The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Subscriber Area

The Low Culture Essay: Wendy Erskine On Rod Stewart's Hot Legs Video
Luke Turner , February 14th, 2023 10:47

In this month's Low Culture essay, Wendy Erskine discusses Rod Stewart's video for his 'Hot Legs' single while considering the cultural history of the leg under the male gaze

In the summer of 1983 I went to stay with my French pen-pal for a month. I had a Lady Di hair-cut, I didn’t know much French and I was fourteen. Tracie Young, who had sung backing vocals on The Jam’s ‘Beat Surrender’ the previous year before going on to have her own hits, was my favourite pop star. An article in No.1 magazine, in which she met her idol Paul Young and told him how she checked his horoscope every day was, to my mind, a work of great literature. I forgot to bring anything to read on the trip, so I made do with the two English-language books I found on the shelf in my Paris bedroom: Fat Is A Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach and The Prophecies of Nostradamus. When I wasn’t being introduced to psychoanalytic dissection of the ideologies of eating, I was pondering how the young lion would overcome the older one on the field of battle and pierce his eyes through a golden cage so he died a cruel death.

I’ve never really gone in for that idea about French people being stylish. That said, it dawned on me quickly that my French pen-pal’s family were pretty cool customers. There were two older brothers: the one with very blue eyes was into 50s rock & roll, and the other had a crew-cut and liked King Sunny Adé. One July afternoon I stood in a shop with my pen-pal and her cousin, staring at a wall of singles. At number one was ‘L’Italiano’ by Toto Cutugno. My pen-pal’s cousin pointed at one of the 7" and asked if I liked it. It was Rod Stewart and the single was ‘Baby Jane’. I hated ‘Baby Jane’ so I instantly said, non. She lifted ‘Baby Jane’ from its plastic slot to examine the cover with its multiple versions of lovelorn Rod in black PVC. She said that I must in fact like him because he was English. Actually, non, I repeated.

I couldn’t explain how he was someone to be laughed at, how in the Kenny Everett Video Show Rod parody his bum inflated over the course of the dopey song ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ until he took off into the air. My French didn’t extend to that. (‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ is, it has to be said, not really very sexy. It might seem all black satin sheets, Jackie Collins and zipless fucks, but it’s tentative and reasonably angst-ridden – she’s alone, he’s nervous; her heart is pounding, his lips are dry. She points out that if they are going to pursue things, then she needs to borrow a dime so that she can phone her mother. He, unfortunately, doesn’t have any coffee or milk.) Instead I feigned an interest in French singers and bands I’d never heard of, lifting records, pretending to read the notes. Je n’aime pas Rod Stewart. Il est très awful.

And then I remembered that I liked the video for ‘Hot Legs.’

‘Hot Legs’ is what Rod Stewart called one of his ‘shagging songs.’ You know the sort: lines about being well-equipped, keeping pencils sharp, jet-black suspender belts, pussies being whipped and so on, and so on. It was the second single from 1977’s Foot Loose & Fancy Free, one of a series of 70s albums including Atlantic Crossing and the platinum-selling Night On The Town. Footloose is a bit of a mix. There’s a psychedelic Motown cover, big ballads with the element of existential questioning Rod often favours. ‘I Was Only Joking’ is rueful and thoughtful, offering a meta-take, a singer alienated from a crowd that doesn’t understand. And then there is ‘Hot Legs’ in which, at the endearingly specific time of a quarter to four, Rod is importuned by a woman.

There’s a common motif in Rod-associated songs, from The Faces onwards, in which hapless guys are waylaid from the righteous path by sirens. In ‘Had Me a Real Good Time,’ someone is innocently cycling through his neighbourhood when he is invited by a high-class girl to a party. In ‘Maggie May’, Rod would be back in school were it not for that older woman. ‘Hot Legs’ is similar, but this time she is young and possibly still in school. She may be alluring but like Rita in ‘Stay With Me’, she will need to disappear when her company is no longer required. Get up! Get out!

By the time I stood looking at the French singles of 1983 in that Parisian shop I had seen, while walking to school, a woman trying to escape from a car. I had watched as a man dragged her back into it by her hair. I had read, along with everyone else, the proto-fan fiction a classmate had written based on 1978 film The Stud. The handwriting might have been neat and loopy but the content was X-rated. I had had a Santa Claus in a shopping centre ask me when I sat on his knee if he could have a nice kiss – a proper kiss. I had danced around at a twelfth birthday party to a song on repeat, ‘You’ve Gotta Be A Hustler If You Wanna Get On’ by Sue Wilkinson, sung in a breathy Home Counties voice, stressing the imperative of using sex as a career advancement strategy. The world didn’t seem a terribly pristine place.

In some ways wasn’t that just great? It was a thrill to read samizdat sleaze, sitting on the floor of a school cloakroom, surrounded by duffle coats. In other ways it was horrible. It was not pleasant to have some man’s eyes slide over your legs and knee-socks when you were on a bus. In some ways it was confusing: the joy and delight in songs whose sentiments in the real world would be reprehensible. Rock & roll, the irresponsible genre, was perhaps too irresponsible: nowadays Rod has apparently dropped ‘Tonight’s the Night’, ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ and ‘Hot Legs’ from his sets.

Still from the 'Hot Legs' video

And yet and yet and yet. It remains a video I love. It never fails to put me in a better mood. Director Bruce Gowers, responsible for many other videos including Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’ and Prince’s ‘1999’, might have intended something cheeky, cheery and sexy that spoke to an ordinary guy, an everyman. The band are in blue collar luxe workwear and jumpsuits. There are garages, barns, yards: quotidian spots. There is a ‘hot bird.’ But more than that, it would seem, is going on.

It opens with a kick, in medias res. It’s an overcast day but Rod and the boys are full of exuberance as they ride into town on the roof of a car. That town is Piru, in Ventura County, California. It’s been used as a film location on many occasions, from the 1954 version of A Star is Born to the more recent Lucky, starring Harry Dean Stanton. Rod’s in dungarees but they have the addition of a little belt with a kind of Gucci snaffle bit. The ebullient mood is tempered somewhat by a dull-looking slab of mountain behind them and the overcast weather.

Then comes a very striking shot. The band are walking in a line, spaghetti western fashion, the scrubland and crags behind them. They proceed along railway tracks, but in the foreground is something, immobile, lying across the metal. It’s the legs of a woman and she is wearing high heels. The rest of her is out of shot. It looks like the body of someone who has been murdered or the legs of a shop mannequin, abandoned in this bleak spot. Certainly, the men aren’t too interested or disturbed. They simply walk on by, apart from the one guy who has to step over the legs to continue on his way. The song might be cheerily horny, but on this railway line in Piru, things are decidedly not.

It's rumoured that the legs (and on a couple of occasions, an upper body) which appear in this video belong to Jennilee Harrison, who went on to play the character of Jamie Ewing Barns in Dallas from 1984 to 1986. I can’t confirm this, but having looked at pictures of her legs in various photographs and movie stills, they strike me as pretty similar. I always notice people’s legs. In my own writing – short stories – I am probably more likely to describe someone’s legs than their face: whether they are, you know, palely muscled, or twitching, or veined. I notice when women have Paula Rego style legs: strong, thick, powerful. Sometimes when I look at my own legs and the shape of them in heels and tight trousers, I am reminded of that precise moment in Animal Farm when the pigs begin to walk on their hind legs. This is why I don’t often wear heels and tight trousers. I marvel at the woman’s legs in the sculpture by F.E. Williams, ‘Woman in a Bomb Blast’. Propelled backwards by the blast, her legs are as elegant and slender as those of a model on a packet of tights. That’s what comes to mind first, rather than any commentary on Northern Ireland. Not long ago, I saw Maarten van Heemskerck’s ‘Ecce Homo Triptych’. Jesus is placed between Pilate, governor of Judaea, and two executioners. What struck me most of all was the way Pilate and Jesus had exactly the same legs, although Pilate was wearing red tights. There was an identical degree of curve from the knee, the same prominent shin bones.

The legs are no longer on the railway tracks in the next scene of the video ‘Hot Legs’. One lies flat on the ground, while the other is bent. Rod is filmed through the triangle this makes. He smirks, closes his eyes in bliss. This particular frame within a frame has some pedigree. Benjamin Braddock, in suit and tie, is framed by Mrs Robinson’s bare leg. In the movie poster for For Your Eyes Only, 007 is there under tanned legs in high heels and skimpy pants. Yesterday I saw on a t-shirt the Grim Reaper framed by the legs of a sexy skeleton in go-go boots.

But then, disembodied women’s legs aren’t anything particularly new in art either, are they? There are the two pairs of legs, conjoined beneath the moon, in Max Ernst’s ‘Men Shall Know Nothing Of This’; and Jim Dine’s ‘Walking Dream With Four Foot Clamp’, which shows nineteen legs. Also appearing in the painting are tools like a spanner – in some ways, it has the same ‘legs plus work’ aesthetic as Rod’s video. And what about Allen Jones with his disembodied legs in high heels, and Laurie Simmons with her cameras and houses on top of a pair of women’s legs?

But what this video – with its erotic and unerotic elements – most reminds me of is ‘Pauline Bunny’, Sarah Lucas’s assemblage of tights stuffed with kapok, a mid-century wooden chair and some clamps. As in the Max Ernst painting, there are two sets of legs, but in ‘Pauline Bunny’, one pair wears stockings. The tights are stretched over the chair, integrating functionality. There’s no head, just another set of legs, secured with clamps. (I made something a little similar myself as a kid, out of stuffed tights, except my creation was dressed in a tracksuit and had a smiley face. It sat in my room for months. I called it ‘Big Bertha’.)

The legs in the video are again used to frame Rod, but they are positioned in a reverse composition. They remain immobile, still as a mannequin, still as death. It will come as little surprise that all along, the legs have been wearing fishnet tights. First popular with showgirls and flappers in the 1920s, fishnets have been a hit with all kinds of people ever since: punks, goths, skin girls, dancers, acrobats - anyone really, who wants to liven up a dowdy outfit with a little frisson. Fishnet tights invariably appear in the stock photos used to accompany news stories about kerb-crawling, the kind of images that purport to be illustrative but are in fact there for titillation. The images are never of the punters, looking in their rear-view windows, pulling on the hand-brake, pressing down the window. Instead, they’re of shapely women in bomber jackets, high heels and fishnets, leaning into the car, negotiating terms.

What fishnets do is make legs look good. They give a black line that offers definition, but then the squares distort around any curves of knee or calve, accentuating the shape. So yes, of course, for so many reasons the legs here in the video are going to be wearing fishnets.

Other aspects of the video destabilise the hotness. One is the number of dogs that appear: dusty, good-natured dogs sniffing around. At one point, Rod half-addresses a lascivious line about a jet-black suspender belt to an unperturbed old mutt. During the middle eight, the guitarist proceeds down the railway track laughing and doing a Chuck Berry duckwalk. The legs are nowhere to be seen, but he is followed by a crowd of children, a few awkward, but most smiling. One wears a t-shirt saying ‘Piru’.

But let me tell you about my favourite person in the whole video. I’m suspicious of first-person narratives. They’re always unreliable, for no matter how circumspect and supposedly frank and transparent the story is supposed to be, it’s always compromised. I like any writer who acknowledges this, particularly one who builds into a first-person narrative an alternative perspective on the central consciousness and its worldview. In Megan Nolan’s Acts Of Desperation, the narrator tells a story of female desire and power and love and mistreatment. I loved it. At one point, in comes an ex-boyfriend Reuben to say, “you always think your pain is the most painful. You always think it’s uniquely awful." Such alternative perspectives puncture the hermetic dimension of the narrative. There is a character not unlike this in the Rod Stewart video. He is there from the beginning and throughout. He’s a fairly old man., self-possessed, at ease, wearing a grey sweatshirt and soft hat, his legs crossed composedly. He looks bored, and he turns his head away from Rod’s antics – as if to say, I can’t be bothered with all this nonsense.

At a certain point in the video, the camera pulls back and for the first time we see a body attached to the legs. There is still no face – we see the woman from the back – but she has long brown hair, a white top and blue shorts. Again, her legs are used to frame Rod, but then we cut to another shot, and now the legs are framing someone else: the old man. He turns his head away in ennui and maybe disdain.

The legs are immobile by the end of the video. Rod actually touches one of them, in the way one might a piece of guttering. “I love you honey", he says, and looks upwards into the dark crotch of the fishnets. At this moment, there’s something I imagine: the face of the old man, wearing a look of slight contempt.

In my suitcase, when I went to stay with my pen-pal, was a bottle of the legendary 80s potion, Sun In. It promised Californian beachy blonde through spray-on hydrogen peroxide action. But it reliably turned everyone’s hair – including mine – a shade of brassy yellow. My Lady Di haircut grew out. Whether I liked Rod Stewart or not, by the end of the trip I looked like him.