Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Face time - the short story of mods, rockers and mayhem

Twitter/Rod Stewart

Hurtwood Park Polo Club might sound like the last place you'd expect some of rock greatest hellraisers to pitch up. But as it sits in the heart of Surrey's 'rockbroker' belt (Eric Clapton's Hurtwood Edge estate is nearby) and is owned by a drummer - as drummers do - it might be a logical place as any for the surviving members of the Faces to stage their first gig together in 40 years.

Not surprisingly, the one-off show last Saturday was a sellout, with proceeds going to the Prostate Cancer UK charity, a cause close to the drummer in question, Kenney Jones, who was diagnosed with the disease two years ago. Equally not surprisingly is that the seven-song show delivered everything the audience expected, four decades on, with Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood and Jones (and nine other auxillary musicians) retaining the at-times chaotic but engaging looseness that made the Faces one of British rock's best, if briefest, live draws in the early 1970s. All that it lacked were bassist and the band's creative heart, Ronnie Lane (who died in 1997), and Ian 'Mac' McLagan (who passed away last December) who both played an essential part in the brief but enduring history of this bunch of herberts.

Saturday's reunion, proper, (let's not consider the Mick Hucknall-fronted revival...) came just over a week after the band released The Faces - 1970-1975: You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything, a five-disc box set containing their four studio albums plus a collection of odds and ends.

Its release, along with Saturday's gig, warrants a reassessment of a band whose blues and folk-infused bloke rock was enhanced (though some say clouded) by a reputation for boozy shenaningans, and often overshadowed by peers the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who and even Stewart as a solo artist.

There has never been complete consensus as to whether the Faces' studio efforts ever ranked as classics in an era of extraordinary rock album output. But 1970′s First Step, Long Player from 1971, A Nod Is as Good as a Wink…to a Blind Horse from the same year, and their final cut, 1973's Ooh La La, underpinned a delightfully geezerish flavour to the early '70s oeuvre.

This tone was set in the band's origins as the Small Faces, formed in London's East End in 1965 with singer and guitarist Steve Marriott, Lane, Jones and, later, McLagan (who replaced original ivory tinkler Jimmy Watson). With a magpie-like ability to assimilate different styles, from Tamla and R&B to psych-pop, the Small Faces built a reputation to match their West London counterparts, The Who, for sweaty, gritty, energetic, and decidedly working class pop-rock (which provided the genetic blueprint for Paul Weller as well as other elements of Britpop to this day).

When Marriott left to join Humble Pie (another band which, in WWDBD?'s opinion deserves better recognition) they crossed the capital to draft in West Drayton-born Wood, a rhythm guitarist who'd been a part of the London's western Mod scene as a member of The Birds (the British variety) and later The Jeff Beck Group, which featured one Roderick David Stewart on vocals.

In 1969, in an effort to help out his brother Art exhaust a recording contract, Wood formed Quiet Melon for a one-off album, drafting in Stewart from the Beck group and the Small Faces' Lane, Jones and McLagan to help. Following this so far? If not, you'll understand why one of the great staples of music journalism as I grew up were Pete Frame's 'family trees' - elaborately constructed charts of how bands like the Faces came to be formed, where their members came from and how they related to other groups, and the spinoffs and side projects they spawned.

From prog to punk, Frame's family trees covered every genre, but the charts that forged the greatest fascination for me were those that plotted how incestuously interconnected British rock music was in the 1960s and early 1970s, a complexity that Frame was trying to get his head around as a music journalist when he came up with the format.

In Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, at Abbey Road and Olympic Studios, and at The 100 Club, The Marquee and the Crawdaddy, musical dynasties were formed. Groups like Band Of Joy and The Yardbirds divided like cells to produce Led Zeppelin, while members of The Graham Bond Organisation, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers or The Spencer Davis Group found their way into Cream or Traffic or Fleetwood Mac. The Rolling Stones hung out with The Beatles, The Who hung out with everyone else, and London - in particular - became a village of musically-minded drinking buddies, aspirational schoolfriends and casual acquaintances alike. On the other side of the Atlantic - indeed, on the other side of America - LA's canyons thralled to a similar beat, as groups like The Byrds (the American variety), Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Buffalo Springfield cross-polinated to produce the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Eagles.

In 1970 the tectonic plates of rock music were still moving. The Beatles were splitting up and the Stones were heading off into exile. Like an unregulated football transfer window, people would go off and play with anyone else. Inter-band mobility was rife and supergroups emerged from nowhere, and often disappeared just as fast.

People sat in on others' sessions, simply because they'd been in the studio next door. British bands "invaded" America and added further acquaintance, while iconic American acts like Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters were still coming to the UK without their own backing bands, using local British talent instead.

Jamming together, initially in rehearsal rooms borrowed from the Rolling Stones, the Faces gelled, turning their natural interplay as highly complimentary characters into a collective force of supreme musicianship that was also artfully ragged around the edges, unpretentious and in contast with some of the too-serious musicianship emerging at the turn of the 1970s.

The Faces were a perfect storm: Wood replaced Marriott's guitar work with his own prowess on the slide and pedal steel. Lane, McLagan and Jones provided the melodic and rhythmic glue. And the grittily soulful vocals of Stewart - the former North London gravedigger discovered by Long John Baldry busking at Twickenham railway station - matched or even exceeded those of Small Faces frontman Marriott.

"The band was full-on from the beginning," McLagan told Creem magazine's Dave Marsh during the band's first tour. "No shucking and jiving, no stops to tune, no delays. This is not just great rock'n'roll - and it is that, for The Faces have one of the two or three best rock shows of the '70s - it is professional rock'n'roll, with all the concomitant drawbacks and advantages."

Those drawbacks, Wood would explain in his excellent autobiography Ronnie, would be tour boredom, which would lead to ever more creative ways to pass the time, usually drunk, and with the concomitant advantages being groupies by the busload.

In the studio, however, it took a while for the Faces to find their groove. Their debut album, First Step, was produced by the band themselves and was somewhat patchy, opening with a so-so cover of Bob Dylan's Wicked Messenger and drifting from blues to folk to light pop without any clear structure.

There are, though, a couple of highlights, such as Flying which makes great use of Stewart's voice, Wood’s often criminally underated guitar playing, and McLagan's Hammond organ. First Step also features the revelation of Ronnie Lane singing his own composition, Stone, in which he demonstrated an uncanny vocal similarity to George Harrison.

Lane, though, admitted that First Step wasn't very strong, but studio discipline - or a lack of - played a part in that. "To date, it's been a far better band on stage than in the studio," he told Andrew Bailey in 1971, "mainly because, up till now the standard of recording has been bad. We're using Glyn Johns now and it's a hundred percent better. The album we've nearly finished is right, at last."

That album was Long Player, released in March 1971, and which suggested better to come, but still faced criticism for a lack of direction.

"We all have reason to be a trifle disappointed with [the] Faces’ new Long Player," wrote Rolling Stone's John Mendelsohn. "For, consistently good casual fun and occasionally splendid though it may be, it’s by no stretch of the imagination going to save anybody’s soul (as an album by someone very enormous indeed ought) or even rescue the FM airwaves from the clutches of such increasingly cloying items as Elton John." Ouch.

Long Player did, however, show greater direction than its predecessor, and perhaps more definition of individual contributions. Sweet Lady Mary is one of the greatest songs Lane, Wood and Stewart wrote together; Richmond is delightfully wistful folk-blues, with Lane again on vocals and Wood's slide guitar shining through on a song inspired by the south-west London suburb Wood moved when he bought 'The Wick', actor John Mills' former home on Richmond Hill, which became a hub for Wood, his family and his rock star chums.

Big N’ Ruin is more in keeping with the ballsy, bar-room blues band that the Faces were, ultimately, at their core, while the album contains a rarity for the period - a live recording alongside studio tracks, with a stunning cover version of Paul McCartney's then recent hit Maybe I'm Amazed.

In a way, the inclusion of a live track spoke greater volumes about the Faces as a live act , but that was to change with their third album, A Nod's As Good As A Wink...To A Blind Horse, which became their commercial breakthrough.

Released the same year as Long Player, Nod - with it's stage picture on the cover - contained the song that captured perfectly the band's spirit: Stay With Me, a ribald tale of rock'n'roll tail chasing which remains to this day a staple of classic rock radio in the US.

Long Player and Nod may have been separated by just a few months in recording terms, but the latter was leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor, embracing the energy of the Faces as a live entity, such as the cover of Chuck Berry's Memphis, Tennesse, drawing on their laddishness with Too Bad and You're So Rude, but not completely ambandoning themselves to hedonism, with Lane's Debris showing a contemplative side.

In the autumn of 1972 the Faces entered Olympic Studios in Barnes to record, with producer Glyn Johns, their fourth album, Ooh La La. By this time, Rod Stewart's parallel solo career had begun to take off, itself a novelty in the early '70s (a few years later when Phil Collins released Face Value people immediately doomed Genesis on the basis that a singer couldn't possibly have two careers). As a result, distances began to grow within the band.

Much of Ooh La La was written or co-written by Lane, including the title track, which was penned with Wood (and subsequently turned into his own signature song).

It's mixture of carefree breezyneess and cynical recollection ("I wish I knew what I know now, when I was younger...") hinted at an unstated desire for escape. Lane would quit the band in July 1973, two months after Ooh La La was released, and after Stewart had allegedly told Melody Maker that it was a "stinking rotten album", claims he later denied. Ooh La La is a good album, lighter than its predecessor but another patchwork. There are gems - the title song being a standout, but also Cindy Incidentally, If I'm On The Late Side and Glad And Sorry.

Time, though, can be an indecent fraud. While Stay With Me and Ooh La La have stood their test of time - the former on radio and the latter on TV commercials - their endurance bely the blink of the eye that, relatively speaking, the Faces existed within.

A reputation, built on the road during uproarious tours of America, and the sheer energy of their bluesy rock'n'roll, created a somewhat mythical creature that, if we were honest, has never been able to compete with the Stones (which Wood would inevitably join in 1974 - having already worked with Mick Jagger on writing I Know It's Only Rock'n'Roll (But I Like It)), or Led Zeppelin's breadth and depth.

The Faces are, in many respects, a strange entry in the logbook of 1970s rock giants. In an era of collossal albums like Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street, Who's Next and any of the first few Led Zeppelin records, the Faces were never the biggest sellers - Nod and Ooh La La reached No.2 and No.1, respectively, in the UK charts, but performed less impressively elsewhere.

After Lane's departure they would soldier on into 1975, releasing You Can Make Me Dance, Sing, Or Anything, which paralleled the Stones' and Stewart's own questionable flirtation with disco in the mid-'70s, and the awful live album Coast to Coast: Overture and Beginners, a major disservice to the reputation of a quintet which had created a unique stage dynamic like no others at the time. By the end of 1975 the Faces were effectively no more.

When you look at Pete Frame's family tree for the Faces, there is clearly more going on above, below and around the band than within the band itself.

Lane would go on to make some great solo albums before his death from multiple sclerocis in 1997; Stewart would join the pantheon of LA-based expat rock stars whose success, fame and wealth transcend anything you'd regard as normal; Wood would become a de facto Rolling Stone in 1975, where he remains to this day; McLagan continued to be in demand, including studio and touring work for the Stones, Wood's New Barbarians, Bob Dylan, John Mayer and as a member of Billy Bragg's The Blokes.

And Jones would become the drummer in The Who following Keith Moon's death, before becoming the rockbroker belt polo club owner he is today, a position of respectable gentility in stark contrast to the three bands in which he made his fortune including the one, in particular, which contributed a short but energetic chapter to rock's family history.

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