Singer Steve Marriott (born 30 January 1947) started his showbiz career in 1962 in the London stage production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! – which might go some way to explaining his gift for the vernacular and fondness for a knees-up round the old joanna.
He met Ronnie Lane in 1964 and, together with friends Kenney Jones and Jimmy Winston, they formed The Small Faces and played their debut gig (a mere half-a-dozen numbers) at Club 60 in deepest darkest Sheffield.
By June they had gained a residency at the ‘Cavern’ in Leicester Square, London, and after only six weeks together, London’s second successful Mod band achieved their first hit with Whatcha Gonna Do About It? when it entered the UK charts on 2 September.
Original keyboard player Winston was unceremoniously sacked by the group when he turned up for a gig at the Lyceum to find his replacement, Ian McLagan, already filling his shoes . . .
Sha-La-La-La-Lee and Hey Girl were both dinky little pop songs, but the Small Faces dealt with them commendably, while their only #1 – All or Nothing – fully restored any lost mod credibility.
Even more than The Who, The Small Faces encapsulated Swinging London and were chart fixtures for three years.
When they signed with manager Don Arden, he opened an account for them at every boutique in Carnaby Street, then housed them in a pad in Pimlico where there were girls and pills. But it was indicative of more innocent times that the largest room in this house of ill-repute was given over to a giant four-track Scalextric set.
Eventually, to these four young boys, their world of screaming teenage girls, a remorseless gigging schedule and tough manager Don Arden felt like a straitjacket. Within a year that all changed – They moved to Andrew Oldham‘s Immediate Records to enjoy a creative freedom beginning with a second LP, titled (like their first) Small Faces.
Marriott and Lane’s songwriting partnership matured rapidly, and though the LP shunned the psychedelia of that summer (with the exception of Green Circles and Up The Wooden Hills To Bedfordshire) it updated their Brit-Soul sound with a more sophisticated edge. Get Yourself Together (which was later covered by The Jam) was the perfect example.
1967’s Itchycoo Park was one gargantuan spliff-laden flower power piss-take. “We’ll be able to get plastic sitars in our cornflakes soon,” Steve Marriott had grumbled as early as May 1966.
“Over bridge of sighs to rest my eyes in shades of green, under dreaming spires . . . ” to a bit of wasteland in Ilford that was overrun with stinging nettles, that’s where they went!
The song remains the perfect soundtrack for anyone who ever felt inclined to blow their mind or, indeed, feed ducks with a bun.
Relishing the creative freedom afforded them by the Immediate label, Marriott and Co set about recording a concept album following the exploits of Happiness Stan and his quest for the missing half of the moon.
A compelling mix of psychedelia, music hall, pop, soul and hard rock punctuated by Stanley Unwin’s surreal narration – “are you all sitting comftybold two-square on your botty?” – Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake became one of the most inspired creations of 1968.
Ogden’s reached #1 but its innovative round cover and “concept” saga gave it novelty status. 1968 also turned out to be The Small Faces final year as a band.
Cocaine and booze transformed Steve Marriott’s personality, resulting in the schizophrenic rages which he ascribed to a bald wrestler called Marvin.
Marriott resigned his post as frontman by storming offstage at Alexandra Palace on New Years’ Eve 1968.
“I couldn’t hear nothing. I couldn’t make head nor tail of what was going on, so I just put my guitar down and split. It just sounded a total shambles and I couldn’t fit in. So I said, ‘Bollocks, I’ve had it with this'”. Backstage, Marriott announced his next move – forming Humble Pie with Peter Frampton.
Lane, Jones and McLagan joined forces with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, previously from The Jeff Beck Group, dropped the “small” and became The Faces. They went on to enjoy immense popularity as a live act, as evidenced by the Top 10 position of their first hit, Stay With Me.
When The Faces called it a day in 1975, the original Small Faces line-up reformed briefly to film videos miming to the reissued Itchycoo Park (a Top 10 hit for the second time) and Lazy Sunday, which went Top 40.
The group tried recording together again, but Lane left after only two rehearsals due to an argument.
Unknown to the others, he was beginning to show the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and his behaviour was misinterpreted by Marriott and the others as a drunken tantrum.
Nevertheless, McLagan, Jones and Marriott decided to stay together as Small Faces, recruiting ex-Humble Pie and Roxy Music bassist Rick Wills to take Lane’s place. This iteration of Small Faces recorded two albums: Playmates (1977) and 78 In The Shade (1978), released on Atlantic Records.
Guitarist Jimmy McCulloch also briefly joined this line-up after leaving Wings. McCulloch’s tenure with the band lasted only for a few months in late 1977. McCulloch died in 1979 from a heroin overdose in his flat in Maida Vale. He was only 26.
Unfortunately for the band, mainstream music in Britain was rapidly changing direction, with punk rock washing away much that had gone before. As a result, the reunion albums were both critical and commercial failures and The Small Faces broke up again, this time for good, in late 1978.
Despite all the records he sold, Marriott was skint for most of his career. When he left Humble Pie, he was reduced to stealing food. When he moaned to manager Dee Anthony he was invited to a meeting in New York at which Mafia boss John Gotti was also present. He soon stopped asking questions about the missing millions.
At one point, all his guitars were seized in lieu of payment by his coke dealer and by the time of Live Aid in 1985, he was to be found not at Wembley but playing at a pub in Putney.
In 1991, Marriott was invited to LA to make an album with former Humble Pie bandmate Peter Frampton. It was Marriott’s chance to rejoin the major league, and he stood to earn a small fortune in recording and publishing advances. But Frampton laid down some ground rules: No alcohol in the studio, no going AWOL and – above all – no cocaine.
Marriott agreed, but within days he broke his promise. He was drunk, snorting coke, belligerent, and demonic. Frampton stopped the sessions and sent Steve back to England.
Flying home from LA, Marriott arrived jet-lagged at his 16th Century cottage in the village of Arkesden, Essex, in the early hours of 20 April. A passing motorist saw flames and smoke billowing from the property at 6:30 am and called the fire brigade.
Steve Marriott’s body was recovered from an upstairs bedroom. The inquest’s verdict was ‘accidental death by smoke inhalation’. He had probably fallen asleep with a cigarette burning.
He was at home alone at the time as his wife, Toni, was spending the night with friends.
His funeral was held on 30 April on a rainy stormy day in Harlow, with a posse of scooter boys standing guard outside.
Ronnie Lane died at his home in Trinidad, Colorado, on 4 June 1997, after battling MS for nearly 20 years.
Ronnie ‘Plonk’ Lane