Sometimes you just have to roll with the selections of the random jukebox, and today it picked a concept album my mod mum has had in her record collection since its release on her sister’s birthday in May 1968. Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake is the first LP I ever encountered housed in a sleeve that wasn’t the standard 12” square, and it’s also the Small Faces’ third and final opus in their original sixties incarnation. The album topped the UK charts for six weeks, just before their irrepressible East End figurehead Steve Marriott quit.
Steve Marriott was always going to be a star. The diminutive cockney, who died 30 years ago today, was one of the great British frontmen, and his catalogue with the Small Faces, Humble Pie and beyond is littered with classics. Armed with an irrepressible charisma that outweighed his tiny stature, he co-founded the Faces with fellow gifted songwriter Ronnie Lane in 1965.
Along with future Who drummer Kenney Jones and organist Ian McLagan, the quartet quickly became totems of the emergent mod culture, assimilating the hard grooves of American R&B and soul into a British vision of sharp suits and laddish bonhomie that created some of the most enduring ‘60s classics in the shape of Itchycoo Park, All Or Nothing, and Tin Soldier. But it was Marriott’s blue-eyed soul voice that set him apart. The Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols were just two of the scores of acts who acknowledged his influence.
Famously, the artwork of the third LP from the increasingly complex East Enders was famously issued in a round cover like a tobacco tin and with panels that opened out, itself a parody of Ogden’s Nut-brown Flake, a brand of tobacco that was produced in Liverpool since Victorian times by Thomas Ogden.
And so begins the trip, because if ever a record captured the typically whimsical English brand of psychedelia of the times then it’s this.
Ogdens’ is a game of two halves: the first side juxtaposes stomping rockers with jaunty music hall capers that asked questions that screamed of mundane domesticity like. “Allo Mrs. Jones, how’s your Bert’s lumbago?
A former child actor who was the first Artful Dodger in Lionel Bart’s Oliver in the West End, Marriott channelled his erstwhile theatricality and sung much of Lazy Sunday, the pub singalong that soon became the band’s biggest hit, in a greatly exaggerated cockney accent. A young David Bowie was taking notes, and he probably passed them on to Damon Albarn when he was finished with them.
As my BowieStyle book co-author Mark Paytress notes in his liner essay to a double CD mono reissue (the second disc of previously unreleased sessions and stereo mixes), “Like the Beatles’ White Album issued several months later, it wanted to be both fanciful and down-to-earth”.
Lo and behold, things get proper weirdly on side two; the real swinging concept affair, which begins with the startling spoken-word narrative: “Are you all sitting comftybold two square on your botty? Then I’ll begin…”
The unusual voice belongs to Stanley Unwin, famous for his ‘Unwinese’ gobbledegook. First choice Spike Milligan had declined.
Their friend Stan’s monologue appears between-tracks to tell the tale of Happiness Stan who goes in search of the dark side of the moon, a journey which brings him into contact with talking flies and a hermit called John and ends in a dance party.
With a little help from his new hip pals, Unwin adds plenty of modern slang into his routine, for a truly surreal experience. By this stage, I’m looking again at that front cover. A godawful wacky baccy affair rather than tripping-out acid heads. Witness the boozy career of their off-shoot the Faces, and Marriott’s soon to be formed subsequent band, the hard rocking Humble Pie with Peter Frampton, for evidence, m’lud.