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Small Faces/Faces/Rod Stewart: Box Sets

Fifteen CDs charting the progress of McLagan, Lane and Jones (oh, and Woody), and the varied fortunes of blue-eyed souls Marriott and Stewart.

If you’re a fan of British music from 1965 to 1975 – and there are many who would argue that this represented its apotheosis, even as the 40th anniversary of punk approaches – you’ll need these three box sets.

They tell the tale of six musicians whose contributions to an already thriving period are a matter of record: the mod band whose evolution from high-octane R&B to Tin Pan Alley-tinged psychedelia earned them a position in the mid-60s superleague, just below The Beatles/Rolling Stones/Who/Kinks and above The Animals/Yardbirds/Moody Blues/Zombies; the blokey rockers offering an earth(l)y version of Led Zeppelin’s demonic raunch, with a boozy, bluesy swagger matched only by the Stones; and the thatch-haired rasper whose ragtag jumbles of folk, rock, soul and blues propelled him to a 70s solo superstardom rivalled only by Elton and Bowie.

It’s a half-century since Small Faces stormed their way to early victory with Whatcha Gonna Do About It, and to celebrate there’s a five-CD set, with all the trimmings and then some. Housed in a deluxe, lift-off-lid box, complete with a 72-page booklet featuring new liner notes and period press cuttings and photographs, all 91 tracks have been remastered “under the close supervision” of sole survivor Kenney Jones.

The music covers Small Faces’ 18-month tenure with Decca: there’s a disc of hits, ranging from the R&B-infused to tracks with one eye on the freakbeat future, such as My Mind’s Eye and Patterns; the debut album and unofficial follow-up From The Beginning (plus instrumentals, alternate versions etc); a disc comprising almost two dozen rarities and outtakes; and a fifth CD of BBC Sessions, including several interviews with Marriott, one of which provides a fascinating glimpse behind the mod-lad veneer: “We’re more serious than a lot of people think,” he considers. Marriott then proceeds to profess his love of Vivaldi and Mingus, before pondering a move into production because, as he explains, “the next record could be a dire flop”.

In fact, a track from Small Faces’ self-titled 1966 debut album, You Need Loving, signposted where Marriott was headed: to the boogie of Humble Pie (Marriott’s Robert Plant-anticipating blues wail and the song’s dynamics also pointed towards Zep’s Whole Lotta Love, but that’s another story).

Marriott’s departure from Small Faces in 1968, frustrated at the band’s direction, left a massive hole, which the remaining members promptly plugged with guitarist Ron Wood and another ex-employee of the Jeff Beck Group, Rod Stewart, probably the only vocalist at that time capable of filling Marriott’s shoes (give or take Steve Winwood and Alex Chilton).

So you have to do a double-take when you open the Faces box, because staring at you on top of the five-CD pile is their 1970 debut, credited to Small Faces (as per the US original – the UK one simply said “Faces”). It’s strange to see Messrs McLagan, Lane and Jones, together with Stewart and Wood, all poker faces and crow’s nest barnets, under that name because, of course, Faces were an entirely different beast to their Small precursors. Gone was amphetamine R&B and tense, nervous psych; in its place, a ragged, ramshackle approach to rock’n’roll (Shake, Shudder, Shiver) and funked-up blues (Around The Plynth), with country gospel (Devotion) and folk forays (Stone) demonstrating Lane’s ever-developing writing chops.

By Long Player (1971) Faces’ louche energy was deployed in the service of a great set of songs that confirmed their status as the drinking man’s Stones, the Zep you could feasibly bump into in a bar – appropriately, the instrumental version of the hymn Jerusalem sounds as though it’s being played by a pissed busker.

A Nod Is As Good As A Wink To A Blind Horse (also 1971) launched them in America, although, granted, they were given a leg up by Stewart’s simultaneous Stateside solo success. From its title onward, the LP – their biggest-seller, featuring hit single Stay With Me – captured their essence as good-time geezers, permanently brandishing both cigarettes and alcohol, role models for generations of wannabe roués. But they could do sensitive: check out Lane’s gorgeous Debris for evidence. Besides, their messy aesthetic has been overplayed – it takes skill to sound this sloppy.

By Ooh La La (1973), the writing was on the wall, with Stewart spending longer on his solo career, but still there are great moments, both fierce (Cindy Incidentally, Borstal Boys) and forlorn (Glad And Sorry, If I’m On The Late Side), and the title track was acoustic pop perfection. Lane, feeling marginalised as Stewart’s star rose, quit in June ’73, replaced by former Free bassist Tetsu Yamauchi. There were no further albums, but the 45s were crackers: Pool Hall Richard especially gives the lie to the idea that Faces were anything but tight: there’s a machine-like precision to the way the players lock together.

All of the Faces albums are remastered and the box includes a CD of nine tracks that didn’t appear on their albums, including a live performance of The Temptations’ I Wish It Would Rain from the 1973 Reading Festival, plus Dishevelment Blues, a song that came free as a flexi-disc in copies of the NME.

The shift from Small Faces to Faces may have been dramatic, but you can segue seamlessly from the latter to Rod solo, not least because they share several musicians: Wood and McLagan are both there on An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down (1970) – and indeed they’re there on all subsequent albums up to and including Smiler – but then so is Keith Emerson, which partly explains why it feels like Stewart is searching for a style, although Handbags And Gladrags remains a highlight.

By Gasoline Alley (also 1970) he’s established himself as a sort of UK analogue to The Band, helping rock find its roots, his voice intimate and warm, colloquial and ‘authentic’, mixing up non-originals (Dylan’s Only A Hobo, Elton’s Country Comfort, Womack via the Stones’ It’s All Over Now) and self-penned material to the point where it’s hard to tell one from the other.

Every Picture Tells A Story (1971) launched Stewart on the international stage, reaching No.1 in Britain and the US, helped by the presence of Maggie May. But it’s far from a one-track affair, with blistering rock (the title track) sitting alongside covers like That’s All Right and Reason To Believe, the Motown raunch of (I Know) I’m Losing You and the poignant balladry of Mandolin Wind, although watch out for the ‘slant-eyed lady’ on the title track – like the ‘slag’ in Had Me A Real Good Time from Faces’ Long Player, this was several years BC (Before Correctness).

Never A Dull Moment (1972) is a superb consolidation, Smiler (1974) a rote reiteration. According to critical orthodoxy, there was worse to come in the shape of Atlantic Crossing (1975), which many believe was the moment Stewart betrayed his talent and sold out. Utter cobblers, of course, but it makes for a gripping narrative.

FINAL VERDICT: 910 (ALL)