More soulful than the Rolling Stones, and still more unapologetically English than either the Kinks or the Who, the Small Faces are the greatest band most Americans have never heard of. While the diminutive moniker may have been literally accurate in describing the band's physical stature, it couldn't be less appropriate in regards to their sound. Formed in London in 1965 when singer and guitarist Steve Marriott joined bassist Ronnie Lane and drummer Kenney Jones for an impromptu session in an existing band, the Small Faces quickly developed a powerful reputation delivering the kind of hard R&B that British mods were begging for. Marriott had already honed his stagecraft at an early age playing the Artful Dodger in performances of the musical Oliver! The playful cheekiness and street smarts of that character were a perfect match for a young pop star, and the persona spilled over into the band's attitude, if not their fancifully modern sense of style.
The band signed to Decca with the help of manager Don Arden and released two singles before picking up Ian McLagan on keys. Their first recording as the complete popular line-up was also the first of several top ten hits for the band, "Sha-La-La-La-Lee." The next three singles and their debut album garnered them even more success in the UK, but strain was beginning to show throughout 1966. A brutal touring schedule kept the band away from the studio, meaning that they had less time to explore their more complex and psychedelic musical ideas.
In 1967, the Small Faces split with Arden and Decca, moving to Immediate Records where they were instantly afforded the time to experiment more deeply with their songs. This began a fertile period for the group which yielded their only stateside success, the wonderfully hippy-dippy "Itchykoo Park," as well as their sprawling masterpiece Ogden's Nut-Gone Flake. The band had finally realized their potential, mixing the driving and heartfelt soul of their earlier work with doses of exotic instrumentation and characteristic English humor.
Though they were enjoying a critical and creative peak, the band was mysteriously not reaping any of the financial benefits commonly associated with such success. As it turned out, Immediate was using the Small Faces' royalties to help relieve the burden of all of their other acts which were largely failing to break even, let alone profit. The band issued several more singles, but by the end of 1968, Marriott left the band out of frustration. The next year Immediate folded and the Small Faces, such as they were, followed suit.
The story ended here for many ill-fated and mismanaged acts of the era, but the pedigree of Marriott, Lane, McLagan, and Jones was far too strong not to continue. Marriott quickly enlisted a bubble-gummer named Peter Frampton, who at the time was looking for a more mature outlet for his music after some pop chart success with the Herd. The two formed Humble Pie and earned, for the first time, loads of attention in the United States.
The other Small Faces stuck together and brought in a couple of cast-offs from the Jeff Beck Group—Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. The ensuing circus, shortened to just the Faces, became one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands of the '70s, also cracking the mysterious American market before Stewart's personal ambitions and Ronnie Lane's deteriorating health put the band to rest for good. Ian McLagan and RonWood continued playing together as members of the Rolling Stones, while Kenney Jones was famously the one and only choice to replace Keith Moon in the Who.
Marriott's career had stalled in the mid-'70s, though he continued to perform with various bands until his untimely death in a 1991 house fire. Lane passed away just a few years later after battling Multiple Sclerosis since the end of the Faces. Though a reunion may now be impossible, their legacy remains for those lucky enough to have witnessed it, or thoughtful enough to seek it out.