Graded on a Curve:
Faces, Ooh La La

The Faces may well have been the best party band of their era, if not all time. The Rolling Stones were all sex and menace, the Who was a thinking man’s band, while the Kinks dealt in England’s hallowed past as viewed through the prism of its dystopian present. Which left the Faces, who boogied and drank to excess and were cheerful, mischievous lads, ne’er-do-wells of the sort who frequently got tossed out of parties for engaging in some innocent fun. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they even managed to get themselves thrown out of their own parties. They were, as the title of their excellent 1995 best-of compilation noted, Good Boys When They’re Asleep.

Rock’s most impish rotters only released four LPs. Or five if you count 1974’s live Coast to Coast: Overture and Beginners, which was credited to both Stewart and the Faces—a sly signal that Stewart’s band mates were no longer equals, but in effect had been relegated to his backing band. It was this development that caused the great Ronnie Lane to split the band, to be replaced on bass by Tetsu Yamauchi, and that soon led to guitarist Ronnie Wood’s desertion to the Rolling Stones, spelling the end of one of my favorite bands in the universe.

Lane’s decision to part ways with the Faces was partly attributable to Stewart’s comments following the release of the band’s final studio LP, 1973’s Ooh La La. Stewart, preoccupied with the enormous success of his solo career, largely left the LP’s recording in the hands of Lane, then came out in the press afterwards and called the results a “stinking, rotten album.” To quote another Faces tune, Rod, you’re so rude. Especially for a guy who would soon be releasing songs like “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

But at their peak, The Faces were a great band, both in the studio and on stage. Its members included several former Small Faces in Ian McLagan on keyboards; Ronnie Lane on bass, guitars, and vocals; and Kenney Jones on drums and percussion. Indeed the Faces were the Small Faces, minus Steve Marriott—who formed Humble Pie and took his boogie in a decidedly harder direction than the Faces—but plus Ronnie Wood and Rod the Mod. Lane’s amiable vocals provided a nice counterpoint to Stewart’s raunchier trademark sandpaper rasp—to say nothing of his lascivious cackle—and the songs were often written by two or more members of the band.

While their masterpiece is 1971’s A Nod Is as Good as a Wink to a Blind Horse, Ooh La La is also remarkable, even if Stewart, the band’s ostensible star, in effect phoned in his parts. It’s not as raucous as A Nod Is as Good as a Wink, but more than makes up for its reduced number of nuclear-powered hard hitters with its accumulation of great ballads. Ooh La La isn’t completely devoid of raunch-and-rollers, but its lovely songs are its strong suit, and I’ll put “Glad and Sorry” and “Ooh La La” up against any of the lovely ballads being released by any band in the world at that time.

The hard-rocking opener “Silicone Grown” is a joke of sorts, as Stewart spends the tune expressing his astonishment at discovering that a woman friend of his gone in for some significant breast enlargement. Wood’s guitar work is feral, while McLagan plays raucous piano throughout. As for Jones’ drumming it’s phenomenal, and helps me to finally understand why Pete Townshend chose Jones to replace the late Keith Moon in the Who. Meanwhile Stewart throws in some immature but funny puns (“I remember you said/That we gotta keep abreast of time/But obviously you don’t know/Where to draw the line”) and concludes that his new and bustier friend has “more front than The Hague Museum.” It’s a very hard rocker, not the band’s best but pretty damn good, and a special shout-out should go to Wood for his pile driver guitar work. Next up is the piano- and guitar-driven “Cindy Incidentally,” which is as catchy as they come and which features Stewart at his warmest. It’s not marred by the sexism of “Stay With Me,” and reminds me more of his best solo material. Meanwhile, the Lane-Stewart penned “Flags and Banners” features the former on vocals, and as I’m prepared to say again and again, I love Lane’s vocals. Vulnerable and warm, Lane is the perfect foil for Stewart’s brassier vocals, and they’re wonderful on this brief throwaway, which features some nice banjo, a great organ by McLagan, and Wood playing like I’ve never heard him play for the Stones. “Flags and Banners” boasts some mysterious lyrics—I couldn’t begin to tell you what they’re about—but the pain in them is self-evident.

Meanwhile, Ron Wood’s distorted guitar forms the foundation of “My Fault,” with McLagan once again throwing in on some great piano. Meanwhile Stewart sings about how he’s who he is and doesn’t want changing; he was born that way. He sings, “If I have to fall on my head every night of the week of the week/It’s gonna be my fault and nobody else.” His vocals are spot-on, as always; nobody, not even Mick Jagger or even Johnny Rotten, has done a better job of playing the gleeful and unrepentant rogue. “Borstal Boys” begins with a foghorn-like alarm bell and takes place in a juvenile detention center, and it moves like gangbusters, with Wood churning out some really raw guitar—and an excellent distorted solo—while McLagan does his thing on honky-tonk piano and Jones pummels the drums like a savage. And Rod is at his feral best, predicting a riot in the mess hall and singing the raucous chorus to the accompaniment of some fantastic cymbal crash. This is one heavy-duty rocker that still manages to boogie, and that’s something you didn’t hear enough of at that time and place.

“Fly in the Ointment” is a funky and loose instrumental with guest Neemoi “Speedy” Aquaye playing some cool percussion and Wood playing chunky chords and McLagan laying down the law on organ. I don’t think Wood has ever got his props as a guitarist, as the distortion on this runaway train proves. McLagan too is great, and the rhythm section is tight as they come, and my only problem with this jam is it’s too short. “If I’m on the Late Side” is that rarest of all things, a boring Faces tune. A shuffling ballad that features Rod on vocals and McLagan playing great keyboards, it lacks fire and the lyrics and melody are nothing to write home about. The Faces were masters of sly and smokin’ rockers and impossibly catchy and nostalgic slow tunes, and on this one they miss on both counts. If there’s one thing the Faces cannot be described as its nondescript, but they pull it off on this one, although it’s pretty enough and I’m certain there are oodles of people out there who disagree with me on this one.

On “Glad and Sorry,” on the other hand, the Faces shine. A simple and lovely ballad with a repetitive piano riff, it features Lane on vocals and will do just as advertised; make you happy and sad at the same time. Wood plays a wonderful guitar solo while Lane sings the moving words, “Can you show me a dream?/Can you show me one that’s better than mine?/Can you stand it in the cold light of day?/Well neither can I.” And all the way McLagan plays that heartbreaking piano riff, and I’ve been known to cry to this one, but don’t tell anyone. “Just Another Honky” is a Lane composition sung by Stewart, and like “If I’m on the Late Side” I find it nondescript, despite McLagan’s running piano and the jam between McLagan and Wood that takes the song out. The Faces were rarely short on personality—they possessed the uncanny ability to make you smile or cry, often at the same time—but “Just Another Honky” comes up short.

The title track is one marvelous invention—perhaps even the Faces’ finest hour, better than “Handbags and Gladrags” and “Bad’n’Ruin” and “You’re So Rude” and “Debris” and “Too Bad.” A banjo- and guitar-fueled ballad, it features a young man listening to—and ignoring—his old grandpap’s advice. To an irresistible melody that is centered on McLagan’s piano, the old man warns his grandson of the guiles of women, but his grandson treats him as an embittered old dotard, as the oldster provides some sage but predestined-to-be-ignored piece of advice: “I with that I knew what I know now/When I was younger/I wish that I knew what I know now/When I was stronger.” But the grandfather know his words are falling on deaf ears as he sings, “Poor young grandson/There’s nothing I can say/So you’ll have to learn just like me/And that’s the hardest way.” It’s a great song, wry and filled with wisdom, although the women of the world can say exactly the same thing about men.

The Faces could do it all, and their dissolution constitutes one of rock’s great tragedies—almost as great as the loss of Lynyrd Skynyrd. They Faces played it fast and loose, much to their audiences’ delight, and recorded enough fantastic studio tracks to fill one of rock’s greatest compilation LPs, the must-own The Best of Faces: Good Boys When They’re Asleep. If I had to choose the attribute that I like about them, it’s their constitutional high spirits. Very few, if any, bands have ever sounded like they’re having as much fun, and if you look up high-spirited boogie in the dictionary it’s a photo of the Faces you’ll see.

Rod Stewart’s early solo career produced some truly immortal songs, but the price was prohibitively steep; his success was the Faces’ downfall, and if I didn’t love “Maggie May” and “Every Picture Tells a Story” so much I might call the trade-off a fiasco. As it is, McLagan and Lane never lived up to their immense talents, while Wood disappeared into that largely over-the-hill juggernaut, The Rolling Stones. As for Stewart, everybody knows he became a shameless shill and purveyor of unmitigated dreck like “Hot Legs.” In short nobody won, whereas had the Faces stayed together who knows? I like to think they had plenty more great music in them, and that they’d have continued to play live shows that truly made you feel alive. But then that’ rock’n’roll; you don’t always get what you want, and sometimes you don’t get what you need either.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Larry S.

    Beautiful review, but Ronnie Lane DID live up to his immense talents – just listen to all three Slim Chance albums. “Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance” and “One For The Road” are as great and life affirming works as “Anymore For Anymore”.

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