Monday, January 30, 2012

Too Beautiful: Steve Marriott and the Rise of British Soul

It’s no huge stretch to suggest Rock & Roll may have died the death had it not been for British musicians. Following a period when many of the first wave of rockers were out of commission—jailed, drafted, or fiddling with born-again salvation—America had Roy Orbison, Dion, and The Beach Boys but few other new rockers of depth (and some might argue that The Beach Boys didn’t even acquire much depth until after the British Invasion). The years immediately preceding The Beatles’ arrival were pretty dire. Chuck Berry eventually managed a respectable return with “Nadine”, “No Particular Place to Go” and “You Never Can Tell” in 1963. Back from the army, Elvis still produced tremendous work on occasion, such as “His Latest Flame” or “Little Sister”, but his spark was largely gone. The charts were dominated by old-fashioned crooners and vapid teen idols: Shelley Fabares, Connie Francis, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vinton, Neil Sedaka, Tommy Roe, Steve Lawrence, Bobby Vee. There was also a horrid trend of novelty acts like Ray Stevens and The Singing Nun. By far the most vital American music of the period was coming from the soul and R&B artists enjoying their initial successes on new labels like Tamla/Motown and Stax or with wunderkind producer Phil Spector. They had their share of massive hits—The Shirelles’ “Soldier Boy”, Booker T. & the MG’s “Green Onions”, The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel”, The Contours’ “Do You Love Me”, The Drifters’ “Up on the Roof”, The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine”, Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, The Impressions’ “It’s All Right” to name a few—but they had little affect on the pop singers marshalling together to make American radio as dreary and dull as possible.

In Great Britain, young musicians were listening intently to their more soulful neighbors. Americans tended to stereotype England as a tiny, quaint berg of manners and repression. Yet few American rockers of the period captured the spontaneity, excitement, and commitment of their R&B countrymen and countrywomen with the authenticity of the new wave of singers emerging in the U.K. Though none of them had anything on, say, Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett, they were still capable of delivering their own impressive brand of fierce rhythm and blues. These are the artists who most assuredly gave Rock & Roll its second life.
The mightiest British shouters of the bunch—Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon, Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, Reg King, Chris Farlowe, Steve Marriott—got their starts singing the American R&B of the period. Why this music resounded so thoroughly in the U.K. is a matter of debate. Class has often factored into the discussion, yet a zeal for American R&B flourished at the posh art colleges that churned out blues and R&B-influenced guitar legends Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend as powerfully as it did among cats like sheet-metal worker and James Brown-fanatic Roger Daltrey. Steve Marriott’s father owned a modest jellied eels stand and his mother was a factory worker. Whatever the cause, the results are beyond debate. The Beatles, The Stones, The Animals, The Who, The Yardbirds, and other groups of their ilk completely resuscitated Rock & Roll and continued to keep it vital as their less soulful peers—The Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Freddie and the Dreamers—fell by the wayside.

This new crop had its share of amazing singers, and the one to beat may have been one of the less successful and respected ones. Steve Marriott of Small Faces was more confident than Jagger, more skilled than Daltrey, less dependent on mimicry than McCartney, and possessed a wider range than Burdon, yet he and his band suffered a troubled reputation. They were major stars and chart regulars in the U.K., but were often dismissed as lightweights because some of their early material was deemed too poppy (not that “Love Me Do” or The Stones’ reading of Chuck Berry’s “Come On” were any weightier than “Sha La La La Lee”). Small Faces were branded teeny-bop pop early on, and the tag dogged them despite the tremendous power they always displayed throughout their brief career. The band’s eponymous debut album is only rivaled by The Who’s My Generation in terms of noisy excitement. To exacerbate matters, their indifference to touring the U.S.—and Ian McLagen’s international-travel-stifling drug bust— meant they didn’t make much impact in that essential market. Only the psychedelic “Itchycoo Park” cracked the U.S. top twenty.

None of this diminishes the case that Steve Marriott was England’s rawest, most effortless R&B singer. He was not an imitator like Paul McCartney, a technically superb and exhilarating singer who borrowed liberally from Little Richard, Fats Domino, Wilson Pickett, and others. He required no adjustment period as that other great mimic, Mick Jagger (his voice was fairly weedy until “Satisfaction”), did. From the very first Small Faces record, the Solomon Burke rip “Whatcha Gonna Do About It”, Marriott was in top form, tearing his larynx in two and still game to keep doing it all night. He sang in naturally, even allowing his Cockney to emerge whenever his voice descended from the hysteria stratosphere. As the band began experimenting with lighter forms of music during the psychedelic era, Marriott was always quick to remind listeners of what a stunning R&B shouter he was. “Itchycoo Park” climaxes in raging wails of its hippie refrain that might have been laughable if sung by anyone else. “IT’S ALL TOO BEAUTIFUL!” Marriott howled. The psych concept album Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake levels many of its peers because it motors on the R&B power. Marriott brings as much force to “Afterglow”, “Song of a Baker”, “Rollin’ Over”, and others as he had to the cover of “Shake” (Sam Cooke by way of Otis) that opened the first Small Faces album. The fiercest, most R&B moment on The Stones’ own psychedelic opus, Their Satanic Majesties Request, comes not from Jagger but from Marriott’s guest cameo on the Bill Wyman-composed “In Another Land” (“THEN I AWOKE!”).

The critics could say what they will about Small Faces being bubblegummers. The band’s fellow rockers knew the score. In 1968, Jimmy Page considered Marriott (along with another great, underrated British R&B singer, Terry Reid) as frontman for his new band, Led Zeppelin. Today that bubblegum reputation has largely evaporated, though Small Faces are still relegated to cult-band status in the U.S. That may be so, but make no mistake, when it comes to shouting and raving, when it comes to going toe-to-toe with the great American R&B singers that inspired the single most important Rock & Roll movement of the ‘60s, Steve Marriott still stands in a class of his own.

Steve Marriott was born 65 years ago today.
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