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The Small Faces: the story of the classic Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake

The Small Faces
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

“Are you all sitting comfty bold, two squares on your botty? Once a polly tito... I can do the whole interview in Unwinese if you want,” says Kenney Jones, while negotiating his way from the M2 to the M25 amid the rush-hour traffic. 

At their local pub, the ex-Small Faces drummer frequently converses with his neighbour Jim Davidson – another Unwinese devotee – in the language created by the eccentric Professor Stanley Unwin.

Unwinese is rarely spoken outside Jones and Davidson’s local, particularly since its originator died in the early 90s. One of the few places where linguists can study its weird and wonderful contortions of the English language is on the Small Faces’ 1968 album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, on which Unwin narrates the tale of Happiness Stan and his quest for the missing half of the moon.

Unwin was not the Small Faces’ first choice of narrator. “We originally wanted Spike Milligan,” says Jones, “but he couldn’t do it for some reason. Someone suggested Stanley Unwin, and we met him and fell in love with him. He fitted Ogdens’… like a glove.

“When he first came down to the studio he deliberately spent time with all of us, getting to know all our expressions. We’d be saying things like: ‘I’m smashed and flaked,’ and he’d go: ‘Oh, smash and flakey.’ And then he came up with things like: ‘Blow your cool man’ and ‘Where at man, where at?’ and had us all falling about.

“We explained the storyline, and he listened to all the tracks and the lyrics, and then came up with his own narration which was absolutely perfect. We’d be going: ‘That’s great!’ And he’d say: ‘Oh, deep joy. Now I’ll trickley out this thorkus to get the storyload in mind.’”

Five thousand miles away in Austin, Texas, keyboard player Ian McLagan – the only other surviving member of the Small Faces – is not as fluent in Unwinese, but he remembers the transformation Unwin brought to Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. “We were all in the studio overdubbing and stuff, when he came in one afternoon. He sat there with his friend, taking notes.

“He came back a couple of days later and he was talking just like us, but in his own style. He’d been listening to us talking and picked up on the things we were saying. It was as if he’d become one of us. And he was such a lovely guy.”

Ogdens’… was the album the Small Faces had been wanting to make ever since the 60s had turned psychedelic a couple of years earlier. Jones and McLagan, along with guitarist and lead singer Steve Marriott and bassist Ronnie Lane, had shot to the forefront of the Swinging London scene, sharp-dressed mods with a sound to match. Their knowledge of soul, Tamla Motown and R&B was unrivalled – and it showed.

During 1966 the Small Faces had one speed-fuelled chart smash after another: Sha-La-La-La-Lee, Hey Girl, All Or Nothing (a UK No.1) and My Mind’s Eye. The last of those was a demo that their manager, Don Arden, gave to the record company without bothering to consult them. It was an indication that the band’s best interests were not always at the top of the managerial agenda.

“We were not progressing in any way because we were constantly gigging and we weren’t spending enough time in the studio,” says Jones.

McLagan concurs: “It was all bang, bang, bang in the studio – ‘Guitar solo now… Vocals next… Right, that’s done’ – and then off to the next gig, with maybe a TV show or an interview on the way.”

Even their accounts at every major shop in Carnaby Street to feed their fashion habit couldn’t disguise the band’s slave-labour wages of £20 a week. And Don Arden (father of Sharon Osbourne) did not take kindly to complaints. One of his clients who complained was allegedly dangled from a fourth-floor window by his ankles. Whether or not the story was true, it acted as a suitable warning to others.

The Small Faces were not big enough to confront Arden. And when their parents went to Arden to voice their concerns they were told that the band had spent all their money. And Arden added that the band were all on drugs.

With the notable exception of Kenney Jones, who stuck to alcohol, this was true. “We used to take pills to keep going – and because we liked them,” says McLagan. “Then we’d have a smoke and a laugh and listen to music. We’d be going: ‘Listen to that bass line,’ and put the needle back and check it again. It was like we were at the university of rock’n’roll.

“The time frame was completely lost. I was quite happy to get out of it as often as possible. But as soon as we started playing I’d be into it. In fact I can’t remember much about the gigs, because I was trying so hard to lose myself in the music. But I can remember things before and afterwards – the dressing room, the aftershow.”

Early in 1967 the Small Faces announced that they were leaving Don Arden and Decca Records and signing with Andrew Loog Oldham, manager of the Rolling Stones, and his newly formed label Immediate Records. In retrospect this was jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. But that’s not how it felt at the time.

“Andrew promised us unlimited time in the studio,” says Jones. “It was like a breath of fresh air. That’s when we started to get really creative and we turned a musical corner.”

To an extent, Oldham was simply picking up on the wind of change blowing through pop music. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had shown the benefits of letting a band loose in the studio for long period of time. The Small Faces were given virtually unrestricted access to Olympic Studios in Barnes, south-west London, which had already gained an enviable reputation with albums by Jimi Hendrix and The Who.

To start with, the Small Faces were like kids let loose in a candy store. Their next, self-titled album (not to be confused with their first self-titled album) crammed 14 songs into just over half an hour. They had no problem switching from the mournful Feeling Lonely to the rowdy Cockney knees-up All Of Our Yesterdays, via the LSD-tinged Green Circles. For casual punters, though, it was a bit more confusing.

But the singles – none of which came from the album – were another matter. Here Comes The Nice, Itchycoo Park and Tin Soldier were magnificent creations that summed up the spirit of ’67. Oldham was happy to let the band continue their studio adventures, and McLagan stresses that their manager was never involved in the creative process. “He’d come in occasionally and pass a joint around, have a laugh and wander off after an hour or so. He wasn’t anything to do with what we were doing.”

Nevertheless, when the band hit a creative block while they were recording songs for what would become the Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake album, it was Oldham who despatched them off on a boating weekend on the River Thames. “He booked us some boats and told us to go away and clear our heads and come up with an idea and some songs to go with it,” Jones says.

It was a bold suggestion, not least because the Small Faces’ nautical inclinations had never progressed beyond the confines of the paddling pool in their local park. But that didn’t stop them from becoming intrepid mariners – in their own heads, anyway.

“We caused a certain amount of havoc on the river,” Jones admits. “I managed to smash into a converted naval vessel somewhere near Windsor while I was trying to turn the boat around. Of course, I didn’t know about currents and stuff. I ended up staring through the porthole of this other boat at these people who were trying to eat their lunch.

“And then Mac [Ian McLagan] managed to hit this really smart sailing boat, with a skipper who was wearing white trousers, a blue blazer and a cap – the complete sailing kit. And I remember him standing there on deck calling us a ‘scourge of the sea’.”

“The upshot of it all was that we didn’t actually write anything until the last night. We moored up, lit a fire, and Ronnie came up with the whole idea of Happiness Stan and his adventures. We didn’t actually have any paper with us, so it was all written on logs. I’ve often wondered what happened to those logs.”

McLagan can’t actually remember Kenney Jones being on the boat trip, let alone his own navigational mishap. “But just because I can’t remember it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

What he does recall is that this was the moment when he finally managed to break into the Steve Marriott/Ronnie Lane songwriting duopoly within the group: “That’s when it opened up for me. Before then, Steve and Ronnie had it locked down. If I wrote a song I had to get it past both of them. I’d been helping them write songs but I hadn’t been getting any credit for it. But once we’d drifted our way down the Thames I wrote The Journey and Happy Days Toy Town with them and started getting credits.”

In fact McLagan gets writing credits on four of the six songs on the second side of Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, around which Stanley Unwin narrates the story of Happiness Stan and his quest to find out what happened to the other half of the moon when it waned.

It must be said that Lane’s whimsical storyline fails to stand up to the most cursory scrutiny, and is saved by Unwin’s inimitable but even less comprehensible narrative. But even without the story, songs like the driving, Hendrix-like rocker Rollin’ Over, the folksy Mad John and the cheery Happy Days Toy Town (‘Life is just a bowl of All Bran/ You wake up every morning and it’s there’) stand up on their own.

Happiness Stan’s tale took up the second side of the album, while the first consisted of songs that didn’t fit the story. “They were all recorded over the same period, so they have the same feel to them,” says Jones. These include the instrumental title track; the sturdy, soulful Afterglow; the bawdy tale of Rene, ‘the dockers’ delight’; the heavy Song Of A Baker; and the wistful, delightful Lazy Sunday, based on another true tale of Marriott’s musical differences with his neighbours (these days he’d get an ASBO).

The album’s title and the circular sleeve design are inextricably linked, although nobody seems to remember which came first – which is not surprising given the subject matter. “We assumed that marijuana would become legal quite soon, which was perhaps a little naïve,” McLagan chuckles. “So we thought we’d be ahead of the game. We envisaged that rather than cigarette machines there’d be joint machines, with all the packaging and everything.

“The people at Immediate got [pipe tobacconists] Ogdens to send over all their old designs and scrapbooks going back to the previous century, and we browsed through them. We were looking at this design on a tin which said ‘Ogdens’ Nut Brown Flake’, and Steve suddenly went: ‘Nut brown – nut gone! That’s the one.’ We got an artist to come in and change the wording, but we kept the original design.”

The band originally wanted to release the album in a tin, but the cost of manufacturing a 12-inch tin proved impractical, not least because of the cost (John Lydon’s Public Image would have better luck a decade later). Instead they opted for a circular cardboard fold-out sleeve – which was almost as impractical when it came to shop displays. It wasn’t easy to rack, it was flimsy, and the record kept falling out. None of this mattered if you were stoned, but the majority of record retailers were pretty straight.

Nevertheless, when it was released at the end of May 1968, after a nine-month gestation period, the album became the Small Faces’ biggest success. It spent six weeks at No.1 that summer, boosted by unanimous rave reviews and the success of Lazy Sunday which was riding high in the singles chart.

The success of Lazy Sunday, though, created its own set of problems. The band were unhappy that it had been released as a single, believing it enhanced their image of lightweight pop stars at a time when they wanted to be regarded as serious musicians.

“We were in Germany when we picked up a copy of Melody Maker and discovered that we had a hit record with Lazy Sunday,” Jones remembers. “We’d just done the record for fun, but Andrew took it upon himself to release it as a single without telling us. Looking back on it he was right, of course, but at the time it didn’t do anything for the image we were trying to put across as serious musicians – not when we doing heavier rock songs like Song Of A Baker or Wham Bam Thank You Mam.”

(Jones has a point. For the origins of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, just check out You Need Loving from the first Small Faces album.)

McLagan believes this was “the first nail in the coffin. It was fun and it was a part of what we were, but afterwards it was like: ‘How do we get out of this?’ Now we were getting screaming girls at our gigs and we couldn’t hear ourselves play. It was like Beatlemania, and it used to piss us off a lot.”

There was another problem: the Small Faces were increasingly unable to play the songs on Ogdens’… live because the technology wasn’t around to reproduce the sounds they’d recorded in the studio. “You couldn’t play an acoustic guitar as the front instrument with a band. You couldn’t hear it. And if you tried to mic it up it would just feed back,” explains McLagan. “There were no acoustic guitar pick-ups. There was no phasing, either. You couldn’t get that effect on stage. Plus there were songs where I was playing three different keyboards.”

The only performance the Small Faces ever gave of Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake was on the BBC’s Colour Me Pop show – and that was barely live; they sang to backing tapes. But they did manage to get Stanley Unwin to reprise his narrator’s role. They put him on a throne and stuck a crown on his head.

Looking back, what the Small Faces really needed at this point was a manager who could have given the band creative guidance through this rocky phase in their career and taken them to the next level, much as The Who’s managers Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert did with Tommy. “We thought Andrew was managing us but he wasn’t really,” says Jones. “He and his partner Tony Calder were having problems with the label because they were running up bills, and although we didn’t realise it at the time they were going under. We were the biggest act they had so we were keeping them going.”

McLagan puts it more succinctly: “Andrew’s nut had gone. We should have gone to America but we never did. The excuse was that I’d been busted for dope, but that wasn’t true. They didn’t want to let us go because there would have been other managers and agents sniffing around and they would have told us that we were mad if we weren’t being paid properly; we would have been enlightened.”

As it was, the Small Faces gradually fell part at the seams over the latter part of 1968. Marriott in particular became increasingly disillusioned, particularly after The Universal, a song that he considered one of his finest, stalled at No.16 when it came out as a single. The end was nigh when Marriott threw down his guitar and walked off stage at London’s Alexandra Palace on New Year’s Eve 1968. At that point they agreed to disband, although they carried on for a couple of months, playing the gigs they’d been contracted for.

McLagan reckons it was the only time they saw any money as a band. “I’d taken over the finances, because it was impossible to tell who wasn’t stealing from us at that point.”

By the time they played their final gig, Marriott was already setting up Humble Pie with his mate Peter Frampton. The others would soon be moving on to the next phase of their career in the company of Rod Stewart and Ron Wood.

Immediate Records staggered on into 1970 before collapsing in a haze of bankruptcy. Its subsequent history has never been far from skulduggery, and the Small Faces never received a penny in royalties from the countless reissues over the next 30 years or so, until Jones wielded lawyers. Little wonder that the word ‘thieves’ is never far from McLagan’s lips when Immediate Records is mentioned. Even though the label’s current owners, Sanctuary, are paying royalties, this only applies in the UK – the rest of the world is a royalty-free, impenetrable jungle.

Another problem is that the original masters for Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake have gone missing. Jones knows who has them, “but he can’t admit it because he doesn’t have the rights to them.” He’d like them back if only so that he can remix the album properly. “The original stereo mix has the instruments all over the place because that was a passing fashion at the time. It would be nice to do a proper stereo mix of the album and do it justice. Maybe next time.”