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I feel inclined to blow my mind-
Get hung up, feed the ducks with a bun.
They all come out to groove about,
Be nice and have fun in the sun.
This is the story of Steve, Ronnie, Scotty and me.
Steve and Ronnie were two boys from the East End of London who made some of the greatest pop music ever. Scotty is my best mate.
Scotty and I spent a large part of our early teens holed up in each other’s bedrooms smoking fags out of the window, fantasising about sex and playing records. On my fourteenth birthday, Scotty gave me a much-coveted copy of ‘Itchycoo Park’, the Small Faces classic from 1967, backed with ‘My Way of Giving’. No one else in our class had heard of the Small Faces, which seemed criminal given the greatness of the music, but it also made us feel like a select cognoscenti.

The two tracks together are an excellent example of Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane’s song writing versatility. ‘Itchycoo Park’ is essentially a humourous take on the flower power scene of the time and kicks off with a rollicking acoustic guitar riff which heads into 2.47 minutes of aural delight featuring the first phased drums on record and ends with the joyously tongue-in-cheek sing-along chorus "It’s all too beautiful." On the flipside, ‘My way of Giving’ is a moody, bluesy ballad that shows off Marriott’s pain-wracked soulful voice to optimum effect.

There was a condition attached to the gift- I had to give it back to him on his birthday. So a tradition started, with the record being swapped on each birthday for the next eleven years until Scotty lost it when he was squatting in London. He still denies this but its true.

I was sad to lose such a sentimental item, but by that time I had the tracks on LP and I’ve now got them on CD too. In fact, I’ve got the tracks several times over on various limited edition re-issues and greatest hits packages. The Small Faces and their derivations (the Faces, Humble Pie, solo albums) form a sizeable chunk of my music collection, and it’s still growing as new compilations keep coming out. The latest is a remastered collectors’ edition heavyweight vinyl copy of the band’s first Immediate album ‘The Small Faces’, first issued in June 1967, with five bonus tracks.
My wife doesn’t get it. She points out that I’ve got the album already on CD and the bonus tracks too on other albums. But this is vinyl, with the original artwork, I explain to deaf ears. The only other person who ‘gets’ the Small Faces to the same obsessional extent is Scotty.

We’ve had our musical differences. Scotty evolved into a hardcore skinhead punk, then quickly devolved again after a black woman declined to sit next to him on the bus, despite it being the only seat left. I had a brief flirtation with punkdom that came to an end after I had to cut off my padlocked trousers, a traumatic experience which, I’m afraid to say, helped send me down my older sister’s rocky road of air guitars and patchouli oil.

But throughout all our aberrations, we always stuck true to the Small Faces, a devotion which usually mystified others. In his best man’s speech at my wedding, Scotty talked about the Small Faces to blank looks from the audience. He spoke of my stag night in Brighton when we stumbled across a club playing sixties music with pictures of Steve and Ronnie on the wall. This for us had a great significance but despite his efforts he couldn’t convey it.

A couple of days later a friend who was there asked what it was with the Small Faces obsession? Steve Marriott was a good singer, but…GOOD SINGER?! I cried. He was only the best blue-eyed soul singer ever! And I proceeded to bore this chap who knew a lot about music but still didn’t get it.

I know what it’s like. In the eighties nearly all my friends were heavily into the Talking Heads. I could appreciate the technical merit and cleverness of their finely crafted songs, but they just left me cold. It’s the same with most of the dance music around these days- I can’t find the heart in it.

Heart is something Steve Marriott had in abundance. The first time I saw him and his band at Leeds Irish Centre he was half an hour late. Shuffling onto the stage he muttered "Sorry, we got held up- that Dick Turpin’s a bastard!" and proceeded to unleash a set of unbridled brilliance incorporating blues standards, Humble Pie tracks and –yes! - Small Faces numbers that had the hundred or so honoured few who still remembered that this guy was a genius going wild with delight. "Can you please all get up and dance- it’ll seem like there’s more people here." Marriott joked.
Another time, in Birmingham there were a few more people there, maybe two hundred, including a guy I knew from work called Geoff Horner. Geoff had been a bit of a Face himself in sixties London and was still smarting twenty years later from an encounter with Marriott’s acerbic tongue. Apparently, a devilish alter ego, which Steve called Melvin, would sometimes surface after he had imbibed a certain amount of booze, and woe betide anyone who crossed his path. This seemed at odds with the chirpy cockney geezer up on the stage.

Another person not to have forgotten or forgiven such an encounter with Melvin was the disc jockey John Peel. It is unfortunate then that Peel was one of the main obituary writers when Steve died in April 1991. Marriott was portrayed as a loser, a man who had never come to terms with his fall from stardom. Some of the newspapers even suggested that the house fire he died in was self-inflicted, that he had both professionally and literally burned out.

It goes without saying that none of these journalists had paid him any attention for years. If they had ventured to a single gig on his tireless touring schedule they would have witnessed one of the greatest of living legends, still very much in control of his powers, still with a voice that was, as Bobby Gillespie said "As sweet and soulful as Otis or Aretha." He just came home from the States jetlagged one day, lay down with a cigarette and moved out of our lives for good.

Ronnie’s death in June 1997 was less of a surprise, coming as it did at the end of a gradual surrender to Multiple Sclerosis. It was still a shock though, as it is when a hero dies.

I’d followed Ronnie’s career for years, until such time as it petered out due to his deteriorating health. Ronnie’s solo career had yielded, in the mid-seventies, some sweetly mesmeric music that blended R’n’B, country, bluegrass and music hall, which he took around the country in a big top. The performance included real circus acts and can-can girls and was called ‘The Passing Show.’ The venture was organised by Ronnie’s dad Stan and, despite being rightly lauded by the critics, was a financial disaster. Interestingly though, I see the idea has been revived this year by Radiohead.
I met Ronnie at Glastonbury Festival, in the days when it was easy to get back stage. He was hanging around outside his caravan looking miserable. "You were the best band all weekend." I told him, truthfully. "That don’t say much for the rest of ‘em then does it?" He replied laconically. "Why are you so miserable?" Asked the girl I was with. "’Cos I’m a miserable bastard." Ronnie said, poker-faced. Stuck for words, I shook his hand and assured him it was an honour to meet him. He looked like he didn’t believe me.

It wasn’t until some time afterwards that I found out he had recently been diagnosed with MS, split up with his wife and had been given the boot by his record company. No wonder he was miserable.

Financially, the Small Faces story is one of tragedy too. Steve, Ronnie and the other band members Kenney Jones and Ian Mclagan were badly ripped off by unscrupulous managers and record companies leaving them virtually penniless when the band split up in 1969. The small print in their contracts has also meant that subsequent royalties were not nearly as big as they should have been. They certainly paid a high price for being the pioneers of British pop music.

I don’t see Scotty very often these days, but when I do we inevitably end up drinking too much, staying up too late and dancing around the room to Small Faces records. We’re not such a select cognoscenti anymore though, as Steve and Ronnie have posthumously found a new generation of admirers. After they passed away, they were hailed as a seminal influence on the Britpop movement and now you can find clubs up and down the country playing their music. And every once in a blue moon you might just see two older blokes on the dance floor leaping around amongst the kids to ‘Itchycoo Park.’
©John Peters ” 08/2000

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