By Gillian G. Gaar
The Small Faces had but one Top 20 hit in the USA — the 1967 single “Itchycoo Park,” which reached No. 16 in 1968. And the group’s highest-charting U.S. album was the 1968 classic “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake,” which peaked at No. 159 in 1968. But following the announcement of the group’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Rock Hall’s website stressed that these “visionary mods … were creative peers and commercial equals of The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones” and cited the group as an influence “on artists like The Black Crowes, The Jam’s Paul Weller, The Replacements and Oasis.”
The Small Faces’ story was only one chapter for the band. Rechristened as The Faces in the 1970s, the lineup at times featured solo star Rod Stewart, future Rolling Stone Ron Wood and former Wings man Jimmy McCulloch. There were a few more hits in that decade as well, although both versions of the band always enjoyed more success in their native England.
The original group came together in 1965, when Steve Marriott met Ronnie Lane at the J60 Music Bar in London, where Marriott was working. Marriott got his start in show business in the stage musical “Oliver!” and subsequently pursued an acting career before going into music, releasing a solo single and becoming a member of London band The Moments.
Marriott had seen Lane when The Moments shared the bill with Lane’s band, The Outcasts. The two struck up a conversation, then went back to Marriott’s house to listen to records. Lane, a bassist, invited Marriott, who played guitar, to jam with his current band, The Pioneers, who had a residency at a local pub. Marriott ended up getting so drunk, he smashed the pub’s piano, and The Pioneers lost their residency. But, Lane found a new musical partner. Lane then brought Pioneers’ drummer Kenney Jones on board, and Marriott brought in a friend from his acting days, Jimmy Winston (real name Jimmy Langwith) on keyboards. The Small Faces were born.
Langwith wasn’t the strongest keyboardist, but he had something else of value to the budding group: His parents owned a pub where the band could rehearse, and his brother owned a van to drive them to gigs. A female friend of Marriott’s helped him buy an amplifier and suggested the name The Small Faces, which Marriott liked for its play on words. Everyone in the group was short, and “face” was mod slang. “The term ‘Face’ was a top mod, a face about town, a respected chap!” Marriott explained.
The group played pubs and clubs around London. A gig at the Starlight Room, on Oxford Street, was especially fruitful. It was there they were seen by singer Elkie Brooks, who recommended them to the club’s owner, Maurice King. King liked what he heard, and he became the band’s first manager. But his tenure got off to a rough start, when he booked the band’s first out-of-town date at a working men’s club in Sheffield. The crowd was unimpressed by the band, and the band was told to leave after just three songs. But fate was waiting to smile on The Small Faces again. The group wandered into a nearby mod stronghold, the King Mojo Club, and, on the spur of the moment, offered to play for free. The frustration at being sacked by the former club led to a raging performance that made the band’s name. Word began to spread.
The Small Faces soon dropped King as their manager and signed on with Don Arden (father of Sharon Osbourne), who secured a deal with Decca Records. The band’s first single, “Whatcha Gonna Do About It,” was released in 1965 and reached No. 14 in the U.K. The cool soul flavor marked The Small Faces as darker than the bright British Invasion pop of the early Beatles or subsequent groups like Herman’s Hermits. The Small Faces’ music tended to have a grittier cast, more along the lines of The Rolling Stones and The Who. The band also had a striking, energetic lead vocalist in Marriott.
The band’s next single was “I’ve Got Mine,” which the group also performed in the film “Dateline Diamonds.” But the single failed to chart. Winston was then fired, both for his perceived lack of instrumental skill and the belief that he was trying to upstage Marriott during performances. He was replaced by Ian McLagan, a veteran of numerous bands who had recorded for Fontana with the group The Muleskinners.
The band finally had its first big hit with “Sha-La-La-La-Lee,” which reached No. 3. The hits continued for the rest of the year; “Hey Girl” reached No. 10, “All or Nothing” was The Small Faces’ first No. 1, and “My Mind’s Eye” reached No. 4, while the group’s self-titled debut album reached No. 3.
But a planned trip to America was canceled when McLagan’s drug arrest was made public. The band believed it was a move by their manager to maintain control of the group. The Small Faces were also unhappy at their poor earnings, which led the group to leave both Don Arden and Decca Records. The band was quickly picked up by Immediate, the label run by former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. More importantly, the band could now pursue their own musical direction; “Sha La La La Lee” might have been a hit, but it was far too “teen poppy” for the band’s taste.
The band’s newfound independence was showcased in its next single, “Here Come the Nice,” about a drug dealer (“He knows what I want/He’s got what I need/He’s always there/if I need some speed”). It reached No. 12 in 1967. The band’s second album, also titled “Small Faces,” was released the same year and reached No. 21. Titled “There Are But Four Small Faces,” in the U.S., the album peaked at No. 178.
United States success finally came in 1968 when “Itchycoo Park,” reached the Top 20 (No. 3 U.K.). The psychedelically tinged number is reminiscent of The Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” in its slightly surreal depiction of a mythical park to which the singer wants to escape. After being banned for drug references, the band made up a story about Itchycoo being a real park, not a drug haven, according to the band’s new manager, Tony Calder. Since then, numerous parks in East London where the band lived have claimed to be the “real” Itchycoo.
The next singles, “Tin Soldier” and “Lazy Sunday,” reached Nos. 9 and 2, respectively, in the U.K., but they again failed to generate much interest stateside. “Tin Soldier” was a bluesy love song, while “Lazy Sunday” was something of a novelty number, with Marriott singing in a broad Cockney accent about disputes with his neighbors.
The whimsical mood continued on the next album, “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake,” released in 1968. The album’s name was inspired by a brand of tobacco — Ogdens’ Nut-brown Flake — and the record was packaged in a round sleeve made to look like a tobacco tin.
Side One featured six unrelated songs, while Side Two was more ambitious, a “concept” series of songs about a character named “Happiness Stan” and his search to understand the waxing and waning of the moon; the piece was narrated by British comedian Stanley Unwin. With its overdubbing and non-rock instruments, the suite was believed to be too complex to be performed live, and it was only performed on the BBC show “Colour Me Pop.” But Kenney Jones, for one, felt the band should’ve tried doing it live, something he thought might have pushed the group to greater creative heights. The album was a major U.K. hit, topping the charts for six weeks; in the U.S. it failed to even reach the Top 100, peaking at No. 159.
The band’s last single with Marriott was the down-home rocker “The Universal,” released in 1968. Marriott was discouraged by its low placing (No. 16 U.K.). He’d also begun telling his fellow Faces he didn’t think they could top “Ogdens.” He dramatically quit the group during a New Year’s Eve show at the end of 1968 and subsequently joined Humble Pie. The classic period of The Small Faces was over.
There were a few more releases. Tracks the band had been working on at the time of the split were released on the 1969 album “The Autumn Stone.” There also was a final single, “Afterglow (Of Your Love),” which reached No. 36 in the U.K. The remaining band members picked up Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood to form a new band, The Faces. This version of the group fared better in the U.S. The singles “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “Stay With Me” and the albums “Long Player,” “A Nod Is As Good As A Wink …To A Blind Horse” and “Ooh La La” all reached the Top 30. Lane left in 1973 and formed the band Slim Chance, and The Faces split at the end of 1975, with Wood joining The Rolling Stones and Stewart devoting himself full time to his solo career.
Humble Pie also split in 1975. The original Small Faces then reunited, although Lane, in the early throes of multiple sclerosis, soon left. The remaining members brought in former Humble Pie/Roxy Music bassist Rick Wills; ex-Wings guitarist Jimmy McCulloch was also briefly a member. But the band broke up for good in 1978.
Only two of the original Small Faces are alive; Lane eventually died of MS in 1997, and Marriott died in 1991 in a fire at his home. Kenney Jones joined The Who after Keith Moon’s death, and he currently plays in The Jones Gang (which also includes Rick Wills). McLagan has performed with numerous artists, and in 1998, published his autobiography, “All The Rage.” It’s a phrase that readily captures the youthful vigor of the time when the band was the ace faces of Swinging London.