Wednesday, 3 December 2014

R.I.P. Ian 'Mac' McLagan - An AAA Obituary

News, Views and Music Special: R.I.P. Ian 'Mac' McLagan

Two years on from the premature death of Pentangle guitarist Bert Jansch, Alan's Album Archives has lost another giant: keyboard player Ian McLagan, known the world over as 'Mac', now sadly lost somewhere up the wooden hills to Bedfordshire one final time. He may have been one of The Small Faces, but 'Mac' was a giant in musical terms, the lynchpin of the band's mod groove and the stability that enabled Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane to soar off to goodness knows where. A key practitioner of the Hammond organ and his beloved Wurlitzer, Mac did a great deal to make the keyboards 'cool' again in the guitar-led 1960s and was in great demand during and after the band's split including Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry, although it was The Small Faces and their later incarnation The Faces for which he'll be forever known. His sad untimely death at the age of 69 from complications that followed a sudden stroke has robbed of the world of a masterly musician and an occasional under-rated songwriter and now leaves drummer Kenney Jones with the sad task of being the only remaining Small Face from the 'classic' line-up.

So firmly ensconced in the band was Mac that many fans forget that he wasn't actually a founding member, replacing original keyboardist Jimmy Winstun, another excellent player but whose elder age, harsh aggressive playing and larger height meant he never quite fitted into the band (and who refused to play second fiddle to Marriott's cheeky charisma). By comparison 'Mac' was 'one of the lads' from day one, sharing the same height, same age (nearly anyway - Mac was the eldest by a mere two years), same drive, same love of clothes and a similar sense of humour (what other mod rocker do you know with a 'jokes' page on their own website?!) which allowed him to be greeted as a long lost 'soul brother' by the rest of the band. Before he joined The Small Faces Mac had played with The Cyril Davies' All-Stars and  the jazzier Boz People (with a founding member of King Crimson) and then formed his own London blues band The Muleskinners. Small Faces manager Don Arden, tired of getting it in the neck from Steve and Ronnie about Jimmy's playing and personality, was on the lookout for talent when he spotted Mac's band and poached him in November 1965. By this stage The Small Faces had had very little success, releasing two relatively flop singles: 'What'cha Gonnna Do 'Bout It?' which peaked at #14 in the UK charts and 'I've Got Mine' which missed them entirely. This must have been hard for Mac, given that the rest of the band had known each other for years and even shared a house for some considerable time, although it speaks volumes how quickly his charming, cheeky, self-deprecating persona slotted into the band as a person as well as a singer; a neat contrast to the sensitive Lane and moody Marriott and effectively the glue keeping the band together. Fitting into the band's sound remarkably quickly, Mac plays a major role on third single 'Sha La La La Lee', the start of an unbroken run of nine top twenty hits which saw Mac playing more and more of a role. At this point most of the band are still teenagers, with Mac still aged a very young twenty!

Mac's keyboard style changed with the fashions with the day, starting off as a neat foil to Marriott's alternating screeching blue eyed soul and silly novelty songs, sounding alternately light as a feather and heavy as an axe as the occasion demanded. While Mac wasn't a natural writer and left most of the composing duties to his colleagues, he was a major part of the arranging team and gets two co-writing credits as early as the first album (which was already part recorded when he joined the band). The band were getting big success with Decca, including the band's only number one hit 'All Or Nothing' in 1966 and were rightly hailed as one of the greatest new bands on the planet , but the band were unhappy: mis-management meant none of the band were making money despite their fame and disagreements with producer Shel Talmy over the music they were making soured their time at Decca. The band mutually took the decision to leave for new and hipper label Immediate in 1967 and actively sought to break their 'teeny bopper' image with a series of deeper, cooler songs (including the outrageous drug name-dropping song 'Here Comes The Nice'!) The plan half worked: The Small Faces were as popular as ever, especially after the twin releases of 'Itchycoo Park' and 'lazy Sunday' in 1967 and 1968, but the band were still viewed as a 'novelty' act and were poorer than ever, with Immediate suffering problems from the first and all but collapsing by 1969.

However the 'Immediate' period is generally seen as a 'golden' era for The Small Faces - and especially for Mac, who began to experiment with his characteristic keyboard sound, coming up with some nicely psychedelic sounds and some hard rocking power chords as well as his  old pulsating 'soul' style. Mac also began to grow as a writer, composing his first solely written instrumental, the rather chirpy 'Happy Boys Happy'  and first solely written song 'Up The Wooden Hills To Bedfordshire' for the first 'Immediate' Small Faces LP (confusing called 'The Small faces' - which is what their sole album on Decca had been called too, thus causing apoplexy and misunderstandings for many a collector down the years!) That track also saw the debut of his striking and memorable voice: deeper and less commercial than Steve's or even Ronnie's, but with a delightful soulful purr that suited his understated compositions. Mac also got a song on the follow-up album, the best-selling critically acclaimed 'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' in 'Long Agos and Worlds Apart', a deeply unusual sepia-toned psychedelic song that manages to combine 1867 and 1967 to great effect. That album was also something of a tour de force for Mac's playing, with the keyboardist gaining four other co-writes on the album (including three on the famous 'gobbledegook' side featuring narrator Stanley Unwin telling the tale of 'Happiness Stan' and his search for the missing part of the receding moon and dangly). Few keyboard parts are as special as those delivered on the album's first two tracks, 'Ogden's itself and 'Afterglow', powerful soulful rockers that feature a truly remarkable echo-drenched organ sound - quite the opposite of the dry brittle sound so associated with organ players in the 1950s (and Mac's own early style). Mac also contributes several charming solo instrumentals as the 'link' bits behind Unwin's narration, the only times his playing can be heard solo on The Small Faces' canon.

Alas, the momentum that greeted Ogden's (a parody of a psychedelic LP< still taken seriously by many of the band's followers) couldn't last and the band split before being able to release a follow-up. Steve Marriott was tired of all the touring and the screaming that still greeted the band at every show they played (some live tracks released on unfinished record 'The Autumn Stone' reveal Mac as being particularly key to the band's live sound, playing loud and hard above all the noise and effectively becoming the band's time-keeper) and frustrated at his new song for the band, 'The Universal', peaking just inside the top twenty instead of at number one as hoped. Marriott was also keen to move the band's song along to a harder, aggressive sound and even dabbled with the thought of hiring some soulful backing singers as permanent matters; the rest of the band disagreed. Marriott quit after a bad gig and left to start Humble Pie, leaving the rest of the band confused and uncertain about their next approach.

Ronnie, Mac and Kenney still wanted to carry on, though, and decided on two new members to fulfil Marriott's roles as a singer and guitarist. The last of these was easy - Ronnie Wood had been a friend ever since his band The Birds supported The Small Faces on tour and they were also on friendly with his second band, The Jeff Beck Group. Finding the singer was more of a problem and even when Rod Stewart was brought along to rehearsals as a friend of Ronnie Wood's the band still weren't convinced (Rod actually sings very little on the band's first album, with Ronnie Lane taking more of the lead vocals). The group then settled on retaining 'half' of their name, realising the new six foot members of the band meant they no longer qualified as 'Small' - although they still more than lived up to the idea of a 'face' (mod slang for trendsetter!) The band soon gelled into a solid rock unit, ironically playing a lot of the harder-edged songs Marriott had wanted them to and quickly making a name for themselves as a 'good time rock' band (generally giving up rehearsals 'early' so they could get down the pub!) Mac got increasingly little to do in The Faces, his playing like the rest of the band gradually growing sloppier as the band's boozy good-time revelrie slowly became their de facto sound. What was worse Mac's songwriting all but dried up, although first record 'First Step' is well worth looking out for anyone curious about what happened to Mac's sound after The Small Faces dried up, containing several Mac-led instrumentals including the funky 'Looking Out The Window'. Thereafter McLagan generally only gained writing credits on a song written by the group as a whole, although these include major hits such as 'Cindy Incidentally' 'You're So Rude' 'Bad'n' Ruin' and 'Three Button hand Me Down', with Mac at long last getting his share of the success and money he'd deserved for so long.

The Faces ended up slowly disintegrating, with Ronnie Lane leaving for a countryfied solo career, Rod Stewart releasing his own huge albums on the side and paying less and less attention to The Faces and the killer blow being the job offer to Ronnie Wood from The Rolling Stones to replace Mick Taylor in the band in 1976. Mac also threw his lot in with the Stones for a while, playing on their #1 UK hit 'Miss You' and their title track of their 1978 'Some Girls' album as well as regularly appearing alongside his old friend on stage from the late 70s to the 1990s. He also turned to session work, appearing on a whole string of albums from the 1970s and 1980s including Pete Townshend's first solo album 'I Am', Thin Lizzy's 1975 LP 'Fighting', Bob Dylan's 1984 concert recording 'Real Live', Bruce Springsteen's 1990 record 'Viva Las Vegas', Mick Taylor's live set with Carla Olsen 'Too Hot For Snakes' and just about every Ronnie Wood solo album under the sun. Mac's busy decade continued when he got married in 1978 to Kim Kerrigan, the first wife of Who drummer Keith Moon and he adopted their daughter Mandy (Kim later died in a car crash in 2006).

However Mac's greatest contribution to music post-Faces came with the invention of his 1977 'Bump' Band and their first record 'Troublemaker' came out in 1979, followed by the wittily titled albums 'Bump In The Night' and 'Live Bumps'. However arguably Mclagan's most lasting and moving work is 'Spiritual Boy', a collection of Ronnie Lane covers released on the tenth anniversary of the bassist's death in 2006. Mac's last album, 'Never Say Never', came out in 2009 but he continued to tour throughout his life, playing some well received dates in America just five days before his death. The devastating news for fans is that McLagan had been the chief mover behind a planned Small Faces reunion with old friend Kenney Jones, with a new tour and possibly a new album due sometimes in the first half of 2015. At least Mac got to finish his book before he died, though, with 'All The Rage' appearing in shops in 2000 and again in an expanded edition in 2013. Full of dry wit, humour and pathos, it's as likeable and personable as Mac himself always was, a memorable read from someone who had it all so young - and yet kept giving his all, night after night, no matter who he played with.

So far it's a bit early for tributes, although awed messages from heartbroken fans and respected notices from all the leading papers are beginning to appear in my twitter timeline. Kenney, the last surviving member of The Small Faces, has spoken out, however, saying: 'I am completely devastated by this shocking news and I know this goes for Ronnie and Rod also'. The creators of Mac's excellent website www.ianmclagan.com also had this to say: 'Ian's artistry, generosity and warmth of spirit touched countless dozens of other musicians and music fans around the world. His loss will be felt by so many'. Mac was an often overlooked but central figure in the music scene in the 1960s, pioneering the use of keyboards and especially the organ as a rock and roll instrument and adding his voice to one of the greatest and most distinctive bands of the 1960s. Perhaps his greatest legacy, though, was that he managed to remain so nice despite the sheer amount of difficulties and the traps of fame he met along the way, remaining his cheery self-deprecating warm-hearted self until the end. They don't make 'em like Mac anymore, more's the pity - the quiet shy keyboardist everyone admired, a member of 'the world's greatest rock and roll band' who was so versatile he could play in a whole wide range of styles and the Small Face who left a big, big impression, Mac will be missed and loved by fans the world over in what now seems ever more like an era from long agos and worlds apart. RIP Mac.

It's become a habit now with our (thankfully infrequent) AAA obituary columns to add a 'top five' covering an artist's greatest record moments. So here is Mac's top quintet, a remarkable selection of performances:

5) 'Up The Wooden Hills To Bedfordshire' ('Small Faces' 1967): Taking it's name from an old 'posh' English saying for 'it's time to start preparing for Bed', Mac's song from near the end of the band's second album is part of a neat theme about 'dreaming' that runs throughout the album. Mac's slightly surreal song is a match for his colleague's better known songs, with a nice folky backing bouncing off Mac's soulful, deep vocals.

4) 'Long Agos and Worlds Apart' ('Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' 1968): Mac's song tends to get overlooked during the many pulsating powerful tracks on the first side of the Small faces' biggest album, a little like Mac himself, but there's much to admire after you've got past Marriott's soulful shouting and posing. A slightly 'backwards' echo-drenched effect makes Mac sound as if he's singing down the end of a tunnel, as he tells us of his distant memories before the band pile together for a memorable 'showaddy waddy help me help me' chorus, ending with a characteristic organ flourish.

3) 'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' ('Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' 1968): The opening track to that album is an instrumental re-write of flop second Decca single 'I've Got Mine', first recorded with Jimmy Winstun. Mac's version is a lot more powerful and edgy and shows off just what skills he brought to the band's table: the organ doesn't just play along with the rest of the band, it swirls around them painting gorgeous washes of sound, the perfect backing for the cacophony the rest of the band build up. Few keyboard parts have ever sounded as graceful and yet powerful as this one, soul music turned up to the highest notch possible.

2) 'Afterglow' ('Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' 1968): Sticking with the band's most famous album, Marriott's heartbreaking song of innocence and purity wouldn't sound a tenth as good without Mac's expressive organ to drive the song along. Turning from simple calm ballad to a tortured brainstorm of emotion that leaves Marriott an emotional wreck, the organ sways this way and that as if trying to shake off the fear that runs through this track, eventually softening down to a place of peace and calm, content merely to rest in the 'afterglow' of love rather than the peak of the fire.


1) Tin Soldier (Single, 1968): Mac's favourite Small Faces moment - and mine - is another Mac special, the organist playing the song's hypnotic pleading riff solo for a couple of bars before the others all join in and the song gets increasingly more passionate. Marriott's plea for his soulmate Jenny to get back together with him is a totured epic, scaling new heights of emotion and frenzy, with Mac more than anyone whipping up the storm that drives him on. A relative flop (after predecessors  'Itchyoo' and 'Lazy Sunday'), thank goodness this song has begun to get the respect it deserves the last couple of decades, one of the greatest singles of the 1960s recorded by anybody. 

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