In June 1967, the Small Faces released their second album, From the Beginning. Or rather, the Small Faces didn’t release it. It was put out by their appalling former manager, Don Arden, without the band’s consent, an act of revenge against the quartet for transferring their business to Andrew Loog Oldham and Immediate Records. It appeared in the shops days before the band’s “real” second album, containing early versions of three of its tracks: given that Arden tended to deal with those who crossed him by attempting either to strangle them or throw them out of a high window, you could say the band got off lightly.
A thrown-together compilation of old singles and demos, conceived entirely out of spite, it should make for an odd centrepiece to The Decca Years. It’s the third disc in a 5CD set that collates pretty much every note the Small Faces recorded while under Arden’s aegis: alternative takes of hits; an instrumental backing track called, alas, Picanniny; live radio performances that sound like they were taped off air by some enterprising soul with a microphone and a reel-to-reel recorder. But From the Beginning inadvertently told the story of British pop in the mid-60s in microcosm. Over the course of its 14 tracks, you can hear a seismic shift in focus: from lightweight pop designed to wring some quick cash out of what some people still thought was a passing fad and attempts to mimic US R&B, to an LSD-fuelled musical universe in which you could sing with impunity about listening to the flowers breathing.
It was a journey undertaken at white-knuckle speed. Everything on From the Beginning – in fact, everything on The Decca Years – was recorded in the space of 15 months. But the Small Faces should have been better equipped to navigate it than most. They arrived swaggering, the cocky self-assurance of What’cha Gonna Do About It? a counterpart to the Who’s twitchy anger and anxiety. Pete Townshend constantly picked at the neuroses of the burgeoning mod subculture – class, violence, sexual confusion, the moments when grimy real life intruded upon the fantasy world of all-night clubs and clothes and drugs – but the Small Faces were all strut and show. Even their amphetamine psychosis came with a side order of bravado. “I just can’t stop my brain from running wild,” sang Steve Marriott amid the noisy swirl of E Too D, but not before he’d assured the listener: “I’ve got everything I want, there’s nothing that I need.” You could see where their confidence came from. They looked great. Their take on R&B was thrillingly tough and full, bolstered by Marriott’s voice – he could sing a Sam Cooke or Otis Redding number without sounding hopelessly pasty and knock-kneed – and a side-order of feedback and flailing, distorted guitar that kept it from pastiche. They also had a blossoming songwriting partnership in Marriott and bassist Ronnie Lane.
However, as The Decca Years demonstrates, their passage through the mid-60s wasn’t straightforward. Their second single, a glowering Marriott/Lane track called I Got Mine, failed to chart, and Don Arden then lumbered them with Sha-La-La-La-Lee, co-written by light entertainment staple Kenny Lynch. It made No 3, but that couldn’t hide the fact that it was a trite song that might have been by Freddie and the Dreamers, launched into a chart that contained 19th Nervous Breakdown, Day Tripper, Dedicated Follower of Fashion and the Yardbirds’ Shapes of Things. The Small Faces were understandably mortified, but they toughed it out, roaring back with two superb Marriott/Lane singles, Hey Girl and All Or Nothing. Their debut album was an odd compromise: more poppy Lynch co-writes of varying degrees of charm – as with Sha-La-La-La-Lee, the Small Faces play them with a ferocity at odds with the material – wired-sounding R&B covers, the noisy pop-art experimentation of E Too D.
Everything changed the moment Ronnie Lane unwittingly scoffed a segment of orange laced with LSD at a party of Brian Epstein’s. A bass player nicknamed Plonk in reference to the size of his penis, Lane was perhaps one of 60s pop’s more unlikely gurus of lysergica self-realisation. But was a role to which he was remarkably well-suited, as evidenced by My Mind’s Eye, an account of the spiked-orange incident and its aftermath. It is the Small Faces’ equivalent of the Beatles’ Rain, the acid initiate staring back at the “straight” world, but while John Lennon sneers from a position of enlightened superiority – “they might as well be dead” – Lane sounds warm and open-hearted, forgiving the people sniggering at his new-found spiritual leanings. The music on Rain sets out to disorientate, but My Mind’s Eye sounds oddly comforting and familiar, as if inviting the listener to join in: it swipes its melody from the carol Ding Dong Merrily On High.
Acid seemed to immediately strip the Small Faces of the preening machismo you can hear on their debut album. In its place came a brand of psychedelia that was charming and wry, devoid of self-importance, a veritable advert for the benefits of doing your crust in with LSD. Its first stirrings are here, on In the Beginning’s plangent That Man and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, the latter featuring a game attempt to approximate the sound of a sitar with an acoustic guitar, and on the 76-second long Just Passing, its atmosphere – simultaneously swirling and bucolic, the countryside viewed through an acid lens – and exaggerated Cockney intro a signpost to their 1968 masterpiece Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake.
Psychedelia suited the Small Faces. Under its influence, they made better records than the ones collected here – Green Circles, Itchycoo Park, Afterglow (of Your Love), Tin Soldier – but that isn’t meant to damn The Decca Years with faint praise. It shows them steering their way through whatever the mid-60s threw at them – from new drugs to featherweight pop – with enviable panache. “Stay cool, won’t you?” guest star Stanley Unwin implored listeners at the end of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. As The Decca Years demonstrates, the Small Faces were never anything but.