[This article first appeared in the May 1981 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]
UNTIL RECENTLY, WHEN he began writing his own songs and releasing records under his own name, Ian McLagan was a figure in the musical shadows, playing behind more well-known rock stars, unknown to most of those who heard the albums on which he appeared. For the last fifteen years his contributions on key-boards have added punch to the music of the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, the Small Faces, and the New Barbarians, among others; only in the 1980s, with the release of his first two solo albums, Troublemaker and Bump in The Night, has he emerged as a songwriter and singer in his own right.
"Well," he demurs with a smile, "I don't know about the singing. I've got a very limited range, but I enjoy it and I'm still learning."
Like many of his musical generation in England, McLagan decided to become a professional musician after attending art school. "In England, art school is one place you can go as long as your parents agree that they won't be getting any money out of you for three or four years," he laughs. "A lot of people there were loafers, really, people who couldn't handle the idea of going out at the age of 15 to work. If I'd stayed long enough to graduate, I would have earned the privilege of making less money than I would have needed to support myself. It was like music lessons; they mainly taught you how to conform there."
While in school, McLagan was playing rhythm guitar in a local group. Their repertoire was more oriented toward the Ventures than rhythm and blues, but that quickly changed when he got his first exposure to the music of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and a local group called the Rolling Stones. It was the piano styling of blues greats like Memphis Slim, Otis Spann, and Chuck Berry's pianist Johnny Johnson that steered him away from guitar and toward keyboards after that.
Ian had taken a few months' worth of piano lessons as a child, but they didn't have a significant effect on his later work in rock. "The lessons were wasted on me," he admits. "When I gave 'em up my parents said, 'You'll regret it later,' but I haven't. It's ironic that I should end up a piano player."
Soon McLagan was moving from guitar to piano with the Muleskinners, his band at art school, but before long he was exploring the possibilities of the organ as well. "The first band to turn me on to the organ was Booker T. and The MGs, without a doubt," McLagan states. "For one thing, a lot of what the blues piano players did was beyond my reach, whereas that 'Green Onions' riff was really simple for me to get into. Also, I was able to get a Hammond [L-100] organ with a Leslie cabinet for two weeks on approval, for nothing. They came out and installed it at the house, and my dad came home from work and freaked out: 'What the hell is this, another dining room table?' I used to listen to all the tracks on the Green Onions album and work out the notes, though it was the tones and the way he'd work his Leslie that mainly interested me."
Ian left school to work fulltime with the Muleskinners. They enjoyed some minor success in the British blues underground, backing up touring American blues singers like Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter, playing at the famed Marquee Club in London, and releasing their own single. Eventually they split up, and McLagan was quickly picked up by a group called the Boz People, led by Boz Burrell, later the bassist with King Crimson and Bad Company. After a year with them, however, he left, restless with their lack of work and eager to find a rock gig. It didn't take long.
Two days after leaving Burrell's band, in November '65, Ian met the Small Faces, then in search of a new keyboard player. "They had had an organist before me [Jimmy Winston], but they threw him out because he couldn't play," McLagan recalls. "I'd seen them on television when they had their first record out, and my dad said to me, 'Look, they look like you!' And one of the first things they asked me was, 'Do you like Booker T. and the MGs?' We were the biggest Booker T. fans in the world, all in one band. We'd come back to this flat in London after our gigs, carry the L-100 and the Leslie up the stairs, bring a few amps up, and sit there playing Booker T. stuff and variations on Muddy Waters songs all night." The Small Faces had already attracted notice in England with their first hit single, "Whatcha Gonna Do About It" when McLagan joined the band. More hits were to follow, including several American successes, like the late '60s smash "Itchycoo Park" and the delightfully whimsical LP Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, but each one strayed further from the R&B framework that the members of the group enjoyed.
"The first record was a success," Ian explains, "but when the next one flopped, our manager said, 'Right, you'll do what I tell you now.' Other writers started coming in, so it took Steve [Marriott, guitarist] and Ronnie [Lane, bassist] a while to put their writing across again. Onstage, we still did R&B things, like 'Shake' and 'Don't Fight It,' but then we'd come out with something like 'Sha La La La Lee.' It was the late '60s," he reminds us, "so it was all hippies and beads and bells and acid taking its toll."
Eventually, Marriott left to form Humble Pie, and the remaining members hooked up with a couple of refugees from the first Jeff Beck Group — guitarist Ron Wood and singer Rod Stewart. Along with Small Faces drummer Kenny Jones, they practiced nightly in a rehearsal space borrowed from the Rolling Stones, and soon emerged as the Faces, minus the Small. "We felt that as the Small Faces we had sold ourselves a little short, and we wanted to do some things we hadn't had a chance to do onstage," Ian remembers. "We'd try anything and just have fun. That first album [First Step] was a bit of a mess, but that was just us, searching and finding out things. There's an instrumental on that album, 'Pineapple And The Monkey,' that was very Booker T.-influenced. There we were, four or five years later, still doing the same thing."
Throughout the '60s Ian had basically been an organ player, first using a Hammond L-100 and a small Leslie, which he miked through two Marshall cabinets, with the Small Faces; during his very early days with them, he played through a small Leslie without rotating horns. Later he switched from the L-100 to a Hammond M-102. "The M-102 had a good vibrato and a nicer sound than the L," Ian says, “but the L was what Booker T. used on 'Green Onions.' He did some stuff after that on an M, and pretty soon he was using a B-3. When the Faces reformed, I was rehearsing with them on the C-3 they had in the studio, but I didn't like it as much as the B-3, so when I could afford it, I bought a second-hand B-3 with two big Leslies around 1969 or '70, and I still use them now.
"When Booker T. went to the B-3, the sound was so different," McLagan continues. "I still like the sound of an L-100, but I don't like playing them, because they seem to have lighter keys. I've had the springs on both keyboards on my B-3 adjusted so that the action is much heavier now. It's more like a piano, but I think doing that was a mistake. It's okay for playing notes, but you almost have to use two hands to hold down a one-hand chord."
Ian has picked up assorted technical tricks in his Hammond work. By watching Billy Preston, for example, he learned how to sustain the quality of a particular sound by alternating the drawbar settings as the solo line moves up and down the keyboard. On one of his favorite settings, McLagan will keep the first and third drawbars out and alter the harmonic flavoring by gradually eliminating the harmonics on the upper two or three drawbars when the melody moves below the mid-point on his upper manual. Generally he avoids the second drawbar —"it's very piercing" — and on his one solo on the Troublemaker album, he pulled out all the octaves, and put the Leslie and volume on full. "It's a lovely sound," he enthuses, "like skating on ice."
In addition to his assorted Hammonds, McLagan played a Hohner Pianet with the Small Faces. He describes the Pianet now as "one of my least favorite instruments. The keys just bounce back, with no expression. I mainly used it because it was cheap and loud." When the Faces began concertizing and bringing in more money, McLagan began to rent Steinway grand pianos instead. This led to a unique relationship between him and the Steinway firm, which accepted McLagan as the only rock artist to officially endorse their pianos.
"At first I was involved with a great firm down in Dallas called Sound Productions [2711 Electronic Ln., Dallas, TX 75220], which would hire out pianos," he says, "and I used to hire from Steinway in London all the time for gigs. My favorite piano at that time was a nine-foot grand they had. It was old, but really beautiful. Then Elton John tried it once for a show, and when he stood on the lid it cracked. I wanted to buy a piano around then, so I went to the head office and asked them where that nine-foot grand was I liked so much. They said, 'Oh, the lid got cracked, so we had to repair it, and we sold it cheap!'
"At one point, I went out and bought a brand new white Steinway, and had 'em paint the 'Steinway' on the side," he points out. "I had a good relationship with them. They did make me a Steinway artist, and they took photographs of me in their magazine. There used to be this clause in my contract that said there had to be a nine-foot Steinway at every gig, and if there wasn't, any damage that happened to the piano that they had was the promoter's problem. I'd generally put an axe to them at the end of the show just to prove a point.
"But a year after I bought my Steinway," he concludes sadly, "I was broke and I had to sell it, so that was the end of that."
Strictly in terms of getting the ideal rock piano sound, Ian has fond memories of his Steinway days. "The Steinways generally have more clang," he explains. "And I used a Countryman pickup with special EQ and everything. It had the best sound of an amplified piano I've ever heard onstage. The Countryman is so good; you can have the lid completely closed. Rod used to jump up and down on the piano and the plates wouldn't move; they're held there magnetically."
But there are other pianos in Ian's life now. "Yamaha makes good ones," he notes. "There was a brilliant one at the Island Studios in London. In fact, I spoke to Nicky Hopkins recently about pianos, and we both agreed on that one."
Currently, in addition to his B-3, Ian uses a Clavinet, an ARP Pro-Soloist, a Yamaha electric grand, and six Wurlitzer electric pianos —"in case anything goes wrong with the main keyboard, which is the Yamaha." The rest of the amplification system consists of custom-built cabinets with Gauss 18s on the bottom and JBL drivers with widened throats for greater volume on top. The organ is run through two Leslies, one mounted on top of the other; the bottom one is miked into the PA, and the upper Leslie functions as a monitor. "I've stuck with real Leslies over the years," McLagan affirms. "You can get amps that have a similar sort of sound, but it ain't the same. There's no way to get that sound except by miking a Leslie through the PA."
Although he has never owned a Yamaha electric grand, Ian has played them onstage in recent years, particularly with the New Barbarians. No longer luxuriating in a band that can afford hauling a full-fledged acoustic grand from concert to concert, he now insists, "I've heard the Yamaha recorded straight off the desk and I've heard it in the audience, and it passes. It's a very clever instrument, the next best thing to a Steinway that you can get in this country, but it takes too long to set up. For me it's only one-quarter of the way toward the ideal.
"As a touring electric piano," he elaborates, "it's probably the best thing around at the moment, but the bottom half is horrible. I'm a heavy-handed piano player, especially in my left hand, so it's very frustrating after a couple of minutes. The Wurlitzer, on the other hand, has a great feel and it's the nearest thing to an electric guitar. It's easier to amplify than the Rhodes, especially in the middle range of the keyboard, but it's harder to get a good sound from it. And it's hard to maintain. On the Stones tour I was using three of them each night because I'd break tines, always in the same place; since most of the numbers were in E or A, those are the notes that would go."
Conspicuously absent from his setup are any of the polyphonic synthesizers one sees stacked around many rock keyboardists today. He wasn't terribly interested in monophonic synthesizers when they came out either. "When the Minimoog first appeared," he says, "I rented one for a week, but when I realized you couldn't play a chord on it, I lost interest." McLagan does use one monophonic synthesizer, though: the ARP Pro-Soloist, which he describes as "an old man's synthesizer. There are just buttons you have to push; you don't have to patch anything in. There are a few sounds on there that I've used, but I don't play it that much because it only gives you one note at a time."
Then why not pick up a polyphonic synthesizer? "They cost too much money," Ian answers. "By the time they started coming out, all the people who were into synthesizers had learned their trade. My trouble is, I'm not a technician who knows how to deal with them. A string machine is useful, but I think a lot of synthesizers are a waste of space. And if everybody else is playing them, I may as well steer clear anyway."
Ian's reservations about the technical aspects of some instruments even extend to his favorite axe for solos, the Hammond organ. To avoid the bother of running the Leslie from the keyboard console, he had a lever built onto his model allowing him to trigger the horn vibrato with his right knee while standing behind it onstage. "There are still too many gadgets on a Hammond for me to handle all the time by hand," he admits.
When recording with the Rolling Stones on "Imagination," "Miss You" [both from Some Girls], and other unreleased tracks, Ian mainly played organ, but when he went on tour with them in the late '70s he stuck to acoustic piano with a Countryman pickup or Wurlitzer electric piano, shifting to organ when longtime Stones associate Ian Stewart decided to play electric piano. McLagan was called to do the tour only two days before it began, when Bernard Harvey, keyboardist with reggae singer Peter Tosh's band, was suddenly dropped. "I guess Touter [Harvey] wasn't working out on some of the rock and roll things," Ian explains. "There were about 15 numbers for me to learn, and I was trying to make notes about where one faded out and the next started. Then when we were on the road, I found that I had to use amps I wouldn't have used ordinarily. I could have argued about that, but it was all such a rush. Before I knew it, half the tour was gone and there was no point in trying to reorganize anything."
Basically, however, McLagan enjoyed his work with the Stones, especially when sharing keyboard duties with Stewart. "We brought each other out in a way," he notes. "No one's got his style — no white guy I know, anyway. He's got an aversion to minor chords, though. He reckons there are no minor chords in the blues, which is why he wouldn't play on 'Miss You' at the beginning of the tour. By the end, though, he was playing on it, and when I said, 'Hey, you're playing minors,' he'd say, 'I'm not playing D minor; I'm playing F."
McLagan played piano on the Stones recording of 'Miss You' as well; it was the only track on the album Some Girls in which he recorded live with the band, rather than overdubbing his part later. "I could hardly hear [bassist] Bill Wyman," he remembers. "We just did it a couple of times, and when I listened to the playback I realized what Bill was doing, so I could work more closely with him. I still couldn't hear him, but that was good in a way, because if I was listening too closely some of the magic things in our playing might not have happened."
Few keyboardists have had the opportunity to work with such diverse bass players as Wyman and ex-Chick Corea sideman Stanley Clarke, who toured with McLagan, Stones guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood, saxophonist Bobby Keyes, and New Orleans drummer Zigaboo Modeliste in the New Barbarians, shortly after his stint with the Stones. Originally conceived of as a promotional tour for Wood's album Gimme Some Neck, the Barbarians' project quickly took on a life of its own, attracting notice from a variety of musicians. Neil Young, who suggested the group's name, planned at one time to perform with them, but it was Clarke's decision to volunteer for the bass guitar slot that most surprised McLagan, along with many other observers.
"I thought he'd never fit in," Ian admits. "But as soon as we got to the rehearsal space and started playing, we found our common ground. Stanley was getting off on playing things like 'Rock Me, Baby.' Other musicians in his natural ground would sneer at that, but not Stanley. He likes reggae, jazz, rock and roll, blues, the whole thing. He's a brave s.o.b. He'll try anything, and I love that."
Whether working with the Stones, the New Barbarians, Rod Stewart, the Faces, or on his own, McLagan follows a philosophy of blending into the rhythm section rather than standing out front as a keyboard soloist. In fact, keyboards are used sparingly on his solo albums, partly because he was focusing more on singing than playing. At drummer Jim Keltner's suggestion, Ian sang while working out piano parts in rehearsals for Troublemaker, to develop a better feel for coordinating his instrumental and vocal phrasing. And on Bump In The Night, McLagan actually plays keyboards on only one track; the rest of the time he plays rhythm guitar.
As he gets more involved with songwriting, Ian finds that he plays more guitar, though he still considers himself primarily a keyboardist. "I play guitar all the time, much more than piano," he states, "although I'm still a better pianist. But if I have an idea for a song and I sit down at the piano, before long I'm trying to play in a proper way and losing my train of thought, whereas I can just pick up a guitar, bash out a few chords, and let the words and voice take it."
Ian is still interested in developing his keyboard playing; one particularly educational episode in this respect, he says, was working on the Ron Wood album with Nicky Hopkins, whose keyboard work Ian describes as "brilliant." But in the end, Ian is satisfied with his work, and sees little reason to change his direction as a keyboard artist in the future.
"I've got a lot to learn and I am learning, but I don't have to learn to play a million notes a minute," he insists. "Keith Emerson can do that, but he bores the pants off me. I don't think he's played more than three things I've ever liked. I feel closer to the piano on Chuck Berry's records. You never heard the bottom end of the piano at all, because Berry had the middle and bottom covered with his guitar; the pianist played right at the top of the keyboard. Of course, when I'm leading the rhythm section on record I play right in the middle, and onstage I can play the full range of the piano when I have to, but I've always felt I was a part of the rhythm section with the bass and drums, and I think that's where I'll stay."
The Faces play Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" with McLagan on keys and Rod Stewart taking vocals.