Thursday, 1 October 2009

The SMALL FACES: Ogden's Nut Gone Flake

(#57: 29 June 1968, 6 weeks)

Track listing: Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake/Afterglow (Of Your Love)/Long Agos And Worlds Apart/Rene/Song Of A Baker/Lazy Sunday/Happiness Stan/Rollin’ Over/The Hungry Intruder/The Journey/Mad John/Happydaystoytown

Given that it is now the summer of 1968, thoughts may drift to which of these albums is going to be the first premature number one of the seventies, the one which best signposts the decade to come. Were this to be considered purely in terms of studio sonics and sophistication of production techniques then Sgt Pepper may well be the answer; even before the recent remastering its sounds do not feel as if they belong in the same timescale as Please Please Me. But a record such as Pepper could only have come out of a set of ethics and beliefs which belonged firmly in 1967.

Equally the first bona fide Mod entry in this tale could hardly be expected to have been created without the Pepper precedent, although the more obvious precedent, or competition, was Townshend and the Who, whose A Quick One and The Who Sell Out came out either side of Pepper. The Small Faces were portrayed and marketed as representing East End flash against the Who’s West End art, Manor Park matter-of-factism versus Acton escapism, Stratford strut vying with Shepherd’s Bush shrug.

But Ogden’s, from its circular stoned-allegory of a tobacco replica sleeve inwards, represented their dash for freedom. Was it to lead to limitless horizons or an unexpected dead end? Their discography, split between Decca and Immediate, was already messy and the antithesis of the Beatles’ precisely-marketed programme of works. But Andrew Loog Oldham sensed another big chance, advertised the album with a Lord’s Prayer takeoff which aroused the necessary controversy.

Given that the first words we hear on the album are “I’m happy just to be with you” and the last “And now we’re very into it we can’t go wrong!” – and also the admirably strained stars-gutter analogy of the khazi and the moon which runs through its second side, like Lionel Bart essaying Oscar Wilde, this writer has to conclude that emotionally Ogden’s remains a child of its time. Sonically, however, it sounds anything but “sixties.”

Consider, for instance, the titular instrumental overture to the album, with its compressed, phased electric piano, brisk breakbeats, fuzzed-up bass and guitar carrying the central riff, paranoid string section and obligatory channel-to-channel hopping, and wonder what reaction it would now achieve had it come with David Axelrod or the Electric Prunes’ name on the label. Moreover, its underlying patient groove bubbles with an expectancy which predicts, of all people, Stereolab. This is Modernism as few parkas would have recognised it.

And “Afterglow” after its throwaway whimsical acoustic intro with mumbled Temperance Seven vocals, launches via Ian McLagan’s keyboard bridge into something that sounds startlingly seventies; Marriott on guitar, McLagan now on Hammond organ, hammering their way towards the chorus – and from Marriott himself, this tale’s first great hard rock vocal performance and a necessary reminder that, of all the British rock singers of the sixties, there may have been none better; his Redding/Cooke-derived shouts and strokes are truthful, propulsive – you palpate him bursting through his padded capsule, trying to escape (hear his euphoric pain on “A feeling that I could not see, or touch, or try to hide”). But, unlike some of his peers, you never once sense that he’s busting a gut trying to be Soulful; this is a deeper soul, and as with his performance on “All Or Nothing,” one of the most straightforwardly perfect of all number one singles, the urgent need to communicate an emotion far supersedes, and indeed obviates, any consideration of exhibitionism. Kenney Jones, too, provides an explosive performance on drums, including some astonishing machine gun forays (in tandem with McLagan’s staccato Hammond stabs) as Marriott reaches his emotional climax. Zeppelin, amongst many others, would build on what “Afterglow” helped to set in motion – as indeed, a generation or two later, would Weller.

But Ogden’s never settles for the straightforward boogie path (neither did Zeppelin, of course, but this tale will reach them in good time). “Long Agos” is a melancholy R&B strut with oddly weightless bass and organ, and despite Jones’ occasionally harsh snare, drifts into a disconsolate discontinuity, complete with wobbly guitar lines and disconnected handclaps, which reminds me bizarrely of Roxy Music’s “The Bogus Man.”

Then we reach the first of the record’s several Cockney knees-ups (except they’re more than that); “Rene” starts out jauntily enough with Marriott doing his best Max Miller impression, drooling about “the Dockers’ Delight,” stevedores from Tyneside and stokers from Kuala Lumpur, although there is some subtle commentary about race intertwined in what otherwise comes across like a Pearly King equivalent of Brel’s “Amsterdam.” Furthermore I note that the song’s central chord sequence, if stretched out slightly differently rhythmically, is not that different from Blur’s “There’s No Other Way.” Then, after the song proper is done, the band lock into a drone groove, presumably influenced by Canned Heat, which via Marriott’s increasingly fierce and distorted guitar work and Ronnie Lane’s bumptious bass actually stretches into Neu! – and therefore again into Stereolab – territory (it would take Sloan to consummate the union between the two with their Canned Heat/Stereolab medley on 1996’s !Sloan Party!).

“Song Of A Baker” again sings of dissatisfaction, of frustrated life slowly ebbing away into nothing, but also a grim determination – the “Louie Louie”/”Wild Thing” riff lumbers in Hendrixian midtempo and there is a dramatic pause (signalled by Jones’ drums) after Marriott’s principled declaration “And salt in the mines.” Soon thereafter comes a more abrupt shutoff, regenerated by McLagan’s piano; a brilliant, controlled vocal from Marriott.

With “Lazy Sunday” Marriott finally lunges for escape, as well as setting the scene for side two as he susses out the moon to the serenade of a flushing toilet. A “Day In The Life” set in a less temperate community, Marriott fusses and frowns about party-pooper neighbours and enclosed life in general – his nosy neighbour backing singers just won’t shut up – and eventually he turns on and drops out; you can hear the fluid flowing through his veins through the shiver of the extended “wayyyyyyyyy-ah!” of his bridging “drift away,” his cautious whistling as he waits for the stuff to take effect, the sudden opening out of the air, church bells, echoes. He gradually finds his real self and begins to sing as “Steve Marriott” again, now triumphant (“And no one can stop me from feeling this way YEAH!”) and finally succumbing to a soundtrack of birds and the seashore – yes, we’re back by the open sea for the third album in a row; who would have thought it? – as the song slows down, slacks out and settles us down for…

…”Professor” Stanley Unwin, who materialises along with his angel’s harp at the start of side two, ushering us into the story. The story, as such, is about “Happiness Stan” and his efforts to locate the dark side of the moon – no, stop right there, we don’t get to them for a while yet, hold your horses – via a series of societal rejects, chiefly a small fly which Stan makes huge, and a vagrant/seer called Mad John, and is as profound and shallow as any such story would wish to be. Unwin took the job after Spike Milligan declined but truthfully no one else, not even the sourer but no less admirable Ivor Cutler, could have improved on or equalled his contribution; inspired by Lewis Carroll, his language-twisting work in turn inspired John Lennon although stylistically and vocally Lena reckons that he resembles, more than anyone, ee cummings.

“Happiness Stan” itself proceeds with a Klezmer-like harpsichord/mellotron sequence before moving into more straightforward rock, though dynamically performed; hear how Marriott’s “Time! Stood! Still!” is immediately responded to by Jones’ triple snare followed by a decisive cymbal/snare crash, and also the skilful variation in tone and approach, directed by McLagan’s galaxy edge quivering electric piano, succeeded by another pause, then some subdued flute and Leslie cabinet-fed voices. “Rollin’ Over” seems to set the scene for what both halves of the Small Faces would eventually become, with dockside harmonica, roughshod drums from Jones, another general “Foxy Lady” Hendrix feel, stomping brass and another deliberately lumbering bassline from Lane, who jolts the song to a shuddering stop – few British bands of this period could deal with silence as well as the Small Faces did, and Zeppelin certainly learned from this also – after Marriott’s shriek of confidence “Nothin’s gonna stop me!,” worlds away from the hesitancy expressed on “Lazy Sunday.”

“The Hungry Intruder” – i.e. the fly which makes its humble appearance on Marriott’s pie (shepherd’s pie, of course) – allows the pace to settle slightly, although Marriott himself appears to be anticipating rap at song’s beginning; the Townshend influence very visibly shows itself here, as does the more general influence of “Strawberry Fields” in pace and instrumentation (although the wandering flute makes a reappearance). “The Journey,” in contrast, goes some distance ahead of anything else on this album, possibly even heralding that other troubled concept album about outsized flies, Jean-Claude Vannier and Serge Gainsbourg’s L’Enfant Assassin Des Mouches. Jones’ breakbeats here sound like 1988 rather than 1968; there are swooning gasps of “Ooooh!” and “Aaaah!” as though the canteen at White Hart Lane had been spiked with funny Vimto; woozy string lines flutter crimsonly in and out of the picture. After the declaration “And we shall go out” there is yet another pause, and the track resumes at half its preceding tempo; is that really a turntable being scratched at just past the three-minute mark? We then get a ferocious guitar solo from Marriott, backed up fully by McLagan’s organ, and yet more Deep Throat cantatas from the terrace.

This all climaxes in Marriott’s protagonist kissing a giant fly – remember, he’s “got no mind to worry” – and as both prepare to meet Mad John for their answer (yes, the other side of the moon was there all the time, you just had to be patient and persistent) Marriott lumbers into Cockney again and suddenly we are in the Fairport Convention arrival lounge; all excitedly jangling folk guitars.

The happy ending having been reached, there’s nothing for it but to launch into the final singalong, where “life” is revealed as being “like a bowl of All Bran – you wake up in the morning and it’s there” (hello, incidentally, to “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life”) and the group hilariously degenerates into a mass not-quite-nonsense singalong – “Happy day Toytown newspaper smile,” as though this is where Lucy was always going to be heading once she got past the turnstile – as Unwin reappears to usher us all out into the warm outside air (“Stay cool, won’t you?”). The legacy that Lionel Bart and Tommy Steele had inaugurated a decade earlier has borne its fruit. And yes, it’s too tempting not to remark that life is like a bowl of Albarn, as the young Damon would have only just have been born at this time, and certainly Blur have paid explicit tribute to the influence of “Lazy Sunday” in particular on the song “Parklife.” But its deceptively uncomplicated cheer and genuine (because fumbling) sense of adventure provided the precise mix of earthiness and escapism that a troubled mid-1968 Britain needed; moreover, it sets up so many unexpected stalls which continue to overflow with their own fruits. Comftybold four square!