They were Mod until they turned psychedelic. They were Small Faces until they became just plain Faces, only to become Small Faces again. This London-based band, started in 1965, is a case study in trying to nail down a musical identity. And they made a lot of great music along the way.
Ronnie Lane, who played bass guitar, started the band with guitarist/frontman Steve Marriott. They recruited Kenney Jones to play drums and Jimmy Winston on keyboard. Winston was soon replaced by Ian McLagan. The band’s name referred to the Mod slang term “face,” meaning a trend-setter or important person in the Mod scene; they added “small” because they were all fairly short men.
After less than a year of taking every gig they could get in and around London, Small Faces signed with Decca. With a set list steeped in R&B, a knack for songwriting, and Marriott’s emotive voice, they brought some high-quality goods to pop music. Their debut, Small Faces (1966) spawned several singles, two of which did very well in the UK: “Watcha Gonna Do About It” and “Sha-La-La-La-Lee.” But during recording sessions, the band felt Winston wasn’t pulling his weight – he had his eye on an acting career – so they brought in McLagan in his place.
From that first album, “Up the Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire” is a good introduction to Small Faces’ early style. The organ with its minor chords seems to be in a conversation, or maybe an argument, with the guitar and bass. The vocal line has a disjointed rhythm that could easily go with a completely different accompaniment. And the lyrics are a slightly weird take on ordinary life experience, delivered earnestly.
That debut was not originally released in America, so the second album, in 1967, was called Small Faces in the US by Columbia Records, but was titled There Are But Four Small Faces in the UK on a new label called Immediate. Given its role as a re-introduction, it’s not surprising that it shared many tracks with the first record. Among the new songs were two that would become Small Faces signature singles, “Itchycoo Park” and “Tin Soldier.”
One non-single that appeared only on the second album was “I’m Only Dreaming,” written by Marriott. Two contrasting styles take turns in this unusual number. The song starts with a sweet, teeny-bopper romantic vibe, then explodes into a heavy R&B-inspired response at the end of each verse.
The last studio album that Small Faces made in their original lineup was a true classic in the history of concept albums, Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake (1968). With a title that parodied a popular brand of English tobacco, this record was as British as it gets; the Brits thought so, too, keeping the album at No. 1 for six weeks. The most distinctly British of its singles, the cockney-humored “Lazy Sunday,” was also the bestselling track. Not surprisingly, Americans didn’t respond to any of it. [Until later on, by a few – the album is now recognized as an audiophile classic. – Ed.]
Psychedelia has begun to play a big role at this point, infiltrating the wide range of styles represented on Side A. The underlying concept is restricted to Side B, where a theme unites the six songs telling the tale of a boy named Happiness Stan. The uniquely British monologist and linguistic experimenter Stanley Unwin narrates the proceedings, sometimes in English and sometimes in the language he invented.
Just for a taste, here’s “Happiness Stan,” a madrigal-like affair written by Marriott and Lane. That opening harp sets the mood most efficiently. The organ-like keyboard instrument is a mellotron, highly prized in psychedelic and progressive rock circles.
So, was this the official Small Faces groove that would define their sound? Not at all. It was at this point that Marriott left the band to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton. Rather than disband, the remaining three musicians sought a new direction.
As it happened, the original line-up of the Jeff Beck Group had also blown apart, leaving Rod Stewart (I wrote a retrospective of his career in Issue 103) and Ronnie Wood available to collaborate with Jones, McLagan, and Lane. They settled into a five-man band, but the switch to the name Faces happened in stages.
Their 1970 album, First Step, was released as a Small Faces album in North America but as Faces in other markets. It’s interesting to hear the combination of Stewart’s distinctively breathy voice and Ronnie Wood’s funky bass against the Small Faces instrumental landscape. Here’s “Three Button Hand Me Down,” written by McLagan and Stewart.
Long Player (1971) includes two live tracks recorded at the Fillmore East in New York, and contains a wide range of styles, from Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” to the twangy blues of “Bad ‘N’ Ruin.” The 2015 reissue added this live version of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain.” Stewart’s vocals ache almost as much as Lane’s bass, Wood’s guitar, and McLagan’s organ.
They put out another album that same year, A Nod Is As Good As a Wink… to a Blind Horse. Critics credited producer Glyn Johns with focusing this album, which again offers a variety of styles. Stewart even alternates with Lane on lead-vocal duties. With heartfelt emotion, Lane sings his own song, “Debris,” about a father-son relationship. The contrast of Stewart’s high voice as backup makes for an appealing texture.
Faces did one more album, Ooh La La (1973), which hit No. 1 on the UK album charts. Stewart told the press he hated the album, but by then he was ready to launch his solo career in earnest. His words hurt Lane so much that they served as the last straw for a musician who felt he’d lost control of his own creation; Lane quit the band. They toured for a while without him and made a couple of singles, but the end was nigh.
Or was it? Exit Faces, re-enter Small Faces! Lane was still out (apparently he tried one rehearsal, and that was enough), but Marriott came back, heading a line-up with McLagan and Jones, plus Rick Wills on bass guitar. After signing with Atlantic, they released their first of two albums, Playmates, in 1977.
An advantage of welcoming Marriott back was that he was writing new songs for the band. “High and Happy” is a nice example from this album, an upbeat R&B romp. The band, combining parts of their names into the moniker “Kemastri,” produced the album themselves. The choice to bring the drums to the fore makes a big difference in the energy of this song. Mel Collins, of King Crimson, sat in on sax.
The final album was called 78 in the Shade (1978), with the addition of guitarist Jimmy McCulloch, who had just quit Wings. But the record was a dud both commercially and critically. Soon Small Faces dispersed, leaving only the memory of an important and innovative voice in the early stages of British rock music.
Header image of the Small Faces courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.