The two best-known versions of “Handbags And Gladrags” were recorded by Rod Stewart in the late 1960s and then by Stereophonics in the early 2000s.
However that’s not where the song started off. It was written by Mike d’Abo in 1967 while he was the lead singer of Manfred Mann.
Chris Farlowe, who you might remember from his 1966 UK Number One with the Jagger/Richards composition “Out Of Time”, recorded “Handbags And Gladrags” first. Sadly his attempt to hit the top of the charts again didn’t pan out the way everyone hoped and Chris Farlowe’s version faded from public consciousness.
Rod Stewart recorded his version a couple of years later in 1969, with composer Mike d’Abo himself playing piano. Sadly it wasn’t a big hit for him either, although it did briefly get to number 42 on the Billboard Hot 100 when it was re-released a couple of years later.
Then “Handbags And Gladrags” remained a relatively minor footnote in music history for 30 years until Stereophonics recorded their cover — initially “just for a laugh”.
But with something of the young Rod Stewart in Kelly Jones’s voice, the Stereophonics version somehow became the standard, reaching number 4 in the UK charts and giving Stereophonics a gold record. Not bad for a relatively atypical piece by the Welsh rockers.
The Stereophonics’ chart success was no doubt helped by the fact that the year before, another version of “Handbags And Gladrags” had been recorded, this time by Big George, as the theme tune for the hit British sitcom “The Office”, which subsequently went on to spawn a US version and bring in massive international sales for the BBC.
This might be heresy in the face of one of the UK’s most successful TV exports, but I’ve never been a fan of “The Office”. But I do like Big George’s version of the wistful, melancholic theme tune.
All the versions of “Handbags And Gladrags” are performed slightly differently and it’s amazing what a difference that makes to the feel of the song.
Chris Farlowe’s version (here) uses a harmonica to generate wistfulness — along with an impressive, but surprisingly over-enthusiastic drum track which dials back the wistfulness a little.
Rod Stewart’s version (here) uses the oboe and a bit of French horn for wistfulness and that’s quite lovely. Nothing says “melancholy” quite like an oboe…
And if you think of Rod Stewart’s voice in terms of “Maggie May” or “Tonight’s The Night”, you’ll be very pleasantly surprised by the gentler nuances he brings to his version of “Handbags And Gladrags” — his version is worth a listen to for that alone.
Mike d’Abo even recorded his own version (here) which is more of a straightforward rock track. Although Mike d’Abo has a perfect voice for records like “The Mighty Quinn”, on which he sang lead for Manfred Mann, I’m not sure his softer voice is quite so well-suited to the more downbeat subject matter of “Handbags And Gladrags”.
And then, skipping over the Big George version which just used a snippet of the song over the titles for “The Office”, we get to the Stereophonics. Their version is a little slower than the Chris Farlowe or Rod Stewart versions. Somehow that works better. It makes the song more reflective and invites us to come along with the story at a gentler pace, which somehow hits home harder.
Stereophonics also keep the oboe for wistfulness, like the Rod Stewart version, which I think was a great decision.
One thing you might be wondering about, if you’re outside the UK, is just what “gladrags” are. Handbags are pretty much universal, but gladrags are a slang term for the sort of fancy clothes you might put on for a night on the town.
Mike d’Abo was trying to warn us about being materialistic and putting on a front just to be seen as cool and trendy…especially when someone else is paying the price to support your lifestyle and underwrite the cost of you having a good time…
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?
I know the world was a different place in the 1960s, but I’m pleased that young girls aren’t just expected to find a nice man to marry any more and regard having a family as the pinnacle of their achievement.
If that’s what they want, fair enough. But it should be driven by their choice, not by society’s expectations.
But I think we can imagine what Mike d’Abo’s line about “growing old trying to make herself a bride” must have meant. No matter what she did, there didn’t seem to be any fish on her hook. Back then the prospect of what used to be called spinsterdom was pretty much a living death sentence.
Women struggled to get well-paying roles and unmarried women could perhaps expect to be managing the typing pool by their mid-40s, or something like that. The married ones were expected to stop work to bring up their family.
Very few could become lawyers, doctors, engineers or other professionals and the odds were stacked against them succeeding (something else I’m glad is a lot less prevalent than it used to be). Growing old trying to become a bride was a bleak prospect.
After a while the old tricks don’t work anymore. Our “young girl” becomes good at getting dressed up in all her finery, but the prospects of a husband are no closer than they were before. She identifies with the “going out” version of herself and her grasp on who she really is deep inside starts to slip…(I’m not one to criticise, that’s also true for people who spend their spare time writing articles about music)…
So 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 poor old grandad had to sweat to buy for you
Trying to keep up with changing fashions and remaining part of the “in-crowd” isn’t easy. Before you know where you are, tastes have moved on and you’re behind the times again.
But if you allow yourself to be defined by your public image, or more accurately, the public image of yourself you hold in your mind, when that public image slips you find out there’s no “real you” left inside any more.
Mike d’Abo was trying to warn us of the futility of trying to surf atop the wave of popular culture for ever. Sooner or later the waves crash on the beach and you have to start again.
Sometimes you end up starting over so many times that the last thing you want to do is start over again. To continue the already over-extended metaphor, sometimes you just lie on your back in the sand and don’t have the energy to get up and try again.
The world has passed you by and you stop trying to catch it up.
There’s both good and bad in that. It depends on how you think about it.
It could be a sense of relief that you’ve stepped off a particularly fast-spinning hamster wheel and you’re glad to have left all that behind you. Or it could be the opening chapter in a resentful, unhappy life because everyone else has pressed on regardless with hardly a look over their shoulders to see how you were getting on.
Whatever you chose to take from this wonderfully melancholic Mike d’Abo song, I think we can all accept that “Handbags And Gladrags” is a fantastic song. And like all great songs, it makes us pause and think…which can never be a bad thing.
Overall, my favourite version of “Handbags And Gladrags” is the Stereophonics’, so I’ve linked to that version below. But do check out Chris Farlowe’s, Rod Stewart’s and Mike d’Abo’s versions above too…the all bring something slightly different to a very beautiful song.
Here’s the Stereophonics with “Handbags And Gladrags”…
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published. And why not check out my book “No Words, No Song”, where I write about more great songs like this one, available in the Kindle Bookstore (here).