In June, Ian McLagan told The Austin Chronicle, his hometown paper since 1994, that he would be going out on tour in 2015 with the band that made him famous in America: the Faces, the quintet that had also featured Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, Kenney Jones and the late Ronnie Lane. “I’m very excited,” McLagan told the reporter. “The fact is we always wanted Rod to do it. Every single time we asked him, it didn’t work. This time, he wants to do it. So I hope and pray nothing happens between now and then, because it would be great.”
Something did happen. McLagan died unexpectedly from a stroke at age 69 on Wednesday. No one saw it coming, because “Mac” seemed so healthy and energetic this year when he released a terrific solo record and backed it up with an even better tour.
That tour came to the WXPN-FM/World Café Studios in Philadelphia in May. McLagan was short enough that he fit right in when in 1966 he joined the Small Faces, the group that made him famous in his native England. But with his shock of white hair sticking every which way, a gold earring in one ear and black stomper boots at the end of his skinny legs, the diminutive singer dominated the stage like a rooster.
Backed by the Bump Band, his long-standing Austin group, McLagan stood behind his electric piano, banged out the chords and warbled the vocals on the songs from his new album, United States. Creating three-minute pop songs with storytelling verses and catchy, aphoristic choruses is an underrated talent, but McLagan grew up in London where that craft reached one of its peaks in the mid ’60s. Though McLagan didn’t write much back then, he was obviously paying attention, for his new disc boasts tune after tune that could have clicked on BBC Radio One in 1968.
McLagan has backed up a lot of great rock singers, such as the Small Faces’ Steve Marriott, the Faces’ Rod Stewart and The Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger (that’s McLagan playing the electric piano on “Miss You”). He didn’t have their huge lungpower, so he relied on his light tenor and tuneful charm. In Philadelphia, over the New Orleans syncopation of “I’m Your Baby Now” or the old-school-soul of “All I Wanna Do,” his rumpled voice was totally disarming, if only because the chorus hooks were so sharp.
He was as charming off stage as on, always ready with an impish smile and some blunt honesty. When they got back home from Philadelphia, McLagan and the Bump Band celebrated the 10th anniversary of their weekly Thursday gig at Lucky Lounge. Backed by drummer Conrad Choucroun, bassist Jon Notarthomas and Resentments guitarist Scrappy Jud Newcomb, McLagan presided over the weekly gig in Austin’s Warehouse District as if the genial social director of a pirate ship. A typical evening there was documented on last year’s album, Live at the Lucky Lounge.
The Small Faces hired him to replace Jimmy Winston in 1966, because McLagan was a better keyboardist, a friendlier fellow and more in keeping with the quartet’s pint-sized stature. The new line-up quickly became the second most-popular mod band in England, second only to the Who, and matched their eye-catching and immaculately tailored clothes with equally ear-catching and immaculately tailored singles such as “Sha-La-La-La-Lee,” “Grow Your Own,” “All Or Nothing,” “My Mind’s Eye,” “Itchycoo Park,” “Tin Soldier” and “Lazy Sunday.”
When Marriott left in 1969 to join Humble Pie, McLagan, Lane and Jones formed the Faces with the taller Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, who had both just left the Jeff Beck Group. But more than height was responsible for the change in nomenclature. If the Small Faces had a knack for Beatlesque music-hall sing-alongs flavored by American R&B, the Faces were more in the Rolling Stones vein: blues-rock with a British twist. It was, as McLagan constantly reminded journalists, a completely different band.
Before the Faces could release their first album (1970’s First Step), however, Stewart released his first solo album (An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down in the UK, The Rod Stewart Album in the U.S.). Stewart was an undeniable talent, and his solo career exploded with the success of singles such as “Maggie May” and “You Wear It Well.” He invested less and less energy in the Faces, and the whole thing went bust in 1975.
Lane, suffering from multiple sclerosis, had already left in 1973. Wood, of course, took Mick Taylor’s spot in the Rolling Stones. Jones and McLagan both became replacements for Keith Moon: Jones as drummer for the Who and McLagan as the husband for Kim Kerrigan. McLagan and Kerrigan wed in 1978, a year after Moon’s death, moved to Austin in 1994 and remained from all appearances happily married till she died in a 2006 auto accident. Many of McLagan’s best compositions have been love songs for Kerrigan, written both before and after her death.
McLagan never stopped working. He joined Wood on the road with The Rolling Stones (documented on the Still Life album), joined Taylor on the road with Bob Dylan (documented on the Real Live album) and joined Dylan’s wife Carolyn Dennis on the road with Bruce Springsteen (documented on the In Concert: MTV Plugged album).
Once he settled in Austin, this consummate sideman reinvented himself as a bandleader and singer/songwriter. It was the rare such reincarnation that actually worked, for McLagan harbored a long-unexpressed knack for penning economical, roots-rock gems. He didn’t spurn his past; he often sang the Faces’ “Cindy Incidentally” at his live gigs and publicly celebrated 2004’s four-CD Faces box set, Five Guys Walk into a Bar…. But he never got swallowed by the past because the second half of his career had been so productive. As he sings on “Sha La La La” from his new album, “It’s a big thrill to be here today.”
And now he’s not.