Graded on a Curve:
Small Faces,
From the Beginning

Sound reads from the archives, all summer long.Ed.

The Small Faces stand as one of the very finest groups of the 1960s, though many know them mainly for Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, their most ambitious and final album before Steve Marriott’s departure effectively ended their diminutive phase. The scoop is that all of the Small Faces’ ‘60s records are worthy of ownership, even the mercantile odds-and-ends collection From the Beginning. That disc and its self-titled predecessor are currently available as 180gm replica LPs. Are they cut to lacquer from the original quarter-inch production masters with front-laminated sleeves? Why yes indeed.

One gauge of the true greats is that the music manages to get better, or at least maintains a high standard of quality, as the discs take their place in the racks. So it is with the Small Faces. With this said the Decca period offers distinct and enduring appeal; more so than The Who, the Small Faces circa-’65-’66 are the true ambassadors of Mod. Utterly Brit in orientation, it wasn’t until the fourth LP that the group entered the US market.

The Small Faces consisted of Steve Marriott on vocals, guitar and harmonica, Ronnie Lane on bass, Kenney Jones on drums and percussion, and initially Jimmy Winston on keyboards. Upon signing to Decca through the efforts of manager Don Arden, they released two singles in ’65. The first “What’cha Gonna Do about It” charted, hitting #14, while the second “I’ve Got Mine” didn’t. Shortly thereafter, Winston was replaced by Ian McLagan, the new keyboardist assisting 3rd 45 “Sha-La-La-La-Lee” in reaching the #3 spot. A full-length followed a few months later.

Sporting the brass to open with “Shake” in Sam Cooke’s tempo, ’66’s Small Faces starts out strong and never really falters, which is impressive for a debut comprised roughly equally, as was the norm of the time, of originals and borrowed/cover material. Neither tentative nor betraying instrumental greenness, the Small Faces were also unburdened by conflict over what they wanted to be.

The objective was Modish soul/R&B with range. Small Faces’ “Own up Time” is blazing instrumental strut, while the Willie Dixon swipe “You Need Loving” serves as the partial guide for Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love,” as “E Too D” combines sweltering pulse with abundant guitar din. Alongside the lack of missteps there’s no tangible qualitative dip between covers and originals.

Predictable label frustrations and difficulties with Arden in particular resulted in a short stay at Decca, a quick exit helping to trigger a potentially confusing series of records; they signed with Immediate, and the decision to release their debut for the label (run by Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham) under the title Small Faces was certainly questionable. Compounding the problem was the arrival of the rush-release From the Beginning.

It’s testament to the Small Faces’ achievement that Decca’s blatant attempt to cash in on a lost property transcends the stench of money-grab, equaling and in some ways surpassing the first LP, in part due to the generosity and increased breadth of 14 tracks. It does bear mentioning that a pair are retreads from Decca’s Small Faces as two others appear in different versions on the inaugural platter for Immediate.

A rather unusual stream of operatic voice opens From the Beginning, the maneuver a prelude to a splendid version of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” In retaining the original’s structure the Faces basically insure they won’t better the source, but neither do they settle for rote regurgitation, offering variance as Marriott trades verses with the group, Jones gives his hand drums a workout and McLagan delivers a tidy keyboard solo.

Part of the band’s friction with Arden relates to the speedy issue of “My Mind’s Eye” as a single after “All or Nothing” rose to the #1 spot. It finds the Faces dabbling in nascent psychedelia, though more in terms of lyrics as the songwriting derives from Handel. Rich in harmonies, the execution is confident, and it’s a vibrant and concise hunk of UK Beat-rock in transition.

More forthrightly psych is “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” which unfurls pleasantly enough due in large part to overall restraint, i.e. the tune’s short and avoids succumbing to any faux-druggy daffiness. Clearly influenced by Revolver-era Beatles, the judicious application of psych elements extends into the folkish harmonies of “That Man.”

Some might expect these excursions to inspire friction with the Mod R&B of “My Way of Giving,” but no; the Faces weren’t bailing on their roots (a version of this number is on Immediate’s Small Faces) combining Marriott’s testifying and Jones’ huge beat as the backing vocals (briefly Motown-ish on the verses) are a treat. It’s followed by “Hey Girl,” a nifty belter residing closer to garage territory than most of the Faces’ Soul/R&B transfers.

The chiming chords and drum thunder of “Tell Me Have You Ever Seen Me” comes on like early Who but wastes no time in unveiling a quirkily rewarding lead-backing vocal arrangement. Essentially a demo of a track soon found on their Immediate LP, it contrasts well with the sturdiness of side two’s opening Don Covay grab.

Co-written by Covay and Ron Miller, “Come Back and Take This Hurt off Me” is meat and potatoes stuff, but it lends a smooth setup for album and career highlight “All or Nothing.” A superb piece of Soul transference finding Marriott at his very best on the mic, it’s additionally a showcase for his guitar playing as the group provides a clinic in proper rock dynamics; McLagan’s organ is always tasteful, Lane’s bass is forceful but supple, and Jones beats the skins like a giant.

“Baby Don’t You Do It” was penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland and featured on Marvin Gaye’s 6th LP, but the Faces turn it into a slightly Diddley-ish garage whomper leading very nicely into “Plum Nellie,” wherein Booker T. & the M.G.’s are given the Link Wray treatment. Much different are the upbeat environs of the Mort Shuman and Kenny Lynch composition “Sha-La-La-La Lee,” the first of the selections appropriated from the debut. McLagan fits right in on the band’s most unabashedly pop moment.

Unlike “Runaway,” a reading of Smokey Robinson’s chestnut “You Really Got a Hold on Me” takes some liberties, mingling in urgency soaked up from none other than Mr. Dynamite; it segues with panache into the Solomon Burke-lift “What’cha Gonna do About It.” The second retrieval from Decca’s Small Faces, it overrides the repetition by closing From the Beginning with a fine example of the outfit’s classy core.

The Small Faces continued to improve, and in vinyl terms their entire ’60s output is essential. That includes Immediate’s own cash in, the posthumous 2LP The Autumn Stone and even the partially redundant reshuffling for the US market There Are but Four Small Faces; together with seven repeats that slab adds the crucial singles “Tin Soldier,” “Itchycoo Park,” “Here Comes the Nice,” and more.

Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake is rated as a masterpiece of Brit psychedelia and is a consensus pick for the shortlist of mandatory rock albums, and I’m not going to argue. Beacons of consistency, the Small Faces were never defeated by trends; really, they were just an excellent band, and so it was From the Beginning.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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