Although they were considered one of the top line British bands of the 60s, The Small Faces never cracked the American market, and are mostly remembered for their one hit, Itchykoo Park.
In the UK however, the Faces were considered a major threat to both the Who and the Stones. If not for indifferent bungling on the part of management, and almost criminal negligence on the part of Immediate Records, the story might have worked out very differently. Fortunately, the world music community did finally come to appreciate the talents of the individual members of the Small Faces and their spin-offs, Humble Pie and The Faces, but the unique and creative work of the band itself still remains largely uncelebrated in the USA.
Like David Bowie and Davey Jones of the Monkees, Small Faces lead singer/guitarist Steve Marriott had a formal entertainment background; as a young teenager, he played the part of the Artful Dodger in the Lionel Bart musical Oliver!, as had Davey Jones.
Marriott was working at a music shop where he met Ronnie "Plonk" Lane (bass, backing vocals). Ronnie had recently formed a band called the Pioneers, which included drummer Kenney Jones.
Ronnie invited Marriott to jam with the Pioneers at a local club, and although the appearance was reportedly a complete disaster, the band decided to explore American r 'n' b as their basic sound. With Marriott on lead guitar and lead vocals and Jimmy Winston added on organ, The Pioneers sought a following amongst a faction of British youth known as the "Mods." Stylish poseurs, and arch enemies of the leather-clad Rockers, Mods were great supporters of American music, in particular Motown and r 'n' b.
The Pioneers changed their name to The Small Faces ("face" was Moddy slang for a person of consequence and impeccable fashion sense), and began making a name for themselves. Marriott had a uniquely powerful voice and was a very aggressive lead guitarist, and the others were able to match him, especially Kenney Jones, a truly distinctive drummer.
The quartet was signed by well-known music manager Don Arden (father of Sharon Osbourne) and he got the Small Faces a recording deal with Decca/London. The band's debut single, What'cha Gonna Do About It, was released in August of 1965 and reached number 14 on the charts; a second single, I've Got Mine, failed to chart when released in November. Jimmy Winston left the band and was replaced by Ian McLagan, who doubled on guitars and vocals, as well as playing organ. The group returned to the UK charts in February of 1966 with Sha-La-La-La-Lee, which went to number three. Hey Girl, a Marriott/Lane composition that inaugurated the songwriting team, released three months later, went to number ten.
This single was followed by their first album, hastily recorded and called Small Faces. The next single, another Marriott/Lane original, entitled All or Nothing, topped the U.K. charts in the course of a ten-week run. Its follow-up, My Mind's Eye, was also successful as well, but its release infuriated the bandmembers. They'd given Don Arden a demo who had turned it over to Decca as a completed song.
That move completed the group's discontent with Don Arden's management. On top of his mishandling of their business affairs and bookings, as well as manipulating their relationship with Decca, Don also imposed a grinding concert schedule (sometimes three shows a night), which exhausted the band and took Marriott and Lane away from their songwriting.
With the enormous success of the Beatles and the Stones, songwriting was becoming recognized as an essential part of the creative and financial aspect, but Don Arden was of the old school, and could not grasp the concept - he thought of bands as throwaway product, not as creative individuals to be nurtured, nor did he think in the long term. By the end of 1966, the Small Faces had severed their ties with him which, in effect, also ended their relationship with Decca (though the two sides would argue that point for a while).
In early 1967, the Small Faces moved under the wing of Rolling Stones manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham. At the time, Oldham was one of the top three or four producers in England, thanks to his work with the Stones, and his management of that group was considered one of the most successful business relationships in pop music.
Oldham had just started his own label, Immediate Records, which was initially devoted to a few licensed American masters, the work of promising neophytes, and a few unwitting contributions by star guitarists -- including Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck -- who thought they were cutting demos and jamming with producer/guitarist Jimmy Page.
Getting the Small Faces as clients was the first step to signing them to Immediate, thereby providing the label with the anchor of a proven hitmaking outfit. The Stones were unavailable, locked into a contract with Decca, and keeping themselves politely distanced from Immediate Records. With the shift in management and label, the Small Faces suddenly found themselves with a drastically reduced touring schedule and vastly increased time available in the studio. Their sound consequently underwent noticeable changes.
Their first release for Immediate, a quietly-subversive drug anthem, Here Comes the Nice, was a cheery, unassuming ode to a drug dealer which, somehow escaping the censors, became one of the finest above-board expressions of appreciation for recreational drug use of its era. Other drug songs followed,which ended up on their albums, including Green Circles. However, they basically remained a top-flight r'n' b-driven band, but with a much wider array of sounds and instruments.
The first Immediate album, entitled Small Faces (released in the U.S. somewhat belatedly through Columbia as There Are But Four Small Faces), was issued in mid-1967. It was an instant hit. In August 1967, two months after Here Comes the Nice wafted its way to the airwaves, they released the quirky Itchykoo Park, a lilting, lyrical idyll to the Summer of Love, loosely based on a hymn Ronnie Lane remembered from his childhood, and featuring Marriott in his most benign vocal guise - this infectious salute to a psychedelic sunny afternoon found instant appeal on both sides of the Atlantic and became the Small Faces' sole claim to fame in the United States.
Ironically, although glad to have a international hit, the band members weren't too pleased with the single's success. Once again, they felt the song didn't represent their true sound, plus being extremely difficult to play live, owing to its acoustic guitar sound and phased drums, achieveable only in the studio. Besides, the band had bigger aspirations than just producing more hit singles - the Beatles' success with the conceptual Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band posited "the album" as the new medium for full musical expression. The Small Faces were anxious to get to work on their own version.
Accordingly, during five months of 1968, working in at least four different studios, they recorded what proved to be their magnum opus, Ogden's Nut Gone Flake. A mix of Cockney whimsy, spoken word recitations (courtesy of actor/recitalist Stanley Unwin), hard rock, blue-eyed soul, and druggy freakbeat sensibilities, it was probably the most English and the most ambitious of the concept albums to follow in the wake of Sgt. Pepper , and further enticed potential purchasers with its round-sleeve-in-a-square-frame packaging. [Unfortunately, it also confounded record distributors and retailers, not to mention American listeners totally unfamiliar with the actual Ogden's Nut Flake tobacco tins.]
The album - which the group only performed in its entirety once (although numbers like Rollin' Over became permanent parts of their live set), via a live-in-the-studio television broadcast called Colour Me Pop - was a critical and commercial success, and has received rave reviews across the decades since.
The group's fortunes didn't match the reception for the album, however. In June 1968, to announce the release of the album, Immediate took out an ad in the music trade papers that included a parody of the Lord's Prayer. This managed to offend several million people before the band issued an apology. Their relationship with Immediate was further strained when, over loud objections from Marriott, they released the song Lazy Sunday as a single. Steve had recorded the song as a joke. Despite its subsequent rise to number two on the British charts, it did nothing to ease his unhappiness, as once again he felt the record had nothing to do with the band's real sound. Their previous single, Tin Soldier - which was a hit as well - was much more representative, a love song mixing wrenchingly soulful vocals by Marriott, with a dazzling performance by McLagan at the keyboard.
As with Don Arden in the past, the group was beginning to have increasing doubts about the whole realtionship with Oldham/Immediate. Andrew had parted company with the Rolling Stones in mid-1967, and now the Small Faces became the creative core and sole cash cow for the label. The Jagger/Richards songwriting team had contributed songs to some early Immediate acts, but suddenly Marriott and Lane were being asked to come up with songs and serve as producers.
This would have been acceptable, except that, even with a fresh string of hit singles and a pair of LPs that sold well, they were getting no royalties. Immediate was keeping much of what their recordings earned, all charged against their studio time at exorbitant hourly rates, though the group was at least getting more money from their fewer but much better-paying gigs. With the Faces being the only money-making act on the label, the band found themselves shelling out for the label's losses on other artists.
Immediate was hemorrhaging money, in ways that paralleled the debacle at Apple Records. In one of the more famous anecdotes, attributed to various artists under contract and to former employees, the typical daily operation went like this: artists and would-be artists hanging about, major stars popping in and out, and then at 4 p.m. or so Oldham would arrive in a limo, dressed in a kaftan and sandals, accompanied by an entourage. His business partner, Tony Calder, would then show up separately, go into the office, look at the bills, and start muttering about breaking people's legs. The Small Faces' royalties mostly vanished into that black hole up until the inevitable bankruptcy, and then simply vanished for 30 years.
The Universal, a single released in the summer of 1968, was to have been Marriott's most serious effort in that vein in over a year, incorporating a more laid-back, quasi-acoustic, and jazz-like sound (complete with clarinet accompaniment) and his most subtle, serious lyrics, in contrast to the jocular Lazy Sunday. It failed to crack the Top 20, and much of his interest in continuing with the band faltered as a result.
Doggedly, the band worked on a planned third Immediate LP and continued to tour (Immediate even recorded one of their live sets from Newcastle Town Hall early in the year, which showed a band as good as any in England), while Marriott tried to initiate some changes. He proposed that a new friend, singer/guitarist Peter Frampton, a teen idol who had lately quit a successful pop/rock band called the Herd in a quest to be taken more seriously as an artist, be brought into the Small Faces lineup, but the others were content to slog on as a quartet.
The end came soon after. In the final hours of 1968, Marriott suddenly left the stage while the band was jamming to Lazy Sunday during a show at the Alexandria Palace in London. Within hours, he and Frampton began mapping plans for a band of their own called Humble Pie, bringing aboard Greg Ridley on bass and Jerry Shirley - a Marriott musical protégé, - on drums.
The remaining Small Faces did carry on into 1969, switching managers on a almost monthly basis, turning down an offer to become Donovan's backing group, and other odd shenanigans, while Immediate tried to salvage the situation by issuing a double-LP career retrospective called The Autumn Stone, which made it out a few months before the company closed its doors.
With Marriott gone, the group needed a replacement singer and lead guitarist. Enter Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. As Immediate had finally foundered in a sea of red ink and long-delayed bankruptcy proceedings, the new group moved to the much bigger and more stable Warner Bros. Records; the name "Small Faces" endured for one Warner's album, then they officially morphed into the Faces, an incarnation under which they went on to international glory, before Rod Stewart finally eclipsed them as a solo act.
During the mid-'70s, the original Small Faces reunited (with somewhat limited participation by Ronnie Lane) for two albums, Playmates and 78 in the Shade. They attracted a lot of press attention but nothing resembling the chart action of their earlier releases. Like their 1960s work, the albums failed to find an audience in America, despite being released on Atlantic Records.
Ronnie Lane recorded with Pete Townshend, among others, before contracting Multiple Sclerosis, which ended his career as a musician (he later organized the ARMS benefit concerts to raise money for research toward a cure for the disease).
Kenney Jones subsequently joined the Who, having been recommended by Keith Moon as his replacement ahead of the legendary drummer's sudden death in 1978, and did a couple of tours and a pair of albums with the band.
Humble Pie became bigger in America than the Small Faces had ever been, with their brand of high-energy rock, which soon alienated co-founder Frampton but led to massive sales and an enviable string of tours, until their breakup in 1975.
Steve Marriott's career languished in the years that followed, but he always seemed poised for a comeback -- with that voice and history, he was always a potential contender for stardom. In 1991 it looked as though he was going to finally pull it off, but when a fire swept his home in England, he died in his sleep -just a couple of days after beginning work on a new album in America with former bandmate, Peter Frampton.
On June 4, 1997, Ronnie Lane died at his home in Trinidad, CO, after battling MS for nearly 20 years.
In 1998, Ian McLagan -- who'd gone on from the Faces to record and perform with Bonnie Raitt, the Rolling Stones, et al. -- published All the Rage, a very frank and revealing autobiography covering his 35 years in professional music.
The Small Faces' catalog languished for a time, largely as a result of the bankruptcy of Immediate Records in 1970. Some of their music was reissued on vinyl in Canada in the early- to mid-'70s, and later on reissue labels such as Compleat, but their legacy was generally a shambles. That wasn't helped in the early part of the CD era when the licensors of the Immediate catalog sent out a lot of substandard masters, made from sources a long way from first-generation studio tapes.
In 1990, Sony Music Special Products became the first label to reissue any part of the Small Faces' catalog mastered from decent tapes, utilizing the duplicate masters that Immediate had furnished to Columbia Records, Sony's predecessor,in the late '60s. The results were better, if not ideal, but eventually, a combination of consumer complaints and better vault research in England, along with better digital technology, led to major improvements in their CD library; anything dating from much after 1995 is acceptable by early 21st century standards, and some of the 2002/2003 issues from Sunspots sound amazing.
In their usual style, Immediate, in an attempt to gouge fees from Columbia, began issuing any old rubbish they could find, providing new titles to unfinished outtakes, and studio ruffs, but Kenney Jones and Ian McLagan struggled through the resulting confusion, and in 2003 were making some sense of the mess at last, even coming across some live television appearances released by NMC.
Additionally, thanks to deals negotiated with the successor labels to Decca and Immediate, and the release of Sanctuary Records' Ultimate Collection in 2003, Ian McLagan, Kenney Jones and the Marriott and Lane Estates were collecting full royalties for the first time in 30 years.