The Small Faces and the Faces are two of the greatest bands in British rock history, and the story of both bands is remarkably similar: a mercurial, egotistical lead singer being driven to the very peak of his game by a backing band of phenomenal talent.
Ian McLagan—who died yesterday after suffering a stroke at his home in Austin, Texas—was the keyboard player in both bands, an essential a component of their sound and the secret to both band’s ability to switch styles with ease. His swelling Hammond B3 organ—named Betsy, the same one he used from 1969 onwards, whether playing with the Faces, the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan—would give a lift and a push to choruses while his little piano filigrees added sparkle and life to verses. His role was to make the song fly and he was a master at it.
In recent years he leant his skills to Billy Bragg, taking the same supportive role in his backing band, which was a thrill for Billy, as he’d been a teenage Faces devotee.
I have lost a dear friend and British rock has lost one of its greatest players. RIP Ian McLagan https://t.co/3OOKWw4ciR
— Billy Bragg (@billybragg) December 3, 2014
Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols was also among the music stars to pay tribute. The Pistols had covered the Small Faces’ “Whatcha Gonna Do About It” at their early gigs, with Johnny Rotten changing the lyrics so he could sneer “I want you to know that I hate you baby, I want you to know I don’t care.”
Here’s just a brief selection of some of the many astonishing musical moments that simply would not have been a fraction as magical without the touch of Ian’s supple, supportive fingers:
“Itchycoo Park” – The Small Faces
The early Small Faces modeled themselves on the work of Booker T and the MGs, creating diamond hard gems like “Whatcha Gonna Do About It” from the best of American R&B. As the mod mid-’60s inflated and transformed into psychedelia, the band branched out, creating sumptuous acid fantasies like this. Crucially, even while languidly relaxing in a rainbow-dappled haze, the band’s soul inspiration is still apparent, running through the song like a steel backbone.
“Lazy Sunday” – The Small Faces
There was something of a vogue for light-hearted music hall numbers in the ’60s pop scene, thanks largely to the work of the Kinks and the Bonzo Dog Band. The Small Faces brought their own Dickensian barrow boy energy to proceedings, with Steve Marriott revisiting the role of the Artful Dodger (albeit a more grown-up version of that same wayward character) that he played on the London stage as a child actor. Naturally it’s the barrelhouse piano that drives those busy verses along.
“Tin Soldier” – The Small Faces
The first 40 seconds of this song are about as good as 1960s British rock music gets. Dramatic organ swells, a piano flourish, sparkling, dancing drums and a devilish curlicue of distorted guitar. And that’s before the song has even properly got started. It’s an immaculate confection, an example of musical teamwork as its best and a good portion of the heavy lifting comes from keyboard corner.
“Stay With Me” – The Faces
Another strong ensemble performance, this time with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood taking the place of the departed Steve Marriott and with the emphasis taken away from histrionic psychedelia and music hall whimsy and placed firmly towards American roots rock. So a little boogie piano here and there works wonders, whether in the speedy introduction and ending, or the grinding funk of the verses and choruses.
“Debris” – The Faces
And finally, a suitable song of remembrance written and sung by the great Ronnie Lane for his dad. It’s taken from the 1972 album A Nod’s As Good As A Wink, the definitive Faces album, and again, it’s those sparkling touches of country piano and that keening organ in the choruses that lift the song. In this song alone, Ian fulfils a similar roots rocking role to both Richard Manuel (piano) and Garth Hudson (organ) in the Band.
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