At the time of his tragic death in a house fire in 1991, Steve Marriott, lead singer and main man of the Small Faces, was still full of enthusiasm for the music he loved and still full of mischief. At pub gigs in London he’d sometimes mingle anonymously with an audience restless for the band to come on and moan to punters about what a cunt Steve Marriott was for being so late.
Not to be confused with the Faces, the Small Faces had a brief but successful career between 1965 and 1968. They produced a stream of classic singles, including ‘Itchycoo Park’ and ‘Lazy Sunday’, as well as a memorable album, ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’. The band was founded by Marriott on guitar and vocals, Ronnie ‘Plonk’ Lane on bass, Kenney Jones on drums and Jimmy Winston on keyboards. Lane, who grew up on Romford Road in Forest Gate, started a band called the Outcasts when he was 17, and was introduced to Jones by his big brother Stan. They later met Marriott in a music shop where he worked, in High Street, Manor Park. Marriott had already made his mark, starring as the Artful Dodger in the West End stage show “Oliver” and appearing in a couple of films.
They soon added another local lad: Winston’s parents ran The Ruskin Arms in High Street North, Manor Park, and he played there every weekend. It was here that the others saw him play and asked him to join the band. The pub is still there and hosts regular Small Faces conventions.
They were all on the short side and were true Mods (a “face” being the nickname for a real Mod), so the name Small Faces suited them well. Their first gig under this name was at the Cavern Club in the West End, just above what is now the Prince Charles Cinema, on 5th June 1965.
Marriott had studied at the Italia Conti Stage School in Goswell Road and got friendly with another student, whose father happened to be Don Arden, the archetypal heavyweight 60s manager. Arden went to see the group at the Cavern, and he was soon running the show. They then signed with Decca Records and had their first hit ‘Whatcha Gonna Do About It?’ shortly afterwards.
Winston was then replaced by Ian McLagan, who made his stage debut with the band on 2nd November 1965 at the Lyceum Ballroom in Strand. From late 1965, the group, with the exception of Jones, shared a bachelor pad together at 22 Westmoreland Terrace in Pimlico. This was the scene of considerable pop star debauchery by all accounts. Their cleaning lady, God help her, used the phrase “mustn’t grumble” a lot, which was immortalized in ‘Lazy Sunday’.
The Small Faces were tied up with the Who in various ways over the years. In January 1968, they toured Australia and New Zealand together, during which time Marriott inadvertently launched Keith Moon’s hotel-trashing career. After Moon’s death, Jones replaced him in the Who, and Pete Townshend and Lane went on to collaborate on a well-received album ‘Rough Mix’ in 1977. McLagan married Moon’s estranged wife Kim Kerrigan in 1978, a month after Moon’s death.
The famous single ‘Itchycoo Park’ has always sparked debate about which park it referred to. We’ll probably never find out the answer, since Lane has also died, after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, in 1997. Some of the popular candidates that have been proposed include Valentines Park in Ilford and Little Ilford Park in Church Road. Whether the “itchycooing” was down to nettles or some kind of drug abuse is also a matter of conjecture among diehard fans.
The Small Faces recorded most of their work at IBC Studios at 35 Portland Place, where the Who recorded ‘Tommy’. The two bands also shared producer Glyn Johns. Some material, including ‘Itchycoo Park’ was recorded at Olympic Studios, 117 Church Road. In February 1967, they switched to Immediate Records, a new company set up by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham.
Sadly, during their career the group received little of the money that was due to them until legal action finally opened the coffers decades later. This was too late to help Marriott, but he remained remarkably philosophical about it all, and seemed happy to play at pub gigs, like at The Torrington in Finchley. He once expressed his pleasure at the size of the crowd by quipping: “I wouldn’t’ve come out to see the Pope fuck the Queen on a night like this.”
After the great success of ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’, the band was pulling in different directions, with Marriott wanting to get into heavier rock while his songwriting partner Lane was into a much more gentle, pastoral style. Things came to a head in early 1969, and Marriott suddenly left. He formed Humble Pie with Peter Frampton and went on to achieve considerable success in the United States.
With the addition of Ronnie Wood on guitar and his compadre from the defunct Jeff Beck Group, Rod Steward on vocals, the Small Faces economized on their name and became the Faces. They played their first gig together at the legendary Greyhound pub in Croydon, and the rest is history. One possibly forgotten episode – and maybe it’s best forgotten – is that after Steward had left to pursue his solo career, the Small Faces briefly reformed in 1976, essentially to try and get some much needed money. Lane quit after one gig and the whole reunion was a fiasco.
The Small Faces have had a lasting influence, notably on the Britpop bands of the mid-90s, such as Blur. On 20th April 2001, a highly successful tribute to Marriott, featuring Noel Gallagher among others, was held at the Astoria in Charing Cross Road. The musical ‘All Or Nothing’ brings alive and pays a excellent homage to the group’s career. For the complete story, check out Paolo Hewitt’s “The Small Faces: The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story”. McLagan also wrote a very entertaining autobiography, ‘All The Rage’. He also died not long ago, leaving Jones as the sole survivor.
Ian Mole is a teacher of English to overseas students and a walking tour guide in London, specializing in music-related tours. Visit his website for more information on the tours.