Heavy Load: Ian McLagan

Even before making his name as the keyboard player with scene-defining mod exemplars the Small Faces, Ian ‘Mac’ McLagan had already toured the UK with Howlin’ Wolf. Not a bad way to open an account as the sideman’s sideman.

What were you like at school?

I was a little bastard. I lost interest after reading Huckleberry Finn, because I learned the expression ‘playing hookey’, took it to heart and thought I’d try it out… I used to go to Osterley Park with a sketchbook and spend hours drawing. I played hookey for so long that when I eventually went back to school I had to have a forged note because I couldn’t tell my parents that I hadn’t been there for three weeks, or however long it was.

Who cut the Small Faces’ hair?

Mainly, we all did. We just hacked at it. I still cut my own hair, because I know what I want.

Do you believe in God?

No. I certainly don’t believe in any religion. They just seem to cause wars and all kinds of hell on earth. I know there is something other than this life, but I don’t know what. When people say: “God bless America.” No, fuck you; God bless everybody or nobody. You get that back in England too. “Thank God for Liverpool.” Fuck off. Do you think if there was a God he’d have time to pick and choose? It’s all bollocks.

What’s the biggest misconception about you?

That I’m dead. In England I might as well be.

What are the best drugs you’ve taken?

The best drug is marijuana, and the most exciting drug was LSD. But I wouldn’t recommend anyone take LSD unless it was the absolute best. We were lucky enough to have Owsley’s acid, and those trips were incredible. Later on the acid we got was not very good and it was a waste of time. I get migraines, and marijuana is the only cure for me. Nothing else works. Marijuana does it and has done for the last fifty-something years for me.

Was Steve Marriott as irrepressible as he seemed, or did he have a dark, down side?

He was irrepressible, he couldn’t fucking help himself. He was funny, he was brilliant, he was always on, and I bet when he went to bed his whole body said: “For Christ’s sake go to sleep.” He was very similar in that way to Robin Williams. He had so much energy he was a fucking dynamo.

Is dealing with an ex-bandmate like Rod Stewart a bit like dealing with an ex-wife?

Well, we aren’t all brothers, so it’s not blood. But it’s close to that – there’s a bond. But I haven’t been in a band with Rod since seventy-five. I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s a funny old thing. I’m divorced from my first wife and we’re the best of friends now. Time passes and it’s all water under the bridge.

Where do you stand politically?

Left. Way left of most of Texas; Austin is quite left. Here [in the US] the political colours are reversed – a blue state is a leftish, liberal state.

What would you say is the secret of Ronnie Wood’s success?

It’s his hair… No, he’s another ball of fire, he’s a very likeable chap and he’s very talented. There’s an expression in music: “It’s not about the music, it’s about the hang.” And, of course, he’d have to be a great musician to be in the Stones, but if he was a lousy hang he wouldn’t be there. I remember when Bill [Wyman] quit the Stones, every bass player in the world wanted that job, and I heard through sources that Keith turned to somebody and said: “Great player, lousy hang.” You can be Stravinsky, but you ain’t gonna get that gig unless you can get on well. And Ronnie gets on well with people.

What can you do that no one else can?

My job is always to find something that no one else is playing and to get out of the way of the guitars. When you hear a great band, no one ever says: “What a great bass player.” And if you do say that, you’re looking at someone who’s showing off. But generally you don’t want to hear the bass as an instrument, you want to feel it.

Have you ever worked with a more charismatic performer than the blues great Howlin’ Wolf?

No, not really. He was unbelievable. Such a sweet guy – and you wouldn’t know it from his terrifying performances. [Long-time Howlin’ Wolf guitarist] Hubert [Sumlin] played here in Austin a few years before he died, and as I remember it it was forty-four years since I’d met him. And he’d seen this photo in my book of me and Wolf, and, suddenly recognising me, he said: “Ah, the Wolf loved you. He wanted to take you back to Chicago.”

What in your life are you most proud of?

The size of my cock [big laughs]. My son and his daughter, my granddaughter. She’s lovely, she’s funny, it’s a delight.

Ian Fortnam

Classic Rock’s Reviews Editor for the last 20 years, Ian stapled his first fanzine in 1977. Since misspending his youth by way of ‘research’ his work has also appeared in such publications as Metal Hammer, Prog, NME, Uncut, Kerrang!, VOX, The Face, The Guardian, Total Guitar, Guitarist, Electronic Sound, Record Collector and across the internet. Permanently buried under mountains of recorded media, ears ringing from a lifetime of gigs, he enjoys nothing more than recreationally throttling a guitar and following a baptism of punk fire has played in bands for 45 years, releasing recordings via Esoteric Antenna and Cleopatra Records.