“Can you show me a dream, Can you show me one that’s better than mine?”
“Itchycoo Park” is a song that means pure happiness, no drug references to an 11 year-old music lover in 1967. “It’s all too beautiful!” shimmered on the airwaves and record players all over the states. It was also the last Small Faces tune to be heard on American radio for a long time.
But I kept up. I couldn’t understand why there was no follow-up. “Little Tin Soldier” and “Lazy Sunday” were nearly as perfect as “Itchycoo Park” but it was obvious the band just didn’t have the promotion power. I was an avid reader of anything to do with music. During the Summer of Love and for a couple of years after, Hit Parader and 16 Magazine were it. If you were a music lover and did not live in New York or LA, there were no import New Music Express or Melody Makers coming your way. Lucky for me, in the late '60s both Hit Parader and 16 had an Anglo-slant with news and gossip on bands that most kids in America never get to hear on the radio. I still have those magazines and refresh my childhood memories every year or so by reading them cover to cover. The quality of the writing is so far above the music rags of today (other than Mojo and Uncut), it is a shame.
I was obsessed with the Small Faces. Their combination of Beatles cute and Stones bad-boy was evident to even me, a kid listening to records. I would request their albums at the local music or dime stores and wait for weeks for that little post card telling me it had arrived and to promptly bring my $2.99 for mono or $3.99 for stereo or else. Else, meaning back to the rack-jobber in a week or two. Until Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, the only LPs available in the US were bastardized compilations of British singles and b-sides but we didn’t know that at the time – they were all great.
Looking back, it is pretty bizarre how much music changed and the audience grew with the artists from 1965-1970. I am sure the evolution of the Beatles from Rubber Soul to Abbey Road helped but practically every talented act progressed in a sensible fashion. Ogden’s was as high as the Small Faces could go, personally and artistically. The round-cut cover to simulate a “tobacco” can was the height of their musical and artistic statements. It would have been difficult to follow this song-cycle with a normal “10 pieces of shit and a hit single” (to quote Keith Richards). It would not work for these guys.
I remember being crushed when reading in 16 that Steve Marriott had left the Small Faces and was forming a group with UK teenybopper Peter Frampton of The Herd. There was a promising footnote, the remaining Small Faces – Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones, had added vocalist Rod Stewart and guitarist Ronnie Wood. Both had been known for their work with the Jeff Beck Group – that was resume enough for me! I ordered and received the LP, First Step. By 1969-70, I played it over and over but for some reason, I just couldn’t click with the tracks. The rhythm section was still solid but the songs were not very good especially when the group had to follow the Small Faces’ Ogden’s and Jeff Beck Group’s Truth and Beck-Ola. Thankfully, Long Player and their first million-seller, A Nod is As Good As A Wink To A Blind Horse followed quickly establishing the band as players in the ever-widening trip to the top.
Needless to say, over the next four years things would change with music, politics, art and science. The success of The Faces (after a name change and a little money to write better songs), and Rod Stewart’s duel solo LPs, they became a part of every rock and roll kid’s DNA. By 1975, with the Beatles five years in the past, the only two bands that mattered to me and many other '70s rockers were The Faces and The Rolling Stones. I played bass in a band whose set-list consisted of a few originals, a few Stones and Jeff Beck Group covers and practically every great song from the Faces and Rod Stewart cannon of material. We didn’t work a lot but had a great time playing the songs we loved.
More years and changes go by and I find myself managing a music theater in Lenox, MA in the Berkshire Mountains. That was my 18-hour a day job but I seemed to find the time to keep my hand directly in the music business. I had known John Lombardo since just before he left 10,000 Maniacs. After several years of playing the same clubs and getting nowhere – even after recording two well-received independent records and a major label debut, John took the road less taken and left his band.
The immediate click between us was in our love of the same music. We were possibly the only people who could discuss the history of the Small Faces and The Faces in detail as well as the merits of throwaway pop songs. John always bested me in rock and roll Trivial Pursuit but I had the key to the car or van. After a few false starts John came up with a winning combination by forming a duo with vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Mary Ramsey. I did some fancy footwork and got a self-financed demo into the hands of Rykodisc, the cool reissue label of the moment in the late '80s and early '90s. Unbeknownst to us, the cool indie labels had the same philosophy as the big guys that started in the early '90s and caused the downfall of the industry – get the material as cheap as you can, promise the moon, and drop them if they don’t sell a million copies.
I had enough funds to start the record while Ryko started slowly working out the details with our lawyer. We called in favors from old friends Mitch Easter, producer of note and studio owner, and John’s compadres in 10,000 Maniacs guitarist Rob Buck and drummer Jerry Augustyniak. By the middle of the summer 1990 we had a rough mix of an album that sounded like a perfect cross between Fairport Convention and early '70s radio pop. One of my strong suits was finding musicians, writers, and artists who were missing in action so I asked John if he had any ideas of guests for us to ask to contribute to the record. He immediately said two names that resonated with me – Joey Molland from Badfinger and Ronnie Lane.
Joey was an easy search since I had heard he was doing demos for a solo record with Rykodisc but Ronnie was a bit of a challenge. I contacted every manager, label person, and booking agent with a request for a number for Ronnie Lane. By this time everyone knew of his trouble with MS and a business partner absconding with all his funds. I was not surprised when every door seemed shut. Ironically, the man who signed 10,000 Maniacs to Elektra, Howard Thompson, came up with a number and, as with Rykodisc, I asked them to give both Joey and Ronnie my office number and call any time.
What happened next is fodder for the sit-com my life seems to be from time to time. I am sitting at my desk in the middle of the day, line one rings and I pick it up casually, “Dan here,” a British voice says, “Dan, this is Joe Molland.” Even though he referred to himself as Joe, there was no mistake in my mind that it was JOEY!
“Hi Joe, I guess the folks at Ryko told you why I wanted to speak with you?”
He barely had time to answer when line 2 rang and I asked him to hold a sec (keep in mind, this was before voice-mail), I answer with my usual, “Dan here” and the soft Brit voice on the line says, “Dan, Ronnie Lane.”
Now I am in a quandary that seems to last an eternity. I have two people that helped define my life for at least five of my most important years and I have to ask one to call back. I think I went into survival mode and, after asking Ronnie to hold a second, I answered Joey with a request could I call him back shortly. He politely gave me his number and said anytime.
During the next hour I was able to talk to both Ronnie and Joey about the record and get commitments for their contributions. John had already picked out the songs he wanted them to guest on. I think he had enough faith in my tracking genes to consider it done before I had physically spoken to them. In all honesty, I also felt that way but I had no idea they would call at exactly the same time!
Joey would not fly due to a long-time phobia but agreed to take a train from his Minnesota home to record with us in upstate New York. Due to his MS, Ronnie could not travel but suggested a studio in Austin to record his tracks. We didn’t have much money in our budget so all I could offer each was $1,000 dollars and expenses. They both agreed and, for a while, life could not be more beautiful. John and I were beside ourselves to be recording with two people we had loved for so long and Mary, being from another generation, was just happy for our enthusiasm.
Joey’s session was booked first and I remember anxiously waiting at the Troy, NY Amtrak station of the arrival of his train. I am never visibly nervous when meeting an admired hero but, even if I was, Joey immediately put me at ease. During our drive to Lenox, we stopped at a streamline diner for lunch and his sense of humor and stories made me feel as if I had known him for decades. I had known him since a real music fan cannot hear a song like “Sweet Tuesday Morning” without knowing the writer. It sounds hokey, but it is true, or used to be.
As we neared Lenox, Joey asked if I had any liquor in my house. I didn’t but we stopped to purchase a too-large bottle of his favorite brandy. Thank God nothing was scheduled for the next day as the hours following were spent asking questions and Joey telling so many great and hilarious stories. He talked about his first recording session at Abbey Road and sitting in the canteen having breakfast. Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, and George Harrison sat next to him and he said he just shook with the knowledge that he had “made it.” He told me the gory details of the way the band was fucked by management from the beginning. He also recounted his feelings after Pete Ham and Tom Evans' suicides and his struggle to maintain a normal family life with his American wife and kids.
The song John had chosen for Joey was a track called, “I Became Alone.” Joey doubled Rob Buck’s prominent electric guitar and played an amazing slide solo that was complete in one take – and one take in the double tracking. When he sang the vocal line as a duet with Mary, the song was complete. Another night of brandy and conversation followed and, when I took him to the train station, I was sad to see him leave. Not because of his musical history but because he was now a friend.
Our recording budget had been shot by the time it came to flying to Texas for Ronnie’s overdub session so I had no choice but to opt out of the trip. John, the ultimate music historian, had asked Augie Meyers, keyboardist for the Sir Douglas Quintet to add organ and accordian to a couple of tracks while in Austin and that pushed us to the limit but well worth the extra cash. I was in daily contact with Ronnie and his wife Susan and wanted to make sure he was comfortable with the track and what John had envisioned him adding. I am not sure Ronnie had even listened to the demo but was thrilled to be sought out so fervently and Susan was glad to get the money.
John had written a song called “We Have Nothing” just after his departure from 10,000 Maniacs and I always suspected it was about that traumatic situation. He had told me about watching them perform on The Tonight Show as he worked in a Buffalo restaurant. The lyrics to the song fit perfectly for a duet with Ronnie and the experience both had with their respective bands. I knew Ronnie was not in great shape just from our conversations. He never once complained but the pain was in his voice. Even if we didn’t get a usable track with him it was worth the money to give him such a boost. I hated to look it that way but I had my doubts as to whether he was up to a complete session.
John’s phone calls kept me up to date on the sessions and a follow-up call from Ronnie had me excited about the track. By 1990 the market value of having Joey and Ronnie on the record was pretty low but it didn’t matter. John and I had the chance to work with two artists who, as I said earlier, defined our lives for an important period in time. What I was not prepared for was the pain in the track. Not just physical but emotional pain as well.
Ronnie basically double-tracked John’s vocal but listening to the rough mixes, I couldn’t see how we could use anything without blatantly exploiting him. His plaintive singing was not just painful to hear but not useful to the track. The credit goes to the mixing engineer, Armand John Petri, he made it work in the world before autotune. “We have Nothing” would be Ronnie’s last track to be released. He recorded one more session before his passing but it remains in the vaults.
Collecting Ronnie’s recordings after The Faces, one can hear a man who only cares about the music and does not give a wit if it sells or makes everyone happy – it makes him happy and the people who get it, love it. With his mobile recording studio and sheer talent, Ronnie could have been one of the richest producers in the world but he chose to play it out for the same reason he got into music as a teen – for the love of it.