It’s a bad week for rock’n’roll. Now I find myself postponing the second half of my Ray Davies interview again because of the sad news that Ian McLagan, the great r&r keyboard player, has died at his home in Austin following a stroke.
My friend Andy Neill, the author of our Omnibus Press Faces biography Had Me A Real Good Time, e-mailed me overnight with the news, adding his own short tribute: “Mac was a great guy, as many of his friends and fans will attest. The Faces book I did would only have been half the book it was without his invaluable contribution. As well as a convivial and witty raconteur, Mac had his own distinctive and unmistakeable sound – just listen to those classic Small Faces and Faces records. To say he will be sorely missed is putting it mildly. When I get up there, it’s his round!”
Mac was generous in his support for Andy’s biography, agreeing to be interviewed and answering man follow-up questions. Here's the first part of a long extract about Mac’s childhood and the bands he played with before The Small Faces. Part two tomorrow.
Ian Patrick McLagan was born on May 12, 1945 at West Middlesex Hospital, Isleworth, with Irish-Scottish ancestry – his mother, Susan Young, was from Mountrath, County Leith, Ireland while Alec William McLagan was born in Shepherd’s Bush to a Scottish father.
Ian McLagan: “My dad’s family all called him John but he preferred Alec. Everybody else called him ‘Mac’. My family all called me Ian but everybody else called me Mac. My brother Mike was always called Mac, too.”
Alec McLagan was a keen amateur skater and became speed skating champion of Great Britain in 1928 when aged about 20. Ian McLagan: “He belonged to the Aldwych speed club, which was a roller rink - it might have been an ice rink - which is now the site of the Kensington Hilton. One of his close pals at the time was a guy called Joe Weatherburn and Joe’s girlfriend, Paddy, and dad’s girlfriend, later wife, Susan, were best mates. They worked at the John Lewis department store on Oxford Street. My mum came over to England from Ireland when she was 16 and lived in at John Lewis.”
After marrying, the Weatherburns bought a home in Hounslow where their close friends, the McLagans, lived in a rented house two doors down at 32 Taunton Avenue. Ian McLagan: “Mike was born in ’43. Joe and Paddy found out they couldn’t have kids so they adopted a girl, Gillian, who was pretty much like my sister – still is. Her birthday was within a week of my brother’s and they grew up together. When Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’ hit [in January ‘56], they had their first teenage party. I was the youngest one allowed in, I was only 10 and a half at the time. That’s where I discovered rock and roll and sex because that was my first kiss. So there were two teenage parties, one at her house, and one at ours, same people at both parties, same music, same kisses.”
Mac had a happy childhood raised as a Roman Catholic with regular summer holidays to Ireland, although his education suffered from frequent absenteeism. “I went to infant school, junior school, slid into grammar school by the skin of my teeth and got bored with school almost immediately.”
Having heard rock‘n’roll and with the massive popularity of skiffle, Mac got his first guitar. “I begged for a guitar and eventually I got one for Christmas. It was a Spanish model but I lost interest in it very quickly because it hurt my fingers. I just thought you picked up a guitar and you could play it.”
His mother also made him undertake piano lessons under considerable duress. “I had no desire to play piano, which is crazy really when you think about it. It was only because of my mum who’d never had piano lessons and always wanted them. My grandmother was a fantastic concertina player - she could play anything. But my mum couldn’t afford piano lessons so I had to have them.
“I liked the music but piano lessons didn’t involve rock ‘n’ roll in any way. It was boring, scales and things. It was a long ride on the bus right out to Cranford near Heathrow airport. It got so noisy with the planes, the cups would rattle on top of the piano. This piano teacher, Mrs Morgan drank coffee non-stop and she used to put her coffee cup on the keys at the high end. She had a ruler and she would rap your knuckles if you didn’t get it right.”
Eventually Mac skipped the lessons to hang out at the Temperance billiard hall on Hounslow High Street* with his mates from Spring Grove Grammar School, Alan Worrell and Terry Munro. “We’d meet up there and have cups of tea and cheese rolls and play snooker all afternoon. It was right by Hounslow bus garage so I’d time it right to go home. I saved the bus fare money by walking back home as if I’d been to piano practice.”
Like so many other British boys of their generation, Alan, Terry and Mac formed their own skiffle group. “Terry could play a bit of guitar. Alan was on washboard and I played tea chest bass. The three of us had these checkered flat caps because we wanted to be like Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps so we were the Blue Men.”
Mac renewed his interest in guitar after hearing more of the life-changing sounds coming over from America. “I don’t think there was any music on my dad’s side that I knew of. My mum wasn’t really musical. The only instrument my brother could play was the Dansette – which I inherited - and the radio. He turned me on to Buddy Holly, that was my indoctrination. Gill had more of a record collection so I would play her records.”
After his dismal scholastic record at Spring Grove Grammar School, Isleworth, Mac was lucky to pass the entrance exam into Twickenham College of Technology and School of Art on Egerton Road. “It’s only now I realise what a great advantage kids of my age had to be able to get into art schools. I was absolutely useless at school, I’d lost interest and I’d been put down a year. I really was the worst pupil and a friend of mine, Cas, who I’d been to junior school with, showed me his portfolio. I couldn’t believe he got to paint and draw all day. He was in the junior part of the art school but he was the same age as me but when I did get accepted I was in the year below him. It was just amazing to be able to do lino cuts, litho, still life classes, oil painting and sketching. And also there was the music, girls and drink. It was all happening.”
Jazz and blues also reached Mac’s ears via the BBC Light Programme’s Jazz Club, hosted by Humphrey Lyttelton. “I heard Thelonius Monk’s Blue Monk and one of the tracks off Muddy Waters’ At Newport 1960 album. It was either ‘Got My Mojo Working’ or ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’. They were almost impossible to buy then. I think I went to Broadmead’s on Hounslow High Street and the guy didn’t know what I was talking about until he looked through his catalogue and ordered them for me.”
Developing a passion for rhythm and blues, Mac saw the Rolling Stones for the first time in May 1963 during their trailblazing Sunday residency at the Crawdaddy Club, held in neighbouring Richmond’s Station Hotel. “The amazing thing was the sound, they had started playing before I got in [to the club]. I assumed that as they were a blues band, they would be black and American so it was quite a surprise to find that they were white London boys. But the sound, the throbbing bass and the harmonica on top it just convinced me they were black until I walked in. Then it was a case of, ‘Well blimey, I love this music, I’m trying to play it, maybe I can’.”
Mac had been playing guitar in a group, the Cherokees, with some art college pals. “It was basically an instrumental group with a singer. I was the guy who wanted to be in the band, I was the no-talent. Dave Pether was a brilliant guitarist. It was basically his band. His mate, Mick Carpenter, who, like Dave, lived in Southall, played drums. Dave and I were the same age and Pete Brown, the bass player, was a year above us. Mick already had a job and he had some money, we were just poor artists.
“Because Dave was a great instrumentalist and soloist I had to learn things like ‘Havah Nagilah’. There were all kinds of instrumentals we did where I just strummed. Bit by bit, we listened to blues, Jimmy Reed and all kinds of R&B and it was just like we had to change. I thought, ‘Well, everyone’s playing guitar’ so eventually I got my first keyboard - a Hohner Cembalet electric piano - because I figured I could play the Chuck Berry rhythm on my left hand and didn’t have to play too much on the right to tip the chords. I mean I just fumbled my way into it. By now, Pete’s mate Nick Tweddell was playing harp, I brought in my friend Johnny Eaton to sing and we changed the name of the band to the Muleskinners from ‘Muleskinner Blues’.”