Ronnie Lane, 1946-1997

Goldmine, Vol. 23, No. 15, Issue 443, dated July 15, 1997.

RONNIE LANE, 1946 - 1997

by Kent H. Benjamin

Ronnie Lane, founding member of both Small Faces and The Faces (with Rod Stewart), passed away on June 3, 1997, at a hospital near his home in Trinidad, Colorado, from multiple-sclerosis - related causes. He was buried the following day in a small, private ceremony; typically, he wanted no fuss made over his death. He is survived by his wife Susan, two step-daughters, and in Wales, two sons, Reuben and Luke, and another step-daughter, Lana.

Ronnie Lane was one of the best loved, most talented members of the British rock aristocracy, as famous for his charm and wit as for his music. Indeed, he was known by all who met him as one of the funniest, warmest, most spiritual people in the music business. And above all, he always kept his sense of humor, and with an absolutely indomitable will, managed to triumph over all the setbacks that befell him: thieving managers, unpaid royalties, quitting singers, and above all, the multiple sclerosis that plagued him for some 21 of his 51 years, leaving him in the end nearly a paraplegic (Kenney Jones compared him quite rightly to Christopher Reeve).

When he first publicly announced his MS in an article in Rolling Stone in 1981, and admitted that the ravages of the disease had left him completely bankrupt after fronting two of the most successful bands in the business, his friends rallied around him, and one of the most remarkable charity events ever took place -- the A.R.M.S. concert, with the Yardbirds' three guitarists: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page (together onstage for the first and only time), the Stones' rhythm section: Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, and a host of others, including Steve Winwood. It's likely that such a line-up would have agreed to perform for no one else; Ronnie was that well loved. And in typical Lane fashion, he used the money to start an organization for MS research, intent on helping others, and helping to prevent others from becoming so afflicted. That was Ronnie to a "T" -- always generous and humble to the end.

Ronald Frederick Lane was born April 1, 1946, in Plaistow, East London. By early 1965, he was playing guitar in a band with Kenney Jones, whom he'd met at the Ruskin Arms pub, where Lane's brother Stan worked. Deciding to trade his guitar in for a bass, Lane was helped at the music store by young Steve Marriott, a successful child actor who'd already released a pair of unsuccessful singles. Bonding immediately, the pair played together that night, asked Marriott to sit in on one of their gigs, which he did, nearly destroying the club's piano, resulting in their getting fired. Outside on the sidewalk afterwards, The Small Faces were born. Original keyboards/guitarist Jimmy Winston would be replaced soon afterwards by Ian McLagan, and the band's classic line-up was set. Within three months, they'd been signed by Don Arden, and had a chart hit with their first single, What'cha Gonna Do About It (covered over a decade later by both The Pretenders and The Sex Pistols). Marriott and Lane soon began writing what became one of the classic strings of hit singles in British Pop: All Or Nothing, I Can't Make It, Tin Soldier, Afterglow (Of Your Love), Lazy Sunday, and what became their sole big American hit, Itchycoo Park, a number written almost entirely by Lane. In just under three years time, they had an amazing 14 top twenty hits in England, four hit albums including Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, which topped the British charts for six weeks in 1968.

The band were one of the most successful singles acts in Britain, mobbed by screaming girls everywhere they went. As one of the only true Mod bands in England, they were also perhaps the best-dressed band in the business. "Plonk" Lane, as his bandmates dubbed him, was always the heart of the band. By 1968, Lane's spiritual hunger had led him to Sufism, and through his friendship with Pete Townshend, to become a follower of Meher Baba. He participated in the recording of Happy Birthday, a privately distributed album made by Universal Spiritual League, an organization of Meher Baba Lovers. The album came out in February, 1970, and included a drunken Lane/Townshend rendition of Lane's song Evolution (which appeared in a cleaned up, shortened version on Townshend's Who Came First and in a Faces version as Stone on First Step). In 1972, he played bass on the 2nd Baba album, I Am. And in 1975, he contributed Just For A Moment to the 3rd Baba album, With Love. As far as I know, he remained interested in Baba's teachings and spirituality to the end.

In early 1969, Marriott walked out of the band, breaking best friend Lane's heart; the two wouldn't talk again for nearly 7 years. With the Small Faces split up, Lane was asked by Ron Wood to join the new band Wood was forming; they stunk, so Lane invited Wood to join what was left of the Faces. Wood's old bandmate Rod Stewart was hanging around, and after Jones invited him down to have a sing, the Small Faces were reborn. After cutting one album, First Step, under that name, the band became simply The Faces, since with the addition of Wood and Stewart they were no longer "Small". The Faces went on to become one of the most beloved touring acts in the world, generally considered one of the top four live bands, along with The Who, The Stones, and Led Zeppelin.

In June of 1970, Lane and Townshend contributed uncredited backing vocals to The Rolling Stones' Can't You Hear Me Knocking, still a standard on classic rock radio; listen to the "...hear me howling...." bit -- Lane and Townshend are clearly audible. Three more albums were recorded by the band: Long Player, A Nod's As Good As A Wink....To A Blind Horse (title courtesy of a phrase Lane's dad used), and Ooh La La. Though primarily famed as a live band, The Faces did score one huge hit with Stay With Me in 1971. Lane wrote or co-wrote many of their best loved songs, including Debris, You're So Rude, Glad And Sorry (covered recently by Golden Smog), and Ooh La La.

The other Faces initially were very supportive of Stewart's solo career; as Lane put it, it just meant that more people came to see the band play live and made the tours that much better. But, again in Lane's words, they never foresaw how much power the solo hits would give Stewart in the Faces. Originally a functional democracy with five equal partners, all of them the best of friends and drinking buddies, the Faces had become known as one of the most inebriated good-time acts in all of rock'n'roll. As Lane put it, he saw the writing on the wall, and fearful of the loss of yet another lead singer, and not willing to undergo that pain a second time, Lane opted to quit the band that he himself had founded, and right at the peak of their career. It was Easter 1973 when he told them, May when he left. The Faces continued on for a while with a new bass player, but without Lane it wasn't the same, the fun had left, and as Stewart's solo career continued to mushroom, Wood finally accepted a position as the Stones' new guitarist, and the Faces were finished.

In the fall of 1973, Lane formed Slim Chance, an eight-piece band that played a more acoustic, folk-influenced style of music. As usual, Lane was ahead of his time, with a sound and style that would not become popular for many more years. He lived in basically a gypsy caravan, and hoped to tour, playing in circuses as "The Passing Show". In reality, it cost too much, and only a few performances were given. Losing two of his bandmates, Gallagher and Lyle (who themselves went on to have several major British hits), was also quite a blow, as they left immediately prior to the beginning of the tour. Nevertheless, he released Slim Chance's debut album Anymore For Anymore in August, 1974. The lack of any real chart or touring success made it difficult to keep band line-ups together, but Lane continued to record both as Slim Chance and solo, scoring small chart hits with How Long, The Poacher, and Kuschty Rye (produced by Townshend).

Further albums included Ronnie Lane (1975) and One For The Road (1976).

Along the way, Lane had acquired a recording studio housed in a RV -- it's pictured on the cover to One For the Road, and dubbed LMS (Lane's Mobile Studio), he both used it himself, and rented it to others, most notably in 1973 for the recording of Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert, and as a control room for the recording of The Who's Quadrophenia. In 1976 he also collaborated with Ronnie Wood on the soundtrack for Mahoney's Last Stand, and convinced his mate Pete Townshend to produce his first true solo album which came out as another collaborative effort, the hugely successful Rough Mix, which produced several US hits, and two of Lane's best songs: April Fool and Annie. During the sessions for this album, Lane first showed symptoms which only years later were diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, a disease which had felled his mother, and which he'd always been told he could never get.

He also attended a potential Small Faces reunion recording session, but found that old hurts and old annoyances (Marriott) hadn't gone away, and walked out on the reunion the same day. In light of the resulting two albums the reunion produced, hindsight clearly shows Lane to be the smart one. The new few years saw Lane happily ensconced on his farm in Wales, raising sheep and chickens, living with his family. This pastoral period ended in an unusually harsh winter in 1978/79, which cost him much of his flock, and forced him to sell off much of his estate.

As usual, Lane rebounded, and got a little record deal, recording the album See Me, and touring in 1980, including a European telecast for Germany's "Rockpalast" program. Unfortunately, the multiple sclerosis worsened. In 1981, he reunited with Marriott, peacefully this time, for a couple of recording sessions for a still-unreleased album they dubbed "The Magic Midgets"; no label expressed any interest, and with Lane now so stricken by disease that he was no longer able to play an instrument, much less tour to support an album, the project was essentially still-born. It was the last time the two would really spend any time together.

Soon afterward, Lane moved to Houston, Texas, where he formed the A.R.M.S. Foundation to aid with MS research and financial assistance for those stricken with the disease. Problems arose, however, and large sums of money allegedly vanished from the organization's coffers. Lane relocated a few hours away to Austin, Texas, in 1986, to be near the music scene.

While in Austin, although usually confined to a wheelchair, Lane formed a succession of bands: The Tremors with Bobby Keys on sax, and a succession of Ronnie Lane Bands (sometimes individual line-ups had "names") that included Alejandro Escovedo, J.D. Foster, Jon Dee Graham (The True Believers), Susan Voelz, R.C.Banks, and various members of Poi Dog Pondering, among others. Seeing Lane in a wheelchair singing Ooh La La with it's refrain "...I wish that I knew what I know now/when I was younger..." was inevitably an emotional moment; he even once introduced "Nowhere To Run" from Rough Mix by joking about his condition. By 1992, Lane had given his last performance, appearing at The Terrace with Ron Wood in a duet on Ooh La La. In 1994, Susan moved Lane and the family to Trinidad, Colorado, to escape the extreme heat, which troubled Lane.

In the last few years, things got much better financially for the Lanes, although his health continued to decline. For one thing, Kenney Jones' tireless efforts to get back royalties for the Small Faces resulted in first Decca, then Immediate, making settlements -- a very respectable one from Immediate's rights holders in 1996, and money was coming in regularly for the first time in years. The other Faces always donated very generously when Lane's medical expenses got too excessive (which was often). In 1996, Jones produced and released a tribute to the Small Faces called Long Ago And Worlds Apart on their own Nice Records, with all proceeds going to Lane and to MS research. Featured artists include: Primal Scream with P.P.Arnold, Dodgy, Northern Uproar, Changing Man, 60ft Dolls, Ocean Colour Scene, Paul Weller, Buzzcocks, Ride, and Gene. Another tribute EP is soon to be released in England featuring Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher, Pete Townshend, and Ocean Colour Scene doing a song apiece.

Lane lived to see a tremendous resurgence of interest in his music. The Britpop scene has been enormously influenced by Small Faces, particularly Oasis, Blur, Ocean Colour Scene, and particularly The Jam/Paul Weller. The Faces were listed as one of the major influences of The Sex Pistols, and are currently hugely influential in American rock bands, like Paul Westerberg and Wilco. In recent years, there have been several boxed sets, more than half a dozen single disc Small Faces reissues, almost all the Faces material reissued, and all of Lane's solo albums issued for the first time on CD, at least in Europe.

In the wake of Lane's death, Kenney Jones and Pete Townshend have announced plans to do some big tribute to Ronnie, with proceeds to go to MS research in his name. Ian McLagan's been working on ideas for a Faces box set. The long-rumored Faces reunion tour is still definitely in the cards; maybe we'll hear something when the Stones' tour is over. Stan Lane, Ronnie's brother, recently found a long-forgotten treasure trove of tape's Ronnie had long since forgotten, and was already planning to issue at least two CD's of BBC live Lane solo performances, outtakes, and perhaps some Faces live material as well. A previously unknown alternate Itchycoo Park is supposed to be among the finds.

Fans who wish to send cards, flowers, etc., are urged to make a contribution to MS research instead on Ronnie's behalf. From what I was told, Lane was quite insistent on not having a big deal made of his death. He lived life to the fullest. Remember him for that and the music.

In the brief time I knew him, Ronnie Lane was one of the funniest, warmest, and most inspirational people I've ever had the pleasure to meet. He will be missed by many, but I'd like to think he's just entertaining in a better place now, and playing guitar again. For Nice is the music forever and ever amen....

Written in Austin, TX, June 8, 1997.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Kent Benjamin and Goldmine.

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Last updated: 19 August 1997

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