Ronnie Lane had three distinct career phases: bass-playing mod turned psychedelic imp in the Small Faces, wine-swigging heartbeat of the jack-the-laddish Faces and bucolic gypsy minstrel with Slim Chance. In each incarnation he created music to treasure.
‘Plonk’ was the consummate collaborator, writing and working with Steve Marriott, Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton. He and Marriott penned All Or Nothing, Itchycoo Park and Lazy Sunday, though Marriott’s material once the partnership was dissolved points to Lane having been its driving force. He also shared the writing credit with Wood on the infectiously affecting Ooh La La.
Yet his finest song, I contend, is an autobiographical solo effort from the middle of his three main eras. Debris, with Lane on lead vocal, appeared on the Faces’ album A Nod Is As Good As A Wink in 1971. It was also the B-side of the boisterous single Stay With Me. A perceptive Melody Maker writer, the late John Pidgeon, called it a ‘working-class ballad’. It is far removed, however, from Lennon’s barbed polemic Working Class Hero or Cockney music-hall sentimentality.
There is a clutch of durable songs about fathers; among them, Cat Stevens’ Father and Son, Ian Dury’s My Old Man and Judy Collins’ My Father (never forgetting Tommy Cooper’s Don’t Jump Off the Roof, Dad). Debris is the daddy of them all, in my book, a beautiful, poignant track set on a Sunday morning – presumably after messrs Stewart, Lane, Wood, McLagan and Jones had raised hell on Saturday night – which uses the memory of childhood visits to Club Row market, in Lane’s native East London, as the starting point for reflections on his relationship with his father, Stanley.
It was there, he told one interviewer, that people spread out their ‘chuck-outs and flotsam and jetsam’. Stan, he added, would ‘root around for hours in all this shit!’. Only when he was living in the US did Ronnie realise he ‘quite missed it’. The working man’s life, the song seemed to be saying, amounted to bits ’n’ bobs; his lot was to rummage endlessly among them in the hope of finding something of value.
The opening line suggests a generational schism. ‘I left you on the debris, at the Sunday morning market,’ sings Lane. He’d left Stan in more ways than one; by 1964 Ronnie was a sharp-dressed, 18-year-old baby boomer, making his way in the pop world, whereas Stan, a truck-driver, was ‘looking through the odds ’n’ ends... looking for a bargain’.
There’s a verse about his father’s job and his trade union (this was pre-Thatcher, remember, when the unions were supposedly running, or ruining, the country). Lane notes that ‘there’s more trouble at the depot, with the General Workers’ Union’, but he avoids romanticising their dispute, if that’s what it is, by adding plaintively: ‘And you said, They’ll never change a thing.’
If his father sounds an unlikely role model, Lane’s love was unqualified. ‘Oh, you was my hero,’ he and Stewart sing together, dovetailing soulfully. ‘Hell, you were my good friend.’ In fact, Stan’s care of his wife Elsie, who had the Multiple Sclerosis that Ronnie inherited, was beyond heroism. (Incidentally, I loved the first line of this couplet for its conversational authenticity but also because 50 years ago our English teacher sneered at the grammatical ineptitude of ‘I knew we was falling in love’ on Manfred Mann’s No1, Do Wah Diddy Diddy.)
Ronnie's amble down Memory Lane finishes with his hinting at his father’s unfulfilled potential, wondering what he might have done ‘without me hanging around’. Again, there is no mawkishness in a line which, in other hands, could have been coated with sugary self-pity.
Lane wrote many more clever, melodic songs, notably Glad And Sorry, Richmond, Annie, Done This One Before, Tell Everyone, Don’t Try And Change My Mind and the gorgeous Poacher. He died in 1997, aged just 51, having struggled against MS for many years.
But his name and spirit live on. Slim Chance have regrouped to tour his timeless material, there’s a new road not far from Club Row called Ronnie Lane – and it’s never too late to discover Debris.
Slim Chance version...