First Step, and the group’s follow up in early 1971, Long Player, would be tentative and entertaining predecessors to the group’s next and most important release, A Nod Is as Good as a Wink…to a Blind Horse. Released in November 1971, and riding the explosive parallel shockwave of Rod Stewart’s solo chart-topper “Maggie May” (appearing on the box set as a riotously loose BBC performance), the Faces delivered some of their most seminal work.
The album’s arrival stateside coincided with two equally important exemplars of contemporary British rock, specifically Led Zeppelin’s perennially enduring “Runes” collection (perhaps best known as Led Zeppelin IV), and the Kinks’ overlooked, but stunning, Muswell Hillbillies song cycle. Like the former release, Nod was commercial goods from a road-seasoned act ready to push the product on a global scale. Like Muswell Hillbillies, the Faces’ record could give a salty and spirited tip of the tam-o’-shanter to the working class lad’s lot of social immobility and the wreck(on)ing ball’s sweep of renewal. To the latter image, it is interesting to note Zep IV’s gatefold display of a crumbling tenement wall shares Muswell’s “Here Come the People in Grey”’s timely commentary on social displacement in early-‘70s London. While the accompanying gentrification may have, as Stephen Inwood reported in A History of London, “sav[ed] some parts of London from demolition at a time when borough councils were driven by an almost unstoppable urge to knock down and redevelop perfectly decent working-class neighbourhoods,” the Faces were not to be outdone in the social relevancy department. “Unfortunately,” noted Nod's accompanying liner notes, “some of our beloved…buildings like billiard halls, pubs, employment exchanges, and such other places that tell a story and are part of our heritage, are in the wake of a bulldozer…” The astonishingly poignant and elegiac “Love Lives Here” boasts a tale of “all the vows that we made gone for old rags and lumber/disappear[ing] on a cart down the road,” rendered in a beautiful vocal from Stewart almost on par with his equally stirring interpretation of “Handbags and Gladrags” from his first solo record, The Rod Stewart Album.
Nod gave guitarist Ron Wood’s eccentric chug-and-drive its full expression on tracks like “Miss Judy’s Farm, and, “Too Bad.” Always a respected player among his contemporaries, Wood could easily handle artful accentuation, but never employed it where rude riffage would suffice. Ronnie Lane, always one of rock’s great bass playing talents, demonstrates a remarkably understated vocabulary. While not as out-front in execution as his days with the Small Faces (see, in particular, his fluid lower pulse on the SF late-period psychedelic treasure Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake), Lane is content to hem in the bottom end in arrangements whose raucous acceleration might otherwise derail before the first chorus. He also provides fine, earthy vocal accompaniment throughout, especially on his sensitive, autobiographical portrait, “Debris.” Kenney Jones makes a modest drum set sound like overgrown child’s play, a massively exuberant beat surrender which generations of youthful kit bashers have yet to produce even a reasonable facsimile. Ian McLagan, then already a pianist and organist comfortable in boogie-woogie traditionalism as swampy R&B funk, achieves some of his greatest and lasting contributions to the Faces recorded output. Rod Stewart, meanwhile, seems to be moonlighting from his then-burgeoning solo career. This isn’t noted as a criticism, per se. Rather, Stewart’s signature grit and lyrical vocal capacity are undertaken with admirable spirit, but have only a portion of the substance and emotive flair that are most evident in his folksy, “roots”- mannered material--notably the brilliant 1970 release, Gasoline Alley.
Occasionally faulted for a falsely perceived misogyny, the Faces instead recognize their female subjects as consenting, even overwhelming, players in a man’s unstable hold on his surroundings. In “Miss Judy’s Farm,” the male protagonist is thwarted by a domineering woman’s presence and left to lick his wounds and make excuses. “Stay With Me,” the band’s signature live concert staple, and a US top 20 single, is merely a factual page in a touring band’s road report on the state of adulatory female fandom. Heard on the box set from the BBC Sounds For Saturday TV show, the song still resonates in all its ragged glory: lean, not-so-mean, but crackling with besotted energy.
“That’s All You Need” remains an oddly compelling piece of the Faces puzzle. Ostensibly a tale of reunified brotherly identification, it draws its greatest strength from Wood’s overdriven and peculiarly obtuse slide guitar theme. Much like his slide workout on First Step’s “Around the Plynth” (a song that is presented as a stellar live thematic cross-splice with “Gasoline Alley” on the box set), Wood disorients the listener with woozy, asynchronous tonality. The song’s closing steel drum accompaniment seems a kind of joyful musical non sequitur even as it beats the ethnomusicological Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er” in the Caribbean flavor stakes by nearly two years.
Years of tell-all confessionals have only hinted at the great era of rock debauchery as something altogether insider, but I’m unaware of any group up to this time willing to incriminate their shady lifestyle in so forensic a manner. Nod’s Holiday Inn font is a visual code that makes the original LP poster/lyric sheet (a patchwork of the Faces instamatic indiscretions) look like piecemeal blackmail, a collagist incrimination of life on the road: the advertisements for various liquid pleasures, the excised selections of pharmaceuticals from, one might joyfully imagine, Woody’s dog-eared PDR. Souvenir snaps of slatternly tag-alongs, their lacies littering identically decored (and sometimes demolished) motel rooms as roadies and the band shag their plush piles. Every picture tells a story, don’t it? Who said rock ‘n’ roll had to be sensitive and enlightened? James Taylor and Bread never had this much fun!
According to Mac, “Mike McInnerney put [the poster] together. He did [The Who’s] Tommy cover. He compiled that from pictures we gave him, but he put the pills and the bottles of booze in. I don’t think that needed to be said. It was ridiculous. I don’t know what those pills were anyway. I mean, there were plenty of pills we could’ve taken photographs of. That was pretty lame, I thought.”
Despite Mac’s misgivings there, all Faces fans hold special affection for the miniaturized figurines of the band in performance mode on the LP’s back cover. “I have no idea [who created those figures],” Mac says. “I still have mine. It’s on the other side of the room. Woody has his. Rod has his, I believe. Ronnie Lane smashed his up as soon as he got it because his was fuckin’ awful! I think Kenney has got his, too. I used to have the organ, but that got blown bit by bit. In fact, my Ian McLagan has got a broken hip. He’s standing up there next to a picture of Muddy Waters, and a picture of Woody and Keith [Richards], and all kinds of memorabilia on my shelf across the room. He’s got black hair, y’know? He must be dying it!”
Alas, Nod would prove the only sizeable commercial Stateside success for a full-length album by the Faces, peaking at #6 on the American album charts. The band would be busy in the fall of 1972 recording the material for their follow-up release, Ooh La La, but the cracks in the group’s heretofore raucous façade would soon show.
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