All Too Beautiful.. The Life of Steve Marriott
by John Hellier
In 1985 on the night of Live Aid, Steve Marriott played the Half Moon pub in Putney to a tiny audience. As he crashed through his energetic set, the television above him showed his former Small Faces colleagues plus his contemporaries such as The Who, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, playing to billions of people worldwide. Many believe Marriott should have been there that night these stars rather than playing to an audience of fifty drunks. But that thinking masks the fact that Marriott was a unique character who only obeyed one voice – his own. He was responsible for his position in life that night in 1985. His absolute refusal to obey others, to take the well trod route to stardom saw Marriott sabotage a career that had started with such promise. Where other artists did whatever was expected of them by their company or management, Marriott utterly rejected the road to stardom if the steps demanded of him felt wrong. This flaw in his character not only robbed him of money and prestige but it raises many questions. What happens when you deliberately destroy your career in search of personal happiness and still can’t be satisfied? Can the man who tasted ‘success’ ever live a successful life? What happens when you refuse to play the game? What does the world think of you? How does the world treat you? In today’s celebrity driven culture there can be no more pertinent questions than these.
The life of Steve Marriott, this one off musician, is the story of a highly talented working-class kid from London’s famous East End, a great songwriter and amazing singer, who fatally discovered that success, is a two headed monster that pleasures you and then kills you. More than that, his was a life lived to the very full. Steve Marriott experienced the highest of the highs, the lowest of the lows. His days swung between joy, heartbreak, success and outright tragedy; he was everything but boring. His character was incorrigible and infuriating, yet in the end it was impossible not to like.
The extremes of his life are summed up by the fact that his story begins in the East End of London and ends in fire. What happens in between those two events is indeed a roller-coaster life.
Stephen Peter Marriott was born on January 30th 1947 and grew up in London’s Manor Park area. From an early age he was destined for success. Age 12, he appeared in the original stage production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! But he was also determined to let nothing he found disagreeable stand in his way: as a young boy he deliberately burnt down his school, an ironic act for a man who would end his days in flames.
By the time he was 16 he had made several film, radio and TV appearances, including Dixon of Dock Green. Yet music was Marriott’s true obsession. He especially loved Soul records and it was his obsession with them that allowed him to develop one of the greatest voices ever heard in pop music. In 1965, Marriott met drummer Kenney Jones and bass player, Ronnie Lane. Along with organist Jimmy Winston they formed the Small Faces, Lane and Marriott developing a wonderful friendship and song writing partnership. Within six months the band had their first hit single with Whatcha Gonna Do About It. Their timing could not have been better. They were eighteen years old, they were national stars and they found themselves right at the centre of Swinging London. All the barriers had broken down. Girls, drugs, clothes, anything they wanted, all was in abundant supply.
In 1966 the band moved into a house in Pimlico where at night they entertained an enviable succession of models and actresses. Other nights they ventured out to exclusive legendary nightclubs such as The Speakeasy or the Ad Lib and partied with their contemporaries – McCartney, Jagger, Lennon, Richards, etc.
Their gigs were chaotic affairs often only lasting ten minutes or so before a tidal wave of screaming girls broke through the barriers and forced the band to run giggling hysterically to their getaway cars. At a football stadium the band were driven onto the pitch and such was the crush of fans trying to get at them, the band actually feared for their lives.
When they finally broke free and got onto the motorway they had their driver stop by some fields so they could go screaming into the countryside, relived just to be alive. The band was talented, colourful, joyful, always driven by Marriott’s immense energy and drive.
They looked like brothers, acted like brothers, fought like brothers. Marriott in particular was irresistible. He dressed beautifully and went this own way, hilariously insulting DJs he despised. He called Tony Blackburn a cabbage and rudely insulted the producer of Top of the Pops, wrongly believing he was leaving his job that week. The Small Faces did not appear on the show for a year. Marriott couldn’t care less. As long as he was having fun and obeying his inner voice, that was all that mattered.
In 1966 he and the band discovered LSD courtesy of the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein. In keeping with the changing times, Marriott now started urging the band to drop the pop element of their work and create more meaningful music. Divisions within the band now appeared, exacerbated further by the discovery that their manager Don Arden (Sharon Osborne’s father) had been ripping them off. The band switched labels and management; and then released their landmark concept album called Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. Yet much to Marriott’s frustration the band could not shake off their pop trappings. Since the release of The Beatles album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, the album had taken on a new significance and changed the pop game entirely. To be taken seriously as a musician, one had to produce great albums not great singles. Although The Small Faces had achieved artistic excellence with their album Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, the band were still not being taken as seriously as their contemporaries by either the critics or their audience. In fact, such was the fan’s intense devotion to the band when Marriott married model Jenny Rylance in 1968, he was shocked to receive two sackfuls of hate mail. Worse, thanks to their happy go lucky image Marriott realised that his band would never really be afforded the respect he craved. Still, there was plenty of fun to be had from the game. In 1968 the band toured Australia with the Who and Marriott and Keith Moon in one night wrecked the same hotel room three times.
In 1969, thoroughly disillusioned and desperate for a new creative challenge, Marriott walked out of the Small Faces, causing a rift with the band members which would last a long time. Lane in particular was terribly hurt by Marriott’s actions. He would not speak to him for many years.
Marriot with Peter Frampton formed one of the first “super groups” of the 70’s, Humble Pie. The band took off in America and it was here that Marriott discovered cocaine in a big way. In 1968 he had married model Jenny Rylance. Their first three years together were absolutely idyllic. But now cocaine had entered their lives and their relationship was doomed.
Marriott became a heavy user both on the road and now at home where Marriott would often retreat with friends and hanger ons to the recording studio he had built which was nicknamed, The Rack It Club, as in rack out lines of Cocaine. Marriott knew he had a problem. Sometimes, the night before an American tour he would beg Jenny to tell him that she would leave him if he went on tour, but his wife refused to play games with him. In 1973, tired of his constant drug use, Jenny left him.
Yet his love for her never faded. Right until his death he always referred to Jenny as ‘his old lady,’ often calling her up at all times of the night for advice and comfort. Marriott ended Humble Pie in 1975. It was then he learnt that the money the band’s manager Dee Anthony said he had put aside had in fact gone straight to the coffers of the New York mafia. This was confirmed when Marriott was called to a meeting with famous Mafia mob boss John Gotti who told him to forget looking for any money owed him.
Marriott was now so broke he was forced to steal cabbages from the garden next door just to eat. Just twelve months previously he had been selling out sports stadiums all over America. Now he was stealing vegetables from his neighbour. Yet Marriott’s spirit was indefatigable. He never allowed bankruptcy or any other of life’s ‘problems’ to get on top off him. He lived each day as if it was his last. He refused to lie down. He never forgot to greet each day with a cheeky smile. In the 80s he put together a succession of pub bands with humorous title such as Steve Marriott and The Official Receivers or Steve Marriott and The Packet Of Three. He told the press that this was what he’d wanted to do along, entertain people and put a pound note in his pocket. He even deliberately ruined the chance of a new recording contract when he refused to board a plane to Germany and sign a £100,000 contract with EMI Records. His loyal bass player Jim Leverton, who desperately needed the money, walked away from Marriott in utter despair. After all these years, Steve Marriott still had to follow his instincts, whatever the cost to him professionally or personally.
Which is how he came to be playing in a pub in Putney, that famous night in 1985. But through all his ups and downs, he always retained a great sense of humour. Asked after one gig to make a tape for a fan of his who was in a coma, Marriott kept refusing the request until, unable to stand the urgings of his friends any longer, he grabbed the tape recorder and shouted, ‘Wake up you c***!’
In 1991 Marriott flew to Los Angeles to write songs with his ex Humble Pie man, Peter Frampton. The game had changed considerably since he had last been in a studio and soon the hard-drinking, smoking Marriott felt totally out of place amongst the sober, health obsessed music men he had to deal with. After just a few days of being isolated by his co workers, Marriott realised the world had changed considerably. He was a man out of time. This was the 90s. Pops stars now promoted health and well being. No one threw TV’s out of hotel windows anymore. This turn of events angered Marriott considerably. In a screaming argument with a music business executive, Marriott pinned the man against a wall and screamed, ‘I don’t give a fuck about what you think. All I know is this. You don’t understand music.’ Marriott quit the sessions and flew back to London in a self destructive rage. He had once again turned his back on easy money – the anodyne men in suits just didn’t get it! At the airport, he met up with friends, and went on a massive bender. The night ended with Marriott quarrelling with his wife and returning alone to his small cottage in the Essex countryside where he passed out on his bed with a burning cigarette in his hand
At four the next morning a passing motorist saw Marriott’s cottage consumed by flames and called the fire brigade. The first fireman into the house swallowed hard. He was a huge Steve Marriott fan and it was he who had to pull out the half charred body. His death was a tragic waste. Within four years of his passing the emergence of the Britpop generation would have elevated Marriott back to his rightful position and accorded him the huge respect he sought for so much of his lifetime. His decision to go his own way, to act as if it was all or nothing in every area of his life, would have been brilliantly vindicated. It was not to be.
In comparison to other pop lives, Steve Marriott’s life defines three decades. The glamour and innocence of the 60s, with the emergence of rock as big business in the 70s, complete with organised crime flexing its muscle for a slice of the pie, onto the money and health obsessed 80s and early 90s. At the heart of this story is a man so unique, so individual, and so forcefully vivid, a man blessed with a voice of astonishing power, beauty and resonance that still touches and influences fans and musicians alike.
Since Steve Marriott’s death in 1991,a best selling biography has been published entitled All Too Beautiful, selling thousands of copies. The same applies to the proliferation of CD compilations that show no sign of abating. Indeed, recently Universal Records released a series of CD’s to satiate the current demand for the band. The Small Faces and Marriott continue to exert a huge influence on today’s musicians.
‘One of the absolute greats. What drove him eventually killed him but what a
star he was.’. Pete Townshend
‘To me they were one of the greats. Their music was driven by pure instinct. The Small Faces are a major influence on me.’
‘Not only did they make some of the best records of their era but the way they behaved, the way they dressed and most important of all their love for music put them in a different class.’
Noel Gallagher, Oasis
‘Steve Marriott’s voice is as sweet and as soulful as Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin. The Small Faces get me dancing, smiling and pick me up when I’m feeling blue – the true spirit in the dark.’
Bobby Gillespie, Primal Scream
‘Street urchin or Britain’s greatest soul singer? I know what I think.’