Remembering the rise and fall of Marriott and his stellar band

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The Small Faces, says Kenney Jones, are “the band that refuses to die”; four London urchins with a gregarious spirit that still resonates. Here, Uncut tells their story and that of their complex, gifted frontman, Steve Marriott. From The Small Faces to Humble Pie, to his strange last days on the pub circuit, what was it that drove Marriott to self-destruct? “He was the most talented person I’ve ever known,” recalls his Humble Pie bandmate, Peter Frampton, “but there was something in his psyche. Some huge problem…”

Originally published in Uncut’s July 2011 issue (Take 170)

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“Nice”: that was their favourite word. And it’s true – musically, sartorially, psychedelically, The Small Faces were nice. But by the 1980s, they were a distant memory. Their singer Steve Marriott – the erstwhile Artful Dodger, now more of an Arthur Daley – could usually be found in London boozers, playing gigs for cash, ducking and diving. While old rivals like Rod Stewart lived penthouse lifestyles, Marriott’s elevator was stuck in the basement. The once immaculate Ace Face performed onstage in dungarees.

Then, in 1991, came a chance to turn his life around. He was invited to LA to make an LP with Peter Frampton, his former Humble Pie bandmate. This unexpected reunion – it was the first time they’d recorded together since ’71 – was the 44-year-old Marriott’s chance to rejoin the major league. He stood to earn a small fortune in recording and publishing advances. It was an open goal; he couldn’t miss. Frampton was thrilled to help. “I was back with my idol,” he says. “It was my second chance to work with the greatest British singer of all time.” But Frampton, who’d heard stories about Marriott’s decline, laid down some rules. No alcohol in the studio. No going AWOL. Above all, no cocaine. Marriott agreed. Within days, he broke his promise. He was drunk, snorting coke, belligerent, demonic. Frampton stopped the sessions and sent Marriott back to England. He’d missed his open goal.

Flying home from LA, Marriott arrived jet-lagged at his cottage in Arkesden, Essex, in the early hours of April 20. A passing motorist, seeing flames and smoke billowing from the property at 6.30am, called the fire brigade. Marriott’s body was recovered from an upstairs bedroom. The inquest’s verdict was accidental death by smoke inhalation: he had probably fallen asleep with a cigarette burning. His funeral was held on April 30, on a rainy, stormy day in Harlow, while a posse of scooter boys stood guard outside.

Marriott left many unanswered questions, some merely intriguing, some downright chilling. What impulses drove him? Why did he sabotage a lucrative comeback? Had his downward spiral been deliberately engineered? “He was the most talented  person I’ve ever known,” Frampton says sadly, “but there was something in his psyche. Some huge problem.”

The clubhouse at Hurtwood Park, Kenney Jones’ polo club, combines splendidly medieval roof beams with a long bar and dining area, as though a Tudor banqueting hall had been carefully lowered into the Surrey countryside. It’s a stirring scene, but not for the riff-raff. Prince Charles plays polo here, and full membership costs £2,675 per annum. Jones’ passion for horses was born one day in ’65, when Marriott cut short a Small Faces rehearsal in an East End pub, suggesting they take advantage of fine weather by going riding in Epping Forest. Ten years later, while drummer of The Faces, Jones was competing in show-jumping events at Olympia.

Jones is a relaxed host (it’s Mexican Night at Hurtwood; I’m served complimentary chili), but he has a steely side. For more than a decade he’s been “personally crusading” to claw back monies owed to The Small Faces since the ’60s, when they were managed by the notorious Don Arden (1965–’66) and then signed to Andrew Loog Oldham’s label Immediate (1967–’68). “We were totally ripped off,” says Jones matter-of-factly. At one meeting some years ago, a representative of a company that had acquired the rights to the band’s catalogue asked Jones if there was anything he wanted. “Yes,” Jones replied, “give us back our music and give us our fucking money.” A large payout was eventually forthcoming in the late ’90s. Unfortunately it came too late for Marriott.

Ian ‘Mac’ McLagan (keyboards), the other surviving member of the classic lineup, lives in Austin, Texas, where he leads his own outfit, The Bump Band. Like Jones, McLagan has been a consultant on the long-awaited Small Faces boxset, which Universal Music (where their catalogue currently resides) hopes to release this year. It will contain long-lost recordings, alternate takes, studio banter – what Jones calls “pieces of the jigsaw” – as well as the timeless hits (“All Or Nothing”, “Itchycoo Park”, “Tin Soldier”) written by Marriott and Ronnie Lane, the band’s sensitive, spiritual bassist, who died in 1997. “It’s nice that Ronnie’s and Steve’s legacy continues,” approves McLagan. “It’s right that people should still be raving about them.” Jones smiles: “We’re the band that refuses to die. I see Steve and Ronnie almost every day. People are always sending me clips on YouTube, or showing me photographs I’ve forgotten about.”

John Hellier, publisher of the Small Faces fanzine Darlings Of Wapping Wharf Launderette, is struck by how far their fame travels. “In some respects they’re bigger now than they were in 1966,” he estimates. “I’ve been doing Small Faces conventions in London for the last 15 years, and we have people from America, Australia, South Africa. We see kids of 16 who look just like Steve Marriott. They idolise him. To them, he was the original Modfather.”

McLagan accepts the compliment, but stresses there was more to The Small Faces than clothes and style. “We were musicians, and we changed our music a few times. When I joined (in November 1965), it was a Mod band, a very live band. I hate to use the word ‘jams’, because of connotations with The Grateful Dead, but we were like a soul band that would jam onstage and Steve would go into these raps – throwing in James Brown lines, Ray Charles lines. Steve would be flying. We all would.”

Billy Nicholls, a songwriter and Immediate labelmate in the ’60s, has a different take on why The Small Faces are historically important. To Nicholls, it all comes down to the concept album, Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, a No 1 smash in 1968, memorable for its ‘tobacco tin’ sleeve and its amusing story, narrated by comedian Stanley Unwin, about Happiness Stan’s search for the missing half of the moon. “Ogdens’… was the peak of their innovation,” Nicholls contends. “I remember Pete Townshend coming over to listen to it, when he was halfway through writing Tommy, and being absolutely blown away.”

Those were the days when the world lay at Marriott’s feet. When success was a gratifying thought.

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