John Hellier, Small Faces fanzine curator – interview
There’s a bunch of well-known four-piece acts who have had claims of a 5th member that was close enough to the band to receive the aforementioned esteemed accolade. The 5th Beatle is George Martin, The 5th Stone Rose is Cressa. With The Small Faces, their 5th member maybe should be their fanzine fanatic John Hellier. Matt Mead interviews John for Louder Than War regarding his new book entitled Best Bits, a celebration of the esteemed bestselling fanzine The Darlings of Wapping Wharf Launderette.
You might be surprised to know the fanzine didn’t actually start with John: two other Small Faces fanatics started the love affair with issues 1–4 before John took over the reins and started to build the beast of a publication into what we knew and loved it to be, the ultimate resource of the complete work of the magic midgets. John came on board the fanzine at a time when the mere mention of the name The Small Faces would have left most music lovers scratching their heads – now with the invention of digital music downloads plus with multiple waves of Mod music revivals The Small Faces hold a lofty place in millions of music lovers hearts, and maybe that has something to do with the hefty work of John Hellier.
Just to give a little bit of background to John, he is a freelance journalist for major music monthlies Mojo, Uncut, Loaded and Record Collector, and he has also published a number of very successful books, including a collaboration with Terry Rawlings and Keith Badman called Quite Naturally, and a Steve Marriott biography All Too Beautiful co-written with Paolo Hewitt. A third book co-written with Paul Weller entitled Here Come The Nice was published in late 2005 and spent many months in the Music book best sellers. Other recent publications include a biography about original Who manager Pete Meaden entitled I’m The Face and a Ronnie Lane biography called Can You Show Me A Dream?. On the Promotions side, John’s biggest venture to date was the very successful sell-out Ronnie Lane Memorial Concert at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London in April 2004. He promoted and compered the show in front of 5500 fans. The show, entitled One For The Road, featured many of Rock and Roll’s premier league and included, amongst others, Pete Townshend, Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, Paul Weller and Ocean Colour Scene, and was filmed and available on DVD. All of these publications are available to buy via John’s own website.
What we have in the A5-sized book Best Bits is a stylish cut-and-paste job with no index – this is simply John picking and choosing the very best bits from the 40 fanzines over 400 pages, and some of the articles are from fanzines that have long since sold out. The content features a foreword by John and previously unseen pictures of the band in various guises and locations, and the interviews include heavyweight Small Faces fans Paul Weller, Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend, together with Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane, Kenny Jones and Ian McClagan.
John has really done his homework on the band here. Born in the same generation as the band, John was a Mod of the ’60s, meaning he was in prime position to see the band up close and personal. This coupled with his 30-odd years’ worth of collecting anything and everything on the band including previously unheard audio, unseen footage, plus being given exclusive access to the band members families’ personal collections, means John is simply the be all and end all of the band. He comes across as warm, caring and engaging as a fan should be of a much-loved band that produced timeless records of the ’60s that are still relevant and fresh sounding now as they were back then.
Interview with John Hellier
LTW: When did you first hear about The Small Faces?
John: Up until around early 1964 my only interest musically was American. I would hear great songs on the first Beatles and Stones albums and then go out of my way to track the original versions down. Half a century before Google that wasn’t easy. If it was British I didn’t want to know, but that was all to change. Great bands were emerging, particularly around London: bands such as the Pretty Things, the Yardbirds, the Who and of course, the Small Faces. I’d seen Steve Marriott previously in a band called The Moments and was very impressed. He was a tiny kid with a voice akin to a middle aged black man from Memphis. By following his career it obviously lead me to his next band and that was the introduction.
What was it about the band that you liked? The clothes? The Music? Everything?
Well everything, but first and foremost it was the look. Mod was and still is very much about image and they had that in abundance. They were perfection, they looked as though they were manufactured all with the same shirt size. Of course, they were not. I would buy all of the teenage pop magazines of the day just for the photos. I’d clock something Steve or Ronnie were wearing and then catch the train up West to try to buy the same. The music, pre the hit singles, was raw. All they ever wanted to be was the East End of London’s Booker T And The MGs.
Did you go to see the band live?
Lots of times, from small Soho clubs to pop package tours in cinemas and theatres.
What are your favourite five gigs?
Their first gig at the Marquee Club in London; Romford ABC with Roy Orbison; Finsbury Park Astoria with Jeff Beck; and the South Ockendon Youth Club in Essex. But the very best was a show at the Bubbles Club in Brentwood in October 1968, just before the split, in which they played as a five-piece with Peter Frampton on lead guitar. Little did I know at the time that Steve and Peter would form their own band just months later, Humble Pie.
Do you remember watching them on TV when you were younger?
Yes, all the usual shows of that era, things like Ready Steady Go, Top of the Pops and Crackerjack!
What’s your favourite TV appearance? I personally like the Morecombe And Wise appearance of I Can’t Make It – Marriott is savage on the microphone, the rest of the band give it loads miming behind the great front man. Brilliant.
Colour Me Pop in 1968 in which they performed the second side of the Ogdens Nut Gone Flake album with Stanley Unwin narrating. That was the first time I’d seen them on the telly in colour.
When did you start collecting the bands memorabilia?
As early as 1966 I was collecting the records and photographs but it wasn’t until I met and befriended Steve in the mid 1980s that I started with the serious stuff.
Where has your archive come from?
All of the good stuff such as personal items of stage clothing, signed contracts, rare acetates and rare footage has come from the band members themselves and their families.
Have you ever spent a big amount of money on any of the archive?
Some of the items are valuable but I’ve never had to buy them. I’ve done lots of favours for those guys and their mums and dads and their aunties and uncles and have been rewarded with gifts.
What is your prized possession relating to the band?
Two items of clothing from Steve. One is a floral neck-scarf that he wore on stage with the Small Faces, circa 1968, and the other is a tatty neck-scarf with numerous cigarette burns that Keith Richards gave to Steve when Steve auditioned for the Stones in the 70s. He gave it to him for good luck, it never worked as he never got the job but Steve wore it on stage whilst touring the States with Humble Pie. It now hangs in my music room.
What are your top 5 singles by the band?
A difficult question and one that would probably have a different answer every week. My number one track though is a strange choice – What’s A Matter Baby, the b-side of the first single and not even one of their own. It’s a very soulful rendition of an old Timi Yuro song. Next up Afterglow Of Your Love, a beautiful love song that deserves more air play. I keep waiting for some boy band to murder it! Add to those two the absolutely stunning Autumn Stone and their only number one hit single All Or Nothing. The fifth choice has to be Tin Soldier, a powerhouse of a song and a powerhouse of a performance.
How did you get to interview all of the band?
Well Steve was first, that was in 1985. Mac and Kenney much later, that was when I worked with them on Steve’s memorial show in 2001. My interview with Ronnie was done by way of an international phone call when he was living in Colorado. He was very sick at the time, hence a poor interview.
What’s the most memorable interview you’ve done for the fanzine so far?
I’ve interviewed many so-called ‘superstars’ but the most memorable was Eric Clapton in 1997. Eric was very close to Ronnie Lane and when Ronnie sadly died in June 1997 Eric was pursued by all of the major music magazines such as Mojo, Record Collector etc for an interview, but he declined them and chose to speak with me only for an exclusive in Wapping Wharf. To say I was honoured is the understatement of the century!
How did the fanzine first become an idea?
During the mod revival years of 1979 and early 80s the Small Faces were largely ignored. It was all about the Who and Quadrophenia. There was nothing at all on the Small Faces except for a few shabby greatest hits compilations, so when I stumbled across a very basic fanzine put together by some guy in Liverpool I was overjoyed. It was called Darlings Of Wapping Wharf Launderette and as it was in those pre-PC days it was a cheap cut and paste job – cheap and nasty but it was all that was out there on the Small Faces. I wrote to the editor, expressed my joy and offered to write an article for issue 2, which I did. After the first four issues the guy gave up on it, so rather than see it die I took over the editorship from issue 5. I employed a good graphic designer and took the fanzine upmarket with a new glossy 40-page format.
Did you ever expect it to be as successful as it has been?
Its later success could not possibly have been envisaged at the time. Issue 5, my first one, had a print run of 100 – by issue 20 that was up to 2,000.
Do you have any well-known people who have purchased the fanzine over the years?
Lots and lots of well-known people in the music business have read the mag on a regular basis including all five Small Faces (Jimmy Winston included). Some purchased copies, others were given as freebies. Paul Weller has been the most supportive ‘star’ and has not only supplied lots of material by way of interviews but has also supplied rare Small Faces photos as well, some of which were used as front cover shots. He would always purchase the fanzine from Intoxica record shop in Portobello Road.
The fanzine has now been discontinued. Why?
The fanzine was been discontinued after 40 issues, hence the Best Bits 400-page compilation. Right until the end it was as informative as ever and still selling well, but I felt as if I needed to move on to other literary avenues.
Are you pleased to see the band’s material finally getting the love, care and attention that it should have always had with the recent box sets of the immediate material and the Ogdens? The band’s material was released left right and centre throughout the years, with seemingly every record company trying to get their piece of the action.
Yes I am, the box sets were long overdue and much care and attention has gone into them. It’s a shame that all of the ‘holy grail’ unreleased tracks that we know of were not available to be included. I guess they sadly ended up in a skip somewhere.
Lastly, what’s on your turntable at the moment?
The Phil Spector Christmas Album: well it is December.
You can purchase the book and further merchandise including The Darlings Of Wapping Wharf Launderette fanzine from John’s website. You can find further info on The Small Faces via their official website
All words by Matt Mead. Further articles by Matt can be found at the Louder Than War author archive pages.