Ian "Mac" McLagan 1945-2014

Rock‘n’roll lost its second larger than life character this week with the passing of keyboard maestro Ian McLagan after a stroke at the age of 69. His death on December 3 follows former musical comrade Bobby Keys succumbing to cirrhosis the previous day.

The perma-grinning cavorter known as ‘Mac’ was one of music’s most popular characters and in-demand musicians, lending his soul-charged keyboard virtuosity to a string of big names after making his mark with the Small Faces in the 60s and Faces the following decade. His death came the day before he was due to commence a US tour supporting Nick Lowe and will scupper next year’s plans (and Mac’s dream) to reform the Small Faces (with Paul Weller replacing the late Steve Marriott) and Faces for a joint tour (with Rod Stewart back on board).

Born in Hounslow in May, 1945, Mac started as a guitarist in skiffle bands but learned piano at his mum’s insistence and was seduced by the big swirl of the Hammond organ after hearing Booker T and the MGs. He once described his rock ‘n’ roll epiphany as witnessing the Stones at the Crawdaddy club in 1963

Mac hung out on the London mod scene but without the requisite clothing budget so concentrated on his music, first with the Muleskinners then Boz People with future King Crimson and Bad Company bassist Boz Burrell, before he joined Marriott, bassist Ronnie Lane and drummer Kenney Jones in the Small Faces in late 1965, replacing organist Jimmy Winston. He first appeared on the band’s third single, Sha-La-La-La-Lee, which reached number three in the charts, followed by top tenners including Hey Girl, number one All Or Nothing and My Mind’s Eye, Mac’s throaty Hammond a key element in the white hot London soul sound further explored on May, 1966’s self-titled debut album.

Cheesed off at making no money under notorious manager Don Arden, the band left after a messy breakup and signed with Andrew Loog’s Oldham’s Immediate label, working with Glyn Johns on their self-titled second album and classic singles, including dealer-homaging Here Comes The Nice, psych-embracing flange-up Itchycoo Park, Tin Soldier (Mac’s masterful piano-organ intro defining one of their greatest songs), music hall style Lazy Sunday and acoustic The Universal. May 1968 saw the release of their number one concept master-work Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, Mac writing and singing Long Agos And Worlds Apart.

Later that year, Marriott quit to form Humble Pie, leaving the others jamming at the Rolling Stones’ Deptford rehearsal space with refugees from the recently-disbanded Jeff Beck Group after Ronnie Lane invited Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart along to test the water on some Booker T grooves. After Mac and Woody played on Stewart’s first solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, this gave birth to the Faces, who became one of the mightiest bands to liven up the early 70s after their tentative beginnings with the aptly-titled First Step album.

1971 was the year the Faces rode their gloriously exhilarating stampede to huge popularity with two stellar albums in Long Player and A Nod Is As Good As A Wink…To A Blind Horse. Mac was a vital component in their swaggering, booze-charged rock ‘n’ roll offset by soulful balladeering, co-writing Bad And Ruin and You’re So Rude while elevating riotous bar-room anthems like Stay With Me with his Wurlitzer electric piano pounding. This writer was lucky enough to witness the band’s rise at gigs including Watford Town Hall (where Rod pissed his pink satin loons and they threw Ronnie Lane out of the dressing room window), London’s Roundhouse and almost blowing off the Who at the Oval Cricket Ground. But Rod’s astronomical success with Maggie May and You Wear It Well (which Mac played on) saw the Faces grow miffed at their new backing band status. Consequently, 1973’s Ooh La La was a struggle to make, although Mac co-wrote its biggest hit, Cindy Incidentally.

After the Faces inevitably dissolved, Mac became an in-demand organ-for-hire, playing on albums by both ex-Faces before joining the Stones’ Some Girls sessions, including that sublime electric piano on Miss You. He also joined Wood, Richards and Keys in the New Barbarians’ touring band in 1979, all three appearing that year on his party-friendly first solo album Troublemaker.

Mac also leant his elegant boogie garnish to records by Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan (who he toured with in 1984), Pete Townsend, Joe Cocker, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen. He released several more solo albums, including 1980’s Bump In The Night, 2000’s Best of British (financed by Ronnie Wood, including a tribute to their late pal Ronnie Lane, who died in 1997) and 2004’s Rise & Shine. Mac paid further tribute to Lane on 2006’s Spiritual Boy, featuring songs written by or co-written with his old mucker. This was followed by 2008’s Never Say Never.

Mac relocated to Austin, Texas in 1994, spending recent years touring with the Bump Band he first formed in 1977. In 2008 he joined the Faces reunion which ill-fittingly substituted Mick Hucknall for an ailing (or too busy) Stewart, repeating the exercise for 2012’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. Earlier this year, Mac formed the Empty Hearts with Blondie drummer Clem Burke, Cars guitarist Elliot Easton, Chesterfield Kings bassist Andy Babiuk and Romantics singer-guitarist Wally Palmer, releasing a self-titled album in August. He also played on Lucinda Williams Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, released in September, and his own rollicking United States set, now sadly his final joyful rock ‘n’ roll statement.

In 1978, Mac married his partner Kim Kerrigan, former wife of Keith Moon who died in a traffic accident near their home in 2006. He published his autobiography, All The Rage: A Riotous Romp Through Rock & Roll History in 2000, updating it last year.

Mac died at Austin’s Brackenridge Hospital after suffering a stroke at home the previous day. The moving statement on Mac’s website said, “It is with great sadness and eternal admiration that we report the passing of rock and roll icon Ian McLagan. He died today surrounded by family and friends in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas due to complications from a stroke suffered the previous day. Ian’s artistry, generosity and warmth of spirit touched countless other musicians and music fans around the world. His loss will be felt by so many.”

“I’m absolutely devastated,” said Rod Stewart. “Ian McLagan embodied the true spirit of the Faces. Last night I was at a charity do, Mick Hucknall was singing I’d Rather Go Blind, and Ron Wood texted to say Ian had passed. It was as if his spirit was in the room. I’ll miss you mate.”

Mac’s bottomless talent, joined by his irrepressible good nature and infectious sense of fun, made him an immensely popular figure who never stopped treading the world’s boards, last playing UK pubs to small but enthusiastic crowds after the release of his last album. As he told Rolling Stone after the 2012 induction, “I play every day. It’s what I do; it’s what I’ve been doing for 50 years.”

Kris Needs

Kris Needs is a British journalist and author, known for writings on music from the 1970s onwards. Previously secretary of the Mott The Hoople fan club, he became editor of ZigZag in 1977 and has written biographies of stars including Primal Scream, Joe Strummer and Keith Richards. He's also written for MOJO, Record Collector, Classic Rock, Prog, Electronic Sound, Vive Le Rock and Shindig!