The Small Faces are a band whose recorded legacy seems to grow in legend by the year. British contemporaries of the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, their career was short (four years), but the sheer quality of their output has ensured that their catalog continues to be cherished by musicians and public alike. The group’s 1967 album “Small Faces” has recently been re-released by the U.K.’s Sanctuary label in a deluxe 35th anniversary, two-disc edition.
The Small Faces were so called because of the diminutive stature of their personnel and the fact that key figures in the Mod scene — of which they were part — were known as “faces”. The group’s British hits were teen romances ratcheted up from the usual teenybopper fare by Steve Marriott’s gravely vocals and abrasive guitar, Kenney Jones’ blistering drums, and Ian McLagan’s frenetic Booker T-style organ work. It was material like “Whatcha Gonna Do About It?” and “Sha La La La Lee” that led Pete Townshend to coin the phrase “power pop”. Those two hits appeared on the band’s Decca debut album, revealing heavyweight influences that would have surprised many of the group’s fans.
A case in point is the track “You Need Loving,” whose composition was credited to Marriott and bassist Ronnie Lane. “When we would jam, we’d play Ray Charles, we’d play Booker T, we’d play Muddy Waters,” recalls McLagan. “‘You Need Loving,’ that really came from Willie Dixon’s song, a Muddy Waters cut. Steve used a phrase from that. We used to jam on those things until [we’d say], ‘That’s one track right there.'”
The Small Faces’ interpretation of Dixon’s “You Need Love” would later appear as “Whole Lotta Love” on Led Zeppelin’s second album. Reveals McLagan, “Robert Plant used to come and see us in Birmingham when he was a kid and he used to love Steve.” McLagan came clean about the Dixon theft in his 1999 autobiography “All The Rage”: “Willie Dixon’s daughter Shirley — or their lawyers — got on to Decca and asked them to stop and desist until they’d paid the money. And Decca got in touch with me: ‘What’s this all about?’ I said, ‘Yeah that’s right’. Steve and Ronnie are dead anyway. I said, ‘Yeah, f*** it, they nicked it. It’s Willie Dixon’s. You should pay Willie Dixon’s daughter.'”
Despite racking up a string of top-10 hits in the U.K., the Small Faces quickly became disenchanted with Decca and ditched the label, and their manager Don Arden, at roughly the same time. The group ended up on Immediate, the independent label set up by former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Though McLagan is of the opinion that Immediate’s accounting was as dubious as they had found Decca’s to be, he does admit, “One thing about Andrew, he recognized the fact that if he gave us time in the studio, we would develop more and more, and it proved to be right. We spent more time in the studio — that Andrew paid the bill for. It was a much better time for us.”
Under these more understanding auspices, the band’s songwriting axis of Marriott and Lane blossomed. The first Immediate Small Faces single was a real departure. “Here Come the Nice” was a hymn to amphetamine sulphate with startling sound effects. The aforementioned Immediate debut album (confusingly, eponymous, just like their Decca entry) continued this development, with the band graduating from their previous pop-soul to more psychedelic sounds.
The one throwback to the old Small Faces style was the stomping “Get Yourself Together,” a track that would become the all-time favorite of arch Small Faces fan Paul Weller (founder of the Jam and Style Council), who did much to champion the by-then defunct group when he was Britain’s top pop player in the early 1980s. McLagan remembers with amusement a meeting with Weller: “Paul Weller said to me one day, ‘My favorite Small Faces song is ‘Get Yourself Together.’ I said, ‘Really – how’s it go?’ He said, ‘What the f*** you talking about?’ I said, ‘Paul, surely you write a song and you record ’em and you play it once or twice in the studio and never play it again? Thirty years later, why would you remember it? There’s been thousands of songs you’ve played since’.”
Though it didn’t appear on the original album, the new version of the Immediate “Small Faces” album features their 1967 hit single “Itchycoo Park.” This mocking look at the hippie movement was one of the first records to feature the surreal effect called phasing. It was introduced to the band by studio tape operator George Chkiantz. Recalls McLagan: “The Beatles used it and George was on the session. Some weeks or days later, he was tape op with us and he said, ‘Oh you might want to try something like this’ and he showed us how to do it. It was very simple. Tape machines aren’t like digital, they can’t be exact.” Though the Small Faces are usually credited with introducing the effect to the public, McLagan states that it was Toni Fisher who employed it first on her single “The Big Hurt”: “The Beatles were second and we were third. I’d known all along that we weren’t the first.”
“Itchycoo Park” was the Small Faces’ only major American hit, reaching No. 16 on the Billboard pop singles chart. McLagan attributes this to the “cheap management” who failed to send the band over to tour the U.S. “We thought, ‘The Who are over there – we should be over there’,” he says. “I [now] live in Texas. I’ve always wanted to get to America. I wanted to be where the music came from.” McLagan thinks things might have panned out very differently for the Small Faces longevity-wise if they had a proper opportunity to sell their wares stateside.
The group followed up its Immediate long playing debut with the classic, emotive single “Tin Soldier” (a minor U.S. chart entry but a U.K. top-10 track) and the masterful album “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake,” which topped the U.K. charts in 1968 and yielded the life-affirming Cockneyfied smash “Lazy Sunday.”
Yet things unravelled for the band incredibly quickly after those commercial and artistic triumphs. The experimental single “The Universal” barely made the top-20 — something for which Marriott blamed himself — and friction developed in the band over Marriott’s insistence that Peter Frampton join. Marriott would ultimately quit in early 1969.
“He had it all sewn up when I saw him again,” says McLagan of Marriott’s justifications for quitting. “He said he didn’t want to drag us down and all that, but I don’t think that’s the truth. It’s what he found convenient to say. It’s like him saying, ‘My guitar playing wasn’t good enough’. That’s just bulls***. It’s like he protested too much. He wanted Frampton in the band so he could play less guitar so he could concentrate on singing. Maybe he wanted to write with Peter, I don’t know. But he wasn’t silly: Pete was the Face of ’68 and Steve was the Face of ’66.”
While Marriott and Frampton achieved success with Humble Pie, his ex-colleagues hooked up with Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart and finally broke America under the abbreviated sobriquet the Faces.
In 1975, with both Humble Pie and the Faces defunct, a temporary reunion of the Small Faces to shoot promotional films for re-released singles led to a full-scale reunion, although Lane opted out and was replaced by Rick Wills. The new Small Faces released “Playmates” (1977) and “’78 in the Shade” (1978). “I think it was doomed,” says McLagan. “I wasn’t that keen on it in the first place. We had a lot of fun but I don’t think [‘Playmates’] was a very good record and the next one was even worse. We did cut some tracks that were good but it was a hopeless idea really because it was all about money.”
McLagan went on to become a successful freelance keyboardist, recording and/or touring with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, and Bob Dylan. Kenney Jones took Keith Moon’s place in the Who. Tragically, both Marriott and Lane died — the victims of a house fire and multiple sclerosis, respectively — before the Small Faces’ finances were finally partly resolved, leading to a trickle of royalties from their hits for the very first time.
Ironically, though the Faces achieved far more international success, McLagan finds that it is the Small Faces who are the recipients of the more enduring interest. “I have a Web site and I get E-mails on a daily basis mostly about the Small Faces,” he reveals. “I get questions about the Faces too but I get calls from 13-year-olds and 60-year-olds and everywhere in between. Small Faces seems to bridge the whole thing.”