Spare the Rod, Gimme the Faces
Now I look back, think I've known
all the time
I've been fighting myself for so long
All the vows we made gone
for old rags and lumber
Disappeared on a cart down the road
"Love Lived Here," Faces, 1972
Although Ronnie Lane penned those lines, you can't help but imagine Rod Stewart living them. Such was Stewart's greatness that you can still plop on any record he cut between 1969 and 1975 and hear the unbroken connection between his heart and that celebrated throat. Long before the endless procession of platinum albums and platinum blondes, Stewart was a Scottish lad who sang as if his very life depended on it, as if an album as bad as Camouflage or Body Wishes -- the kind he's been churning out for more than 20 years -- might forever banish him back to being a gravedigger. In an honest moment of reflection, that ol' heart of his would have to admit that his best work is well behind him, disappeared on a cart down the road. And that "Love Touch" and "Sweet Lady Mary" have no business being on the same hits package.
While Rod the Mod is safely encased in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame respectability, the individual Faces seem unlikely to see its stuffy insides except as replacement members for some other bigger British bands. But the Faces were more than a talent pool for the Who and the Stones. They were a legendary live act, probably the last English rock 'n' roll band that didn't treat having a good time onstage as some kind of malediction. Stewart, along with Ron Wood, Kenney Jones, Ian "Mac" McLagan and the late Ronnie Lane, recorded some of the most celebrated rock records ever, though many bear only Stewart's name.
Before the Faces, no band had ever had to contend with a lead singer trying to juggle a concurrent solo career on a different record label and tour in support of his own and the group efforts. It's hardly helped the Faces' schizophrenic identity problems in the digital era that the group has only been anthologized on two Rod Stewart boxed sets but has never been given a compact disc greatest hits of their own. Happily, The Best of Faces: Good Boys . . . When They're Asleep . . . (Warner Bros. Archives/Rhino) has turned up in shops to help pick up the slack.
Sadly, it's only a one-CD collection. The package boasts that it's "a true best-of from the same era as Every Picture Tells a Story and Never a Dull Moment" but doesn't include songs from either album. Licensing the Rod-stamped songs from Mercury proved too big a hassle for Ian McLagan, the keyboardist for all Faces great and Small. As to why the job fell on him to pick the final selection, McLagan says, "Kenney's not interested, Rod doesn't give a fuck and Woody's too busy. Everyone's too busy but me, and I care about that stuff."
In truth, McLagan is plenty busy. A resident of Texas for the last five years ("I'd been living in L.A. for 16 years, and that will drive you anywhere"), Mac finds himself sought after for studio and stage assignments by big-name acts. Since the '70s, he's toured with everyone from the Stones to Dylan, to Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt. Currently on the road with Brit folkie Billy Bragg, McLagan's also got his own Bumps Band to put through its paces. And then there is his Web site (www.macspages.com), a new album, Best of the British, and a newly published book, All the Rage, which details his days in both the Small Faces and Faces, the never-shoulda-reunited Small Faces and the all-too-briefly reunited Faces. But it's the quintessential version of the Faces, fronted by the geezer Mac still likes to call "Big Nose," that the new collection is making a case for.
"We had three albums out in '71. Hit albums! Of course, Rod put the best songs on his album," says McLagan laughing. "I would do the same. But he was stretched. It was a great idea, then it turned into a nightmare for us because we didn't get the best of it. In fairness, Rod was keen to include the band on his records.
"We would go to Rod's session, and he'd have a song ready and you'd just work towards that," recalls McLagan. "If he'd call out a song like '(I Know I'm) Losing You,' you'd go, 'Fuck, that would've been great if we cut it.' Well, we did cut it. But we cut it on his time."
One listen to Good Boys should dispel the notion that Rod got all the best stuff. Sure, the Faces' Long Player and A Nod Is As Good As a Wink would've been even better with the title songs from Stewart's Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells a Story. But Stewart's albums could have been equally improved if he had jettisoned filler like "Amazing Grace" and "Seems Like a Long Time" in favor of top-shelf Faces material like "Too Bad," "Love Lived Here" and, of course, "Stay With Me" -- the only seven-inch bearing the Faces name that visited the Top 40.
"People only hear the hit," says McLagan, "and they wouldn't know much about us and wouldn't have cared if the Faces played on '(I Know I'm) Losing You' or 'True Blue.' But there's a lot of Faces on songs like 'Glad and Sorry,' 'Love Lived Here' and 'Debris' -- beautiful Ronnie Lane songs that they should hear. Ronnie was definitely our second lead vocalist. With this compilation, I hope that becomes more apparent to some people."
Lane had been second vocalist in the Small Faces, just behind the brilliant Steve Marriott. McLagan's least favorite Small Faces track, "Itchycoo Park," became the mod group's penultimate hit in the United States. Sadly, the Small Faces never came over to tour to build on its success. In late 1968, Marriott lobbied to get future talk-box demonstrator Peter Frampton into the group and the others balked. "Steve wanted someone to take lead guitar duties off him. What he hadn't realized was that he was a fantastic fuckin' lead guitarist. He didn't need anybody else, and no one could sing as good as him. But he decided, 'Fuck it, I'll leave, form a group with Frampton and be just as heavy as I could be," adds McLagan sarcastically.
After an amicable farewell tour, Lane, McLagan and Kenney Jones agreed to stick together and see what they could do on their own. With no money after being managed/swindled by successive conniving bastards Don Arden and the team of Andrew Oldham and Tony Calder, the group was given use of the Rolling Stones' rehearsal hall by Mick Jagger (a gesture on Jagger's part to make up for recommending Oldham as a manager).
"It was a place to jam," McLagan recalls. "Woody, who Steve introduced us to, funny enough, was really friendly with everybody, and all these other bassists and guitarists were thinking they were in this new band but they weren't. Bit by bit, we wouldn't tell people and we'd turn up -- Ronnie Lane, Woody, Kenney and I."
One person Mac hoped wouldn't turn up was Rod Stewart, Woody's partner in the soon-to-be-defunct Jeff Beck Group. "After Steve, we said we're not going to have another lead vocalist because they always leave. Rod would turn up and I was dead against him sitting in because I thought, 'Fuck him, he'll leave too.' Of course, he did!"
Soon it was obvious that Stewart and the group had something special together, so McLagan relented and the band snapped up "that singer with the big nose."
Knowing his days with Beck were numbered, Stewart had already inked a solo deal with Mercury just before the last Jeff Beck Group tour (Stewart and Wood enlisted McLagan to play on his first solo album). By September of 1969, the Faces had a deal with Warner Bros. and recorded First Step, which was miscredited to the Small Faces in this country. As the photos in Good Boys clearly illustrate, Rod and Ron were a good head or two above the pint-size Kenney, Ronnie and Mac. Once Rod started wearing high heels and grew too proud to pose for all the band photos standing in a trench, that confusing prefix was lobbed off.
First Step continued in the vein of the Beck group (elongated jams) and the Small Faces (Mac's distorted Hammond organ riffs). It wasn't until the group's third album, A Nod Is As Good As a Wink . . . to a Blind Horse, that the Faces delivered its first totally satisfying long-player. Producer Glyn Johns (at the time best known for Who's Next and salvage work on the Who's aborted Lifehouse album) helped get the songs edited down to radio length. "If you made records longer than four minutes, no one would play them. Especially singles," says McLagan.
After Stewart hit number one with the hit single "Maggie May," radio probably didn't need much coaxing to play "Stay With Me," and the Faces wouldn't have to resort to listing its running time as "three minutes and 99 seconds."
A Nod Is As Good As a Wink best showcases the delicate interplay between McLagan's electric piano and Wood's great fuzzy leads and slide guitar, all of which have been lost to the Stones' Keef riff for the last 23 years. "I was rhythm piano player, really," says Mac. "Ron was rhythm guitarist and so was I. We were weaving in and out of each other all the time."
This is the album that finds the band at its lyrical peak, and few records convey the "bunch of guys out for a good time" camaraderie better. On "Too Bad," Rod and the boys get caught crashing a posh party: "Too bad my regional tongue gave us away again." On "You're So Rude," Ronnie Lane takes a girl to meet his parents; they're not home; a quick shag ensues on the sofa; the parents return early and our young fornicators are left wetting their socks to pretend it was a sudden downpour of rain that caused them to disrobe.
And there's "Stay With Me," which has Rod taking a hideous-looking creature to bed and begging her not to be there when his head clears in the morning. What sets this song apart from every other misogynist cock-rocker anthem that followed is that we don't get the sense that this is some rock star knocking off groupies. There's never any mention of the road, backstage passes or rider stipulations to ruin the everyman effect. You get the sense from all previous songs on the album that Stewart is pretty much a working-class loser and this is the best he can do. In fact, Stewart's vocal performances stop being believable only when you can't imagine him as a gravedigger anymore.
Actually, he didn't need to invoke on-the-road high jinks in the lyrics since the first pressings of A Nod Is As Good As a Wink contained perhaps the most lascivious poster in rock history, littered with dozens of dirty Polaroids of the band cavorting, roadies displaying hairy butt cracks, flailing legs and various anonymous hostesses with blacked-out breasts.
There's even a picture of McLagan sitting on the loo in a failed attempt to block the shot. Needless to say, it was withdrawn because of protests, with many of the loudest probably coming from the Faces' own mums and missuses.
With more solo success hurled Stewart's way for 1972's Never a Dull Moment, resentment began to build within the group. Ronnie Lane would eventually quit after completing work on the band's fourth and last studio album, Ooh La La. "If Rod really liked one of Ronnie's songs, he would just assume he would sing it, and Ronnie was quite happy for that to happen," says Mac.
It didn't happen when Stewart finally made it to the studio and heard the album's title track. "He said, 'Nah. Don't like it. Wrong key,'" says McLagan. The band recut it to accommodate the singer's finicky pipes, but Stewart still refused to perform the song. Now in a key too low for Lane to sing, it was given to Ron Wood to make his lead vocal debut on. One of the Faces' most beloved tracks, it was recently used to great effect in the closing credits of the movie Rushmore. Stewart eventually came around to the tune and cut it for his 1998 album When We Were the New Boys. "Rod wound up doing it 25 years too late. It's on the last crummy album he made," Mac says laughing. "They must be numbered by now, Rod's albums. I don't save them."
Ooh La La's critical reputation has grown in the years since its release. However, at the time, it was not especially well-received. With the barrage of Stewart-sung product, a backlash was to be expected. It couldn't have helped Ooh La La's reception when Stewart (displaying the same bewildering public-relations savvy that would later lead him to break up with girlfriends over airport intercoms) slagged the album in the rock press for not being up to snuff. The intimation was that it wasn't as good as his albums. (Sample gripe from Rod: "Look, I can't afford to make two albums a year and have one fail.")
Lane's replacement was the non-singing Tetsu Yamauchi, whose only album with the group isn't even pictured in the Rhino set's visual discography. In what was a harbinger of bigger problems to come, Coast to Coast Overture and Beginners was split billed as "Rod Stewart/Faces Live."
Exploiting the band's dual-label citizenship, Warner Bros. got the eight-track and cassette rights to the live album in the U.S., while Mercury got the vinyl rights. In the other territories, the licensing was reversed. But this strange plan for world domination backfired. "It was FUCKED!" exhorts Mac. "Because Mercury didn't want to promote it, Warners didn't want to promote it, and it wasn't a good album, unfortunately. It fell through the cracks."
The Faces only issued one single in 1974 ("Pool Hall Richard"), while Stewart spent most of 1974 toiling on Smiler, the album where he would officially wring his solo formula dry. At the time, he informed the press that the album would fulfill his contract to Mercury, freeing him up to be a full-time Face. He'd never record another album with the group again.
Although in January of '75, the Faces did coerce Stewart back into the studio. "We hadn't had an album out in two years and never would," says McLagan. "We cut 'High Heeled Sneakers,' a Beach Boys song called 'Getting Hungry,' a thing I wrote that didn't work, a couple of things Ronnie Wood had. 'Open to Ideas' we all had a part in." On that song (the Rhino set's lone unreleased track), you get a sense of what a masterful vocalist Stewart is, sounding totally committed to the song yet barking out timing cues.
"Yeah," agrees Mac. "It was just a guide vocal. The second verse, third line, just kills me. He's feeling it and he's directing traffic in the middle eight."
In between the last two Faces tours, Wood did a Stones tour in '75 as a temporary replacement for Mick Taylor. As Mac recalls, "When Faces got back together, Rod pulled me aside and said, 'We'll have to get a rhythm guitarist because Woody will be used to playing with Keith, he won't be able to play rhythm and lead.' I said, 'He's managed it for six years, don't worry about it.' But Rod was determined, and got Jesse Ed Davis, who was, God bless him, not a rhythm guitarist. And we just figured, 'Fuck him. Then we'll get another lead singer,' and got Bobby Womack in," adds McLagan. "We were so anti-Rod then. He was thinking it was like a Rod Stewart tour, and we're thinking, 'You're only our lead singer.'"
Mac also found a way of sabotaging the dreaded strings that Stewart insisted bringing on the road with the group. "One of the guys in the string section, because they were new guys each night, unplugged his pickups because he didn't like the way they were gaffe taped to his priceless violin. Nobody knew, but when he unplugged his, he unplugged all of them. When I found that out, every night I'd tell one of the string players, 'If you don't want that on your violin, just unplug it.'"
With the rot setting in, the Stones didn't even wait for the Faces to split up before snapping up Ron Wood. In late '76, Ronnie Lane walked away from a Small Faces reunion that managed to churn out two uninspired albums before slipping quietly into the dark. Mac reunited with Woody on the Stones' Some Girls and Tattoo You tours while Kenney Jones had the unenviable task of being Keith Moon's successor in the Who. When McLagan toured with Dylan (dates from that jaunt comprised Dylan's Real Live album), he wound up playing with Mick Taylor, the Stones member Wood replaced. "Bob was great, a little distant. I remember when Peter Grant introduced himself to Bob, he said, 'I manage Led Zeppelin.' Bob looked at him and said, 'I don't come to you with my problems.'"
Because of Lane's long bout with multiple sclerosis (which ended with his death in 1997), there's been only one original Faces reunion, in 1986, instigated by Stewart. "Rod was selling fewer tickets than he'd hoped to for this Wembley [Stadium] gig, and he asked us to get back together. He flew Ronnie in and they had Bill Wyman on bass. It wasn't great, but it got a lot of press."
Faltering again commercially in the early '90s, Stewart got back together with Wood on an MTV Unplugged special and album. "They were promoting it on the radio one night, and they were both very drunk when I called in to the station. Woody said, 'Hey, mate, Rod wants you to tour with him,' and I said, 'Why doesn't he ask me?' And Rod comes on the mike to ask me and I said, 'Of course I will.' And we had a good time. Four years of it."
"Although," McLagan sneers, "I was part of his 'backing group.' If he ever recorded such an abomination as 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy' with The Faces, we would never have played it live. We would never have allowed it."
Which begs the question, does Stewart -- whose donation of all the royalties from "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" to UNICEF still doesn't make one want to hear it -- actually enjoy all of those crappy albums of his?
"He looooves it," enthuses Mac. "He thinks he's making rock 'n' roll! The last album he had out when I was touring with him was called Spanner in the Works -- a better-named album I've yet to hear of because it was the least-selling album he'd ever had."
"I loved Rod's early stuff," Mac continues. "There's still songs he's written since then that are real good, but his best stuff was definitely back then.
"I don't think he even picks the songs anymore. I've submitted songs to him, I know other people who've submitted songs to him and this guy at Warner Bros. in London seems to pick his fuckin' songs," says McLagan. "I'm not really concerned with his career anymore. I think his career was over in '76."
Given that, could there ever be a full-fledged Faces reunion? In 1997, when Stewart played in Dublin, McLagan got Kenney Jones to come up. "Since Woody has a house in Ireland, the Faces had another little reunion," recalls McLagan.
"We had a group meeting at the end of the show, which was us basically having a meal and throwing drinks at each other. We decided we'd get together in Ireland at Woody's house and go through the stuff we had in '75 and put out a best of, put a few new tracks on and do a tour. Nothing happened because Rod denied he ever said it. Rod said, 'I never said I'd go to Ireland,' which was a complete lie. We wound up working on Woody's album with Bob Dylan. We had a tour for Europe and America lined up with the Stones' tour promoter and everything. Woody wants to do it. Kenney wants to do it and I want to do it. We're just waiting for Big Nose. Big Nose and his management."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.