The Faces finally received their due on 'Five Guys Walk into a Bar'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“No, don’t ease up. Keep going, do what we was doing just now and we’ll all be happy.”
This is not the careful, considered stagecraft of Frank Sinatra or even Mick Jagger. In front of a clustered BBC television audience and whoever else may have been watching at home, Rod Stewart casually tossed off his directions in the form of no directions at all, really.
From there, Ronnie Wood kicks into a meaty, distorted riff. It’s loud and hairy and it has the kind of guts and soul behind it that recalls the most desperate of the blues and R&B of a decade before. Two quick hits from drummer Kenney Jones, and soon Ronnie Lane has jumped into the fray on the bass with a heavy, rolling line giving everything underneath a rumble.
Then, everything breaks down. Ian McLagan’s organ bubbles up, the riff slows down and the real work begins. Rod is howling that he can feel your love fading. And the band picks back up, sending another kick into the crowd and locking back into the rhythm. It’s not necessarily the tightest performance ever, but everything is so in the pocket and on the groove that it’s immediately irresistible.
These are all the manic faces of the first minute of the Faces’ “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” an outtake from a BBC session circa 1971 and a key track from their 2004 box set Five Guys Walk Into a Bar…, a four-disc collection that perfectly sums up their existence to the point that it nearly becomes the only document needed for the band. It’s complete, it’s exhaustive and any one of the discs stands as compelling listening on its own. Throw the entire thing onto an iPod and hit shuffle, and it somehow loses none of its programming power. The sequencing works extremely well in telling their story in a non-linear arc, but the material is so consistently strong that there’s no way to really mess it up.
It’s all fitting, of course, for a band that was such a delightful mess in their day that, no matter what they did, incredible sounds fell out of the strings and off the drums into the ears of their dizzied audiences with an alarming ease. But in the moment, the music itself was spread out in a cluttered, disorganized fashion. They weren’t sloppy as much as they were rough around the edges. It fell in with the spirit of the band, but with the band’s records consistently overshadowed by Stewart’s concurrent solo projects — many of which were backed by the Faces anyway — it was easy for the band to get lost in the shuffle, behind the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin and even their own lead singer.
It could be argued that each of the Faces are more easily recognized outside of this five-man unit than within it. Ronnie Wood, of course, joined the Rolling Stones for their 1975 Tour of the Americas after the Faces dissolved and never left. Ian McLagan went on to be one of the busier keyboardists in rock, playing with many bands, including the Stones and recently, Ryan Adams, on stage and in the studio. Kenney Jones might be better remembered for replacing Keith Moon in the Who than for his tenure in the Faces and Small Faces. The late Ronnie Lane, too, seems to be more often cited as a creative force in the first version of this band — which ended when singer/guitarist Steve Marriott left — than the Rod Stewart-led edition.
Of course, this leaves Rod. His solo career took off concurrent to the Faces, aided by the fact that the band so often backed him on his solo albums. The tours then featured Stewart’s solo material mixed into the Faces’ sets, since a “Rod Stewart” song and a “Faces” song in this period were indistinguishable, save for the label on the front of the album. But Rod Stewart still earned more of the spotlight than the rest of the band, and when the Faces came to an end, his shift to a solo life seemed like it would be a smooth one.
His post-Faces trek saw him stay on the top of the charts more often than not, but it came at the expense of his reputation. He chased every trend, remaining in the cultural vogue but recording dated material along the way, trading his rock and roll reputation for in-the-moment relevance. The result is what the punks fought against — bloated, over-produced, lifeless pop, and for Stewart, this lasted through most of his post-Faces span. Except for a few moments of scattered inspiration, he’s recorded whatever could get him on adult contemporary radio; the powerful voice that propelled one of the more unpredictable and fun bands was a distant memory.
That’s where a set like this becomes so valuable. It serves as a reminder that Stewart, before his own songwriting was usurped by professional hacks, was a vital, original voice in music. His lineage was equal parts English folk and Sam Cooke, and he funneled it through his distinct rasp to create a sound no one else was making. And the rest of the band, too, were never better than they were in this band. Instead of Keith Richards, Wood’s ego-free guitar fills were interwoven with McLagan’s piano and Hammond B3 organ, fusing for one constant, rolling mesh of sound. Underneath them were Jones’ inventive fills and Lane’s rolling, unique bass lines.
And Lane’s own songwriting and singing style provided a vital counterpoint within the band. Where Stewart was brash and powerful, Lane’s voice was softer and more delicate, giving songs like “Debris” a lilting weight amid the chaos. He was also funny, and a tune like “You’re So Rude” could serve as a bit of comic relief within all the other tales of debauchery.
All of these features are expertly showcased on Five Guys Walk Into a Bar… to the point of absurdity. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic has famously commented that Five Guys Walk Into a Bar… is “quite possibly the greatest box set ever made,” and the reasons for his praise are obvious, first from flipping through the book-like packaging to actually listening to the music.
It’s close to exhaustive. Of the 38 songs they originally released on their four studio albums, 28 are represented in one way or another, either in their studio incarnation or in a live setting or session take, with some getting double coverage. It opens with the First Step version of “Flying,” which reappears towards the end of the last disc as a BBC take, for example, while “Miss Judy’s Farm” appears three times — the studio take from A Nod Is As Good As a Wink… To a Blind Horse, and two live BBC sessions from 1971 and ’73, all giving the song a little different flavor and demonstrating the band’s versatility.
But all those alternate versions still leaves 27 tracks unaccounted for, and their use is what makes Five Guys such a compelling collection. Here’s where all these weird live tracks, covers and rehearsal recordings start to fill in the gaps of the Faces’ story, giving hints of the unpredictability of their shows and the haphazard attitude that dotted their career.
There are plenty of obvious older influences accounted for, as on a version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil” taken from an early 1969 band rehearsal, or on a medley of “Hi-Heel Sneakers” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” ticking off their love of early rock and roll and R&B in one swoop. They also cover Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” albeit crediting the Rolling Stones for their arrangement.
And that leads to their interesting devotion to contemporary music. “Here’s a number by a band that we think are one of the best,” Stewart declares, before the Faces tackle Free’s “The Stealer” with all the menace it deserved. There’s a loving, original take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel” recorded a couple of years after the guitarist’s untimely death, and a number of solo Beatles renditions — they try their hand at John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” in a studio outtake and offer two versions of Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed.”
The only glaring omission is their burning version of Bob Dylan’s “Wicked Messenger,” originally the first track on their debut First Step, but ostensibly in its place is a live take on “I’d Rather Go Blind,” first made famous by Etta James. That kind of soul is further explored on their rendition of the Temptations’ “I Wish it Would Rain” and Luther Ingram’s “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right.”
Throughout all these alternate takes and tributes, what shines through is the sheer versatility of the band. Not only could they tackle all these varied subjects, from their peers the Rolling Stones to soul heavyweights like the Temptations, but they did so in a way that made everything feel like an original. In doing so, even live versions of Stewart’s solo songs (“Maggie May,” “Gasoline Alley,” etc.) just became Faces songs.
Interwoven with the band’s powerful original material, the set paints the portrait of an utterly powerful band. And in place of the mysticism and chest-thumping wallop of their friends in Led Zeppelin or the Who was just a goofy, fun-natured air. These were, indeed, five guys who happened to wander into a room with some instruments and happened to be incredibly talented and happened to have a chemistry that was so rare that sometimes it seems they never existed. All the names are recognizable, of course, but could they really have been this good together?
Jones is in the middle of a long drum solo now. The toms are rolling and he’s starting to ramp the tempo and volume back up. A quick snare run and suddenly Wood, Lane and McLagan are playing at full volume again, and Stewart, after acknowledging his drummer’s virtuosity — “Kenney Jones!” he tells the crowd — launches back into one final line, beginning with a tortured “You’re loooove is fading,” before the song reaches a sort of unnatural conclusion. Wood, Lane and McLagan just sort of stop playing after the final words tumble out from Stewart’s throat. A quick drum roll from Jones serves as some kind of punctuation, and the crowd, realizing that this strange little journey is over, leaps up for a rapturous applause.
This version of “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” all seven minutes and eight seconds of it, from Stewart’s off-the-cuff prompt to the mildly inebriated conclusion, could well be the greatest single performance in the entire rock and roll oeuvre. It is by no means the most technically impressive, or the greatest artistic endeavor, or even the most precise. But it is certainly among the most joyous, with the audience clapping along and the band stretching its blues and soul chops in a decidedly 1970s rock setting.
It’s such a fantastic performance because, simply, it captures one of the greater bands to have ever graced a stage at their absolute finest, gathering nearly all of their strengths within the context of one blistering song, and playing without a net. Before the release of Five Guys Walk Into a Bar…, it was a rarity, a lost nugget left to be preserved by the most devoted on bootlegs, traded and whispered about as it grew in mostly unheard legend. This box set corrected that, taking this incredible artifact and placing it in its rightful place within the rest of the Faces’ cannon, this searing, five-hour document of an incredible rock and roll band.
There have been other attempts at putting the Faces’ career in context. Snakes and Ladders was a 12-song best-of compilation released a year after the band’s break-up, and Good Boys … When They’re Asleep was a 19-song set compiled by McLagan in 1999 that at least brought the band into the digital age. And Faces tracks have been included on several of Stewart’s compendiums, notably on his own Storytellers box set. And though all those sets gather the band’s biggest hits — “Stay with Me” and the like — they just give a glimpse of band’s potential. There was never another band like the Faces, and so they’re a difficult band to encapsulate in the space of one album.
If the Faces could be condensed into one performance, “I’m Losing You” could do the job and do it well. But when four discs can sum up a band just as well in deceptively concise form, there’s no reason not to go all-out. Give them all a spin, keep going, do what you was doing, and we’ll all be happy.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org