The Small Faces are easily the most underrated band of the sixties, overshadowed literally and figuratively by that other great London beat group the Kinks. The two groups make an interesting compare-and-contrast as representatives of two different working-class areas of the capital.
From Muswell Hill in North London rather than (as in the case of the Small Faces) the East End, the Kinks encapsulate the alienated spirit of postwar suburbia that Bowie would later exploit by turning into an alien himself. Their stock-in-trade was dry humour, biting class critique, and a certain existential melancholy —although they occasionally departed from this template to produce their greatest material, the tender London anthem Waterloo Sunset, as well as the loving, elegiac Days and some of the other tracks on The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Otherwise, the Kinks often mediated feelings with an ironic distance on tracks such as Act Nice and Gentle, Stop Your Sobbing and You Really Got Me, a sophistication wholly lacking in the work of the Small Faces, who, when not being overtly playful, channelled pure joy, love, despair and anger. The intense sincerity of the Small Faces' emotional output is probably a particularly Cockney expression (contrasting with the more laidback, gentler vibe of the Beatles’ love-songs).
Take, for example, the raw and plaintive Tin Soldier, which Steve Marriott wrote to woo his future wife: it is a powerhouse of desperation enhanced by the keening voice of the great American gospel singer Merry Clayton on the chorus, in which she and Marriott produce a primal yowl that makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. (Clayton’s other great rock n’roll contribution was of course her terrifying vocal on Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Sones.) Then there is the overpowering romanticism of Afterglow of Your Love and All or Nothing, a song which certainly lives up to its name. Sha La La La Lee is one of the most memorable rock tracks of all time, a simple tale of meeting the love of one’s life in a nightclub given a transcendent ecstasy by Marriott’s fervent voice. The Small Faces had a magnetic stage presence partly attributable to the fact that Marriott was already a pro at the time of the group’s formation, having had a successful career as a diminutive but dynamic Cockney child actor; incidentally, there are few experiences more delightful than listening to the very young Marriott as the Artful Dodger performing Consider Yourself in the 1960 theatre production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!
In contrast to the Kinks, the Small Faces didn’t seem to be at all enmeshed in the sort of class resentment that gave birth to Sunny Afternoon’s satire of amoral aristocratic entitlement, the skewering of middle-class hypocrisy on A Well-Respected Man and David Watts, the pitying of the nouveau riche on A Most Exclusive Residence forSale, or A Dedicated Follower of Fashion’s ridicule of posh Carnaby Street clotheshorses. Neither is there any trace of the socioeconomic despair of the harrowing Dead End Street or the bitter disappointment of reaching the top end of upward social mobility in Shangri-La. On the contrary, Steve Marriott’s oeuvre evokes a self-sufficient Cockney mentality completely unfazed by, or indeed oblivious to, the existence of the toffocracy. (This cultural confidence is all the more striking considering the band’s self-conscious choice of the qualifier Small for their name, based on the fact that they were all very short —Marriott evokes his tiny stature to touching effect by comparing himself with a tin soldier on the above-mentioned track.)
Despite this, the Small Faces do have an important sociological theme: the limitations imposed on the hippy dream by the realities of East End life. In Lazy Sunday, in which the protagonist is repeatedly frustrated by the constraints of high-density housing, an attempt at group meditation is interrupted by the sudden appearance of neighbour Mrs Jones to discuss her husband’s back problems —probably the first and last time that ‘lumbago’ has been rhymed with ‘rainbow’. A similar humorous effect is created by their best-known hit Itchycoo Park, with its suggestion that mind-blowing activity can encompass feeding buns to groovy ducks in a municipal green space which, through the influence of psychedelic substances, assumes the aspect of an overwhelmingly beautiful wonderland. The mischievous The Universal, accompanied by a delightfully rustic early music video which shows the barking dog featured on the track, relates how Marriott, when visited by a pretentious hippy who has been erroneously informed by Mick Jagger that he knows where to buy drugs, sees him off with a Cockney homily about the virtues of minding one’s own business.
Both bands undertook major, whimsical concept albums. The Kinks wrote the pastoralist Village Green Preservation Society, while the Small Faces released the fantastical Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. The Kinks’ album is again sociologically complex, its small-c conservative celebration of rural Middle England community life undercut by a persistent undertow of loss. The Small Faces by contrast display an untethered, playful imagination enhanced by the talents of the linguistic fabulist ‘Professor’ Stanley Unwin, whose intro is an affectionate parody of Listen With Mother. In this musical fairy tale about the doings of ‘Happiness Stan,’ the eponymous first track is particularly arresting, one of those peculiar instances in sixties English popular music in which a Balkan influence makes itself known (the others include Bus Stop and, of course, Paint It Black).
The Kinks and the Small Faces also deployed music-hall influences in their work, but in completely different ways. The Small Faces simply had great fun with them on Lazy Sunday and Happy Days Toy Town (both on Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake), combining psychedelia with Edwardian lightheartedness to suggest a boisterous, resilient continuity with the world of their elders. By contrast, the Kinks often associate this idiom with sadness and decline, such as on Dave Davies’ devastating Death of a Clown, and link it to an only partially ironic imperial nostalgia on the album Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire).
The Small Faces’ music —if the reader will forgive the conceit— often sounds like the East End, its searing guitar riffs and loud drums giving it a harder, industrial edge when compared with much of the Kinks’ output. Lazy Sunday evokes a kind of Docklands urban eclogue in its fade-out of seagulls, waves and church bells, painting pictures of ships and cranes in the mind’s eye. While the Kinks brilliantly capture the geographic and social distance of postwar North London, the Small Faces communicate the feeling of still being in the thick of it, emotionally and physically, in crowded Cockney streets.--Isabel Taylor