The Roots of Indie: The Faces
This time last week I was blathering on about the Replacements' Hootenanny, a drunken mess of an album from a drunken mess of a band that couldn't have been any better if they tried. The 'Mats may be the indie world's lovable party lads, but they aren't without precedent.
While I'm reflecting on prior columns, it was only a few months ago that I rambled on about the Black Crowes' brilliant debut, Shake Your Money Maker. That album's blend of tasty rhythm, bluesy guitar, and soulful organ -- not to mention Chris Robinson's gravelly vocals -- wasn't without precedent, either.
Meet the Faces.
Before we talk about the Faces, we have to talk about Small Faces, the great mod band formed in 1965 by Steve Marriott (vocals, guitar) and Ronnie Lane (bass). They recruited drummer Kenney Jones and keyboard player Jimmy Winston and started playing American R&B to the same London area speed freaks and scooter owners who loved the Who. Shortly thereafter Winston was replace by Ian McLagan.
This may be the strangest aspect of the British invasion phenomenon in the U.S.: Our U.K. cousins weren't exporting English music so much as American music once removed. The Beatles channeled the Everly Brothers and covered the Isley Brothers (among others); the Rolling Stones were obsessed with American blues; and the mod bands adored Motown, Stax and James Brown. Small Faces' first single, "Whatcha Gonna Do About It," is a perfect example of British invasion R&B.
By '67 the band was caught up in the psychedelia wave, releasing their biggest American hit, "Itchykoo Park." It's a fine track, and it remains in rotation anywhere that classic rock is broadcast, but if that's the only Small Faces track you know you're really missing out.
The following year they released what most consider the finest album in their discography: Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake. DNA from tracks like "Lazy Sunday" are detectable in bands ranging from Polyphonic Spree to Primus:
Near the end of '68, Marriott quit the band on stage and went on to form another hugely influential band, Humble Pie, featuring future guitar god Peter Frampton. This left McLagan, Lane and Jones without a singer and guitarist. Enter two ex-pats from the Jeff Beck Group: singer Rod Stewart and guitarist Ronnie Wood.
The new Faces' debut album, 1970's First Step, is often criticized as a bit of a mess, but much like the Replacements, that's the charm of the band. Album opener "Wicked Messenger" is a cover of a Bob Dylan tune. A few decades later the Black Keys would release a version of their own.
As good as the band's albums are (and they are very good), where the Faces really came alive was on stage. They were one of those acts that appeared to be walking a tightrope, the distance between brilliant show and total disaster barely wide enough to stand upon.
The decades haven't been too great to Rod the Mod's artistic credibility. If you're of a certain age you may think of him as a disco act; if you're a bit younger he's an '80s pop star. At this point in his career, people think of Stewart as a standards-singing lounge act, if they think of him at all.But Stewart in his prime was one of the truly great front men -- powerful voice, cool presence, and he knew how to work a mic stand. While you watch the following clip, compile your own list of singers influenced by Rod the Mod. I'll wait.
The problem with having such a massive talent at the front of the stage is that; well, sometimes those folks know just how massive their talents are. There's a running gag among both musicians and fans that front men in big bands eventually develop the dreaded LSD: Lead Singer's Disease. The list of LSD symptoms is as long as it is snarky, but for our purposes only one really needs to come into play: The singer gets too big for the band.To some extent, blaming Stewart's solo career for breaking up the band is inaccurate; after all, his first solo album was released a year prior to the Faces' debut and featured both Ronnie Wood and Ian McLagan. That album barely made a dent in the charts, but his sophomore effort, 1970's Gasoline Alley, cracked the Top 40 in the U.S. Looking back, what happened next was inevitable.
In 1971, the Faces released two albums, three if you can't Stewart's solo effort, Every Picture Tells a Story. Wood plays guitar throughout the album, and the entire band convenes for what has become the version of the R&B classic "(I Know) I'm Losing You."The album was Stewart's breakthrough as a solo artist, hitting number one in all of the major English speaking markets: Australia, Canada, U.K. and U.S. Remarkably, the band hung together for another four years, though founding member Lane left after 1973's Ooh La La.
Both Stewart and Wood landed on their feet after the band's 1975 split -- the singer with his massive solo career and his trusty sideman now celebrating 40 years as the new guy in the Rolling Stones. Kenney Jones went on to replace his mod contemporary Keith Moon in the Who for the duration of the '80s.
Steve Marriott died in a fire at age 44. He remains a singer's singer, often mentioned by your favorite front man (whoever that may be) as one of the all-time greats.
Ronnie Lane's career was cut short prematurely by multiple sclerosis, but he soldiered on with the disease for 21 years before passing in 1997.
Keyboardist Ian McLagan remained active until his death from a stroke in 2014.
Remarkably, the Faces reunited in 2009, and when Wood isn't doing duty in the Stones they play dates. Simply Red's Mick Hucknall serves as their vocalist and original Sex Pistol Glenn Matlock fills Lane's massive shoes on bass.
That's better than nothing, but what fans really want to see is the three surviving Faces -- Wood, Jones, and Stewart -- reunited. Our good friend and frequent Diffuser Radio guest Jeff Giles recently reported on Ultimate Classic Rock that Stewart's management is blocking that from happening due to money squabbles, also noting that the singer has "also spoken recently about being eager to get back into the studio to record a new solo LP." Will Lead Singer's Disease claim another victim? Stay tuned.
One final note: If you're going to pick up one Faces make it 1971's Long Player, especially if you've ever wondered what Paul McCartney would sound like channeled through the Black Crowes.