Faces - Biography
By Oliver Hall
The Faces rivalled Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Blue Öyster Cult and the Rolling Stones as one of the best and most popular live hard rock acts of the first half of the 1970s. Rod Stewart, the Scottish pop star with the affecting hoarse tenor voice, made his best rock and roll with the Faces, and Ron Wood, who later joined the Rolling Stones, played some of the best guitar of his career with the Faces. Sex Pistol Steve Jones is a great admirer of the band’s gorgeous, sloppy glory.
To say that the Faces liked to drink is not merely to gossip about the members’ personal lives: the Faces’ legend is as strongly associated with alcohol as that of the 13th Floor Elevators is with LSD. Live, the Faces had their own tuxedoed, gloved bartender on stage to serve the band cocktails before, during, and after songs; while recording, they repaired to the public house for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Speaking frankly, the Faces were ‘Faced, and like their followers and admirers the Replacements, much of their appeal lies in the boozy glow of their playing and the raucous nature of their live performances.
The British music paper NME reported in October 1969 that Rod Stewart had joined Small Faces. This was not exactly right: though sweet-voiced bassist Ronnie Lane, keyboardist Ian McLagan and drummer Kenney Jones remained from the 60s Mod group Small Faces, that band was identified with the voice and guitar of Steve Marriott. With the addition of Stewart and the brilliant English blues guitarist Ron Wood, both from the Jeff Beck Group, the core of the Small Faces transformed into the Faces, a hard blues-rock group reminiscent of the Rolling Stones. Rolling Stone claims that the Small Faces were so named because all the members were short, and that the adjective “small” no longer made sense with Wood and Stewart towering over the others, but this story seems greatly to exaggerate Wood and Stewart’s heights.
According to Lester Bangs in Rod Stewart (Delilah Books 1981), the Faces were signed to Warner Brothers on November 1, 1969, on the strength of a six-song demo cut with producer Glyn Johns. Confusingly, the band is identified as Small Faces on the cover of the debut LP released early the following year, First Step (Warner Brothers 1970). The album opens with a hard rock arrangement of Bob Dylan’s Biblical mystery ballad “Wicked Messenger.” That March, the Faces set out on a twenty-eight-show tour of the United States, where they played twenty-eight more shows that fall. Long Player (Warner Brothers 1971) was the band’s second LP, released in March.
Stewart’s solo career had begun with the release of The Rod Stewart Album (Mercury 1969), titled An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down in the UK and Europe. Wood collaborated with Stewart on this album, and on much of his solo material and many of his solo recordings. His third LP, Every Picture Tells A Story (Mercury 1971) featured the Faces on “I’m Losing You” and included Stewart’s massive hit “Maggie May,” initially released as the B-side to Stewart’s version of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe,” but soon itself a number one single in both the US and UK. In record industry terms, Stewart’s solo success eclipsed the Faces’ more modest sales, and this situation undoubtedly created tensions within the band that shortened its career.
A Nod Is as Good as a Wink. . . to a Blind Horse (Warner Brothers 1971) was the Faces’ third LP and the second the band released that year. The single “Stay With Me” helped the album reach #6 on the charts. The band toured the US supported by circus acts in 1972. Nelson and Bangs’s Rod Stewart quotes McLagan on the sessions for the next Faces album: “Rod wasn’t even there for the first two weeks of sessions: we had most of the tracks finished before he even came down to the studio.” This album, Ooh La La (Warner Brothers 1973), featured the hardest-rocking song in the Faces’ catalog, the proto-punk “Borstal Boys.” Ronnie Lane played his final shows with the Faces in June 1973. He announced that he had quit the band because “I’d been at it for eight years, and I still hadn’t got around to singing any of me songs.” Lane formed the band Slim Chance.
The Faces cancelled a summer 1973 European tour, citing Stewart’s and Jones’s “nervous exhaustion.” Tetsu Yamauchi of the band Free replaced Lane on bass. Yamauchi appears on the Faces’ double live album, Coast to Coast/Overtures and Beginners (Mercury 1974). The band toured the US in the spring of 1975, and Stewart moved to Los Angeles shortly after the tour ended. In the summer, Ron Wood played guitar in the Rolling Stones as Mick Taylor’s replacement. The Faces began a world tour in August with thirty-five shows in the US alone. In December, Rod Stewart announced he was quitting the group.
Plans were made for a Faces album after Stewart quit, but scrapped when Wood would not commit to a tour to promote the album. Wood officially joined the Rolling Stones in 1976, effectively ending the Faces. The Faces reformed for one show in London in aid of the ailing Ronnie Lane, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the late 70s, in 1986. Lane died in 1997. Wood and Stewart have continued to collaborate and perform together since the band split. Paul Westerberg of the Replacements contributes to the liner notes of the Faces’ retrospective box set Five Guys Walk into a Bar (Warner Brothers/Rhino 2004). In November 2008, Stewart confirmed rumors that he, Wood, McLagan and Jones were rehearsing for a possible reunion tour in the summer of 2009, with the bass player from Stewart’s band in Ronnie Lane’s place.