"I DUNNO, I'D never have bought one of our records." Steve Marriott laughed. "Well, I would, because the Small Faces were a great band, and they were exactly the sort of group I'd have gone to see if I'd not been with them. But those records, the early ones especially, they weren't exactly great, were they?"
In 1982, Steve Marriott was just on the verge of re-launching his career. Of course, he was always just on the brink of launching his career, but this time, there was some thing really believable about his plans, the sense that this time, things might start going right for him: It was about time. An attempt to reform Humble Pie had collapsed a year earlier, the victim both of record company inactivity, and the band's inability to tour while Marriott underwent hospital treatment first for the fingers he crushed in a Chicago hotel doorway, then for the ulcer he discovered in Dallas. Before that, it was a Small Paces revival which collapsed in disarray. But a raunchy guest appearance on Johnny Thunders' So Alone album had won him the love of the Punk crowd, and Paul Weller's hero worship from the confines of the Jam hadn't hurt him either. And Marriott appreciated their support.
"I've got to stop goin' backwards all the time," he laughed. "Or it'll be the fucking Artful Dodger next, and won't I look a sight?"
As a child actor, Marriott had appeared in the London production of Lionel Bart's Oliver, but to see him 20 years on, it was difficult to believe so much time had passed. Wreathed in cigarette smoke, a scruffy hat balanced jauntily on a scruffy head over a scruffy jacket, and cackling loudly at the slightest provocation, he remained the consummate Victorian waif, a gypsy, a joker, and one of the greatest performers Britain has ever produced. What more could an Artful Dodger be?
"The first time I met Steve," Peter Frampton reminisces, "I just recognized pure soul, the natural...stuff that he had."
That natural "stuff" literally bleeds from Marriott's greatest records; even today, after all the bards and bleeding hearts that have been thrown up by rock's self-conscious embracing of its own place in legend, nobody has ever successfully eclipsed Marriott's passion, and right here, right now, the Small Faces are probably bigger than they ever were. Two CD boxed sets recapture virtually every note they ever recorded: Deram's two disc The Anthology 1965-1967, cleaning up their Decca years; Charly's four disc The Immediate Years, making a clean sweep through the remainder of their career. A couple of bootlegs pick up unreleased TV and radio performances.
Whereas once (at the time of this interview, for example), another budget compilation of odd out-takes and instrumentals was the best you could hope to find on the racks, in 1997, it's difficult to turn around without tripping over another Small Faces collection. Or a Small Faces tribute album. Or a reissue of the Small Faces' finest hour, the magical Ogden's Nut Gone Flake. And the only dissenting voice you hear, the only one which even dares to suggest that those records, "the early ones especially, they weren't exactly great, were they?" belonged to the band's own lead singer.
Marriott always had time to talk to his fans, even ones who broached him unexpectedly in any one of the London watering holes he favored, asked for a few words for a book they were writing, then spent 20 minutes wrestling with a plainly broken tape recorder. Who said the art of note taking was dead?
His speech shot out at tangents. In conventional interview situations, he always sounded considered and sharp. Off duty, though, he let his thoughts go where they would, and if you couldn't keep up, it was bad luck on you. He moved so fast, and jumped so far, that a speed typist could not get a word in edgeways. But the gist of it was simple.
"The problem was we signed with Don Arden. Fuck the money and everything else. The problem was, Arden knew what he wanted from us before he'd even heard of us, which is why he gave us Ian Samwell [Cliff Richard's ex-songwriter; he wrote 'Move It' amongst others, and acted as the Small Faces' musical director], who was a great bloke and did his best, but he just didn't get the black thing. Arden wanted a pop band which played Mod, and he didn't understand that we were the opposite to that, and didn't get it when we started fighting back, and doing stuff like the Booker T things we did on stage. If he'd had it all his way, we'd have been doing 'Sha La La La Lee' forever."
It is, of course, no secret that the Small Faces loathed their third single, and second major hit. Marriott and Lane, the band's principle songwriters, had been kicked out of the singles market after 'I Got Mine', their first self-composed 45, flopped; this bubbly piece of Kenny Lynch-Mort Shuman composed nonsense turned their fortunes around completely, but it also sank the band's spirit. Little of what they played on record had anything to do with what they played on stage, and as the band's hit-making stock rose, little of what they played on stage had anything to do with what they'd started out dreaming of.
"We couldn't hear a fucking thing because of all the screaming," Marriott recalled. "We'd go out and it was a shambles every night, I'd be playing one key, or one song, Mac would be playing another, Ronnie would be playing another, and every night it was like that, and every hit record we had made it worse, because we'd have to drop something else we liked to fit it in."
They were miserable, and Don Arden knew it.
"That's why he signed John's Children," Marriott continued. "He thought they'd be easier to push around."
John's Children were not, in fact, John's Children when they encountered Arden; that would come later, after they linked up with the similarly entrepreneurial Simon Napier Bell. At this time, they were called the Silence, and it was the irony of their name which first drew Arden into their audience, one night at the Chuck Wagon in Leatherhead. The Silence were anything but silent.
Vocalist Andy Ellison recalls, "we were just a tiny little band stuck out in the provinces, but we were developing along the same lines as the Small Faces, playing similar material, and we both had a Mod following."
Whatever Arden's ulterior motives were for the Silence, whether he intended replacing the Small Faces with them, as Marriott thought or, as Ellison believes, neutralizing them before they could become a threat to the Faces, he called them to his Carnaby Street offices and made them a deal.
In return for signing a provisional contract, the Silence would be booked to support the Small Faces at four shows, two Southern England, two in Wales. A full engagement deal would await them upon their return.
"The gigs went down really well," Ellison enthuses. "The Small Faces were beginning to attract the screaming type of audience, and by being on the same bill as them, we got some of it as well – and it's a weird experience. But we got home, and that was it. We didn't hear any more from Don for weeks at a time; every so often we'd ring him , or he'd call us and say he was working on something for us. But it never came off, and we were beginning to wonder what was going on. Geoff [McClelland, the band's pre-Marc Bolan lead guitarist] was getting particularly fed up with it all, and it was only our extreme good fortune that we hadn't yet signed the full contracts."
In fact, the Silence broke up, temporarily as it happened, just days before a scheduled appointment with, at last, a contract waving Arden.
"Lucky escape," Marriott mused. "Wish we'd had one like that."
It would take twelve thousand pounds to extract the Small Faces from Arden, which is what promoter Harold Davison paid for them in late 1966. A matter of months later, they were on the move again, to Andrew Oldham's now thriving Immediate label.
"There are two ways of looking at Immediate," Marriott reflected. "One was that they ripped us off just as much as Arden did, to the point where I've still not seen a penny from the Faces, while there's record labels all over the world who are probably making a fucking fortune off our old records.
"But the other is that Andrew gave us everything we wanted; unlimited studio time, unlimited creative powers, he let us write what we wanted, he let us produce, and he let us make two albums without even questioning what we were going to do once we got in there. Yeah, the money we should have earned would have set us up for life, but that's what the musical freedom did, it set us up for life. Otherwise...
...and with remarkable serendipity, a punter at the jukebox has just started 'Itchy-coo Park', and given Marriott a loud "awright mate!"...
"...otherwise, we wouldn't be sitting here listening to this, would we?"
For the Small Faces, their Immediate years were a period of unrivaled creativity, not only within their own frame of reference, but many other bands' as well. Packed off to a cottage in the country to work on what Andrew Oldham, at least, was already convinced would be their masterpiece; writing and producing for a string of other Immediate talents; and running up hits like they were going out of fashion, the Small Faces defined the summer of psychedelic bloom like no other band on the country.
The Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, they were all more or less at the peak of their powers, but across the string of singles which began with 'The Universal', an 18 month blink of the historical eye, the Small Faces not only zapped the zeitgeist, they spiked its morning tea as well.
Marriott roared: "Did we ever! We were out of our boxes, but the fucking funniest thing was, nobody got it. 'Here Comes The Nice'...'he'
And then there was Ogden's. Marriott's grin faded.
"I had an awful fight with Andrew when he said 'Lazy Sunday' was the single. It was an album track, it was me taking the piss because I'd had this fight with the Hollies about never singing in me own voice, and they were right, because my own voice is Cockney, and I'd never sung in Cockney. So I did, for a laugh, for an album track, and because it cracked everybody up. If we'd done the song straight, like it was written, it would never have been a hit. But because it was this funny, jokey novelty thing, we were stuck with it."
Ogden's other downfall, of course, was that it was impossible to duplicate live. The band did tackle a couple of cuts, 'Song Of A Baker' and 'Lazy Sunday', for BBC radio, but only 'Baker' and 'Rollin' Over' made it into their live set. Even the famous, and oft-bootlegged, footage of the band performing side two's epic tale of 'Happiness Stan' on BBC TV's Colour Me Pop offered nothing more than a mime job.
Marriott reflected, "if we'd had any gumption at all, we'd have booked [narrator] Stanley Unwin, hired a string section, and gone out on the road with it. Instead we carried on fucking around, just crashing about on stage and putting up with the screaming, and it was horrible. Andrew was losing interest in Immediate, so he didn't give us any pointers; all we had was this awful formula which had been successful for years, and was now an albatross which wouldn't fly away."
Worse was to come, however.
The Small Faces' first (and as it transpired, last) post-Ogden's single, the stunning 'The Universal', was universally condemned as a failed in-joke. The sound of Steve playing live in his garden, his dog barking, and neighbors calling in the background, was just too pastoral, too rural, too weird, even for the heads freed by Sgt Pepper's and Ogden's.
"The Universal' barely scraped the Top 20; its b-side, the eternal flame of 'Donkey Rides, A Penny, A Glass', barely got heard, and Marriott, utterly discouraged by his first taste of personal failure – "and I did take it personally, because that song was the best I'd ever written, I thought" – not only announced he was quitting the band, he was going to quit being a frontman as well. A few contractual obligations (and one Johnny Halliday album) later, the Small Faces were no more.
It would be another two years, well into the life of Humble Pie, before Marriott returned to the front of the stage, and even longer, it seems, before the Small Faces' legacy was finally seen for what it was. Their 1976 reunion was generally regarded as a desperate attempt to retrieve some dignity from four careers which had recently nose-dived. It was not until pub rocker Little Bob Story, and the Sex Pistols' Great Rock 'n 'Roll Swindle soundtrack, resuscitated their own ragged covers of 'Whatcha Gonna Do About It', that anybody even thought twice about the Small Faces again; not until the Jam covered 'Get Yourself Together' did respectability reattach itself to their memory; and not until Marriott turned up on Johnny Thunders' album, to breathe ragged air into 'Daddy Rolling Stone', did anyone remember he still possessed one of the greatest voices in British rock. And while his 1982 re-launch ultimately went the same way as every other re-launch he contemplated through the 1980s, today, there is an entire generation grown up which cannot believe the Small Faces were ever regarded as anything less than the universal saviors of rock; who take the bad with the good, the good with the great, and view it all from the sanctity of history's newly leveled playing field.
And hopefully, they still think of 'Donkey Rides, A Penny, A Glass', that over-looked gem which even the Small Faces thought was only worth a b-side. At the time, after all, it was just another rocky frolic through the fields of childish nostalgia.
It was only later, once a tragic fate had taken its awful toll on the group (Marriott died in a house fire in 1991, Lane died of Multiple Sclerosis this year) that its lyrics took on a deeper resonance, despite the fact that Marriott had been living them out for two decades.
"What becomes of me," he sang, "is meant to be, so I'll just groove along quite naturally." And that's exactly what he did.
© Dave Thompson, 1997