The Small Faces, “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake”

 

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Longitudes certainly enjoys 50th anniversary specials. But can you blame me? I was a nipper in the 1960s, so I have fond memories of that time. And in 1968, I lived in Detroit, Michigan, when Motown music ruled the world, and the Detroit Tigers took the World Series. I can claim that I actually knew hitting legend Al Kaline, because his kid got shot up by the same allergist as me.

1968 was a violent year in America, but there are some good things that occurred.

However… this latest installment in ‘60s nostalgia boards the QE2 to sail “across the pond.” It profiles a record by a Brit band that pulled the difficult trick of marrying style with substance, which are usually mutually exclusive, and very few rocksters have been able to combine both. Elvis, the Beatles, James Brown, Hendrix, Bowie, Roxy Music, and the Clash come to mind. All made great music but were also visually dazzling.

Another is the Small Faces, a limey band that literally “carried the colours,” at least in England, for the mid-’60s British Invasion jump-started by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Four working-class geezers, three of whom hailed from London’s rough East End, the Small Faces were the prototypical Mod band.

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The Small Faces. L to R: Kenney Jones, Ian McLagan, Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane

“Mod,” short for modern, was an English youth movement that began in 1959, similar to American subcultures like beat or hippie, but smaller, and less threatening to the status quo. Mods wore flashy clothes, drove Vespa scooters, listened to soul music, and took speed drugs. Mod gave an identity to English working-class kids. Pete Townshend documented Mod culture with the 1973 Who album Quadrophenia.

The Small Faces were Mod to the core, but could also play instruments. The band members were lead singer/guitarist Steve Marriott, bassist Ronnie (“Plonk”) Lane, drummer Kenney Jones, and organist Ian McLagan (who replaced Jimmy Winston early on). All four stood under 5 feet 5 inches tall (Eric Clapton, upon meeting them for the first time, said they all looked like little “haw-bits”). Their short stature, mischievousness, and stylish Carnaby Street threads made them the most eye-catching band in England for a time, especially beloved by screaming young girls (“birds”).

For music fans, between 1965 and 1968 the songwriting team of Marriott-Lane churned out a basketful of sophisticated pop hits in the UK, one quasi-hit in the U.S. (“Itchycoo Park,” which reached #16 in ‘67), and one LP masterwork, released in May ‘68. Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake is considered a classic by “those in the know,” but often overlooked when classic rock albums are bandied. I could give several reasons, but I’d rather just rave on.

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Move over, Lennon-McCartney

The first evidence that this record is a cut above most is the packaging, as visually arresting as the band’s Mod bob haircuts, tangerine and lime-green blazers, and winklepicker shoes. Ogdens’ was the first record released in a round sleeve, designed to resemble an old tobacco tin, and the name parodies an 1899 brand of tobacco. The sleeve unfolds to four circles with moody black-and-white pics of the band members (photographer Gered Mankowitz).

Musically, Ogdens’ is equally mind-blasting. After the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Ogdens’ was the first “concept album,” preceding both S.F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things and The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society by several months. The second side is a Ronnie Lane-inspired musical fairy tale about “Happiness Stan,” who goes on a quest, assisted by a friendly fly, to find the other half of the “dangly” moon. Linking various musical snips is daft narration by English comic Stanley Unwin, who combined the Small’s cockney slang with his own nonsensical “Unwinese” speak (Unwin supposedly influenced John Lennon’s absurdist lyrics and poetry).

As “knees-up” as side two of Ogdens’ is, the heavy hitters are on side one. The title song opener is an instrumental that explodes with Lane’s thunderous bass, McLagan’s altered Hammond organ, and sweeping woodwinds that include cello.

“Afterglow” showcases ace-Face Marriott’s wailing voice. In a non-racial world, Marriott’s soulfulness would be held in similar regard as Ray Charles and Otis Redding. I know what some of you are thinking: he’s bloody white, mate! But I say: bollocks, mate! Great pipes is great pipes. None other than Keith Richards and Ozzie Osbourne have cited Marriott as one of their favourite singers, and those two blokes know something about singing (amongst other things, wink-wink).small faces 2

“Long Agos and Worlds Apart” is one of only two numbers Ian McLagan wrote with the band (the other is “Up the Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire”). Like the Who’s John Entwistle, McLagan wasn’t prolific, but his two songs are highlights of the band catalogue. He has a world-weary voice that contrasts Marriott’s full-frontal assault. This song has a loping instrumental line that I can’t determine is organ or guitar. But it’s an intoxicating arrangement, with a dollop of appropriate psychedelia.

“Rene” is an ode to a waterfront prostitute, “groping with the stokers from the coast of Kuala Lampur.” Marriott, as cockney tour guide, leads us into working-class East London. If you think you’ve suddenly ducked inside an English music hall, it’s because, before discovering rock ‘n’ roll, Marriott was a precocious child actor/singer who starred as the Artful Dodger in the London stage musical Oliver! (he was also in several films, one of which starred a pre-Clouseau Peter Sellers). “Rene” is a rousing singalong tune, the second half a chugging instrumental where our hyper tour guide goes berserk on distorted guitar and blues harp.

“Song of a Baker” is a Ronnie Lane special. Though an inner-city lad, Lane had an affinity for rural life, and later moved to an isolated farm in Wales. “Song of a Baker” is a heavy rocker, but its heart is in the country. Some of the album’s best lyrics are “I’m depending on my labour / The texture and the flavour” and “So I’ll jug some water, bake some flour / Store some salt and wait the hour.”small faces 6

Side one closes with one of the band’s best A-sides, the theatrical “Lazy Sunday.” Marriott wrote it after his neighbors had him evicted for noisemaking. He was always trying to distance himself from his acting roots (which fortunately managed to slip through in the music), and didn’t want this song on the album, but Immediate Records had final say. It’s quintessential English, slice-of-life escapism (think “Penny Lane,” the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” the Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” the Zombies’ “Beechwood Park,” and the Smalls’ own “Itchycoo Park”). The bouncy melody is broken by cockney-esque poetry like “Cor blimey, ‘ello Mrs. Jones, ow’s your bird’s lumbago?”

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Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake reached #1 on the UK Albums Chart and stayed there for six weeks (America had too much on its plate in ‘68, and missed the boat). Due to the record’s complexity, including orchestration, the group never performed it live. This fact contributed to their demise. They knew they could never top Ogdens’. Also, Marriott wanted to get into guitar-heavy, R&B-styled rock and distance himself from the teen-scream scene (though one of the special things about the Small Faces was their playful irreverence). So, he quit the Smalls seven months after the album’s release. He joined with guitar hotshot Peter Frampton (ex-Herd) to form Humble Pie. The other three were briefly adrift, but eventually hired Ron Wood and blond, sexy Rod Stewart, both much taller and recently exiled from the Jeff Beck Group, to become the Faces.small faces 3

Whilst not as artistically satisfying as the Small Faces, both Humble Pie and the Faces achieved the popular success in North America that had escaped the Smalls.

Drummer Kenney Jones is the only Small left. Steve Marriott died in a tragic house fire in 1991; Ronnie Lane succumbed to multiple sclerosis in 1997; and Ian McLagan died of a stroke in 2014. If you fancy rock bios, you’ll be gobsmacked by McLagan’s book All the Rage, which is one of the best fly-on-the-wall rock bios I’ve yet read.

As for Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, it’s been rereleased several times, on CD and vinyl, with music and packaging variations. The original UK vinyl version with the round gatefold cover is the one to get. But you may have to put your home on the market, or place one of your children into indentured servitude to afford it.

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NOTE: Perhaps you noticed I didn’t mention Hall of Fame (HOF) inductions or Rolling Stone (RS) magazine lists here. It’s become fashionable to do this—as if a coterie of music-critic aristocrats with crabs in their beards decide which music is worthy of being anointed for artistic posterity. Cor blimey, I’ve even cited their shite once or twice! But never again, mate. Inductions, lists, polls, rankings, and record sales are poor indicators for determining what is “good” music and what isn’t, by gor, and a lot of these HOF and RS critics are daft, anyway (and get dafter every year). Therefore, longitudes says “rubbish” to all of it.

By the way, I’m right chuffed to say that longitudes has deemed Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake the 19th greatest rock record ever, Steve Marriott the 9th greatest rock vocalist, Marriott-Lane the 4th greatest rock songwriting duo, and the band is in the longitudes hall of fame as a separate act from the Faces, which was a totally different band, musically.

Now, are we all sitting comfy-bowl? Good, then I’ll meet you at the Crown and Anchor, mate. I’ll be wearing pink winklepickers.

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A Boy and a Raccoon

Rascal book

“It was in May 1918 that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring-tailed wonder.”

Among other neuroses, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It may have started in 1968 when I was 10 and became obsessed with having a wild animal as a pet. A therapist might deduce that I craved attention. Having a wild animal as a pet, instead of a dog or cat, draws attention and makes a young person special.

My favorite wild animal was the raccoon (Procyon lotor). I became a child expert on raccoons, and I’ve always remembered the Latin name that I just tried to impress you with.

It started in fifth grade when I read a children’s book called Little Rascal, about a boy and his pet raccoon. A few months later, I graduated to the full novel, Rascal. The novel was a 1963 bestseller, Newbery Honor book, and the first Dutton Animal Book Award winner. It was popular enough that it became a 1969 Disney movie starring Bill Mumy and Steve Forrest (critic Leonard Maltin gives the film two-and-a-half out of four stars, which I might agree with… movies are seldom as good as the books they’re based on).

I read Rascal several times and saw the movie in the theatre the first week of its release. Eventually, my obsession with raccoons became so strong that in 1970 I captured my own baby raccoon in a box trap and made him a pet, with my dad building a 10-foot-tall cage at the side of our house. Rascal II and I became the talk of the neighborhood. My chatterbox friend used to perch on my scrawny shoulders, his black mask like a pair of racing goggles, while we tooled around the streets on my red Schwinn Sting-Ray. For a short time in 1970, before Rascal felt the call and disappeared to locate a mate, I was a minor celebrity.

But enough about my OCD. May 2018 is 100 years since author Sterling North became acquainted with an animal that changed his life, so I’d like to talk about him, his pet raccoon, and his special book.

Sterling North House

Sterling North House (photo public domain)

Sterling North was raised in the small town of Edgerton in southern Wisconsin, on the banks of Rock River near shallow Lake Koshkonong. In 1918, Lake Koshkonong was a wild and scenic lake rimmed by dark forest. But a dam was built in 1932, creating an enlarged reservoir that is now studded with public beaches and boat landings, and an interstate now cuts along the western shore, so much of the lake’s wildness is gone (in the 1970s, the lake came perilously close to hosting a nuclear power plant). In 1918, North was age 11 and spent many hours both on the lake and in the woods surrounding it. He lived alone with his often-absent father, his mother having died when he was only 7, his two older sisters having moved away, and his older brother, Herschel, was far away in France, fighting to end the war to end all wars.

One evening in May, he and his friend Oscar venture into Wentworth’s Woods, where Sterling’s devoted St. Bernard, Wowser, digs up a den of raccoons. The mother and babies hightail it into the brush, but Oscar scoops one of the babes into his cap. He knows his tyrannical father won’t let him keep it, so he gives it to Sterling. Over the next year, Sterling and Rascal have numerous adventures together.

On the surface, Rascal appears to be a just children’s story about a boy frolicking with a wild animal. But it’s a book equally appealing to grownups. I read it again 9 years ago and discovered layers I didn’t know existed. North’s relationship with the lovable, intelligent Rascal is a friendship as tangible as that between people. In the book, he instills human characteristics in his furry hero, but without stretching credulity or sounding trite. He also captures a bygone time of innocent rural Americana, when hickory and walnut hunting, whippoorwill sighting, pie-eating contests, and trotter races are small treasures, and not corny anachronisms.

Sterling North Society

Sterling North and friends (photo Sterling North Society)

In Rascal, North makes plain that his childhood is unorthodox. His father allows him to keep numerous wild and domestic pets, wander deep into the woods, sleep alone outdoors, skip school, etc. The entire living room is cloaked in sawdust from a canoe that Sterling is building by himself. While Sterling’s martinet eldest sister, Theo, scolds their father for creating an unhealthy household environment, his other sister, Jessica—a surrogate mother for Sterling—is more tender and understanding. She realizes that Sterling’s world of flora and fauna is a way of coping with their mother’s death.

And Sterling’s father indulges their self-sufficiency, knowing that being “different” and not trotting after the pack are a healthy thing.

Sterling’s pet raccoon introduces humor and sunlight into the boy’s life. Rascal also brings about a jarring awakening. After seeing a picture of a trapped raccoon on the cover of his fur catalogue, the sensitive boy pictures Rascal’s soft, inquisitive hand clamped in a jaw trap, and he decides to give up trapping. He declares a “peace” with nature on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. North concludes this chapter with the memorable sentence: “It is perhaps the only peace treaty that was ever kept.”

John R. Sill

Lake Koshkonong (photo John R. Sill)

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North grew up to be a successful reporter and editor and wrote a children’s book that became a 1949 feature film, So Dear to My Heart, featuring Burl Ives. But Rascal is the book he’s most known for. In Japan, the book became a cartoon series in 1977, and the raccoon character is still very popular there, supposedly bigger than Mickey Mouse.

When he retired, North and his wife moved to Morristown, New Jersey, choosing the location specifically because there were lots of woods and wild animals, including raccoons.

During this time, my aunt and cousin lived in nearby Millington, New Jersey. When my family visited in the early ‘70s, my aunt found out about my interest, and telephoned the North home to see if I could stop by to meet my favorite author (I was too shy to call myself). But Mrs. North said her husband was suffering from a long illness and was unable to have visitors. She said he’d be pleased to hear that I’d called, though.

In January 1975, while a sophomore at boarding school, I read in the back pages of Newsweek that Sterling North had passed away at age 68. It was like another piece of my childhood had passed away.

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(Author photo)