by Josh Lieberman
Even among music fans the name Ronnie Lane doesn’t come up much. I’m not sure why. He was an original — “the East End urchin with the pastoral vision,” as Mojo put it — and about as unlikely a rock figure as you’re likely to find. The bassist and songwriter for British bands the Small Faces and the Faces, Lane gave it all up for a curious (to put it mildly) solo career: he ran away and formed a circus. But then he never had been a good fit for heady 1970s rock stardom: consider the fact that while the other members of the Faces were buying mansions and Rolls Royces, Lane remained in his £7 a week apartment in the uber-British-sounding town of Twickenham. And while the Faces toured America in private jets, Lane drove with his family from city to city in a Land Rover.
The Faces had formed in 1969 as a successor to the Small Faces: singer Steve Marriott had gone off to form another group, and in came vocalist Rod Stewart and guitarist Ron Wood. After four strong albums Lane left the band, unhappy that they were increasingly perceived as “Rod Stewart and the Faces.” After this departure, Lane made his best (and least remembered) music. It was a short, fascinating and, ultimately, tragic career — and it was largely received with indifference. As his friend Bucks Burnett said, “Ronnie Lane entertained, and the world — for the most part — yawned.” But Lane must have known something like that could happen: he named his post-Faces band Slim Chance.
You may actually be familiar with one of Lane’s best songs. That would be “Ooh La La,” and if you do know it, it might be because of the movie Rushmore. The bittersweet Faces song was an appropriate closing track for not only Rushmore but for the Faces’ final album as well. It’s Ron Wood, not Lane, who sings the version above. Here’s another version with Lane singing.
It was after this album, also titled Ooh La La, that Lane exited the Faces. So what do you do once you’ve left a lucrative, world-touring British band at the height of their massive popularity, bearing in mind that this is the 1970s? If you guessed, “buy some land on the English-Welsh border and sink all your money into a ruinously expensive traveling circus and musical act (plus an Airstream converted into a mobile recording unit),” you’d not only be correct but remarkably precise. A circus complete with barkers, lion tamers, musicians, and regrettably “the world’s unfunniest clowns” was the “only answer,” Lane told Circus (a music, not big top, magazine).
The assessment in Mojo was a little different: they called it “a grand yet foolhardy undertaking.” However you see it, the circus was certainly fitting for Lane, who by all accounts was a charming rascal of the highest order, given to playfulness and pranks. One of his funniest: in his early days working at an electronics factory, Lane would lock himself in a soundproof testing room with a coffee and the paper; when someone banged on the door demanding he open up, Lane would wriggle out of the room through a hole he’d cut in the wall, sidle up behind the person knocking, and say, “Are you looking for me?” Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Lane was born on April Fools’ Day.
While his first single “How Come” was a hit, coming in at #11 on the charts, things generally had a way of not working out for Ronnie Lane. He failed to achieve a crucial second hit with “The Poacher”: when Lane was to perform the song on Top of the Pops the BBC cameramen went on strike, causing the song to languish and barely crack the Top 40. (The above video is from a later performance.)
But Lane was anyway busy with The Passing Show, his traveling circus, and when he wasn’t on the road he herded sheep and played music on his hillside. Not only did he play on the that hillside, he recorded there too: on his first album with Slim Chance, 1974’s rustic, wheat-between-the-teeth Anymore for Anymore, you can hear band members’ children running around and shouting.
Lane eventually had to shut down the circus. Given all those performers and trucks and tents, the Passing Show was the exact opposite of profitable. Lane did manage to earn some money, and a few rock history footnotes, by renting out his Airstream recording studio: Led Zeppelin recorded part of Physical Graffiti and the Who part of Quadrophenia there.
Soon things changed dramatically. After releasing two more excellent Slim Chance albums, Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance (1975) and One for the Road (1976), Lane began work on an album with Pete Townshend. During the recording of that album, the critically lauded Rough Mix, it became apparent that something was very wrong with Lane. As recounted in The Passing Show, a BBC documentary, Eric Clapton noticed his friend’s problem when Lane was onstage: “He wasn’t actually hitting the strings… it was sort of just hovering above.” Townshend saw it too: “He couldn’t balance, he couldn’t stand up, and I just thought he was drunk.” Lane, who certainly loved a tipple, wasn’t drunk: he had multiple sclerosis.
Thus ended his most creative and productive years. (He managed to release one more album in 1979, See Me, but it’s his least engaging.) Lane experimented with various treatments — including injections of snake venom — and in hyperbaric oxygen therapy he found both physical relief and a new cause. With an eye towards opening a London hyperbaric oxygen chamber Lane organized a benefit concert with some of his friends, among them Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Bill Wyman, and Glyn Johns. The 1983 Royal Albert Hall concert was such a success that they took the act to America, but (to make a sad story short) Lane entrusted the proceeds to a charity (which he helped found) run by an MS-afflicted attorney with a penchant for misappropriation. Lawsuits, countersuits and vanishing funds: it was all a great embarrassment for Lane.
Lane lived out his final years in Texas and then Colorado. Completely robbed of his musical gifts with the exception of his voice (itself greatly damaged) Lane performed from his wheelchair in small clubs. Playing with local musicians he became something of an Austin institution. Throughout Lane kept his humor: asked how his treatment was going, he would joke, “Well a mosquito bit me this morning — and it died,” and when President Reagan sent a personal letter Lane claimed to have celebrated by snorting coke off of it. But despite his humor Lane was obviously suffering. When he heard about the 1991 death of his old friend and band member Steve Marriott, who burned up in a house fire, Lane responded, “I’m jealous.”
But let’s go back a bit, shall we, and end things on a more positive, Lane-esque note. What follows is, to my thinking, the strongest available Ronnie Lane performance. Lane was always an eager and engaging performer, but I don’t think he gets any better or more soulful than he does here around the 3:00 mark.
It’s a song that should play in every pub at the end of every night. The best for last. One for the road.
Josh Lieberman holds a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. He recently wrote about lost travel writing for the Paris Review Daily.