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Small Faces

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Small Faces

The Small Faces were the best English band never to hit it big in America. On this side of the Atlantic, all anybody remembers them only for is their sole stateside hit, "Itchycoo Park" — but in England, the Small Faces were one of the most extraordinary and successful bands of the mid-'60s; their music remains some of the most valuable and enjoyable of the era.

Lead singer/guitarist Steve Marriott's formal background was on the stage; as a young teenager, he'd auditioned and won the part of the Artful Dodger in the Lionel Bart musical Oliver! Marriott was earning his living at a music shop when he made the acquaintance of Ronnie Lane (bass, backing vocals), who had formed a band called the Pioneers, which included drummer Kenney Jones. Lane invited Marriott to jam with the Pioneers at a show they were playing at a local club — the gig was a disaster, but out of that show the group decided to turn their talents toward American R&B. The band — with Marriott now installed permanently and Jimmy Winston recruited on organ — cast its lot with a faction of British youth known as the mods, stylish posers who, among their other attributes, affected a dandified look and a fanatical love of American R&B. The quartet, now christened the Small Faces ("face" being a piece of mod slang for a fashion leader), began making a name for themselves on-stage, sparked by the group's no-holds-barred performance style.

The quartet was signed by manager Don Arden, and brought to Decca/London to record. The band's debut single, "What'cha Gonna Do About It," was released in August of 1965 and reached number 14 on the charts; a second single, "I've Got Mine," failed to chart when released in November. Soon after its recording, Winston exited the lineup; he was replaced by Ian McLagan (organ/guitar/vocals). The group returned to the charts in February of 1966 with "Sha-La-La-La-Lee," which rose to number three in England. Three months later, they were back at number ten with "Hey Girl," and heralded this new single release with their first album, Small Faces. "All or Nothing" marked their first chart-topping entry, and its follow-up, "My Mind's Eye," followed it nearly as high. On the surface, nothing could possibly have seemed wrong for the band. Keeping up the standard of songwriting and recording that they were maintaining was difficult, however, and they were increasingly unhappy with Arden. At the end of 1966, the band severed their ties with him and eventually moved under the wing of Rolling Stones manager/producer Andrew "Loog" Oldham. Oldham signed the group as clients; by the middle of the 1967 he had gotten them moved over to his new Immediate Records label.

With the shift in management and label, the group suddenly found themselves with a drastically reduced touring schedule and vastly increased time available in the studio. Their sound immediately became looser. They remained a top-flight R&B-driven band, but a much wider array of sounds and instruments began figuring in their music. Their first Immediate album, entitled Small Faces (known in the U.S.A. as There Are but Four Small Faces), was issued in mid-1967, and was an instant hit. In August of the year, they released "Itchycoo Park," a lilting, lyrical idyll to the Summer of Love that captured the hearts of listeners on both sides of the Atlantic. The band had bigger aspirations than doing more hit singles, and set to work across five months during 1968 in at least four different studios recording what proved to be their magnum opus, Ogden's Nut Gone Flake. The group's fortunes didn't equal the artistic success of the album. In June of 1968, to announce the release of the album, Immediate took out an ad in the music trade papers that included a parody of the Lord's Prayer that managed to offend several million people before an apology from the band was issued. And Immediate, over the objections of Marriott, chose to release the song "Lazy Sunday" — which he'd recorded as a joke — as a single, and its rise to number two on the British charts did nothing to ease his unhappiness.

Already, the group was showing serious signs of strain. A tour of Australia ended with complaints from the authorities concerning the band's behavior, and there were reports of late arrivals (or no-shows) by the band at their English gigs. "The Universal," a single released in the summer of 1968, was to have been Marriott's most serious effort in that vein in over a year; it subsequently failed to crack the Top 20, and much of his interest in continuing with the band seemed to falter. The end came soon after, on New Year's Day, 1969, when Marriott suddenly left the stage while the band was jamming to "Lazy Sunday" during a show at the Alexandria Palace; he later called Peter Frampton, a guitarist from the Herd, and the two began mapping plans for a band of their own called Humble Pie.

The Small Faces did carry on into 1969, but it wasn't the same. With Marriott gone, they needed a replacement singer and lead guitarist, and found them in Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. They carried on under the name the Small Faces for one album, before dropping the "Small" and going on to greater glory as the Faces. During the mid-'70s, the Small Faces reunited (without Ronnie Lane) for two albums, Playmates and 78 in the Shade, that attracted a lot of press attention but nothing resembling the chart action of their earlier releases. Lane recorded with Pete Townshend, amongst others, before contracting multiple sclerosis, which ended his career as a musician (he later organized the A.R.M.S. benefit concerts to raise money for research into a cure for the disease). Jones subsequently joined the Who, replacing Keith Moon after the latter's sudden death in 1978, and did a couple of tours and a pair of albums with the band. Steve Marriott always seemed poised for a comeback, and in 1991 it looked as though he was going to finally pull it off — alas, he died in his sleep when fire swept his home in England, tragically just a couple of days after beginning work on a new album in America with his former bandmate Peter Frampton. Ronnie Lane died at his home in Trinidad, CO, on June 4, 1997 after battling multiple sclerosis for nearly 20 years.


 

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