THE SMALL FACES
The Small Faces started in 1965 as a mod band, playing a gutsy brand of pop which owed much to American R'n'B and soul. Within less than two years they had become psychedelic standard-bearers, with a certain amount of drug-induced whimsy and good-time Cockney music hall in their sound. Sheer frustration at being unable to reproduce their studio sound live, as well as having hit singles and albums yet having to live on a pittance thanks to dodgy management, and a desire to work with other musicians, resulted in guitarist and singer Steve Marriott's departure in 1969. The other three, bassist Ronnie Lane, keyboard player Ian McLagan, and drummer Kenny Jones, dropped the 'Small' from their name and linked up with Rod Stewart and guitarist Ron Wood.
'The Darlings of Wapping Wharf Launderette', subtitled 'The Immediate Anthology', is a 50-track collection on two CDs of everything from the second stage of their brief career, once they had left the Decca label to join Immediate, featuring six singles and the B-sides, two albums, plus a handful of previously unreleased tracks. It's a generous collection, but a full description of every track would mean an excessively long review, so a look at the best and a general appraisal of the rest should suffice.
First of all, the singles. 'I Can't Make It' (No. 26) is a raucous little song, coming across as perhaps a little too much a retread of their then recent No. 1 'All Or Nothing'. Shades of what were to come are more evident on the track released as the B-aside, the appropriately-named 75-second 'Just Passing', an ethereal, dreamy little number that shows promise but could have benefited from being developed further.
'Here Comes The Nice' (No.12) was in their own words a brazen attempt to see what they could get away with when it came to writing songs about drugs and seeing whether the BBC would play them. They did indeed get away with it, and it's partly a gentle ode, partly Marriott the impassioned soul singer, with a lovely descending note on the organ to finish up on. 'Talk To You' goes back to Marriott's white soul boy persona, but none the less effective for that.
Next is the trio of three classic singles for which they are probably best remembered. 'Itchycoo Park' (No. 3, and on reissue in 1975 No. 9), said to be based on an area of wasteland in Ilford, was one of the defining songs of summer 1967. Its wistful musings about the dreaming spires (of Oxford), the bridge of sighs (Cambridge), and what was then a revolutionary studio effect with the phasing on the drums, made it an immediate classic - and their only Top 20 hit in America. You might have the misfortune to remember a rather dreadful dance version by M People in 1995 - do try not to. Marriott had this remarkable ability to go from a whisper to a scream, almost, in seconds flat, something which he does on the B-side, 'I'm Only Dreaming'.
'Tin Soldier' (No. 9), said to be Paul Weller's all-time favourite record, is nothing short of magnificent. The opening electric piano riff, augmented almost at once by Hammond organ and followed by the rest of the band, has one of Marriott's best vocal performances, one of their greatest songs, and a soulful backing vocal from P.P. Arnold, for whom the song was intended until the group decided they loved it too much to want to give away. The B-side, 'I Feel Much Better' has MacLagan's keyboards and for once Lane's bass to the fore, on what sounds like a song which emerged from a loose studio jam - and odd backing vocals which sound as if speeded up Pinky and Perky-style.
The classics kept on coming with 'Lazy Sunday' (No. 2), sung in a jokey Cockney accent, all about being too noisy and not getting on with the neighbours. Just when it's taken you through two breezy verses and choruses with bouncy pub piano comes a shimmering organ interlude, a brief snatch of song, followed by a landscape in sound with the sound of seagulls over a breaking wave, and to close the song, a fadeout of bird song and village church bells. It's almost a complete opera in just over three minutes, and one of several songs on this collection that showed they were edging closer to the Kinks in their love-hate celebration of contemporary English life, while still incorporating little touches of hard rock. Interestingly, they didn't want it released as a single, thinking that if they did so they would be branded as a group only fit for comedy and novelty records.
After that, 'Universal' (No. 16) comes as a surprise. Marriott's tongue-in-cheek, more introspective song about getting up in the morning and saying hello to the universe (his words) was recorded by him with just an acoustic guitar in the garden of his home, with his dogs barking between the verses. Further instruments, including clarinet, trumpet and bass drum, were added in the studio afterwards. The B-side 'Donkey Rides, A Penny, A Glass' (great title) was an odd mix of eccentricity, bombastic heavy rock and music hall.
By the time they recorded this, Marriot was becoming increasingly disenchanted with being a famous but broke pop star, and had effectively left by the time their last, unpromoted, single 'Afterglow (Of Your Love) (No. 36) came out. Opening with a deceptively low-key acoustic guitar, half-hearted vocal and whistling, 30 seconds in it cuts to a scorching power ballad, so intense it almost makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. (I suspect Boston might have found songs like this an inspiration when recording the 1976 classic 'More Than a Feeling'). At their best, the combination of guitar and organ was unbeatable.
Supplementing these singles are the album tracks and previously unreleased material. None of these quite measure up to the standard of the singles, and occasionally they're almost dull, although there are flashes of near-brilliance among the also-rans. There's blue-eyed soul and psychedelia in equal measure, plus a certain amount of cheeky chappie rock'n'music hall. 'Something I Want To Tell You', more folksy, has a rare vocal from Lane, all too rarely heard until he eventually embarked on a solo career in 1973. 'My Way Of Giving' is a soulful tune which was originally given to Chris Farlowe (of 'Out Of Time' and 'Handbags And Gladrags' fame) to record. 'All Of Your Yesterdays' has Marriott in fairground barker as he proclaims they are the darlings of Wapping Wharf Launderette - the East End answer to Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, perhaps - and thus gave this compilation, and a long-running Small Faces fanzine, their title. 'Get Yourself Together' owes much to the wistful acoustic guitar and an organ riff to die for, while the plaintive 'Show Me The Way' is built around some very pretty harpsichord work, and the brass-driven 'Eddie's Dreaming' sounds in places more like Motown or Stax soul than East End mod fare.
Included in its entirety is the semi-concept album 'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake', which topped the charts for six weeks in the summer of 1968. The title track is an instrumental on mainly keyboards, sounding rather like a film theme, while 'Rene' is a raucous singalong ode to a good-time gal who was 'a docker's delight'. Part of 'Ogden's' was a song cycle about Happiness Stan, a childlkike figure who lives in a coloured rainbow and is searching for the other half of the moon. (Very hippy trippy, yes). The songs are all introduced by spoken passages from Stanley Unwin, a contemporary broadcaster noted for his love of gobbledegook and word play. 'Are you all sitty comfybold two-square on your botty? Then I'll begin,' he tells us immediately before the first song. Totally mad.
Several of the later tracks use a good deal more brass from outside musicians, notably the hard driving 'Collibosher' and 'Wide-Eyed Girl'. These are two of several instrumentals recorded in their final days, others being 'Piccaninny', which is basically a 12-bar blues jam, the mid-tempo 'Pig Trotters' (I assume none of them were vegetarians), and the faster 'War Of The Worlds'. I suspect that some of these were laid down as backing tracks, awaiting lyrics and vocals at a later stage, which never came about as the group was in its last throes by then.
One of the standout songs has to be 'If You Think You're Groovy', a song they did write and give away to P.P. Arnold. A gentle acoustic guitar, bass and warm flute intro leads into a song that starts softly until all hell breaks loose, in the best possible way, as brass leads into the chorus. In similar vein is their version of 'Every Little Bit Hurts', one of the few cover versions on this set, a Motown song later recorded by Steve Winwood and the Spencer Davis group.
Like every other Sequel/Castle CD I've seen, all the stops have been pulled out on the foldout poster-style insert. It includes not just a full track listing but also photos of old record sleeves, labels, studio tape boxes, and a carefully researched extensive biographical note.
As this superb if sometimes patchy collection shows, The Small Faces were all too briefly a great band. It's sad that they never quite achieved their potential, and perhaps even sadder that Marriott never made the most of his talent with his subsequent band Humble Pie, despite a cracking debut single. His subsequent career decline and death in a cottage fire was as pathetic as Lane's pitiful existence, increasingly dogged by multiple sclerosis. (They died in 1991 and 1997 respectively).
There is no shortage of Small Faces compilations available, but at a reasonable price this is as good as any.
[Revised version of the review I originally posted on ciao]