Graded on a Curve: Faces, A Nod is as Good as a Wink…to a Blind Horse

Faces were The Replacements of their time. Their live shows were raucous, good-natured, often sloppy affairs, fueled by hard liquor, Ronnie Wood’s roar of a guitar, and the sandpaper vocals of Rod “The Mod” Stewart and sad croon of the late, great Ronnie Lane. They were the best party band of their era, or perhaps any era, despite critic Robert Christgau’s equivocal verdict of their legacy: “Their music was so loose and that was such an up; their music was so loose and their songs fell so apart. Come to think of it, bar bands are generally tighter.” Tighter maybe, but not 1/100th as fun, rowdy, or brilliant; show me a bar band that can write a song as great as plaintive as “Ooh La La” or as hard-edged and funny as “Too Bad.” Besides, if it’s tight you’re looking for, go listen to Emerson Lake & Palmer. Just don’t blame me for the brain hemorrhage.

And while the Faces’ LPs may have been uneven, their irresistible mix of hard rock, boogie, and doleful, lovely ballads (most of them sung by Lane, the band’s bassist) still sounds as fresh today as it did before Faces came to their ignominious end, with Wood defecting to The Rolling Stones and Stewart, who owned the best cackle in rock history, commencing his sad slide from one of rock’s great vocalists and songsmiths (“Every Picture Tells a Story” and “Maggie May” are stone brilliant, two of the best coming-of-age songs ever) to the pathetic Top 40 panderer and low-brow prat of a balladeer he is today.

Briefly, Faces evolved from The Small Faces, the mod group that gave us “Itchycoo Park” and the great Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. Faces = The Small Faces minus guitar hero/vocalist Steve Marriott (who went on to form Humble Pie) plus the rooster-coifed Stewart and Wood, and the ace new line-up lost no time in establishing a reputation as loveable rogues: happy-go-lucky, down-to-earth punters always ready for a drink, a hasty knee-trembler, or a bit of innocent off-hours mischief–they were every bit as adept at getting banned from hotel chains as Keith Moon–an image best expressed in the tune “We All Had a Real Good Time” or the title of their 2005 greatest hits collection The Best of Faces: Good Lads When They’re Asleep.

Faces were not of their time, or any time really. The Age of Aquarius made no impression upon them—no “we are all brothers” hippie bullshit ever escaped the lips of these guys—nor did they write a single song of social or political import, probably because they were too rat arsed, declined to take anything seriously except their next pint, and knew that protest songs are for misguided idealists who end up preaching to the choir, which is why Bob Dylan, who wasn’t dumb, gave them up. Unlike the Stones, Rod and the lads didn’t give a flying pentagram about the then-fashionable Dark Side, and would have happily kicked Mick J.’s beloved Beelzebub in the bollocks. And unlike The Who they didn’t have a pretentious, rock-opera-making bone in their bodies, and most likely considered Tommy so much artsy-fartsy codswallop.

In short, all Faces wanted to do was rock in a very aggro manner, preferably while totally arseholed, while tossing in the occasional sad sing-a-long that even dear old dad (no generation gap or suspicion of anyone over 30 for these lads) could enjoy. They recorded four LPs, the first two of which (1970’s First Steps and 1971’s Long Player) are tentative efforts and only contain a couple of songs (“Bad ‘N’ Ruin,” “Had Me a Real Good Time,” “Richmond,” “Three Button Hand Me Down”) I really love, but come LP No. 3, 1971’s A Nod is as Good as a Wink… to a Blind Horse, they’d honed their chops and sat down to write and record the best album of their career.

A Nod is as Good as a Wink is a hard-edged LP, mostly lacking in the beautiful ballads such as “Glad and Sorry” and “Ooh La La” that make their final album worthwhile despite it flaws, although A Nod… does contain the wonderful and elegaic “Debris.” The LP opens with the mid-tempo hard rocker “Miss Judy’s Farm,” which lyrically falls midway—as unlikely as it sounds—between Spinal Tap’s “Sex Farm” and Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” By which I mean Rod portrays himself as a kind of sex slave, a la “Sex Farm,” while Miss Judy staves off a riot by calling out the National Guard, who oddly enough also make an appearance in “Maggie’s Farm.” The song opens with some menacing Ronnie Wood riffs and a great coyote howl from Stewart, then Ian McLagan’s electric piano kicks in and they’re off, with Stewart singing “Miss Judy had a cross-eyed poodle/That I would kick if I was given the chance” in that infectious rasp of his while Wood and McLagan engaging in an increasingly frenzied jam at the end.

Bassist Ronnie Lane—who left the band in 1973, dissatisfied with the limited vocal opportunities he was being given—sings “You’re So Rude,” a rollicking and funny tale of a horny young couple who go to visit his family, find the house empty (“Why, it looks as though there’s nobody in/They’ve all gone out to see my Auntie Renee”) and take the opportunity for a quick shag, only to be rudely interrupted (“Whats that noise?/Why’d they come back so soon?/Straighten your dress you’re really looking a mess/I’ll wet my socks/Pretend we just got caught in the rain”). That “I’ll wet my socks” is wonderful, as are Wood’s rough-hewn guitar licks, McLagan’s boogie woogie piano and funky organ, and the nice harmonica tossed in toward the end.

Did I say “Debris” was the only ballad on the LP? I was wrong. Stewart puts his everything into “Love Lives Here,” a slow one which I’ve never been thrilled by–despite Wood’s excellent and restrained guitar backing and McLagan’s very pretty organ accompaniment–likely because it leans precariously toward the maudlin. Although it shows up on The Best of Faces, so maybe it’s just me. “Love Lies Here” is followed by the bluesy “Last Orders Please,” a song about two old lovers meeting by accident (“Well, well, hello and how are you?/ Fancy seeing you here, don’t let it show/No look, no one must know/Why? They’re playing ‘Tracks of My Tears’”) which features Lane on vocals–never did he sing lead as often as he does on A Nod is as Good as a Wink–and features some gut-bucket honky-tonk piano by McLagan and some crisp and zingy slide guitar work by Wood.

“Stay With Me” is more than just the best song on the album; it remains one of the rawest–yet tightest–and most explosive rock songs this side of Iggy and the Stooges. Wood’s guitar sounds like a jet engine and is one of the 8 Wonders of the World, and thanks to it the song takes off like an Me262, with McLagan’s electric piano and Kenny Jones’ powerhouse drumming providing backing for the usually easy-going Stewart singing scathingly about a one-night stand with a “mean old Jezelbel.” He tosses off sarcastic (not to mention of-their-time misogynistic) lyrics such as “In the morning, don’t say you love me/’Cause I’ll only kick you out of the door” and “Won’t need too much persuading/I don’t mean to sound degrading/But with a face like that/You got nothing to laugh about” and the immortal “Sit down/Get up/Get out.” But I’ll forgive Faces anything on this one, although I’m sure your average feminist would hate it–and for good reason–especially as the song nears its end and the already incredible roar increases in speed and grows in volume, with Wood’s guitar and McLagan’s piano growing more frenzied as they go round in circles over and over again, only faster and louder with each go-round, before Stewart shuts it down with a trademark “Woooo!” It’s definitely not punk, but it has the same urgency, anger, and sheer sonic punch, not to mention a riff Steve Jones would have loved to call his own.

The inutterably sad “Debris” follows. It’s a bittersweet tune about saying goodbye, and opens with Lane counting “1-2-3-4,” at which point Wood’s guitar comes in and Lane sings, “I left you on the debris/At the Sunday morning market” to the accompaniment of some beautiful guitar by Wood before the band comes to the chorus: “Oh, you was my hero/How you are my good friend/I’ve been there and back/And I know how far it is.” Faces may have been the ultimate good-times band of its time, but in my ‘umble opinion it also contributed more lovely, pathos-laden tunes to the rock canon than The Rolling Stones, if not the Beatles. “Yesterday” is a slice of bathos compared to “Debris” or “Ooh La La,” and I feel more genuine sadness (and joy) listening to “Glad and Sorry” (or Stewart’s solo song “Handbags and Gladrags”) than I ever have listening to “Angie” or “Wild Horses.” In short, the lads in Faces, and especially Ronnie Lane, had soul, and no other band of its era could equal them when it came to writing a song that could tug so urgently at your heartstrings.

Unfortunately they follow “Debris” with that hoary chestnut “Memphis Tennessee,” one of the few Chuck Berry songs I’ve never liked. Worse, the Faces’ version is so envervated and easy-going, without a hint of urgency or pathos, that it’s instantly forgettable. Its only real selling point is Wood’s long guitar solo at the end, and the McLagan honky-tonk piano that accompanies it. Ah, but they follow it up with the great “Too Bad,” which captures Faces’ self-effacing humor at its best and is a great rocker to boot. A song about some “innocent” party-crashing gone wrong, it opens with some handclaps, McLagan’s piano, and Woods’ utterly unique guitar sound, at which point Stewart launches, mock outraged, into his irony-laden tale: “What an insult/To be shown the door/Before we could shake a leg/I was most intrigued by the colored queen/Leaning on the kitchen door/Then I was ushered with my friends/By the butler who was twelve feet tall/Well let me please explain/That we’re not to blame/We just don’t have the right accent.” As the band cranks out the melody, Stewart and Lane offer a disingenuous excuse: “All we wanted to do was to socialize/Oh, you know it’s a shame/How we always get the blame.” Poor us, they seem to be saying, but their tongue is firmly in cheek; they know better than anyone that had they remained at the party, mayhem would have ensued.

Album closer “That’s All You Need” is a mid-tempo rocker dominated by some stellar slide guitar work by Wood, and tells the sad story of Stewart’s brother: “Sit right down if you can spare me a minute/I got a tale that’s bound to break your heart/Concerns my brother who’s thin and played violin/Got it in his head that an IQ was all you need.” He becomes successful while Stewart doesn’t “even own a pocket,” only to show up one night and announce, “The smell of the city, kid, it’s trying to kill me/My eyes are getting muddy, Christ, I’m aging fast.” At which point Wood goes into overdrive—the man is a truly great guitarist—before Stewart returns to sing “That’s all you need” over and over again as some steel drums come in, Wood plays some herky-jerky riffs, and the song fades out.

Faces may not be played much today–although they’ve been cited as an influence by bands as disparate as The Replacements, Guns N’ Roses, and Pearl Jam–and that’s too bad, because I’ve been listening to them (along with Stewart’s Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells a Story) since my early teens and it’s hard to think of a band, besides Mott the Hoople, whom I can still listen to with such pleasure today. Why, I’ve even grown tired of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, as great as it is.

As I said before, Faces are timeless. And fun. And wise beyond their years, too. As I grow older, few lyrics hit me as hard as the chorus from “Ooh La La” that goes, “I wish that I knew what I know now/When I was younger/I wish that I knew what I know now/When I was stronger.” Them’s words of wisdom, as you youngsters will one day discover, and Faces were a great band, so check them out, no matter how much you may despise Rod Stewart. Because he was great once, funny and sardonic and wise, and as for Faces, nobody could blow the roof off an auditorium the way they could, or laugh about it as hard afterwards.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • PaulJanisch

    Great review.  Agree wholeheartedly

  • Michael Little

    Thanks Paul. Much appreciated!

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