AS regular readers of our efforts will have realised by now, the musical tastes of my wife and myself rarely converge. One exception is Steve Marriott, voice of the Small Faces, Humble Pie, countless other minor groups. A stroppy little git, by all accounts. And a proper character.
Stephen Peter Marriott was born on January 30, 1947, in East London. His father Bill was a printer and ran a jellied eels stall outside a pub, while his mother Kay worked at the Tate & Lyle sugar factory. Their son taught himself ukulele and harmonica at an early age, busked for pennies at bus stops and regularly won talent contests when the family paid their annual visit to the holiday camp at Jaywick, near Clacton, Essex.
Young Steve idolised Buddy Holly, wore large spectacles (with the glass removed) to emulate the American star and formed several bands with school friends. In 1960 his father saw a newspaper ad for a new boy actor to play the Artful Dodger in Lionel Bart’s West End musical Oliver! Steve got the job after singing Connie Francis’s Who’s Sorry Now? and Holly’s Oh Boy! at an audition. He stayed with the show for a year, on wages of £8 a week.
He was then enrolled at London’s Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, with his fees deducted from the proceeds of acting work found for him by the school in film, television and radio, usually as a chirpy Cockney lad. However he decided his future lay as a musician rather than an actor, to his family’s dismay.
Aged just 16, Marriott was signed as a solo artist by Decca Records but failed to make the hit parade. He became friendly with David Jones (who would later change his name to Bowie to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees) and they planned to perform as a duo named David and Goliath, although nothing came of it.
In 1964, Steve formed a group with bassist Ronnie Lane, drummer Kenney Jones and keyboards player Jimmy Winston, soon to be replaced by Ian McLagan. Marriott supplied lead guitar and vocals. All were short in stature but long on attitude, hence their name Small Faces (face being the term for a leading character in the Mod culture).
Within six weeks they had been signed by manager Don Arden, father of the future Sharon Osbourne, and their debut Decca single Whatcha Gonna Do About It, released in August 1965, reached No 14 in the UK and was a big success with the Mod movement.
Still only 19, Marriott’s singing is a tour de force while the band is as tight as the proverbial mallard’s rear end. Interviewed many years later he said he thought it was probably the best thing he wrote for the band. ‘To me, if there’s a song that typifies that era, then that might be it.’
More than half a century later, All Or Nothing still sets the spine tingling – just about the perfect pop song. It was quickly followed by My Mind’s Eye, which reached No 4.
One of the band’s biggest fans was a young chap by the name of Robert Plant, who attended many of their gigs and ran errands for them. Jimmy Page is said to have selected him as Led Zeppelin’s singer because he sounded like Steve Marriott.
And the Zeppelin song Whole Lotta Love was inspired by Marriott’s version of the Muddy Waters song You Need Lovin’.
Despite having become one of the highest-grossing bands in the country, the Smalls were paid no more than £20 a week by Arden, notorious for his tight-fistedness, and they broke from him and Decca Records.
They were rapidly snapped up by the new label Immediate, run by former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. The band’s growing involvement in the drug scene (which would eventually prove catastrophic) was reflected in their first Immediate release Here Come The Nice.
This somehow avoided being banned by the BBC despite an explicit reference to a dealer – ‘He knows what I want, he’s got what I need, he’s always there if I need some speed.’
The next hit, Itchycoo Park, again flirted with the subject – ‘What did you do there? I got high.’ This was the first single to feature flanging, a time-delay studio effect which gives the unique ‘fizzy’ drum sound. It reached No 3 in the charts.
It was followed by the brilliant, soulful Tin Soldier, with PP Arnold on backing vocals, which got to No 9 but should have been a No 1.
In 1968 came the quirky music-hall-styled Lazy Sunday, which reached No 2 despite being released against the band’s wishes. It was apparently recorded as a joke about Marriott’s problems with his neighbours, who ‘make it very clear, they’ve got no room for ravers’.
Until this point, Small Faces had been regarded primarily as a singles band, but in May of ‘68 came a blockbuster concept album, Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. With a distinctive round sleeve, representing an old tobacco tin, it stayed at the top of the LP charts for six weeks. Side One begins with the title track, an instrumental, followed by the excellent Afterglow. Four further songs include the aforementioned Lazy Sunday.
Which brings us to Side Two, the story of Happiness Stan and his quest to find the missing side of the moon. This psychedelic period piece is narrated by the avuncular comedian Professor Stanley Unwin in his unique brand of gobbledegook known as Unwinese.
‘Are you all seated comfly-bold
Two-square on your botty?
Then I’ll begin.’
I could listen to this all day and never stop smiling. You can hear the whole album here with the Unwin part beginning at the 19-minute mark. Apparently Spike Milligan was the band’s original choice as narrator but it did not work out. I can’t imagine him doing it anywhere near as brilliantly as the professor.
Stanley Unwin died in 2002, aged 90. His beloved wife Frances had predeceased him and they are buried together beneath a gravestone with the inscription ‘Reunitey in the heavenly-bode. Deep joy!’
Ogdens’ could have marked the Small Faces’ transition from pop band to serious rockers, in Marriott’s opinion, but they were never able to do it justice live and at the end of 1968 he quit in frustration. Jones, Lane and McLagan responded by teaming up with Jeff Beck Group alumni Ron Wood and Rod Stewart, dropping the Small and becoming the Faces.
This was the time of the so-called supergroup and Marriott joined up with singer and guitarist Peter Frampton, formerly of The Herd, drummer Jerry Shirley, late of the band Apostolic Intervention, and bassist Greg Ridley (Spooky Tooth) to form Humble Pie.
Their first album, As Safe As Yesterday Is, came out on Immediate in August 1969 and combines pop, folk, blues and heavy rock. The first track, a cover of Steppenwolf’s Desperation, gives you an idea of the sound.
Classic Rock magazine recently named it among the ‘Thirty Best British Blues Rock albums Ever’, describing it as a masterful workout but adding: ‘All it lacks are some decent melodies to go with the songs.’
Soon afterwards came the Piemen’s first single, the Marriott song Natural Born Bugie, which went to No 4 in the UK charts in the summer of 1969. Their second LP, Town and Country, was a lower-key affair with a more acoustic approach typified by the Marriott song Every Mother’s Son (nothing to do with the Traffic song of the same name).
Before Town and Country could be released in the US, Immediate went belly-up so the band signed with A&M Records and focused on the American market, touring the States 19 times in three years while turning the volume up to 11. The next LP, 1970’s Humble Pie, is known to fans as the ‘Beardsley album’ because of the cover illustration. The first track is Live With Me while also included is a bitter country-inflected tilt at Loog Oldham and Immediate, Theme from Skint (See You Later Liquidator).
The music became heavier with the 1971 LP Rock On, including the Spinal Tap preview Stone Cold Fever, followed by the live double Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore. This includes an overblown 23-minute version of I Walk on Gilded Splinters and a nine-minute I Don’t Need No Doctor, which was released in edited form as a single.
Shortly before the album’s release, Frampton was on his bike following one personality clash too many with Marriott, who had developed a destructive addiction to both cocaine and alcohol. Peter began a solo career which would peak in 1976 with the concert album Frampton Comes Alive, selling more than eight million copies.
His replacement in Humble Pie was Clem Clempson, who brought a harder sound typified by 30 Days In The Hole from the 1972 album Smokin’.
The next year brought another double LP, Eat It, followed by Thunderbox and Street Rats before the band decided to call it a day in 1975. Interviewed 25 years later, Jerry Shirley admitted: ‘We were all doing too many drugs, we’d lost sight of our business arrangements and no one within the band had any control over money matters. But the main reason was that we were making bad records.’
In 1975 Marriott was Keith Richards’s recommendation to replace lead guitarist Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones, but he could not resist showing off in the audition and Mick Jagger put the kybosh on him. In his biography, Steve Marriott – All Too Beautiful, his wife Pam is quoted as saying: ‘Steve told me, “I was good, and stood at the back for a while but then Keith would hit this lick and I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut.” Keith wanted him in but there was no way that once Steve opened his mouth Mick would have him in the band. He knew Steve would never stay in the background. They were the one band in the world that Steve would have loved to have been in. He just wanted to work with Keith.’
From then onwards Marriott’s path was downhill. He made unsuccessful solo albums, tried to form innumerable bands, briefly reformed Small Faces and Humble Pie, and became a regular performer on the pub circuit. He moved to the Essex village of Arkesden, near Saffron Walden, where he rented a cottage used for location shots as the title character’s home in the BBC series Lovejoy.
It was there, after a drunken night in 1991, that Marriott died in a fire caused apparently by falling asleep while smoking in bed. At his funeral, All Or Nothing was played as the requiem.
Back to Jerry Shirley: ‘He was certainly the most talented person I ever worked with. He was like a brother to me and I was devastated when he died. He always lived on the edge and I was always waiting for a phone call to say that he had died but I never dreamed it would be under those circumstances. He’s never got the credit he deserves. He should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame because he was the greatest white soul singer that England ever produced. I’m certain that if you caught the likes of Rod Stewart and Paul Rodgers in a private moment and asked them who was the main man, they would say Steve Marriott.’
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