BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
First, the facts. The Small Faces were able contenders for the crown of the quintessential working class British band of the mid 1960s, the Stones, the Who and the Animals notwithstanding. In both the studio and on the stage, they were a tour-de-force, a four-headed beast with a singular presence. The sum of their parts — the exceptional songwriting of Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane, Mariott’s searing, soulful vocals, Lane’s authoritative bass playing, the multi-faceted keyboard playing of Ian McLagan and the dynamic drumming of Kenney Jones, a player easily the equal of even fierce competitors like Keith Moon. (“The best f**king rock and R&B drummer I’ve ever played with,” Pete Townshend himself affirms in the foreword to the coffee table book included in this awes-inspiring box set.) It’s little wonder then that the group continues to elicit the praise and admiration of both those that who shared a similar path and those that later followed their lead — Townshend, David Bowie, Paul Weller, representatives of Squeeze, the Sex Pistols, Cheap Trick and innumerable others.
Sadly, the Small Faces never earned any great degree of adoration here in the States, thanks in large part to the limited lifespan, scant number of U.S. releases and the selfish decision by their management to prohibit them from touring in America, thus avoiding the need to farm out their licensing rights. Adulation would have to wait for Marriott once he left and formed Humble Pie, and for his former colleagues once they recruited Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart and subsequently morphed into the Faces. America meanwhile remained content in its ignorance and, save the one-off “Itchycoo Park” (and slight awareness of “Tin Soldier”) Yanks were left few opportunities to embrace them full on.
Fortunately, over the decades since their demise, an ever-increasing number of fans and admirers on this side of the pond have been given ample opportunity to catch up. Various compilations and the re-release of each of their seminal albums (with bonus tracks as well) have offered a chance to re-examine their legacy and add to their appreciation. While it should be said that their earliest efforts on Decca are, in hindsight, only rudimentary attempts at carving a signature style, it’s clear that their transition to ex Stones svengali Andrew Loog Oldham’s fledgling Immediate Records helped spur on their invention and originality. It’s no wonder then that in retrospect most attention has been focused on the singles and albums they released in the two years between their signing to Oldham’s label and their eventual dissolution.
So now the surprise. Here Come the Nice is not only the ultimate anthology and a veritable treasure trove of delights for Small Faces fans, it’s also one of the most sumptuous box sets ever assembled. Aside from the aforementioned voluminous manuscript, which at 60 pages, easily stands on its own merits, the box is packed with all kinds of eye candy — archival photos, posters, a pair of vinyl singles, a pair of vinyl EPs, souvenir cards and a second book that boasts all the songs’ lyrics. Likewise, it ought to be noted that Mark Paytress’ in-depth biography of the band included herein is among the best ever written. As for the four CDs, the compilers managed to squeeze in all the A and B single sides, assorted outtakes, long lost studio sessions, and for good measure, the few rare recorded live tracks the band managed to muster at the time.
Then there’s the sound, as exquisite as the packaging demands. Jones’ drums are snappier than ever, and the little nuances in Lane’s bass lines reveal a richness never full evident before. Remastered from the original tapes, as opposed to previous pressings as has been done before, the band’s original gems — “Here Come the Nice,” “(Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me,” “Tim Soldier,” “I Feel Much Better” et. al. — have never sounded as clear and pristine. And given the extensive liner notes that grace the aforementioned book, it’s apt to compare this set to the Beatles Anthology series in its attention to detail.
Still, Here Come the Nice does have its limitations. The unreleased titles are mostly early or alternate versions of better known tracks, and save the replica of an acetate bearing an unreleased single entitled “Mystery,” those hoping to find some sort of holy grail in terms of wholly unreleased songs may feel they’ve come up short. For the most part however, anything left in the vaults, any tucked away treasure that wasn’t lost, is represented here, since nearly everything recorded at the time eventually made its way to singles, albums or EPs.
That said, producer Rob Caiger — with help from surviving Small Faces McLagan and Jones — did the best job possible to gather all the odds and sods, and compiled whatever remained of interest. It’s fascinating to hear the various early takes of certain songs, and to eavesdrop on Marriott urging his bandmates to beef up this passage or that. The attempts at shaping a song like “Green Circles” or the pair of stabs at “Wit Art Yer,” basically a series of works in progress, are revelatory as well. Conversely, the idea of including all their studio sides from Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake and There Are But Four Small Faces may have been rejected due to redundancy — a correct assessment given the wealth of recent reissues — but it would have given the uninitiated a fuller view of their Immediate catalogue.
Admittedly though, this box was not intended for the novice, but rather for the insatiable fan and completist whose appetite for all things Small Faces still provides a sense of yearning for more even 45 years after the fact. And for that reason alone Here Come the Nice is as nice as it can possibly get.
DOWNLOAD: “Tin Soldier,” “(Tell Me) Have You Ever Seen Me,” “Afterglow of Your Love (Alt. version)”