(Rock star memoirs are a hot book trend these days. But many readers may not realize that the rock memoir format has a deep history, including many excellent and unusual autobiographies that are now out of print. I’m launching a new Litkicks series called “The Great Lost Rock Memoir” designed to occasionally unearth these rare treasures. We start with a personal favorite of mine — hah, as if they aren’t all my favorites … — Levi)
It’s a stunning loss to USA culture that we don’t know anything about the Small Faces, a British “Mod” band of the 1960s. Well, I know about them, and a few of my music freak friends do, but through some accident of history this band was super-popular in Britain but never managed to cross the ocean.
There were four Small Faces: the theatrical Steve Marriot on guitar and vocals, pensive Ronnie Lane on bass and vocals, snappy drummer Kenney Jones, and artistic keyboardist Ian McLagan, who in 2000 wrote a wonderful memoir of his long music career, All the Rage: A Riotous Romp Through Rock & Roll History. It’s a revealing sideman’s view of the hilariously warped hippie-era rock scene and lifestyle.
All The Rage begins in a humble Irish household in west London, where teenage Ian contrives to borrow a Hammond organ from a music store just long enough to teach himself some soul licks, then suddenly winds up a replacement member in a suddenly successful pop band. This was the Mod era, and the Small Faces were as famous as the other two Mod bands that are more well-known today. But where the Who was powerful and the Kinks were wistful, the Small Faces were simply joyful. My favorite Small Faces record is Odgen’s Nut Gone Flake, a silly 1968 rock opera with a loopy plot that somehow resonated with deep themes about generosity and self-acceptance. Here’s Happy Days Toy Town, the concluding song to this epic — and that’s memoirist Ian McLagan doing the twist.
The music of the Small Faces was influential beyond their public renown. Their “E Too D” was echoed in the Who’s “I Can See For Miles”. Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” was a straight-up steal from the Small Faces’ “You Need Lovin'” (go ahead and listen to it on Spotify or Pandora if you don’t believe me — it’s the same song). Years before David Bowie wrote “Suffragette City”, the Small Faces recorded a 3-minute crunch-rocker with pretty much the same chords called “Wham Bam Thank You Mam”. How did the Who, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie get away with it? It helped a lot that nobody listened to the Small Faces in the USA.
After the Small Faces broke up, McLagan reached the height of success as the band joined forces with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood to become the Faces. Personally, I like the music of the Small Faces more than the Faces — however, I admit that the single best lick McLagan ever played is in a Faces song, during the breakdown in the third bar of the great opening to “Stay With Me“. This is the closest thing to a signature riff that McLagan has.
All The Rage captures the odd lifestyle of a rock star who’s not quite wealthy enough to retire, and instead remains active as a road and session musician for decades after decades, putting up with the egos and quirks of leaders like Lenny Kravitz, Bonnie Raitt and Keith Richards. McLagan comes across as a modest and highly evolved personality. He happily admits that Nicky Hopkins was a better keyboard player. He is in love with Kim, his wife (who he swiped from Keith Moon). He doesn’t pretend to be rich, and speaks just as proudly of his gigs as a pub rocker for Billy Bragg or his own pickup band as he does of his stadium tours with Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones.
Many rock memoirs have a structural flaw: they start strong but taper off in the later years. Ian McLagan’s book manages the unusual feat of including the most riveting chapter near the end. This is the grueling tale of a tour of Europe with Bob Dylan in the mid-1980s. McLagan joins Dylan’s band as an enthusiastic Dylan fan, and approaches his lyrical hero with reverence and hunger for connection, only to be rebuffed at every turn. There is no conversation at the rehearsals, no discussion of song choices, no setlist before the show starts. However, Dylan does take McLagan’s shirt, and makes McLagan wear his. It throws the naturally sociable McLagan for a loop to discover that his hero is an unconnectable cipher, and he describes the tour as a harrowing (but hilarious) ordeal. This chapter is one of the best things I’ve ever read about Bob Dylan.
Like many great rock memoirs of the past, All The Rage by Ian McLagan is now out of print. It’s only available as a high-priced used book, and some publisher should snap it up.. Come back next week when Litkicks will feature another great lost memoir of the rock era …