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British Invasion: The Small Faces

The Small Faces were snappy dressers, but their sound was gloriously gritty.
The Small Faces’ sound was rooted in the American R&B of Booker T. and the MG’s, Jimmy Reed and James Brown. Courtesy Jan Persson/CTS Images

The Small Faces’ sound was rooted in the American R&B of Booker T. and the MG’s, Jimmy Reed and James Brown. Courtesy Jan Persson/CTS Images

by Rush Evans

It’s a Thursday night, and a fiery band with a British Invasion-vibe has taken the stage at the long and narrow Lucky Lounge in downtown Austin, Texas.

“This is one I wrote with Ronnie Lane back in, oh, 1853,” says the front man and keyboard player. “This is for all the rude girls in the house; let’s see who you are!”

A few piano chords precede a soulful groove organ intro, and “You’re So Rude” is off and running. It’s a mighty quartet, The Bump Band, that plays this room a few dozen Thursdays every year. At the end of a slower, funkier Ronnie Lane tune called “Spiritual Babe,” Ian McLagan looks up from his keys and hollers, “Ronnie Lane in the house!”

For McLagan, Ronnie Lane is always in the house. They literally toured the world together and spiritually tripped the universe fantastic as members of one of the ’70s most-celebrated rock-and-roll bands, The Faces, whose other members included a future Rolling Stone (Ronnie Wood), a member of The Who (Kenney Jones) and, of course, Rod Stewart.

McLagan and Lane both had rich musical careers after The Faces, but even further back, they first joined forces as young British bands dominated rock and roll. With Jones on drums and Steve Marriott on vocals and guitar, Lane on bass and vocals and McLagan on keys, they were Small Faces. It was an apt name for four equally diminutive rockers (each was about five feet, four inches tall and “face” was another term for the snappily dressed counter-cultural British trendsetter, otherwise known as a Mod).

The Animals, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks — each brought something unique to the table and were all products of the American music that reached across the Atlantic. Small Faces was no exception, with a Stax soul-inspired sound that rang right through Marriott’s ragged voice and McLagan’s glorious Hammond B3 organ.

Ian McLagan and the Bump Band keep the spirit of Small Faces alive some 45 years after that band’s inception. It’s a labor of love for McLagan, who has emerged as a brilliant songwriter and vocalist, roles he rarely held in either Small Faces or Faces.

But he always finds ways to celebrate the music with which he has been so long associated, and he frequently follows originals with Ronnie Lane songs.

From Small Things

Steve Marriott could always sing. While still a child, he had performed as the Artful Dodger in the London stage production of “Oliver!”

It was an inspired bit of typecasting for the Cockney kid who had already busked by the bus stops in London’s East End. The little troublemaker had been sent to theater school for having burnt his own school down. As a young actor, he starred in several films in 1963 and ’64. The rough edges in his dodgy character would manifest in his rock-and-roll hardened voice. The first band he joined was a tribute band before the term existed, as The Moonlights did Shadows songs note for note and movements step for step.

A few bands and films later, while working at a music store, he met Ronnie Lane, a like-minded young rocker shopping for a bass. Marriott went to see the band Lane was in, The Outcasts, where he would jump onstage, wreak havoc on the group’s keyboards and get them ejected from the club. Marriott, Lane and Jones, the drummer for Outcast, looked at each other, laughed, and The Small Faces were born. Marriott brought aboard a keyboardist friend named Winston Langwith, the keys being essential to the sound they were to create, rooted in the American R&B of Booker T. and the MG’s, Jimmy Reed and James Brown.

As Mods, the Small Faces were snappy dressers, but their sound was gloriously gritty, as demonstrated by their first single, “Whatcha Gonna Do About It” and that recognizable guitar riff that came straight out of Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” Manager Don Arden had scored the band a Decca Records contract, and after the second single, Langwith was dismissed and local keyboard sensation Ian McLagan was called. Small Faces had already been in the British Top 10, and McLagan had already been a fan, so he couldn’t have been more thrilled about Arden’s phone call. McLagan laughed upon meeting his new band mates, as all four realized that the new guy was equally height-challenged. It was a perfect fit in more ways than one.

Their third single, “Sha La La La Lee,” was a big hit, but it was a pop-oriented business decision on Arden’s part. It was 1966, and this band wanted to rock. They would soon be doing so with the much more raucous “All Or Nothing,” which would solidify their reputation as one of Britain’s best. A McLagan pot bust and a very unfriendly parting of ways with Arden slowed Small Faces down, postponing any chance to break into America. But there was time. They had the rest of the ’60s, which would be time well spent.

‘Over bridge of sighs’

“What’s the odds of two Small Faces, half the band, moving to Austin, Texas?” asks McLagan in his home on the city’s outskirts.

He is showing me the massive music room that serves as his recording studio, control room, record label and business office. “The whole thing is the Doghouse Studio. This is, where I do all my mailings,” he tells me. “The room changes all the time. That’s what happens with a studio. They go through these changes. And this,” he says while pointing at a small chair with a computer in front of it, “is Maniac Records.”

As we adjourn upstairs to the living room, McLagan has plenty to remember about The Small Faces’ story and the path that ultimately led him and Ronnie Lane to Texas.

“Ronnie was quite happy with Steve being the singer, and I was quite happy with Steve being the front man,’ says McLagan. “He was such a dynamic performer, and a great singer, an amazing singer at 15. ‘Whatcha Gonna Do About It’ ... he was 17, maybe 18. He was always a great singer. It got worse and worse; he just misused it. He didn’t value it. Ronnie liked to sing; he just didn’t consider himself a singer. Compared with Steve, who could, you know? Ronnie liked the combination. He liked to write, and Steve would finish a song. They were a great balance. We had the two songwriters, like Lennon/McCartney.”

With each single, it became clearer and clearer that although they weren’t The Beatles, The Small Faces were pretty good. “Here Come the Nice” was a thinly veiled celebration of the band’s drug usage (specifically, speed). “Lazy Sunday” was a delightful ditty that brought in Lane’s voice to trade solos with Marriott’s camped-up cockney accent. It was a novelty tune that did not capture the band’s raw glory, but it perfectly symbolized the carefree personalities of the London lads who lived, worked, wrote and played together.

Their most powerful track had showcased each member up front before connecting collectively into a glorious rave-up. “Tin Soldier” showed up briefly on the American charts, but it was the single that preceded “Tin Soldier” that got into the American Top 20. “Itchycoo Park” was an unusual, ostensibly light-hearted romp with a psychedelic undercurrent that seemed to celebrate the mind-blowing hippie era with which it coincided. The rhythm was choppy, heavily syncopated, hooky and unforgettable.

“The song isn’t about getting high!” declares McLagan. “Okay, it is, but it’s not the whole story. It’s about education. ‘Over Bridge of Sighs, to rest my eyes in shades of green.’ That’s all Ronnie, that part. Steve wrote, ‘Feed the ducks with a bun,’ and all that bollocks. It was filler. Ronnie had, ‘It’s all too beautiful.’ I never liked the song because I had to sing, ‘It’s all too byoo-tee-ful,’ like that, you know? It was perky.”

As if to offset the cheeky image that “Lazy Sunday” and “Itchycoo Park” had produced, Small Faces went on to create something of a concept album in the spirit of The Who’s Tommy. Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake came in a circular sleeve shaped like the record itself, and its songs were just as defiantly idiosyncratic, tripping the band into newer, more experimental musical territory.

Small Faces was the only British Invasion band that never really invaded America. “Itchycoo Park” and “Tin Soldier” reached the States without them, as the band would never cross the pond during its fruitful years, 1965 to 1968. In early 1969, Marriott left the band to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton, and that group would become an American sensation.

With the addition of Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart, the other Small Faces would become simply Faces, and they, too, would enjoy historic success in their homeland and in the States.

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