If you run your fingers over the sleeve, the fibers flake off in tiny invisible shards, still unfinished after all these years. Unless, of course, you have a later printing, the dark brown, vaguely pebbled one on which the script is barely discernible and only shows up on salesmen’s jpegs after considerable tweaking of levels. In both, the die-cut hole showing the Art Deco design of the record’s label is meant to evoke the packaging of old 78s, as though this is some forgotten Okeh or Black Swan treasure. But some forty years later, it just looks like another cheap promotional DJ twelve-inch. And though you can dance to it—some of it—getting the BPMs to line up on either end would be murder.
It’s a lazy album, as previously suggested, though it presents perhaps the most complete document of what the boys’ live show was like—raucous, energetic, good-natured, with long, wandering instrumental breaks that depend on the emotional charisma of the performers. Also, there are two live cuts.
“Maybe I’m Amazed” is a fine version of the song, a mainstay in their live sets for years, and this is better than some live versions I’ve heard, the pauses after which the piano and drums rush in to fill up the aching spaces deeper and more perilous every time, but the band has the energy to make each rushing return more cathartic than the last. They cut a studio version of the song, which was released as a single concurrent with the album, but it was underproduced, the electric guitar feeble and stringy instead of the crisp blare the dynamics demand. But the brilliant move of having thin-voiced Ronnie Lane open the song, with his shy vulnerability, then switching to Stewart’s throaty, needful roar, is a trick that never failed to work live. Listening to Paul McCartney’s 1970 original now, it sounds equally underdone and overly polished, waiting for the Faces to perfect it in ragged glory. (The live version with Wings which is more commonly heard on the radio today is much closer to the way the Faces used to handle it—several years after they were no more.)
After that, the cover of Muddy Waters’ 1960 rock & rollification of Big Bill Broonzy’s 1941 “I Feel So Good” is more of a straight indulgence, a blues stompalong that could have been anything. The highlight is Stewart pulling a call-and-response out of the crowd while the rest of the band takes a breather (am I stretching too far to imagine that the hilarious call-and-response in Iggy Pop’s “Success” is based on the attempts of some members of the audience to imitate Stewart’s exhausted whoops?) It’s an ungainly, ridiculous way to close out an album that had otherwise presented the band in their best light yet, and the surviving Faces mostly wince when Long Player is brought up because of it. Wood blames the copious cocaine they were shoveling at the time—they’d felt so great after this one Fillmore concert that they insisted it be included on the record, and by the time they’d sobered up enough to listen to it with their judgment intact, it was too late. At least Wood’s brief solo arrangement of the hymn “Jerusalem” is there as a bit of a palate-cleanser before the record truly spins to an end.
If “I Feel So Good” is embarrassing, it’s because the record is otherwise remarkable—indulgent, sure, but that can be marked down to a fantastic group of instrumentalists figuring out what the best configuration of themselves is and, once all the muscles are in working order, stretching their wings a bit. I wouldn’t give up Wood’s extended lap pedal solo in “Sweet Lady Mary” or Bobby Keys’ shouting sax at the end of “Had Me a Real Good Time” for anything.
If “Richmond” showcases Ronnie Lane at his most plaintively elemental, the two other songs he’s primarily responsible for go some ways towards defining him as one of the greatest, if most elusive, songwriters of his era. “Tell Everyone” is a David Ruffin or William Bell song with the redundant tissues cut out, and Stewart sings it with the largehearted tenderness which he was bringing to his own records at the time, and which, in a very short span of time, would make him extraordinarily successful. But in the meantime, cut out the extended instrumental outro (I love every note of Wood’s skeletal, Steve Cropper-like solos, but there doesn’t need to be ten of them in a row), and it would make a perfect northern soul 45. “On the Beach,” on the other hand, shows off Lane’s piss-taking sense of humor. For all intents and purposes a demo recorded on McLagan’s portable recording kit, it’s a rollicking set of verses inspired by, of all things, a day at the beach. The first verse sets the tone for the next four: “I don’t care who’s watching/Don’t care what the surfing heads might say/I know I may not be no Charlie Atlas/Gonna take my shirt off anyway,” and I hope to instigate a rousing singalong next time I visit the sea. Wood and McLagan bawl out dissonant harmonies behind Lane’s none-too-steady lead, and song of Wood’s sharpest licks get tossed off in the spaces between songs. This too is the Faces: Stewart’s not around (probably off recording his own album, the tosser), but they’ll slap together something anyway, and who cares if it’s not polished up to union standards? The ears of a hundred thousand punks-to-be prick up.
But of course the proto-punks were already listening. “Bad ’n’ Ruin” and “Had Me a Real Good Time” the two earliest Faces songs that predict—among others—the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols. (There will be more.) Neither song, of course, is interested in the calculated nihilism and self-congratulatory decadence that the Dolls and the Pistols would make such hay with—the Faces are boisterous lads, not art wankers, and Rod’s lyrics are plaintive and self-deprecating even as his voice crows and whips in scorching trails across the sky. In “Bad ’n’ Ruin” he’s returning home (again!) (cf. “Flying” and about half of all the blues and country records ever made), and tossing off memorable lines like “don’t be embarrassed mother by your ugly worn out son” and “I know my brother has done you proud but he’s one foot in the grave” that more patient, craftsmanlike songwriters would build entire songs around, just in order to give his tongue something to do in the run-up to the chorus. There’s an Allman-like key change about halfway through, and Wood’s slide seems to imitate Duane’s in places; but the heart of the song is the fuzzy rave-ups that lead up to Stewart’s “mama, don’t you reckonize me now” hollers.
And then there’s “Had Me a Real Good Time.” The Five Guys Walk into a Bar… box set uses its chorus as an epitaph of sorts for the band, a motto that nobody honest with themselves should scorn to adopt for their own lives. “I was glad to come/I’ll be sad to go/So while I’m here I’ll have me a real good time.” There’s much more to the song, of course—Stewart smuggles in the very British topics of class and social embarrassment in a way almost reminiscent of Ray Davies; the boys pause in the middle of the song to sing, far off-mic, a barely audible snatch of some music-hall ditty or other (live, they’d cluster around Rod’s mike to bellow out an off-key drinking song in order to cover Ron switching instruments) before the drums crash in and it’s off to the races once more. Listening to the song recently, it struck me that the only modern pop star who could pull off anything like it today is Ke$ha—she has the same sense of unembarrassed glee, of reckless behavior chalked up to youthful larks, and firmly underdog status, with all the privileges of comedy and truthtelling that come along with it. Rod doesn’t quite throw up in Paris Hilton’s closet, but “dancing madly ’round the room/Singing loudly an’ sorta outta tune” (not to mention the vicar reeking of gin and the friendly slag escorting him round the bedroom and back) is certainly true to the spirit of the Ke$ha Project, if not the (probably txtspk) letter.
Which leaves one last song. “Sweet Lady Mary” was written by Stewart, Wood and Lane, and it took all three of them to come up with a tune of such beauty. There are at least three different main melodies to the song, all of which fold in on each other at various times, and each one of which has the power to make me weep at its beauty. McLagan’s organ flows like a slow-moving winter river through a landscape of barren trees, as picked out by the lines of guitar and pedal steel. It’s a song of romantic regret, as most Faces ballads are, but there’s something far more haunting and moving about it than most of them. The closest comparison might be to “Maggie May,” which Rod will release in a few short months, but not, if you understand me, the “Maggie May” of around-the-clock oldies play and instant generational signifiers; rather, the “Maggie May” buried deep within the accumulated layers of cultural detritus, the lovely, forlorn song about an aging woman and the boy who regretfully leaves her. Except that Lady Mary doesn’t suffer the indignity of being told that the morning sun in her face shows her age; instead, Rod ruminates on how her Spanish habits are so hard to forget. (If, like me, you’ve spent half your adult life in let’s-call-it-love with one Latina after another, the line almost physically bruises.) And the singer in “Maggie May” is still undecided; the palpable grief of “Sweet Lady Mary” is that he’s already left; like the nameless singer of “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)” he’s grateful that you’ve bent an ear, but now he must steal away, just as he did to her.
There’s more still in this song: not just winter landscapes and muddy English lanes down which a fugitive scurries, but clear gray skies weeping great teardrops (Wood’s pedal steel solo, utterly heartbreaking), and at long last, a kind of peace. The boys gather behind Rod and wordlessly hum. If nothing else has broken your heart yet, that great forgiving melody, sung by plain, unassuming male voices, assuaging the ache of the steel and the sob of the organ, will. It’s almost monastic, perhaps—but I’m wandering now into even more tenuous associations.
When I first listened to the Faces catalog in earnest, I was also diving quite deep into popular and middlebrow fiction—mostly British, some American—of the early twentieth century, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that I hear these large romantic, social, and historical stories in their songs. There will always be a bit of J. B. Priestley, Jeffrey Farnol, Mary Webb, Hugh Walpole, Dornford Yates, and Booth Tarkington in these songs for me; and if the Faces’ vague gestures of narrative are more satisfying than the worked-out plots, characters, themes, and dénouments of a hundred The Good Companions will ever be, that’s only because they’re more open-ended. I can hear something different each time, and have.
Times like this, I wish I were a real writer. Fiction is the only way to deal with these feelings.