I Wish That I Knew What I Know Now (Ronnie Lane)

Image result for small faces magazine coversBy 1975 Ronnie Lane had been successfully writing, recording & performing music for a decade. He was still a teenager when Small Faces’ R&B inflected Pop, as whip-smart as their Mod threads, became a UK chart-topping sensation of 1966. In collaboration with Steve Marriott he wrote 6 of the group’s 7 Top 10 hits. At the beginning of the 70’s Faces, a new alliance with Rod Stewart & Ron Wood, made a flash, spirited, raucous racket that was most pleasing on the ear. Ronnie’s more contemplative songs provided a lovely counterpoint to the good-time Stones-y rock. His pivotal role emphasised by the fact that on his departure in 1973 Faces continued but never recorded another studio LP. Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance was more restrained with a wider range of instrumentation & styles. A showcase for a mature songwriter who could raise a smile & touch your heart with equal facility.

 

At the beginning of 1976 Ronnie was back in the charts when “Itchycoo Park”, an innovative, perfect Psych-Pop single from 1967, East End hippies stoned in Stepney, was re-released. Plans for a Small Faces reunion were advanced but Ronnie only attended the one rehearsal before he decided that it was not for him. The business part of making music had not always worked out to Ronnie’s advantage & it would have been uncharacteristic for him to be taking such a backward step. Besides, back home on Fishpool Farm, in Shropshire on the England/Wales border, he had something quite unique going on & a busy year ahead.

 

 

 

In the burning Summer of 1975 Slim Chance had recorded “One for the Road”, their third LP. Down on the farm Ronnie had a 16 track mobile studio in an Airstream trailer & bucolic good times were captured with a rare immediacy & warmth. “Anymore for Anymore” (1974) shows the confidence of a man finally out on his own (“It was time to leave the band when Rod started buying his clothes at Miss Selfridge”) knowing & getting what he wanted. A debut 45, “How Come” had been successful but when “The Poacher”, a perfectly realised pastoral classic, was less so then commercial expectations for the album were probably revised. Such ageless, amiable, assured music didn’t suit the “progressive” taste of fans of British Rock in 1974.

 

Image result for one for the road ronnie laneReleased in 1976 it would take something for “One for…” to match the debut but it runs it close. There’s not the same mix of original songs & well chosen, sometimes surprising, cover versions, all 9 songs are written by Ronnie & some of them rank with his best. Even when he was laid-back & folksy our man’s tunes could still be anthemic. Live gigs became  a caravan of musicians & circus acts, the Passing Show. Often performing in a big top tent it was an idealistic if expensive way of making a Rock concert a new experience. I saw Slim Chance in 1975 (unfortunately not in the tent) & boy they were good. Kate, Mrs Lane, danced the Can Can to the closing “Ooh La La” & everyone in the place, band & audience, were having a very good time.

 

 

In October “Snakes & Ladders/the Best of Faces” hit the shops, a collection which seemingly diminished the part played by Ronnie in the group. It is understandable that the record label would want to piggy-back the international success of Rod Stewart but to include none of the songs on which Ronnie sang lead is less so. Any which way you hear it anyone with ears has the wondrous “Debris” in any Faces Finest collection, “Glad & Sorry” is pushing its way in there too. The LP sleeve has no trace of Ronnie either & that seems a little mean-spirited, particularly as the previous month had seen the release of an LP which highlighted how closely he had worked with his bandmates.

 

Image result for mahoney's last stand“Mahoney’s Last Stand” is the soundtrack LP to a rarely seen 1972 Canadian film. Ronnie Lane & Ron Wood co-wrote 12 tunes, arranged one traditional song & recorded them at Glyn Johns’ Olympic Studio in Barnes, London. They got their mates along to jam. Their fellow Faces, Pete Townshend, Rick Grech, the Stones’ horn section (Jim Price & Bobby Keyes), it’s a list & I’ve missed some fine players out. The album was tidied up in 1976, retaining its ramshackle feel. “Tonight’s Number” is a rocking instrumental opening jam, “Chicken Wired” made it on to “Anymore for…”. It’s “Safety Pin Queen” that features here because it’s a Faces riff (on the theme of “Cindy Incidentally” ?) & we get to hear the peerless keyboards of Ian McLagan, the bottleneck skills that got Woody a job with the Stones, underpinned with great work on the bass by Ronnie…glorious !

 

 

Image result for rough mix pete townshend album advertSlim Chance had been dropped by Island records & the expense of keeping his Passing Show on the road was making things tight. Ronnie had contributed to 3 LPs made in tribute to Indian spiritual master Meher Baba by Pete Townshend off of the Who. Ronnie contacted Pete with a view to having him produce his next record. This resulted in the pair entering Olympic Studios in the Winter of 1976 to record a collaborative LP. “Rough Mix” (1977) has 5 songs by each contributor & just one co-composition, the instrumental title track & the blend is seamless. It, in my opinion, is a great example of 1970s British rock & its influences made by those musicians who started in the 1960s. Up there with “Every Picture…”, “All Things…” & Exile…”, that good ! “Rough Mix” is worth some of your hard-earned just for that driving beat of Charlie Watts on Pete’s rocking “My Baby Gives It Away” or for Eric Clapton’s Dobro accompaniment to Ronnie’s poignant, perfect “Annie”.

 

Image result for ronnie lane newhamIt was during the “Rough Mix” sessions that Ronnie was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis, a wasting disease which attacks the central nervous system & for which there is no known cure. This limited more than his musical activities, there was just one more solo LP, “See Me” (1979), A hook up with Steve Marriott (the clumsily named Majik Mijits) was recorded but not released for 20 years. After an extreme course of snake venom injections he was back & broke in London. The great & the good of the British Rock aristocracy rallied around for a benefit concert, Clapton, Beck & Page, the 3 guitar stars of the Yardbirds together, which went so well that there were 9 further US dates. Ronnie was able to move to Texas’ more beneficial climate. He played when he could, Page, Rod & Ron contributed to his medical bills. He died on the 4th of June 1997 in Colorado. He was just 51 years old.

 

 

Related imageThat’s a sad end to Ronnie’s story. I was lucky enough to spend just 10 minutes in his company, he was affable, funny, a true gent & this seems to be an opinion shared by those who knew him well. I do know that while writing this post I have listened to great music made by Small Faces, Faces, Slim Chance & with Pete Townshend. Twenty years after Ronnie Lane’s passing “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake”, “Rough Mix”, a pile of unforgettable singles & the treasures from his own band are never far away & always lift the spirit.  “And now for your delight ah, the darling of Wapping Wharf launderette, Ronald ah ‘Leafy’ Lane!!!”. Get on it.

 

 

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I Thought I Was The Bally Table King (Pinball)

There are a number of things that I was born at the right time for. There is no element of nostalgia when I remember hearing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Good Vibrations” or “Sgt Pepper” on the day they were released. It sure made the 1960s an interesting musical experience. Similarly three of the first movies my wife-to-be and I saw together at the cinema …”Easy Rider”, “The Graduate” and “Midnight Cowboy”. Now I don’t spend too much time checking my footprints (“they are upstairs in my socks”  Groucho Marx) but a twice weekly cinema-going habit in the 1970s meant that you saw a lot of good movies. Then there was the Sexual Revolution, all the women I knew were “on the pill”. Yeah, I would be lying if I said that I did any more than read about that.

Anyhoo…here’s another thing that I thought was golden at the time and is now as obsolete as the video machine.

In the monochrome early 1960s my family went to the same seaside holiday camp. Being the eldest of 4, soon to be 5, children I got to explore the place by myself. The only source of colour around had, of course, a magnetic attraction for my young self. The amusement arcade had a juke box and a pinball machine. If it was my choice, I would still be living there now. I had little spare cash to flash but, like Chance the Gardener, I liked to watch. It was in this neon oasis that I learned how to put the three best records on the juke and how a proper pinball player presented himself in the battle of man versus machine. The designs, the noise, the lights…I liked those too.

“Pinball Boogie” is a song one of our favourite mid-70s bands, Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers, played in a live set which always included imaginative covers. They were a fun band which included a former Resident and a future Attraction. When they whipped out this belter from the 1940s we loved it. I suppose that “Pinball Boogie” can be read as rather clumsy sexual metaphor. “Rattle it and shake it till it gets in the hole”…mmm…it might be worth a try.

The university I attended was an experiment conducted by mad social scientists. A concrete carbuncle dropped into beautiful Constable country and a 1,000 students left to find a way to get along. There were three communal TV rooms (one for each channel !) and little else to divert. There was, however, a bare room containing four shiny new pinball machines. It was time to put those misspent rainy holiday afternoons to good use.

We were competitive and we were pretty good. An etiquette was established. stand away from the table and don’t talk to the guy who is playing. Let him concentrate and don’t give him an excuse when he screws up. It takes more than crazy flipper fingers to get the best out of a table which can be a cussed thing giving you nothing. The ball has to be cajoled with body English (lovely phrase) , careful not to “tilt” and lose it, when you get it right, grokking the machine, the ball will just run onto the flippers and the points will rack up, giving up it’s replays with that satisfying “THWACK !”

We left the campus and lived in a nearby seaside village. In Winter the tumbleweed fluttered along the streets of shuttered chalets  but a small arcade remained open all year round. We knew the machines inside out, playing pinball was what we did of an evening. Good times. On leaving the seaside and student life there were tables to be found in pubs and we would drink in those discerning dives with no thought for the quality of alcohol available. Living in London there were still arcades and from Soho down to Brighton we must have played them all. In a splendid low-life Brixton joint we would play the locals for money, careful not to win big as we lived our Hustler/Cincinnatti  Kid dreams.

“Pinball Cha Cha” is by the Swiss band Yello. It is a song of a man who can only find solace at a pinball table. “It’s just pinball for me. It’s claro que si” (of course). There have been afternoons with just me in the pub and I’m doing the thing I do when I may have been that man playing “the sensational game”. OK, I suppose that I have to do this…

Not too obvious…this is a ready-for-prime-time demo of “Pinball Wizard”, Pete Townshend’s epic from “Tommy”. If I had a pound for every time some wit has said to me, “Oh, you’re a Pinball Wizard are you ?” I would have £15. The machines got more electronic, more complicated. Of course I liked the traditional machines but this was no Fonz fantasy. Bring it on…make the whistles and bells blow and ring until, one day, the machine disintegrates in front of you !

And now the pinball machine has pretty much disappeared. I have even stopped looking in the nooks of the seaside arcades because it’s disappointing that this last refuge no longer comes through. I have had friends who, building their own man-cave, bought their very own tables. It’s cool for a couple of days to get a few games in while the first kettle boils but they are bloody noisy in a confined space and unlimited free games can take the edge off your game. Then, when you have sated yourself, friends arrive and they want to make some noise for a few more hours. It’s just not the same as being down the pub.

So now it’s the X-Box and the PS3, games from the comfort of your sofa and that’s OK. I have done my share of Tomb Raiding. Console Pinball , crazy flipper thumbs ?…Please ! I really enjoyed my pinball days (still think I could kick a machine’s arse, if I could find one). I liked to walk away from a table leaving the free plays for the next player. If you have had the perfect game you will do no better. I really liked the arcade days when a young kid would be watching as you subjugated the silver ball to your will. I would give him the free plays just as the aces I had watched back in the day had given them to me. Pay it forward, yeah.

Pete Townshend. Life Outside The Who.

Pete Townshend, the Who and the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” were tied together for quite some time. “Tommy” was the cornerstone of their spectacular live performances. Surely Pete tired of reiterating the meaning of his “rock opera” to uninterested journos. At the end of the 60s musicians were now expected to be philosophers and seekers. Some stellar talents died and others became addicted to whatever was available as they tried to break on through to the other side. Townshend hitched his wagon to the teachings of Meher Baba, a spiritual master who had not spoken since 1925. Baba had complicated views on reincarnation and the process of God-realization. His philosophy had been reduced to “don’t worry, be happy”. That Pete was searching was no surprise but there was an earthiness, an anger and a sense of humour about the Who which did not fully convince me that the West Londoner was not still getting wasted on the way.

Musically the group did not make a wrong move in the new decade. Pete’s next concept was “Lifehouse” a more personal project. He worked and worked it but never got it to a place where he wanted to release it. He was to lick his wounds and retreat to his notebooks where surely the story of a fucked up Mod, “Quadrophenia”, must have already been waiting in embryonic form. If anyone was to chronicle this British tribe then it was the original “Modfather”. An interim LP “Live At Leeds” was a blues-rock approximation of a volcanic eruption. The new kids in town, Led Zeppelin, made a big noise but so did these old hands. The “Lifehouse” tapes were used as the basis of a studio album, “Who’s Next”, a collection of such quality few have equalled never mind bettered.

The Who were at the top of their game. They kept busy with “Quadrophenia” (1973) and another LP 2 years later. Pete handed “Tommy” to the idiosyncratic director, Ken Russell. Whatever your opinion of the movie it does have Ann Margret writhing around in beans and chocolate. I’ll repeat that, it does have Ann Margret…ah, you get me. Pete made a couple of records inspired and dedicated to Baba. It was 1977 before a record with his name on was commercially released.

“Rough Mix” was a collaboration with fellow Mod musician and Baba devotee, Ronnie Lane. I was lucky enough to meet Ronnie in the early 70s, he was a lovely friendly man. I should have told him how great his work with the Small Faces, and the Faces, was. I will never get that chance now. The LP is a fine mix of British rock. Pete hung up the power chords and plays more lead guitar. “My Baby” and “Keep Me Turning” are songs good enough to compare with the Who. The demos Pete had made of his hit songs always had a more acoustic feel. For over 10 years these tunes had been put through the Who process, muscles added to the skinny frame. On “Rough Mix” the songs did not suffer from a different approach. The album went down really well round our yard. The full thing is available on You Tube, if you have any interest in the Who it will be 41 minutes and 33 seconds well spent. It will probably not be the last time you listen to it.

The sad but perhaps inevitable death of Keith Moon in 1978 must have initiated a period of re-appraisal for the remaining three members of the Who. The four of them had shared the amazing journey. The chemistry between them made the music greater than the sum of the parts. The Who may continue but it would never be the same. Pete, having his own problems with alcohol, released a fine solo LP “Empty Glass” and in 1981 a new Who album “Face Dances” came around. I went to see the Who a month before this release. It was not some enormo-dome mega gig but in a South London cinema. My musical tastes had changed. I did not listen to the Who so much in those days. The band were absolutely spell binding. Kenny Jones, a fellow traveller of Ronnie Lane’s and John “Rabbit” Bundrick joined the original trio. They had a classic catalogue to select from. Every song was golden, the bond between Daltrey and Townshend astonishing. The intimacy of the relatively small venue allowed us to see Pete at work close up. So that’s how it is done ! It was a stunning gig and my ears rang for the next two days.

The clip I have chosen is from a tour in 1985. The song is a feature track on the 1982 solo LP “All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes” (rubbish title). When Pete toured he did it properly and he assembled an impressive band. Bundrick came along, Simon Phillips is a great drummer and David Gilmour helped out on guitar. It’s a terrific song with the dynamics of a Who anthem but without the windmill chords. A mature Townshend, undoubtedly, he had to strike the poses when he played with the Who but he was 40 now and probably, like all of us, no longer hoped he died before he got old. I selected the later clip because the live footage of the final song is not as excellent as the recorded version. This take on “The Sea Refuses No River”  shows a happy and confident Pete with a fine band to showcase his song.

“Save It for Later” is a song by the Beat (known in the US as the English Beat). From Birmingham, they had hooked up with the Two-Tone bands, groups who were too young for punk and had their own take on pop and ska. I always liked the Beat, they had some good songs. My wife had worked on the design of the first LP sleeve and I spent a pleasant evening with two of them when they were in the band General Public. “Save It” was possibly their best song but there are other contenders. Pete had recorded cover versions before but mostly they were influential songs from his youth. In one instance he covered a favourite song of Meher Baba.

This song by Pete is, I think, little known yet when I listen to it I hear a hit record. He has kept the basic acoustic rhythm which first attracted him and added characteristic Townshend flourishes. It would not be him if he did not stretch his music towards anthemic. The killer touch in this version is the work of piano player Nicky Hopkins. He fills out the sound so beautifully as he had done for years on LPs by the Who, the Beatles, the Stones and a hundred other albums you like. A girlfriend once had to sort out a Japanese visa for Hopkins, on tour with Art Garfunkel. She told me she expected his C.V. the next day and I said she was in for a surprise. She was more than impressed when she saw his history.

I make no great claims for the continued relevance of Pete Townshend in his later years. He can play the Olympics or the Superbowl with his singer and it is songs from 40 years ago that the audience want to hear. From 1965 to 1975 he consistently produced songs that defined the times and that have survived the changing times. That is enough and I love this version of “Save It For Later”

Peace.