Ian McLagan on ‘United States,’ and His Life in Rock N’ Roll
Ian McLagan is a rock and roll legend. As keyboardist for the Small Faces and the Faces, Mac added a copious amount of color to both those bands. Whether touring with the Rolling Stones, the New Barbarians, or making records at his home studio in Austin, McLagan is a lifer in rock and roll.
In addition to being one of the most in-demand session players out there, Mac has also been carrying on his own stellar solo career, with a nice catalog of great albums out there. His brand new album, ‘United States,’ has just been released by Yep Roc Records and it’s bursting with wonderful songs. The man knows rock and roll inside and out, and fortunately, was more than happy to chat with us about his long life in music.
So how’s things?
Everything’s great! Everything’s wonderful! Everything’s going on, I’m excited!
The new album is great. It’s very spirited.
Thank you very much, well I’m really proud. The thing is, I have vinyl now, and the vinyl sounds fantastic!
Was it recorded analog?
No, no, I used Pro Tools, but Glyn (Johns) mixed it through a Neve console. It warms it up again, you know. Glyn’s a bit of a genius!
And it was recorded in Austin?
Oh yeah, at my house! The last six or seven albums have all been recorded here.
‘Don’t Say Nothing’ and ‘Love Letter’ in particular really stand out. Just truly great songs.
Well ‘Love Letter’ wasn’t going to be on the album. I thought it might be too “pop.”
No not at all! I love the line “I’ll paint you a picture like Rembrandt, only better.”
(laughs) If that ain’t cheeky, what is?
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Now the last album was 2008, why so long between albums?
Well, the album was completed in October of 2012, and mixed it in London then, but I didn’t just want to throw it out there, you know. The last album (‘Never Say Never’), I’m real proud of that, and it was released on my own label. This one, I wanted to just wait and hold onto until I got the right deal. Yep Roc have been friends for a long time, and finally we made a good deal and I’m so happy to be there. they put out a lot of great music.
Is there early talk of reissuing any of your early solo albums like ‘Troublemaker’ or ‘Bump In The Night’?
I tried to get Mercury to do that, to put them on CD when CDs happened, and I called up Mercury, and the girl said, “Oh yes, wait a minute, Mr. McLagan,” and after having spoken to the accountant said, “Hmmm, Mr. McLagan it seems you’re unrecouped for a quarter of a million dollars.” Which doesn’t mean I owe them a quarter million, but it means they won’t do anything. So I said, “I can’t hear you” and hung up.
Congratulations on you long overdue Rock Hall induction.
Oh, thank you so very much.
(laughter) I’m gonna die from that you know! The thing is, that wasn’t so much about them as much as the fact that I had a migraine, a really bad one. What I do for migraines when I get them, I listen to classical music, and I turn it up really loud. You know If I had Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf during a migraine, I gotta have it loud, but if something loud and bad comes on, it’s hell. The best cure for any hangover or migraine is good, loud music. ZZ Top played, and they were loud as s—, but they were fabulous. They didn’t hurt my migraine at all. (laughs)
So what first inspired you to want to make music?
Well, I loved rock and roll when that came in, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, all those great records. So I begged my mom and dad for a guitar, which eventually they did get me for Christmas, but it went out of tune very quickly and it hurt my fingers. (laughs) So I kind of lost interest for a while, and then the music went to s—, you know. Years later I hear Muddy Waters one night, and that just changed my whole life. I just wanted to be Otis Spann, his piano player. I saw them when they toured together. Just listening to the blues and buying blues records, and eventually somebody told me there was a band playing not far from where I lived, every Sunday night, and so I went to see them, and they were great. It turned out they were the Rolling Stones. They hadn’t made records or anything you know. And I was in a band at that point, playing guitar, and we would go and see them, and it was like, in the pocket.
Was that the Muleskinners?
Yes, that’s right! Then after a while I thought, if I could play piano, I could change the sound of the band, ’cause everybody plays guitar. Then I heard ‘Green Onions,’ and it’s all off! I had to have a Hammond!
Now you ended up replacing Jimmy Winston in the Small Faces, how did they find you?
Well, the Muleskinners carried on a while, then I got offered a gig with this band the Boz People, but they weren’t as keen to work as I was. Boz Burrell was the singer, who later went on to play bass for Bad Company, but back then he was just singing. I got a call from the Small Faces manager Don Arden, who I’d heard of him and I’d seen them once on TV. He said he had a job for me. I didn’t know who it was for, he said to meet him at the office. He said, “How much are you earning?” and I lied. I was getting five pound a week and I said 20 pound a week, cause that’s what my dad made, and he said, “20? You start at 30! You’ll be on probation a month, and if the guys all like you, you’ll eventually get an even split.” Then I said, “Well, what band is it? You got loads of bands.” He said, “Small Faces,” I thought, “Oh, f—in’ hell!” Then he said, “Go away, and come back in an hour,” because the girl who was working reception was dating Jimmy Winston, who I was about to replace. So I went back, and Steve [Marriott], Ronnie [Lane] and Kenney [Jones] came out the door, they looked at me, and they hadn’t realized that this guy they’d seen reviewed was actually short like them, so they were doubly pleased. They picked me up and hugged me.
What were those early days of the band like? It seems like from everything I’ve ever read that you guys were thick as thieves?
Oh yeah, yeah…I met my brothers the day they walked ’round that door. We went straight to a hotel, stayed up all night and listened to music and chatted and I discovered that Steve and I both loved Muddy Waters. We all loved Booker T. & the MGs, and they were dying to get my Hammond sound into their sound. The next day we did a radio promotion show, and the following day we did our first gig. It was just non-stop. Literally, we’d get up in the morning, do a photo shoot, jump back in the car and end up in the studio, cut a couple tracks, then play a gig. The next day, the same thing.
That energy comes through on the records for sure.
Oh yeah…incredible times!
Was it an uneasy transition going form your R&B, soul style to a more pop sound? Wasn’t ‘Sha La La La Lee‘ the first thing you recorded with them?
Yeah, yeah…I didn’t like that. I was thinking what the hell have I done, I’ve joined an R&B band, and we’ve turned into a pop group. But once that was out, and it did okay, Don Arden would let Ronnie and Steve have the next song, and that was it, the door was open.
How involved were you in the ‘Here Come the Nice‘ box set that came out this year?
I was involved only in that I listened to everything he sent me, and I checked credits, but he did an amazing job. Finally we sound like we did you know. It sounds so great on the box set, I am so chuffed! Finally! I was sick of hearing Small Faces records that sounded so thin and this overcame all that by finding the masters. He’s been a real fantastic guy, he’s gonna, hopefully, do the same for the Faces. There’ll be more legal problems there but, we’ll see.
Are there any particular sessions that stand out to you from back then, where you thought, “We’ve really got something here!”
I gotta say ‘Tin Soldier,’ I mean, especially since it came after ‘Lazy Sunday’ which we hadn’t really wanted out as a single, that was Andrew’s [Loog Oldham] idea,’ but as that was coming together, I mean, it’s such a great song. Great sounds on it, it’s just a winner. I can listen to that anytime…There’s actually a section in there that Booker T & the MGs stole for a song they put out called ‘Carnaby Street.’ I only found this out, I mean, I’d heard it, and every time I’d go, “Wait a minute…” but the guy, Rob Bowman, who wrote the book about Stax, ‘Soulsville, U.S.A.,’ I asked him and he said, “Yeah, that was a little tip of the hat.” And how ’bout this? Steve and Ronnie never knew, they died before I found this out, and also, I was talking to David Crosby, and he said, “It was you guys!” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “In ‘Eight Miles High‘…in places, Small Faces unbound.” I said, “Get out!” Every time we’d hear that record, we’d all look at each other. That really knocked me out, I’m thinkin’ Ronnie and Steve never knew, but it was great to find out that’s what it was about.
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With Marriott and Lane doing the bulk of the writing, did you find it hard to contribute songs?
I was writing and trying to get in, but, they…they didn’t let me, actually. It wasn’t like nothing was said, but what happened. I had this one song and I played it for Ronnie, and he said, “Hey, that’s great,” and Steve was encouraging too. They encouraged me to write but they had their partnership, but eventually, when we were writing songs for ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake,’ the three of us were together, actually three boats up the Thames, we had little cabin cruisers, and I had the biggest boat cause they’d run out of small ones, so we would congregate on my boat, and that was my in, you know. I’d play a little something, Steve would play something, and we’d have a song.
Was it a surprise when Marriott left at the time?
It was very sad for all of us. It broke the bubble. We had been happy for those four years. He wanted to change the band and play less guitar, and get Pete Frampton to play guitar. We loved Pete but we didn’t want him in the band.
You look at bands like the Jam, the Prisoners, and up through Oasis and even the Sex Pistols, the Small Faces have had such a large influence on British rock and roll, why do you think the band never translated the same way to American audiences?
Well, we never toured here, that was the trouble. If we’d have toured, we’d have taken the place by storm. Our manager, Don Arden, was a complete thief, I mean, there’s no other way to describe him. A great manager, but a better thief. We were signed to his production company, his agency and publishing company, so he had complete control and if we had come to America, he could not have had that control. He would have lost it, and we would have dumped him, and he knew that, so he only told us about one tour that had been offered, bottom of the bill, the money was terrible. And the same thing happened when we were with Immediate, after we did dump him, and signed with Andrew Oldham and Tony Calder. The same thing happened with them totally, record company, agency, management. Big mistake.
On your one hit in the States, ‘Itchycoo Park,’ was that the first record to use phasing in that way?
It was the very, very first. Engineer George Chkiantz, some years ago, he emailed me like four pages of exactly what happened that day. I don’t remember all the details, he was a technician who developed it. He was working for George Martin with the Beatles on ‘All You Need Is Love,’ and they had to find a way to record live, and also play back previous tapes on another machine. And while he was doing that, he invented ‘phasing’. And he told Glyn about it a couple days later, and Glyn said, ‘Well let’s use it. The boys are coming in to cut this song. Let’s do it.’
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You guys had a brilliant run of singles from ’65 through ’68, and the albums more than hold their own against any peers. It seems like the appreciation has grown over the years for things like ‘Ogden’s’
It’s safe to say, that you’ve worked with two of the gretest white soul singers that ever existed.
Three! You gotta put Jagger in there!
True! What were the major differences between working with Marriott and [Rod] Stewart in terms of how they approached the music?
Well, Steve, being a guitarist as well, he had the arrangements. Steve was more of a blues belter. Phenomenal, at the age of 18, he was phenomenal. Just incredible, yeah. Rod had that as well, but Rod was more soul. It’s difficult to compare them.
If everyone steps up to the plate, is there still a chance for a Faces reunion?
There is! I’m convinced Rod is definitely on it. He’s convinced me that this time he will and Ronnie, Kenney and I are eagerly awaiting that moment. And next year, is also the Small Faces 50th anniversary, so Kenney and I will do something. Maybe Ronnie Wood might be involved, I know Paul Weller’s gonna be involved. We’re not sure what it’s gonna be yet, maybe just one show. We’ve gotta honor Ronnie and Steve big time, you know.
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You and Ron Wood seem to have a deep bond.
Yeah, he’s just such a lovely guy, such a clever guy, and a brilliant guitarist. Just a brilliant guy, and he’s healthy and happy too! He’s married, he just had his wedding anniversary. I call him young Ron now, cause he looks younger every time I see him!
And you did, what, two tours with the Stones?
Yeah, ’78 and ’81.
And then there was the New Barbarians as well.
Really, we should rehash the New Barbarians! Lots of fun. I love Keith, and obviously I love Woody! Zigaboo’s [Modeliste] fantastic, always a lovely guy. I just saw Stanley Clarke, funny enough, last week. I was doing some sessions in Santa Monica and he was in the same studio, and he was on the phone outside as I walked in, and he looks at me, and I looked at him. I hadn’t seen him in like 30 years! Bobby Keys I see all the time when I go to Nashville. I think we all should do that! We should definitely do that! It was great, cause Keith could do some songs he’d never done before like ‘Apartment No. 9.’
One very frustrating thing, as a fan, is that there’s never been a proper live Faces release. There’s so many great bootlegs. Is there any chance of something ever seeing the light of day?
Well, there is one that comes to my attention, and a dear friend of mine that used to work at Rhino just found it and he said, by the way, the great thing about this great performance is Warner’s don’t own it. You own it. So, I have yet to talk to the guys about it, but I think it would be a good thing to release.
The live album that did come out, ‘Coast to Coast: Overture and Beginners,’ pales in comparison to what you guys were capable of.
Yeah, yeah. I was never keen on that. You know what happened. We were in and around L.A., and one night we played the Palladium, after which we had a party…Bobby Womack, Bob Dylan and a bunch of people came to, and after the club closed, about 2:30, we went straight to the studio to carry on mixing that album. Which explains why it sucks!