published: 14 /
Lisa Torem talks to Small Faces/Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan about his career and 'United States', his latest solo album
Ian McLagan first ventured into the professional music industry in the 1960s as a member of the Muleskinners and then with the Boz People with Boz Burrell, who would later join King Crimson.
Later, Ian McLagan’s fever pitched rock and roll organ and electric piano would be heard on Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May’ and ‘You Wear It Well’. Both Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood transformed 1960’s band the Small Faces into the Faces after vocalist Steve Marriott departed. Now Ian McLagan and drummer Kenney Jones are the only remaining members - vocalist Steve Marriott and guitarist Ronnie Lane both died in the 1990s.
The Small Faces were signed in 1965 by impressario Don Arden, mother of Sharon Osbourne, at his Carnaby Street office. McLagan had replaced Jimmy Winston. The good news was that Lane, Jones and Marriott literally welcomed McLagan with open arms. Surprised to see his slight build - the trio also had similar frames - they picked the enthusiastic pianist up and hugged him tightly. But McLagan felt betrayed by Arden’s unfair practices. Their then manager kept control of their royalties, maintaining a contract separate from the Decca Label with his own production/publishing companies.
Consequently, royalties were tied up until the end of the1990s. The contract also limited their touring options in the U.S. Signing with Immediate Records afterwards with Rolling Stones former manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, according to McLagan, also limited their commercial success.
But there was love. Kim Kerrigan was a gorgeous 1960’s British model, who modelled Mary Quant fashions in the heyday of swinging London and appeared in the Beatles 1967 ‘All You Need is Love’ sessions. Married to the Who drummer, Keith Moon, from 1966-1975, she married Ian McLagan in 1978. They lived in Los Angeles until experiencing the tremors of a horrendous earthquake in 1994, and then relocated to the thriving Austin, Texas area. Sadly, Kim McLagan died in an automobile accident in 2006. During their many years together, she had become Ian’s muse and to this day many of his most sensitive ballads echo his affection for their relationship.
McLagan co-wrote ‘You’re So Rude’ and ‘Cindy Incidentally’ for the Faces, which he includes in his current tour. The list of stage mates is impressive. Although there are too many to list, he has worked with and/or toured with Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt, Billy Bragg, Bobbie Womack and Bob Dylan.
The Small Faces had a 1967 smash hit with ‘Itchycoo Park’, which featured Marriott’s sandpaper vocals, then groundbreaking technology called “phasing” and “McLagan’s screaming, melodic solos and cohesive arrangements. After being a vital member of both bands, he debuted his solo album ‘Troublemaker’ in 1979 and the following year released ‘Bump in the Night’. Three more albums of originals followed in the 2000s, including a tribute to his dear colleague and friend, Ronnie Lane (‘Spiritual Boy: An Appreciation of Ronnie Lane’).
In 2008, he released ‘Never Say Never’ in London with 2:59 Records. His gregarious Bump Band is comprised of guitarist “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb, bassist Jon Notarthomas and drummer Conrad Choucroun. 2013’s ‘Live at the Lucky Lounge’ featured songs played in his favourite venue in Austin where he has entertained the locals for a decade.
Ian has been awarded an Ivor Novello Award and was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his role in the Small Faces and the Faces in 2012. His recently revised memoir, ‘All the Rage’, includes hilarious and heartbreaking stories of life on the road and through several continents.
Plans are underway for a Small Faces celebration in honour of their 50th year anniversary and, of course, the remixed, recently released ‘Here Come the Nice’ box set is sure to please their original fans as well as the younger generation.
The ten original tracks of his newly released album, ‘United States’, which was recorded at his Doghouse Studios and mixed by long time associate Glyn Johns, boasts everything from boogie woogie and old school R & B to shimmering flashes of country and contemporary rock. There is even one called ‘I’m Your Baby Now’ that some believe demonstrate Ian’s uncanny connection to a beloved era.
Quick to crack a smile, he infuses great energy into every project he undertakes. His singing voice is powerful and his performance style is flexible. Like a hummingbird flitting from petal to petal to extract precious nectar, he keeps focus but revels in variety.
His quick wit and astounding recall of pop/rock history make him an intriguing subject whether in print, in person or on the phone. And next time you listen to a song Ian McLagan has arranged, pay close attention to how rich his unsung orchestrations really are. There may be 88 keys, but he knows which ones mean business.
In interview with Pennyblackmusic, Ian recalled his early inspirations and both songwriting and live performance.
PB: You’ve cited Otis Spann, Fats Domino and Booker T. Jones as influences. They have all unique styles. How much have you culled from these artists to create your own style?
IM: With Fats, I saw him in Japan and could not believe that he was such a great blues player because you don’t really hear that in most of his records. There was that constant paddling of the piano and he was brilliant at that. It’s a hard thing to do. It all sort of comes out in my music, I think. These guys are subtle and unique. You mentioned Booker T. He and Billy Preston were totally my organ gods and always will…
I’ve seen Booker T. play so many times and he’s the just the sweetest guy and the most subtle. He’s a sweet player.
PB: You didn’t receive royalties from the Small Faces recordings until the 1990s. You didn’t get the exposure you deserved.
IM: We knew Don Arden was a thief early on and we got away from him. We could never get the royalties. We didn’t have a lawyer or an accountant. We had no idea about finances really, but when we did we started to sue Decca Records to release our records. Decca was paying him. They weren’t paying us. We didn’t have a deal with them. Don Arden was slippery like an eel. We never received any royalties: publishing, writing, record royalties until 1997.
Ronnie Lane was dead. He had just died. His check went to the wrong address. His widow called me up a few days after he died and said, “Trinidad and Tobago post office just called me from the Caribbean and they had a letter for him.” He was living in Trinidad, Colorado. That was his first check and Steve, who died in 1991, never got anything.
I’ve let that go now because the money’s gone, the money’s been spent and I earn a little bit every day. It’s in the past. I made peace with Andrew Oldham who released our album on Immediate Records. I made peace with him because he hasn’t got the money anymore. and he’s not stopping me from getting any more money. But Don Arden? I was going to make peace with him but he died, so who cares? He was a miserable bastard and he doesn’t deserve my attention. I don’t have any regrets. I feel sad for Ronnie and Steve more than anyone else.
It’s so stupidly sad, but Ronnie wasn’t sad. He moved on. He had Multiple Sclerosis for twenty-one years, but he was never a sad guy. I saw him a month before he passed. I went up to Trinidad to visit. They had thought even many years before that that he wouldn’t survive long. He had this big moustache. I said, “Ronnie, don’t shave the moustache. I think it’s the only thing keeping you together.” He laughed at me. He always had a sense of humour. It couldn’t have been easy most of the time, but he never showed it.
PB: You’ve worked with some amazing vocalists. Is there a period of time as a pianist/arranger in which you have had to feel out the vocalist, anticipate a strategy - whether it was Steve Marriott, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart or Bonnie Raitt? Has there been a particular process?
IM: No, not really. I’ve been so lucky to have played with Steve Marriott, Rod Stewart, Bonnie Raitt and Mick Jagger. You have to play under their voices. I always find a spot and I always consider every band to be a guitar band because guitarists are so driven, and the keyboard player generally has to find a spot that’s not vocally the same as the guitar. When I first started out that’s what I did, but I realised soon enough that I could say more and less by keeping out of the way. It’s just become second nature. I figure out the song and then listen to the singer.
I just played with Lucinda Williams, who is a great, great singer. She’s so easy to work with because you just play the song underneath and you try not to be selfish. Now that’s southern rock, but music is about a partnership. It’s self-effacing and the less you say, the better you do.
PB: Your new album is called ‘United States’. Is there a reason for that title?
IM: Yes. It’s about relationships so I thought it would be funny to have the name of the country as a title but it has nothing to do with America. In fact, I thought it would be a good idea but then as you Google you get government, treasury, the post office.
PB: It’s been about five years since your last album, ‘Never Say Never’. Do you feel your songwriting has changed a lot since then?
IM: I don’t think it has so much changed but I’m easier with it. I compose songs every day. I’m constantly writing. I’d like to make a rock and roll album, but it’s so hard to keep writing fast songs. I don’t tend to write fast songs. I’ve actually got a zippy song at the moment that I’m working on. so it’s made me quite happy to say that there are at least two or three on the next record. I’d like to write some more rock and roll records but songs just hit me the way they hit me. They just come out to here, and if it’s a good song I can’t deny it.
PB: Do you like to work initially with a riff or a lyric?
IM: It’s funny. I suddenly remembered a song that I hadn’t thought about for awhile. I was just driving along in the van from gig to gig and that song was in my head. I thought it would be buried somewhere but it turns out that I had half the lyrics and all I needed was to have the chorus typed out.
It’s almost there. I’m tweaking it at the moment. This one is an old rocker.
I really don’t have a system. I just sit in the car or sit at the piano and a melody will happen or I’ll think of some lyrics and then I’ll work though that. I don’t like to have a system really because it’s fresh every time then.
PB: I think many people would consider you a versatile, stand-alone musician. You can play very expressively as a vocalist with just your keyboard or, as you are now, with a bassist, and just as effectively with a band. That said, do you prefer playing a solo act or with a band?
IM: I’m on tour now and I’m just playing with my bass player, Jon Notarthomas, but we had the guys come up for three shows in the middle of the tour and the next day when we were back as a duo, it was a little sad for me because I wanted to hear the guitar and the drums, but the real advantage of the duo thing was that I could hear my voice more clearly. I can change the tempo; it’s more fluid, and I can do some songs that I can’t do with the band and vice versa. When I play with the band, some of the songs don’t come across as well. It’s really six of one, half a dozen of the other. I like both but I want them all at once (Laughs).
PB: You co-wrote ‘Mean Old World’ on ‘United States’ with Scrappy Newcomb. How did that collaboration work?
IM: I had the song pretty much and he played a couple of lines that led me to the last verse and then he played guitar, and I always say a song is not a song until it is finished. If he hadn’t come along with those ideas, the song wouldn’t have been finished possibly and it wouldn’t have been on the album.
I’m really happy that that happened. We wrote some others that didn’t get on the album. It’s a new beginning for me because I’m nervous about playing my songs until they’re finished. And I’ve known Scrappy for twenty years and it’s easier to play with him than anyone else.
I’d like to open up to other guys in the band. I possibly will, but it takes a while to be that confident.
PB: Was ‘Love Letter’ on ‘United States’ a tribute to Kim?
IM: It is, but it doesn’t have to be. You have to know I’m saying I can’t find her anymore because she’s dead. I think of her, but I also think of women I haven’t met yet and I hope it’s going to be wonderful. She’s always been my muse. I wrote so many songs to her and for her. I think of her every day so there are probably going to be more.
I don’t think of ‘Love Letter’ as a sad song. I don’t think of ‘Never Say Never’ as a sad song but Ronnie Wood once said to me, ‘“Never Say Never’ is that sad album,” and I said, “No, it’s not.” He meant well but he didn’t quite understand that to me it’s not sad because I get to sing to my girl.
PB: You toured with the Stones in 1978 and 1981. They didn’t play the US until 1989. Was there anything that happened on that tour that suggested that they’d take that break?
IM: No, actually. I was asked to go on their 1982 tour to Europe, but I had taken time off from Bonnie Raitt. I was in her band and she let me have the time off, which was very kind. She was so good to me generally and I respect her so I went back. I don’t really know what went on after that with them. I think maybe Mick did a solo album.
PB: The Stones generally had guest artists, which is so much fun for the audience but was it a challenge to play not just with them but for the various guests entering and exiting?
IM: I just loved playing with them because I’m such a fan. In 1978 or 1981, we had Etta James and the Meters - I love the Meters. I think Prince was involved. I was talking the other day to someone and explaining to this young woman how amazing it was for the Stones to have had Stevie Wonder as an opening act; that was a very, very clever move because Stevie Wonder got through to a white audience because of playing with the Stones and the Stones had the benefit of having Stevie Wonder on the stage.
I saw them in L.A. with Lady Gaga at the beginning of their last tour and they had a country singer and I thought, “That’s a weird choice” but he played guitar and he was really good. He was hired. Now, more than when I toured with them, they’re more organised and more structured. They were much looser when I played with them and I much preferred that.
PB: A reviewer called it the “back to the basics” tour and I believe that was meant in a really positive way. It was before their shows became really visually sophisticated. Then it was about the classics.
IM: In 1978, we were playing ‘Satisfaction’ and Bill Wyman said to me more than once, “Keith never does play that riff right.” (Laughs).
PB: ‘Live at the Lucky Lounge’ was a really lively album.
IM: Thank you. I’m really proud of that live album. The same guy, Darwin Smith, who engineered ‘United States’ engineered it; Darwin Smith engineered and mixed the live album.
PB: Do you see yourself doing another live album?
IM: Eventually. I think we’ve got the one for a while. It’s nice that we captured the Lucky Lounge because we’d been playing there for so long. That’s as good as it gets for a while. That was totally live. We recorded two nights and I corrected one tiny bit of vocal and there were live vocals and live performance.
PB: You’ve signed with Yep Roc. How is that going?
IM: That’s going great. I’ve known them for a long time and we tried to work together before on the last three or four albums and it just didn’t work. I didn’t have the right manager. I didn’t have the right album. I wasn’t in that place really. It has worked out really well for me. They love the album and they’re interested in the next album. It’s a really nice feeling to work with a label that gives a damn.
PB: You’re having a lot of creative freedom?
IM: I’m getting plenty of creative freedom. I present them with the finished album.
PB: Rumours are flying about a Faces reunion.
IM: As far as I know, it’s definitely going to happen. Rod is in line with us and he’s actually leading the parade so we’re all ready for it. Ronnie, Kenney, Rod and I getting together next year- it will be great.
PB: You’ll have lots of material to choose from. Do you have an idea of what songs will have to be on the set list?
IM: We’ll have to play ‘Maggie May’ and ‘Stay with Me’. I don’t think we’ll be doing any of the ‘American Songbook’. That was a joke! And I don’t suppose we’ll be doing any of my solo stuff. I’d like to have the chance to sing one but I’ll have to see. Ronnie Lane never managed it, but I’m hoping I might sing ‘You’re So Rude’ since it was Ronnie’s and my song. I’ll be singing some background. You’ve got to have some background.
PB: Are you excited about it?
IM: I am. I’m very excited. And, also, next year Kenney and I are talking about doing a show in London, which would have to be in honour of the Small Faces. It’s our fiftieth year next year, so we’ll just have loads of guests and it’s just a one-off show.. I’m really looking forward to that
PB: You have revised your memoir ‘All the Rage’. If you had to choose one story from that book, which would you choose?
IM: I tell stories from the book onstage with Jon and I like to tell the story about how I joined the Small Faces, which is quite interesting and funny, and I tell stories about taking Ronnie Lane to meet my gran in Ireland and introducing him to my uncle Ned. When he opened his coat - he hadn’t seen me in ten years - he had an old photograph of me pinned to the inside of his coat, which was very touching. It must have been there for years.
PB: Ian, you’re known for your talent in so many bands and times b,ut what has been one of your greatest moments?
IM: I’m as excited about what I’m doing now as I’ve ever been about doing anything: new songs and new audiences and touring. I’ll be touring with Nick Lowe, opening with him in December and Los Straitjackets too. That’s really exciting to me and it will keep it all fresh, too. It’s all new.
PB: There aren’t that many British musicians who have settled in Austin, Texas, are there? What’s the appeal?
IM: Well, there are not many. Robert Plant was here for a while but he’s moved on. It’s a great music place in America. It’s a very friendly town. It’s changing. It’s getting bigger every day. People are friendly there and people come out to the shows. You can’t say that about L.A. You have to pay people to come to a show.
People like live music. I’ve been asked if I think live music is in the future - now with Spotify, it might be putting everybody off. It’s making lots of music available. We can’t make big money on records unless we’re Tony Bennett. But live music is the future for me and if you’re going to record it, put it on vinyl. That’s the future too.
Record stores are saying that their business is vinyl. I went to the record retailers’ convention in L.A. and, where Tower and Virgin have gone on the wayside, these guys are selling vinyl and it’s very exciting.
PB: Thank you.
Photos by Jim Summaria