When The Small Faces had to think about their second album for Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label, they did what all self-respecting British pop bands of the era liked to do: retreat for a while to mull things over. But where the likes of Traffic holed up in their Berkshire cottage, The Small Faces opted for a quintessentially Cockney option, a nice boat trip up the Thames. Under the influence of various mindbending stimulants, their antics had the local floating bourgeoisie spitting feathers, as it became obvious that their vessel was, if not physically, then at least temperamentally rudderless.
Somewhere along the way, they cooked up an idea for a concept album. Both The Pretty Things and The Who, their fellow-travellers on the road from R&B to psychedelia, were working on their own concept albums, the over-arching essential for the new popocracy. It was fine if you were an art-school pseudo-intellectual like Lennon or Townshend, but a bit of a tall order if you were a bunch of East End oiks who looked and acted as if you’d ligged your way into the Swinging ‘60s party through the bathroom window.
Still, even barrow-boys have dreams, and behind the rough, playful exterior, The Small Faces had actually become quite thoughtful lads, lapping up the new-age mysticism of Carlos Castaneda, and musing upon spiritual concerns like many another rowdy beat group brought to introspection via LSD. Thus they came up with the idea of psychedelic explorer Happiness Stan and his need to find out where the moon went when it waned. OK, so it’s not much of an idea, but it provided enough of a spine to carry one of the more engaging pop albums of the late ’60s. It was a work which bore many of the hallmarks of the heavier “rock” music just starting to appear, but without sacrificing any of the virtues of pop – the bright harmonies, singalong melodies and colourful arrangements.
Packaged in an infuriatingly fragile circular fold-out sleeve which pastiched an old Nut Brown tobacco tin, Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake exhibits a kinship not just with fellow hard-rocking music-hall storytellers like The Kinks and The Who, but with the Syd-era Pink Floyd too, occupying much the same territory of slightly sinister childhood whimsy. It would spend six weeks atop the UK album chart, though the success only served to increase the pressures that would see the band break up within a year of its release. This “Deluxe Edition” of the album is actually presented in a proper tin, though its three discs offer little beyond the original, comprising just a mono version, a stereo version, and the “Classic Albums” radio documentary about the album.
The title track which opens the album is an instrumental overture with phased drums in “Itchycoo Park” style and a woozy wah-wah keyboard part on which Steve Marriott operated the effects box whilst Ian McLagan played the electric piano. It provides a pleasing link with the band’s early career, being effectively a re-recorded version of “I’ve Got Mine”, the 1965 flop single. Here, it looms portentously, before “Afterglow” serves up the first of the album’s classic moments. It’s a curiously muscular love song, but one whose charming melody punches effortlessly through the sonic barrage. “Another one of those written for one of your girlfriends, some watery tart or another,” says Marriott dismissively in the documentary, but it’s nonetheless one of the finest moments of their entire career.
“Rene” is a tribute to another watery tart, in this case the Manor Park prostitute who gave Steve Marriott a hands-on introduction to the facts of life. It starts out as an exaggerated cock-er-nee music-hall knees-up that would bring a blush even to the cheeks of Great Escape-era Blur, but relaxes into a psychedelic blues jam for the extended instrumental coda.
“Song Of A Baker” sounds a bit like The Who doing “Wild Thing”, with a heavy guitar break over burring, Leslie’d organ and more of Kenny Jones’ avalanche drums, although Ronnie Lane explains in the documentary how the idea – essentially, “how hard you’ll work if you’re hungry” – came from a Sufi book he had read. In contrast, the opening lines to the ensuing “Lazy Sunday” were written by Steve Marriott on the toilet of his messy Chiswick flat, where his late-night rowdiness aroused the ire of his neighbours.
Now regarded as an all-time classic, this was another case where the band themselves were underwhelmed by their own magic. When Andrew Oldham released the track as a single whilst they were away touring Japan, they phoned home, furious, to protest. They didn’t want to be condemned to playing this corny fluff every night; they’d rather be playing things like “Song Of A Baker”, and “Rollin’ Over” from the second side’s “Happiness Stan” suite, heavier grooves which presaged both Marriott’s future direction with Humble Pie, and the others’ progress as The Faces.
Linked by Stanley Unwin’s semi-nonsensical narration, the suite is a brilliant summation of contemporary musical tropes, with tracks like “The Hungry Intruder”, “Mad John” and “Happiness Stan” itself draped in Mellotron, woodwind, harpsichord and strings, with “Rollin’ Over” and the MGs-style limber funk groove “The Journey” providing the more forceful moments. Naïvely charming, its fairytale whimsy is spiked with bathos in the concluding “Happy Days Toy Town”, another music-hall cakewalk which finds them opining that “life is just a bowl of All-Bran”.
Like The Beatles satirising the Maharishi as “Sexy Sadie”, The Small Faces may have been open to the influence of Eastern mysticism. But they were still, at heart, sharp-witted East End lads with a disinclination to take themselves, or life, too seriously.
By andy Gill