‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’ At Fifty

❉ An appreciation of the kaleidoscopic album, released on this day in 1968.  Are you sitty comftybold, two-square on your botty? Then I’ll begin…

“There was no escaping this was as much a script/story as it was an album. Richard Burton’s The War of The Worlds earnestness is a million miles from Stanley Unwin’s narration, making Ogden’s something  the equally ridiculous The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars weren’t; hilariously funny.”

Before Ziggy played guitar, before Rael got lost in New York, before Pink waited for worms, before Neil Peart paid homage to Ayn Rand and even one year before Tommy was cured of huis deaf, dumb and blind condition, there came a record about Happiness Stan as he searched for the missing half of the moon. It was a simple story, and one that only lasted the second half of a record, but it had the distinction of being rock’s first story (before anyone mentions The Pretty Things’ more complete S.F. Sorrow, note that came out in December 1968, six months after Ogdens Nut Gone Flake. So Small Faces get this one – it wasn’t Pete Townshend who brought the rock opera to life, it was Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane).

Though Small Faces mastered the single from day one (Itchycoo Park, All or Nothing and Tin Soldier, all three complete with Ronnie Lane’s aggressive psych bass playing, remain radio standards to this day), they never quite got the album just right before 1968. Ogdens’ changed all that, a bonanza of blue eyed soul and wit, Steve Marriott’s apex as both a guitar player and performer; all that, with narration from comic legend Stanley Unwin (he invented Unwinese!)

And much like much of their career, the band’s due came far too late in the lives for the album’s principal writers to enjoy, Marriott succumbed to a house-fire in 1991, Lane lost his near twenty year multiple sclerosis battle in 1997, leaving the two surviving members to overlook the re-issues of the band’s masterpiece, a three disc compendium the ultimate accolade this wonderful L.P deserved unleashed in 2012 (sadly, Ian McLagan also died in 2014).  As admirable as their work was, these men were primarily players, not writers; put it crudely, would you rather ask Johnny Marr or Andy Rourke about the writing of The Queen Is Dead? Some of the art process will never be discovered with the aid of hindsight.

Lucky then that the soul so readily played by the four-piece band is evident in the lyrics and vocals heard on Ogden’s. Every inch of Marriott’s person is heard in album anthem Lazy Sunday, some of Marriott stage experience as the Artful Dodger heard on his “roo do dee do” scats. Ronnie Lane’s quest for an earnest journey through the eyes of the working man a life mantra he would explore further on his later seventies classics Debris, Ooh La La and his Meher Baba work, Lane’s vulnerability on the record fitting for the song. (Lazy Sunday was a youth anthem of the highest calibre, re-introduced to a new generation of cinemagoers in The Boat That Rocked. Personally, I’d rather not have seen Chris O Dowd in jocks!)

Blues classics Rollin Over and Afterglow Of Your Love (the first a live favourite of Brian May’s in the nineties) showcased the veracity of the four piece, four disciples of Stax, Atlantic and R&B sounds blasting through the stereos with all their power. Ian McLagan’s organ playing proved vital to the band’s staying power, it differentiated their sound from guitar Mods The Kinks and The Who, adept at the psychedelic.

With Lane/Marriott as the group’s Lennon/McCartney, McLagan proved the band’s George Harrison, an invaluable musician of distinctive arrangement instinct and a blossoming songwriter in his own right (his Long Agos and World Apart’s is excellent, those sizzling guitar lines are played by McLagan, not Marriott!) And continuing the Beatles analogy, Kenney Jones, like Ringo Starr, brought terrific feel to the songs that added, rather than distracted, from the band. Never the flashiest of drummers (he really was the wrong choice to replace Keith Moon in 1978), Jones still made his presence felt with subtlety and nuance (take another listen to the bare taps he brings to the acoustic opening of Afterglow, before kicking the hell out of his kit as the organ amps up. Beauty!)

But it was the second half that everyone pays to hear, a batty array of prog rock gone mad, flutes and hoots galore on Happiness Stan, kaleidoscopic in inventiveness; whereas Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson shied away from the “concept album” term on Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds, there was no escaping this half was as much a script/story as it was an album.

Now after a little lapse of time,/Stan became deep hungry in his tumbload./Oh, after all he struggly tricky out several milode,/and anyone would suffer under this” intones Unwin, the proverbial tongue very firmly in cheek (Richard Burton’s The War of The Worlds earnestness is a million miles from this – Unwin was given a glossary of hip terms to throw in with the Cockneyisms, Marriott later recalled), making Ogden’s something  the equally ridiculous The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars weren’t; hilariously funny. (McLagan’s autobiography All The Rage: A Riotous Romp Through Rock & Roll History said everything about the band’s attitude towards music.)

Band-composed The Journey saw Marriott and Lane play a game of switcheroo, Lane playing the electric guitars, while Marriott strummed bass on the track. Where much of Small Faces repertoire was electric, Mad John and Happy Days Toy Town turn from folk and acoustic feeling to Sunday Hall album close reeling, knee slaps and cockney slang closing the listener on the four London boys (little wonder Damon Albarn credited Ogden’s as an influence on Parklife (1994)).

“People compared it to Sgt.Pepper and I’m like, no, it isn’t anything like that” drummer Kenney Jones explains. “Ogdens’ is like a proper story, Peppers isn’t. It was way ahead of its time, bit like rap really. When I heard the story, I thought this is a cartoon, definitely, and other people would go, no, they didn’t see the idea, I suppose, but I always saw animation for the story, so that’s what I plan to do is to make it into a full length animation in the near future about Ogden’s”.

Grandiose in design, the band never performed it in concert, miming along to it once on ‘Colour Me Pop’. Though Jones has said the band could have performed the album live, Marriott seemed less interested, especially after the other three members shot down his idea to include up and coming guitarist Peter Frampton on second guitar.

A no.1 hit in the United Kingdom, it proved less successful stateside (an album title referencing Liverpudlian tobacco might have been too much of an English niche for an international market!). Marriott wasn’t willing to try again, abandoning Small Faces to form Humble Pie (1969-1975) with Frampton. The other three tin-soldiered on, acquiring the much taller Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart, becoming Faces, complete with monster seventies hit Stay With Me (1971). Two terrific live bands, both of greater significance in the American Music scene than Small Faces ever were, they were complete with some great songs and strong albums. Neither unit beat Ogden’s though!

❉ ‘Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake’ was originally released by Immediate Records on 24 May 1968, IMSP 012. Current availability: Digitally remastered CD, Sanctuary Records CMTCD 234, 2012 | 180g vinyl reissue, Charly/Immediate Records CHARLY L 285/IMLP 012, 2017.

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