Thursday, October 1, 2020
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Off the Beaten Tracks: Smiling Faces

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Of all the rock shows I attended in my youth, the one that left me smiling for longest took place on December 23, 1972. Four school friends and I managed to borrow someone’s dad’s car and arrive at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, in time for the Faces’ Christmas Concert.

Never have I seen anyone have so much fun on stage. The band gave every impression of being boozed-up mates who just happened to have rolled in from the pub, hurling insults at the crowd and each other. Yet the musicianship was impeccable, inspired. Kenney Jones beating hell out of the drums, Ronnie Lane laying down the bass, Ian McLagan on keyboards, Ron Wood on that inimitable, scratchy-sounding lead guitar.

And then there was Rod. Looking with his back-combed barnet like a deranged cockatoo, hoisting his mike stand high into the air and belting out classics with those vocal cords roughened in alcohol-soaked gravel. Who could forget his live version of Maggie May? These days Rod Stewart is disparaged by some as a has-been who trots out old standards in search of another few million quid. Not by me. I think he is one of the greatest singers, performers and all-round personalities rock and roll has ever known. And, best of all, funny with it. In everything he has done it has been obvious that he’s in with us on the joke – a nod and a wink that says: ‘I know it’s all a bit ridiculous but let’s enjoy ourselves and get to the bar before closing time’.

By the end of the Manchester show, when the Faces were kicking commemorative footballs into the audience (15 minutes before the pubs shut), everyone was exhausted from cheering and knew they had witnessed something amazing. It marked the midpoint, and I would like to think the zenith, of the band’s career.

They were formed in 1969 after Steve Marriott left the Small Faces to form the supergroup Humble Pie with fellow singer and guitarist Pete Frampton, from The Herd, along with bassist Greg Ridley from Spooky Tooth and drummer Jerry Shirley.

Marriott was replaced by Stewart and Wood, both from the Jeff Beck Group. Since both were a fair bit taller than their diminutive bandmates, the words The and Small were dropped from the name.

The first song that Stewart, Wood and Lane wrote together became their debut single, Flying, taken from the album First Step. It failed to trouble the charts.

In 1970, however, the band’s particular brand of musical mayhem became familiar with the release of Had Me A Real Good Time, followed not long after by their first top ten hit, the feminist anthem Stay With Me – ‘In the mornin’, don’t say you love me, ’cause I’ll only kick you out of the door.’ And ‘You won’t need too much persuading, I don’t mean to sound degrading, but with a face like that you got nothing to laugh about.’ They don’t write them like that any more – if they did they’d be strung up.

The B-side, Ronnie Lane’s plaintive Debris is a firm favourite with Faces fans (note the subtle alliteration there, supplied free of charge).

In 1971 Rod’s parallel solo career took off, with the huge success of his solo album Every Picture Tells A Story and singles Maggie May and You Wear It Well overshadowing the Faces’ work. This is said to have caused friction within the band and Lane left in 1973, apparently complaining that his own singing was being overlooked. By then Cindy Incidentally had been released – a little gem of a single; just over two and a half minutes of perfection.

Lane, who would tragically go on to develop multiple sclerosis, was replaced by the Japanese bassist Tetsu Yamauchi (anyone remember Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit?) but the spark had gone and the band broke up in 1975 after Wood began associating with the Rolling Stones.

Several reunions were planned over the years and came to nothing. Ronnie Lane died in 1997 and Ian McLagan in 2014. The band had made five patchy albums, four studio and one live.

So ends the Faces’ story but not quite.

There is a four-CD box set named Five Guys Walk Into A Bar with built-in booklet featuring everything the band ever did officially, plus a wealth of unreleased material including fabulous live versions of Maybe I’m Amazed, when one of the Ronnies begins the vocals and Rod takes over to get the job done properly; I’m Losing You and Free’s The Stealer plus many more.

In the booklet Stewart is quoted as saying: ‘Under all the camaraderie and joviality, we took the music extremely seriously. If we were stuck for an idea it was, “Let’s go down to the pub”. Of course an idea always came right there. Then we’d go back and record it. We were a fine drinking band. And most of our best work was done in the pub.’

The guitarist Slash, from Guns N’ Roses, declares: ‘There was not one glam, punk or even heavy metal band in the 80s that wasn’t influenced by the Faces’ look and/or sound, not to mention their party attitude. The Faces had a unique style of songwriting, great hooks, great melodies and, of course, Rod Stewart’s inimitable vocals. They were Britain’s ultimate good-time rock and roll band. Trust me, we all wanted to be the Faces.’

PS Thank you for all your generous comments on last week’s Bert Jansch piece. Many of you were unaware of the marvellous LA Turnaround album and I am delighted to have brought it to your attention. Further feedback welcome any time at alan@conservativewoman.co.uk.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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