There are some bands whose true worth only became obvious following the passage of time, whose stature continues to build year upon year, long after the band members themselves have gone their separate ways.
Faces are not one of those bands. In the early 90s gold rush to re-evaluate and re-assess the music of the 60s and 70s, Faces were largely ignored by everyone except The Black Crowes, who themselves saw their commercial success drop like a stone as the 90s progressed. A couple of compilations, a box set and an archive live album aside, there has been no reissue campaign of heir four albums outside of Japan since the early 90s. During a couple of decades where nostalgia has sometimes threatened to prove a terminal distraction for some music fans (I’m putting my hand up here too), Faces have remained oddly unheralded for seemingly no better reason than who their vocalist was and the fact that he has released a steady stream of commercially successful, but critically unloved ever since his band split. His name is Rod Stewart and for a lot of music fans that would otherwise have loved Faces, that’s all they need to know in order to give the band a wide berth.
For too long have Faces been either considered the less interesting band that Small Faces morphed into when Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones recruited Stewart and his guitar playing mate Ron Wood to replace the departed Steve Marriott, or a budget version of The Rolling Stones, an opinion which has since become entrenched since Ron Wood accepted the job of being Keith Richards’ brother in fret-bothering back in the mid 70s.
As it turns out it is Wood that is the star of the show pretty much throughout Faces’ opus A Nod is as Good as a Wink… to a Blind Horse. It is his satisfyingly dirty and chunky riff that kicks off “Miss Judy’s Farm”, before Stewart howls and McLagan’s organ leads the rest of the band strutting onto the album. It’s a strong start to proceedings and has the ability to sew the first seeds of doubt into the doubter’s mind. Sure, it’s Stewart’s unmistakable voice (to be fair his vocal prowess has never been in doubt, just the questionable material on which he chooses to utilise it), but here he is backed by an exciting rock and roll band who are keeping any unnecessary frills to a minimum. There are no overdubbed strings, female backing singers, or horn sections on this album. Indeed, other than Harry Fowler’s steel drums on the closing “That’s All You Need”, everything is done in house by the band.
After a thrilling opener, the typical Rod Stewart avoider can be thrown slightly by second track “You’re so Rude”, a track sung by Lane. It’s too often forgotten that Lane was an accomplished songwriter and melodist himself, especially by those that dismiss Faces as merely a vehicle for Stewart. “You’re so Rude” was co-written by Lane and McLagan and while Lane’s vocal prowess may not be in the same league as Stewart’s, it’s a great little tune and serves as a timely reminder that as a band Faces were initially a co-operative, rather than just Stewart’s backing band.
Therein lies why I feel Faces get short-changed. While the rest of the band did do double-duty as Stewart’s backing band on his early solo albums that he recorded while he was still a member of the band, the fact that they continued to release albums under their own name gets overlooked, which is understandable when you consider that even Stewart’s early solo albums saw him rapidly eclipse his own band in terms of commercial success. The thing is Faces weren’t just Rod Stewart plus rocking backing band, they were a brilliant rock and roll band in their own right. From McLagan’s unmistakable barrel rolling piano and organ work, to Lane’s more reflective and sometimes even heart-wrenching material (“Debris”, which opened the second side of the album on vinyl is one of his masterpieces) and Wood’s often unheralded six-string mastery and Jones’ ever solid drumming, there were few self-contained rock and roll bands that could get a live-crowd going like Faces did. Having said that, there is the odd misfire on A Nod is as Good as a Wink… to a Blind Horse. “Last Orders Please” is a rare less-than stellar song from Ronnie Lane and their cover of “Memphis Tennessee” is just a little longer than it strictly needs to be.
A Nod is as Good as a Wink… to a Blind Horse clocks in at a taught and economical thirty six minutes. The album is a reminder how great a songwriter Ronnie Lane was, while Ron Wood gets to convince the listener that he’s every inch the guitar hero, Ian McLagan underlines just why he has remained in demand as an organ player over the last forty years, as has Jones with his drumming and we have Rod Stewart at his least annoying. On top of all this we also have “Stay With Me”, one of the best rock songs of the 70s and the band’s biggest hit single. Make no mistake, for all the sometimes unsophisticated laddishness (something which is usually an automatic negative for me with any act) of Faces, they were a genuinely great rock and roll band that made a genuine connection with their audience at a time when rock stars on the whole were becoming ever more distant and unapproachable.
Not only is this album something of an overlooked gem, but the same could be argued for the band that released it.