I Was A Faces Roadie (Part 1)

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.

Comments are closed.