Written in 1967, its first incarnation was as a single by British belter Chris Farlowe, who had a modest success with it in his native country. Its biggest chart success came when Stereophonics turned it into a Top 10 UK hit after releasing it as a single in 2001. Earlier that same year, the song gained perhaps its biggest exposure when it was used as the music for the opening and closing credits for The Office, which would become one of the most critically-acclaimed television comedies ever to come out of Great Britain, eventually spawning a long-running U.S. hit show.
All of those takes are fine, but the definitive version of the song came from Rod Stewart, who included it on his 1969 debut album An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down (known in the US as The Rod Stewart Album.) Stewart badgered songwriter Mike D’Abo, who wrote the song while he was the frontman for Manfred Mann in ’67, for the chance to record the track, and D’Abo relented once Stewart scored an album deal.
The pair also worked on the woodwind and string arrangements that would lend Stewart’s track that extra bit of pomp and drama. Rod The Mod did the rest, singing with the kind of passion and abandon that he brought to his bluesier material while still making sure to honor D’Abo’s lilting melody in the process.
In a 2003 interview with Britain’s 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 certainly 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 being trendy. There are deeper values.”
D’Abo’s lyrics imply that fashion’s fickle nature can leave anyone relying on it for their well-being in a world of hurt. “But once you think you’re in you’re out,” Stewart sings, “’Cause you don’t mean a single thing without/The handbags and the gladrags that your granddad had to sweat so you could buy.”
Stewart plays the role of caring friend throughout, finally urging the girl to get her priorities straight and leave behind the stylish trappings before it’s too late: “They told me you missed school today/So I suggest you just throw them all away.” Styles may change and trends may come and go, but it’s a safe bet that “Handbags and Gladrags,” as delicately authored by Mike D’Abo and powerfully sung by Rod Stewart, won’t ever go out of fashion.