A seminal collection of songs, in the word's true sense.
Unfortunately, so abused is the adjective that we tend to read on, having taken it to mean some glib variation of 'good'. In relation to the Small Faces collection, the accurate meaning is apt. In critical writing seminal, relating to 'seed' (stop sniggering at the back), denotes a work that was instrumental in shaping the course of work that was to come afterwards. And Small Faces certainly were that.
What students of the arts come to realise within their first few weeks after enrolment though, is that seminal works rarely tend to be the best example of their form. True, the flash of inspiration, of novelty and innovation are worthy of study, and must always be celebrated as meritorious efforts on the part of their creators. But it is more often the following wave of artists who refine the form to its highest peaks. Wrens ride on eagles' backs.
seminal works rarely tend to be the best example of their form
You can trace the phenomenon through the various artforms – Monet's lightscapes are better examples of impressionism than Manet's, although the latter was earlier. Shakespeare's Hamlet has an erudition that is absent in Marlowe's Tamburlaine, James Joyce wrote better modern novels than his inspiration Edouard Dujardin.
Musically, things are no different. Over four albums' worth of Small Faces material, it is easy to hear sounds and approaches to songwriting that later found favour with the likes of The Who; vocal treatments that became a Led Zeppelin trademark; a plundering of the Mississippi delta's progress from Dobro porch-blues to Gospel-drenched rock and roll that informed every sixties rhythm combo from The Rolling Stones to Them, and that's without even starting on the band's obvious and celebrated inspiration to BritPop. 'What Cha Gonna Do About It?' is as pure and perfect an example of all those elements, appearing in three separate incarnations on the collection, with the raw clunkiness of the earliest being by far the most satisfying.
modern masterpieces of innovation
'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' and 'Itchycoo Park' secure the legacy importance of Small Faces beyond any quibble, rightly seen as modern masterpieces of innovation and as popular reflections of the then-current zeitgeist. If to modern ears the latter appears to lack power or definition, it is more a testament to the nuance-obliterating bellow of Heather Small on M-People's 1990's interpretation than any failing on the part of the original. A mono version of the song included on the first CD will appeal to completists, but on this occasion, doesn't add anything to the listening experience.
Recording practices of the time tended to favour the mono mix, being as it reflected the dominant listening technology (most record players were mono, radio couldn't reproduce stereo recordings until FM radio was introduced; with BBC Radio One's 1967 launch the ground-zero moment). In some cases (particularly the reissues of early Beatles and Kinks material in recent years) having a copy of the mono recordings has brought a punchier, more dynamic version of the music to a new audience. The nature of Ogden's Nut Gone Flake though, with its widely-spread mix and multiple rhythmic elements, lends itself to stereo more comfortably. The same can be said of the rest of the collection – alternative takes and cocky studio banter prove more interesting than mono mixes of widescape psychedelia.
But to whom does this release appeal, exactly? A recent rumour that Warner records is considering a complete cessation of artist development in favour of legacy releases from its ample back catalogue is most likely nothing more than anti-filesharing scaremongery, but the rumour nonetheless has enough credence to have spread into the online edition of at least one heavyweight broadsheet . The albums come out on Universal records, whose policy on back catalogue reissues may well show no similarity to what is still only a rumour concerning one of their rivals.
the most prominent and bankable names in the business
There will, of course, be Small Faces fans willing to purchase a reissued set of discs, but without hijacking a simple music review to build a thesis on the future of the music industry, the plain truth is that there can't really be that many of them. Legacy releases, to break out of the steady-but-small salesbase of devotional superfans, depend upon a back catalogue which features the most prominent and bankable names in the business. Sinatra, Jackson, Presley, etc. Household names, whose publishing rights command eight-figure sums and whose re-issued works garner clear-cut profits.
It's a simple strategy, but a costly one. Whether it can be applied successfully to lesser acts (and with all due respect, The Small Faces are just that), remains to be seen. For those non-completist superfans, the jaunty familiarity of 'Lazy Sunday' and the seminal (yes, seminal) psychedelic proto-glam of the 1968 concept album Ogden's Nut Gone Flake are a worthy addition to any well-stocked record shelf. A four-disc set with multiple versions of many of the songs though, may be too much to ask.
On Universal, May 7th
Sean Keenan used to write. Now he edits, and gets very annoyed about the word ‘ethereal’. Likely to bite anyone using the form ‘I’m loving….’. Don’t start him on the misuse of three-dot ellipses.
Divides his time between mid-Spain and South-West France, like one of those bucktoothed, fur-clad minor-aristocracy ogresses you see in Hello magazine, only without the naff chandeliers.