This is really about how something sits in your mind unobserved for years – er decades – maybe like a broken garden rake. I recently revisited the series The British Invasion, or more accurately the episode devoted to Small Faces (that’s right no ‘the’ – never does sound right when bands do that). It was a rather poignant look at the band, given they’d never quite achieved the success they deserved and that the two key members, Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane later died way too young.
Small Faces fits somewhere into what might in very postmod retro terms be called er Mod, or pre-Britpop Britpop. That is, they fit somewhere around The Who, The Kinks et al, including the Mod, Carnaby Street sensibility. There is a tension here – articulated in the doco by surviving members Kenny Jones and Ian McLagan – between the record company/manager/producer tug towards bubblegum, and the band’s desire to be hard-edged.
After Marriott left in the late 60s to form the largely forgettable Humble Pie, the rest of the band continued on with two new members, Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart as The Faces (‘the’ now, but no longer ‘small’). This curious afterlife got more complicated when Rod Stewart went solo, sometimes with The Faces as backing, sometimes without. Anyway, Rod shot to blonde-soaked celebrityhood and the rest of the band melted away (or became Rolling Stones). There was a very brief attempt at a reformation, with Marriott, which ended in something resembling tragic farce. Lane was accused of being drunk and it all went south from there – the rest of the band didn’t know he was already suffering the symptoms of the MS which eventually killed him.
But this isn’t about the band – it’s the songs. Well, three of them really: Itchycoo Park, Tin Soldier and Lazy Sunday
I have several memories of Itchycoo Park, but most vividly sitting in my old man’s ochre XY Falcon in the carpark of the (I think) Dept of Agriculture in Rochester. Nothing of great significance, but someone my image 0f ‘under dreaming spires’ is a few struggling remnant redgums roasting in the asphalt on a hot summer day. It might be argued that this is the way verse, music, poetry – how ever you want to divy up the hierarchy – works. It attenuates our grip on the literal space around us by dragging a part of us somewhere else. And the image accretes like coral. As the moment dies it builds the edifice a little higher, so that Itchycoo Park becomes a multiplicity of places.
In the documentary, the extant members of the band opined that Itchycoo Park was little valued within the band. In fact it expressed a central tension within, that they saw themselves as a hard edged blues band who occasionally stumbled into the perfect popsong. This of course is the curse of the artist, that the thing an artist does easily is often the thing they do best but value least. With Itchycoo Park, Lane and Marriott achieved that sort of sublime British psychedelia that The Beatles (who knew the value of a good ‘the’) managed a few times and for which they were well rewarded. It’s a vision which Swift-like peers into the deep pores of tradition and culture.
Marriott’s frustration with this pop nonsense peaked when Lazy Sunday hit the charts. If Sunday ever broke away from the week, Lazy Sunday would be its anthem. Marriott claimed it was a piece of nonsense he wrote because his neighbour was complaining about the noise. To which we respond – ‘and that’s a problem because…?’ For me, the song is a front garden, bare feet on a kikuyu lawn, lemons rotting in the shade. Most of all the song has a ragged wit – musical and lyrical – which references skiffle, music hall comedy and some genuine work class pisstaking. This is perhaps Marriott at his best – sharp, clever and with his feet planted firmly in the fertile muck. The song is also parent to Blur’s massive ‘Park Life’ and reminds us that Small Faces were as crucial to the whole Brit Pop thing in the 80s and 90s as some of their more illustrious contemps.
At least with Tin Soldier, the band believed they’d managed to achieve something like the perfect performance. Somehow though the small masterpiece of the perfect pop song – anyone of the three above – becomes a living thing that clearly has parents, but also its own pulse and a selfhood grows organically from the world around it. I like that I never knew a thing about the band when these songs imprinted themselves on me. I may not even have known that they were by the same band. What I love about the songs still is that they are such rich cultural artefacts, perfect fusions of tradition, post-austerity rebellion and cross-Atlantic appropriation.