The Faces were flying immediately on First Step
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I love the cover of the first Faces album. Seated in front of a washed-out background are Rod Stewart, Kenney Jones, Ronnie Wood, Ian McLagan and Ronnie Lane. A Mickey Mouse doll is smiling between McLagan and Lane, and Wood is holding the album’s name via a guitar manual.
Mostly, they all look so unsure of themselves. From their position, they’re meekly looking into the camera, not totally convinced that this new venture is going to work. McLagan, Lane and Jones had just been jettisoned by Steve Marriott, who had left the Small Faces to start Humble Pie with Peter Frampton. Stewart and Wood were fresh out of the original Jeff Beck Group and eager to make an impression on their own.
That impression could hardly have been clearer on their debut record, First Step. Coming from similar backgrounds but decidedly different bands, they hit it off almost immediately. They took the heavy approach of Jeff Beck and fused it with the tight approach of the Small Faces. In doing so, a third element came forth — a visibly cheery approach that gave the music a ramshackle rock and roll feel that became unique unto them. They liked to have fun, they liked football and the pub, they liked making all this noise.
Critical consensus on First Step isn’t glowing, however. It can be dismissed as the least of the Faces’ four studio albums, depending on your particular opinion of their second album, Long Player. And the band themselves were never so sold on it, or any of their records. Stewart’s solo albums from the time — especially Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells a Story — did better in stores and in print, and the live shows told the story of the band as well as anything. Even now, their Five Guys Walk Into a Bar... box set is a better single document of the group than any single record.
Still, that doesn’t leave their albums without merit. And First Step has all the hallmarks of what made the group so great.
It starts right at the top with their demonic retelling of Bob Dylan’s “Wicked Messenger.” The acoustics of Dylan’s original recording are traded in for Wood’s slinking slide guitar and a bottom-heavy rhythm that makes time for an instrumental break in between every verse, with Stewart howling all along the way. As Dylan covers go, Jimi Hendrix is typically given credit as having perhaps the best with his “All Along the Watchtower,” but the Faces’ reading here deserves consideration.
And while they’d be proficient at putting their stamp on other artists’ material throughout their run, the rest of the record is happily dedicated to their own songs. They really kick things into gear with “Shake, Shudder, Shiver,” which takes off with the same energy as “Wicked Messenger,” trading the dark foreboding for mischievous roaming. It doesn’t have the emotional weight of some of the album’s slower numbers, but it’s as jumping as anything the band would ever record.
Those slower tunes demonstrate the innate soul of the band, though. Stewart gives Lane’s “Devotion” the Sam Cooke-style reading it deserves, and the two together breathe an urgency into Lane’s ballad “Nobody Knows.” Throughout the album, there’s a sense of the band working together in a way none of its members likely had in their previous projects. Stewart plays banjo and Wood jumps onto the harmonica on Lane’s “Stone,” and the snaky instrumental “Pineapple and the Monkey” works so well as an ensemble piece that it was included in the first Faces’ hits compilation, Snakes and Ladders. They run around more on “Around the Plynth,” built around Wood’s slide guitar and Jones’ thrashing cymbals in between Stewart’s vocal histrionics. It’s long and winding and not necessarily tight, but it all works.
The band again comes together on “Three Button Hand Me Down,” which cribbed its bass line from the soul classic “Some Kind of Wonderful.” Here, Wood and Lane double on the bass to bring it to the forefront, and Stewart turns in a lyric that’s all shades of anachronistic storytelling and a proper English sense of style. He’s so confident in the band’s opening lines — “I don’t need no one’s opinion / On the matter concerning my dress” — that it masks how inherently funny this story is of a Southern American man constantly wearing a grey flannel suit. But the band sells it. Of course they do, have you heard this?
And it all comes home — the soul, the chops, the style — on “Flying.” Kicking off side two is the greatest example of where the Faces could go when they were all locked in. Wood fingerpicks around the D chord in its ringing introduction before Stewart enters to give one of the stronger vocal performances of his career. McLagan’s organ is swirling and brooding, Lane’s bass is heavy in the lower end and Jones is locked in, punctuating and pushing the music. On the song’s “On and on...” breakdown, Wood, Lane and McLagan join in behind Stewart. Soon Jones kicks back, the song takes off again and the five mates are on their way to immortality.
They’d go on to make better music, and followed this up immediately by playing on a good chunk of Stewart’s Gasoline Alley. Their shows would get rowdier and the recordings would tighten up and reveal more of their inherent power and soul. Even some of the remixes from this album on the Five Guys set (especially “Flying”) would improve on the original artifact.
But perfection was never the point with the Faces. They were all enthusiasm and rollicking energy, and in the early days they were all-in on their new adventure. They traveled some incredible places in their few years together, but they were obviously great right away. And they were more sure of themselves than their first photo let on.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org