Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Faces' "Five Guys Walk Into A Bar"

It was kind of an extravagance, but this 4CD box set is now old enough (released 2004) to be Amazon-obtainable used for about seven bucks a disc, and it's that rarity: an artifact of the CD era that does a better job of documenting a band I grew up loving in the '70s -- those avatars of boozy camaraderie, without whom the Replacements, for one example, would be unimaginable -- better than anything they released during their actual existence. Sixty-seven tracks, two thirds of them unreleased on CD and nearly half unreleased in any form: B-sides, live and rehearsal recordings, all lovingly sequenced like a good live set -- screw rekkid-geek chronological formalism! -- by Faces keyboardist and Austinite Ian McLagan, whom I swear that I'm going to see perform one of these days, if he ever has a show when my sweetie is out of school and I can get off work.

I first encountered the Faces in 1970 via the video clip below, which originally aired on some forgotten TV show not long after I'd read a review of their First Step album in the second issue of Rolling Stone I ever bought, which had a bunch of pages missing and Little Richard on the cover. My memory is hazy; I _might_ have already discovered Jeff Beck's Truth album, which featured future Faces Rod Stewart and Ron Wood in what I still believe to be one of the great rock bands of the late '60s (and I have the stack of bootleg live CD-R's to prove it). It took me longer to actually hear the Small Faces (the band that Ronnie Lane, Kenny Jones, and Ian McLagan were in before frontman Steve Marriott quit to form Humble Pie) after reading Nik Cohn's description of them in Rock From the Beginning and getting further intrigued. In fact, it wasn't until the spring of '72 that I'd walk into the record store where I'd wind up working later on and stumble upon a copy of the Small Faces' fairytale psych masterpiece, Ogden's Nut Gone Flake. (It used to be _hard_ to find stuff, back in them days.)

By that time, I'm sure I'd already heard the post-Small Faces work of Marriott and his former bandmates. At 13, I responded more to Humble Pie's Performance: Rockin' the Fillmore a whole lot more than I did to the Faces' Long Player and aforementioned First Step. In fact, after Live At Leeds wore off, Performance became my obligatory four-times-a-day listen, much to my Joni Mitchell-loving sister's consternation. Marriott was A SCREAMING BITCH, and Peter Frampton (yes, he of the future pink hair and the godzillion-selling album that, today, no one will cop to having owned back in '76) wasn't yer conventional rockaroll guitarist, what with his Django/Kenny Burrell reachings, in the same way as Ritchie Blackmore wasn't with his Bach borrowings and "chance music" leanings. Today, however, I'd have a hard time sitting through the Pie's interminable throttlings of "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" and "Rollin' Stone." But the Faces just satisfy in a way that they didn't back in the day. The reasons for this are several.

For one thing, they had the misfortune to team up with Stewart and Wood at the precise moment when Stewart was launching his solo career, and as things unfolded, Stewart understandably saved the best songs he and Wood wrote for his own albums. That said, Ronnie Lane was every bit his match as a songwriter, and _the soul of the band_, but the balance between the two writer-singers on Faces albums was never comfortable. It's instructive to remember that their early models were Sam Cooke (for Stewart) and Booker T. and the MGs (for the Small Faces): saturated in soul, these boys were. In a time where rock songwriters stole at will from the Chuck Berry canon (unlike today, when yer average upstart rockarolla prolly wouldn't know a I-IV-V progression if it bit 'em on the tuchus), the Faces penned songs in same spirit (if not adhering to his strict letter) as Berry that actually displayed the same lyrical wit as those of the man himself. You have to go all the way up to the '80s-'90s emergence of Dan Baird and Terry Anderson to find white rockers who pulled off the same gambit so well.

And no rock songwriters captured the idyllic ambience of Cooke's "Good Times" as well as Lane and the early Stewart did: little snippets of life that rang true rang true even if you hadn't lived them. I mean, half of Lane's songs were about his _dad_, proving Nick Hornby's point that the main difference between American and British '60s rockers was that the Brits liked their parents more. And I'm convinced that in his young days, before he decided he wasn't comfortable doing so anymore, embraced phony glitz and rode People magazine notoriety all the way to Vegas, Rod Stewart sang from his football-loving drunken lout's heart the truth of life as his 20something self had experienced it. For that, may he always be remembered. And not for "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?"

Beyond that, there's no escaping the fact that their recorded sound, by the standards of the time, ranged from lackluster to pretty horrible. Remember, this was the era when Jimmy Page was using ambient mic'ing to make John Bonham's kick drum, and the unisons he himself would play with John Paul Jones, sound like THE THUNDER OF GOD. Even on their most successful record, A Nod Is As Good As A Wink...To A Blind Horse, co-produced by Glyn Johns (who got clearer and fuller sounds with the Who, among others), the Faces' sound is a muddy morass of midrange sounds, _almost_ as bad as the Move's Looking On (the worst sounding album ever by a band I like). They sounded like they could give a shit about the niceties of recording; better to knock down a few at the pub and loosen up before cutting the tracks (as is borne out by some of the banter on the studio recordings included in this collection).

That said, they could groove harder than the average Brit band of the time, as well as lots of American ones. As a rhythm section, Lane and Jones had some of what Wood and Mickey Waller had in the Jeff Beck Group, a kind of sloppy tightness. Lane's bassplaying had an amiable lope that was reflective of his personality, while Jones' drumming showed the influence of the producer on his very first recording session, who warned him not to play any fills he couldn't mime to on TV. McLagan is a master of the full array of classic keyboard sounds -- acoustic piano, Rhodes and Hammond -- while Wood is a guitarist of underrated finesse and taste who clearly absorbed some of the same R&B influences as Hendrix, albeit from a greater distance.

Listen to the live versions of some of the songs from Stewart's albums -- "Cut Across Shorty," f'rinstance, or especially "You're My Girl (I Don't Want To Discuss It)" -- included on Five Guys Walk Into A Bar, and hear a fiery abandon missing from both their studio versions and lots of other bands of the time. These guys might not have taken themselves seriously at all, but they could surely deliver the goods. (Remember, playing music is supposed to be fun -- isn't it?) Or try the version of Howlin' Wolf's "Evil" from their very first rehearsal session -- an arrangement identical to the one that Cactus waxed on Restrictions. Now bear in mind that Cactus' riddim boyzzz, Tim Bogert and future "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" composer Carmine Appice, were supposed to be in a band with Beck and Stewart before Jeff wrecked his car and was out of action for awhile, so it's almost certain that the aborted quartet had played this tune before fate intervened to make them a non-starter. In Cactus' hands, it's played for maximum bombast, while the Faces give it a more organic rhythmic feel that's closer to something Wolf might have imagined.

Anyway, in due course, Lane quit, frustrated at the band's getting lost in Stewart's shadow, and after a couple of years slogging around the sheds, the band broke up, Wood went off to join the Rolling Stones, and Stewart went off to America to become a caricature. It's been sad these past 35 years watching a writer as fine as Wood once was serving as Keef Richards' doppelganger (although I reckon the paychecks have been nice). Lane's death from multiple sclerosis in 1997 means that there can never be a true Faces reunion, although I thought the decision to use Glen Matlock in his stead for the recent run of Faces shows was an inspired one. Stewart wasn't interested, so Mick Hucknall from Simply Red took his place and did a credible job from the vids I've seen. There are still rumors that Stewart and Beck will record together again; I suppose that Rod sees that venture as worthwhile since Jeff is kind of hot again at the moment. I can't help but think, though, that he's going to have regrets at the end of his life that Jim Osterberg, for one, isn't going to, and what a terrible shame that is.


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