The Faces From Mod To Rod To Nod: As Good As A Wink To A Blind-Drunk Horse

Reminds me of "Beano": The cover shot for the first Faces (then still known, temporarily, as the Small Faces) album, "First Step." Not unlike the John Mayall's Bluesbreakers record with Eric Clapton also displaying some reading material.

Reminds me of “Beano”: The cover shot for the first Faces (then still known, temporarily, as the Small Faces) album, “First Step.” Not unlike the John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers record with Eric Clapton also displaying some reading material.

Are we havin' a laugh? Faces publicity shoot circa 1970.

Are we havin’ a laugh? Faces publicity shoot circa 1970.

Take a bow, gentlemen. You drained the keg of Guinness.

Take a bow, gentlemen. You drained the keg of Guinness.

Mac, Woody, and Rod,  clearly so surprised at that evening's menu of  goods and services that their hair's standing on end.

Mac, Woody, and Rod, clearly so surprised at that evening’s menu of goods and services that their hair’s standing on end.

The Faces onstage recording a concert for the BBC, early 1970s.

The Faces onstage recording a concert for the BBC, early 1970s.

It’s hard to believe that four decades — 42 years ago this weekend to be exact — have passed since the boozy British blooze-rock band The Faces released what many (including me) consider to be the finest album of their relatively brief  (1969-1975) career. “A Nod Is As Good As A Wink … To A Blind Horse,” the band’s third album, hit the record store (remember those?) shelves on November 17, 1971 and was the highest charting LP by the group, reaching Number 6 in the U.S. and Number 2 in the U.K.

 The big breakthrough single (following on the heels of frontman Rod Stewart’s hit solo albums) was the boisterous basher “Stay With Me,” but when I first discovered the album many years later (hell, I’m no teenager but I ain’t THAT old!), I thought singer-bassist Ronnie Lane’s poignant ballad and tribute to his late father, “Debris,” was easily the best song on the record. Lane sang lead on it and gave it just the right touch of  wistful vulnerability, while Stewart supplied a sandpapery caress to the chorus.

Another Lane number, “You’re So Rude,” with its tale of a slyly sneaked afternoon quickie, was rife with Ronnie’s ribald humor. All of the libidinous, libation-augmented charms of this most excellent drinking companion of an album is announced straight away during the first few seconds of the opener, “Miss Judy’s Farm,” which starts with a strutting riff by guitarist Ron Wood and Rod’s wolfish howl  (at keeping company with Britt Ekland, perchance? Kelly Emberg? Joanna Lumley? Rachel Hunter was a wee lass at the time).

Many years after first hearing this, and all of the other Faces albums, I had the good fortune to talk to and meet Small Faces/Faces keyboard player Ian McLagan.  After the band broke up, “Mac,” as he’s affectionately known, had toured with the Rolling Stones (and, in a sense, reunited with his old Faces’ bandmate, Wood), as well as led his own Bump Band. During the early 1990s, he moved to Austin, Texas, and at the time of our meeting, he had been instrumental in putting together a CD retrospective cheekily subtitled “Good Boys … When They’re Asleep.” 

That release wound up being the springboard for an interview I did with “Mac,” and a piece I pitched and wrote for Rollingstone.com about a group that never really got its due after it disbanded in disarray (Lane had left), and withering rather than thriving in the bright spotlight of  Stewart’s skyrocketing solo career. Somewhere along the way, as new groups and new sounds arrived, the Faces became a footnote. (But for a taste of what Rod Stewart used to do before he became a hack, check out the links below; and for those who knock on Wood about the quality of  his guitar playing with the Stones, you only need to listen to a little Faces to hear Woody at his most inventive and inspired).

 Still, when we talked about the history and legacy of the band, both the Faces, and their earlier incarnation as  mod upstarts The Small Faces, were still more than a decade away from being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (They’ve since reunited a time or two, albeit without Rod and, sadly, without Lane, who died  after a long bout with multiple sclerosis in 1997;  tragically, Small Faces singer-guitarist Steve Marriott, also died in 1991 at age 44, the victim of a fire caused by a lit cigarette that swept through his home).

“Mac” and I had a lovely, long conversation by phone, and I filled nearly all 90 minutes on my tape recorder (I would interview him again a few years later when he put together a wonderful box set of Faces material, but that’s another story for another day) . We concluded our chat with Ian saying he would call me when he got into Boston.  He was touring with Billy Bragg at the time, and performing a couple of Ronnie Lane compositions in tribute. Sure enough, several weeks later, one early Sunday morning (aren’t ALL Sunday mornings early?), our phone rang.  I let the answering machine pick up. “Hello, Jonathan? Right then, this is Ian …” As promised, it was “Mac,” calling to invite me and my wife out to the concert that night at the Somerville Theatre.

It was a great show and, to my delight, Bragg performed a sweetly faithful “Debris,” which I had told Ian was one of my favorite Faces tracks. Afterwards, I went backstage to introduce myself and thank him for the tickets, and wound up hanging with him as he held court with Bragg and another talented singer-songwriter, Freedy Johnston. I presented him with my LP copy of “A Nod Is As Good …” to sign. He looked delighted to see the vinyl artifact and promptly noticed that the old, original fold-out poster from the first pressing was still inside the sleeve, sharply folded and intact. He pulled it out and splayed it across his lap. The poster pictured the Faces in dozens of Polaroids taken on the road, lying about in hotel rooms, drinking and doing other things, and doing those other things with groupies. He reminisced fondly over a few images, lingered knowingly over the long-ago photos of the band with their assorted “guests,” and then inscribed this message on the cover: “To Jonathan, You HAD to be there!” 

True enough. Ian’s smile and the twinkle in his eye told me that those pictures likely told only a small (and publishable) part of the story.  But at least those five guys left us with some pretty fair music as a memento.  And even now, those sounds tell a pretty good story, too. As does Ian’s memory below.

HAD THEM A REAL GOOD TIME: The Faces In Their Prime/Rollingstone.com

When you add it all up, the Faces had a hand in making an awful lot of rock & roll history — and some pretty fine music too. Strange then, that when one thinks about the seminal British bands of the sixties and seventies, the group (or for that matter, their equally great prior incarnation as the Small Faces) is rarely mentioned in casual conversation. But in fact, the Faces boasted a boozy, British blues-rock lineup that was, arguably, second only to the Rolling Stones of the early 1970’s when it came to that intangible chemistry, that particular brand of ragged but right musicianship.

The Faces’ original lineup consisted of singer Rod Stewart and guitarist Ronnie Wood (both of whom joined when singer-guitarist Steve Marriott quit the Small Faces to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton); bassist/singer Ronnie Lane; keyboardist Ian McLagan; and drummer Kenney Jones. To look at those names now, one tends to think of the Faces as a supergroup of sorts. But back then, from 1970-75, they were just a great group that liked to mix filled-to-the-brim cocktails of  Saturday night boogie and Sunday afternoon ballads — acoustic, folk-tinged ruminations that bumped up against what seemed, at the time, like a never-ending weekend of raucous, riff-happy  rock & soul. Live or on record, the Faces had just about all the bases covered.

“(The audience) could have a bloody good laugh and a bloody good cry and a bloody good drink and maybe smoke some pot and have a bloody great time,” is how Ian McLagan remembers it by phone from his Austin, Texas home, where he’s lived since 1991. “We were unpretentious. But we always dressed for dinner on stage. We weren’t dressed in denim and looking at the floor like a lot of these bands today.”

Upon listening to the brand new Warner Archives/Rhino collection, *The Best of Faces: Good Boys … When They’re Asleep*, it’s easy to hear why McLagan’s proud of his band’s legacy. The disc brings together 19 tracks spanning the group’s four studio albums, from the signature Stewart/Wood-penned hit, “Stay With Me” (which reached #17 on the pop charts in 1972), to lesser-known luminescent beauties like the Lane-penned “Debris” and “Glad and Sorry” and the McLagan/Lane jaunty wink-and-grin of “You’re So Rude.” And then there’s a Stewart/Wood rocker for the ages, “Miss Judy’s Farm,” which will give the listener an idea of just where exactly the Black Crowes copped their strut.

McLagan, who helped produce the compilation, says he felt the time was right for a proper survey of the band’s career — it’s first retrospective treatment since 1976’s *Snakes And Ladders/The Best of Faces.* The new overview also gave McLagan the opportunity to revisit what he claims is the underappreciated songwriting talents of his old friend Ronnie Lane, who succumbed to a fatal case of multiple sclerosis in 1997.

“I wanted Ronnie Lane to be represented better than he’s been represented,” he says. “Most people think it was all about Rod (Stewart), but  there were other things that Ronnie Lane did that I think needed to be heard.” In fact, Billy Bragg, with whom McLagan’s currently touring, has been performing “Glad and Sorry” and “Debris” in concert — both of them Lane compositions. “Most people haven’t heard that stuff,” McLagan says. “I hate the fact that people refer to that band as Rod Stewart and the Faces. I mean, Rod was our singer, just like I was their keyboard player.”

Of course, it’s tough to argue with the adulation Stewart was receiving at the time, both with the Faces and as a solo artist. During the span of a few short years, Stewart had managed to issue a string of soulful, seminal albums that have made the remainder of his career pale in comparison. Though he’s continued to be hugely commercially  successful, he’s rarely enjoyed the kind of critical acclaim he basked in during the era of *Every Picture Tells A Story* and *Gasoline Alley* — a time when he often tapped various combinations of his Faces bandmates to back him on his biggest smashes.

“It was a lot of fun, and very different, working on Rod’s stuff,” says McLagan, who contributed organ to Stewart’s classic, “Maggie May” (the tune also featured Wood on guitar). “With the Faces it was always loose, but even early on it was five voices and opinions, and trying to work something out could get tedious. But with Rod, it was easier because he already had the song and he knew what he wanted to do with it.”

Like Stewart’s early solo work, the Faces material on *Good Boys* still sounds timeless and relevant, despite the dramatic stylistic shifts in the pop landscape over the past three decades. Part of why the band’s music has held up better than other early ‘70’s boogie-based rock outfits like, say, Grand Funk Railroad may have something to do with the innate intelligence and charming, easy-going humor that was always at the heart of the Faces’ music. They sounded like a band who weren’t themselves terribly seriously, even though the quality of the music they were making was anything but frivolous. The tenderness and emotional honesty that underpin tracks like “Flying” and “Sweet Lady Mary,” for instance, make for elegant, poignant contrasts to party-crashing rockers like “Too Bad” and “Had Me A Real Good Time.”

With the exception of Lane (who quit the band in 1973 and was replaced by Testsu Yamauchi), each of the Faces went on to greater renown. Wood, of course, joined the Stones and  McLagan’s toured the world with them several times; Jones was tapped as Keith Moon’s replacement in the Who; and Rod Stewart, Faces frontman became, well, Rod Stewart, Superstar. But there’s little doubt that each of those blokes did his best work while with that outfit. So what was it that made them interact musically so well so good together, at least at first (by the time the Faces split in 1975, various factions of the band were no longer speaking to each other)?

“The fact that we had so many writers in the band, and so many different personalities. And that we always had a laugh,” McLagan recalls. “We’d rehearse and then go down to the pub. We weren’t thinking about the next career move … especially in the early days, when all of us used to be falling-over drunk all of the time. Like the Marx Brothers, we’d all be sitting together and at a certain point we’d all fall over and grope the girls who used to be hanging ‘round. We were all pals, and we were just having the best fucking time possible. Unfortunately, by the end, I didn’t talk to Rod at all except to say fuck you on stage.”

But those days, the many good ones and the few bad ones, belong to yesterday. McLagan’s moved on  (he’s since written a memoir of his years with the Faces and Small Faces), and he says he’s finally found a way to look back not with regret, but with the humor and love that animated the best of the Faces’ music. “There are no bad feelings anymore,” he says about the group’s disastrous last months together, when ego clashes, Stewart’s superstar solo status, and bitter band in-fighting finally sank it. “You can’t change the way things were, and I wouldn’t want to. What we did back  then was about a moment in time.” Still, old habits — and tensions — die hard. McLagan claims the surviving members of the Faces have wanted to reunite for a tour — everybody, that is, except the singer.

“Look, Rod needs credibility and this would give him the boost he needs, and it would enable him to sell his old solo albums like he always did,” McLagan says with a mischievous cackle. “Rod needs a kick in the ass. It took him 25 years to realize how great a song ‘Ooh La La’ was, and he just cut it as a record, didn’t he?” Reunion tour or no, it seems like old times already.

Pour yourself a strong one and see and hear the Faces rip it up on the BBC with “Stay With Me” from 1971 right here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQISujVdfv8

Watch and listen to the Faces lament that “I Know I’m Losing You” right here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r87e8Pt6BAI

See and hear Ronnie Lane and his post-Faces band Slim Chance deliver an elegiac “Debris” and “Ooh La La” right herehttp://shelf3d.com/ojKOlgBjwc4#Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance – Debris/oh la la

See and hear the Faces work on “Miss Judy’s Farm” in 1972 for the BBC here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umxx2Qjxfww

The entire incredible Faces performance live at the Paris Theatre, London, filmed for the BBC on October 26, 1971, and shown on the BBC’s “Sounds For Saturday” program the following May in 1972: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRa6l1x-Q6E

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6 comments

  1. What a fabulous story–and the intro is priceless. Leave it to you to remind us of the time when Rod was not a hack…when he was actually great.

    Like

  2. Loved the article Jon – thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and the nice words Peter! It’s after the post, but a longtime Boston photographer and longtime artist (you may even be familiar with him) A.J. Sullivan is sending me a few cool rare photos of the Faces he shot for Boston After Dark way back in 1970 when they were here on Lansdowne Street in Boston for a show. I’ll let ya know when I add ’em.

      Like

  3. Hmm it looks like your site ate my first comment (it was
    extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I submitted and
    say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to
    the whole thing. Do you have any helpful hints for newbie
    blog writers? I’d really appreciate it.

    Like

    1. Hello and thanks so much for the kind words! Thanks for checking it out and reading. As a matter of fact, I’m new to the blogging life as well, which started as way to put up/make accessible and post about 20 years of my music and arts journalism. I’m adding fresh new content and posts too. I guess my only advice — and I’m totally not the person to ask about the technical nuts and bolts stuff — would be what I gave myself way back when and have told aspiring journalists and writers over the years (and of course the publishing landscape has changed dramatically): don’t be afraid to write as much, and as often, as you can, and especially with something as personal and custom-tailored as a blog, write about what you love and/or know. And the beauty is, you will always get better and more comfortable, you can always go back in and edit, change, add, and subtract from your posts. And then invite friends, readers, whomever is in your network of people, to check it out. And don’t be dissuaded if it seems like slow going at first. My impression is that blogs need some time and momentum. Hope this helps and good luck. Drop by anytime, and if you like what you see, feel free to subscribe and pass it on (it’s completely free, and I try to keep things moving and fresh but not barrage anybody’s inbox). Thanks again.

      Like

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