A new compilation shows the former Small Faces and Faces stalwart should have been a star in his own right
There has never been any shortage of reasons to love Ronnie Lane. If his barrow-boy twinkle and the fact that his nickname was Plonk aren't sufficient, well, there's always the music.
Most of the discourse surrounding Lane inevitably focuses on 1965-73, the period when he was the bass player in the Small Faces, and then the Faces. And fair enough. Lane co-wrote the majority of the former's hits, he gave the latter the heartbreaking Debris and wryly romantic Ooh La La, and his input in both bands went way beyond songwriting. No shrinking violet, he nonetheless balanced their innate boisterousness with heart, soul, warmth and wit. Rod Stewart called him the "backbone" of the Faces. When he left in June 1973 they quickly fell apart.
If Lane still doesn't get full credit for his role in two groups dominated by their turbo-charged vocalists, his post-Faces career is even more badly undervalued. A new anthology confirms that he did some of his greatest work in the mid-70s with Slim Chance, a loose rustic-rock band he built in his own image, the good-time exterior masking genuine soulfulness.
I like this Lane a lot. I might even like him best. After leaving the Faces he'd retreated to Fishpool farm, near the village of Hyssington on the Welsh-English border. The music he made there was dug from the soil and baked in the sun. It mixed eclectic covers with originals and drew from rock'n'roll, country, folk, blues, early jazz, vaudeville and blue beat.
The first Slim Chance album, 1974's Anymore for Anymore, was recorded with a line-up that included Scottish folkies Gallagher & Lyle. The next two, Ronnie Lane's Slim Chance and One for the Road, were cut with members of St James's Gate and sundry other friends. Fishpool sounds a bit like a Welsh Big Pink, only with sheep farmers living down the lane rather than Bob Dylan. The musicians slept at the farm, recorded in the barn, playing acoustic guitars, fiddles, squeezeboxes, mandolins and piano.
Lane blossomed creatively out in the sticks, but commercially Slim Chance never really caught fire. Their first single, How Come, was the only hit; its follow-up, The Poacher, was less successful but a much better song. A classical-pop ode to the simple joys of fishing – almost certainly without the necessary paperwork in place – it is pastoral Plonk in excelsis, a hymn to salmon "with eyes of jewels and mirrors on their bodies, bigger than a newborn child".
As far back as Itchycoo Park and Song of a Baker, Lane had been attuned to nature, but the sense of communion comes through much stronger in his solo work. Songs like The Poacher, Burnin' Summer and Harvest Home reveal a mystical connection to the surrounding countryside. For balance, the other side of Slim Chance – heard on G'Morning, or One for the Road – was all Cockney hi-jinks and jug band stomps.
Lane combined both elements when the band hit the road. The Passing Show tour of 1974 has entered the annals as one of the most heroically ill-judged attempts to enliven the traditional touring model. Determined to take a Romany caravan across the English countryside, Lane rolled into towns with a rag-tag group of musicians, jugglers, fire-eaters, dancing girls and what he described as "the world's unfunniest clowns". He pitched his Big Top tent and watched his money disappear.
In need of cash, shortly after One for the Road Lane dabbled briefly with an ill-fated Small Faces reunion, and went on to make the excellent Rough Mix with Pete Townshend. But by the time of See Me, the final Slim Chance album in 1979, he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and his creativity became increasingly thwarted. He died in 1997, aged 51.
But what better way to remember him than as he appears on The Poacher: the mystic mod in his prime, chewing on a straw of hay as he heads for the river, singing, "I've no use for riches, and I've no use for power." If you listen closely you might actually believe him.
• Ooh La La: An Island Harvest is released on 24 February on Universal