Small Faces were the best English band never to hit it big in America. Outside Europe, all anybody remembers them for is their sole hit, “Itchycoo Park,” which was hardly representative of their psychedelic sound, much less their full musical range — but in England, Small Faces were one of the most extraordinary and successful bands of the mid-’60s, serious competitors to the Who and potential rivals to the Rolling Stones.
Lead singer/guitarist Steve Marriott’s formal background was on the stage; as a young teenager, he’d auditioned for and won the part of the Artful Dodger in the Lionel Bart musical Oliver! Marriott was earning his living at a music shop when he made the acquaintance of Ronnie Lane (bass, backing vocals), who had formed a band called the Pioneers, which included drummer Kenney Jones. Lane invited Marriott to jam with his band at a show they were playing at a local club — the gig was a disaster, but out of that show the group members decided to turn their talents toward American R&B. The band — with Marriott now installed permanently and Jimmy Winston recruited on organ — cast its lot with a faction of British youth known as the mods, stylish posers (and arch enemies of the leather-clad rockers, sometimes with incredibly violent results) who, among their other attributes, affected a dandified look and a fanatical embrace of American R&B. The quartet, now christened Small Faces (“face” being a piece of mod slang for a fashion leader), began making a name for themselves on-stage, sparked by their no holds barred performance style. Marriott had a uniquely powerful voice and was also a very aggressive lead guitarist, and the others were able to match him, especially Jones, who was a truly distinctive drummer.
Small Faces [Decca] The quartet was signed by manager Don Arden who, through his management company, got Small Faces a record deal with Decca/London. The band’s debut single, “What’cha Gonna Do About It,” a blatant ripoff of Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” co-credited in this version to longtime British songwriter/producer Ian Samwell, was released in August of 1965 and reached number 14 on the charts; a second single, “I’ve Got Mine,” failed to chart when released in November. Soon after its recording, Winston exited the lineup; he was replaced by Ian McLagan (organ, guitar, vocals). The group returned to the charts in February of 1966 with “Sha-La-La-La-Lee,” which rose to number three in England. Three months later, they were back at number ten with “Hey Girl,” a Marriott/Lane composition that inaugurated the songwriting team, a development strongly encouraged by their manager, who appreciated the enhanced earnings that original hits enjoyed. This single heralded their first album, a rather hastily recorded long-player entitled Small Faces. Their real breakthrough came with the next single, another Marriott/Lane original, entitled “All or Nothing,” which topped the U.K. charts in the course of a ten-week run. Its follow-up, “My Mind’s Eye,” was successful as well, but its release infuriated the bandmembers, because as far as they were concerned, it was unfinished — they’d furnished a demo to Arden who, in turn, had turned it over to Decca as a finished piece, and the latter had released it.
That release brought to a head the group’s growing alienation from their manager, over his handling of their business affairs and bookings, as well as their relations with Decca. Despite their string of five hits, Arden was treating the group as a nonrenewable resource, booking them too many shows — as many as three a night — as though they had no future and had to earn fees while the fees were being offered. This, in turn, prevented Marriott and Lane from exploring their full potential as songwriters, and in 1966, as the Beatles and Rolling Stones raised the bar, songwriting was becoming an essential activity for any band that could do it. Further, the group had evolved both musically and intellectually from their beginnings — by the spring of 1966, in place of the occasional weed or amphetamine (the latter an essential part of the mod lifestyle), they’d begun experimenting with LSD and, like many other artists, found their work and sensibilities altered by it — they could still do the soul numbers on-stage, and write passages in that vein for themselves to play and sing, but the subject matter of their songs, even when they did concern love, became decidedly more complex and experimental, along with their sound.
This is where Arden and Decca Records’ treatment of them really began to grate on the bandmembers, because their manager didn’t feel like budgeting for anything more than the standard, union-dictated, three-hour sessions with breaks, hopefully yielding at least a song per session, and they had songs in mind now, and sounds to go with them, that were too bold to be worked out in three hours. Despite four hit singles to their credit, they’d been given less time to complete their debut LP than the Rolling Stones — who’d abandoned Decca’s studios, with their iron-clad union rules and engineers who wouldn’t let them play at full volume, in favor of RCA Studios in Hollywood — usually got to complete one of their singles. And, finally, between the recording costs at Decca and Arden’s way of handling their finances, Small Faces weren’t seeing much money, considering their chart successes to date.
By the end of 1966, Small Faces had severed their ties with Arden which, in effect, ended their relationship with Decca (though the two sides would argue and debate that point for a while), and in early 1967 moved under the wing of Rolling Stones manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham. At the time, Oldham was one of the top three or four producers in England, thanks to his work with the Stones (and a few other acts such as Marianne Faithfull), and his management of that group was considered one of the most successful business relationships in pop music. Oldham had started his own label, Immediate Records, which was so far devoted to a few licensed American masters, the work of promising neophytes, and a few unwitting contributions by star guitarists — including Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck — who thought they were cutting demos and jamming with producer/guitarist Jimmy Page. Getting Small Faces as clients was the first step to getting them onto his label, thereby providing the label with the anchor of a proven hitmaking outfit (the Rolling Stones were locked into their Decca Records contract and, in any case, usually seemed to keep themselves at arm’s length from Immediate’s activities, beyond any informal obligations they felt they owed Oldham). By mid-1967 he had succeeded in doing precisely that, signing the group to Immediate — and with the shift in management and label, Small Faces suddenly found themselves with a drastically reduced touring schedule and vastly increased time available in the studio, and their sound immediately became looser.
There Are But Four Small Faces They started things off of just right for the new era with one of the most quietly subversive drug anthems ever to tiptoe its way into the U.K. charts, “Here Comes the Nice.” A cheerful, unassuming ode to a drug dealer, it somehow escaped the notice of censors and became one of the finest above-board expressions of appreciation for recreational drug use of its era. There were other drug songs to follow, including “Green Circles,” that ended up on their albums — they remained a top-flight R&B-driven band, but a much wider array of sounds and instruments began figuring in their music. Their first Immediate album, entitled Small Faces (known in the U.S., where it was released somewhat belatedly through Columbia Records’ distribution, as There Are But Four Small Faces), was issued in mid-1967, and was an instant hit. In August of that year, two months after “Here Comes the Nice” wafted its way to the airwaves, they released “Itchycoo Park,” a lilting, lyrical idyll to the Summer of Love, loosely based on a hymn known to Ronnie Lane and featuring Marriott in his gentlest vocal guise — this ode to a psychedelic sunny afternoon captured the hearts of listeners on both sides of the Atlantic and became Small Faces’ sole claim to fame in the United States.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Ironically, although they were always glad to have a hit, the bandmembers weren’t entirely pleased with the single’s success, because they felt the song didn’t represent their true sound, and it was also extremely difficult to play on-stage, owing to its acoustic guitar sound and varied musical textures. What’s more, the band had bigger aspirations than doing more hit singles — the Beatles’ success with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had set the album up as the new primary medium for musical expression, and they were eager to get to work on a canvas that size. Across five months during 1968, in at least four different studios, they recorded what proved to be their magnum opus, Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. A mix of Cockney whimsy, spoken word recitations (courtesy of actor/recitalist Stanley Unwin), hard rock, blue-eyed soul, and druggy freakbeat sensibilities, it was probably the most English and the most ambitious of the concept albums that followed in the wake of Sgt. Pepper’s, and further enticed potential purchasers (and confounded record distributors and retailers, not to mention American listeners totally unfamiliar with the actual Ogden’s tobacco tins) with its round-sleeve-in-a-square-frame packaging.
The resulting album — which the group only performed in its entirety once (although numbers like “Rollin’ Over” became permanent parts of their stage set), in a live-in-the-studio television broadcast called Colour Me Pop — was a critical and commercial success, and has received new cycles of rave reviews throughout the decades since.