Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Nod Is As Good As A Wink...To A Blind Horse

[Editor's Note: I submitted a proposal to write a book for the 33 1/3 series.  I found out today that it didn't get short-listed, which only 15% of the submissions did.  In lieu of ever seeing it in print, here's the introductory chapter.]

Introduction: Every Picture Tells a Story

When picking up any album, especially one from the LP era when each record came with its own cardboard canvas, the cover is key to its contents, no more so than with the Faces’ A Nod Is As Good As A Wink…To A Blind Horse.

There’s a photo on the cover set in a brown border of a peculiar shade not seen much after the mid-1970s.  A band on stage stands in the middle distance, their backs to the camera, the red velvet-suited, rooster-haired lead singer leans in to share the mic, but from this angle it looks like he is trying to hear something that the bassist is whispering in his ear.  In front of them a sea of shaggy 70s rock fans, bathed in a kind of orange light.  We are the midst of the rock show in 1971, at perhaps its cultural apex as the music moved from theaters to arenas where bands increasingly resembled the corporations that sponsored their tours.  We also appear to be in a strange caught moment in that experience, with the photograph making the rock stars on stage look pretty small in front of the massive, crowded audience, not posed toweringly like modern gods.

It’s perhaps the perfect picture for the Faces, a band know by most mainstream rock fans (if at all) as “that group Rod Stewart was in.”  This was a group whose music was suited for a big party.  This was not music to drop Quaaludes to while laying on a 70s shag carpet.  This was not sensitive songwriter music a la James Taylor to emote to.  This was not a rock show where you were going to hear a twenty minute drum solo or see someone apply a violin bow to a guitar.  This music was not going to throw in multiple time signature changes or involve lyrics about hobbits, flying saucers, or add up to anything like a concept album.  There is not going to be any glitter or grand theatricality. And this music was sure as shit not going to get played on AM radio next to Bread and the Carpenters.  No, ladies and gentlemen, this was rock and roll in its feral state.  Music to shake your ass to. Music for making bad decisions for the hell of it.  Music for the good times.

Every picture tells a story, indeed.  Every Picture Tells A Story also happens to be the name of Rod Stewart’s 1971 solo album, the one that put him on the road to international stardom and released a few months before this one.  The tension between Rod the singer for the Faces, and Rod the megastar would lead to the destruction of the band.  A big time star can’t stay just one of the guys on the stage, his face not even visible on his band’s album cover.  This album, the Faces’ best, was fated from birth to be a sideshow.  What a shame, and how typical for the Faces.

Now if you’re reading this, I can pretty safely assume you have more than a passing interest in a long gone rock band.  You are likely one of the initiates, someone who understands the power of the Faces.  We are a small fraternity, since they are one of those groups, like the Yardbirds, who have become more famous for what their members did outside of it.  Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan, and Kenny Jones all had prior success in the Small Faces, one of those bands that was huge in Britain and relatively unknown in the United States.  McLagen would go on to play keyboards with the Rolling Stones on tour and in the studio and Jones would later join The Who as Keith Moon’s replacement.  Ron Wood and Rod Stewart were both in The Jeff Beck Group first, and Wood would go on to a forty year and counting tenure in the Rolling Stones, while Stewart would get so big that they’d make one of those wretched jukebox musicals out of his solo hits in the early 21st century.

If you ask your average Rock Snob (i.e. the target audience of the book) who the three best bands in the early 1970s were, chances are they’d tell you Big Star, Badfinger, and the Faces.  Such fans are well aware of the fact that these bands did not reach mega levels of success, unlike their peers, who still get their songs played wall to wall on classic rock radio to this day.  All three were bands out of time, making them difficult to gain popularity in their day, but easy to love years later when the music can be appreciated on its own terms.  Both Badfinger and Big Star made gorgeous pop-inflected rock songs with bite to them well before the power pop movement emerged from New Wave, and in the midst of the early 70s obsession with loud blues-oriented boogie rock.  Sounding like the Beatles in that time was actually detrimental.

The Faces, on the other hand, stood out of time in a different way.  Like the great number of British Invasion bands that sprouted along the banks of the Mersey, the Thames and the Tyne, their music had a strong R&B component to it, as opposed to Chicago blues.  Of course, Ronnie Wood’s slide guitar still carried in it the spirit of Elmore James, but Ronnie Lane and Kenny Jones had a funky, rhythmic feel that was much more Muscle Shoals and much less Ten Years After.  By the early 70s those R&B influences had been pulled out of rock music root and branch, and those British bands not playing the stomping, obvious glitter rock beats had gravitated to blues boogie.  Rock and roll had started as dance music, but who in the world could dance to Deep Purple?

In this sense it is useful to compare the Faces to Humble Pie, the band founded by former Small Faces front man and lead guitar player Steve Marriott.  Although they did not sell records like Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie established a huge live following playing very straight-ahead, heavy riffing boogie rock.  The rhythm was more for head banging than dancing, and the whole approach was ruthlessly riff-oriented, bass guitar and drums simultaneously bashing out an electrified Morse code.  Their breakthrough record was that now clichéd staple of 70s hard rock: the double live album (Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore.)  Marriott had struck on a formula for success in the new decade, one later perfected and mellowed on a different double live album by former Humble Pie guitarist Peter Frampton.

When the remaining Small Faces brought in Rod Stewart and Ron Wood and became Faces, they opted for a much less straight-ahead and much more shambolic approach evident on their first two records.  Their debut, 1970’s First Step, even got their name wrong on the cover stateside, which shows the band members sitting down beneath the words “Small Faces.”  The album title implied amateurism, of not yet being ready to actually be a band.  It’s a good record, but rough and ragged from its misnomered cover to the appropriately titled “Three Button Hand Me Down” that closes things out.  There’s a riff here, but it’s a bouncy shuffle anchored by some funky bass with some organ flourishes thrown over it.  The song practically rattles like an old car with broken struts on a gravel road, but it’s a damn fun run ride, like the rest of the record.

The ragged fun just got more joyous and sloppier on 1971’s Long Player, which is either a brilliant or phenomenally lazy title, depending on your perspective.  It kicks off with the most Faces title for a song ever, “Bad ‘N’ Ruin,” which wanders around like a farm boy lost in the big city.  It segues unexpectedly into a live cover of Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” that’s absolutely gorgeous.  This was a band that seemed willing to try just about anything.  This even meant failing pretty obviously from time to time, such as on the live rambling wreck version of “I Feel So Good.”  Even in this rough state you can’t not shake your butt and dance a little to the music.

The Faces’ live show also betrayed their willingness to stand out and away from many of the mainstream trends of the time.  In an era where rock was taking over arenas and stadiums, with massive spectacles of pyrotechnics and lights, their innovation was to put a bar on the stage.  Members could order drinks while they played, as if they were doing a two set a night gig in some dingy barroom.  When they played the Top of the Pops in 1973, they played soccer –the working man’s game- on stage.  Larger than life rock stardom and counter-cultural affectation this was not.

One can only keep swimming against the tides for so long before going under, for the Faces and everyone else who strains hard to fight the currents of the cultural mainstream.  When A Nod Is As Good As a Wink…To A Blind Horse came out, “Maggie May” had already hit the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, essentially sealing the fate of the Faces right before they managed to put out their best album, one where their ragged sloppiness would be reigned in but still come out in endearing ways.  They would even get their one hit single, “Stay With Me,” out of it, but it was too little, too late.  Over forty years later I am grateful we can still drop the needle on that relic of a doomed band, and hear some of the most joyously raucous music put to wax, along with some stunning ballads that might just sneak up on you. 

Life is short and often painful.  Most of us harbor big dreams that never really amount to much, and we get so stuck in the gears and levers of just getting by that we stop remembering that we even ever had a dream in the first place.  Oftentimes we don’t pursue that dream because the specter of failure haunts our minds, or we know deep down that we are flawed and doubt we’ll ever being able to pursue it.  For those of us who have dreamed hard but seen that dream crumble or falter in the pursuit of it, the Faces are our patron saints.  They didn’t quite make it to the top, but they had a helluva good time trying to climb up there.  They might have dropped some notes or blown some leads, but their listeners were having too much fun to notice.  Music can be so many things, but sometimes it’s just the medicine we need to get by.  The Faces may not have reached superstardom, but they knew music’s healing power, and that’s what really matters.  A Nod Is As Good As A Wink…To A Blind Horse is no one’s idea of perfection and musical virtuosity, but it is definitely my idea of joy.

No comments: