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 tragically in a 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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Rolling Stones Release First Single, “Come On”

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Back in 2002 I managed to get a couple tickets to see the Rolling Stones in Columbus, Ohio.  My son Nick was only 12, but he liked some of my music, and played drums, so I treated him to his first rock concert – something to tell his grandkids, right?  The Stones played like 20-year-olds, and we had a blast.  But afterwards it was sad to think the Stones would soon be retiring from the stage.

OK, I’ve never been good at predictions.

This Friday, June 7, 2013 will be the 50th anniversary of the release of the Rolling Stones’ first single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come On.”  It defies belief that three of the original five Stones – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Charlie Watts – are still together and performing.

The Stones have changed a lot since the days of rabbit-ear TV antennas.  They’ve dabbled in almost as many different musical styles – psychedelia, country, reggae, even disco – as Keith’s dabbled in drugs.  But the one constant has been their love of American blues and R&B.

They formed in London in 1962 and took their name from the song “Rollin’ Stone” by legendary bluesman Muddy Waters.  Before long they became the hottest band in London.  Small Faces/Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan offers an eyewitness description of their frenetic club performances at the Crawdaddy Club in May ’63 (from his book ALL THE RAGE):

Brian Jones and Keith Richards sat on stools either side of Mick Jagger, who’d wail over our heads while Keith spat out licks, weaving in and out of Brian’s slide guitar lines…They would build to an ear-splitting intensity, soar for a while, come down to a groove, and then churn up to the climax at the end, which drove everyone even crazier…Every night I’d see members of other bands hogging the front of the stage like me, making mental notes.

Chuck Berry was probably the biggest influence on Keith Richards’ stripped-down guitar style, which might be why they covered him for their first recording.  “Come On” wasn’t one of Berry’s more familiar tunes, and he’d recorded it only two years before the Stones.  But the song’s anonymity worked in their favor, since a lot of people assumed it was a Stones original.  For the B-side, they chose Willie Dixon’s “I Want to Be Loved.”  The single reached No. 21 on the UK singles charts.  But they refused to play “Come On” live because they felt it wasn’t “black” enough!

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In his autobiography, LIFE, Richards talks about the song:

I quite cold-bloodedly saw this song as just a way to get in.  To get into the studio and to come up with something very commercial.  It’s very different from Chuck Berry’s version; it’s very Beatle-ized, in fact.

Unlike many bands who experience a “sophomore slump,” the Stones moved only higher up the charts after “Come On.”  Their second single was a cover of Lennon-McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” and went to No. 12.  Their third single, Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” went to No. 3.  A year later they hit No. 1 with a cover of Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now,” recorded in Chicago at Muddy Waters’ old studio, Chess.

Their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, eventually made the pivotal decision to promote them as the ugly, bad-boy alternative to the Beatles, dispensing with the matching suits and encouraging them to look and act surly.  And while the “Glimmer Twins” took longer to develop as a songwriting unit than Lennon-McCartney, soon the bulk of album and singles material was self-penned.  With Mick as lyricist and Keith as musical director, the road to rock greatness was paved with gold.  Other than Elvis, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and maybe Berry, I can’t think of musicians more integral to rock history than the Rolling Stones.

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Unfortunately, there’s no video footage of the Stones in their early club days.  But I highly recommend the DVD “The T.A.M.I. Show,” a variety concert that was filmed during the Stones’ first U.S. tour, only a year after “Come On.”  Mick had already honed his trademark stage mannerisms, and the band performs six songs, including the great “Time Is on My Side” (“The T.A.M.I. Show” is special for a lot of other reasons, but I won’t spoil it).

Till then, make sure you crank it up this weekend in honor of the Rolling Stones.  Like the man said: “It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but I like it!”

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