Monday, December 19, 2011

The Faces: "We Had 3 Chords And We Used All Of Them"

Written 2003. First published in "Cozmik Debris", 2004.




I decided to make a compilation of the Faces for the usual reason: an anally retentive desire to put all my favourite tracks in one place. But even as I struggled over track listing, running order etc. I realised the essential futility of the exercise. Compilation or no, I would never stop listening to the original albums all the way through – duff tracks, fillers and all. Why? Because I truly love the Faces, and critical judgement is always made redundant by true love (thank God). I persevered though, because it beats working, and a lot of my old vinyl is getting a bit knackered, and it would be nice to lay copies on my friends – some of whom still need to understand the truth of the beauty of the Faces’ slim legacy. 
OK. The kind of official line in the rock’n’roll history books is that the Faces were great live but made mostly lousy records and that the solo albums Rod Stewart was making at the same time were much better. Hmmm… I don’t think I’m insensitive to nuance, let alone fine musicianship and good songwriting, so how come I’ve always loved them all as a glorious whole? When I was a kid, “Long Player” would go on after “Every Picture Tells A Story” and it would move me just as much. But it’s true: Rod’s albums were as finely crafted as the Faces albums were thrown together. That was part of the Faces appeal: they weren’t struggling to complete a work of art, they were having themselves a fine old time and they wanted to share it with us. A worthy motive. And more often than not, they succeeded in getting it across.
But there was more to them than just partying. The overwhelming fact that I want to emphasize is how great and truly under-rated a songwriter was Ronnie Lane. His songs for the Faces – whether sung by him or by Stewart – are like virtually nothing else in the history of British music. Yes, he’s in the tradition of the other great London songwriters of the period - Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, and David Bowie – but he has none of the slyness of Davies or the toughness of Townshend, and he is the very antithesis of Bowie’s self-conscious artiness. Rather, his songs combine vulnerability and directness in a way that is as completely real and human as conversation between friends. It’s truthfulness, and he manages to express very strong emotions like love and nostalgia and regret without ever once becoming sentimental or sloppy. That’s a hard trick to turn. He also has a wonderful sense of humour and childlike wonder. I remember the first time I really listened to “Stone” from the first album; I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a traditional folk song for kids. I still think it’s his masterpiece in many ways, but then “Tell Everyone” has got to be among the most beautiful love songs I know. Who else has written a song about being glad to wake up with your partner because you love them – without descending into slop? Ronnie Lane makes it real because, presumably, it was. And then there’s that line in “Debris”:
“Oh, you was my hero, now you are my good friend”
– Where does THAT come from? All I know is it puts a lump in my throat every time.
Poor old Ronnie Lane, dying of multiple sclerosis like that. He wasn’t strong enough. Certainly it’s true that the Faces were never the same after he left – although Tetsu Yamauchi, faced with the impossible task of replacing him, did as good a job as anybody could have reasonably expected.  Rod Stewart was strong enough to go on to become a huge international megastar (and bore most of his old fans into stupefaction). Ron Wood was strong enough to join the Rolling Stones but allowed his individuality as a musician to be completely sublimated in the process. So he got rich. Big deal. He never made music with the Stones like he did with the Faces. The Stones just gobbled him up, the way they do, and there he remains to this day. Kenny Jones wasn’t strong enough to replace Keith Moon in the Who but that didn’t stop him from trying. More’s the pity. The less said about that the better. I don’t know what happened to Ian McLagan but it’s a safe bet that he hasn’t done anything to top his work with the Faces. 
See, the Faces weren’t like the Stones, or the Who. Like them, they were a London band – the quintessential London band of their time – but they weren’t about ruthlessness, brutishness, power, psychotic rage. They were about fun, and camaraderie, and the joys of being a bit young and foolish, a bit reckless. They were about friendship and the healing power of good rock’n’roll. They were about dressing up and staying out late, falling in love and bringing your bird to meet your mates, hoping they’ll get on (but not TOO well). They were about drinking a bit too much and playing a few good old ones, writing a few new good old ones. Telling terrible jokes, putting up with each other’s moodies, shouting a bit, arguing, making up, laughing, being as real as it’s possible to be if you’re a young street-smart working-class London male who plays music for a living in the early 1970s.
And that’s why the Faces mattered, and why nothing like them could ever happen again. They were completely a product of their time, and looking back now - in this suspicious modern landscape of endless second-guessing - the best of their music reaches out and wraps the listener in a warm blanket of good-natured humanity. Like a good friend’s arm round your shoulders when you’re feeling a bit down. And it doesn’t matter that Rod Stewart turned out to be such a disappointment, that Ron Wood became such a cartoon. It matters that Ronnie Lane died, because he was the most talented one, and he was never recognised as such. But that’s the harshness of life and death: he was just too unassuming – as his best work attests – to ever push himself forward; and then nature marked his card so cruelly. No, what matters is that the Faces did exist once; the conditions for their existence were possible once, and the best of the music they made together will stand, for as long as people listen, as actual proof that it once was possible for rock’n’roll to express something other than careerism and calculation, it was possible for it to express humanity and community, truthfulness and friendship - things that make it worthwhile being alive.  And that’ll have to do.


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