Faces, “Around the Plynth”
In England, in 1969, as the world was tumbling down around our heads, three small men found themselves bereft of a dynamic singer-guitarist. Meanwhile, down the street, two shaggy-haired friends, a singer and a guitarist, were abruptly dismissed from being sidecars on another man’s bike. The five of them met, and sniffed around each other warily. They’d all been burned before, and none of them wanted to be left behind for greener pastures. Or, in 1969, to leave.
It was, they later said, the pub that brought them together. Not any one pub, but a series of them, whichever was handiest at the moment, and when they began to coin money they’d bring the pub with them wherever they went.
The pub, that is, and the blues. In late 1969, they got together, set up their kits, and auditioned for one another. A Howlin’ Wolf song, a Big Bill Broonzy song (as filtered through Muddy Waters), and an original by the two shaggy-haired blokes that sounded like it had been written by Albert King are what survive, muddy and one-track and sounding like the primordial muck of all human origin, squishy, wet and pounding.
They passed each others’ auditions. They made a record. Across the ocean, first pressings went out under the name of the three small men’s old band, because Americans are slow on the uptake. It was not officially titled, but because the shaggy-haired guitarist was holding a guitar-instruction manual called First Step on the sleeve, that’s what people called it.
It was not a very good record, although it contained some very good songs. (The same was true of the shaggy-haired singer’s first solo album, released only a few months prior.) It was too unformed, too directionless. They made a gorgeous racket together, but they didn’t always know what to do with it.
One of the songs had previously appeared on the bike-with-sidecars bloke’s second album, where it had been called “Plynth (Water Down the Drain)” and been a heavy metal funk song, with scissoring hi hats and fat, throwing-his-weight-around guitar riffs. But since the shaggy-haired boys wrote it (the guitarist had been on bass then), they took it with them, and made it less moshful and more tantalizing, stringing those guitar riffs out pendulously along slinky, swoopy slides. Amphetamined funk was abandoned for whiskey blooze, because our sly, wiry guitarist was in charge, and he couldn’t be bothered with strict time. There’s no through-rhythm, all winding turns and deceptive drop-offs, and the astonishing feat of the song is the way the others stick to the paces he sets, the whiskey-voiced singer and the palpitating drummer especially. The pianist doesn’t catch up until it’s almost over, and the bassist never turns up at all, unless your ears are better than mine: the star of the show is the guitar, whining like wires in a high wind, coiled and springing and sharp, eager for violence, but twisting hypnotically in midair. Aeolian whines punctuated by bursts of heavy metal.
The dance the singer makes with the guitar is something to behold. The lyrics are roughly the same as they were a year ago, at least in the first half of the song, and they’re lyrics you wouldn’t necessarily expect from this time and place, from these grinning, laddish mouths and jiving, fluttery fingers.
“Water down the drain goes to the sea/The pattern of my life keeps haunting me” is a couplet that could have been written by Nick Drake, or Elliott Smith, a moody introspection against which the electric guitar whips and chuckles. “Got a fear of death that creeps on every night/Know I won’t die soon but then again I might”—it’s delivered in a cocky crow, but it’s deep maundering truth, etched hard in every overeducated neurotic’s heart. (Like, for instance, mine.) The crow rescues it from being maundering, of course; and the whipping guitar braces the spine and stiffens the nerve, because it’s not emo self-pity, it’s just part of the human condition, and drinking, shouting, and fucking is too.
But then, whereas the heavy metal funk version was a compact, disciplined three minutes and change, a sharp-dressed 45, this sprawls, with a long, double-time outro in which the singer spits new lyrics, apparently off the top of his head, less like a jazz improviser and more like a rapper who’s leaving plenty of space for the beat.
“Never found out the reason why/Why my parents had to lie.” He’s shouting from far away, off-mic, and as his litany of complaint grows both more anguished and absurd, punctuated by metal triplets, he crowds up close to us, shaking with the galvanic rhythms being peeled out by drum and guitar and rippling piano: “Never knew what it was to be laid/Never knew what it was to love/Never knew what it was to win.” We don’t believe him for a second, not this scratchy-voiced young god with the lean footballer’s torso and crooked smile, waist-deep in groupies for years already, but the point isn’t that he means it, it’s that he said it. He’s not a writer, and never claimed to be; his lyrics were always the first thing that popped into his head, and if it was, in this instance, the despair of solitude, that’s because anyone can feel it. You are—okay, I am—not alone, and the guitar and drums bang heavily to reinforce the point.
They circle around each other, climbing higher and higher, pausing to let one or the other dance in a circumscribed circle—the pianist would later claim to have always hated this part, because he had to come in so fast, thank to Nicky Hopkins having set the pace back in 69—and then at last they draw back, laughing inaudibly, wait a tantalizing stretch of eternity, and collapse.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Faces. Kenney Jones on drums, Ian McLagan on keys, Ronnie Lane (not pictured) on bass, Ron Wood on guitar, and Rod Stewart up front. This is, for better or worse, a very fair example of what you will get if you listen to them; ragged, off-time (I don’t think they’d ever even heard of a click track), even—to use a word coined to describe a later generation of guitar-pop—shambolic. Where their peers were honing post-British Invasion guitar rock into a sleek, muscular, and stadium-bound machine—the banshee roar of Zeppelin, the clipped blues of the Stones, the power dynamism of the Who, the spacy expansiveness of Floyd—they remained resolutely small-scale and earthy, your favorite pub band, as likely to laugh off a missed cue as they were to find the pocket and stay there for hours, their sensibility rarely straying outside louche come-ons, high-spirited violence, and beery sentimentality. They steadfastly refused to address social concerns or be in any way relevant to their times, so their work is entirely free of the hippie spiritualism and sloganeering that taints so much of the era; as the pianist would later note in a surprisingly insightful moment, they had no direction, only influences.
Those influences were hardly any different from those held by the rest of the ex-beat group players who had come up in the Sixties: American country, soul, gospel, and blues; British folk, music-hall, and skiffle; and of course, each other. But by digging deep in to the raucous, unfiltered, purposely raw side of British rock as all their peers were professionalizing and industrializing, they predicted the scuzz and bark of punk, the forlorn poetry of indie, even the blurred slackerdom of alt—not to mention every roots-rock act since 1975.
But we’ll get to that.