A LIFE WELL LIVED – Saying Farewell to Ian McLagan

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Ed. note: When the news hit this week about Ian McLagan’s unexpected and tragic death in the aftermath of a severe stroke, we here at BLURT were more than just shocked—we were devastated. Music lovers all over the planet, ourselves included, and particularly in Austin where McLagan had lived for a number of years, are fans of the keyboardist’s work over the years starting in the mid ‘60s with the Small Faces and up through Ian McLagan & the Bump Band. And being able to meet him in person on several occasions was an honor for members of the BLURT staff; I got to chat with him in Austin a number of years ago when his All The Rage autobiography was published, additionally seeing him play twice (I also had seen the Faces perform during that band’s heyday), while our publisher Stephen Judge got to hang out with him this past March during SXSW at our annual day party at the Ginger Man Pub. (The pictures on this page were taken by photog Susan Moll at the party.) Each time he was warm, funny and outgoing, a true British gentleman: upon learning that he enjoyed it so much he wanted to do our day party each year going forward, we were truly and deeply flattered.

       To mark McLagan’s passing, we hereby are republishing longtime Contributing Editor Lee Zimmerman’s interview with the man, conducted in February on the occasion of the release of the Small Faces box set Here Come the Nice. We’ve also added content from Zimmerman’s review of McLagan’s most recent solo album, United States, released just a few months ago. Rest in peace, Mac: you will be greatly missed.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN / PHOTOS BY SUSAN MOLL

When the roll call of people who have been key lynchpins in Rock’s overall trajectory comes to mind, suggesting the name Ian McLagan may garner a blank look from the unknowing in return. On the other hand, namedrop some of the musicians who figure prominently in McLagan’s resume, and that dumbfounded expression will likely morph into one of awe and appreciation. Aside from the fact that he played a pivotal role in two of the most vital British bands of the sixties and seventies — the Small Faces and later, the Faces – he can claim a list of recording and touring credits that include stints with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Joe Cocker, Billy Bragg, Paul Westerberg, and… well, honestly, given those names thus far, need we offer any others?

That’s not to say McLagan – or Mac, as he’s known to friends and fans alike – has spent his career in the background. Far from it, in fact. For the past 35 years, he’s helmed the Bump Band, an all-star musical collective based in his adopted hometown of Austin. Credit McLagan for continuing the trajectory initiated some five decades back to make him a mainstay of the city’s music scene. His latest effort, United States (Yep Roc) recorded with the ever-reliable Bump Band, more or less affirms the MO he established early on – simple, concise and unassuming songs delivered with a reliable mix of tenacity and humility. As a keyboardist, McLagan’s not the smoothest singer – he sounds similar to Ron Wood and Keith Richards on those occasions when they take over the microphone – but he succeeds by default, whether deadpanning a smooth croon on “Mean Old World” or crowing with conviction on “Love Letter” and “Who Says It Ain’t Love.” The best songs show some spunk – the bouncy “Pure Gold,” the reggae lilt of “Who Says It Ain’t Love” and the giddy “Shalalala,” among those that offer the ear candy. All in all, United States demonstrates McLagan’s allegiance to a pure pop mantra.

Meanwhile, there’s also Here Comes the Nice this year, a massively thorough, and highly inclusive box set that details every Small Faces hit on the Immediate Records label, along with loads of heretofore unreleased material, a thick coffee table book, souvenir mementos and other relics sure delight the most devoted fan. (Go here to read our review of the box.)

Affable, easy-going and retaining more than a hint of his British workingman origins, McLagan’s seemingly all too eager to share the details of a career that spans nearly 50 years. That career began with a trio of otherwise obscure outfits — bands like Cyril Davies’ All Stars, the Muleskinners and the Boz People — prior to his replacing keyboard player Jimmy Winston in the Small Faces in November 1965. McLagan previously detailed this critical period in his exceptional rock memoir All The Rage, which also found him recalling the Faces’ freewheeling road show and his later career as well. Given the wealth of riches, our first question was somewhat obvious.

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 BLURT: So Mac, are you happy with the new Small Faces box set?
MCLAGAN: I’m real thrilled and delighted about the new box set. (Producer) Rob Caiger is my new hero. He did such a fantastic job. There’s 45s in there, there’s CDs — four CDs in fact — it’s just amazing to me how good a job they did.

 Did you and Kenny Jones curate the box?
We oversaw it, but Rob is the guy who did it all. I was overwhelmed thinking about how we were ever going to find these tapes, but he found them all in Sony’s vault. He found the stereo masters and they’re better than any other record company has had in the past. The CDs that have been pressed over the years have been taken from other CDs in some cases. It’s just unbelievable. But now, we have almost everything, and some of the stuff is in really, really good condition for the first time. He’s kept us in touch at all times. I’ve been getting as many as five emails a day from him. Kenny and I went to the studio to hear some of it, and it’s about fucking time that this actually happened.

Had you heard this material since you recorded it?
Most of it, but there’s stuff on there I hadn’t heard since we left the studio. Some of it was quite surprising. The introduction of “Tin Soldier,” which originally was piano, then organ, guitar, drums, bass… they all come in… but there’s a rehearsal tape on one of the CDs that I had forgotten about. Steve comes in and says, “Hold on!” and then we do it again and then we do it again and then we do it again. And then he fucks up. Eventually he gets it right, but of course we never used this version. (laughs) So it was fascinating for me. All those moments in the studio that I had forgotten about… when we’d have such a good laugh.

It seems like this box is going to be a real treasure for the Small Faces fan. There are likely things on there that nobody has ever heard or even imagined before.
The booklet itself is amazing. It’s 12 by 12 like the box itself, and it’s a good half an inch thick. It’s unbelievable. Rob Caiger actually starts off describing all the trials and tribulations of finding all the stuff. There’s also a foreword by Pete Townshend, and one by me and Kenny.

 So this will be available worldwide then?
Universal in the U.K. has been hemming and hawing. It should be a worldwide release, but it’s not even coming out in England.

 That’s unbelievable.
They’re working on it. They’re trying to convince Universal and Charly to release it over there. But I have a feeling it’s not coming out over there.

 At this point, is there anything left in the vaults, any demos or unreleased tracks?
Everyone has asked about out version of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” I have no memory of recording it, so it’s definitely a lost track. But other than that, everything from the Decca years has already come out. The head of that company was such a mean bastard. He wouldn’t have let anything just sit there.

It seems astounding that the Small Faces never really made much of an impact here in the States, with the exception of the singles “Itchycoo Park” and, to a certain extent, “Tin Soldier.”
We never toured in America.

But why was that?
It was because our first manager Don Arden didn’t want us to come to America because he was our manager and our agent and our records were released through his production company. In other words, he never paid us our royalties for our records or our songwriting, so he didn’t want us to come to America because that would have meant that an American agent would have gotten control and he would have lost control. Then we left him, but then we got busted and that kept us out of the States for awhile. We got a good lawyer and that would have helped, but once we got signed to Immediate, they didn’t want us to come over for the same reason. They would have lost control.

Aside from those couple of singles, it was just such a pity that the American audience eluded you.
Especially since onstage we were an incredibly rambunctious live band. We were wild. And that was never evident on the records, especially “Itchycoo Park” or “Lazy Sunday.” They were nothing like we were onstage, so Americans never saw that side of us, unless they were kids of American servicemen stationed in Germany or in England. We played a few shows for the servicemen in Germany and in East Anglia at the American bases there. Otherwise, they would never have gotten to see us live.

There’s a DVD collection of live Small Faces performances that came out a couple of years ago, but really, as far as audio recordings of the Small Faces live, there doesn’t seem to be too many, aside from a few songs that appeared posthumously over the years. Why weren’t there more?
I don’t really know. I know Glyn Johns recorded us at Newcastle which is where those recordings came from… and I think they’re all included in the box. I think that’s all there were. I haven’t done my research. As soon as I see the actual box I’ll let you know.

Before you joined the Small Faces, did you consider yourself a fan?
Oh yeah, in fact my dad pointed them out to me. They were on “Ready Steady Go” one night playing live. I was getting ready to go out on a date and he called me upstairs. “Here, check this one out.” He was never really fond of anybody — he wasn’t into pop music — but he heard how good they were and liked Steve (Marriott’s) voice. And they were a fantastic looking band. He said, “Here, that guy over there” — pointing to Ronnie Lane — “he looks just like you.” We did look a bit alike back then. And then I get a call from their manager. He asked me how much I was earning, so I lied and said twenty pounds a week, which is what my dad was earning. But I knew that was a fair way to go about it. So he said, “Twenty? I’ll give you thirty! And if the guys like you, then you’ll get an even split.” So instantly I was wealthier than my dad! But I never got an even split. After a month I went to Ronnie and I said, “I guess I’m not a permanent member.” And he said, “What are you talking about? Of course you are.” So we went round to the office and I asked Arden if I could start getting an even split. So he, said, “Right you are. You’ll make the same as them, twenty pounds a week.” So right away my wages went down ten pounds.

 The story is that when the other three met you for the first time, they instantly — and literally — embraced you because they thought you had the perfect look that would make you fit in.
Steve grabbed hold of me as soon as I came round the door of Don Arden’s office, and the three of them picked me up. It was like instant friends, instant buddies.

 Why did their first keyboard player Jimmy Winston leave the band?
He was kicked out. He wasn’t a great keyboard player. He could play a little bit but given the power of Steve and Ronny and Kenney (Jones), he couldn’t keep up. Kenney was only 16, but he was amazing. And they were all so fucking full of themselves.

 And then you all started sharing a flat together. That must have been a blast.
Ronnie, Steve and myself. Kenney was still living at home. He was only 16 or 17.The rest of us wanted the freedom.

It seems like you guys were living the ideal rock star lifestyle. You were in a great band, you could indulge all your dreams, you had the grooviest clothes… It must have been just as the star struck among us might imagine.
It’s true, but mind you, that rock star life meant we worked our asses off. We worked every day. We rarely had a day off. I can only remember two or three in the first year and a half or two years. But we loved that. That’s all I wanted to do, is just to play. And we were in a band where we were playing every day. It was a dream, ya know?

It seems like when you switched labels from Decca to Immediate, the band evolved incredibly quickly from that point on.
We were developing very quickly. We were always recording between gigs. We’d spend three hours in a studio and then go do a show. Once we joined Immediate, they gave us more time in the studio and we became less of a live band. It actually backfired on us a little bit because we were recording stuff that we couldn’t recreate on stage. “Itchycoo Park,” for example. But it paid off eventually because we did make some decent sounding records.

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Your final official album, Ogdens Nut Gone Flake, was one of the first concept albums, wasn’t it? It had an entire side devoted to this very odd fairy tale. It actually predated Tommy, right?
I believe it did, yeah. We got halfway there. We got half a concept album, just the second side. (laughs) Eventually it was all going to be a concept thing, but we got lax. We had the story, but we had “Lazy Sunday and “Rollin’ Over” and some other tracks on there as well. Is “Rollin’ Over” on there? I’m not sure. (chuckles) I never know which track is off of which album.

It seemed like you were hitting on all cylinders at that point.
Well, it was an incredible vibrant time, ya know? There were orchestras that did a lot of film work in the studio we were using. So there would be a left over kettle drum in the middle of the studio. We’d say, “Oh, we’ll use this.” Occasionally we’d use the tubular bells. They were always there but we never used them before. So we could always experiment a little.

Even though Steve and Ronnie were the principal songwriters, were you able to contribute to any extent?
Oh yeah. When it came to Ogdens, we rented three motorboats on the Thames for a little vacation. And we took guitars, the three of us, and I took my wife and my dog, and they took their girlfriends. So we were noodling along, doing nothing really. Smoking a joint, having a drink, loving the day, and then we pulled over for lunch. So then everyone comes over to my boat because it was bigger, and we’re all sitting around playing guitars. I would suggest titles and bits and pieces, so they couldn’t exclude me at that point.

Usually Ronnie would have an idea and he would go to Steve, or Steve would have an idea and he would go to Ronnie, and that’s where the songs came from. In this particular situation, I couldn’t be excluded because I was offering ideas and suggesting things. So I got to co-write a bit. It was easy and it came pretty fast. I had the idea of the title “HappyDaysToyTown” (from Ogdens) and little things like that. It was a really exciting time, and I think it would have developed from there.

Weren’t you occasionally contributing vocals as well?
Well, I always sang a bit of background and I had actually recorded two of my own songs early on. Ronnie and Steve were both very supportive. I always wanted to write with them, and I was sort of like the George Harrison of the band because I always trying to get my stuff in. You never saw Lennon and McCartney and Harrison compositions, but you did see Marriott, Lane and McLagan songs a few times.

Is it true that Peter Frampton almost joined the Small Faces, and that Steve really wanted him in?
We recorded with him when we did a session backing singer Johnny Hallyday in Paris. I hated it because I wasn’t a fan of Johnny Hallyday’s. But Steve wanted to Pete to join and we certainly didn’t. We said, “You’re our guitarist,” but he said, “Pete will free me up to sing some more.” But we didn’t want that. We said, “You’re the singer and the guitarist.” So he just got pissed off and decided to leave the group. I must say that I was friends with Pete and I still am. I love Pete. But he didn’t have the fire that we had. He’s lovely guy and you couldn’t find a better guitarist, but he just wouldn’t have fit.

So it was a stylistic mismatch then?
Yeah.

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of the demise of the group then…
Yeah.

What happened before Rod Stewart and Ron Wood came along? Did you guys have any idea about what you were going to do next?
We were demoralized, Ronnie particularly. He felt like he was going through a divorce. He and Steve were tighter than two coats of paint. So it was even worse for Ronnie than it was for Kenney and me, even though it was bad enough for us. But we figured we’d stay together if we could. Donovan came over to my flat, and after a long chat, he said, “What I’d like is for you guys to be my backing group.” I thought, “You’re fucking kidding.” It wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I never even mentioned it to Kenney and Ronnie. And then we rehearsed as a three piece, but it was pretty hopeless because we needed that fourth guy. So then we got a call from Ronnie Wood and Ronnie invited me and Ronnie over, and we started playing, the three of us. Ian Stewart, the Stones’ piano player, offered us their rehearsal space because in his words, they never used it. So we rehearsed there as a four piece for a while, and then Ronnie Wood brought Rod down and he offered to sing one day. It was magic because (A) here was someone who could really sing and (B) we didn’t have any songs, but what we did have was the Muddy Waters Live at Newport album. And me, Rod, Ronnie, Ron and Kenney all loved that album. So as soon as Rod started singing with us we had a ready-made repertoire.

 Didn’t you cut your initial session with Ron Wood’s brother Art?
We cut a couple of songs with Ted, another brother of Ron’s. With Art, the older brother, we did a bunch of songs that eventually came out as Quiet Melon. That was early Faces.

Have you Ron Wood or Rod Stewart’s book?
No, not really. I read little excerpts of Rod’s in the newspaper in England when it came out. Three or four people can be in a room and when you read about the conversation ten years later, it becomes four different stories.

Looking back now over your life — especially when you were working on the box set — does it ever seem like something of a dream at times?
Yeah, it does. It really does. I’ve been very fortunate and I hope to continue to be very fortunate. I love what I do. I’m really blessed.

Are you the nostalgic type?
Only when I wrote the book. I don’t live in the past. I have so much I’m trying to do. I have a whole bunch of things I’m trying to do in my house. In my mind I’m wondering where the finances are going to come from. I’m buying new keyboards. I’ve got new songs. I got this new album called United States coming out. I’ve got these DVDs that we haven’t completed yet coming out. I’ve got so much to do, so there’s no time to look back. But I was happy to get involved with the archival stuff with the Small Faces. I remember the smell of studios. I remember the moment, and I remember the time by associating the sense of smell. I can almost smell what it was like with the four of us.

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 Above: Mac, say hello to Mac! Ian McLagan shares rock lifestyle tips with superfan Scott McCaughey (Minus 5, Baseball Project, R.E.M.) at the Blurt/Dogfish Head day party at Ginger Man during this year’s SXSW. That and the other contemporary photos of Mac by Susan Moll. Additional photos via McLagan’s official website: http://www.ianmclagan.com/

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