“Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake” by the Small Faces (1968)
Several “rock operas” predate the Who’s “Tommy,” although that album’s 1969 release led to the coining of the term.
The previous year, the Pretty Things unveiled “S.F. Sorrow,” which seemed to follow a vaguely coherent theme that was made far more clear three decades later with a narrated version featuring Arthur Brown, of Crazy World fame.
Also in 1968 came “Odgens’ Nut Gone Flake,” on which the Small Faces devote an entire LP side to the thoroughly whimsical tale of Happiness Stan, who sets out on a quest for the missing half of the moon.
Hey, it was the ’60s …
The recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction of the combined Small Faces and Faces might confuse listeners who know the latter group only as Rod Stewart’s early backing band. And even that’s not really the case.
As far as history, the Small Faces came together in 1965 with the late Steve Marriott on guitar, the late Ronnie Lane on bass, Kenney Jones on drums and Jimmy Winston (soon to be replaced by Ian McLagan) on keyboards. The band soon became one of Britain’s top acts, scoring several R&B-influenced hits as part of the Mod scene that also featured Pete Townshend and company.
By 1967, the Small Faces’ sound had taken on a decidedly psychedelic tinge, as evidence by the band’s only American hit (No. 16), the heavily phase-shifted “Itchycoo Park.”
“Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake” hit the shelves in May 1968, frustrating clerks with its packaging: Instead the usual square record jacket, Immediate Records released the LP in the round, as Grand Funk Railroad would do four years later on this side of the Atlantic with “E. Pluribus Funk.”
The album’s title, taken from a Liverpool tobacco company, also is the name of the opening track, a slow-burn instrumental that incorporates orchestral backing amid the quartet’s flexing of its chops.
“Afterglow (Of Your Love)” sports an unconventional opening section, with Marriott’s acoustic guitar and sundry whistling accompanying Lane’s somewhat slurred reading of the chorus. The song then breaks into a more standard presentation, with Marriott delivering one of his more emotive vocal performances.
McLagan’s “Long Ago and Worlds Apart” features his far more subdued vocal, as he carries the tune with keyboards that are subjected to a major Leslie effect. The song seems to end after about two minutes, but fades back in for a decent jam that lasts another 30 seconds.
Perhaps the album’s most memorable tune is “Rene,” Marriott’s ode to a seaside prostitute, which he delivers with an appropriately Cockney accent in a rather risque manner: “If you can spend the money, you’ll have a ball/She’ll have yours.” After the lyrical section, the song continues with a two-and-a-half minute jam that borders on hard rock.
So does “Song of a Baker,” at least Marriott’s heavy riffing that leads into another observation of everyday life.
Controversy surrounded “Lazy Sunday,” which Immediate released as a single – it went to No. 2 in the U.K. – despite the band’s objections. Marriott wrote the song about his neighbors complaining about his music and recorded it as a joke. But whatever its intent, “Lazy Sunday” is an eminently fun and catchy tune that fully captures the carefree atmosphere at the heart of British psychedelia.
The side-length suite is divided into these sections:
- “Happiness Stan” is introduced by guest narrator Stanley Unwin (1911-2002), a British comedian who invented a nonsensical corruption of the English language he called Unwinese. (You might remember him as the Chancellor of Vulgaria in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.) The Small Faces character Stan lives deep inside a rainbow, from which he watches the sky and sees half the moon disappear.
- In “Rollin’ Over,” Unwin describes how Happiness Stand embarks on a quest to find the other half of the moon, before the band breaks into the unrelated, hard-rocking love song that provides the title and was released as the B-side of the “Lazy Sunday” single.
- “The Hungry Intruder” tells of Stan sharing his shepherd’s pie with a fly: “My name is Stan, I’m on a quest/Take your fill, take nothing less.”
- Stan’s generosity pays off in “The Journey,” in which he transforms the fly into a creature capable of transporting him on his quest. The song proper starts with a short burst of hard rock before settling into an easy jam laden with cool sound effects.
- After seven days of journeying, they reach a tranquil beauty spot, where Stan meets Mad John. In a haunting melody, Marriott sings about John’s baggage: “There was an old man who lived in the greenwood/Nobody knew him or what he had done/But mothers would say to their children, ‘Beware of Mad John.'” Of course, John turns out to be a nice guy who gives Stan the answer to his query about the moon.
- “Happy Days Toy Town” wraps up proceedings with a tremendous sing-along: “Give me those happy days toytown newspaper smiles/Clap twice, lean back, twist for a while\/When you’re untogether and feeling out of tune/Sing this special song with me, don’t worry ’bout the moon/Looks after itself.”
“Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake” went to No. 1 in England and continued to establish the Small Faces as major stars in their home country. But several factors led to the band’s demise the following year.
For one, the new album was impossible to re-create in concert. For another, the follow-up single, Marriott’s innovative “The Universal,” fared none too well on the charts, and the disappointed composer decided to stop writing music for a stretch.
Eventually, he was unhappy enough with the band in general to walk offstage and quite during a New Year’s Eve performance, opting to join forces with a teenage guitarist named Peter Frampton to form Humble Pie.
Lane, McLagan and Jones were trying to figure out how to proceed when the Jeff Beck Group splintered in the spring of 1969, and two members of its members joined the Small Faces, vocalist Rod Stewart and bass player Ron Wood, who switched to guitar. Figuring the new lineup represented a different group, the members dropped the “Small” part of the name.
Rather than serving as Stewart’s backing band, though, the Faces functioned as a unit, with Lane taking on many of the songwriting and vocal efforts. Eventually he left, and by the end of that band’s run, it was being billed as Rod Stewart and the Faces.
As for Marriott, he had a successful run with Humble Pie, with and without Frampton, through the early ’70s, until the gaining popularity of disco derail the band’s blues-boogie style. At that point, he re-formed the Small Faces with McLagan, Jones, bass player Rick Wills and ex-Thunderclap Newman guitarist Jimmy McCullough, but the reunion met with a thorough lack of interest.
So Marriott re-formed Humble Pie, sans Frampton, but that didn’t really go anywhere, either. He died in 1991 in a house fire.
Lane had a moderately successful solo career and recorded a critically acclaimed album with Townshend, “Rough Mix,” before being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. A highly respected member of the rock community, Lane was assisted greatly by his fellow musicians in financing his medical costs. He died in 1997.
Jones followed his Small Faces/Faces tenure by joining The Who. Although a highly competent drummer, Jones was no Keith Moon, the legend whom he replaced, and the band received plenty of criticism for carrying on following Moon’s death.
Wood, of course, joined the Rolling Stones, and McLagan has played with the band on tour and in the studio.
As for Stewart’s post-Faces career, if you can’t say anything nice …