Archive for the ‘Faces’ Category

I Was A Faces Roadie (Part 3)

Monday, November 1st, 2010

It was on that same Saturday night, which we spent in Blackpool, ready to set up for Sunday’s show at the Opera House, that I should have spotted another threat to the ongoing equilibrium of the band. We were staying at the inhospitable Norbreck Castle, whose plaster turrets and crenellations were as flimsy as its aspirations to grandeur, but although we were residents, we weren’t allowed to eat in the hotel’s restaurant, because we didn’t have ties, and it was only on the say-so of a benevolent receptionist that we were grudgingly accommodated in the less pretentious Cabaret Grill, which was where, halfway through our meal, we were joined by Ronnie Lane, his partner Kate, and their baby son Luke. Unlike the rest of the band, who were commuting to each gig from London in a private plane, Ronnie was driving from town to town with an AA road map and his Land Rover.

“If you’re going to be on the road, you might as well be on the road,” he told me later, “and if you want to live at home, you might as well live at home, because if you don’t totally accept that you’re on the road and that’s it, that’s your lot, private jets back to London for a few hours a day ain’t going to make it home. You’re living a split, and you ain’t going to get any benefit out of it at all. What’s wrong with life on the road? There’s nothing wrong with it if you make it a life on the road. You say, ‘I won’t take the motorway here, I’ll take the B-road, because it goes through this country and that village, and I’d like to see this and I’d like to see that.’ You might as well enjoy it. I can’t understand this rushing there and rushing back business. I ain’t going to rush anywhere, not unless I absolutely have to.”

True to his word, he would do his best not to rush on the Faces’ next American tour in the spring of 1973, renting a Winnebago camper whenever time and distance allowed. Even so, somewhere between Minneapolis and New York an unarguable truth hit him: this wasn’t why he’d learned to play guitar, not this uninspiring, sapping routine of travel, gig, hotel, no. The equally inescapable consequence was that he would have to leave the group.

Once he had started thinking that way, it wasn’t hard to come up with other reasons for not staying in the Faces. He was in no doubt that Rod held back his best songs, as he had most recently with ‘True Blue’, for his own records. He would not turn a blind eye to the looming shadow of Rod’s solo success, which he recognized as a threat, not just to the longevity, but to the very entity of the Faces. He couldn’t ignore the slow, but unstoppable spread of separate billing on posters – Rod Stewart and the Faces – by promoters bothered more by the prospect of missing a single potential ticket sale than bruising musicians’ egos. And he felt gagged as a singer, especially on stage, where his vocal role was reduced to backing harmonies and the opening verse of ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ – “and not in my key either, you can guess whose key it was in.” He was also frustrated by the slow progress of the Faces’ follow-up to A Nod’s As Good As A Wink, especially Rod’s infrequent attendance at sessions and unhelpful appraisal of tracks necessarily recorded in his absence, and, when Ooh La La was eventually released, he was disappointed by its critical reception, and appalled by Rod’s deliberate, disloyal distancing of himself from the record.

On 12th May 1973, as the Faces were waiting to go on stage at the Civic Centre in Roanoke, West Virginia, Ronnie said the words that had been used countless times by different members of the band, but until now only in fun, parodying a pop star’s foot-stamping tantrum at a trivial setback, like a lukewarm cup of tea or a brandy-and-coke with no ice: “I’m leaving the group!” He left no one in doubt that he meant it. December’s high jinks were a distant memory and when, during the set, he spat an obscenity at Mac, the keyboard player caught him with a vicious kick, leaving 10,000 West Virginians wondering whether it was part of the act. There was one more US date, four nights to fulfill in London, then Ronnie Lane was gone.

Was Kate Lambert the Faces’ Yoko Ono? Clearly she was the one who had Ronnie’s ear, and he did leave the group, but that’s too crude a connection. At that restaurant table in Blackpool, the most obvious sign of her influence was the way he dressed, more like a poacher than a pop star.

John Peel turned up at the Opera House, his second appearance already on the tour. The Faces fan had previously attended the Newcastle show, arriving early enough to join the crew in a Chinese restaurant round the corner from the City Hall. He sipped a light ale while the roadies ate, but, back at the venue, his chronic shyness got the better of him and he spent the hours that remained until show time hiding in a lavatory cubicle.

Newcastle was also notable for the number of apparently jobless young men hanging around the back of the City Hall, offering to lend a hand. Most left when it became clear that carrying stage cases wouldn’t earn them a private audience with Rod Stewart, but one who stayed couldn’t stop telling us how he was going to be a star himself. A record company was interested in his songs and any day he would be on a train to London to sign a contract. It would be serendipitous to reveal that the would-be pop star was a milkman’s son called Gordon, who wore a striped black-and-yellow jumper. But this wasn’t Sting and, though I kept an eye out for the young man’s face, I never did see his photo on a record sleeve or in the music press. That deluded hope, doubtless recited to Led Zeppelin’s crew a week before, must have been what got him through the day.

The second week of the tour included three London dates, the first at what was now the Brixton Academy, the other two at the Edmonton Sundown. Their décor identified both venues as twins of the more famous Rainbow Theatre, but, with their stalls stripped of seats, they were infinitely preferable places for a party. Especially a party with no limit on the numbers. Watching the crush that started in front of the stage, but soon spread to every corner, I wondered if anyone was counting those coming in, concluding that they couldn’t be, because at Brixton the capacity must have been exceeded several times over. Even the seated balcony looked over-full and anything but sedate, its parapet bouncing like a trampoline under the fans’ pounding feet, and that was before the band came on. Downstairs, meanwhile, conditions looked manifestly dangerous.

It didn’t help that the Faces were late, or that the wait sent the temperature soaring from tropical to uninhabitable rain forest, but during the show I must have pulled more than thirty girls, giddy or on the point of passing out, from the crowd and carried them to the relative cool of the stage side. It wasn’t easy, because they weren’t all size zero and bodies were squeezed so tight it was like drawing a cork from a bottle. To make my job harder, Rod insisted that under no circumstances was I to put myself between him and his audience, so some girl would be screaming at me that her friend had fainted, while I watched helplessly as the floppy corpse starting to sink into the sea of bodies, counting down the choruses until Ron Wood took his solo and I could mobilise myself.

Barely given time to get their breath back, they were offered a choice: out through the stage door, where there was unlimited fresh air, but no re-admission, or back into the crush beside the stage. Not one of them picked the first option. Waiting to re-enter the arena for the encore, casually balancing a vinyl ‘Cindy’ football on his red Anello & Davide pump, Rod grumbled that I’d been conned.

“They’re just faking it to get backstage.”

I indicated the obvious: that there were no girls backstage, not in the area I looked after, anyway.

“Didn’t do them much good then, did it?”

After the second night in Edmonton, a kick-about with one of the promotional plastic footballs turned into a full-blooded match, for which the carpeted expanse of stalls was almost ideal, only the slope towards the stage giving it the tilt of a Cup giant-killers’ ground, although, by playing from side to side, across the auditorium, the gradient advantaged neither side. It was easy to pick out Rod’s mates, because they knew how to play, but otherwise it was like a pick-up game in a primary school playground, with a mob myopically pursuing the ball and most players wanting to be in Rod’s team. I was happy to pick myself against him and trade occasional nods of acknowledgement at passes successfully struck to a player in space or two-footed tackles avoided. I played in a tough Sunday morning league, so I could handle being hacked, but even so I ended up with more bruises and grazed skin that I ever collected on Hackney Marshes.

All too soon we were in Manchester for the last night of the tour. It was a Saturday, and I knew Rod had been to watch United. I also knew the result, so I was surprised to find him irrepressibly chirpy, considering Leeds had equalised moments before the final whistle. On the way to the stage he spiked me with an elbow.

“Guess what I saw this afternoon?”

I shrugged. He grinned.

“Denis Law’s knob.”

Fast-forward to 1975. Discovering I was in LA, Rod invited me to turn out for his Coldwater Canyon Casuals one Saturday afternoon. I climbed out of my car at his house in Bel Air, carrying the trainers I’d bought that morning, but he greeted me with a frown.

“Where’s your kit?”

“I thought this was a proper match. I assumed it would be supplied.”

“Shirts, not shorts or socks.”

“I’m hardly going to find a sports shop round here.”

“Well, you’re not playing for my team in jeans.”

“I’ll watch.”

“Fuck off, you’re playing. I’ll see what I can find.”

Rod returned with socks and a pair of shorts.

“Here, these are too big for me.”

They might have been too big for his scrawny hips, but they were more than snug on mine. It was like pulling on a corset. I got into them, but anything more vigorous than short – and, as I was instantly aware, unintentionally mincing – steps threatened not just the seams, but the fabric stretched taught across my buttocks. I sensed these would not be my finest ninety minutes, and I was right. I hadn’t performed so tentatively since reluctantly making up the numbers for an important cup-tie in the disconcerting grip of gastroenteritis. I was little more than an observer. Apart from Rod, who would have shone at any level of amateur football, the outstanding player was the Average White Band’s Hamish Stewart, tall, well-built, athletic, a handful for the opposition defence.

After the match Rod drove me back to his place to collect my car. Mick Jagger’s brother Chris, a spectator at the match, had squeezed into the back seat of Rod’s Excalibur, an American millionaire’s cock-eyed vision of a pre-war European sports car and a rich man’s toy if ever there was one, as ostentatious as it was impractical. Rod seemed to like the looks he got driving it, though. Outside his house, he took me aside.

“Make sure you take him with you.”

I asked Chris where I could drop him.

“Where are you headed?”

“The Ramada Inn on Sunset, then the Troubadour to see Maria Muldaur.”

“That’ll do me.”

“How d’you mean?”

“I’ll tag along with you. They know me at the Troubadour.”

When I went to shower, he was channel-hopping, the remote control pointed at the TV like a pistol, but by the time I re-emerged from the bathroom, he was ordering a meal on room service. He’d picked up my key to read out the room number, but if he was embarrassed at being caught out, he hid it well. He cupped his hand over the phone.

“D’you want anything?”

I only ever played once in London with Rod, in Highgate, not far from where he’d been brought up. It was meant to be a friendly, but you could tell what the opposition were thinking as we lined up for kick-off. I recognised several players from Sunday morning football, in particular two brothers who took no prisoners. Watching Rod skip round and over tackles and, when he did get whacked, jump straight up and get stuck in again, I had to admire his bravery, as well as his skill. He didn’t shelter in the safety of celebrity games, where who you were counted for more than how good you were, and the unspoken motto was “I won’t kick you, if you don’t kick me.” He played with his non-showbiz mates, exposing himself not only to the routine violence of metropolitan football, where former apprentices and failed professionals you’ve dared to dribble the ball past gob at your feet and tell you deadpan, “Do that again, and I’ll break your fucking leg,” but also to the special treatment reserved for those with anything to envy, and when it came to being flash, Rod ticked every box: fame, money, and all that went with them. He must have come up against opponents who figured he deserved a kicking for no other reason than his poster was on their girlfriend’s wall. But he didn’t hide, he took them on, earned their respect, and accepted their eager handshake at the end of the game.

It was after that match, in The Wrestlers pub on North Road, that he asked me where I’d bought my boots. A sports shop in Battersea, I told him.

“I need a new pair.”

He’d told me he was renting a flat in the West End. “What’s wrong with Lillywhite’s?”

“No, I’d rather get them in a proper shop. I’ll pop down to your place. Tell you what, name a pub and I’ll pick you up there.” I wrote directions to The Plough on the back of a beer mat. We picked a date and a time, two in the afternoon.

Rod was late, as I had expected him to be, and it was almost closing time when he turned up. Having been kept waiting and, as a consequence, having downed more pints than I’d meant to, I was all for going, especially since those three o’clock stragglers who weren’t gawping at Rod were peering through the gaps in the etched front window at the chauffered Rolls Royce outside. But Rod insisted on a quick one, so it was well after three when we got to the shop. After my embarrassment in the pub, I was pleased that we had the place to ourselves, but disappointed when, after trying on several styles in different sizes, Rod couldn’t find what he wanted. But it wasn’t an entirely wasted visit, because he ordered a pair. The manager filled out a slip, but clearly felt uncomfortable having to ask Rod Stewart for a deposit.

“That’s all right, mate, I’ll pay upfront.” Rod pulled out his wallet and made a show of looking inside. “Change a hundred dollar bill?”

The manager answered with an old-fashioned look, then checked his watch. “You’ve missed the bank too.”

Rod turned to me. I reached for my pocket.

It would offset the unavoidably mythical nature of this tale to report that a cheque dropped through my letterbox first post the following day. But it didn’t. I collected Rod’s boots a week or so later and, the next time I was in the West End, took them to a mansion block near Regent’s Park. The concierge said he thought he’d seen Mr Stewart go out, but phoned the apartment anyway, without response, so I left the parcel at the desk. I had to wait for my money until the next time Rod toured the UK.

* * *

I don’t recall exactly when Pete Buckland owned up about The Plan, but it must have been at a point in the tour when I’d been accepted into the Faces family. This plan, by then aborted, had been hatched the moment Mike Gill had phoned Pete to say a New Musical Express journalist wanted to join the road crew for their UK tour. The Faces had had a fractious relationship with the UK music press, who, like the British public, had been slower to embrace the band’s brash showmanship than their American counterparts, and here was an opportunity to get their own back. This hack would be worked just as hard as anyone in the crew, and he couldn’t grumble, because that’s what he’d volunteered for. And being more used to pushing a pen than humping gear, he’d be a physical wreck by the end of the first load-in and on his way back to London with no story, certainly not one he wouldn’t be embarrassed to see his byline above.

It was as if the band had anticipated the abrasive review of their live Coast To Coast/Overture And Beginners album that Charles Shaar Murray would write for the NME thirteen months later, and resolved to get their retaliation in first. But the plan hadn’t worked. They’d picked the wrong guy or, rather, the wrong guy had picked them. I’d handled whatever they’d thrown at me, even – and I was now more convinced than ever that it hadn’t been an accident – a PA cabinet. However they had tested me, I’d passed. I’d drunk as much as anyone, done as many drugs, chatted up more girls.

What surprised me was that I hadn’t been aware that anything unusual had been going on, having quickly got over the laughter in Gaff Management’s reception and dismissed Mike Gill’s warning as spinsterly advice. Even Pete and Chuch’s first night intrusion had seemed no more than what anyone ought to expect to happen on the road. Just as surprisingly, I didn’t notice any difference to the way I was treated, once I had been accepted and the plan abandoned. If I hadn’t felt hard done-by before, I didn’t sense any soft-pedalling now, but I felt good about myself, because the roadying, which I’d viewed as a means to an end, an opportunity to collect material for an unusual story, had been a real job, and I’d done it.

That final night – December 23rd – was a fitting end to the tour. Roared on at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall by a full-house as ecstatic as Old Trafford’s Stretford End must have been when United had taken the lead that afternoon, the Faces pulled off their finest performance. At the end Rod gestured thanks, and reminded the crowd, “Manchester, you’ve never let us down.” Us. Twelve months later, he would drum a fist against his heart and repeat, “My people, my people.”

It was when the house lights blazed after the final encore that it struck me this was the end, not that there was time for sentiment or reflection with the last load-out to be done double-quick, if we were going to catch the band in their hotel suite for a farewell drink. As it was, when we got there, most of the bottles were empty and the Faces were ready to leave, and there was only time for Rod to lead one arm-in-arm, knees-up chorus of ‘Auld Land Syne’ before the goodbye hugs.

Back in London, writing up my piece, I found myself missing life on the road and questioning who I would see again, and when. Sooner than expected was the second answer, because I had a call from Pete in the first week of January, asking if I’d like to help out on a gig instigated by Pete Townshend to pull Eric Clapton out of his reclusive heroin addiction: rehearsals at Ron Wood’s house in Richmond, then Guildford Civic Hall, and the concert itself at the Rainbow Theatre on January 13th.

Clapton had been a hero of mine since the Yardbirds, so naturally I said yes, and wound up acting as assistant to LMS recording engineer Ron Nevison. The letters LMS stood for Lane Mobile Studio, and we towed the silver Airstream caravan from Richmond to Finsbury Park with the Land Rover Ronnie had favoured over nightly flights on the Faces tour.

In March, the Faces and the Who headlined a made-for-TV music festival in a massive indoor sports arena in Den Haag, Holland, and I was back on the crew for a weekend notable for a prodigious intake of amyl nitrite and amphetamine sulphate, the Eagles’ first appearance outside America, and, after we’d climbed the rigging to man the spotlights when the Dutch technicians insisted on taking a break just as Rory Gallagher was about to go on, a fat cash bonus from the promoter that made it the most lucrative day’s work I’d ever done.

For the Faces’ end-of-year UK tour though, the crew was fully manned. I sat at my desk in Clapham, tapping typewriter keys and counting the days until Christmas Eve’s closing show at the Edmonton Sundown. It was the 12th when Pete called to ask what was I up to? Winding down to Christmas, I told him. Why? One of the crew had got into a fight with a steward in Manchester and been beaten so badly, he was in hospital. There were three days off before the last seven dates. Could I fly up to Glasgow and join them there? I delayed my answer just long enough to make him think there were alternatives to weigh up.

The Faces weren’t the same with Tetsu Yamauchi on bass. With Ronnie Lane’s departure, the gentle working class ballads that were the yin to Stewart and Wood’s boisterous yang had gone too. The Faces would carry on for two more years, but when Rod, spurred by Ron Wood’s dalliance with the Stones, announced his inevitable exit, he was able to excuse himself by lamenting that when Ronnie Lane left, the heart went out of the Faces. By then, the ‘them and us’ that had once defined a disobliging outside world and a misappreciated band now signified those musicians and their allies in the crew who spent their off-stage time hell-bent on heavy drug use and those who didn’t. The band was too addled, too divided, too terminally sick to continue, but none of those things meant that this wasn’t true: that for a couple of years at least the Faces were the best rock and roll band in the world.

By then Mac and I were not only pals, but songwriting partners. A song we wrote together was covered by one of the Beatles. Okay, so it was Ringo, but a Beatle’s a Beatle. My biggest thrill, though, came with a song that was never released.

‘Good Idea At The Time’ was one of several songs tendered by Mac when, in 1976, he, Steve Marriott and Kenney Jones reunited as the Small Faces, with Rick Wills in for Ronnie Lane on bass. Along with several more of our songs, ‘Good Idea At The Time’ got recorded and, although Mac took the lead vocal, Steve’s voice, as unmistakably his as it had been on ‘Watcha Gonna Do About It’ in 1965, came in for the chorus, as clearly as if he’d elbowed Mac away from the mic: ‘Didn’t think about it/Never stopped to doubt it/It just seemed like a good idea at the time.’

* * *

What did I learn on the road? That, for a sixteen-hour day, a roadie’s pay was pitiful. That sleep was scarce, and regular meals and a balanced diet unimaginable. That much of the work was heavy, some of it even dangerous. That roadies were – and doubtless still are – driven by an unwavering devotion to the band they work for and a justifiable pride in their ability to construct, in a day and often against long odds, the most favourable circumstances in which their employers can perform, then to dismantle that habitat and recreate it somewhere else the following day. That the best of them are jacks-of-all-trades and masters of most: driver, engineer, electrician, labourer, bodyguard, servant, jester. That they look forward to the first gig of a tour, long for the last, then wish they were back on the road again.

The Faces treated their close-knit crew well. Pete, Chuch and Russ were more than workers, they were companions. When the band split, so did the crew. Pete helped Rod hand-pick a new backing band and went on the road with him; Russ had followed Ronnie Lane in 1973, his voice a fount of reason sometimes drowned by the babble of dreams; Chuch, Ron Wood’s right hand, went to work for the Rolling Stones, and was still working for them when a heart attack killed him in 2002 at the age of fifty-four.

What I found in the Faces was family: a family that was, unlike my real family, demonstrably loving, loyal, supportive, tactile, truthful with one another and, above all, fun to be with, lots of fun. I took to them at once. By the tour’s end, Pete Buckland felt more like a brother than my real brother ever did. Mac became my brother too. And brothers are what we’ll always be.

Bound by these new ties, I rethought much of what I knew, conscious of the irony that, although I was the one who’d been to university, I was learning more from them than they would ever learn from me. Unsurprisingly, one of the things I learned from them was: education was overrated. Like other musicians I admire, they could have breezed into university, had they not previously been let down by a post-war school system that noted – and vigorously punished – the disruptive influence, but failed to spot the bright spark. It was education’s loss though, not theirs.

The Faces gave me the confidence to go my own way, and the self-belief to get to where that would take me. I learned to laugh at adversity, to celebrate success, to show those you love that you love them. I adopted the group’s catchphrase of “Fuck the gig” and found it worked in other contexts, not least “Fuck the bank.” Because the only thing that really counted was not to fuck your family, not to fuck your friends. For pointing out which, I thank them.

I Was A Faces Roadie (Part 2)

Monday, November 1st, 2010

The Faces’ 1972 end-of-year tour opened in Dundee. “Why not Glasgow?” I’d asked Pete, keen for him to know I was aware of Green’s Playhouse, but he explained that the Faces had only played there in June. We travelled up to Scotland the day before the gig, Chuch and Russ, with several hours’ head start, in the equipment truck, the rest of us in a red Volvo estate. As soon as we had checked into our hotel, we went to recce the venue. That night the Caird Hall was host to the Scottish National Orchestra, so the stage was out of bounds, but we were able to explore the access. The only approach to the stage was up a flight of stone stairs. The thought of carrying the contents of a three-ton truck up and down those steps made me feel weak. But that was tomorrow.

Back at the hotel we commandeered a table for an early dinner. Andy, who had been appointed social secretary for the evening, was eyeing the waitresses, evidently wondering which of them he might ask for advice.

“Forget it,” I told him. “It’d be like asking your grandmother to recommend a night out. Unless you fancy the bingo, that is.”

He grilled the least matronly, whose tip was Tiffany’s discotheque, although she couldn’t be persuaded to join us; neither could Russ, the first victim of a flu bug that would work its way through the crew. By nine o’clock we were installed in a booth beside the dance floor, the first round of drinks on its way. A female disc jockey with cropped, blond hair and a permanent smile was playing records for the dance floor’s only occupants, a foursome who were still dressed and drunk from a wedding that must have taken place many hours before. Perhaps the 30p admission was a deterrent, but Tiffany’s midweek Dance Night was not a big draw on the first Wednesday in December.

The foursome’s taste was limited. The women liked Donny Osmond’s ‘Why’ and his brother Little Jimmy’s ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool’, the men Lieutenant Pigeon’s ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ and, especially, Chuck Berry’s ‘My Ding-A-Ling’, which was No 1 that week, a source of sadness rather than celebration for anyone aware of Berry’s part in creating rock’n’roll. The women sang along with Little Jimmy, the men with Chuck, their loud laughter suggesting familiarity was no deterrent to enjoying a priapic double entendre. When Andy asked me if Lieutenant Pigeon was a relative, I pointed out patiently that, unlike the bird, my name was spelled with a ‘d’, but that didn’t stop him calling me ‘Lieutenant’ instead of John for the evening, a habit, I was relieved to note, which only caught on with him.

When ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ came on for a second time, I was sent to the DJ’s podium to request an alternative.

“Have you got the O’Jays’ ‘Backstabbers’?”

The DJ must have been pleased to have something different to play, because she flashed me a broad smile and bent to find the record in the rack. When she stood up again, her cheeks were glowing.

“Anything else?”

“‘Family Affair’?”

“I like your taste.”

“Just trying to save us from that mindless ding-a-ling and those obnoxious Osmonds.” I had another thought. “‘Burlesque’?” This had been a hit for Family a few weeks before, a record with a riff as raucous as Roger Chapman’s voice.

“I thought you’d be asking for ‘Angel’.”

“Why’s that?”

“Aren’t you with Rod?”

“We’re with the Faces.”

She shrugged to suggest I was splitting hairs.

“You going?” I asked.

“I haven’t got a ticket.”

I gave her a wink. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“My name’s Lindsey.”

‘Backstabbers’ went down well, so did ‘Family Affair’, but Pete made a face and gave me a look when ‘Burlesque’ came on.

“Come on, Pete, it’s a good record.”

“It’s Family.”


“They’re on our label. The drummer’s wife works in the press office. They get preferential treatment.”

The notion that the Faces were hard done by would manifest itself again, but I noted that, despite his antagonism, Pete couldn’t resist moving to the record. One of the wedding party wasn’t a Family fan either, because he appeared to be taking issue with Lindsey’s latest selection. When she nodded towards our booth, his eyes followed hers. I didn’t want to get into a fight with a drunk Scotsman, and was relieved when he staggered back to his friends. ‘Angel’ came on, reminding me of my promise to Lindsey. I told Pete.

“Bring her back to the hotel, and I’ll see what I can sort out.”

Records gave way to a band called Grass, who played their repertoire of recent hits with the blithe disregard for context and continuity shared by all cover bands, while someone switched coloured lights on and off, occasionally in time with the music, prompting around our table what would have sounded to an eavesdropper like an earnest discussion about the dangers of witnessing visual psychedelics with unprotected eyes. I’d heard a similar response from Pete earlier in the day, when the Moody Blues’ ‘Nights In White Satin’ had come on the car radio. This reminder of the journey had me involuntarily stretching my legs, which had been pinned apart for eight hours by Pete’s driver’s seat, tilted like a deck chair so he could drive straight arm-style.

Led by Pete and Chuch, at the end of each number we stood and applauded extravagantly. The members of Grass, having acknowledged the first few of these outbursts with appreciative nods and waves, came to understand that the clapping, whooping, hollering and stamping had an ironic intent, and took to showing us V-signs instead.

When the records came on again, the wedding drunks had gone, but there were now at least a dozen dancers in their place, most of whom were female, prompting optimistic speculation that girls would be queuing up to accompany us back to the hotel. I couldn’t help wondering whether goosing passers-by and tossing ice cubes underfoot was the right way to advertise your good intentions, but what did I know? They were old hands, and this was my first night out with them. So I was surprised when Pete shook his head and speculated aloud, “Why does this always happen? We always blow it with girls by being too rowdy.” It was as if he was paraphrasing the refrain from the Faces’ ‘Too Bad’: “All we wanted to do was to socialize/Oh you know it’s a shame how we always get the blame.”

By the time Lindsey had packed up and put on her coat, there were only two other girls waiting.

“Is there really a party?” one of them asked nervously as we headed into the night.

I was in my room, talking records with Lindsey, satisfied that having been seen slipping into the lift with her was proof that I’d succeeded where the others hadn’t, when there was a knock at the door. Mike Gill’s warning was nowhere near my thoughts. As soon as I turned the handle, the door was pushed hard against me, forcing me back into the wall, where Chuch held me, his arms muscled knots where I tried to get a grip on them. I heard a snap, like a wishbone dried in the oven, then Pete pushed a wad of damp, sickly smelling tissues under my nose. Was I fighting for breath or did I breathe in hard through both nostrils because I sensed that’s what I was supposed to? Either way, I reeled back and watched, giddy, hot and expecting the back of my head to explode at any moment, as Pete and Chuch stripped the pillows, sheets and blankets from my bed and bundled them out of the window, then ran, giggling, from the room, without a hello or a goodbye or bothering to close the door. Their intrusion had had Lindsey jumping from the bed and backed against the wall, her face a horrified mask. I went to shut the door, just in time to stop Chuch reentering my room with a fire extinguisher. I locked the door and sat on the edge of the bed. I felt Lindsey’s arm across my shoulder.

“They’re your friends?”

When I walked Lindsey to her taxi, Chuch was in the foyer, ordering sandwiches from the night porter. She squeezed my arm in silent warning and quickened her step, but Chuch laughed out loud to see me.

“Better add another couple of rounds,” he told the porter. “That man looks hungry.”

We went up to Pete’s room to wait for the food. Chuch knocked, then banged on the door, but no one opened it. I heard a voice insisting, “I’ll scream. I will.” There was a pause, then a small scream. “I’ll scream louder.” And she did. The door opened and one of the girls from Tiffany’s – the other having already left, I guessed – marched between us, her eyes blazing, her fingers working the buttons on her dress.

Over sandwiches and brandy, another new word, ‘poppers’, was added to my vocabulary, which was expanding daily. That wad of tissues had been wrapped around a glass phial. The noise I’d heard had been the glass breaking as Pete snapped the phial open, and accounted, onomatopoeically, for the nickname given to amyl nitrite, a drug infrequently prescribed as a heart-starter. What I found hard to believe, given the violent intensity of the rush I’d experienced, was that amyl nitrite was legal, available over the chemist’s counter. The phial Pete had popped under my nose had come in a box of twenty-four that he’d bought from the Markham Pharmacy in the King’s Road. I wondered whether that meant there were twenty-three more to be popped.

When I left the room, some time after two, Pete was still paraphrasing ‘Too Bad’. So far, so good, I thought. I was going to fit in just fine.

*  *  *

Truant schoolgirls were already lined up in front of the Caird Hall, their absurdly early arrival explained, not by their desire to meet the Faces’ road crew, but by the venue’s ticketing policy. The seats for which they had already queued once were unnumbered, so the best would be bagged by first-comers.

Chuch backed the truck so the tail-lift would drop inches from the stage door, and we got to work. For the best part of an hour the hydraulic platform whined up and down, and the loads Chuch rolled on and we rolled off were heavy and hard to handle. The cases that contained the ‘back line’, the amps and speaker cabinets, had handles on each side, but had been fitted with the kind of castors that turned supermarket trolleys into drunken crabs; whereas the twelve monstrous PA cabinets had true wheels, but no handles, nowhere to grip, and, to make matters worse, were covered in an abrasive fabric that might have been industrial carpet, which burned when it slipped through your hands. The flight case that held the 3,500 watts of PA amplification must have weighed several hundredweight, but its bulk and the Caird Hall’s unhelpful ingress meant there was only room for two handlers, while the Hammond organ, heavier still and harder to handle, had to be manoeuvred on a ‘dolly’, a tiny, yet robust four-wheeled trolley, which, naturally, was no use on stairs. The last items out of the truck were a dozen 12’ x 6’ mirrored Perspex panels, again not the easiest on which to get a grip.

Nothing had been less than heavy or easier than awkward to move, but I’d been meticulous in taking my turn by the tail-lift and made sure I carried just as much just as quickly as anyone in the crew. Two or three times I’d wondered whether Chuch had given flight cases an unnecessarily firm shove in my direction and had once had to grab in an bruising bear hug a PA cabinet that had toppled from the raised platform, but I knew any sign of weakness would be noted and exploited. So I wasn’t going to complain or request a breather before anyone else.

The lighting rig had already been unloaded when we arrived, a separate crew hanging the floodlights and manhandling the unwieldy spots onto the balcony, where they would operate them during the show. A brutal torrent of banter and abuse ping-ponged unendingly between the two crews, but no one had time to stop and laugh.

Pete ran a tight ship. Although no one in the audience that night would complain that the music wasn’t loud enough or the lights less than brilliant, every item of sound and lighting equipment and every instrument (apart from a Steinway grand piano, provided by a local firm) had emerged from the back of two three-ton trucks. Within a few years some bands would measure their stature by the size of their fleet of articulated trucks and the headcount of the crew who offloaded and operated their contents. ELP’s crew in 1977 would number more than a hundred; less than five years before, setting up for one of the biggest bands in Britain, we were eleven.

The mirrored floor was laid on the stage, the back line erected like a wall behind, the PA cabinets stacked like giant nursery bricks left and right of the stage front. The rostrum – ‘riser’, I added to my roadie’s dictionary – that Kenney Jones’ drum kit sat on was erected in the middle of the back, Ian McLagan’s Hammond stage left, his hired nine-foot Steinway nosing into the wings. The organ came with a special speaker cabinet – a ‘Leslie’, named after its inventor apparently – which contained the rotating horns that provided the instrument’s characteristic vibrato. Once this cabinet had been positioned in the wings and microphones aimed at the sound holes, the entire structure was covered with the padded jacket that protected the organ in transit and several extra blankets. Seen in woodland, rather than beside a stage, it would have looked like a hermit’s hideaway. Pete pointed a finger at it.

“During the gig, Mac’s Leslie’s going to be your responsibility. You’ll stand this side of the stage and make sure nobody comes near it. It’s incredibly sensitive to noise and movement. Bit like Mac, really.”

I nodded apprehensively.

“Right, let’s you and me get the mixing desk up into the balcony.”

Which we did, wedging the console between the backs of the front seats and the railed parapet, before uncoiling the ‘snake’, a fat, multi-core cable which would link the audio channels in the desk on the balcony to the PA system on stage and which we hung, using the ubiquitous gaffer’s tape, more or less out of the audience’s reach. Then, while Pete put his ear to every PA speaker in turn, seemingly immune to the thunderous level to which he had cranked Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You, I got down on my hands and knees and whistled along to the Crystals’ ‘Santa Claus was Coming To Town’ and the Ronettes’ ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’, while I scrubbed and polished the mirrored panels. When I’d finished, the floor was covered over, to safeguard the shine from foot traffic and to keep it concealed until the Faces were about to appear. Stumble, the opening act, would have to perform on top of the tarpaulin. Pete saw me trying to smooth the creases from its rumpled surface.

“Fuck that,” he advised. “It’s only the support band.”

I sensed a break was imminent, but I was wrong, and was handed a roll of kitchen foil and told to wrap the five monitor speakers lined up along the front of the stage. I did a tidy job, but couldn’t help wondering just how far from the stage you would have to sit for the monitors to look like burnished silver, rather than gargantuan wrapped snacks.

Breakfast was a long time ago, but eventually two of the truant schoolgirls were recruited from the queue outside to buy filled rolls for our lunch. The promoter turned up with a case of beer, and I took my cue to sit down. As I chewed a cheese roll, I looked round. To my inexperienced eyes the stage looked ready for the show. Between now and the gig there would be time to go back to the hotel for a shower and a change of clothes. A break would also allow me to make some notes about the day’s events, then clear my head to concentrate on the gig review for NME. But when Stumble turned up to sound-check, these plans were put on hold.

As each instrument was plugged in and turned on, a new buzz or drone began, and when any of the musicians approached a microphone, feedback shrieked through the auditorium like sonic lightning. I quickly became aware that my colleagues in the crew were less trained professionals than enthusiastic amateurs, their knowledge acquired not from books, but from previous crises confronted, past problems solved. If every day of these roadies’ career had been trouble-free, my guess was they would have been none the wiser, but luckily there had been many other days like this one. Their method, if that’s an appropriate word for such a haphazard routine, was as follows. The likeliest source of an unwanted hum was a faulty lead, so the scapegoat cable was swapped for another one, which, it occurred to me, could also have been faulty. If the noise persisted, the plug at each end of the lead was dismantled and its connections re-soldered, whether they were loose or not. Stumble’s roadie kept repeating, “It’s the first gig… it’s the first gig… it’s the first gig…” as if he were trying to remind himself that everything would be all right by the second show.

Nothing improved, tempers deteriorated, until eventually Pete reached the point in his own diagnostic check-list where he examined the power supply, and ascertained instantly that the Caird Hall’s in-house electrician had run the stage power and the lighting through the same circuit, triggering an earth loop. The fault was corrected in less than a minute. No hum, no buzzes, no more painful feedback. It was as if a time bomb had been diffused with seconds showing on the counter. Frowns and scowls were shed, shoulders straightened, grins were shared. In his relief, Andy gave voice to his now dissipated fears.

“That’s our gig, man,” he explained unnecessarily. “If the band came on stage and there was all that buzzing, they’d…” – he shook his spaniel mane, unable to express the outcome, so I completed his unfinished sentence in my head – “…realise how incompetent we are?”

Pete took a different view. “See what happens when you book the drummer’s brother-in-law as support act?” he observed, the moment Stumble had left the stage. I didn’t have time to ask him what he meant before the doors at the back of the auditorium opened and several hundred screaming teens stampeded for the front row.

Although there was nothing for me to do during Stumble’s set, I hung around my side of the stage, practising how and where I was going to stand, eyeing the Leslie cabinet as watchfully as if it were the prize exhibit in a museum and I its curator. Pete, Chuch and Russ were in one of the dressing rooms, changing into their stage outfits, so I couldn’t ask them for any last minute tips. I felt absurdly apprehensive, the way I did before an important football match, and found myself going through the same kind of stretching and loosening routines I would before I left the changing room. Relax, I told myself, everything’s under control.

The last number was followed by the muted applause that always sends support acts on their way and another of those frenzied burst of activity that punctuate the roadie’s day, as we spirited Stumble’s equipment from the stage. Then, like Wimbledon ground staff after a rain break, we hauled the tarpaulin from the floor, the sight of the mirrored surface as the lights hit it releasing as audible an expression of anticipation from the crowd as the removal of Centre Court’s covers. That hubbub intensified as a single mic stand – constructed from the lightest alloy, so Rod could toss and twirl it like a drum major’s baton – was set centre stage. Chuch stopped banging tuneless chords on the piano, so Andy could recite the roadie’s “One-two… two-two…” litany into Rod’s gold microphone, while Pete set the level on his mixing desk.

I hadn’t met John Barnes, but knew it must be him, when a man with neatly parted hair that gleamed from a recent wash, a dark suit and tie, and a nimbus of aftershave, began to set up a makeshift cocktail bar a few feet from me. I watched as he pulled an array of bottles from two attaché cases and half a dozen glasses from a cardboard box, and lined them up, together with an ice bucket and tongs, on the top of a flight case. Barnes, whose father Cyril was Rod’s personal chauffeur, ran a limo hire firm, but on this tour he was acting as the Faces’ personal assistant: valet, guide, confidant, pourer of drinks, and more. At all times he exuded an air of unflustered efficiency as redolent as his scent.

It was when the house lights went down and Chuch propped Ron Wood’s guitars on a pair of stands that the clamour of anticipation rose to a howl. I pressed myself against the wall, willing myself invisible, as a circle of light bobbed across the floor from the backstage stairs towards my feet. Barnes was also pointer of the Faces’ flashlight. The group paused momentarily in front of me, oblivious to my presence, before bounding into a burst of light and a barrage of screams. I watched the fans who’d queued all day for this moment jump in unison from their seats, faces flushed, eyes bright, arms outstretched, fingers clawing at the space that separated them from their idols, as if the gesture would drag them closer. I realised I was grinning the way they were and, like them, singing along with the opening number, ‘Too Bad’.

When several girls managed to clamber from their front row seats onto the stage, stewards rushed from the wings and tipped them back where they’d come from. Then the stewards refused to leave the stage. As Rod signalled for calm, and Lane, McLagan and Wood circled the singer’s mic, repeating the chorus – “All we wanted to do was to socialize/Oh you know it’s a shame how we always get the blame” – Chuch shoved the stewards, like reluctant skydivers, one by one from the stage, cheered on by the audience. The last of them, looking for a way to avoid the same happening to him, glanced my way and edged back between the curtains, taking up a spread legs, arms crossed bouncer’s stance immediately in front of the Leslie cabinet. This was bad news. Worse still, I realised that while I’d been watching what was happening on stage, a group of people had emerged from the backstage area and were now encircling the other side of the cabinet. From the way they were dressed and the drinks they were holding, I guessed they’d come from the dressing room area. My hunch was confirmed when I recognised one of them as Maggie Bell, a Glaswegian singer with a voice that could split rock, who had duetted with Rod on the title track of Every Picture Tells A Story. That meant they had to be guests of the band, so, presumably, had been told they could watch the show from there. I could hardly ask them to move. And yet Pete had said…

This internal monologue continued as the opening number ended, but stopped abruptly when Mac raced over, his face like thunder, and began pulling people away from his Leslie. He might have ignored me at rehearsals, but he knew who I was, because now he was drilling me with the deadliest look.

“What the fuck are these people doing all over my fucking Leslie?” he yelled. “Get them the fuck out of here.”

“I’m going nowhere, son.”

The man with a crooked nose and steward’s badge was only a few inches taller than the keyboard player, but the height difference seemed to disappear altogether as Mac spun to face him, his chest swelling inside his silk shirt.

“Fuck off!” he screamed, spittle flying. Then he skewered me with another look. “Get rid of them. Now.”

Nice meeting you, Mac. He might have been small, and his stage outfit improbably gaudy for a man picking a fight, but the steward was sufficiently disconcerted by his encounter with this wild-eyed fiend for me to hustle him through the door that led to the auditorium. When I turned back to confront the trickier issue of the band’s guests, they were already behind me, heading for the same exit, hands raised apologetically, faces sagging with shock.

“Didn’t mean to land you in it,” one of them said.

“Sorry,” I shrugged, adding regretfully, “If it was up to me…”

After the initial pandemonium, the show settled into a mood of joyful chaos, like a crowd scene from a Marx Brothers film. Christmas had come early to Dundee, and tonight was party night. The band provided the music and invented their own games, running races across the stage, playing hide-and-seek with each other, and musical chairs with Mac’s piano stool, and inevitably – a-tishoo, a-tishoo – they all fell down.

It was nearly ten years since I’d stood in the cramped back room of a Windsor pub, swaying, bouncing, sweating in a crush of proto-Stones fans, as we chorused “Bye… bye… bye… bye…” with Mick Jagger, one hand circling above our head like his, fingers waving farewell to Johnny B. Goode, but, through the intervening years, I had not come across an audience that followed their leader so slavishly, worshipfully, mesmerically, as this one. When Rod swayed, the entire Caird Hall congregation swayed. When he held a tartan scarf that had been thrown to him above his head, so did they. When he put his hands together, they clapped too. And every time he opened his mouth to sing, three thousand voices joined in harmony.

They all knew the familiar favourites, but many had already memorised the songs on Never A Dull Moment and were able to match his phrasing, note for note, on the previously unperformed ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’. When Ron Wood sketched the opening chords of ‘Angel’, a roar of delight erupted, not that self-congratulatory yes-we-know-this-one applause of recognition, but a spontaneous expression of joy: their moment had come, and they were going to make the most of it. More than once the singer appeared genuinely overwhelmed by the audience’s response, his voice trailing away as he conducted the choir with his arms spread wide and a broad grin beneath his nose or sank to the floor with a disbelieving shake of his head.

Although a crescendoing performance of ‘Twisting The Night Away’ should have sucked the last drop of energy from the Faces and their followers, the tattoo of stamping feet demanding an encore shook the building’s floor and walls. Rod returned first to the stage, juggling a plastic football on his thigh before booting it high into the balcony. Another ball was bounced to him, which he trapped, flicked up with a deft roll of his foot, and aimed into the rear stalls. A curly-haired promotion man from the band’s record company had a sackful of them, each stamped with the name of the Faces’ next single, ‘Cindy Incidentally’, the one entirely unfamiliar number they’d played that night. He bounced more balls across the stage as the other Faces emerged, but, lacking the singer’s consummate ball control, they swung their legs like kids who would never make the team. Rod was still going through his moves when the others launched into ‘Losing You’.

A ragged, valedictory chorus of ‘One Last Sweet Cheerio’, sung acappella, arms looped around each other’s shoulders, glasses raised in salute to the audience, then they were gone, and it was time to load out. Once the crowd had drifted to the exits, the damage done to the front rows of seats was impossible to ignore, and the silent apoplexy of the hall manager prompted pass-it-on nudges and suppressed sniggers among the crew. Like an automaton whose clockwork was running down, he would slowly stoop, pick up a piece of splintered frame or a handful of ragged upholstery and horsehair, then let it fall from his fingers into the ankle-deep debris that had been rows A, B and C.

Anxious that Pete shouldn’t hear about my incompetent policing of the Leslie from Mac, I positioned myself near the tour manager, counting on an opportunity to get my version of the problem in first. Luckily he asked me to help him with the mixer. When there were just the two of us on the balcony, I quickly explained what had happened, highlighting my dilemma over Maggie Bell and the other guests.

“Bastards,” he said, though he said it affably and without specifying who the bastards were. Then, “They’re always doing that. People’ll be backstage before the show and they’ll ask where they can watch from. Nine times out of ten the band’ll say, ‘Side of the stage,’ fully aware that everyone in the crew knows that’s not going to happen. So these people expecting VIP treatment get shoved out front with the punters and come backstage at the end of the gig, bellyaching about how badly they’ve been treated. While the band are tut-tutting and apologising for the roadie’s lack of respect, they’re giving a wink to whoever it was did it.” He concluded, “Who the fuck wants to watch a show from the side of the stage anyway? I mix the sound to be heard out front, not in the wings.” A pause, while he unhooked the snake. “They look happy.” He drew my attention to the hall manager, who had been joined by two dour men in overcoats. “Local Watch Committee, I reckon. Somehow I don’t think the Faces will be playing Dundee again.”

The load-out took a lot less time than the load-in, but it was another two hours before we were back at the hotel, where I was dispatched to the band’s hospitality suite to find out what free drink was left. Only Rod was there with John Barnes and Mike Gill, and the atmosphere was subdued. As I surreptitiously pocketed bottles of beer, I eavesdropped.

On Saturday, a night off for the Faces, a production of The Who’s Tommy with an orchestra and guest singers was being staged at the Rainbow Theatre, and Rod had been invited to repeat his performance of ‘Pinball Wizard’ from the recent all-star orchestral recording. Although it was now past midnight on Thursday, he still hadn’t committed, and it sounded as if he needed to be persuaded. Feeling uncomfortable and in the way, and clinking like a shoplifter in an off-licence, I aimed a silent hello-goodbye gesture at Mike Gill, and left.

Rod’s eleventh-hour prevarication notwithstanding, the conversation I’d overheard hadn’t seemed especially significant. He would be appearing as the Local Lad for one night only, and that a night when the Faces had their feet up, but the significance, missed by me at the time, was that with every solo outing, every new success as Rod Stewart, rather than the Faces’ singer, one more nail was banged into their coffin.

I Was A Faces Roadie (Part 1)

Monday, November 1st, 2010

It’s Thursday, 6th July 1972. The Guardian lies on the doormat, its front page torn, as usual. I’ve questioned the paperboy. He says the slot’s too narrow, but the flap has a fierce spring, and I reckon he’s frightened of getting his fingers caught. Whatever the reason, I leave the paper where it is, and walk to JJ’s, the newsagent’s next to the Greek shop on North Street. Guarding against an unusual demand for this week’s New Musical Express, he’s kept a copy for me under the counter.

My fingers are ink-stained by the time I get home. Walking along Lillieshall Road with the sun warming my back, I’ve been reading the NME or, rather, thumbing through to the centre pages, where the weekly Gig Guide was printed. Today’s edition contains a new section, which fills a third of the double-page spread. It’s a film guide. It says so in red capitals under photos of Mick Jagger in Gimme Shelter and Country Joe McDonald, Graham Nash and Santana from the Woodstock documentary. Under FILM GUIDE, I’ve read the words I was looking for: Compiled by John Pidgeon. I catch myself smiling. I’m in the NME, the UK’s leading pop paper, read weekly by a quarter of a million music fans and by me since the age of ten, when I first encountered rock’n’roll.

I pick up The Guardian, lay it on the kitchen table, and attempt to smooth the creases from the front page without worsening the tear. Momentarily I regret not having taken it with me to show the newsagent the daily damage. Another time, I tell myself, and open the NME again.

Half the space in my film guide was taken up with rudimentary listings like:

Darlington Odeon: From Nashville With Music

  • Wednesday only. Performances by Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard, Charley Pride and others prop up a lame narrative. Strictly for country fans.

But there are longer analyses of other films, my name was in 16pt and bold; what’s more, Concert For Bangla Desh, The Harder They Come and Keep On Rockin’ are all due for imminent release and a Film Guide review; and, I remind myself, it’s a start.

I fillet the middle pages from the rest of the paper, checking there’s nothing else I should read. I scan reviews of Pink Floyd at the Brighton Dome, Deep Purple at the Rainbow, the J Geils Band at the Lyceum – in which Charles Shaar Murray relates a scurrilous exchange between Muddy Waters and the band’s Peter Wolf – and Led Zeppelin in Los Angeles, which are sandwiched between ads for the Crystal Palace Garden Party with Arlo Guthrie headlining and newcomers Roxy Music footing the bill, and the Goose Fair Festival in Nottingham, where the Faces, Atomic Rooster, Status Quo and Marmalade are listed to appear. I fold the pages precisely, slip them into a hanging folder in my new, red two-drawer filing cabinet, and wonder what to write on the label.

* * *

Open a music paper in 1972, and the odds were that someone was on the road in the States with the Rolling Stones or the Moody Blues or, yes, Led Zeppelin. For bands and their record companies it was an opportunity to tell fans, you think we’re big in the UK, you should see the audiences we play to over there. For most music journalists it was an irresistible jaunt, a free holiday, give or take the 2,000 words that would have to be written in exchange.

This was five years before Freddie Laker’s Skytrain pioneered cheap transatlantic flights, so only the privileged few visited the States for pleasure, and it seemed to me that these lucky writers just couldn’t resist rubbing in – as if their enviable intimacy with the band wasn’t enough – just what their readers were missing.

Air-conditioning was unknown in the UK, so the Siberian temperature of cars and hotel lobbies was always mentioned, as were swimming pools (especially on rooftops), pancakes eaten for breakfast, any drink more exotic than beer (and beer too, as long as the bottle bore an exotic name and was drunk from the neck), cities and streets referenced in songs, radio station call signs, room service, 24-hour television, lawn sprinklers, Muhammad Ali, LA’s smog, and sunshine. Articles stuck to a similar template.

“We cruise out of Los Angeles airport and head for Hollywood… The limo was cool, the California sun kept at bay behind tinted windows… We register at the Continental Hyatt House – in universal band parlance, the Riot House – overlooking Sunset Boulevard… By the roof-top pool I catch a knowing wink as the band mug patiently for a local photographer… I watch the show from the side of the stage, close enough to count the beads of sweat which form on his oh-so-handsome face… After a third, tumultuous encore, I wait for the crowds to disperse before slipping backstage… The door opens and I am beckoned into the sanctum of their dressing room, where the air was scented with exotic smoke… We move on to a reception at the Roxy, the newest, hottest night-spot on the Strip… The band, a hand-picked posse of groupies, and the by now inevitable hangers-on head back to the hotel, where a party was promised in a penthouse suite…”

We? When I started reading New Musical Express in the 1950s, its journalists were all but invisible, their sole function to introduce the reader to the latest chart contender, any expression of their own personality generally restricted to word play: “Bobby Darin was all set to make a splash…” or “Brenda Lee was a little girl with a big, big voice…” If the star’s name didn’t form the opening words, you could be sure it would appear before the first full stop: “‘I’m no Elvis imitator,’ Cliff Richard was quick to point out…” or “If anyone can be consigned to the ‘controversial’ category, it’s Jerry Lee Lewis.”

Now journalists brazenly positioned themselves at the centre of their story, flaunting their insider status as if their main aim was to rouse the reader’s envy. And yet I remained suspicious as to how close most of them actually came to the artists with whom they claimed to be on first name terms. It might have been to mitigate my own undeniable envy that I summoned an image into my head of the writer propped up in bed, portable typewriter cradled in his lap, tapping out his half-truths while he did his best to ignore the distant, distracting hubbub of the penthouse party to which, unlike those other hangers-on, he hadn’t been invited.

Having talked my way onto the NME’s freelance staff, I was keen to do more than compile my weekly film guide, wait for the next new movie with sufficient music on its soundtrack to justify a review – those three July releases amounting to beginner’s luck rather than a trend – and pick over the unwanted left-overs in the record cupboard, while the eyes of the full-time writers, their familiar by-lines made flesh and blood, drilled into my back and I imagined them muttering, “Who the fuck does he think he is?”

If I could get a more substantial article commissioned, I figured I might feel less of an outsider. I knew that meant finding a story with a unique angle, a hook that was mine alone. It came to me, as many ideas did and still do, in the night. I would go on the road with a band, but not as yet another hanger-on, which had to be how those other writers were viewed by the musicians they were shadowing, distinguishable only by their notebook, ballpoint and cassette recorder. Me – 6’ 3”, 175lb, twenty-five, and fit – I would earn my keep, and the band’s respect, as a member of the road crew.

I scoured the NME for news of upcoming tours and noted that Ten Years After were due to hit the road. Although their status had been elevated to a level of eternally unrealisable expectation by a fortuitous appearance in the Woodstock movie, they were somehow still riding their luck and what was left of their reputation. A couple of phone calls connected me to the band’s tour manager. The job title had an impressive ring: after all, managing a band’s tour, with all that must entail, surely took some doing. But the man I met looked little different from the roadies I’d seen scurrying across the stage of the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park in that hunched stoop they seemingly believed rendered them invisible to the audience. I explained my proposal, appended with a list of credentials relating to my age, fitness, strength and intelligence, tactfully refraining from pointing out that I was younger, taller, keener-eyed and fitter-looking than he was. But he weighed my offer of unpaid help for a dismissively scant few seconds, shook his head, and said it would take a minimum of a month for me to learn to pull my weight. Excuse me? I’d seen roadies at work. What was there to learn that could possibly take a single morning and afternoon, let alone four weeks?

He concluded earnestly, “I just couldn’t take dead wood on the road.”

And there was I thinking that’s precisely what he would be doing. Other spiteful, yet sweetly consoling thoughts crowded into my head. Could Alvin Lee have been aware as he slouched, sweating, from the most famous of festival stages, his pulverised guitar held high in triumph and acknowledgement of the crowd’s applause, that Ten Years After’s career path was peaking at that very instant? That this was it – the pinnacle – a few minutes after 8pm on Sunday 17th August 1969 atop a muddy field in upstate New York? And that it would be all downhill from then on? Hang on, why the hell did I need consoling? It wasn’t me who was going to have to sit through those eleven interminably noodling minutes of ‘I’m Going Home’ every night for three long weeks.

Although Ten Years After had not been my pick of the blues bands which had emerged in the John Mayall-led blues renaissance of the late sixties, I had been prepared to go on the road with them in the cause of professional advancement. Now that they had turned me down, I relegated this trio of hopeless has-beens to a section of my record shelves that existed nowhere other than in my vindictive imagination: never-liked-the-bastards-in-the-first-place.

My next try was Cat Stevens. A university acquaintance was working for his management company, so I had a head start. The winsome teen popster turned earnestly bearded singer-songwriter might not have been one of my all-time favourites, but, unlike Ten Years After, at least his career was bouyant and I even owned one of his records. David was optimistic. He would put in a word for me. He called back a few days later.

“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, John, but I’m afraid it’s not going to happen.”

I asked why on earth not, and had to bite my tongue while David explained that, being a sensitive artist, Steve could easily be unsettled by the presence of a stranger within his aura. Give me a break. If his tour was to make money, he’d have several thousand different strangers in or around his aura every single night. Again, I wasn’t heartbroken. It didn’t sound as if touring with Steve – a name I would now never get to call him – would be a lot of laughs.

Perhaps I wasn’t aiming high enough? Certainly, going for the second division was getting me nowhere. Two upcoming UK tours had already caught my eye: Led Zeppelin and the Faces. Although I was a fan of both bands, each tour posed a problem. Led Zeppelin’s ran from late November until Christmas, but then resumed in January for a further four weeks. For the money I’d make from the article, I couldn’t afford to be out of circulation for two months, but I couldn’t imagine that dropping out halfway through would suit anyone but me.

The problem with the Faces was Rod Stewart, or so I anticipated, since repeated requests to interview him for my as yet unpublished history of British blues had got me nowhere. True, over the previous twelve months, ever since ‘Maggie May’ and Every Picture Tells A Story, the album ‘Maggie’ was from, had achieved the unprecedented feat of simultaneously topping British and American charts, the popularity of the singer who had fronted Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men whenever the band’s lanky leader took a break at the bar had sky-rocketed, but all I’d been after was half-an-hour of his time to speak on a subject which I was certain must still be close to his heart, and he hadn’t been prepared to grant me that. However, the man who had fielded my calls, publicist Mike Gill, had always said no with such faultless charm, that I knew if I got turned down again, at least it would be politely and painlessly. As it was, Mike laughed down the telephone at my proposal and promised to put it in the appropriate hands.

Days passed, and I had begun to think this was not one of my finest ideas and that I’d have to come up another one, when Mike rang to say he’d had provisional approval from the group, so I should arrange to meet their tour manager, Pete Buckland, at the Gaff Management offices at 90 Wardour Street in Soho, an address I knew as the home of the Marquee.

“I’m here to see Mr Buckland,” I told the receptionist, whose guarded smile widened to a grin.

“Are you John Pidgeon?”

“That’s me.”

I nodded. A second girl glanced up from the photocopier, then turned away, too late to hide another grin. What was so funny? I scanned the reception area; I was the only one there, it had to be me. Relax, stop being paranoid, I told myself. But no, look, now they were sharing an unmistakably conspiratorial smirk. Was someone about to play a trick on me? If so, who? And why? Maybe Mr Buckland was having a laugh at my expense? Was I going to be put in my place for presuming the Faces would want a New Musical Express journalist as part of their crew? Would I be hearing the dead wood argument again? I hadn’t yet met the man, but I was already concluding that this visit would be a waste of my time. I almost found myself wishing Cat Stevens hadn’t been so picky. But the receptionist came out from behind her desk and led me through a splintered door into the tour manager’s office.

“John Pidgeon,” she told Mr Buckland, who was, I would soon realise, one of the most un-mister of men, then she apologized for interrupting his phone call, and left. The tour manager cupped a hand over the receiver.

“Just changing the hotel reservations in Dundee,” he explained. “I usually wait till we get thrown out to do that.” He laughed and turned back to his desk, so I wasn’t certain whether he was joking. I echoed his laugh, in case he was.

When he came off the phone, we shook hands. He was a few inches shorter than me and, I guessed, a couple of years older. There was a twinkle behind his steady gaze.

“Thank fuck you’re not a midget.”


“I’ve just booked three weeks of hotels for you. You might not have been up to it.”

“So I’m-”

My response was interrupted by a compact, wirily muscular man with a beard and an expansive afro somersaulting into the room.

“Meet Chuch.”

The gymnast sprang to his feet.

“Chuch?” I repeated uncertainly.

“Otherwise known as Royden Walter Magee the third,” Pete added helpfully. I settled for Chuch.

I finished what I’d started to say before. “So I’m definitely on the tour?”

“Is the Pope a Jew?”

Struggling to suppress a satisfied grin, I exchanged cheerful goodbyes in reception and was ready to take the stairs two at a time, when one of the girls called after me, “Have fun!” and the other laughed explosively through her nose. I started a slower descent, the back of my neck hot with embarrassment, while the pair of them cackled like witches round a cauldron.

When I got home, I phoned Mike Gill to thank him for helping my project happen. He seemed embarrassed that I should have taken the trouble. When I thought we’d said all there was to say, his voice took on a serious tone.

“Whatever you do, don’t ever leave your room unlocked, and tell the desk clerk at every hotel you stay at that no one – but no one – has your permission to borrow a pass key.”

Mike’s ominous warning pushed second thoughts into my head, but even if Chuch, an American from Michigan, had acted a little oddly, Pete Buckland’s positive attitude to my involvement instantly dispelled any doubts. Besides, this was going to be my first big story.

Now that it was definitely going to happen, I needed to find an outlet for my article. Although it was only a matter of months since editor Nick Logan had found room and a fee for my film guide in the NME, I’d recently met Rolling Stone’s London editor Andrew Bailey. I knew the Faces were big in the States. How much cooler would it be to appear in America’s premier music publication? I rang Bailey, who sounded keen. That was enough for me. The next time I was in the NME’s offices in Long Acre, I looked for Logan.

“Would you be interested in a first night review of the Faces’ UK tour? It starts in Dundee. I’m going to be there.”

“I thought you were writing a tour diary.”

When did I mention my plan to him? How could I have forgotten?

“Ah, that’s for Rolling Stone,” I mumbled.



“I could take 200 words.” Which would cover a week’s rent. I wondered what Rolling Stone’s rates were.

So, on Monday 4th December, one of those overcast, depressing winter days, when the damp clings to your skin and it never gets properly light, I set off for rehearsal, as nervous as a new boy on the first day of school. The Faces hadn’t gigged for two months, so Pete Buckland had booked two days in the back room of The Fishmonger’s Arms in Wood Green, one of those legendary London music pubs where countless bands had played the blues before they became famous. Ten Years After – bless them for not hiring me – would have played there; Eric Clapton certainly did as a member of John Mayall’s Blues Breakers; Rod Stewart too, no doubt, with the Hoochie Coochie Men, Steam Packet or Shotgun Express.

Calculating that an hour would allow me more than enough time to drive from Clapham to N22, I left home at one, but traffic was thick and sluggish as treacle, making me ten minutes late for the scheduled two o’clock start. I parked behind a yellow truck in an alley at the back of the building, and hurried to the door, which was locked. I tried it again, looked for another way in, then went round to the front, to the part of the building that was a pub. I pushed through the door.

“What kind of time d’you call this?” Pete Buckland demanded, tapping his watch. I was ready to explain about the traffic, when he grinned and said, “Drink?”

Other voices chorused, “Another little drink wouldn’t do us any harm.”

While Pete went to the bar, I sat down, and Chuch introduced Russ, another American, and Andy. Then, as we drank, I listened to their banter, answered questions I was asked, and eventually wondered aloud what time the Faces’ two o’clock rehearsal might start.

“Well, the first gig’s on Thursday, so hopefully some time before then.”

We stayed in the bar until closing time, then unlocked the rehearsal room, where the Faces’ equipment had been set up. The draughty hall was in need of refurbishment, its décor untouched for at least a decade, judging from the scraps of posters here and there advertising bands that once must have packed the place. Wall-to-wall bodies would be the only way to have warmed this tatty venue, I speculated, because the stingy radiators weren’t up to it.

It was past four by the time the band were all there, not that their late arrival was a spur to work. They fooled around with bits and pieces of songs, cracking each other up with a shambolic chorus of the Osmonds’ current hit, ‘Crazy Horses’, Rod pulling faces that I recognised from photographs. There was more laughter when Pete spotted a notice on the wall – ‘In the interests of local residents you are requested to keep NOISE to a minimum’ – which he declaimed as if the size of the letters was a guide to voice level.

I spent the scant hour the Faces were there with my head down, busying myself with nothing in particular, simply anxious to avoid eye contact that might prompt a request I wouldn’t be able to carry out. There was talk of gaffers and crowns, neither of which meant anything to me, until Pete ripped the sign he’d read from the wall and asked where the gaffers was. He was handed a roll of broad silver-grey adhesive tape, which he used to stick the sign to the side of the console on which he balanced the band’s instruments and Rod’s voice. I’d already learned that was the mixing desk, and made a mental note to ask him about the crowns, some time when no one else was in earshot.

The next afternoon, the final rehearsal, the band made at least a half-hearted effort to run through their set. With no Faces album since 1971’s A Nod’s As Good As A Wink, the new material the band would be playing was from Stewart’s follow-up to his breakthrough Every Picture Tells A Story album, Never A Dull Moment, released in August and already the source of two big singles, the chart-topping ‘You Wear It Well’ and a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Angel’, which had taken up residence in the top ten in time for the tour.

As the seventies progressed, Stewart would appear hell-bent on making it hard for his apologists, of which I was one, to stick up for him. Turning tax exile in Beverley Hills didn’t help; nor did a deliberate repositioning of press priority from the music weeklies to the red tops, on whose front pages he was happy to pose in outfits the fabled Emperor would have left in the wardrobe, even if loyalists were able to divert the blame for his worst sartorial excesses – a boater, for Bertie’s sake! – on to his ‘Bond girl’ partner Britt Ekland. And he had recorded ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ in 1978, it was pointless trying to convince anyone that Rod wasn’t a tosser.

But you didn’t become as successful as Rod did by being a tosser, and he wasn’t one. Having served his apprenticeship in the tall shadow of Long John Baldry, then scrapped for his share of attention amid the rumbustious cut and thrust of the Jeff Beck Group, in 1968 he was advanced £1000 by Mercury Records’ London chief Lou Reizner to record a solo album. Although it wasn’t until his third record, 1971’s breakthrough Every Picture Tells A Story, that Stewart was named as producer, Reizner had done little to earn his production credit on the first two, according to his signing. “He sat there and made sure we were all in tune,” Rod told me, “but he didn’t need to be there.”

What Every Picture did was to fine tune a process Stewart had pursued since the start of his solo career, when he had assembled a group of musicians (including Ron Wood and Ian McLagan) with whom he would continue to record until his move to the US in 1975, and hit upon a loose, but abiding formula for his albums’ musical content: a handful of originals, a couple of folksy tunes, and several reworkings of old or recent favourites of his, always imaginative, sometimes surprising. And if his early attempts at lyrical themes could be dismissed as clumsy, even mawkish, they were nonetheless identifiable stepping stones towards ‘Maggie May’’s consummate distillation of adolescent sexuality. How many solo singers have been able to realistically regard themselves as producer, arranger, songwriter, and a skilful interpreter of others’ songs? I’m not counting, but I know Rod Stewart was one.

Since every new hit as Rod Stewart, rather than the Faces, eroded not only their fans’ notion of the group as musical equals, but the musicians’ own sense of their individual worth, it was a paradox that Rod’s fourth – and, so far, most successful – solo album should be the closest of all his recordings, in sound and spirit, to a Faces record. By the end of the afternoon the set list included no less than five numbers from Never A Dull Moment : ‘True Blue’, which I found out a few days later would have been a Faces track if sessions for their fourth album hadn’t slipped so far behind schedule; Sam Cooke’s ‘Twisting The Night Away’; Etta James’ ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’; and the two hit singles, which, thanks to Chuch’s imperfect spelling, appeared as ‘You Were It Well’ and ‘Angle’, not that I pointed out the errors. I wouldn’t have felt right scoring points off him, having let him down earlier.

It was Chuch who had told me that crowns were the PA amps, but it was also Chuch who had sent me out to change a $100 bill Ian McLagan had handed him. He assured me he’d got one changed only that week in Marks & Spencer, but it surely couldn’t have been the Wood Green branch, where the cashier looked at me as if I’d asked for paisley Y-fronts. There was a Barclays Bank further along the High Road, so I tried there.

“Certainly, sir. If I could just see your passport?”

Cue actorly patting of pockets, impatient tutting, unmistakable signs of self-reproach.

“I must’ve left it at home.”

When I handed the note back to Chuch, he shared a look with the keyboard player which left me in no doubt that I’d failed my first test. Otherwise, thankfully, the band acted as if I wasn’t there. They showed little interest in Andy either, their indifference explained when Pete told me he was hired help, taken on for the duration of the tour. Only Pete and the two Americans were on the Faces payroll, their favoured status confirmed when they were presented with monogrammed uniforms to wear on stage, black satin waistcoat and trousers, a more appropriate outfit for a cocktail barman than a roadie, it struck me, though I kept the thought to myself.

The Fishmonger’s Arms backed onto a school, and when Rod, the band’s lone non-smoker, stepped outside to suck in some fresh air, the windows beyond the playground filled with waving teenagers, and, come four o’clock, the alley behind the pub filled with laxly uniformed boys chanting ‘Rod-nee’ in the cadence familiar to QPR fans and girls with heavy make-up and their skirts hitched up, who drew initialled hearts in the dirty paintwork of the singer’s yellow Lamborghini.

Ronnie Lane

Monday, November 1st, 2010

It may well have been his ‘Song Of A Baker’ on the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake that first had me believing that Ronnie Lane was wise beyond his years. The opening line caught my attention. “There’s wheat in the field and water in the stream,” he sang, which had me wondering, “A song that opens with the basic ingredients of bread? That’s not something you hear every day.” Then, as the theme unfolded, I realised that it was about more than baking. What the singer was saying was that as long as there’s wheat in the field and water in the stream, there’s no reason why you should ever go hungry or thirsty, provided you’re prepared to make the effort to turn that wheat into flour and to fetch drinking water from the stream.

In essence, and without finger-wagging, ‘Song Of A Baker’ was preaching the benefits of self-sufficiency, and in 1968 that struck me as deep for a pop song. Ronnie even made the loaf’s ‘texture and… flavour’ a rhyme for the baker’s ‘labour’. I found out later that he had borrowed his theme from a Sufi parable. To have considered the writing of a Muslim mystic suitable source material was impressive erudition from a 21-year-old from Manor Park in east London.

I guessed the song was Ronnie’s because he sang it rather than Steve Marriott, as clear an assertion of ownership as John Lennon singing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ or Paul McCartney ‘Eleanor Rigby’, and it was because of that conclusion, no doubt, that I listened more closely than usual to the lyrics. Like Lennon-McCartney, the joint Marriott-Lane credit was essentially a convenience, since few of their songs were either written in the same room or derived from equal input. Across a handful of singles or the two sides of an album those individually unequal contributions would balance up, but, more importantly, as writers, each needed the other’s spur. The songs that emerged from their association could not have been written in isolation, only with the direct or indirect input of the partner. “We would come up with something to knock each other out,” he explained, so, with ‘Itchycoo Park’, the Small Faces’ most famous song, Ronnie had knocked Steve out with a melody he had lifted from a hymn, ‘God Be In My Head’, and words he had concocted after reading a magazine article about the attractions of Oxford, which had spotlighted the city’s “dreaming spires” and its “bridge of sighs.” “It wasn’t me that came up with ‘I feel inclined to blow my mind, get hung up, feed the ducks with a bun’ – that wasn’t me!” he protested, though arguably Marriott’s tongue-in-cheek, East Ender’s take on the spirit of ’67 contributed as much to the song’s success as Ronnie’s verses.

The real worth of the melody and poetry that Ronnie brought to their partnership was only revealed once Steve Marriott had abandoned the Small Faces to form Humble Pie. Whereas Ronnie continued to develop as a songwriter, his one-time mentor atrophied. In fact, it’s hard to come up with a single notable song with Marriott’s name on after the Small Faces’ melancholy cheerio, ‘The Universal’.

Humble Pie’s American fans were at least partly to blame for his slump. After all, it was they who cheered his black-white-boy shtick and whooped and hollered at his vocal histrionics and hyperactive posturing, and, if all it took to send an audience into an orgasmic frenzy and propel an album as unimaginative as 1972’s Smokin’ into the US top ten was a handful of overloud blues chords, a repertoire of – for a pint-sized Cockney – improbably throaty growls and trills, and a stage persona prone to throw extravagant shapes, why bother with the hard slog of actually writing words and a tune?

Ronnie’s songs, meanwhile, fitted the born-again Faces perfectly, nowhere more obviously than on the group’s third and most cohesive album, A Nod’s As Good As A Wink… To A Blind Horse. Despite sharing their blokey, anti-intellectual, working-class-and-proud-of-it philosophy, his songs are not only musically less flamboyant than the Rod Stewart-Ron Wood rockers, but lack their rampant hedonism. Even in a song about sex, where the road-wise roué of ‘Stay With Me’ trades a groupie’s promise to be gone by the morning for a post-coital cab fare home, Ronnie, in ‘You’re So Rude’, was reliving an in flagrante teenage fumble in the front room of his parents’ house; while in ‘Debris’, as if consciously counterbalancing the rowdy bravado of ‘Too Bad’, Ronnie explores childhood memories of his father, underpinning the evident reality of both these songs by setting them with chronological precision on a Sunday morning and evening, and, in lines like “Oh, you was my hero,” by deliberately expressing himself in vernacular that would have earned him a detention from his English teacher.

*  *  *

“If you’re going to be on the road, you might as well be on the road,” he once told me, “because if you don’t totally accept that you’re on the road and that’s it, that’s your lot, private jets back to London for a few hours a day ain’t going to make it home. What’s wrong with life on the road? I can’t understand this rushing there and rushing back business.”

True to his word, he would do his best not to rush on the Faces’ US tour in the spring of 1973, renting a Winnebago camper whenever time and distance allowed. Even so, somewhere between Minneapolis and New York an unarguable truth hit him: this wasn’t why he’d learned to play guitar, not this uninspiring, sapping routine of travel, gig, hotel, no. The equally inescapable consequence was that he would have to leave the group.

Once he had started thinking that way, it wasn’t hard to come up with other reasons for not staying in the Faces. He was in no doubt that Rod held back his best songs, as he had most recently with ‘True Blue’, for his own records. He would not turn a blind eye to the looming shadow of Rod’s solo success, which he recognized as a threat, not just to the longevity, but to the very entity of the Faces. He couldn’t ignore the slow, but unstoppable spread of separate billing on posters – Rod Stewart and the Faces – by promoters bothered more by the prospect of missing a single potential ticket sale than bruising musicians’ egos. And he felt gagged as a singer, especially on stage, where his vocal role was reduced to backing harmonies and the opening verse of ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ – “and not in my key either, you can guess whose key it was in.” He was also frustrated by the slow progress of the Faces’ follow-up to A Nod’s As Good As A Wink, especially Rod’s infrequent attendance at sessions and unhelpful appraisal of tracks necessarily recorded in his absence, and, when Ooh La La was eventually released, he was disappointed by its critical reception, and appalled by Rod’s faithless distancing of himself from the record.

On 12 May 1973, as the Faces were waiting to go on stage at the Civic Centre in Roanoke, West Virginia, Ronnie said the words that had been used countless times by different members of the band, but until now only in fun, parodying a pop star’s foot-stamping tantrum at a trivial setback, like a lukewarm cup of tea or a brandy-and-coke with no ice: “I’m leaving the group!” He left no one in doubt that he meant it. During the set he spat an obscenity at Ian McLagan, the keyboard player retaliating with a vicious kick which left 10,000 West Virginians wondering whether it was part of the act. One more US date, four nights to fulfill in London, then Ronnie was gone.

Fortuitously, the timing of his exit from the Faces and his decision to pursue a more eclectic, rootsier music closely followed the surge of a forceful undercurrent in London’s music community. Either bruised by the business or uninterested in what it had to offer, bands like Brinsley Schwarz, Kilburn and the High Roads, Bees Make Honey and Eggs Over Easy had deliberately taken a detour from the well-mapped highway to Hitsville onto a musical B-road, where they could perform, freed from the pressures of commerce or fashion, on an array of interchangeable instruments, a seemingly off-the-cuff mix of R&B, rockabilly, country, jazz, even post-war, pre-rock’n’roll jump jive – styles altogether too diverse to lump together under any more meaningful banner than the name of the modest venues where the bands chose to play. Pub rock, as it was known, was to provide three key members of Ronnie’s next band, Slim Chance: Bees Make Honey’s Ruan O’Lochlainn (saxophone, keyboards, guitar); Charlie Hart (keyboards, fiddle, accordion) from Ian Dury’s ramshackle first band, Kilburn and the High Roads; while the group Steve Simpson (guitar, mandolin, fiddle) left behind became pub-rock regulars as Meal Ticket.

Slim Chance brought a broad musicality to the melodic charm, conversational lyrics, and subtle themes of Ronnie’s songs, and, bolstered by this band, his voice, by his own 1975 description “an instrument I only picked up eighteen months ago”, grew strong, emotive and sure, able to skip nimbly and sure-footedly along the melody lines. Whenever he sang, it was hard not to smile, harder still not to join in.

The multi-instrumental abilities of O’Lochlainn, Hart and Simpson weren’t employed to impress, but to allow Ronnie to follow diverse musical directions and to provide his material with an apparently infinite variety of sympathetic settings. On record the unseen interchange of instruments was efficient, but, owing in part to that invisibility, unremarkably low-key. On stage, however, once his musicians had freed themselves from the recorded arrangements and made the songs their own, a Slim Chance gig was an intoxicating event, a cross between a pub sing-song and a country hoedown. The set was not only neatly balanced, but, in the manner of pub rockers, wilfully challenged the convention that confines set lists to past hits and excerpts from the current album. Naturally, Ronnie didn’t ignore ‘How Come?’, his first (and only substantial) solo hit, or its bafflingly underachieving follow-up, ‘The Poacher’, but both were enormously enhanced in live performance.

The chorus of ‘How Come?’ became impossible not to sing along with, such an audible show of public affection endowing it with a far heftier status than that of a single that hadn’t quite made the top ten, while the somewhat prissy oboe and string arrangement that had made ‘The Poacher’ a lightweight 45 was replaced by the duelling fiddles of O’Lochlainn and Simpson to create a show-stopping knees-up. Oldies Ronnie had revived, like Fats Domino’s ‘Blue Monday’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ (both on 1975’s Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance), were there too, but several live Slim Chance highlights, notably covers of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sweet Virginia’ and Leroy Van Dyke’s ‘Walk On By’, never made it onto record.

His new-found freedom meant he could even find room for the forty-year-old Depression ballad, ‘Brother, Can You Spare Me A Dime’, a song weighed with poignant meaning in the wake of 1974’s Passing Show, an ill-judged attempt to take his music to the people, when a caravan of decrepit circus vehicles limped from town to town with insufficient advance publicity to attract enough paying customers to the big top, pushing him to the very edge of financial ruin. What bailed him out was the American Airstream caravan, sleek as a cigar tube, that he had had kitted out as a mobile recording studio during his last days with the Faces. Hired out to Led Zeppelin, The Who and Bad Company, it generated enough income to disguise, albeit temporarily, his fragile finances.

In the autumn of 1975 Ronnie used that mobile studio to record a third album at his farm on the Welsh borders. With One For The Road he created something unique in British music: a genuine form of native country music, no capitals, no inverted commas, not anglicized Nashville, just music that came out of the country and could not conceivably have been created anywhere else. When that record didn’t sell, he had to let the band go, unable to fund the full-time wages of five musicians and a road crew from his own, diminishing income.

Broke, he approached Pete Townshend for a loan. An old pal and, like Ronnie, a follower of Meher Baba, Townshend turned him down, but proposed instead that they should make a record together, which, if for no other reason than that it represented half a solo album by the leader of The Who, was bound to generate record company interest and, with it, an advance: a financial boost for Ronnie without the burden of debt. Although Rough Mix was less than a true collaboration, with only the title track co-written by Townshend and Lane, the album contained the most enchanting, sublime song Ronnie ever wrote.

It’s a cliché to call a song timeless, but ‘Annie’ sounded as old as the century. It could also have been the work of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie or George Gershwin. Or a century older and by John Newton or Charles Wesley, since, sung in church by a choir, it would certainly have sounded like a hymn. Expressed most directly in its “God bless us all” plea, the song was infused throughout with a hymnal tone, its melody uplifting, its message that in spite of mortality, life was ongoing, that even in death was optimism. A hymn by Ronnie Lane would almost be worth going to church for.

An unforeseen outcome of the Rough Mix sessions was an immediate opportunity for Ronnie to resuscitate Slim Chance, opening for Eric Clapton on his spring 1977 tour. Clapton, whose acoustic work on the Rough Mix sessions highlighted the selfless restraint and sensitivity he could bring to a supporting role in the recording studio and earned him a co-writer’s credit on ‘Annie’, had fallen under Ronnie’s spell, envying the freewheeling eclecticism and determinedly low-key approach that offered an antidote to the pyrotechnics commanded by Clapton’s own audiences. The guitarist even adopted Ronnie’s Romany look of bucolic shirt, scarf and waistcoat.

In his early thirties the symptoms of multiple sclerosis became harder to ignore, and the next time I saw him he walked as if he was permanently tipsy. Being forced by the remorseless creep of immobility to accept the role of observer rather than participant intensified the aura of wisdom that had surrounded Ronnie as long as I had known him. More than ever, he came across like an ancient sage, one with a long lifetime’s knowledge and experience to impart, the appearance of a younger man adopted to disguise his age. But if increased wisdom was a side effect of MS, it was a cruel trade-off.

In 1984, Julia and I had a son who was born too soon and lived for a day and a half. Ronnie telephoned with a question.

“You know when you see a baby bird dead on the ground? Well, if you look up, there’ll be a nest, and in that nest there’ll be more, healthy babies. It’s like a little Pidgeon has fallen out of the nest. There’ll be more, you’ll see.”

There was more solace, humanity and hope in that succinct analogy than in a hundred Bible stories or Sunday sermons. Julia and I weren’t short of love or support, but nothing made the future look less bleak than the simple, life-affirming image suggested by Ronnie.

He was living in Kentish Town, but within weeks had moved to Texas, where he had been promised regular access to hyperbaric oxygen treatment in Houston. Because the claims made in some quarters for HBO treatment encouraged unreasonable expectations for what it could achieve, the therapy was controversial, but Ronnie knew, having tried it in London, that spending an hour a week in a sealed chamber where the normal amount of oxygen in the air was multiplied many times worked for him. It wasn’t a cure for MS, but it alleviated some of the symptoms. Undeniably, it made him feel better.

I was keen to visit him, but hard up. Someone told me you could fly for free as a DHL courier in exchange for escorting their mail sacks through customs, so I signed up for the Houston run. There was a 48-hour stop-over, and I spent two nights at the house Ronnie shared with his carer, James ‘Big Bucks’ Burnett, an amiably goofy young Texan who drove Ronnie to and from his weekly sessions at the HBO Medical Centre and for a daily swim at the YMCA. I was happy to be able to tell Ronnie that Julia was pregnant again, and repeated our thanks for the help and hope he had given us.

“There’s another Pidgeon in the nest.”

He tilted his head as he looked at me, one eye slightly off to one side, his bony fingers cupped over the top of his walking stick.

“You sure it was me said that?”

Part of Ronnie’s exercise regime was a daily walk, but even though spring had not yet turned to summer, Houston’s climate was debilitating, and I watched him wilt, oppressed by the cloying humidity, so I was relieved to learn that he had moved to Austin, 130 miles west, in Texas’s more temperate hill country. I visited him there in March 1990. He had signed up for a short tour of Japan, a bold undertaking for someone whose central nervous system was under daily attack. Having recruited a band of Austin musicians, he twisted Ian McLagan’s arm to play keyboards. I’d wanted to record them both for my Radio 1 series, Classic Albums, for which the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake was an overdue candidate, and figured that, with Mac at his side, Ronnie would be a livelier interviewee than on his own. I was right. The interview, recorded at Ronnie’s house between rehearsals, was punctuated with laughter and impromptu repartee, hilarity I hadn’t heard from them since 1973. But, back in Austin two years later, when I phoned him to say I was in town and would love to drop by, he replied, “No, that won’t be possible.”

“I only want to pop in to say hello.”

“Sorry, mate.”

“See you then, Ronnie.”



Like George Harrison, Ronnie Lane played in the shade of louder talents. Like him too, he left an undeniably impressive body of work. His influence is quiet, but enduring. Ronnie Lane mattered, and still does. And I haven’t even mentioned his bass-playing.