s really not a hook let’s you understand their trepidation.

The lyrics tell a supposedly true story of a jilted young lover, and while the story line is strong, Rod makes not effort to rhyme, especially in the chorus. That’s never bothered record buyers though, as millions of women everywhere suddenly felt they had some Maggie May in them. Interestingly enough, although Stewart sings “Maggie” in a number of places, he never actually sings “Maggie May” in the entire song.

Much of the playing in “Maggie May” is very loose, and you get the feeling that they didn’t do many takes to figure out each player’s part. That said, there is a specific arrangement that works well. Here's what the arrangement elements look like:

Arrangement Elements
  • The Foundation: drums, bass
  • The Rhythm: 12 string acoustic guitar, electric piano
  • The Pad: organ
  • The Lead: lead vocal, mandolin, guitar solo
  • The Fills: electric piano in fourth verse
The song begins with an intro of a mandolin and an acoustic 12 string along with the bass playing a counter line. When the verse begins, the lead vocal enters as does the drums. While the drums, organ and the 12 string play fairly straight, the bass never plays the same thing twice and is generally ad libbed throughout except for the intro and interlude. During the chorus (“You led me away from home…..”), the chord pattern changes but all the instruments as they were during the verse.

The next two verses and choruses have exactly the same instrumentation, but the chord pattern does change slightly during the guitar solo. During the fourth verse and chorus, an electric piano is added playing random arpeggiated chords.

The next solo is the same as the first one, except that it’s six bars long and plays bars seven and eight over the first two measures of the interlude. The interlude is the most different thing in the song as the 12 string drops out and is replaced by two mandolins that play similar (but not identical) melody lines, which is probably the signature line of the song. The bass also plays a more or less written line, imitating what he did on the intro. There’s also a high organ pedal note that’s doubled with an electric piano playing eighth notes. This continues for 20 measures (which is an odd number), and then the drums return as everything plays as they did in the section prior to the outro.

The sound of “Maggie Mae” is fairly thin, especially the bass and kick drum, which have virtually no bottom end to them. Although not all of Rod’s band The Faces played on the album, this was generally the sound of the band throughout its life.

The panning is odd, with the drums panned hard to the left and the bass hard to the right. The intro and interlude has two mandolins that are spread slightly left and right, while everything else is panned to the center.

The song is bone dry, proving that hit records can be made without any effects whatsoever. Rod Stewart's vocal is clear and not overly compressed.

Listen Up:
  • To the drums panned hard to the left and the bass panned hard to the right.
  • To the doubled mandolins playing slightly different lines in the interlude.
  • To the mistake in the bass at :38 as it fails to follow the chord change.


Rod was the producer of the album, but as was many the case back then, that probably meant more selecting the take and setting the song’s feel rather than directing the the band like it is today. Plus, you can’t really say that he had a vision, since both he, his co-writer, and the record label didn’t think of “Maggie May” in the first place. That said, history has proven so many times that what artists, producers and record companies may not be in love with is just the thing that the public wants."

You can read additional excerpts from Deconstructed Hits: Classic Rock Vol.1 and my other books on the excerpts section of


Anonymous said...

Nice analysis - I'm glad you note the importance of the story in the song, which works so well with Stewart's world-weary voice and the informal, improvised contribution of all the acoustic instruments.

Every Picture Tells a Story is another example of this approach, and clearly the record company thought that song was a more likely hit -- but it's got a more picaresque narrator who is more difficult for the average listener to identify with.

Even though poetry is an under-appreciated art in our culture, it's surprising how much hunger there is out there for it, and for good stories. Country music at its best, hip hop, folk, rock operas -- all story-based stuff.

Fred Decker said...

I agree with most of the above comments. I think there's a connection between the lyric and the quality of the performance which support each other -- even if this is only a happy accident.

Generally, I find it more useful to assume there are no happy accidents. If the guy played the "wrong" note on the record I assume it's because he meant to play that note and maybe I am the one who's wrong! If Rod's production values seem slipshod maybe it's because he was going for something more spontaneous sounding. Just a thought.

AA Music Studio said...

One of the most favorite song. I found this song magical. Rod has a unique voice that is hi and deep the same time, He is truly one of a kind. Just love it.


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