Thursday, August 4, 2011

Long Player: Andy Neill’s Had Me a Real Good Time: The Faces Before, During and After

“Why don’t we form a skiffle group?”
“Yeah, great...” After five minutes I said, “What’s a skiffle group?”
(Recalled by Kenney Jones, drummer of the Faces)
               
This quote taken from Andy Neill’s massive biography of the Faces, Had Me a Real Good Time: The Faces Before, During and After (Omnibus Press, 2011), pretty much sums up the whole attitude of the members of what many called the second greatest rock band in the world. (You can guess who is considered the greatest.) I saw them in concert only one time, thirty-nine years ago, at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. They were drunk, and loose, and fun, and they rocked the joint. Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones came together in 1970 and left a legacy of only five albums, but they cut a swath through rock’n’roll that has never fully healed. 

The book is indeed huge. Someone (might’ve been Ron Wood) described it as “Bible-sized” and it is clumsy to hold, and hard to read. Another recent biography of session musician Nicky Hopkins (And on Piano…Nicky Hopkins by Julian Dawson) covers much of the same ground and is more elegantly written. But that just shows the difference between pianist Hopkins and the Faces. Hopkins came to the studio on time, did his work for as long as it took, and went home for a cuppa with his Mum. The Faces, well…didn’t do that.

The reason for the length and clumsiness has a lot to do with the story Andy Neill has to tell. It all starts (like most of these bios of British bands) with the Germans dropping bombs on England and families in disarray. Trouble is, with the Faces, there are simply too many characters. We start with Ronnie Lane and Jimmy Winston, and then switch to Kenney Jones, Steve Marriott, Ian McLagan, and bounce over to a bit about Rod Stewart, and then Ronnie Wood. Neill adds a dollop of Jeff Beck, a touch of Long John Baldry, some Rolling Stones, and then drops in Nicky Hopkins. It’s all so complicated. 

The Faces
In a sprawling manner, Neill tries to give us the evolution of the band. He begins with how the Small Faces (“Itchycoo Park”) morphed from a Mod R&B band to a psychedelic group who released one of the world’s first concept albums (Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, 1968), and eventually lost their lead singer Steve Marriott to Humble Pie. He then follows Rod Stewart from being backup singer in the Hoochie Coochie Men, to Steampacket and Shotgun Express, then to lead singer in the Jeff Beck Group, and eventually being named one of the Top 100 Greatest Singers of All Time (Q magazine). All aspects of his solo career are covered as well. We hear of Ron Wood’s days playing guitar for The Birds & The Creation, before seeing him switch to bass in the Jeff Beck Group, and back to guitar for the Faces, and finally winding up where he belonged all along, as a Rolling Stone.          

Many errors and longstanding rumours are corrected, or put to rest in Neill’s tome. There are footnotes galore, a bibliography, discography, tour guide, and many photos to illustrate each permutation of the band.  It’s the kind of book that can be dipped into here and there, not unlike the Bible. The club scene in London, shady managers (including Don Arden who kept them on salary and Andrew Loog Oldham who signed them to his Immediate label), and a description of the recording technique known as “phase-shifting” which created the psychedelic effect on “Itchycoo Park” (which was the Small Faces’ only North American hit). It’s all here. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that there’s any information Neil hasn’t included.

Ron Wood and Rod Stewart, more recently
We come away from the book knowing that Rod the Mod was a cheapskate, Jeff Beck wasn’t a very nice boss; there was plenty of booze, sex and other distractions for one and all, and the complications just made the journey more interesting. The supporting cast is too numerous to mention here, but the main characters continue to fascinate. Ronnie Lane formed a band called Slim Chance which toured England in a caravan, he wrote and recorded with Pete Townshend, he suffered from Multiple Sclerosis which eventually killed him. After Humble Pie, solo work and an unsuccessful reunion with the Small Faces, Steve Marriott passed away in a fire in his home. Pianist Ian McLagan played sessions, recorded solo, wrote an autobiography and continues to perform. Tetsu Yamauchi, the Japanese bassist who replaced Ronnie Lane, disappeared back to Japan where he maintains a low profile to this day. Kenney Jones took over from Keith Moon in The Who, and formed The Law with Paul Rodgers, and nowadays spends his time promoting polo as a sport. He is quoted here as saying, “People are put off it because they think it is out of their reach. But it’s affordable to people who have one or two horses.” Hmm. Ron Wood is in the papers regularly with addiction problems or relationship trouble. His life as a Rolling Stone has made him a household name.  His solo recordings continue to impress. Rod Stewart came out of it all at the top. He recently finished recording a five disc set of his rendition of songs from The Great American Songbook; he has adjusted his style for every decade, and is the star of the show.

The Faces reformed in 2010 with Wood, Jones and McLagan adding Sex Pistols’ bassist Glen Matlock and Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall on vocals. Neill’s book concludes with a report from their performance. He quotes a review, “If you closed your eyes [Hucknall] could almost have been Stewart circa 1975. The rest of the Faces were authentically shambolic throughout. Endings were botched and verses missed…” Sounds exactly like the night I saw them at the Gardens, Sept.7, 1972. 

Faces performing in 1971 (Photo by Steve Caraway)
That day began like any other day. I packed up my bag and went off to the university where I was studying. My brother called the Fine Art Dept. and asked them to page me. “I have an extra ticket for the Faces,” he said, “Ya want it?” I met him at the highway and we hitch-hiked to Toronto. We rode in the cab of an 18-wheeler! At Maple Leaf Gardens we sat halfway back, Savoy Brown (supposed to be the opening act) didn’t get across the border. Fleetwood Mac was announced as a last minute replacement, but was just as quickly cancelled, so we were surprised to hear that White Trash would open. Without Edgar Winter! It was a Jerry LaCroix-led White Trash. They were loud, not particularly good. Then they left and the Faces stumbled on-stage, obviously under the influence, obviously having a good time. They too were loud, but they put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I tell this story because it summarizes the problems of writing about this band. It’s not simple.

Andy Neill had quite a task to pull together all this information, all these people, all the various permutations, so if it’s confusing and a bit clumsy to really imagine how he felt. Neill ultimately ends up with the definitive story. The Faces virtually defined what it meant to be a band in the '70s. They could party, they could drink, and they could rock like there was no tomorrow. They could be clumsy, confusing, and they could be inspired. Neill captures every aspect. Had Me a Real Good Time is perfectly titled. We had us a real good time that night. If you care about the band, its members; if the music matters to you; or even if you want to find out why it mattered to us, Neill’s history will shed light on it. Just be sure to have some Faces music close at hand, maybe the Ron Wood anthology, Rod’s Mercury records, and Jeff Beck’s Truth, because if you want a real good time you’ll have to be listening to their music while you’re reading about their life.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at http://rylander-rylander.blogspot.com. He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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