Small Faces – Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake – Classic Music Review
One thing I love about mid-to-late-60’s music is its unpredictability.
After listening to hundreds of new releases over the last couple of years, I’ve learned that most of the music today is despicably predictable. I can’t tell you how many times I was able to predict chord changes, instrumentation, vocal effects and builds the first time I heard a song. If you’ve heard one tune by Lana del Rey, you’ve heard them all. The same is true for most of the big names in the business: they’re more like reliable brands than creative endeavors. They may do slow songs, mid-tempo songs and fast songs; they may stick a piano in there instead of a guitar; and they all love to start songs in relative quiet before suddenly but predictably jacking up the power. The lyrics are safe, cliché and primarily consist of slogans that will eventually serve as ads for banks, jewelry and car insurance.
It would be virtually impossible today to put “Revolution #9” and “I Will” on the same album. The labels wouldn’t have it and the indies don’t have the resources or equipment to pull off something like “Revolution #9.” In the second half of the sixties, though, new approaches became the norm. Musicians were constantly experimenting, looking everywhere for new sounds and styles, breaking rules and shattering expectations.
There are few albums that shatter a listener’s expectations as much as Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. I promise that if you have never heard it before, your first time through will be accompanied by several “What the fucks?” Most of those who have never heard it will likely be American, for the album did absolutely nothing in the States (except for my weird and obsessive father who spent years searching for the original release in the tobacco tin and finally found one from a seller in Bath only to find the disc was warped). On the other side of the pond, it held on to the #1 spot on the album charts for six weeks. Like The Move, Small Faces never really caught on in the USA. Most Americans only know “Itchycoo Park,” which reached #16 on the Billboard charts (The Move only reached #93 with “Do Ya,” released after they technically ceased to exist and before Jeff Lynne fucking ruined it with strings in the ELO version).
So, who’s got it right with Ogdens’, the Brits who embraced it or the Yanks who ignored it? The Brits, of course! Now, as I said, you might not believe me if you listen to it once. You’ll hear a bizarre mix that includes two cockney bashes, a remake of a single that failed to chart and a fairy tale about a guy who’s looking for the other half of the moon and is helped by a fly whom he transforms into a giant fly to carry him to a mad guru, all in a weird, kaleidoscopic mix of soul, psychedelia and musical theatre.
Have I got you hooked yet? No? Well, then, do what I do before a review: listen to the album three times before you pass judgment. I guarantee you that after the third spin, the tunes will stick in your head, you’ll smile at the audacity of it all and you’ll find yourself rooting for Happiness Stan to complete his quest. And you’ll love the fucking fly! Guaranteed!
Ogdens’ is labeled a concept album, but the concept is pretty much confined to the fairy tale on side two; side one consists of individual tracks that have no apparent thematic connection. Still, there is a definite sense of unity to the whole despite the lack of an identifiable theme and the diversity of the music styles. Whether it’s the unity of a band working hard on a complex recording project in close quarters over a period of several months, or the combination of energy and commitment you hear in all the tracks is a cause-and-effect debate for historians. What I want to emphasize is that the unity is not the accidental result of the era in which Ogdens’ was created. It should not be dismissed as a period relic: there’s much more going on here than psychedelic indulgence.
Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake opens with the title track, an instrumental based on “I’ve Got Mine,” their second single release that failed to chart in the UK way back in 1965. That failure had more to do with publicity breakdowns than the quality of the single, because by all rights it should have been a hit, if only for Steve Marriott’s killer lead vocal. On Ogden’s, this R&B number is transformed through phasing, energetic panning and plenty of reverb into a mood piece strengthened by the entry of strings in the second “verse” and Kenney Jones’ free-flow bashing on the drum kit. Ian McLagan does a fabulous job on the piano, maintaining the core beat to allow Kenney to go wild. I’ve described it as a mood piece, and the mood it creates is one of curiosity. It’s not a big “ta-da!” opener like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” but a subtle understatement that is thoughtfully arranged and does a wonderful job of defying expectations and piquing one’s interest. Like nearly all the tunes on Ogdens’ it sticks in your head for days.
Speaking of defying expectations, how about opening the album’s beautiful, soulful love song with a mock version featuring coffee-house acoustic guitar, handclaps, stilted background singers and a cheesy, sleazy lead vocal somewhere between The Beatles’ “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” and The Bonzos’ “Look at Me, I’m Wonderful?” This bit of self-parody is part of what makes Ogdens’ such a delightful record, but the campiness never interferes with their ability to deliver superb music played with professional excellence. “Afterglow (Of Your Love),” once they arrive at what people know as the single, is an absolute knockout. You can’t go wrong with Steve Marriott singing in his most passionate R&B style, and he has one hell of a band supporting him in this endeavor. Ian McLagan’s work on the keyboards (organ and what sounds like a touch of modified harpsichord) is outstanding and the rhythm section of Ronnie Lane and Kenney Jones provide more than enough drive. The harmonies are first-rate, and the waves and crashes of sound certainly foreshadow the heavier rock Marriott would do with Humble Pie.
If there is a link between the songs on side one, it’s probably “never do the same thing twice.” “Afterglow” is followed by the sensuously psychedelic sounds of “Long Ago and Worlds Apart,” an intriguing song combining expected and unexpected chord combinations by Ian McLagan. The song combines the best of melodic rock with the best of hand-clapping bluesy, laid-back rock in an amazingly complex but unified composition. The instrumentation and lead vocal are drenched in the fashionable effects of the time, leaving Ronnie Lane’s bass clear and untouched—a very good thing, because the bass part could have probably been released as a solo track to ravenous applause. The harmonies and playful enthusiasm flow in abundance here, and I remain fucking amazed at how they could have packed so much complex yet coherent music into a little more than two-and-a-half minutes.
And Ogdens’ just keeps on getting better! Marriott goes cockney (his natural voice) on “Rene” to tell us the story of a dockside hooker with a firm non-discrimination policy, international influence and group discounts. Described in the Wikipedia article as one of two “psychedelic cockney knees up” songs on the album, “Rene” is a combination of tongue-in-cheek wink-wink intrigue in the verses and pour-another-pint singalong in the choruses. There’s more than a touch of musical theater here, as if Steve Marriott had decided to temporarily reconnect with his Oliver roots. Whatever the genre, style or origins, Marriott and Lane were wonderfully talented songwriters and “Rene” is a hoot. Anyone who can work Kuala Lumpur into a line and make it work is a fucking genius in my book:
She’s Rene, the docker’s delight, and a ship’s in every night
Romping with a stoker from the coast of Kuala Lumpur
Love is like an ‘ole in the wall
A line-up in the warehouse—no trouble at all
If you can spare the money, you’ll have a ball—
She’ll have your oars out!
Wisely shifting gears, “Song of a Baker” has been repeatedly identified as a song that influenced the heavy rock movement that dominated the early and mid-1970’s, largely due to Steve Marriott’s burning lead guitar work, the heavy and energetic drumming from Kenney Jones and the oomph in the harmonized lines. You can definitely imagine how the song would sound with the upgraded recording technology used by bands like Led Zeppelin and Humble Pie. I’m not a fan of the heavy rock era (Robert Plant’s voice is like fingers on a chalkboard to me), but I love this song. The relatively lo-fi sound helps dampen what I usually hear as a tendency towards over-dramatization in the heavy rock era’s vocals and instrumentation, leaving behind a very well-constructed and superbly played number that kicks ass. It was a brilliant decision not to allow Steve Marriott to sing this song, as I think it would have become way too over the top. Marriott delivers the superb harmonic lines and Ronnie Lane gives us a suitably understated vocal that works perfectly in the mix.
Steve Marriott got his knickers in a twist when Immediate Records released “Lazy Sunday” as a single, feeling it was a novelty song that didn’t deserve the status that should have been afforded Small Faces’ more serious work. He has a point, but goddamn, this is a fun little number that Marriott sings with cockney enthusiasm and the professionalism of a musical stage trooper. The arrangement is cheerfully kitchen-sink, as the band throws in bells, rolling waves and all manner of sound effects. The mood shifts back and forth between music hall bash and Sunday afternoon stillness, and despite the appeal to the average bloke, the arrangement reflects both complexity and thoughtfulness. It’s a great way to end the incredibly diverse but never discordant side one.
Side two is devoted entirely to the fairytale journey of “Happiness Stan.” Unlike their botching of the plot to A Passion Play, Wikipedia does a decent job summarizing this story:
The plot of the fairy tale is that Stan looks up in the sky and sees only half the moon; he sets out on a quest to search for the missing half. Along the way he saves a fly from starvation, and in gratitude the insect tells him of someone who can answer his question and also tell him the philosophy of life itself. With his magic power Stan intones, “If all the flies were one fly, what a great enormous fly-follolloper that would bold,” and the fly grows to gigantic proportions. Seated on the giant fly’s back Stan takes a psychedelic journey to the cave of Mad John the hermit, who explains that the moon’s disappearance is only temporary, and demonstrates by pointing out that Stan has spent so long on his quest that the moon is now full again. He then sings Stan a cheerful song about the meaning of life.
If that sounds childish and silly to you, then you’re an uptight loser who has forgotten how to play and pretend. It’s not childish—it’s child-like. Marriott and Lane (credited composers on all the songs; McLagan on three, Jones on one) made a commitment to the genre and stuck with it. As I have repeated ad infinitum in other reviews, commitment is the key to artistic success, and Small Faces are to be applauded for not trying to load “Happiness Stan” with any heavy adult-like meaning. It’s a charming fairy tale, and has more of an impact because it remains a fairy tale. You can read the full lyrics on this page at Robbie Rocks.
The music, by the way, is certifiably ab-fab.
Interspersed among the six tracks that form “Happiness Stan” is a narrative read by Professor Stanley Unwin, a British comedian famous for his gobbledegook known as “Unwinese,” which he uses with great relish in relating key developments in the story. This was a brilliant decision for several reasons: one, he has a jolly grandfather voice that is very comforting and playful; two, he takes care of a lot of narrative details that would have been boring in song form; and three, the gobbledegook adds to the playfulness of the piece, much like the work of Lewis Carroll and (at times) James Joyce. Adults listening to him may cry out in frustration, “This is nonsense!” Children, on the other hand, will understand his wordplay almost instantly. So, again, if you’re an anal, arrogant prick, you may react with disdain to language like this:
Now after a little lapse of time,
Stan became deep hungry in his tumbload.
Oh, after all he struggly tricky out several milode,
and anyone would suffer under this.
So suddenly he dood a deep thoucus,
out with his lunchy bag,
just about to do a little nibbload of his mincy meaty, when…….
If you’re open-minded and playful, you’ll giggle with delight and not only will you understand it, you will become more absorbed in the story.
After we’re all seated comfortable, too square on our botties, the music begins with the song, “Happiness Stan.” Living deep inside a rainbow, he interprets the world through colors . . . and when he looks up into the sky one night hoping to see a big fat moon, “black has stolen half the moon away!” The track opens with dreamy harp, which transforms to harpsichord when the quaint, drawing-room main theme begins. The beat shifts to heavier rock in the last passage, where Stan has made his astonishing discovery; Ian McLagan’s organ appropriately sets the mood of mystery. The following video is taken from the only “performance” (mimed) of Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, from the BBC show Colour Me Pop. It will give you a feel for the piece, the band and Unwinese:
After the narration, Small Faces just has to kick some ass, which they do quite well in the joyous rocker, “Rollin’ Over,” where Stan sings about the excitement of starting a noble quest. My absolute favorite piece comes next: “The Hungry Intruder.” Stan has paused his quest to have a bite to eat, and just as he’s about to dig in, he hears a faint voice, which, to his amazement, is coming from a tiny fly. Let me get something straight: I hate fucking flies. One item that made it to the top of my packing list when I moved to France earlier this year was my bug zapper, a sort of tennis-racket with battery power that zaps the crap out of any insect that dares enter my space, and flies and spiders are at the top of my public enemies list. But gosh, the fly in “The Hungry Intruder” is so disarmingly polite that it almost makes me feel ashamed about my role as insect executioner . . . almost. The theatrical dialogue here is superbly performed and rather touching:
(Fly) Here am I
May I share your Shepherd’s Pie?
(Stan) What is this strange voice I hear?
(Fly) Here I am
Look This Way
In the landscape on your tray
(Stan) There’s no need to ask a silly question
If I were you I hope you’d do the same
There’s no doubt I’d help a hungry fly out
To see you in a fix it’s really such a shame
(Fly) I’m so hungry
I could die
And no one needs a living fly
(Stan) My name is Stan
I’m on a quest
Take your fill,
Take nothing less!
I’ll never make it to Stan’s level of consciousness, but then again, I’ve never met a fly with manners.
After lunch, the fly asks Stan if there’s anything he could do for him. Stan explains his quest, and the fly mentions someone who could help. The fly explains he would gladly take Stan to this person if he wasn’t so dinky, and Stan uses his magic powers to transform the fly into the insect version of a 787. Hey, it’s a fucking fairy tale! The narrative merges into “The Journey,” a suitably psychedelic number that takes the pair to meet the man with the answers, Mad John. The song here has the feel of English folk translated for modern sensibilities as Traffic would do later with “John Barleycorn.” John is described a strange hermit to be avoided by all good children, and the lyrics that close the piece enlighten us with a powerful lesson, as all good fairy tales should:
So here was a wise one who loved all the haters
he loved them so much that their hate turned to fear
and shaking from behind their curtains the loved ones would hear.
Stan buys in to the fear to some degree, and approaches the cave with trepidation. To his delight, he receives a hearty welcome:
All whitely hair, scintilating beard and dangly,
well the beard must have been 24 years old,
to grow it and grow it, all night lode, what!
And he was glowing, with a friendly light, oh dear, joy,
and a voice full of the Cockney Cockney Cockney,
all joy of life and living, eminate from the cockload of his heartstrings.
Called to see you man ha, what’s been your hang-up man hu,
I waiting seven whole days for ya,
not still worried about this scintilating moon and dangly, huh, hu?
Mad John shows Stan that during the time Stan has spent on his quest, the moon has taken its natural course and has phased into the full moon. This “struck him like a smacker o’ blueidy,” setting up the other lesson of the tale in the closing piece, “Happy Days Toy Town.”
Life is just a bowl of All-Bran
You wake up every morning and it’s there
So live as only you can
It’s all about enjoy it ‘cos ever since you saw it
There aint no one can take it away.
The music to the finale returns to cockney music hall, clearing away any sense of heaviness that might have appeared had Small Faces decided to imbue the piece with ponderous significance, as many other psychedelic artists of the time attempted to do in their work. Fuck the search for meaning! Let’s have some fun!
It’s also the perfect ending to a record that combines deeply satisfying music with the awareness that music, at its heart, is something to be enjoyed. The great works of rock combine great lyrics with great music, and the artists who have created those works realized that music at that level of ambition still has to entertain as well as enlighten. The Beatles certainly understood that in the creation of Sgt. Pepper, The Kinks achieved that balance several times and Small Faces pulled it off in Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake—a playful, lyrical, melodic and rocking tribute to the human imagination.
- Stephen Peter Marriott (1947-1991). . . . (stevegwilcox.wordpress.com)