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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Small Faces: Small Faces

SMALL FACES: SMALL FACES (1966)

1) Shake; 2) Come On Children; 3) You Better Believe It; 4) It's Too Late; 5) One Night Stand; 6) What'cha Gonna Do About It; 7) Sorry She's Mine; 8) Own Up Time; 9) You Need Loving; 10) Don't Stop What You Are Doing; 11) E To D; 12) Sha-La-La-La-Lee.

Although the Small Faces' debut was not released on the market until May 1966, by its very nature it properly belongs in 1965: most of the recordings were produced in the latter half of that year and, more importantly, occupy the same style-shelf as the early Yardbirds and Who: at the time, Small Faces subscribed to the same Mod subculture as the Who and, for whatever it's worth, were commonly regarded as The Who's junior partners. Considering that Small Faces is essen­tially a mix of straightfaced R&B and rebellious garage rock, without the tiniest smidgeon of psychedelia, for mid-'66 it already sounded a tad anachronistic — which should not, however, prevent us from still enjoying the hell out of it more than half a century later.

It is hard, actually, to discuss the merits of Small Faces without inevitable comparisons to The Who's My Generation — at this point, the preferences and goals of both bands were almost the same, except that Small Faces would lose to The Who on almost all counts. They did not have as crazy a drummer as Keith Moon (Kenney Jones was competent and energetic, but utterly sane); as dexterous a bassist as John Entwistle (Ronnie Lane could play it mean and thick, but ultimate­ly went down in history as more of a songwriter than a player, let alone singer); or as intellectual and inventive a guitar player as Townshend (Steve Marriott knew how to produce feedback, but not how to destroy the listeners with it). They were far less accomplished songwriters, too, with most of the «originals» on this album recycling stolen musical ideas — ʽWhatcha Gonna Do About Itʼ, for instance, simply rides the riff of Solomon Burke's ʽEverybody Needs Somebody To Loveʼ — and the subject matters rarely transcending the usual love/sex subjects: no ʽMy Genera­tionʼ-style ideological anthems for these guys.

They did have one unquestionable advantage over The Who, though, which is precisely the one that makes the album sound cool even today: Steve Marriott — not as a guitar player, but as one of the greatest white vocalists of his era. Many people at the time strove to imitate the great black R&B screamers and crooners, but almost everybody ended up sounding pathetic (Roger Daltrey included); Marriott, long before Rod Stewart and Joe Cocker carried on the tradition, was among the first, if not the very first white R&B belter across the Atlantic (ocean) that could hold his own against anybody on Atlantic (label) — to which he further added an overtone of garage aggres­sion that you'd never hear from the well-behaving Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett. In 1965/66, Marriott blew away all competition on that scale — well, maybe with the possible exception of Van Morrison. (There was also Steve Winwood of the Spencer Davis Group, but his approach was always far more restrained and polite).

The key track to understanding early Small Faces is arguably ʽYou Need Lovingʼ — a stepping stone, as most would see it, on the way from Muddy Waters' original to Led Zeppelin's ʽWhole Lotta Loveʼ; but while this version does lack the quintessential-iconic heavy metal riff that would elevate Zep to a whole new level, there is not a single reason I could think of that would make me honestly prefer Robert Plant's performance over Steve's. Except Plant's voice is much higher, so I guess that his "I'm gon' send you back to schoolin'!" is far quicker registered in your ear than Steve's somewhat lower-pitched histrionics. Nevertheless, the combination of heavy bass, power­house drums, and rabid vocalizing makes the Small Faces' version an important milestone in the evolution of heavy soul music, opening certain dark Freudian depths that were closed to even the best British bands of the epoch. Ironically, one other thing in which Small Faces also happened to precede Led Zeppelin was shameless pilfering of credits — ʽYou Need Lovingʼ was far closer to Muddy Waters' ʽYou Need Loveʼ in all respects than ʽWhole Lotta Loveʼ, and yet Willie Dixon never sued them for copyright breaching. I guess there are certain advantages to not being a mega-million-dollar superstar team, after all.

What with all the fresh energy scattered around and with Steve Marriott at his most unhinged, the shady issue of songwriting can get easily lost in the fray — even though, by modern standards, the band is really not behaving well, adding insult to injury as, for instance, they pillage James Brown (ʽThinkʼ) for their ʽCome On Childrenʼ; as for their instrumentals such as ʽOwn Up Timeʼ, they all seem to be taken right out of the Booker T. & The MG's songbook, a fact that is hardly covered up by the band «disguising» the acquisitions with extra feedback. The few true originals that they managed to place on the record, usually credited to Marriott/Lane in Lennon / McCart­ney or Jagger / Richards style, are nothing special, second-rate pop-rock or blue-eyed soul only distinguished by Steve's permanently-over-the-top vocal deliveries; there is nothing here yet to suggest that pretty soon they'd be growing into Britain's finest pop songwriters of the decade. But like with many other such debut albums, songwriting should be far from the first reason why one should get interested in this stuff.

Or, at least, not the band's own songwriting: three of the most professionally written tunes here were contributed to the band by Kenny Lynch, either on his own or in tandem with Jerry Rago­voy or Mort Shuman. ʽYou'd Better Believe Itʼ and ʽSorry She's Mineʼ are catchy, but shallow soul-pop tunes; however, real gold was struck with ʽSha-La-La-La-Leeʼ, essentially a stupid (and, unfortunately, quite irony-free) novelty number with more surface appeal to 6-year olds than 16-year olds. The band, especially Marriott, hated its bubblegummy guts, but since it went on to be­come their biggest hit so far (and stayed that way until finally vindicated by the No. 1 status of ʽAll Or Nothingʼ), they had no choice but to stick with it. Even so, it says a lot about Marriott as a vocalist that the song avoids being completely cringeworthy due to the powerhouse effect of his vocal cords — in the hands of Manfred Mann, a song like this would be specifically targeted to the pre-pubescent part of the audience, whereas Steve almost makes you take it seriously. Almost, because no amount of vocal magic can reverse the damage done by an endless string of "sha-la-la-la-lee"s, or by the song's Mother Goose-like lyrical level.

Still, once all the damage has been properly assessed, Small Faces deserves its modest thumbs up. Listening to it once again, I can't help wondering what sort of an album could have been pro­duced in late '65, had The Who decided to dump Roger as their vocalist and replace him with Steve (not that I'd dare dismiss Roger, but he truly did not come into his own properly until Tommy and those late Sixties / early Seventies live shows). Such a decision, perhaps, would have rendered Small Faces completely superfluous — and yet, on the other hand, it might also be true that this slightly re-written bunch of classic R&B standards agrees better with Steve's vocal style (owed to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding) than, uhm, ʽMy Generationʼ. In other words, it is good to be able to have them all, especially now that you can make yourself a mixed playlist of Pete Townshend originals and Steve Marriott covers — and enjoy the best of both worlds.

8 comments:

  1. "Marriott .... was among the first, if not the very first white R&B belter"
    Not that it makes him any worse, but Eric Burdon came first.

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    1. No. Eric Burdon, like Jagger and so many others, had a "local" ("Geordie") take on R&B; he is not directly comparable to Cooke, Redding, Burke, or Pickett, while Marriott intentionally (and successfully) operated in the same class.

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  2. I remember very well that quite a few Americans, including Afro ones, couldn't believe that Burdon was white when they heard him for the first time back in those days. They never said that about Jagger etc.

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  3. "...had The Who decided to dump Roger as their vocalist and replace him with Steve (not that I'd dare dismiss Roger...)"
    Roger was nearly sacked early on because of the R&B covers issue. Rog wanted to keep doing the James Brown stuff but Pete was started to write his own songs. Thankfully Roger realized that while he was a decent soul singer, he was much better off because Pete could write to his strengths, which was power and emotional resonance, with a vulnerable side.

    That said, the idea of a Marriott-led Who is deliciously intriguing, especially at this stage of their careers. As the 60s progressed, They took off into different turns. They both did the power pop thing, but Steve was much better at the zany Anglo-psychedelic thing. Roger NEVER could have (nor should have) done flower power. He's a farmer and and a fighter, after all.

    One thing that listening to the Faces (Small and otherwise) has given me is a huge appreciation of Kenney Jones' talents. He really was the "responsible older brother" of Moon. He was probably the heaviest British drummer up until Bonham and Ward. As such, his tenure in the Who makes sense, even though his gifts were largely lost in their late-period Townshendisation.

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  4. I don't think Pete Townshend could ever be in a band with another talented songwriter so even if Roger would have been replaced by Steve, that wouldn't last long. Vulnerable and always needing "a heart to hang onto", Pete always functioned in one-man-band mode (see his 'Scoop' series of countless demos with sound quality surpassing many studio efforts by other bands of that time) and I believe he was much more comfortable among skilled rather talented (in terms of songwriting only) musicians.

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    1. Yeah, Steve and Pete wouldn't have lasted too long in the same universe. Hell, Frampton and Marriott could only make it three years before splitting up, and Pete F is the rock of humility compared to the mercurial Pete T. As I read it again, "Marriott-led Who" sounds about as workable as a "Jagger-led Zeppelin" or "Gillan-led Sabbath." Oh, I forgot, that really happened.

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  5. Plant's voice may have a higher sound to it but it is not higher with respect to the sung notes. Both, "Whole lotta love" and "I need loving" are in the key of E, and both singers hit the high D (called D4) as highest note in their respective rendition of the song.

    It could be that Marriot's performance is the highest note sung in the "power falsetto" style (screamy head voice) up to that point of time 1966 (needs to be investigated).

    Paul McCartney hits the C4 (one note lower) in "She's A Woman" two years earlier.

    It's Marriot's style that was made famous by Plant, Gillian and other's a few years later, so you could call him one of the forefathers of heavy metal as well.





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