it took fifty fingers, a throat, and numerous girls and bars to reach this box!
“Is Mr. Peel there?,” my bravest voice intones at noon on a Friday in July.
“Who’s calling?,” a woman’s voice, presumably Mrs. Peel’s, cautiously asks.
Mr. Peel, in this case, refers to the John Peel, the legendary BBC deejay and stalwart scion of absolute musical cool. It has been months of frustrating dead-ends and scrambling for leads to get a hold of the man to ask him about his memories of one of the great, if largely unheralded, rock acts of the 1970s, the Faces. Longtime Faces fans will recall the time he faked the mandolin parts for “Maggie May” when he appeared with the band on Top of the Pops in 1971. His early and enthusiastic airing of the band’s recordings, and his hosting of a series of live transmissions, “made [the band] in England,” according to Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan. And now, at the threshold of victory, I realize I’ve awakened the man at the point of an afternoon nap. His familiar voice is a tad weary, and he says that as an “old geezer,” he needs his rest but that I can try again in an hour.
I give him an hour and a half, but my three attempts to get back in touch are unsuccessful. Later, as I go over about a half a year’s worth of research, telephone interview transcripts, and a pile of notes, a dread realization occurs to me that there isn’t really anything I could ask him that wouldn’t be a predictability wrapped in an ad nauseam. To those that helped me in the matter, I guess I blew it. (You know where to send the hate mail.) But who needs my queries when Peel’s own commentary from the British edition of Reader’s Digest captures a memorable moment of enthusiasm for anyone who ever fell under the sway of the Faces’ boozy ballsy bonhomie: “The best-ever gig was with the Faces in Sunderland in 1973, the night Sunderland beat Arsenal in the semi-final of the FA Cup before going on to win it. I danced on stage—and I don’t dance.”
“You Can Make Me Dance, Sing, or Anything,” goes the title of a late-period Faces favorite. With the release of the Faces box set, Five Guys Walk Into a Bar on Rhino, there will be plenty of time for that, as well as a good deal of reflection and fond remembrance. The result of years of patient waiting, and culled from the group’s standards, live BBC sessions, alternate tracks, and demos, the set consolidates and confirms the importance of the Faces to the history of rock. The initial press enthusiasm for the four-CD set has been strong, although it is possible to run across a hangnail sketch like the following from Tracks: “Always a kind of junior-varsity Stones, the Faces were probably more fun to drink with…” Sheesh! The Rolling Stones weren’t looking for junior-varsity talent when Faces guitarist Ron Wood signed on to fill the position of departing guitarist Mick Taylor in 1975, and to party with the Faces was no mere weekend pub crawl. As Sir Elton John recalled in a Rod Stewart bio from VH1 in 2001 (and I paraphrase), when you went out with the Faces for the night, you strapped yourself in. You were in for a bumpy ride.
The Faces provided the model for a generation of combos who wanted to make their work extended play. The band was, need it be said, the greatest quintet in the history of the rock ‘n’ roll liver. Other than their shameless trajectory through the sexual revolution’s launch window for all things femme and pendulous, it was their solidarity as brothers of the malt and grape that cemented their rowdy and good natured years together. Certainly a great deal of herb, pills, and miles of Peruvian flake made the band’s acquaintance, but it was demon alcohol, and legendary bodies of it, that become the group’s signature vice and modus operandi. Whiskey rivers, brandy lakes, ale falls, vodka rapids, Mateus flash floods. No airport lounge, first-class cabin, hotel minibar, record company schmooze-and-boozer, rehearsal hall, sound check, and, most assuredly, no stage the band ever trod leather and rubber upon was complete without liquid refreshment.
Before the festivities could begin, however, a few early missteps met those five young Englishmen when they cast their collective fortunes together that summer in 1969. Cohered from two of Britain’s finest rock franchises, the Faces were no apprentice undertaking. Though the Jeff Beck Group’s explosively heavy blues charge would effectively create the standard Led Zeppelin would initially (and mildly) mimic, vocal maestro Rod Stewart and then-bassist Ron Wood somehow knew their days in that band were numbered as they chafed under ex-Yardbird, and guitar hero, Beck’s stern employ. Meanwhile, keyboardist Ian McLagan, bassist Ronnie Lane, and drummer Kenney Jones of the Small Faces were left in temporary limbo when their charismatic guitarist and front man, Steve Marriott, scooped up a young Peter Frampton and began his march into superstardom with Humble Pie. It had been a fine three-year run of chart successes in England for the Small Faces, who built a reputation on smart mod chops and sweet sinse-psych, but now the future seemed uncertain.
When Ron Wood began to jam informally with Ronnie Lane, the call for Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones to figure into the proceedings was a natural. Rod Stewart, meanwhile, was content to observe from the sidelines. Despite the group’s reticence to bring in another “difficult” front personality in the Marriott mode, when his voice was finally added to the mix, this new musical reality couldn’t be denied. Owing to Stewart's and Wood’s height advantage over the others, a new name was in order. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Faces! The group was able to quickly ink recording and publishing deals with Warner Brothers. Stewart, meanwhile, had committed himself as a solo artist with Mercury Records, a reality that would make him a superstar and eventually place him in conflict with his duties to the Faces.
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