Sunday, July 25, 2010

September 7, 2009: The Nuggets Record Buying Guide: Small Faces

Small Faces were one of the top acts in Britain in the mid-‘60s, right in the same sub-Beatles-and-Stones league as The Who and The Kinks. They had ten top-twenty hits, were ranked as the most legitimate mod group (The Who were basically squeezed into that mold against their will by über-mod manager Pete Meaden), drove pubescent girls crazy, helped pioneer the rock opera, and were integral to the eventual superstardom of Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. . Aside from scoring a minor hit with the whimsically psychedelic “Itchycoo Park” in 1968, Small Faces never really broke through in the States. Perhaps they were too English. Remember that when The Who were making similar records in the mid-‘60s, they were equally obscure in the U.S. The Who only really made an impression on the Yanks after bombarding the hippie crowd at the Monterey Pop Festival, which led them to score their first top ten hit, “I Can See For Miles” (they’d only have one more: “You Better You Bet” in 1981, featuring Small Face Kenney Jones on drums). Two years later the ‘orrible ‘oo sealed the deal by releasing their breakthrough rock opera Tommy. Small Faces never had a Stateside gig as momentous as Monterey, and their own dalliance with the rock opera appeared just as they were about to split up. Even when Small Faces morphed into The Faces, featuring Stewart and Wood, they only achieved one minor hit single (1971’s “Stay With Me”) and one big hit album (that same year’s A Nod is As Good As a Wink to a Blind Horse) in America. Because of their relative obscurity among all but devoted Anglophiles in the U.S., they were prime candidates for Rhino Records’ Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond, 1964-1969, on which they were represented by “My Mind’s Eye”, a beautifully chiming pop number based on the traditional Christmas song “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”.

As suggested by their popularity in England, Small Faces delivered a whole lot more great music than “Itchycoo Park” and “My Mind’s Eye”. In their ‘60s incarnation they only really released three albums, and each one is a must own for even the most casual fan of British rock. The albums to which I’m referring are Small Faces (1966), Small Faces (1967), and Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (1968). The group shifted from Decca Records to Andrew Oldham’s Immediate Records between their first two L.P.’s, resulting in a slightly messy discography (hence two-thirds of their ‘60s catalog sharing the same title). Much of the material released on their second eponymous album is also included on From the Beginning, a Decca compilation made redundant by superior singles collections (such as 1969’s The Autumn Stone) and their first release on Immediate.Small Faces (1967) is my bid for the best first purchase for the Small Faces novice because it gives a wonderful overview of both phases of their career: the hard-bashing mods of ’65/‘66 and the decidedly English folk/psych troubadours of ‘67/’68. Exhilarating blasts of swirling R&B like “My Way of Giving”, “(Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me”, the instrumental “Happy Boys Happy”, and “Talk to You” sit beside music hall ravers like the sublime “All Our Yesterdays” and “Eddie’s Dreaming” and the acid-twinkle of “Green Circles” and “Show Me the Way”. Small Faces (1967) is a rip-roaring sprint through fourteen fabulous tracks, each one a potential hit.

Small Faces

“(Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me”

While Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake is the Small Faces’ finest album, and the one for which they are best known, it isn’t necessarily the best place to start. It is not quite as immediate (no pun intended) as Small Faces (1967). Side one has a few songs that vamp for an inordinate amount of time. The bizarre opera on side two, which chronicles an idiot’s quest to find the missing portion of the half-moon, is oblique, as are the double-speak interludes by comedian Stanley Unwin. Mind you, Ogden’s isn’t short on instantly memorable moments. The jolly tone poem “Lazy Sunday”, the transcendent hard soul of “Song of a Baker” and “Afterglow of Your Love”, and the finely detailed “The Hungry Intruder” are among Small Faces’ most wonderful songs, but the charm of the album as a whole may not reveal itself with the speed of Small Faces (1967).

Naturally, the band’s debut record should follow. Small Faces (1966) is rivaled only by The Who’s My Generation for the heaviest blue-eyed soul record of the ‘60s. Marriott wails like a mini-banshee throughout monsters like “Whatcha Gonna Do About It”, “E Too D”, and “You Need Loving” (an adaptation of Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love” that Led Zeppelin would further plagiarize on “Whole Lotta Love”). Even when they try to get poppy on stuff like “Sha-La-La-Laa-Lee” there is no disguising their fury. For sheer power, Small Faces (1966) has no peer in the Small Faces’ discography, but the boys became markedly better composers on their next two albums, which makes those records preferable. Small Faces reformed for a couple of records in the late ‘70s—1977’s Playmates and the following year’s ‘78 in the Shade—, but both are short on strong material and lack the spark of the band’s ‘60s recordings. Some of the performances on ‘78 in the Shade are particularly shabby (“Let Me Down Gently” comes to mind). Some songs provide weak echoes of the group’s greatest moments (“Filthy Rich” is a poor reinterpretation of “Lazy Sunday”). Best to skip these, if only out of respect for the band.
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