The stories, of course, are pretty familiar by now. In 1974, tensions within the Faces were, as they say, running high, Rod Stewart’s increasing solo success causing much friction apparently. The situation doubtless exacerbated by the band’s predilection for “relentless, boozy madness”, as Ronnie Wood described it in UNCUT last year.
Anyway, so what does Ronnie do? He gathers together some of his famous pals, records his own album and goes out on tour as The First Barbarians.
I wondered last night, watching the concert film The First Barbarians: Live At Kilburn, recorded in London in 1974, how much of a good-natured two-fingers up to Rod’s own solo career the whole endeavour is.
Here he is, signing up Faces keyboard player Ian MacLagan and two of the finest sessions musicians of their era, Willie Weeks and Andy Newark. Foreshadowing his post-Faces’ career, he even manages to lure Keith Richards away from the Stones.
“In ’74, he [Keith] came back from the Speakeasy to get away from people,” Ronnie told UNCUT. “He met my ex-wife and she said: ‘Ronnie’s making his first album in Richmond. Let’s go back.’ Four months later, he was still there.”
It is, however, very much Ronnie’s show. Keith, for instance, seems happy to hang by Newark’s drum kit for much of the time, coming forward to sing harmonies or chipping in with the odd bit of keyboard, letting Ronnie handle the vocals and guitar solos during the lengthy, but spirited, jams that each song pretty much ends up becoming.
In fact, Rod does appear, to lend backing vocals to three numbers. He is, quite possibly, pissed, or at least not taking it entirely seriously, at one point sitting on the drum rise, apparently forgetting to come forward to the mic to sing his part, and when he does remember he’s conspicuously holding up a lyric sheet to sing from.
What with him, Ronnie and Keith lined-up at the mic, the film presents a pretty funny snapshot of the sartorial efforts of the time. Never have so many feathercuts been gathered together on one stage, waistcoats a plenty, Ronnie’s Ossie Clarke jacket bedecked with what look like crow’s feathers, Rod’s pink jacket a shocking fashion crime in any decade.
And how does Ronnie sound as a vocalist? Not too bad, in the way you’d imagine guitarists stepping up to the mic would do. I wouldn’t say whether he could sing a Puccini aria, of course, but he can belt ‘em out good.
What, I guess, is most interesting is the dynamic between the band. You can see tantalising glimpses of how Ronnie and Keith’s playing will eventually develop over the next 30-odd years. But, really, it’s the phenomenal interplay between Weeks and Newark that drives the music here.
Weeks, for the record, is a pretty legendary session bassist whose credits include tours and albums with Eric Clapton, Steve Wonder and Bowie (he played bass on “Fame”); Newark, meanwhile, was on loan to Ronnie from Sly & The Family Stone. Certainly, compared to the kind of rhythm sections Ronnie and Keith were used to, Weeks and Newark are coming from a completely different place. These guys are extraordinary players, kicking out a ferocious soul/funk/rock hybrid, their intro to the closing “Crotch Music” extraordinarily tight and funky.
You do wonder, of course, just how wise it is for rock stars with a lot of time and money on their hands, and presumably access to a large amount of illegal pharmaceutics, to embark on this kind of solo project. Certainly, it’s not quite the stuff of rock’n’roll legend. But it was actually indearing endearing, clearly a lot of fun for all involved.
And, conspicuously, it offered a fascinating glimpse of what was to come.
Within a year of the Barbarians gig, on June 1, 1975, at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, on his 28th birthday, Ronnie walked on stage again with Keith. This time, as a member of the Rolling Stones.
Life, you’d suspect, doesn’t get a lot better than that.
The First Barbarians: Live From Kilburn is available as a CD/DVD now. Ronnie’s website is www.ronniewood.com