Steve Marriott was always going to be a star. By the age of 13 he was playing in bands around his native East London and appearing in the West End production of Oliver!, his hyperactivity an ideal fit for his role as the Artful Dodger. It was a presence he brought to bear on the Small Faces, the band he co-founded with fellow songwriter Ronnie Lane in 1965.
Along with drummer Kenney Jones and organist Ian McLagan, the quartet quickly became totems of the emergent mod culture, assimilating the hard grooves of American R&B and soul into a British vision of sharp suits and laddish bonhomie.
Both Marriott and Lane were unusually gifted songwriters, creating some of the most enduring 60s classics in the shape of Itchycoo Park, All Or Nothing, Tin Soldier and Lazy Sunday. But it was Marriott’s blue-eyed soul voice that set him apart. The Stones, The Who and the Sex Pistols were just a few who acknowledged his influence.
Marriott effectively broke up the Small Faces after a stormy gig in 1968, throwing his guitar to the floor in frustration at what he perceived as the group’s inability to break into more demanding artistic territory. While the others would go on to form The Faces, Marriott co-founded Humble Pie with Peter Frampton, Greg Ridley and Jerry Shirley, and cast off his past glories in favour of a much heavier brand of riff-centric blues rock.
Overshadowed by 70s contemporaries such as Led Zeppelin and The Who, Humble Pie were nonetheless a blistering proposition, especially live. America became their stronghold as the decade progressed, and they crammed in more than 20 US tours in one four-year period.
Humble Pie’s golden era was over by 1975. So, too, was Marriott’s. Divorced, hobbled by debt and with a serious drug and alcohol habit, he made a token attempt at a solo career before ill-fated reunions with both the Small Faces and Humble Pie. His final years saw him return to his roots in the pubs and clubs around London, fronting bands including Packet Of Three and The DTs.
Tragically, Marriott died in a house fire in 1991, having fallen asleep with a lit cigarette. “Though he could be hell to be around, he had a pure heart and I loved him as a brother,” McLagan wrote in his memoir, All The Rage. “He never stopped rocking.”
Packaged in an engagingly surreal sleeve that parodied a well-known brand of tobacco, the Small Faces’ masterpiece is a gleeful toke of very English psychedelia. It’s also very much an album of two halves.
Side one comes stacked with buzzing rock-soul like Rene, Afterglow Of Your Love and the infectious Lazy Sunday, while side two is devoted to a concept about Happiness Stan, who meets talking flies and crazy hermits on his quest to discover the dark side of the moon. Comedian Stanley Unwin links the songs as the band play faerie-folk delights like Mad John and the pure anarchic revelry of Happydaystoytown.
They were impressive enough in the studio, but playing live was where Humble Pie really excelled. This sprawling double album, recorded in New York in May 1971, is a magnificent showcase for Marriott’s searing vocals and his fierce interplay with fellow guitarist Peter Frampton.
Apart from the rampaging might of Stone Cold Fever, the songs are spirited covers, from the slow jam of I’m Ready to extended versions of Rolling Stone and the R&B classic I Don’t Need No Doctor. Perhaps the pick of the bunch is a titanic reconfiguration of Dr. John’s I Walk On Gilded Splinters, stretched out dramatically over a wholly compelling 24 minutes.
Nothing epitomised the youthful optimism of full-swing London like the Small Faces’ debut album. The quartet were East End mods at source, creating R&B grooves and tight rhythms for the pounding rush of purple hearts.
Original keyboardist Jimmy Winston was replaced halfway through the sessions by Ian McLagan. A jumped-up version of Sam Cooke’s Shake is great, though it’s the songwriting nexus of Marriott and Ronnie Lane that ultimately stands out. Whatcha Gonna Do About It, co-written with Ian Samwell, landed them a first Top 20 hit, while You Need Loving was later appropriated by Led Zep for Whole Lotta Love.
Evidently sick of manager Don Arden’s reported habit of withholding their pay cheques, the Small Faces threw in their lot with the Immediate label at the end of 1966. The upshot was this second album proper (sharing its name, confusingly, with their first) that shows them beginning to move away from hard-charging R&B, and instead lacing their songs with psychedelia and fizzy pop art.
There’s a taut economy at work here, not least on the music hall‑ish All Our Yesterdays and a fully stoked Get Yourself Together. The acid-flavoured Green Circles, meanwhile, would find its way into Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man.
Peter Frampton’s studio swansong with Humble Pie (prior to undertaking a solo career that would include Frampton Comes Alive!) is a consummate distillation of their heaving blooze rock. The cocky bluster of Rock On was partly due to the fact that Marriott had been road-testing the songs for some time.
Co-produced with the Small Faces’ old engineer Glyn Johns, standouts include Stone Cold Fever and Marriott’s tender ode to his first wife, A Song For Jenny, on which the band are joined by soul sirens Doris Troy, PP Arnold and Claudia Lennear. And rarely has Marriott sounded as inflamed as on the bluesy Strange Days.
With Frampton now gone, Humble Pie had essentially become Marriott’s vehicle by the time they pitched up for this show at San Francisco’s Winterland Theatre in May 1973. He’s on ebullient form throughout, as the band run through a set that leans heavily on post-Frampton LPs Smokin’ and Eat It.
Clem Clempson does a fine job as Marriott’s guitarist foil as they tear through Up Our Sleeve and a soulful take on Honky Tonk Women. Marriott is particularly fiery on a spectacular 30 Days In The Hole and the open-ended I Don’t Need No Doctor.
Humble Pie’s debut is, as you might expect from a new band drawing from disparate backgrounds in the Small Faces, The Herd and Spooky Tooth, fairly free-ranging in scope. Hence this grab-bag of wild electric blues, hard rock and psychedelic folk-pop, with harpsichords, tablas and the odd sitar.
There’s also a palpable sense of Marriott and Frampton jostling for space, although the former bags the lion’s share of the songwriting. Stirring hit single Natural Born Bugie is curiously absent, but Buttermilk Boy and Bang! are declarative examples of what Rolling Stone referred to, in an early use of the term, as ‘heavy metal’.
The arrival of former Colosseum guitarist Clem Clempson, as Frampton’s replacement, ensured that Humble Pie’s fifth studio album carried enough firepower to maintain their status as boogie boys of the heaviest order.
Indeed, Smokin’ proved to be their biggest seller, making the UK Top 30 and the US Top 10. You’re So Good To Me and Hot ’N’ Nasty (one of two songs featuring guest Stephen Stills) both suggest that the Black Crowes would never have happened without Humble Pie, while 30 Days In The Hole, in which Marriott laments being busted for drugs, became a live favourite. The strain of the sessions led to Marriott collapsing from nervous exhaustion afterwards.
Humble Pie had spluttered to a sorry end by 1975, amid reports of financial mismanagement and debilitating substance abuse. Drummer Jerry Shirley was candid enough to admit that “the main reason was that we were making bad records”.
Marriott duly returned to the UK from the US and set about making a deliberately schizophrenic solo album. The ‘British’ side recaptures the derring-do of Humble Pie at their best, especially East Side Struttin’ and a rewired version of the old Small Faces tune Wam Bam Thank You Ma’am. Side two is altogether different, showing an intuitive grasp of American soul, gospel and R&B.