On December 31, 1968, Steve Marriott stormed off stage of a Small Faces concert. He had already agreed to join Humble Pie, a group started by Peter Frampton. His departure was abrupt, shouting on stage that he quit, and left remaining Small Faces Kenny Jones, Ian McLagan, and Ronnie Lane in a bit of a tizzy. Unsure of where to go from there, they were delighted to learn Jeff Beck had recently fired future Rolling Stone Ron Wood from The Jeff Beck Group, and lead singer Rod Stewart had quit in solidarity. The former Small Faces welcomed Rod and the new Ronnie into their group and renamed themselves “Faces” to signify the departure from the Marriott years. While Small Faces had a distinctly mid-60s psychedelic sound, the new lineup followed the sound Led Zeppelin pursued on Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II combined with what the Stones would pursue on Sticky Fingers to make some good ol’ open tuning British hard rock.
The resulting albums, First Step (1970), Long Player (1971), and A Nod Is As Good As A Wink… To A Blind Horse (1971) were exactly that. With hard hitting rock like “Miss Judy’s Farm” and “Bad ‘N’ Ruin” to folksy stuff like “Richmond” and “Jerusalem” to the nearly 9 minute jam on Big Bill Broonzy’s classic “I Feel So Good,” Rod and Ron reshaped the sound that Ian, Ronnie, and Kenny could so beautifully execute. Ron Wood’s guitar playing really shines on these albums like none other in his discography, save for possibly his solo work, McLagan’s organ work fits the boogie woogie style excellently, and of course Rod Stewart is Rod Stewart. But Rod was kind of the problem in Faces. Before the first Faces album was even out, Rod had already released his first solo album, and in 1971, following the release of Long Player, Rod found more success alone than Faces ever had with “Every Picture Tells A Story” and “Maggie May.” As such, the 1973 Faces album was in a way doomed from the start.
Ooh La La (1973) is a bit like Let It Be (1970) in mood. Both are albums recorded by a band on the brink of oblivion. Stewart didn’t even come into the studio for many recording sessions, causing “Fly in the Ointment,” an instrumental jam session, to be put to wax and Ronnie Wood was forced to sing the title track (although that was better suited to his voice, in the eyes of many). But with that distinctly different mood in mind, Ooh La La might also be Faces’ masterpiece. From the opening piano roll on “Silicone Gown” to the final melancholy strum on the title track, Ooh La La proves to be Faces’ most sonically diverse album.
I encourage you to have a vinyl copy of this album. I’m not usually a puritan about medium, but between the movable jacket of the vinyl and the distinct shift between sides 1 and 2, this is a rare case where I think it adds a lot. Side one is the (relatively) energetic side, featuring the head bangers “My Fault,” “Borstal Boys,” and “Cindy Incidentally,” which emphasize beats and riffs over harmonies in classic Brit rock fashion. On this side, Ron Wood is in full Rolling Stones mode and McLagan is emulating classic keyboardists like Ian Stewart and Nicky Hopkins.
Side 2, on the other hand, is significantly subdued. Opening with the muted instrumental “Fly in the Ointment,” progressing into lamenting tracks like “If I’m on the Late Side” and “Glad And Sorry,” and climaxing in the album’s melancholy finale “Ooh La La,” side 2 proves to be a glimpse into the demise of a rock group. “So if I’m late darling, don’t hesitate, no, no/Go on your lonesome, and I’ll catch you there anyway” is in the context of a lover who will be reunited with his significant other, but in the context of the band’s history, it sounds a little like Rod’s saying goodbye. “Can you show me a dream/Can you show me one that’s better than mine/Can you stand it in the cold light of day/Neither can I” in “Glad and Sorry,” sung by the band rather than Rod, feels very much like the collapse of a dream.
The muted tone of this album is why it stands out against the power rock of Faces other work. With the exception of a few tracks like “Jerusalem” and “Richmond” on Long Player, no other Faces work gets close to this level of melancholy. While A Nod Is As Good As A Wink is definitely Faces’ best album of the first three, Ooh La La is so radically different it’s difficult to compare it to the other albums. Regardless of whether it’s better or worse than the other Faces albums, it’s certainly my favorite.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.