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Ronnie Lane
"You Can't Keep A Small Face Down"
by Paul Ashford

(reprinted from International Musician and Recording World magazine, April 1980)

Kushty Rye" in fact says it all, as well as being a fine song from Ronnie Lane's first album in several years. In the Traveler’s language, it means 'good gentleman', one not of their blood but who is, nevertheless, all right. In the music business, you hear much the same kind of thing said of Ronnie Lane. Not that he ranks at the top of the hierarchy for his bass or guitar technique, but that he's great to work with. He's inspired and created some of what was best and most wholesome in rock, both alone and with The Faces. Finally, he's one of the most straightforward and unaffected musicians around.

Today, he's wearing a whimsical smile on his face and a badge reading "Rock Against Journalism" on his lapel. He says he's surprised that this meeting was arranged. "I don't consider myself a very good musician funnily enough.  When I heard you were coming, I said: "What does he want to talk to me for? I only know three chords!"

Yet nobody can deny he's got a lot of mileage out of those chords.

"Musical roots? Well, I suppose the stuff me Dad used to listen to. What I heard when I was a kid: Fats Domino, Fats Waller and so on. I was about 13 when I started playing. It was basically just rock & roll, we didn't have very good taste in those days, just a bunch of kids messing around with guitars. It ended up more and more rock & roll, though we did have leanings towards blues and soul. But when I was a kid, I just wanted to be a star.

"I started off as a guitarist. I learned to play the guitar first, but there wasn't anybody down the East End of London at that time, not that was any good, who wanted to play the bass. Everyone wanted to play lead guitar, drums, or be the singer. So I decided I'd play the bass, after being influenced by Booker T and the MG's,  that kind of simple and very positive stuff. So, I took up the bass and that influence stayed. I've always liked Booker T.  They're probably my biggest influence."

Booker T and MG's had roots, being a very useful bunch of session musicians on the R&B scene. What Ronnie borrows is not so much the style as the approach:  A reliable and interesting backing rather than instrumental pyrotechnics. The music fits into the song or the act, rather than the song existing as a vehicle for displays of virtuosity.

"I don't think of myself as a musician, or even a songwriter, really. I think of myself as a showman. I never practiced to become a virtuoso.  It's not often you get someone who's a brilliant musician and a good showman, too. They're usually one of the other.  Well, I'm the other."

Hence the avoidance of labels and musical pigeonholes. Slim Chance:  folk rock?  "Well, they were just a good-time band.  All the bands I'll ever have will be a good time.  I'm an entertainer.  I'm not really interested in hammering people with how clever it is or examining the 'Intricacies Of Life Itself.'  He imitates the pompous tones in which one might discuss those intricacies. He's a fair mimic.

"I'm just here to entertain and let people forget for an hour or so."

Going back over his career, he often talks from the point of view of the showman, looking at the Faces, for example, in terms of their stage act. They started off very lively.

"What happened on stage was never planned. It was very spontaneous in the beginning. Then it got a bit routine."

Inevitably?

"There was a lot of money around and people weren't so hungry. It happens to every band in the end; like some of these new wave ones. They come out saying we won't do this, and you won't catch us doing that, but they'll do it."

He doesn't say this cynically, just with a confidence born of understanding how the music industry works. Ronnie has more claim to being an idealist than most. Witness (the ironically named) Passing Show, the tent show he set up "mainly just to break new ground" when he left the Faces.

I wondered how it worked?

He grins. "I'll tell you a bit about how it didn't work, and maybe a bit about how it was supposed to work.

"In England, there's not many places to play. You can more or less play England in about fourteen days, unless you do universities, but universities ain't always the best crowd to play to.  I thought it would be a good idea to put a show on in a big top, where you built the stage yourself and the sound was always constant. You could also take it and put it up wherever you wanted to. Well, I thought it was a brilliant idea." 

it was an elaborate show?

"Naw, it was just a party, really. But it encountered so many problems. We never got a chance to really get the show how it should be or even begin to get where it could have gone."

He sounds more wistful than disillusioned, talking about it today. As a musician, as an entertainer, he still believes in the potential.

"I'd like to try it again because it's a good idea. It's a hell of a gamble to take. I'd certainly go about it in a completely different way. There's so many different things you have to take into account. The costs of crew and transport, buying and repairing the tent, fire precautions and toilets, and so on. When you start, all you've got is the tip of the iceberg.  And advertising:  That was somewhere where I went wrong. I might try it again one day.  If anyone knows how to do it best in this business it's me. I'm the only one who's ever tried. A lot of people have talked about it but no-one's ever put their money where their mouth is." 

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Since leaving the Faces, Ronnie Lane has been associated with a number of projects. He's formed Slim Chance and The Passing Show, and has also run a mobile studio built  "to try out some of my own ideas without spending a fortune on studio time." It was one of the first mobiles, but Ronnie did not bother to continually update the equipment. "Now, it's not in competition with anybody. Besides, I've just sold it to the Who."  

He's tried producing, too. He mentions some protégés of his, an African band called Akido. It "wasn't very good because I couldn't keep the fellas together. The playing was great at rehearsal, but the following Thursday I was sitting in the studio waiting. In walks the leader with a totally different bunch of fellas who started rehearsing a whole lot of new numbers. I couldn't cope with that. I always thought that I was laid back, but they have a totally different culture."

Finally, Ronnie has fulfilled a longstanding dream by spending two years in retirement, at least semi- retirement, as a farmer. It's not been unproductive. Ronnie felt the time was right for a test, or rather a rest from the music industry.

"I'd always wanted to do it, and now I've done it for two years and it's been good. The punk thing was happening with the record companies dragging kids in off the streets. What I did was get out while that was happening, lie low for a couple of years until all the dust settled, and then decide to make a comeback. And here I am!"

Here, too, is a fine an album that should be ready for spring release.

"The album… we're still arguing about the title… has been made over the last two years. It's varied, a bit of this and a bit of the other. Nobody really produced it. Sometimes I'd go into the other room and put my producer's hat on for a while, but mostly it produced itself. I'll probably give the tapes to a professional producer to finish off. The lads used to just come up for a weekend. If I had any songs, we'd do some recording. The studio was actually a barn. We had to edit out the farmyard sounds. Record companies don't like them. "

The policy in making the album, and in forming the present band, was to get away from the limitations (entertainment-wise) of conventional rock.

"If you listen to someone like the Police or even Dire Straits, after a while they're very good, they have a nice, clean style of playing. After you've listened to it for a time, it all begins to sound the same. There's a limit to what you can do when you have just guitars, bass and drums."

In Ronnie's estimation, the answer to that limitation is not found in using synthesizers or effects. He considers it very unlikely that he will be seen on stage in the company of a synthesizer or anything greatly resembling one.

"What I think you have to do is bring in plenty of instruments, plenty of different instruments. I like to work with people who play several instruments each, so you can always do something more, always find something different."

Much of Lane's music revolves around unique rock & roll instruments like the unorthodox accordion.

"The accordion is a very volatile instrument. The accordion is versatile. I listen to Cajun music a lot and they use accordion to play rock & roll. I was influenced by them, although we were doing it before we heard them. We developed the same thing independently. We'll use that on the album, and mandolin and violin… that soft of thing. Have you ever heard violin and saxophone played in a section together? It's great! I have one or two ideas like that."

In a way he's discovering folk-rock from the rock end instead of from the folk end-  a point that is made with due deference to the fact that Ronnie himself would probably reject all these categorizations. Nonetheless, the album promises to be interesting.

Given present fashions, you might expect Ronnie Lane to mould his musical activities to fit in with the mod revival. But if his past fits such a role, his general attitudes do not. It is apparent that the new modism plays little part in his life.

"To begin with," he states, "I suppose I never was really a mod. Until the Small Faces really got going, I couldn't afford to be. Who can afford to buy a new suit every ten weeks because the fashions change? I was paying for a guitar at the time. We used to follow those fashions, within our means."

With the modern movement paying tribute to grass roots institutions like the Faces, one wonders if a band with such special characteristics will materialize.

"I don't think so, because they're going back to what we were doing.  They copy us. If they really wanted to do it properly they'd have to go back and copy the people we were copying: Fats Waller and so on. You see what I mean? The strain has got weaker."

His prognosis for the future is not a great deal better than his assessment of mod musical chances.  He sees a situation where ideas are being replaced by technology. He does not see the emergence of more bands along similar lines to his own. He would like to, but thinks the trends are against it. Meanwhile, the new Ronnie Lane Band is getting ready for the stage. And Ronnie Lane couldn't be happier.

Paul Ashford

 


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