Thinking of the late, great Ronnie Lane today on what would have been his 68th birthday. Lane, of course, was a singer-songwriter-bassist for both the Small Faces and later, when pint-sized frontman Steve Marriott left to start Humble Pie with Peter Frampton, the Faces. (When singer Rod Stewart and guitarist Ron Wood joined, the “small” designation in the moniker was dropped due to the new members’ being around 5’10”, which mucked up the 5’6″-and-under club that the Small Faces had been). No matter. These were two terrific, albeit dramatically different, bands with the addition and subtraction of personnel. After leaving the Faces due to squabbles with Stewart and a desire to explore more traditional, roots-oriented sounds, Lane also led, for a brief time during the mid to late ’70s, his own folkish acoustic-leaning traveling band called Slim Chance. As with all Ronnie Lane music, it is well worth seeking out.
Below is an interview feature I did with Small Faces/Faces keyboardist, author, and unofficial band historian Ian McLagan, originally written for The Boston Phoenix on the occasion of the release of a long-awaited Faces box set by Rhino Records some years back. It was my second time interviewing the always convivial, charming, and chatty McLagan (see my related Faces post at “RPM”). As usual, “Mac” was more than happy to talk at length about his friend Ronnie’s music and his legacy as the heart and soul of two of the best bands to come out of England during the ’60s and ’70s. I was more than happy to write it.
It’s April 1, 1973, and a London audience is crowded inside the intimate Paris Cinema for a performance by the Faces that’s being taped for broadcast later that month by BBC Radio 1. On stage, frontman Rod Stewart is cheerfully muddling his way through the introduction of a cover tune, “You’re My Girl (I Don’t Want To Discuss It)”, and wondering aloud when the pub down the street is closing.
“This is a really old one, it’s nearly as old as Ronnie Lane, this one,” Stewart says, poking fun at the Faces bassist (who, in fact, was three years younger than the then 28-year-old singer). “It’s ‘You’re My Girl’ …,” he stops abruptly. “Is it gettin’ on? And they’re closed in 20 minutes?” The band dispenses with the chit-chat, for there are more important matters at hand. Guitarist Ron Wood slices into the tune’s chunky opening lick as the rest of the band – Lane, pianist/organist Ian McLagan, and drummer Kenney Jones – kicks in alongside him. Stewart leans into the song’s chugging groove, lending his splendid sandpaper voice to the proceedings, and suddenly, the Faces are a strutting, steaming five-headed hydra of slicing riffs and thrusting rhythm. The arrangement is loose, but the music doesn’t stumble, it swaggers. Five minutes later, the song ends and the Faces are, presumably, out the door to race back to the pub. At least that’s how Ian McLagan remembers it.
“We had already been to the Captain’s Cabin (a neighborhood pub located a stone’s throw from the Paris Cinema) and we wanted to go back,” McLagan says with more cackle than chuckle, over the phone from his Austin, Texas home. “So, the show was a little bit in the way. It must have been twenty to eleven, because the pubs close at 11 and they wouldn’t serve us after that. England’s so miserable.” Stewart’s closing time query is just one of the many delightful, illuminating moments to be found on *Faces: Five Guys Walk Into A Bar …* (Rhino/Warner Bros.), a new, exhaustively researched and lovingly compiled four-disc box set that teems with treats culled from the group’s relatively brief but off-handedly brilliant (1969-75) history.
A good part of that bawdy brilliance had to do with freewheeling humor, impish charm, and sense of reckless joy that beat inside the rollicking heart of the Faces music, which routinely ran the gamut from raunchy rock ‘n’ roll sass (“Miss Judy’s Farm”, of which three versions – including two from a pair of BBC sessions – are included here) to incandescent folk-tinged ballads (“Debris”, Lane’s stirring tribute to his father) to cheeky, semi-autobiographical ditties about one-night stands and standoffs (“Stay With Me”, “You’re So Rude”). There was also, as McLagan puts it, “a little bit of vaudeville here and there.” As “You’re My Girl” and the scores of other tracks here so aptly demonstrate, although the legendarily boisterous, carousing Faces didn’t take themselves terribly seriously as a band, their devotion to, and affection for, the music they made was anything but frivolous, and plain for anyone to hear.
“That’s what was so great about all of us – we were pulling and pushing and wrestling musically,” McLagan says, pointing out the fact that the Faces had not one or two, but three songwriting voices in Rod Stewart, Ronnie Lane, and Ron Wood (and, McLagan says, “eventually, a little bit of me”). But it was chemistry that made the songs special. “If you listen to the solos, sometimes I’m right in Woody’s face with my piano licks if he stops for a second, and he comes back at me if I stop. That was a nice, friendly tussle going on. The Stones always had that, but I thought what we had was more character.”
In the ensuing years, Wood, of course, would eventually join the Rolling Stones (and McLagan would tour regularly with them); Jones would replace Keith Moon as the Who’s drummer; Lane would quit the Faces in 1973 to form Slim Chance and record sporadically until succumbing to multiple sclerosis in 1997; and Stewart would become a solo superstar. But individually, each member was never better or musically inspired than during their Faces days. “Whatever it was, it was certainly a little bit magical, and much better than the separate parts,” McLagan agrees. “Together, we became more than just five pieces. I finally realized how great we are after listening to all the stuff over the past few years.”
For McLagan, who five years ago assembled the superb single-disc survey, *The Best of Faces: Good Boys … When They’re Asleep* (Warner Archives/Rhino), putting together a more comprehensive overview was a logical next step. (Expanded CD reissues of the band’s catalog and a DVD are also in the works). The pianist – who’s spent the past few years touring with Billy Bragg and his own Bump Band, and regularly performs a few Lane-penned Faces chestnuts in concert – compiled the box in much the same fashion his old band used to storm the stage during the first half of the 1970’s: with mischievous glee, boundless enthusiasm, and an air of affectionate comradeship not insubstantially enhanced by the drinks in hand.
“I just let the music do it,” he says. “I became part of the audience and let the running order just happen.” McLagan’s routine usually consisted of pouring himself a pint or two of Guinness (“ah, the black madness”, he calls it) at home, and settling in to sift through hours of rehearsal tapes, studio triumphs, and live performances. He tailored his approach after the way a great disc jockey might produce a radio show, carefully sequencing the flow of the set for maximum impact. “This was my way of loving the Faces and presenting them. I wanted to knock myself out. ‘Flying’ (which opens disc one) was the first choice and then ‘On The Beach’ was just so obvious, but it’s so illogical because the song just *stops*! Now when you have a song like that, the arrangement would have been trimmed here and there, but not then. It just falls apart for a minute and then starts again. So then I followed that with a rocker (‘Too Bad’), and I was gone. I was having the best fun.”
To his grateful surprise, when questions arose about the source of a live performance or the date of a recording session, Faces fans from all over the world pitched in with suggestions and corrections. “They would e-mail me and tell me what the date of (a BBC) transmission was, and they really helped if I was to make a mistake,” McLagan says.
*Five Guys* is dedicated to McLagan’s old friend Ronnie Lane and, like *Good Boys*, goes a long way toward rectifying what McLagan claims has always been the wrongful impression that the Faces were basically Stewart’s backing band (Stewart himself says he used to be embarrassed by advertisements plugging ‘Rod Stewart and the Faces’). It was a perception that ultimately led Lane – a gifted songwriter with a sublimely tender touch – to quit the group in frustration in 1973 (he was replaced by ex-Jeff Beck sideman Tetsu Yamauchi). In fact, the songwriting credits were mostly collaborative, and fairly evenly split between Stewart, Lane, and Wood (unlike his junior position in the Stones, Wood is credited on the lion’s share of jointly authored compositions here). Still, it’s easy to see how the charismatic Stewart, whose solo career was simultaneously taking off with a string of seminal albums like *Gasoline Alley*, was seen as the natural focal point within the group.
Add to that the fact that the singer routinely enlisted various combinations of the Faces to back him on his solo material – Wood and McLagan both played on the studio version of “Maggie May”, for instance; and a raggedly wonderful version cut live with the Faces is presented here – and exactly where the Faces end and Rod begins becomes harder to decipher. Far easier to mark is the group’s dramatic transition from its original mid-sixties incarnation as Mod Pop poster boys the Small Faces (with singer-guitarist Steve Marriott at the helm) to the barnstorming Faces, the moniker it adopted when Stewart and Wood – both recent alumni of the blues-rocking Jeff Beck Group – joined. McLagan found the new lineup liberating.
“When (Stewart) started singing with us, he’d already sung with the Beck band and done a few other things. He was hungry then. When the Faces got together, we were released from being the Small Faces the pop band – released from the image and expectations of turning out pop singles. That’s why, when we rehearsed in the very early days, we always played ‘I Feel So Good’ because for Woody, Rod, and I, that was the first album we bought – *Muddy Waters At Newport* (Chess, 1960).” A romping workout of the Big Bill Broonzy blues number appears on *Five Guys*, captured on McLagan’s tape recorder during an early rehearsal in the summer of 1969. The track offers a raw, revealing glimpse of a gutsy band finding its footing.
The Faces ended in acrimony two years after Lane left, but after all these years, the proverbial hatchets have been buried – although McLagan jokes that he’s still waiting for Rod to call him back. “I haven’t spoken to him about (the collection) at all. He doesn’t use the phone very often,” says McLagan, who has for years held out the hope of a Faces reunion. “Rod tends to look back on those days and think we were all drunk. Well, actually none of us were *that* drunk. We were working very hard, and having listened to all of this, I know we were much better than we thought we were.”
See and hear Ronnie Lane and his post-Faces band Slim Chance deliver an elegiac “Debris” and “Ooh La La” right here: http://shelf3d.com/ojKOlgBjwc4#Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance – Debris/oh la la
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