Memories of Lane

The bassist of The Small Faces died of MS seven years ago. Tonight, some of the biggest names in rock will pay tribute to Ronnie Lane
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The Independent Culture

Although he has been gone for seven years, Ronnie Lane's many friends will be remembering him tonight at the Royal Albert Hall. It's not exactly unique to hold a gig for a rock'n'roller who has passed away, but Ronnie was pretty special. He was admired by wide strata of musicians and fans alike. I'm not just talking about the well-known names lined up for the benefit gig, such as Paul Weller, Ronnie Wood, Midge Ure, Glen Matlock, Kenny Jones, Ian McLagan and Pete Townshend, nice chaps though they are.

After Ronnie left The Faces and eschewed the traditional rock'n'roll lifestyle in 1973, he put together a band of less familiar personalities. The suitably named Slim Chance were a collection of diverse elements from folk and more proletarian roots, who went on to play some of Ronnie's more enduring songs. Years later, people are listening with fresh ears and thinking, "That was pretty good", even though success largely eluded that band.

Gallagher and Lyle were in the first Slim Chance incarnation (well before they wrote hits for Tina Turner), and that outfit had a more diverse musical connection than the straight-ahead rock'n'roll of The Faces that he had left behind. A key member of a subsequent Slim Chance line-up was Charlie Hart: wanting an accordion-player, Ronnie chucked a box at him one day with the simple instructions: "You're playing this!" The classically trained Hart, used to playing bass, keyboards and fiddle, took it in his stride. Ronnie used to joke that he found his musos in the pages of Exchange & Mart, maybe an antidote to the predilection of the time for forming supergroups and tapping the big record companies for excessive advances.

Earlier this year, Hart was approached by John Hellier, a Lane fan and publisher of The Darlings of Wapping Wharf, a Small Faces fanzine, and asked him to put together a one-off version of the Slim Chance line-up for this show. Hart tracked down Chrissie Stewart, from the original band, to play bass and Henry McCullough to play guitar. Hart had heard a version of Ronnie's "Kuschty Rye" done on McCullough's Unfinished Business CD. Geraint Watkins came in on piano and organ, always a good man to have on the team, and Alan Davies, who had done much acoustic guitar on early Cat Stevens songs. Geoff Dugmore, a session drummer, completed the band.

The band sounded pretty good when I showed up last Thursday - 1 April, Ronnie's birthday - to run through a couple of numbers, the Top 10 hit "How Come" and the less familiar but more interesting "Anymore for Anymore?", written with Kate Lambert, his wife at the time, which tells the story of Ronnie's Gypsy-style days on the road. It rolls along like a showman's wagon, full of bitter-sweet connections. The second part of the concert is organised by the former Faces drummer Kenny Jones and his gang.

I first knew Ronnie from the Small Faces days, partly through Andrew Loog Oldham, The Rolling Stones' manager at that time. Looking to the success of US companies such as Stax and Motown, he thought it a good idea to bring together a stable of like-minded musicians in London: Chris Farlowe, P P Arnold, The Nice and some other boy acts. Unfortunately, the business side wasn't up to it, and so, after leaving the uncompromising manager Don Arden, they were jumping from the frying-pan into the fire.

I recall a demo song sent round to my brother Mick's flat in Marylebone, a track by Steve Marriott and company. "It's All Part of My Way of Living" was the song, and we were both knocked out by the performance. "What's that for?" I asked. I was surprised to find that it wasn't a new single: it was just a demo for Farlowe, but it sounded like a No 1 hit to me. That creative team made Ogden's Nut Gone Flake with Stanley Unwin, a seminal point in the UK pop scene.

Unwin's son will be at the Albert Hall, doing some Unwin-ese. After Marriott went his own way, with a heavier brand of rock'n'roll, history almost repeated itself: the later Faces incarnation became more focused on the front man, and the band was eventually billed as Rod Stewart and The Faces, much to Ronnie's distaste. On the last Faces LP, Stewart didn't sing "Ooh La La", the title track; he first recorded it a year ago, with The Corrs, I believe.

Ronnie loved coming down to Mick's house in Hampshire, where the Faces recorded, and he enjoyed the countrified atmosphere, which was more huntin', shootin' and fishin' than sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. He would come out coursing with us over the Wiltshire downs, loved angling and was building up to his later flight west, to a farm he had bought in Shropshire.

There, Ronnie assembled his American Air-stream trailer, which held a small studio, and his old Scammel fairground vehicles. He put up many a rock'n'roller who came to call, including Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend, who ended up dressing as farmers, too, in dungarees and boots! Forays to the local pub, the Miner's Arms, and the Drum and Monkey resulted in the odd gig there, to the surprise of the locals, who knew more about eisteddfods than rock operas. With his 100-acre sheep farm, Ronnie was taken in by the close-knit local community, who took to him as many others had down the years.

The Passing Show was the culmination of Ronnie's dream, a rock'n'roll circus, complete with dodgy jugglers and clowns, that toured the shires; the musicians helped to erect the big top in a collective fashion. His romantic vision had been touched on some years before by The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, albeit only in a fragmented film version, but Ronnie put his money where his mouth was and unfortunately lost his shirt in the process. After his first album, Anymore for Anymore, he moved to the Island label and released One for the Road, from which the Albert Hall concert takes its name. Both records contain lovely songs. He also cut some excellent tracks with Townshend and Wood, before he was diagnosed with MS and moved to the USA. He died in Colorado, from the same disease that had claimed the life of his mother.

Ronnie has a special appeal: he was a true rock'n'roll troubadour, who made great records with The Small Faces, then quit Stewart and company at the height of their popularity to do his own thing. He was a musical Gypsy from the East End, a little man with a big heart and loads of enthusiasm. I hope that comes across tonight.

One for the Road, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212), tonight