This week in the "rock room" I decided to drop the needle on a famous but undervalued LP by the "Small", soon to be only "Faces". This LP was released in early 1970 by the conglomerate of the remnants of the "Small Faces" with the addition of Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart from the "Jeff Beck Group". Critics sometimes dismiss the record as being not the best effort of the Faces discography, but in my opinion it is a record full of enthusiasm, and some tasty musical nuggets. The rough and ready attitude of this LP is one of its charms, as is that its a band oriented recording,before ego and hurt feelings ate at the core of the group. While there is some "filler" on the LP, the classic songs outweigh any weaker tracks. This LP is an Instamatic portrait of rock and roll when it was it was still dirty, fun, and loud, played by musicians seeped in the craft.
The first side of the LP opens with a cover of the Bob Dylan song "The Wicked Messenger", punctuated by Ian McLagan's cathedral organ flourishes and Ronnie Lane's "plonking" bass lines. Rod's voice is serious, yet pure rock and roll, as he owns one of the most diverse voices in rock. In my opinion, while Rod was fronting the Beck band and the Faces he was the best rock singer around. It was hard to match his range and stage personae, as even Jagger had some competition when Rod was at his peak. For me the translation of Dylan tunes is one of the hardest things to do as a musical artist. Even The Byrds couldn't always pull it off to full effect. This version of 'The Wicked Messenger is indeed a success as the band conveys the mood effectively through their instrumentation and attitude. The appealing and unique aspect of The Faces is in their group attitude. As they did not give a shit about anything but their music. They were going to get sloppy, boozey, and say "Sod it!" to anyone who disagreed. That's the way I feel about this record, its a good time record and anyone who doesn't like it can "F" off!
Continuing on as the needle caresses the blank grooves between song one and two the spiritual and delicate opening of the Ronnie Lane track "Devotion" hovers from my speakers. For those who are not familiar Ronnie Lane is still one of the most overlooked songwriters in rock history. Though many of his songs fill the classic FM airwaves his voice is not recognized nor talked about like other songwriter/musicians of his ilk. Beginning with a dampened and tender Ronnie Wood guitar opening "Devotion" sounds as if its humming out of a church gathering field tent. This song contains a blessed vibe, and healing attitude that never fails to direct me to contemplation and happiness. Mac's organ paints light strokes of gospel color, while Rod just sings his ass off. Ronnie joins Rod to sing the change in the middle of the tune which takes the song to magical levels. Underneath this Woody plays "Robbie Robertson" riffs tastefully underpinning the vocals, eliciting warmth and making my windows fog. The song keeping out the brisk winter night with notes that contain a luminosity like flame.
The third track on side one is the Lane/Wood composition "Shake Shutter Shiver" containing a dual organ and guitar revolving ballroom dance as its centerpiece. Rod and Ronnie Lane share the vocals on the verses, and Woody again delights with his demonstrative slide work. The song swirls and agitates itself into a nice peak before it fades to silence. Following "Shake Shutter Shiver" comes one of my personal favorite songs on the LP and possibly of all time, "Stone", again penned by Ronnie Lane. This song similarly to "Devotion" is a highly spiritual tune, based in Ronnie's faith in Meher Baba'a teachings. The song grooves on an acoustic guitar played by Lane, and banjo riff played by Rod Stewart, with some honky-tonk bar room piano tinkled in by by Mac. The earthy title of the song is reflected in the the rustic atmosphere of the instrumentation and the reincarnation themed content of the lyrics. The tune has a stomping celebratory vibe with Rod and Ronnie singing call and response during the middle eight to take any edge of the philosophical lyrics. "Stone" would remain a song that Ronnie would return to over the course of his career many times in many different arrangements. A towering song and one of the best on the album.
Side one closes with a popular Faces live track that always reached extraordinary heights when played in concert, "Around the Plynth". "Plynth" is a despondent song about a man reflecting on his life and using the image of water going down the drain as a metaphor for his existence. Centered around fervent slide guitar work by Ronnie Wood and heavy footed bass drum stomps by Kenney Jones the song is a quintessential Faces track. Tight instrumentation with a feeling that it could careen off of the tracks at anytime is a hallmark of many of the Faces best songs. A gold star goes to Kenney Jones on this track for his sturdy and tenacious drumming. Any fan of the Faces should hunt down some of the legendary live versions of this song.
Side two opens with what many, including some of the band members consider to be the definitive example of the Faces at their best. "Flying" a Wood/Stewart/Lane composition fades in with a metallic picked guitar introduction by Wood, which reaches out of the speakers and grabs you with its windy etheral vibe. Mac's ghostly organ follows, then Lane's bass with "plonking" neck slides setting the stage for what are probably Rod's most superlative vocals on the record. This is the "best" band performance on the record, and a true collaborative effort. If someone asked me who The Faces were I would play this song. Side two continues with Ronnie Wood's "Pineapple and the Monkey" which opens dramatically with Mac's silky smooth organ introduction, soon after joined by Woody's funky chunky guitar riff. This instrumental track does seem like it may have been taken out of the oven a bit to early, but it does contain a lovely melody line featuring Woody's guitar and Lane's bass locking together like a DNA helix.
"Nobody Knows" is up next and spotlights shared vocals between Lane and Stewart once again. Its such a pleasure to hear those two guys sing together, its unfortunate that as time passed it happened less and less. Another fantastic band performance containing tasteful drumming, and slippery round guitar licks abound. A tender song containing the yin and yang of exsistence, and the optimism and pessimism we all feel traveling the road of life, perfectly packaged in a tuneful format. A marvelous song stashed away on the "B" side of a sometimes forgotten album is exactly why I write this blog. To rediscover, reconnect, and reintroduce these dusty hidden treasures back into the light of day. I have included some rare footage at the bottom of the page of the group performing this song. The next to last track on the album is again an instrumental this time composed by Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones. Propelled by Woody's bouncy rubber ball guitar work, this tune has the feel of a rehearsal that was quickly committed to tape. This in no way diminishes the tune, it just has that "jammy" attitude to it. At around two and a half minutes in the groove picks up slightly with Kenney and Mac pushing the song forward and Lane holding down the bottom end like a ships anchor. I feel that moments like this on the LP show the guys feeling each other out and learning how to play together. For that reason alone the instrumentals on this record are perfect looking glasses into the band's development.
The closing song on the album is again a song that continued to be part of the Faces stage show throughout their career. "Three Button Hand Me Down" is a swaying and swinging rock and roll number. You can't help but to stomp your feet or bob your head to this track. Ronnie Wood takes over bass duties for this tune, like his previous stint in The Jeff Beck Group, and leads the way with his upfront sound and rock steady heartbeat."Three Button Hand Me Down" elicits shades of Motown classics gone by mixed with the drunken "Englishness" of The Faces. The song dissolves into a small little improv toward the end, and that signals the conclusion of The Faces debut LP.
The one characteristic of The (Small) Faces that separates them from other rock bands of the era is their ability to not compromise who they truly were as artists. The music they created, starting with "First Step", was birthed by a organic process taking into account all of their influences and infusing them into a unpretentious rock and roll stew. All of the members would go on to have their own musical careers filled with artistic achievement after the group disbanded. But for a short time they collaborated to create some of the finest, most diverse rock and roll ever composed and performed. It all started with that "First Step" that they took in 1970. Time for me to stop writing and throw the LP on the turntable for another spin, and try not to be so serious about my rock and roll.
Three Button Hand Me Down Live 1971