Monday, 9 May 2016
The Small Faces "Playmates" (1977)
The Small Faces "Playmates" (1977)
High and Happy/Never Too Late/Tonight/Saylarvee/Find It//Lookin' For A Love/Playmates/This Song's Just For You/Drive-In Romance/Smilin' In Tune
"We could dance and sing - now all we have are memories to pass on..."
The Small Faces were so young when they got their big break that by the time of this first reunion album Mac was still only twenty-two, Marriott turned 30 during the making of it and Kenney wouldn't be thirty until after the second one, but there had been such a gap since the half-completed (well, actually more like a quarter-completed) 'Autumn Stone' in 1969 that The Small Faces seemed like they belonged in an entirely different era. Steve Marriott alone had lived about ten lifetimes by then and looked closer in age to fifty, while none of The Faces were exactly bouncing with juvenile enthusiasm either. The band that, perhaps more than any of their era stood for fashion and style as much as their records, shared almost nothing with the DIY culture of punk and even though some of the elder punks were pretty close to The Small Faces in age there couldn't have been a worse year for The Small Faces to get back together (now if they'd waited a couple of years for the mod revival of 1979 it would have been a whole different story...) All this despite an unexpected 1976 hit with a re-issue of 'Itchycoo Park' that put the offer of a reunion on the table in the first place. The hippie idealism of 'Itchycoo' seemed a long time ago though for a band that, apart, had been through hell and back. Sounding like fish out of water (and looking that way too on the Old Grey Whistle Test to promote the record), 'The Small Faces' seem deeply uncomfortable all round, delivering a record that few people who'd bought the band's original LPs could have possibly recognised as The Small Faces. Defensive, bored and full of endless noodling, 'Playmates' - the de facto follow-up to the pioneering eclectic, compact 'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' in 1968 - is the sort of record that no one should have to hear, let alone the band's fans and this from a band who'd never given less than their best during their short lifespan. What on earth happened?
Rather a lot, since you ask. Marriott has been on quite a journey since that last ill-fated 1968 Small Faces tour where he tried to bring in girl singers and extra guitarists to make himself heard over the teenage screams and jacked it all in during an outburst on New Year's Eve. Making good on his suggestions to the others he's formed Humble Pie, a band that's the logical extension of the harder-edged Small Faces songs of 1968, complete with girl singers including PP Arnold for a time and an unknown guitarist named Peter Frampton. After a few years of solid but falling sales, Frampton quit the band to 'come alive', Marriott became extinct, a drug habit left him creatively dormant and his long-term muse Jenny Rylance (whose inspiration dated back to 'All Or Nothing' and especially 'Tin Soldier') had finally left. Also, for the second time in two bands, Marriott found himself ripped off and penniless, so poor that by his own admission in press releases he's taken to poaching rabbits and stealing vegetables from next door's garden under cover of darkness. Reduced from being one of the hottest shots of the 1960s to the point of starvation, Marriott clung to his manager's suggestion of a Small Faces reunion like an octopus with grappling hooks.
The Faces too were not immune to the idea - well, two of them at least, Ronnie Lane having long ago gone his own way. When Marriott quit the band Ronnie, Kenney and Mac had spent two years trying to get a new band together. There's a feeling, after all, that this band has to be perfect to replace someone of Marriott's stature and that they can't be doing with anymore guitar players likely to run away to different bands or singers likely to turn into pompous egomaniacs who quit in the middle of sessions. The band quickly hires Ronnie Wood - an old mate from package tours after his days with The Birds (not Byrds notice but The Birds, another promising British cockney act who crumbled far too quickly) - who despite their best efforts ends up being poached by The Rolling Stones. They struggled to come up with a singer, wanting an unknown to avoid ego problems, until the skinny friend of Wood's named turned up so many times and became such a nuisance they asked him to sing just to get rid of him assuming he wouldn't be any good. His name was Rod Stewart and by 1973 he is one of the biggest acts on the planet, with a solo career that's selling ten times more albums than his old band and who can't afford the time to record with them anymore. History, as they say, repeats itself but nobody was expecting the story to turn out that way again quite so soon. At least The Faces lasted for four albums this time, one more than The Small Faces ever did, though they recorded far less work in terms of singles and the like. Even so it had been three years since the last half-hearted Faces single and the money was running out for mostly non-writers Mac and Kenney, who weren't ripped off so much by businessmen as Steve but had spent rather a lot of money partying after Faces gigs. It was actually Kenney who was the coordinator of this reunion, having fallen out with Rod after effectively doing all the band rehearsals for him while the singer had better things to do (like talk to the press and watch football), the big break coming when Rod assumed Kenney wouldn't mind three months away from home in LA (the drummer left with the parting shot 'It may be hard to undnerstand, but I'm more in love with my family than I am with you!') Mac too felt abandoned and sidelined, passed over for Stewart's new band. The two Faces wanted to prove themselves and after coping with Rod Stewart for four years, surely they could cope with Steve Marriott?
The person who really needed the money, though, was oddly enough the Small Face who quit the reunion two rehearsals in, his clairvoyant streak already telling him the reunion was going to work out badly (and an uncomfortable meeting with producer Shel Talmy, who hadn't worked with the band since 1966 and isn't exactly held in much love and affection by at least four AAA bands, didn't help). Ronnie Lane, frustrated at Rod and Woody's disappearing acts, quit The Faces in frustration in 1973 and spent most of his money on a caravan, a mobile recording unit, a band and a travelling circus that was meant to promote Ronnie's music. Poorly organised, vaguely advertised and only barely rehearsed, those fortunate few who attended still claim that the gigs played by Ronnie's band Slim Chance were some of the best ever made. However with only one half-hit ('How Come?'), a big band and a new family to pay for and almost no publicity unless you lived near a big field and were interested in circuses, the money was growing increasingly tight by 1977. Worse yet, he'd just been officially diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, something both Ronnie and those closest to him had been fearing for years after his mother died of it, but were hoping would go away - sadly it's a cruel and degenerative illness, that made an already hard life harder and harder (it's the sister condition to mine, so take it from me what a life-changer this is). Ronnie was in a bad way - he had in fact been unable to deliver a new solo LP that year because he couldn't afford the costs of a recording studio (he preferred to work in the outdoors anyway) and the record company weren't in a hurry to get one so it, until The Who's Pete Townshend came to his rescue and offered to pay not only for the recording costs but to make a 'duet' album 'Rough Mix', which helped boost Ronnie's coffers considerably (though he won't get that money till nearer the end of the year). Lane, the quiet heart of The Small Faces, was interested enough to turn up to sessions and revisit old friends, but he felt that the music was a poor substitute for what he remembered and felt his own style had departed way too far from his old friend's. In Lane's words he bailed out when the plan went from informal gigs to a permanent reunion, adding that he 'enjoyed visiting school but didn't want to stay to take classes'; in Marriott's words he did a 'Neil Young', 'walked out for a packet of fags and never came back'. Though financially it cost him dear, artistically Ronnie probably made the right move, returning to his farm for one last album neglected album instead to be replaced on bass by Rick Wills, once of Roxy Music (so he was, at least, used to working with eccentric egotistical musicians - he needed the music too after finding himself working as a labourer to make ends meet and would have played with anybody, with no prior understanding of The Small Faces' music). In some alternate parallel universe out there somewhere The Small Faces reunion got all the songs Ronnie wrote for 'Rough Mix' and they're the album highlights, every single one.
Then again Ronnie's folky vibe might have been one style already for an esoteric album already pretty overflowing with different ideas. The one element of The Small Faces' sound that's very much here is the range of their material as Marriott especially tries to make up for lost time by using every style that's come into being since the band's split: reggae, funk, even the sort of blues The Faces had made their own. Freed temporarily from having to 'fit' the stereotype of the heavier Humble Pie sound, Marriott is clearly having fun even if his compositions lack the punch and power of the old days. He clearly misses Ronnie to push him towards his best though: Marriott alone was a sad sight, whereas Marriott in company was always a sight to behold and he was always at his best when swapping ideas and having others add depth and layers to his instantly accessible work. The biggest change on 'Playmates' then is that Marriott gets to control The Small Faces' destiny, taking it into waters closer to home for Humble Pie, while also with the chance to swap genres around a bit for fun.
Where this album works best, though, is when Steve uses Mac as his foil instead. Band jamming sessions aside, Mac only ever got three writing credits on Small Faces albums and while all three were fan favourites he never enjoyed the same respect or attention as the Marriott-Lane pairing. In the past decade, though, the newest Small Face has grown as a writer, providing all of the Faces highlights that Lane didn't and all but creating the band's signature smokey sound of their ballads. Marriott's voice goes particularly well with these, as even in these dark days he still possesses more emotional range and subtlety than a pure 'shouter' like Rod and he sounds so right at times singing what would otherwise be a pure Faces song that it's a shame the old band didn't latch on to this sooner. The pair write three songs together across this album, all amongst the better tracks here - it's when the pair write alone, at the extreme of their by now very different styles, that this album falls apart (well, that and the interminable slowed down covers, a hangover from the Humble Pie days). There's a surprising lack of guitar across this album with Mac's organ also the chief instrument and more central to the band sound than it ever was in The Small Faces (Marriott, spoilt by being alongside two of the decade's best guitarists Peter Frampton and Clem Clempson in Humble Pie, had begun to think of himself as more of a rhythm player in any case). Frustratingly the band rarely played together anyway, the composers instead preferring to get the others to overdub one by one what they wanted. Like many an album made with such a piecemeal approach, it shows, with an album that's sluggish and where the tempos are all over the place.
The nostalgic album cover suggests that this record is going to be a memory-filled backward looking affair, with its two childhood classmates clutching schoolbooks and gollywogs (back when you were still just about allowed to have such things on album covers - had this record been a hit you can bet it would have been airbrushed to become a teddy bear by now - our own AAA mascot Bingo is free - despite the fact it should be treated as a historical artefact of it's times, the same way that removing the cigarette held in Paul McCartney's hand on Beatles album 'Abbey Road' is ludicrous, given that few impressionable youngsters I know care about album covers released thirty years before they were born).In fact this is a refreshingly forward looking album in many ways, with a bunch of recently-in-vogue styles (though not punk) and lots of lyrics that actually look hopefully to the future with titles like 'Never Say Never' and 'Tonight' (you can tell that most of the lyrics are written by natural optimist Marriott rather than the more anxious Lane). The problem is that The Small Faces spend so much time trying to sound contemporary and addressing the styles both halves have been playing in their respective bands that there's nothing left of The Small Faces here. There are no 'Lazy Sunday' style giggles, no 'Itchycoo Park' working class utopias and most surprisingly of all no tracks that match their old intensity on such songs as 'Tin Soldier' and 'Afterglow'. Marriott, who once made songs intense even when he sang one line or laughed through them, rather breezes through, treating the album as one long holiday. The Faces were never the heaviest or most thoughtful of bands (except on Ronnie's two cameos per album) but they aren't even that here, with too many playful organ frills and cymbal tickles rather than sombre dutiful block chords and bass drum thrashes. 'Help me to find it!' sings Marriott at one point on a track that sounds like every generic Humble Pie track of the last few years - but alas the band never do.
Given this album's spasmodic approach it's probably fair to say that there isn't a theme at work here. The band members don't seem to have spent much time in the studio together, never mind have any band meetings to discuss ideas - but there's a few threads that run through this album all the same. Most of this album features down and out characters who are struggling to get by and yet still dream of doing something bigger. The opener 'High and Happy' has Marriott sans money, love and career prospects but in the here and now he's content and on a drug-aided high. 'Never Too Late' might as well be Marriott's rallying cry as he decides that everything is always possible, no matter how low things get. 'Lookin' For A Love' might have searched a long time for perfection but the narrator never questions for one minute that he won't find it as long as he keeps looking. 'I can't see me sitting at home' promises Marriott as his wife goes off on a 'Drive-In Romance', figuring there's always more fish in the sea even if you're married to a porcupine puffer. Only the title track is at all melancholy or fed-up, which is a surprise given the recent history of the band members involved living off handouts, old royalties and stolen vegetables. Sequel '78 In The Shade' will, by comparison, be a much sadder and haunted affair. Maybe this is the lasting legacy from 'Itchycoo Park', the top ten re-issue of which inspired the band to go back into the studio in the first place, a song that's as 'high and happy' as they come. The trouble is, though, nothing here comes even within the boundaries of Itchycoo Park, never mind that 'single' single peak peak: though the band try hard (sometimes: two tracks are just plain awful!) nothing here is memorable and little really adds to the band's already stuffed back catalogue. Only 'Never Too Late' even comes close and that's if you shut your ears and squint very very hard and compare the song not to a Small Faces classic but some forgotten unfinished instrumental from 'The Autumn Stone'. The main difference is that the old Small Faces cared passionately for each and every last note of their output; the new Small Faces are just grateful for some extra pennies and want to get this album made as quickly and painlessly as possible. This is sad and heartbreaking a realisation as any in the AAA catalogue for a band whose legacy was once so important to them.
Still, considering everything that's working against this album (no Ronnie, the changing marketplace, a lingering sense of unease between the three remaining originals breaking in a new boy, a motor accident involving Mac and Kenney that saw them leave the sessions for two months while Steve and Rick ploughed on, endless contractual problems getting Marriott off Humble Pie label A&M and the fact that the band made no secret of the fact they'd got back together for money, not out of love) 'Playmates' isn't as bad as it might have been and - aside from the similar but tighter successor 'Made In The Shade' the next year - might well be the band's most overlooked album. Marriott is at the end of his peak period as a vocalist, his voice losing its elasticity soon after this, it's good to see Mac getting a fairer share of the pie for a change and Kenney needs the practice as he's going to be the new Who drummer as soon as this Small Faces gig suddenly ends. Even some of the songs are pretty good, at least compared to the recent Humble Pie and Faces albums. Of course this album isn't as good as classics from years before: you miss Ronnie in every generic bass note, every haphazard backing vocal (even a soul choir can't fill his shoes) and especially as the extrovert and earthy Marriott's introvert and poetical partner. At times this record feels so directionless you wonder how the band all made it to the same studio, while Shel Talmy's typically rigid and cyclical production - so right for the R and B band of 1966 - means even the inspired parts of this record don't come off the way they should. Heard as the fourth Small Faces album without acknowledging the gap in time and quality, the effect is laughable - trebly so if you view it as the much-delayed sequel to 'Ogden's. There's an awful lot that went wrong for this record in terms of writing it, recording it and even releasing it, with a truly awful album cover damning the album in any period, never mind the absolute possible worst time when the punks are doing their best to exterminate any band more than a year old. But to ignore it all would be to pass over one or two of the best work that any member still in this band had done for years. There really isn't very much in The Small Faces catalogue to begin with: better that we have even a half-baked reunion album than none at all. I think. Until 'Saylarvee' and 'This Song's For You' come on anyway...
[ ] 'High and Happy' seems like a fair place to start, a chirpy Marriott song first recorded for his unfinished 'Scrubbers' album in 1975 that holds out hopes that album is going to be kinda ok. Though it isn't obviously Small Faces-like, with its heavy funk backing (which really stretches Kenny as a drummer after years of gutbucket rock and roll) and a saxophone as the lead instrument, it does sound in some twisted way a little like 'Wide Eyed Girl On The Wall' and 'Collibosher'', the two horn-drenched instrumentals which became two of the last things The Small Faces ever recorded back in late 1968. The lyrics too are a kind of sly update to the drug-referencing 'Here Come The Nice', with Marriott 'caught snorting' smokin' anything that pleases me', but even though Marriott clearly wrote (and probably sang) the track on a Cocaine high, there's an underlaying air of menace which the cheeky 'Nice' was too, well, nice to offer. 'Let's outrun the constable and do another line!' sings Marriott, who by now has been busted twice for drugs in his life (once erroneously - the police were sure he must have something so nicked him for two tablets that turned out to be for a cold!) Part defiant, part worry that something bad's going to happen, 'High and Happy' is pretty successful at conjuring that moment when you're still at the top of the world but sober enough to realise you're not going to stay there forever. Together with an unusual, 'ba-da-, da-da, dah!' riff that sounds like sinking into a warm bath, this is actually a pretty strong and under-rated song, one of the best from the two reunion albums.
Better yet, though, is [ ] 'Never Too Late', a Faces style sleepy ballad by Mac given a set of Marriott words that feature another Small Faces tradition: an intense Marriott lyric about his undying love for first wife Jenny, even though by now she's a distant memory some years after their divorce. This track doesn't sound like The Small Faces either but it is a clever combination of opposites, with Marriott's wide awake and forceful Humble Pie-ness set against The Faces' laidback drunken-ness. Rather than pretend that the intervening years haven't happened, it's as if the reunion band have embraced what made them different and how much they've learnt apart from each other. Marriott does a far better job of this Rod Stewart type song than any of Rod's actual vocals, with a dexterity and subtlety as well as all the power that Rod could only dream of, while the track's sudden lurching into full throttle still feels fresh and exciting, even this many Small Faces/Humble Pie/solo albums on. Lyrically this is a simple song (probably to keep in line with Mac's short melodic phrases: his usual collaborator Rod liked things short and punchy), but it's heartfelt with Marriott managing to pack a lot into a little, reminding both him and us that while there's life there's hope. 'I found you - when you needed me' he sings, as if addressing this to the band as much as his ex. The track's fairly breezy vibe is refreshing to hear too after so many dark albums from Marriott about his latest financial crisis or marital woes and suggests that the two writers of this song at least regarded the Small Faces reunion as a positive start to begin again. Sadly it's the last time anyone will feel positive about these reunions as the songs are about to decrease in quality rapidly from here in...
[ ] 'Tonight' was written by Mac with his friend John Pidgeon. The song isn't really bad, just bland and while there's still quite a few Faces ballads out there I couldn't name despite hearing them umpteen times, this really is a new avenue for The Small Faces. Sometimes weird, very occasionally hopeless, they've never been bland before. Mac sings what's only his second lead vocal since The Small Faces split and it's a shock: that hard upright edge has been replaced by years of boozy wear and tear into a throaty growl. Once again the most interesting part of the arrangement is the tension between two sides: Mac and Kenney provide a laidback Faces template style but suddenly in come a group of backing singers (including the Pie's Greg Ridley and the band's old friend PP Arnold) and it's pure Humble Pie! Lyrically this is definitely a Mac song though and one that foreshadows quite a lot of his own work with The Bump Band made after this album: recently engaged to wife Kim (who divorced her first husband Keith Moon in 1975 and will marry Mac in 1978 a month after Moony's death, in between the two reunion albums), he still can't believe his luck and feels inadequate against her beauty. As for Kim, it must have been a relief hearing a traditional love song written for her that didn't involve barking dogs, 'cobwebs and strange' or thrashing drum solos!
What sound did you have in mind for The Small Faces reunion sound? How about some bluesy yodelling?! No, I have no idea why Steve Marriott is doing this to himself either - maybe it's a response to so many years of being stuck in one place with Humble Pie? - but [ ] 'Saylarvee' is a candidate for his worst vocal - perhaps his only bad vocal. A Marriott solo composition backed by some unconvincing honky tonk Mac piano, Marriott sounds drunk as he professes his love in simple terms, claiming his soul is 'set on fitre' and offering 'the keys to my car'. Well, he's clearly not in a fit state to drive judging by this track - or sing come to that. The punks must have looked on this revered band's reunion album and this track in particular and seen it as everything that betrayed the rock movement: self indulgent, generic and offensive by its very inoffensiveness. Given the months it took to make this album (longer than any of the band's 1960s works) you'd have thought they could have come up with something better than this or if not then another take when everyone's awake and sober. Truly mind-bogglingly awful. Yet worryingly not the worst track on the album...
Band jam turned song [ ] 'Find It' sounds like bad Humble Pie boogie - which is to say that it is at any rate tuneful and has some interesting changes of gears but sounds like a waste of a gritty Marriott vocal delivery. This is a more interesting song lyrically than musically, with Marriott realising in there somewhere that he's lost the inspiration and hunger that used to drive him everyday and trying to get some of that old feeling back by searching for it in new places. The track takes on the theme of a lengthy game of hide and seek with the universe, when Marriott's realised all along that all he really needs is soulmate Jenny by his side again. Marriott at last gets The Small Faces to record some soul with some committed vocals not just by the guitarist but his friendly backing singers as well - exactly what he promised to the band back in 1968. Better than much of this album (even if it needs a punchier chorus), it's still far worse than anything the band achieved the first time around; whether Marriott was right or not therefore remains a moot point. Despite the co-credit Kenney plays the simplest drums of the whole records, big wide open dum-chikkas and Mac is barely heard at all.
The album's only cover song was, oddly for a band in need of moolah quick, chosen as the album's single even though it's far from the most obvious commercial song on the album. Unknown songwriters James Alexander and Zelda Samuels came up with [ ] 'Lookin' For A Love' for Bobby Womack, though the 'It's All Over Now' singer never really suited this poppier song. Nor do The Small Faces, despite another surprisingly joyful Marriott vocal and more chirpy soulful backing vocals. Lyrically it sounds like 'Tin Soldier' from a past rather than future perspective: Marriott, who once declared his undying love and devotion with everything he had, has only now come to accept that actually for a time he had it and what an enjoyable time he had without really appreciating it. Now he wants another love for practical reasons, 'who can bring my children upright', make him breakfast in bed and stop him from feeling lonely, although the vocal is delivered with such a knowing wink to the audience it's clear he wants a woman for other reasons as well. In true 1960s fashion, you could read this is a pro feminist single full of praise for the female sex - albeit from the stance of a man too lazy to do any of the things in the song himself! Times had moved on by 1977 though and you sense this song is retro in more ways than just the simple boogie woogie lick running underneath it; this is a song that had had its day long before the release date.
Title track [ ] 'Playmates' is a Marriott solo composition that sounds like it was written especially for this album. The closest thing on the album to the band's R and B roots, the narrator is much older and wiser than normal, reflecting on a busy long life well lived where memories of the old days seem more real than the present. Finally acknowledging that his best days may well be behind him, Marriott has mixed feelings about the idea, grateful for ever having the chance to prove himself after a life he assumed would have turned out differently but guilty that he didn't make more of his chance at success when he had it. As if to make up for lost time, he only slots in a quick guitar solo before handing the bulk of the music over to Mac's swirling churchy organ and Kenney's quick-patter drums. However there's a feeling of bitterness here too: 'Why don't you call me?' snarls Marriott, adding 'my cats are gone' as if that was the only reason that kept two people apart or trying to get their pity. Though it starts off as a love song (well, a past love song), the chorus surely is more about the band, that he remembers being 'playmates' with some good friends who did a lot of good work and is remembering why he hung out with them in the first place ('We had everything!') 'Everything happened just in time' he sings more happily in the last verse, returning to the album's half-theme of things getting better.
[ ] 'This Song's Just For You' is a real oddity - and not in a good way. Steve and Mac wrote the track together in an uncomfortable country bumpkin style that sounds like pulling teeth and dedicate this song to someone unknown after promising to 'do their best', which they clearly aren't (Mac and Marriott have never sounded worse vocally than here - even on 'Saylarvee'!) Did they have Ronnie Lane in mind? To the untrained ear Ronnie's Slim Chance and solo records have a lot of 'country' in them - they were recorded in the country for starters and feature fiddles quite prominently. Ronnie, though, was a folk natural more than a country boy and will only attempt a bit of Nashville style larking on 'See Me', the final album he hasn't actually made yet. If this is meant to be a parody (and this is, remember, a song 'for you' not for the band), perhaps with the two Faces wondering what Ronnie's contributions might have turned out like and giggling themselves silly over the thought, then it's a rotten one. Lane's songs may have often been as quirky as this but they were often heartfelt and always made with care; 'For You' sounds like the tape rolling at a karaoke night by a bunch of singers who've never sung before. 'We'll all be there' Marriott and Mac sarcastically cry, 'just say the word!' as if sarcastically putting someone down for their disloyalty, the song opening with a pointed 'You just left. Another beer?' This song is right up there with The Rolling Stones' 'Far Away Eyes' as the most hideous country song ever written. This should never, ever have made the album - it's cruel, it's cowardly, it's deeply unfunny and so badly sung you wonder if this really is The Small Faces at all. Someone should have stepped in and stopped this. Why didn't they? Suddenly you realise why Ronnie left these sessions in the first place...
[ ] 'In-Drive Romance' is the album's 'Lazy Sunday' - in the same sense that The Spice Girls' 'Spice Up Your Life' is a band manifesto in the same way that, say, The Monkees' Theme Tune is. Another so-called comedy, it's a Mac-Pidgeon song delivered by Marriott with a manic grin (probably forced) as he tells the Faces-style story of a chick driving off with a bloke to a drive-in and pretending that nothing's happening to her husband. Naturally, this being a Faces style song, he doesn't agree. Actually the music for this one isn't too bad - there's a nice 70s (ie more laidback) R and B groove going on that suits the band, especially Mac's calm organ playing against Marriott's restless guitar. It's the lyrics that insult: Marriott wants to tell his lover that he loves her, but well, the phone lines are down and she's at a drive-in anyway. 'I can't see me sitting at home!' yells Marriott after her as she walks out the door, but all predictably there's no one he knows he can ring up to get his own back, so he sits at home feeling sorry for himself. It's odd to hear a band as proudly English as The Small Faces record such an outwardly American song, but then both The Faces and Humble Pie had been selling better in the States recently than they ever had in Europe. Recording a song like this, appealing to a nostalgic 1970s American audience reminiscing about their own childhoods and teenage years (even though they'd have been nothing like The Small Faces' own childhoods and teenage years) seems like a calculated marketing ploy, not a song.
Against all odds the album does end on a kinda high, though, with a final Mac-Marriott collaboration [ ] 'Smilin' In Tune'. Marriott's narrator has been 'thinking and drinking', reflecting on all the changes in his life over a tune highly reminiscent of Jimmy Reed's 'Baby What You Want Me To Do?' (as sung by Elvis in his 1968 comeback special every bleeding five minutes without fail!) A drunken singalong then ensues as Marriott reveals in a pleasing fan-friendly verse that he's been 'in the light, in the dark and over at Itchycoo Park!' Though the main verse is a drag and painfully slow (more shades of Humble Pie here), the quicker middle eight is rather good, adding some tension to the song as Marriott sings about knowing a change was in the air and that the time is right to go back to basics, join up with 'the poor boys'. The rows the band once had are now 'yesterday's news' - everybody's smiling 'in tune', though there's something slightly sarcastic about this too, the way Marriott puts this into words bringing to mind artificial fixed grins that aren't real (did we mention this was The Small Faces' 'American' album?!) Marriott provides some nice harmonica over the fadeout - his first for years - and there's a second-tier classic in the making here, if only the band had been a) sober and b) a bit faster.
Overall, then, 'Playmates' is a success on a few levels. Three of the band proved they were able to get on again without too many rows, while the album made the band more money than they'd made in one go since their Decca album. The record wasn't a strong seller by any means, but Atlantic were enthusiastic that the reunion might yet catch on and head boss Ahmet Ertegun was supportive enough of the band's talents to let them have another shot in the new year. For Steve, Mac and Kenney things were more stable than they'd been in years...The problem comes with looking with 'Playmates' in the long term. There are some reunion projects that feel like they had to be made - the sense of closure, unfinished business and healing old wounds that comes over strong on reunion albums by The Moody Blues, The Beach Boys, Lindisfarne and The Monkees amongst others. That sense isn't here and if The Small Faces felt any drive stronger than making a quick buck that went out the door the minute Ronnie Lane did. We'll never know of course if the bass player would have ended up as boozy and lethargic as the rest of the band, but you sense that if he had been involved this album would have had at least a few moments of depth and sincerity, rather than half-baked experiments and vague attempts at comedy. Which is not to say that the album is completely hopeless: the two strong opening tracks hint at what could have been had the tug of war between Humble Pie roar and Faces blasé sounds been established more, with the band pulling in different directions while still standing for the same things. Had there been even one attempt to turn back the clock to something The Small Faces actually did (R and B, psychedelia, comedy) properly instead of treating those sort of things as a joke then this album might have re-established the band for a whole new era just when the band financially needed it most. Instead it's the album that got away, so fast and so decidedly at times that you wonder whether the band actually realised they were going to come up with a product at all. Even after months of work the best you can say about this album is that there's a great double sided single in there; everything else is essentially worthless (and of course neither side actually was released as the single; that would have been too easy for a band like The Small Faces. Not as bad as some people say, then - but oh so far from being good.