Ian McLagan of the Small Faces was on the line.
By Binky Philips
It was a week before Christmas break in 1967. My friend Steven T. was “going home” to England for two weeks. Although he was born in the USA, Steve’s parents were both British. His dad seemed like a retired Colonel from Her Majesty’s Army, all bristle-brush mustache and bristling manner. His mum was a classic middle-class lady, with such a proper accent that she could have been a minor royal.
“So, what do you want me to bring back for ya, Binky?” asked pal Steven.
“Oh man, Small Faces albums, any you can find. That’s it. Small Faces, Steve.”
Two weeks later, Steve came over to my house with the first Small Faces album on Decca and the second Small Faces album on Immediate. I paid him the $10 they cost.
By the time I’d finished side one of the Decca album, the Small Faces were already sixth in my rock pantheon, following The Who, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Kinks and Beatles. Yes, they were/are that good. The more you have heard, the more you realize that was always where they belonged.
When British punk broke out in all its anti-glory in the mid-1970s, only the Who and Small Faces were immune from purist punk rockers’ sulfurous disdain. It’s obvious why. Small Faces were punks. Punks with world-class chops and a singer, Steve Marriott, who may well have been the best rock voice Britain has ever produced.
Early Small Faces on Decca was their rawest stuff and derivative of the Who, all to their glory. But the subsequent Immediate Records tracks reveal a band of magnificently talented musicians, writers and arrangers. Small Faces were a staggeringly sophisticated and influential band; in their music are snippets of The Who Sell Out, Sgt Pepper’s, Between the Buttons, Village Green Preservation Society… before any of those LPs were recorded. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks… that’s influencing, okay?
One Small Face, drummer Kenney Jones, wound up in the Who. Organist Ian “Mac” McLagan wound up touring with the Rolling Stones for a decade or two. Bassist Ronnie Lane later collaborated on an album with Pete Townshend. Bit of alright, I’d say.
The Small Faces’ tour de force of eclecticism makes each succeeding cut more creative and catchy than the last. It’s almost bizarre. How in fook’s name did this band not wind up monolithic?!
“The Small Faces are the only band I’ve ever heard of who never got paid.”
You don’t need me – or anyone else — to point out which tracks are special. Your own ears will reveal to you that they are ALL special, all utterly valid on the most potent levels of originality and what you might call genuine British Soul Music. And I don’t mean in terms of their remarkable assimilation of Stax/Volt and Motown and the Brill Building. This was British musicians exposing their souls, gritting their teeth, going for it, leaving it all on the table, all that bollocks.
The Small Faces split up when Marriott started Humble Pie with Peter Frampton. Left to their own devices, Mac, Lane and Jones recruited Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart out of the Jeff Beck Group and became the Faces. Both had solid runs, but, God, to see the original four Small Faces together onstage… A true time-machine wish!
Next best thing: an interview with Mac. So, at 4pm [EST] on a sunny Monday in 2013, I dialed Ian McLagan’s cell number…
One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy, three ringy-dingy…
Binky: “We civilians find pop stardom eternally fascinating. What’s it like being a rock star? For better or worse, Mac, that’s what you are. I mean, it says so on Wikipedia.”
Mac: [laughs] “Yes, they’ve got William as my middle name. I don’t know where the fuck they got that from. I’ve tried to change it, but, it’s impossible. Who decided I’d be Ian William Patrick? So I’ve decided that’s who I am. You can call me Willy.”
Binky: “Okay, Willy. Getting back to pop stardom, when was that precise moment you felt, ‘Oh my God, I’ve done it!’?”
Mac: “That was the minute I joined the Small Faces. They were in an office, and as I came ‘round the door, Steve Marriott laughed and picked me up. Then, all three picked me up on their shoulders. I’d found my brothers, that’s the truth of it.”
Binky: “I’d heard that the other three Small Faces didn’t even know what you looked like when you joined the band… really?”
Mac: “They’d seen a review in a magazine of the band I was in and it raved about my playing and the fact that I played a Hammond [organ]. And there was a photograph of the handsome Boz Burrell, who wound up in Bad Company, who was our singer, with my name under it. So, they thought, ‘Well, he’s got a Hammond, he plays great, and he’s good looking…[laughing]…Hooray!’ When they met me, they knew I wasn’t the guy they saw in the magazine. Steve said, “Oh well, he ain’t good lookin’ but he is short!”
Binky: “Even though we only saw you in photos and never onstage, me and my friends thought you guys were the absolute coolest looking band, with the best haircuts, the best suits… impeccable. Did you have that much savvy and taste or was some stylist coaching you?”
Mac: “Hell yeah, we had taste. No one picked out our clothes for us.”
Binky: “All those Marriott/Lane songs. Can you give me a sense of how those two wrote together?”
Mac: “It varied. For example, ‘All or Nothing’ was pretty much all Steve. ‘Itchycoo Park’ was almost all Ronnie. I mean, we were always together. I heard all those songs going through their growing pains. Lots of songs evolved rather than, ‘Hey, I’ve written a song, fellas.’
“One summer, we all had boats and mine was the biggest, so we were always on my boat. Ideas were flowing. And that’s how I broke the Marriott/Lane logjam in the songwriting department and got writing credits on Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. But you really need to read the lyrics to ‘Itchycoo Park.’ It’s not just about getting high, which is the way Steve turned it. Steve wrote the part about feeding the duck in the pond and all that bollocks, Ronnie is actually singing about Oxford and Cambridge! And what Ronnie was saying was, he didn’t have money, he didn’t have education, but he could find beauty in a nettle patch. And not in the ‘England’s green and fair land’ way and all that bollocks. Ronnie found beauty in a nettle patch in the East End of London. Ronnie sang [Mac over-enunciates] ‘It’s… All… Too… Beautiful.’ The only trouble was the song was so fast and Steve turned it into [sings like a corny vaudevillian] ‘It’s Ah All Tooo Beeeoootifula!’ Frankly, I hated that. I’ve recorded a version on my tribute to Ronnie, A Spiritual Boy, An Appreciation of Ronnie Lane and I did it the way it should’ve been done. It’s still a ‘great hit’ and all that, but it’s a better song that you’d normally think.”
Binky: “You could be describing John Lennon’s ‘Across the Universe’.”
Mac: “Yeah! You know, I just heard that the other day. Love that song.”
Binky: “So, you were a very young man, a kid, really, interacting with two of the most spectacularly colorful eccentric influential guys in the history of pop music and almost diametrical opposites. Tell us what it was like to deal with Don Arden, someone who would keep a pistol on his desk during negotiations as hard a nut as show biz ever produced and then suddenly you’re dealing with one of the most creative visionary oddballs that pop culture has ever spawned, Andrew Loog Oldham. Can you tell me about these two guys and how you related to them?”
Mac: “Well, they were both professional thieves.”
Binky: “Oh dear.”
Mac: “Andrew had ideas. Andrew and I have made friends in recent years and by ‘friends’ I mean to make peace. I was gonna do it with Don, too. But then he went and died, so fuck him. I mean, the money is gone. We only started getting royalties in 1997. So, it’s just not about the money, it’s about the music. That’s all I can say. I had great times, too. But the fact that Ronnie and Steve never got a penny for publishing, or Kenney and I ‘til 1997… it’s a tragedy. But I can’t live in the past.”
Binky: “It’s astounding. It seems like almost every British band got totally ripped off, at least during their first few years.”
Mac: “The Small Faces are the only band I’ve ever heard of who never got paid. Think of it. Our royalties from 1966 til 1997. Can you imagine the millions? Nowadays, it’s a trickle. A hundred dollars here, a hundred dollars there, it’s piss. The Who and the Kinks wound up doing okay, y’know.”
Binky: “When I first heard the Small Faces, Steve’s guitar, especially that fantastic feedback/whammy bar solo in ‘Whatcha Gonna Do About It’ and Kenney’s killer Moon-ish drum fills… well, there was a very strong Who influence. What I’ve found interesting now that I’ve seen lots of Small Faces clips on YouTube is the fact that the Small Faces were just as influential on the Who as they were on you.”
Mac: “Here’s the thing. [They had] that very Who sound before I joined them. A few years ago, Pete Townshend was the keynote speaker at the South by Southwest Festival. I live in Austin and, that year, my band had won all these Austin Music Awards and we were the golden boys of the moment. So, the SXSW people wondered if Pete might do a song with us. I spoke to him and he agreed. I wanted to do ‘Whatcha Gonna Do About It.’ I told Pete and the audience that the first time I ever heard that guitar solo — remember, I wasn’t in the band yet — I said to myself, ‘They took that feedback solo from only one place.’ Then I yelled to Pete, ‘Take the fucker back!’ Some ass in Rolling Stone totally misquoted me as ordering Pete to ‘Play it for me NOW!’ I couldn’t fucking believe it. What’s the point of putting quotation marks around that? Anyway, it was great to hear him take the feedback solo in ‘Whatcha Gonna Do About It’. He did indeed take the fucker back, too.”
[Mac’s Who connection went a lot deeper than that: he married Keith Moon’s ex-wife Kim in 1978. She died in 2006.]
Binky: “Steve Marriott seemed to be the first gearhead in rock. Every clip, he’s using a different guitar, and all of them really good ones. Rare ones, too. Was he fickle or was there some tone he was chasing?”
Mac: “Steve just loved guitars. He would give them away. If you were at his house, there were always guitars and guitarists about. That’s where I first met Ronnie Wood. Steve’s concentration was always a bit short, he’d go from an SG to a Telecaster to a Strat, he just loved all those guitars. It was passion. Y’know, Steve was really a ball of fire. He died early but lived three lives.”
Binky: “The Small Faces went through a huge blast of success. You were a singles band, churning out three-minute hits every 75 days it seemed. You were, for about a year, the biggest pop band in England. On the cover of every magazine every other week, it seemed.”
“Every single day. We’d go to the studio, and then down to the gig, sometimes two gigs a night at different venues, back to the studio and then a TV show… Days off were an incredible rarity. I loved every minute of it.”
Mac: “Oh yeah, we were hot shit for awhile.”
Binky: “Can you describe what that was like?”
Mac: “We were on the inside of it. We never saw that stuff. We were busy! Every single day. We’d go to the studio, and then down to the gig, sometimes two gigs a night at different venues, back to the studio and then a TV show… Days off were an incredible rarity the entire time I was with them. And I loved every minute of it. ‘Cause that’s all I ever wanted to do in life and with the three guys I wanted to do it with. The not-getting-paid part, we were never thinking about it. We had clothes on our backs, food in our bellies, a place to sleep and we got to play every fucking day. We were the hottest shit around and we just assumed we’ll have money eventually.”
Binky: “There must’ve been some wild times on the road in the 1960s. Anything strike you as worth divulging?”
Mac: “I suppose that tour of Australia and New Zealand we did with the Who. It all started when an Australian band on the same flight as [us] opened a bottle of beer. Can you believe all the bollocks over that tour started with one open bottle of beer on a plane? Australian airlines had a strict no-alcohol policy during flights. All the Faces and Whos knew this and were behaving ourselves. We landed and were promptly arrested! We marched down the stairs out of the plane with our hands high in the air, just mocking them. Then, while we’re waiting in the first class airport lounge while the police figured out what to do with us, a waiter came up and asked if we wanted a drink! We said, ‘Fucking right, we will.’
“After that delay, we got on the plane to New Zealand. When we arrived in Wellington, there were eight policemen waiting for us. Four for the Small Faces, four for the Who, one for each of us. They escorted us to the hotel. They were with us at all times, so, that nothing ‘terrible’ would happen. The show that night went fine. It was Steve Marriott’s 21st birthday. The police came back with us and by this time we were all on first-name terms. I asked them, ‘Would you like to come in for a drink?’ They said, ‘Oh well, that’d be nice.’ They came to Steve’s suite, all very nice. Keith Moon came to the door. He immediately picked up the portable record player we were using for entertainment, threw it through the plate glass window… and the policemen ran! That’s all there was.
“It was a great tour. We played to packed houses, we played great. The Who were fantastic, and all anyone remembers is we got arrested because another band opened a bottle of beer on a plane.”
Binky: “The name Small Faces came from you all being under 5’ 5” and faces was the Mod term for a cool dude. Is that right?”
Mac: “Yes, that’s how I always understood it.”
Binky: “I understand that when you were a kid you somehow convinced a store to sell you a mammoth Hammond organ on installments and that when your dad got home that night, he literally couldn’t open the front door. The Hammond was totally blocking the way.”
Mac: “That’s the story that I started my book All the Rage with. You must get my book!”
Ian McLagan suffered a stroke and died in Austin, Texas on December 3rd, 2014. He was 69.