PARIS 1976. Rod Stewart, rock superstar, is caught on film perusing some jaw-droppingly expensive art nouveau pieces with his girlfriend Britt Ekland. He looks a lot like a six- year-old being dragged around Marks & Spencer. Some time later, Britt is in a taxi tapping on a calculator, totting up just how many copies of Sailing paid for her new trinkets; Rod looks at the camera, grins, and shrugs. Back in London, his fans — two of them — are waiting for Rod at Heathrow. Even they are not sure why they are there. His new album, they reckon, is “rubbish”.
The mid-Seventies were Rue Morgue for British subculture. Glam was gone, skins and mods a distant memory. Novelty records and tasteful country rock ruled. Rod Stewart was our biggest star and he wasn’t happy, his fans weren’t happy, rock’n’roll had let everyone down. Rod was now a tax exile so he was missing the football, but more to the point — and certainly as far as his fans were concerned — he was missing the Faces.
Born from the wreckage of the Small Faces and the Jeff Beck Group, the Faces were an excuse to party through the fug of three-day-week Britain. The two groups from which they emerged were sharply dressed, built — like almost all pop in 1967 — for the future: the Faces, though, were resolutely of the moment.
They seemed more than aware that, after the highs of the Sixties, there was precious little colour around in the early Seventies. So they rolled out the barrel of Party Seven and played gigs that were more like open-house stag nights. The Faces loved their booze, loved each other. They made mistakes on stage and burst out laughing. They were a gang, and any teenage boy would have gladly sold a limb to be in on it.
The ultimate image of the Faces is a 1971 Top of the Pops performance in which John Peel accompanied them on (mimed) mandolin while they kicked a football around. For starters, they’re clearly having a great time, probably pissed too. But the football was a real class statement in 1971 — the Faces were an identifiably working-class band in an era of largely middle-class singer-songwriters and prog rockers. This explains the enormous feeling of goodwill people had towards them, and it’s worth bearing in mind if you hear their records in 2003 — because listening to the Faces today can make for pretty hard work. There’s no denying the bonhomie of Stay With Me, their best-loved song, but hits such as Pool Hall Richard and Cindy Incidentally seem infiltrated by the grey porridge air of early Seventies Britain. Compare hits by T Rex or David Bowie and Pool Hall Richard sounds murky, its appeal almost impenetrable.
The Faces’ list of hits is substantially boosted by their singer’s parallel solo career. Rod was clearly the main attraction and this caused ill feeling in the group from the start. The resentment was strongest in the ex-Small Faces camp — to drummer Kenney Jones, organist Ian McLagan, and bassist Ronnie Lane, Rod was simply a replacement for their old singer, Steve Marriott, and they found it hard to take when his solo records began to sell. Jones recalls the first Faces tour of America and how Rod and guitarist Ronnie Wood were “all cocky about going to America because they had been there before, saying things like, ‘We know this great place in New York that does boiled eggs’, and all that”.
Billy Gaff, the manager, took the full impact of their bruised egos when they arrived at a gig in Detroit to find they were billed as the Faces “featuring Rod Stewart”. Mac-lagan whacked Gaff over the head with a bottle and told their limo driver to keep going.
It may not sit well with the boorish McLagan but Rod was not only the singer but the bona-fide star of the Faces — his own albums were much stronger than those released under the Faces’ moniker. This may seem odd, as his backing group were basically the Faces, but Maggie May, Gasoline Alley, You Wear It Well and the super-evocative Mandolin Wind were warmer, more adventurous: Rod wasn’t embarrassed to show his love of Celtic folk. The lyrics were more affectionate too.
Jim Melly’s new Faces biography, Last Orders Please, dovetails the band into the political grimness of their era. Their boozy sound and yobbish slapstick, Melly suggests, is an entirely accurate reflection of Britain 30 years ago. He also reveals the lack of camaraderie in a group that always came across as Our Gang. Money was usually at the root of it — they seem immensely greedy. The first two albums were self-produced because McLagan refused to give a standard percentage to the producer Glyn Johns.
In 1975 Jones complained: “The Faces haven’t worked in four months and I’ve lost £80,000 because we are not playing Wembley.” Who knows how much he had made from gigs in the previous five years. Their legendary tour antics are often more spiteful than funny — McLagan used to specify a Steinway at gigs and if anything else turned up he’d take an axe to it after the show. Even at this level, Rod rises above his bandmates: when asked what it is like to play the Hollywood Bowl, he replied: “It’s better than a Nuremberg rally.”
The end of the Faces — with Ronnie Wood poached by the Rolling Stones and Rod swanning around Rue de Rivoli with Britt — was bittersweet. Rod’s last single before the tax- exile years was the mournful, Caledonia-flecked Farewell; the Faces released their greatest single, the joyous You Can Make Me Dance Sing or Anything. Nobody knew they were swansongs but the autumn of 1975 saw the last Faces tour.
They were a funny group — not that pop, not that sexy, not quite the Small Faces and not yet the Rolling Stones. They were never going to be your favourite band. The Faces were a woozy not-quite-tangible dream of how a rock band should be. Rod nails their lasting appeal: “We all shared the same haircut. And one hairdryer.”
Last Orders Please is published by Ebury Press 3 April.
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