He was the Cockney pop star who became a poet of the hedgerows. With The Small Faces, then The Faces, and leading a succession of his own bands, Ronnie Lane brought humour, charm and pathos to everything he touched. This tribute was written for The Word, February 2004.
Ain’t No One Like Ronnie Lane
Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance
The career of Ronnie “Leafy” Lane was a tragi-comedy. He made a lot of happy music and these two compilations are stuffed with it. But there is no escaping the sadness of his last decades, and a thread of melancholy can be heard throughout. With his band Slim Chance he invented a fine, if slightly inebriated style of rustic English folk-rock, lost all his money and then his health. But from such adversity came the most emotionally generous music of its era.
He was an East Ender, born on April Fool’s Day in 1947. As the bassist of The Small Faces in the 1960s and The Faces in the 1970s, he served with two of the great blue-eyed soul voices, Steve Marriott and Rod Stewart. His own frail vocals could never compete with those. But he was a gifted songwriter who had a hand in some immortal pop singles like Itchycoo Park and Lazy Sunday and one classic LP in The Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (sometimes called “the Cockney Sgt. Pepper”).
For all the zim of their mod psychedelia, The Small Faces never broke America and were not even properly paid for their British hits. They fizzled out when Steve Marriott left to form Humble Pie. But the remaining members – Lane, drummer Kenney Jones and keyboard player Ian McLagan – replaced Marriott with Rod Stewart and recruited guitarist Ron Wood, to become The Faces.
As well as co-writing such quintessential Faces material as Ooh La La, Lane brought to the laddish brouhaha his own more soulful numbers such as Debris. He was at all times a cheerful-looking foil to Stewart’s flash and swagger. Fag a-dangle, “Plonk” Lane would shuffle across the stage with a kind of tipsy toddle. When he left the group in 1973 it was the end of their great days. There seemed to be a heart-shaped hole in The Faces after that; they disbanded two years later.
With some of the cash he’d acquired, Lane embraced a new life that was rooted in the countryside. He bought a rambling farm on the Welsh Borders and reared sheep. For a while, he actually attended agricultural college. He also bought a mobile studio, enabling him to record at a safe distance from the city. He named his new band Slim Chance. It was a typically wry choice: the self-deprecatory style of a plucky outsider. Unhappily, history would prove it apt. Actually, it should have been No Chance.
The story started optimistically, with a hit single How Come. To launch the LP Anymore For Anymore they played at Chipperfield’s Circus on Clapham Common. The farm and the fairground, the rustic apparel of waistcoats and neckerchiefs, these were the trappings of Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance. (At one point he acquired a gypsy caravan.) Their music was a merry squabble of mandolins, accordions and fiddles, loosely moored to good time country rock.
Now Lane made a very costly mistake. He resolved to give conventional touring the swerve. Forsaking the stuffy civic halls, Slim Chance would travel the kingdom in a convoy of lorries and trailers, fetching up in out-of-the-way places. They’d pitch a big tent and play to the populace. They would be regular rock’n’roll vagabonds, as free as the breeze over an English meadow.
Well, the open road beckoned but it led to the bankruptcy court. “The Passing Show”, as Lane christened his whimsical excursion, was dogged by problems. His supporting cast of comics, jugglers and fire-eaters could be unreliable. His antiquated vehicles broke down constantly. Local authorities viewed the raggle-taggle platoon with deep suspicion. The combination of a tent and fire-eaters was especially unpopular: “We were flogging everything in the end just to buy diesel to move the show,” Lane recollected.
Touring hamlets well off the rock’n’roll trade routes, crowds were often thin. Lane’s record company and management opted out. The Passing Show was a brave failure, but it left Lane penniless.
Still, the music was wonderful and Slim Chance soldiered on. Though the line up was chronically unstable, Lane stayed true to his muse and a stream of lovable songs resulted. The records covered ground from folk to rhythm & blues: mostly it was acoustic pub rock with a trace of village sing-song and London music hall. Lane’s bass lines had a melodic spring in their step, though the lyrics were often noted for their spiritual leanings. And his ballads were downright heart-breaking.
Examples? Ain’t No One Like Ronnie Lane is a double CD with many gems, such as 1974’s small hit The Poacher, an idyllic hymn to the pleasures of dawn angling (“Fish with eyes of jewels, mirrors on their body”). There’s his own version of a Faces number, Tell Everyone, which is another song of the morning, but about a lady rather than fish. And on the Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance CD are his second and third LPs in their entirety, including his superbly boozy One For The Road. It’s a nice, benevolent booziness, too, and typical of his image. There is a poignant instrumental which was prompted by the death of a neighbour named Mrs Caulfield: “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I came out of the pub and it was dark and all of the tractors were coming up from the fields with their lights on, their carts filled with hay, bringing the harvest home. I was very choked and went home and wrote Harvest Home.”
Although Lane’s mobile studio had famous customers like Eric Clapton and The Who, his farm was not a money-spinner and he looked for a cash injection via collaborative albums with Pete Townshend and Ron Wood. He was even persuaded to try a Small Faces reunion but rehearsal sessions proved abortive. Worst of all, he began to sense the first symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that had afflicted his mother. He first noticed difficulties when he was playing the guitar.
With that in mind the achievement of Ronnie Lane’s last album, 1979’s See Me, is all the greater. It’s possibly the best album of them all. You will find some of it on There’s No One Like Ronnie Lane: the briskly tuneful One Step and a marvellous Roy Orbison pastiche Only You. The latter is sumptuous: it suggests the bittersweet feelings of a man who has lost his love but found a nice big bottle of Scotch.
Drink and mysticism, love of women and the struggle to keep cheerful – these are the great Ronnie Lane themes. Several of those appear on the finest of his late songs, Kuschty Rye. (The best place to find it is Kuschty Rye: The Singles 1973-1980.) Over a bouncing, McCartneyesque bass line, Lane declares devotion to a Romany girl. She mocks him wickedly in words that he doesn’t understand, but he reveres her: “She learned me life is sweet, and God is good, and he always will provide.”
The last chapters of Ronnie Lane’s life make for sad reading. With the failure of his farm and the confirmation of MS, he moved back to London, where his mobile studio was destroyed by vandals. It was around this time that I came across him one afternoon in a Twickenham pub. Star-stuck, I watched from across the room as he played pool with his cronies in a fug of cigarette smoke and the swaying jollity of what I surmised had been a long session. It all looked wonderfully characteristic of the Ronnie Lane persona we fans used to admire. What I didn’t know was how ill he was. It turns out he barely drank at all by this time.
In 1984 Lane moved to Texas, where he managed to play some final gigs before his strength gave out. Some of his medical bills were handled by Rod Stewart and Ron Wood.
In 1991 Ronnie’s former comrade Steve Marriott died in a house fire. Meanwhile Kenney Jones, now in The Who, laboured to win The Small Faces some of their unpaid royalties. By the time of Britpop, they were widely praised for their influence on everyone from Paul Weller to Blur. Writing a piece about the band I contacted Lane in the States but he was simply too ill to speak. So I called Kenney Jones: the fight for The Small Faces’ back-pay was going well, he said, but it was too late for Steve, wasn’t it? Suddenly Jones became very emotional, adding that the money might have spared Ronnie an awful lot of suffering as well.
A short while afterwards, on 4 June 1997, Lane passed away at his new home in Colorado, deep in the Rocky Mountains. Raise a glass in his memory tonight.