The Many Faces of Ian McLagan
A living legend reflects upon a career behind the B-3
If variety is the spice of life, Ian McLagan could open his own seasonings shop. His legendary career has spanned the dawn of “white boy blues,” Britain’s “mod scene,” and the psychedelic movement – and that’s just the Sixties. As a young man in England, McLagan – who prefers to be called “Mac” – shared the stage with touring American blues giants; then, in the fall of 1965, he joined the fledgling Small Faces. The Small Faces, of course, was the most influential and talented British band never to have made it big in America, “Itchycoo Park” being their sole splash on Stateside charts. After leader Steve Marriott abruptly left the group in 1969 (soon forming another band, Humble Pie, with Peter Frampton), the Small Faces transformed into an entirely different group – the Faces – with the addition of future Rolling Stone Ron Wood and a raspy-voiced young heartthrob by the name of Rod Stewart. McLagan survived the Faces’ subsequent 1975 breakup by becoming an in-demand touring pro and session musician, working with the likes of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.
McLagan was and is “in demand” because of his mastery of a particular, sought-after sound – the sound that resonates from a Hammond B-3 organ. One of McLagan’s most unusual collaborations has been with leftist songwriter-genius Billy Bragg, which has brought the Hammond wizard back into the global spotlight in recent years. When asked about that relationship’s origins, the keyboardist explained that “Billy started his career after I had left the UK in ‘78, so I didn’t really know much about him at first, except that he was a Communist.” McLagan first met Bragg through a mutual acquaintance, former Long Ryders frontman Sid Griffin. The pair went to see the folk-rock poet in LA one evening. “He turned out to be a really nice geezer,” McLagan recalled, “and he made some nice references to the Small Faces. It turned out that he lived in the same part of London as my son Lee. Afterwards, I asked my son about him, and it turned out that Lee had seen him on the streets quite often. I asked Lee to say ‘Hi” to Billy for me the next time he ran into him.
“Years later,” McLagan continued, “I was looking at Billy on television, and was thinking about him, and my son…and this song came out. I missed my son, and wished the best for him. In England, there’s this expression, ‘Wish you the best of British,’ meaning ‘the best of luck.’ So I wrote this song, ‘Best of British,’ which was aimed at my son, but also had something about Billy included in it.” Meanwhile, without McLagan’s knowledge, his son Lee had not only said hello to the renowned songwriter, he had become acquainted with him. “Then [Bragg] came to town [McLagan has lived in Austin for years], for South By Southwest.,” the organist said. “ I made a demo of the song and left it for him at his hotel. He called me and said, ‘Mac, it’s so good to hear from you, I love the song.’ I asked him to sing on the track, and he said ‘Yeah!’ After I recorded most of the album [2000’s Best of British], I flew to England, picked up my son, and went into the studio. Billy sang the song, and we sat on the sofa and watched, smiling from ear to ear. It was fantastic.”
“Pretty soon after that,” McLagan goes on, “Billy was coming to America in support of the Wilco album, Mermaid Avenue. He was without a band – for some reason, Wilco wasn’t touring with him. He had put together a band in England, but they didn’t have visas. He asked me if I still had my band, and he came over and toured with me and the band as backup. Then, he asked me if I’d tour Europe with his English group, which I did. And I’ve been working with him ever since, it’s been five years. It’s been a really friendly relationship, he’s like family to me… Billy’s a sweet man, for a Communist!” the keyboardist concluded, laughing.
While McLagan – whose sense of humor and affable charm have undoubtedly been factors in his success – garnered acclaim with Billy Bragg’s “Blokes,” a book of his memoirs – 1998’s All The Rage – received praise from critics and fans alike. All The Rage is not really an autobiography, however; it’s more of a collection of anecdotes, a project that began without any literary ambition. “I would remember funny or poignant stories about people – whether they were in the entertainment business or not,” McLagan said. “A friend of mine said to me more than once, ‘You should write these things down.’ So I did, on the road, whenever, for about two or three years. So it’s not so much about me as it is about fascinating people. I’ve known some fantastic people – Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Lane, Keith Richards, my Uncle Ned, my mum and dad. “I’ve just been so fortunate to work with so many fascinating characters,” added McLagan, who stays in touch with his old friend Rod Stewart.
“You know, I toured with Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin in ‘64. I did a gig with Little Walter the same year, and a couple of gigs with Sonny Boy Williamson. This was with my first band, the Muleskinners. We were absolutely blessed to be able to play with these gods; most of ‘em didn’t live much longer, sadly. It’s almost like a dream, now. Funny enough, Hubert Sumlin was here about a month ago, playing Antone’s. I got to meet him for the first time since ‘64. He said, “The Wolf really liked you, he wanted to take you back to Chicago.” Isn’t that amazing, to find that out after almost forty years?” “I’ve realized since [writing the book] that there is more that I want to write about. Maybe twenty years down the road, maybe I’ll write more about me…I’ve had a funny life.”
The Small Faces recently made the UK charts – for the first time in 28 years – with Ultimate Collection (Sanctuary Records); McLagan and the Faces are working with Rhino on a soon-to-be-released 4-disc boxed set of rarities tentatively titled Five Guys Walk Into A Bar…. McLagan’s next CD, Rise and Shine, is also scheduled for release early next year. The keyboardist is currently on an Australian tour with Billy Bragg and the Blokes.
This article originally appeared in the Ballard News-Tribune, Seattle, WA
Ian McLagan: http://www.macspages.com