Those of you who know me as the world’s most incessant commentator on Guantánamo and related issues in the “War on Terror” — or, of late, as a fierce opponent of the coalition government’s plans to butcher the British state — may be surprised to find me writing a music review, but back in 2005, after several years chronicling British counter-culture through my books Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield, I was drawn to the story of Ronnie Lane — and specifically, his solo career with his band Slim Chance — through my friendship with the musician Charlie Hart, who played with Ronnie at this time, living for a while at the farm in Shropshire that was Slim Chance’s spiritual home.
As a result, I wrote the sleeve notes for the DVD release of the excellent film about Ronnie’s life and music, “The Passing Show,” directed by Rupert Williams and James Mackie for the BBC (with invaluable help from Darinagh O’Hagan), and originally broadcast in January 2006. I also came close to writing a biography of Ronnie, but when the offer finally came through, after many months of discussions with publishers, I was already in another world, far from the hills of Shropshire, in which manacled prisoners in orange jumpsuits, in a prison on a US naval base in Cuba, were presented as “the worst of the worst” by some of the most powerful men in the world, and I had access to publicly available documents which demonstrated that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld were lying, and the truth was that most of the men held at Guantánamo had no connection to terrorism at all.
That project — first through my book The Guantánamo Files, and, since May 2007, through my dedicated journalism — has pretty much taken over my life, although when Charlie announced that he was planning the return of Slim Chance with several former members, I was delighted to become involved, putting together this review of Slim Chance’s powerful and moving gig at the 100 Club last month, which was published on the new Slim Chance website, and which, I hope, will play a small part in encouraging others to book Slim Chance and to allow others to experience Ronnie’s music brought back to life by those who knew him well, and who are doing such a great job of reviving his work.
Every now and then, amidst all the manipulation of reality shows and youth-based hype, something truly special happens in the world of music. On Friday November 27, 2010, at the 100 Club in London’s Oxford Street, that special something was the return of Slim Chance.
In the 1970s, Ronnie Lane, founder member of psychedelic pop stars the Small Faces, left that band’s hard- rocking, hard-drinking successors, the Faces, for a farm in Shropshire and a musical vision — focused on his new group, Slim Chance — which, as well as sticking two fingers up at the celebrity trappings of rock stardom, was refreshingly original: a melting pot of rock, folk and blues influences, with some Gypsy leanings and a sprinkling of Motown grooviness.
Infused with Ronnie’s trademark wit and wistfulness, Slim Chance essentially had a pastoral heart — featuring fiddles, mandolin and accordion — but were also fully capable of rocking out when the spirit seized them. Between 1974 and 1976, they released three albums for Island — Anymore For Anymore, Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance and One For The Road — and members of Slim Chance also appeared on two more albums, Rough Mix (with Pete Townshend) in 1977 and See Me in 1979.
Although commercial success largely eluded Slim Chance, Ronnie’s many fans have long been aware that the body of work that he created in these years stood the test of time, and bore comparison with the powerful songs that Ronnie crafted as part of the Faces — songs like “Debris,” “Stone” and “Ooh La La,” which added some depth and humanity to the Faces’ general good-time hedonism.
In 2004, seven years after Ronnie’s death, following a long battle with multiple sclerosis, the seeds of the Slim Chance reunion were sown at a memorial concert for Ronnie in the Royal Albert Hall. Former Slim Chance member Charlie Hart put together a band that featured other originals Alun Davies, Henry McCullough and Chrissie Stewart, and they were joined by guests including Pete Townshend, Paul Weller, Ron Wood and Sam Brown — just some of the many musicians touched by Ronnie’s life and music.
For the latest Slim Chance reunion, five former Slim Chance members — Charlie Hart, Steve Simpson, Alun Davies, Steve Bingham and Colin Davey — got together with Geraint Watkins to immerse themselves more thoroughly in the Ronnie Lane Songbook, and the result, as the crowd at the 100 Club rapturously realized on November 27, was that special something — an evening of musical magic — that I mentioned at the start of this article.
Without attempting to replace Ronnie — which would be an impossible task — the band share vocals, with Steve and Alun singing most of the songs, but Geraint and Charlie also involved (each bringing a different perspective to the songs), and they bring Ronnie’s spirit to life through monster grooves, fiddle duels, the keening interplay of mandolin and fiddle, and the heartfelt interpretation of Ronnie’s words.
The result is quite extraordinary, a masterclass of professional musicians diving deep into a collection of simple songs with deceptively complex arrangements that makes much of what passes for live music these days seem either drab or over-rehearsed. Magic, indeed — or perhaps a form of musical alchemy, the unforeseen result of six skilled musicians bringing emotional involvement and intense musical enthusiasm to a collection of songs that not only pays tribute to Ronnie, but also invokes his spirit.
One cannot help thinking that Ronnie would have been delighted by the rough edges and the passion that runs through every single song in the two sets which revive 22 songs, from the well-known Faces numbers to the great body of work from the Slim Chance years. Untrained ears might recognize a few of these — “How Come,” for example, which was a hit in 1974, and “The Poacher” — but what is constantly amazing is how powerful every single song is, from the rousing sing-along anthems “Lad’s Got Money,” “Kuschty Rye” and “One for the Road” to the reflectiveness of songs like “Anymore for Anymore” and “Annie.”
Charlie told me afterwards that the response from the crowd was almost overwhelming, but the emotions were no less intense in the audience. We sang along, we swayed, we were energized and moved. Many of us never knew Ronnie, but he was with us all the same.
Note: Below is a video, via YouTube, of “Anymore for Anymore,” as played at the 100 Club, which I hope captures something of the spirit of the performance:
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Dejanka Bryant wrote:
Excellent article, Andy! Thank you so much. Shared.
Garrett Edward Miller wrote:
Was watching Ronnie the other day. I like the way he shuffles when he plays.
Thanks, Dejanka and Garrett. I was wondering if I could find any friends who were interested in Guantanamo, Stonehenge and the British counter-culture AND Ronnie Lane.
David Silver wrote:
Good on you, Andy…as it happens I listened to the delightful RL song “Stone” from the Faces album yesterday walking fast in the freezing New York street and once again said to myself that Ronnie’s song is pure Buddhist reincarnation canon…we all still miss him.
Marian Greaves wrote:
There’s a blast from the past; if i remember rightly i had the album when I was around about 15 – probably one of the ones i sold for a fiver whilst living in a squat and signing on in ’79…………….. if only….
nice, nice article. Ronnie Lane – the most honest voice ever…
Thanks, Steve. Very good to hear from you. I’ve passed your comment on to Slim Chance, who keep playing wonderful gigs. I saw them a few weeks aback at the Borderline, and it was another evening of magic. That Ronnie Lane songbook is something special …
We read the sleeve notes on the cover of “The Passing Show” and were excited to know there was a biography on Ronnie Lane in the pipeline. We now realise that The Guantanamo Files project had to take precedence. Is there any hope that you might be able to resume your work on the life of Ronnie Lane? The late Dick J Reavis’s brilliant article in the September 1986 issue of the Texas Monthly (p: 124 – link below) gives some indication of how interesting and complex a full biography of Ronnie Lane could be. I only found this obscure piece because I was searching for your (unfinished) book. On behalf of countless Ronnie Lane fans around the world, please don’t give up on his biography – his life and music still resonates the Human in all of us.
Good to hear from you. I wish I had time, I really do, but sadly there’s not enough time while Guantanamo is still open. Yet another reason why Guantanamo needs to be closed!
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