This book’s heavy. Not in a deep way – it’s a weight thing. Ever tried reading such a colossal tome late at night, propped up in bed? Of course, the Faces in their pomp would probably have suggested that bedtime – if to be observed at all – was not for reading. But the fact is that Andy Neill worked hard on this 500-plus page epic, making it difficult to pick up last thing. And all for a band that barely lasted six years. But what a six years they turned in though.
Neill’s Faces Before During and After – Had Me A Real Good Time, updated here from the 2011 edition to cover the loss of Ian McLagen and ongoing part-reunion rumours – is so much more than a timeline between the band’s first gig on a Cambridgeshire USAF base at the tail end of the ‘60s and their late 1975 finale at the Labor Temple, Minneapolis, four albums and a live offering later. At first I was surprised the Small Faces section wasn’t longer, that band key to the whole story, surely? But within a hundred pages I understood – the author had much more on his plate. On reflection there’s enough on the Steve Marriott era. Once you add in the band they became and all those side-projects it makes sense. Besides, as that philosophical fella Aristotle said, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.
Neill certainly goes into detail regarding many of the bit-players in the Faces story – from family and love interests to ex-bandmates, contemporaries, roadies, studio personnel … you name it. And without those archive and first-hand interviews you wouldn’t get the full picture. But at the heart of it, we have Rod Stewart, Ron Wood and three Small Faces – Ronnie ‘Plonk’ Lane, Ian ‘Mac’ McLagan and Kenney Jones. And this is anything but a clichéd portrayal of some ‘super-annuated, blonde-chasing irrelevance’ and his mates.
The author writes, ‘In and age of bland collectivism the Faces had a comedic quality that Ron Wood once described as ‘the Marx Brothers on the road’. On the other hand, DJ Jeff Dexter reckoned, ‘This was more like a pub brawl than a soul band’, and this is a story of five young musicians having the time of their lives seeing the world, 1970s’ style, carrying off obligatory rock star excess to apocalyptic perfection. These lads could be tiresome, taking decadence to a new level, but thankfully the music was great, arguably excusing their worst qualities.
Ah yes, the music. Confession time – I actually prefer the early Rod albums to those of the Faces. I like a lot of Plonk’s moments with Slim Chance and I’ve already hinted at a love of the Small Faces, but while there were many great Faces moments and I’d have loved to see them live, I’m not convinced the LPs hold up so much in their entirety. It wasn’t just about the albums though, and while the Small Faces were as much about style as music to some, the band that followed were first and foremost about a live passion that inspired fans’ fervour, in a similar way to Mott the Hoople and Slade in that respect. And roadie Russ Schlagbaum says, ‘On a good night – and with the Faces you had a 50-50 chance of catching them on a good night – they were absolutely spectacular’.
Of course, drink played a part – on and off stage, in and out of the studio. As Neill put it, their ‘inclusive brand of boozy blues and soused soul extended beyond the spotlight, and along with bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin they perfected the on-the-road practise of annihilating hotel rooms down to a fine art, while indulging in all the typical trappings of the ‘70s rock star’. There were the women too. All perfect subjects for a ‘70s rock biog really, but while Neill adds many of those great stories, he’s hardly coasting here.
In time it all went up a couple of levels, the by-product of Rod’s success – Maggie May the first of six UK No.1 singles (and 26 top-10s) and Every Picture Tells a Story the first of eight No.1 albums (and 34 top-10s) – leading to complications, not least simmering resentment as venue billboards announced ‘The Faces featuring Rod Stewart’, ‘Rod Stewart & the Faces’ or even ‘Rod Stewart & the Small Faces’. But while the singer had the best of both worlds in having such a quality backing band, it stands to reason that the others made capital of his success.
You could argue that the underlining tension played a part in Lane leaving. And as Stewart admitted, ‘When Ronnie left the band the spirit of the Faces left’. Yet Plonk chose to strip things back to basics after all those years in the spotlight, even if ‘his single-mindedness cost him dearly both financially and in health’. His departure wasn’t the end of the story either, and while the Faces virtually ceased to function in the studio, ‘Teacher’s toting Tetsu Yamauchi’ brought a new dimension to the chaos before the curtain finally came down after Woody joined The Rolling Stones. Yet four decades on their legacy thrives, an inspiration to so many bands over the years, many unworthy of the comparison.
Neill tells us his inspiration for taking on this mammoth project stemmed from an initial love of Rod’s early solo albums, then the Faces’ own. I’m with him on that. For me it was the vinyl capture of Never a Dull Moment then Every Picture Tells a Story, albeit in the mid-80s. I went back to An Old Raincoat … and Gasoline Alley from there, rediscovering all that had been somewhat sullied by the Do You Think I’m Sexy? period.
Not one for the purists maybe, but I like 1974’s Smiler too. Save for a few orchestrated strings there were no great surprises (despite that dodgy album cover), but the formula till largely worked, like the almost-obligatory Dylan song, a stonking duet with Elton John on Let Me Be Your Car and slightly-awkward altered covers (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Man and Bring It On Home To Me/ You Send Me (and anything shining further light on Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke was alright by me).
That should have been the end for me, but mid-’70s nostalgia means I have a soft spot for his later I Don’t Want to Talk About It and First Cut is the Deepest covers too, and even Sailing takes me back to perfect summers. But I prefer to think of an earlier Rod with a cracking band (two cracking bands actually). In time, I also understood where the Small Faces gave rise to the Faces, like those unfinished 1862 tracks, imagining both Marriott and Stewart on Collibosher and hearing the join listening to Marriott/Lane number My Way of Thinking on Gasoline Alley.
Content-wise, Neill starts with a portrait of the Small Faces’ East End contingent, early ‘60s Mod culture, the link-up with ‘Al Capone of pop’ Don Arden, and Middlesex mucker Mac’s arrival. And conflicting versions of stories from interviews with the band, family and contemporaries highlight just how difficult it was to chronicle those years.
By ’67 they were sharing bills with the Jeff Beck Group, whose vocalist later recalled popping into the dressing room to say hello to Marriott but added that he ‘didn’t have a clue who the rest of them were’. Neill’s early Rod the Mod portrait includes stories now part of Stewart folklore, like those of a cherry-taking buxom belle at Beaulieu Jazz Festival, a brief stint with The Ray Davies Quartet, beatnik days travelling Europe, his Twickenham railway station discovery by Long John Baldry, and the relationship leading to his first child. Meanwhile, Mac recalls Rod at Eel Pie Island in the Hoochie Coochie Men, with ‘big bird’s nest hairdo, back-combed, a big nose, very sure of himself, a Jack the lad’. And there are the first mentions of Rod’s ‘short hands and long pockets’, a reputation following him well beyond Steampacket and Shotgun Express days.
We meet Woody during a three-year apprenticeship travelling the land with the Birds, including a retelling of that historic first meet with his North London mate at the Intrepid Fox on Wardour Street in late ’64, two distinguished spiky-barnets sussing each other out before Rod supposedly asks, ‘Hello face, how are you?’ If they made a biopic you might groan and exclaim, ‘As if!’ Either way, a friendship was forged, the duo soon joining the Jeff Beck Group.
Neill also tells of Andrew Loog Oldham, Immediate Records, Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, Marriott’s friendship with Peter Frampton (ultimately leading to the end of the Small Faces) and the lack of money coming the band’s way. At one stage he asks Mac if ‘much of the group’s last earnings might have been legitimately swallowed up in expenditure on clothes, transport, studio costs and high living’, prompting a vociferous response that, ‘In the time we were together we never received any record royalties. We must have lost in the region of at least a million quid, so you do the math, buying a few shirts ain’t gonna cover it!’ There’s a telling line from Kenney’s ex-bro-in-law Gary Osborne too, saying, ‘You find out later that the cars were leased and he didn’t have a pot to piss in. I remember asking, ‘Where’s all the money? And Ken said, ‘Don’s looking after it.”
Yet while round-the-clock studio time was ‘costly and recoupable against royalties’ and ‘attention to detail when it comes to accounts was never Oldham’s concern,’ Neill stresses that ‘without either manager the Small Faces’ career might have been a lot shorter than it already was’. And this was a band that were exceptionally short.
When Marriott left, Neill relates how Pete Townshend encouraged the others to use his Twickenham studio, showing a strong link between two legendary Mod bands. Descriptions of the financial position then also paints a picture, not least the keyboard player and his partner moving from his mum’s council house in Kensal Green – a baby on the way – to an £8 a week two-room cold water flat in Earl’s Court, their belongings packed into Mac’s Mini. Meanwhile, Plonk got by with the help of PRS cheques and Kenney stayed afloat with session work and his other half’s pay-cheques.
Woody soon arrives on the scene from Beck’s band, a ‘bubbly and light-hearted’ character, just what they need. As he put it, ‘They had a very similar approach and were into things I was digging at the time – like Booker T’. A series of jams follow, some in a basement belonging to The Stones, with Rod – set to start his debut solo LP with Woody, Mac, drummer Mickey Waller and guitarists Martin Pugh and Martin Quittenton – dropping in to see how things are shaping. As Plonk put it, ‘We’d get well pissed, shout and make a lot of noise’. Rod eventually joined in, despite Mac and Lane’s reluctance, fearing another Marriott situation. And despite Rod and Woody’s worries that ‘this isn’t going to work’, a worldwide Warner Bros deal followed, Billy Gaff managing, and Rod allowed to record with them in return for honouring his Mercury deal.
So in the final month of the ‘60s they start on First Step at a defining time for the band and music in general, the new decade on the horizon. Touring soon proved key, a gruelling schedule seeing them ‘diving into the carnal pool’ en route, irrespective of domestic situations. Positive reception in the US was followed by a UK breakthrough for this ‘bunch of drunken East End yobs’, sales increasing via interest in Rod’s Gasoline Alley, all the Faces contributing this time – also the case for the next two LPs.
Meanwhile, a band itching to consolidate stateside appeal (maybe down to STDs) were soon back in the studio for Long Player, the lead singer’s earnings prompting the latest in a series of moves, this time to a mock Tudor home, a new Lamborghini on the drive. Top of the Pops and Disco 2 appearances and support from DJ John Peel helped spread the word, that big break just around the corner – Every Picture Tells a Story’s second single in August ’71 sending everything viral.
By then they were already well versed in on-the-road antics, a reputation preceding them, such as a penchant for emptying hotel rooms and rearranging contents on the corridor, a ‘hapless hotel manager’ emerging from the lift to be ‘confronted with the band casually sitting in their ‘room’ – chairs, cabinet and bed with bedside light on’. By then a suite was put aside as a party room, so ‘festivities could continue unchecked for as long as desired while allowing any band member to discreetly slip away, either alone or with that night’s catch’. Different times.
While the author takes a well-researched chronological approach, you can also keep track by working out which partner Rod’s bedding, where he’s living, or who’s left which Face for whom. Tensions clearly remain too, however well the band play and however strong the material – and it was very strong – although nights filling hotel lifts with empty bottles sometimes relieved angst. As Billy Gaff told Neill, ‘The audiences got bigger, the money got bigger and the band became more important’.
There’s plenty of humour here, such as record company exec Martin Wyatt’s anecdote about the Faces’ girlfriends sweet-talking him into getting a lift to a gig in Brighton – to the consternation of the partying band ahead of their scheduled ‘relaxation’, during a period in which Rod and Woody had lead roles in questionable ‘doctor’s surgery’ routines. That said, Lane was drifting from this ungentlemanly club, work on a film soundtrack project pre-empting his Slim Chance adventure.
Neill neatly explains the band’s allure to their audience too, comparing the Faces and superstar peers like Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Elton John, this outfit more about ‘street level accessibility’. He also reminds of us the political climate, and how as ‘the royalties and concert proceeds poured in, the band spent lavishly on home comforts while much of the country was adversely affected the Heath Government’s austerity measures’. By then, even Woody had splashed out on a 20-room four-storey Georgian mansion on Richmond Hill, previously owned by John Mills and originally 18th century portrait artist Joshua Reynolds, helped out on the £140,000 price tag by Lane buying a three-bed coach-house at the bottom of the garden.
Lane also invested in a mobile recording studio, while Mac crept down the hedonism line, mixing booze and cocaine after his marriage break-up, and Stewart had just finished next mega-seller, Never a Dull Moment, so accordingly the Faces started what became Ooh La La on their own, taking six months amid many reworks and a ’laissez-faire attitude’ towards ‘punctuality and sobriety’ (opposed to the more disciplined Rod and Kenney).
Plonk soon fled to Ireland, in turn pairing up with friend of the band and graphic artist Mike McInnerney’s wife, the bass player pre-empting Dexy’s Too Rye Ay Romany look by several years on his return, his new partner seen as a Yoko-type figure as the old dynamic suffered. Yet by April the Faces had a UK No.1 LP with Ooh La La, arguably their finest, although neither Rod nor the critics were so sure. Tensions ran high too, as seen during a Long Island on-stage spat between Lane and Mac and soon after as Plonk supposedly told Rod – after a cutting remark about fashion – he’d ‘rather look like a fucking Teddy boy than an old tart who’s going through the change’. Taking that further, Neill adds that ‘Lane later acidly remarked he knew it was time to move on when Rod started buying his clothes from Miss Selfridge’. Like I say, different times.
Lane’s replacement Tetsu, ‘a challenge for any biographer due to the language barrier and the new bass player’s media reticence’, added fresh colour, Mac reckoning he ‘brought a bottle of Teacher’s in with him at the first rehearsal, drinking the whole bottle himself’. What’s more, ‘Rod swears blind one time on tour he saw Tetsu’s breakfast tray being delivered with a bottle of Teacher’s on it’.
By now the lead singer was heavily into his tartan period, as replicated in the audience, while this easily-recognisable band’s ploy of booking in as Fleetwood Mac on US tours no longer working. They still managed to trash a few rooms though, the National Guard called out on at least one occasion. For his part, Mac specialised in flooding toilets, unscrewing doorknobs and phone receivers and disabling beds, his band often taking a private jet to gigs, shuttled via Cadillac and Mercedes limos between airstrip and venue.
All a world away from Lane, working on a dream of playing big top shows with dancers and various acts, a dry run on Clapham Common involving a 2,500 capacity Chipperfield’s circus tent, the front-man at home on the Welsh border while his old band toured Down Under and Japan. Meanwhile, rumours circulated about Woody joining the Stones or forming a backing band for Smiler-era Rod. He went on to record two solo LPs with high-profile cameos, but the next Faces tour soon saw the usual all-night party vibe remain, a ‘perpetually-grinning Tetsu … down to just one bottle of Teacher’s a day’, the band somewhat tighter.
While the Faces put on the biggest grossing UK tour of ’74, Lane’s Passing Show further illustrated Plonk’s disinterest in the business side, leading to dodgy contracts and transport problems in a tour characterised by breakdowns, Russ Schlagbaum reckoning the trucks he bought ‘belonged in the London Transport Museum’. Yet Ronnie remained determined to see his vision through, deaf to advice.
Back in the big time, new acquisition Britt Ekland caused further resentment among the crew at a time of ‘the worst of Rod’s lothario behaviour’, the superstar lead singer soon a tax exile, saying he was ‘forced out of Britain thanks to Chancellor Denis Healey’s crippling tax laws’. Times were changing though, punk rock about to ‘tear at the barricades of the smug complacency and spiritually bankrupt world represented by dinosaur behemoths like ELP, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and superstar tax exile sell-outs like Mick Jagger and … Rod Stewart’.
The latter was based in Hollywood by then, his worldwide Warner Bros deal including his Riva Records imprint, the next solo LP the first not involving any Faces, Woody by then a Stones loanee. Atlantic Crossing was certainly an oddity, produced by Tom Dowd but with little of the Muscle Shoals charm it might have had, despite some good songs and contributions from Booker T & the MGs and the Memphis Horns. The first of his two-sided affairs (fast and slow sides) Neill gets it spot on, saying it was ‘staggeringly successful yet creatively moribund’ and ‘set the template for Rod’s tenure with the label’.
Only one of those songs – Three Time Loser – featured on the final Faces tour, the last gig on November 1st, 1975. Rumours of a farewell UK tour followed, but Rod said, “When we do break up there’ll be no bloody farewell tour. It’ll end with a punch-up. Our last concert will be a televised show of us kicking the shit out of each other.” Disappointingly, that never happened, although Neill details what followed, right up to Mac’s late 2014 passing, 23 years after Steve Marriott’s and 17 years after Ronnie Lane’s.
There are other books out there telling the story from different angles, but think of this as the deluxe compendium, complete with more than 60 pages of additional notes, release timelines etc. And detail is something Neill has in abundance. As he put it, ‘Little did I realise to what gargantuan lengths it would grow in doing the subject adequate justice. With the possible exception of Crosby Stills Nash and Young, no other group presents the biographer with such a considerable challenge of unravelling the individuals’ various backgrounds, previous musical journeys and subsequent careers’. Whether or not he had ‘a real good time’ writing it, somehow he pulled it off. Andy Neill can be proud of the finished product too, a worthy addition to any rock biog collection.
Faces Before During and After – Had Me A Real Good Time by Andy Neill is available from all good bookshops and several online outlets right now, published by Omnibus Press and priced £18.99 in the UK.