Title: Ooh La La
Description: album track, Ooh La La
Label: Warner Bros
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1997
Poor old Granddad, I laughed at all his words
This song came to me, belatedly, thanks to Billy Bragg. That it eventually became the theme tune to my first sitcom, Grass, links it to Simon Day. Two of what I always self-mockingly call my “close personal showbiz friends.” (When I turned 40, I still presented Round Table on 6 Music, and was indulged to the point where I chose “all three” of my close personal showbiz friends as guests on the programme: Billy, Simon and Stuart Maconie.) It’s a glorious, sunshiny, folksy ditty about the passage of time and I do wish that I knew what I know now when I was, well, forty for a start.
While researching Billy’s official biography in the year after I left my day job at Q – when I was still, in fact, a journalist who’d met him on a number of professional occasions and was subsequently vetted for the job of “Billy Bragg’s Boswell” – I invested in a lot of music that helped put me in the right place for total immersion in my willing and generous subject. I already had the Bragg records, of course, but I augmented them as the soundtrack to toil in my garret with all sorts of tangential tunes that footnoted what were in that original edition in 1998 Billy’s 40 years on earth: the Rolling Stones, Phil Ochs, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, some fine, lefty folk from Dick Gaughan and Leon Rosselson, Ronnie Lane’s solo stuff and – you’re ahead of me – the Faces.
I’d grown up with Rod Stewart’s greatest hits, but had, at that point, never thought to excavate his past. At Chelsea, my friend Rob regaled me with Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake by the Small Faces and through it, I recognised the eccentric genius of Steve Marriott and by association Lane and Kenney Jones (who was on my radar as Keith Moon’s replacement due to a Tommy-led teenage yen for The Who). I know now, and I wish I’d known then, that the good ship Faces rose from the ashes of the Small Faces, with Rod at the prow. They had a good few years. And because Billy had grown up on them, I bought their third and fourth LPs, A Nod Is As Good As A Wink … To A Blind Horse and Ooh La La.
It was Ooh La La in its rather disturbing, pale sleeve that announced itself as an instant favourite, and the title track (and album closer) was its irresistible highlight. I assumed that Rod Stewart sang it, just as he sang most of the other tracks, and pictured him doing so for many years, until dissuaded of this notion by the facts. It’s not even Ronnie Lane, who wrote or co-wrote most of the album. It’s Ronnie Wood’s filter-tipped tones with “all the words”, which makes the song even more special.
The plucked guitar and gently weeping violin of the intro, followed by the penny whistle which joins in with the riff, root the song in a pastoral setting. You imagine a canal, or a gypsy caravan, on a dewy early morning somewhere far from the industrial revolution, and far from the psychedelic underground. The flavour of much of the rest of the album is honky-tonk barrelhouse; Borstal Boys is siren-accompanied pub rock. This is the Faces unplugged. And what a restful way to go out.
Wood rasps of a two-generation gap, in which “poor old Grandad” is revealed not to be a “bitter man” after all, but a wise one, whose knowledge of “women’s ways” turns out to be hard-won, but something that can’t be easily handed down. He tells his grandson: “There’s nothing I can say/You’ll have to learn, just like me/And that’s the hardest way.” It’s a delicious lyric, full of tobacco-stained nostalgia for the can-can, some backstage paddock and the twinkling stars, and it speaks of the infinite power of womankind (“When you want her lips, you get her cheek”, a line I choose to interpret as physiological). Lane was not yet 30 when he penned it, Wood 26 when he sang it. But these men were worldly before their years.
A few years after the book, Still Suitable For Miners, was published, I met Simon Day at a prearranged “blind date” in the BBC canteen. His musical palate was broader and more catholic than my own; it ran from the Wu Tang Clan, over whose oeuvre we immediately bonded, to Steely Dan and America, who I’d yet to catch up with. Grass, which we wrote together, was about Billy Bleach, a permed man in his 40s who was cast from the world he knew in South East London into the wilderness of East Anglia via the Witness Protection Programme. It was the first line that Simon had latched onto, about laughing at all the words of “poor old Grandad”, and it seemed to sync with our protagonist, who feigned knowledge a lot of the time (on The Fast Show, Billy had been thumbnailed as “the pub bore”), but had innate wisdom all the same. He, too, was misunderstood, especially by the younger generation.
When you’re planning and writing a television programme in an airless room, you fantasise about its soundtrack as a way of getting through the day, and Simon and I succeeded in having (Careful) Click Click by the Wu Tang Clan as the accompaniment to a paranoid scene in Episode One on a bus, although it had to be replaced on the DVD due to rights issues. The Faces’ version of Ooh La La was our preferred theme tune. We dug in. It came to pass. Few people watched Grass when it aired on the just-rebranded BBC3 and BBC2 in 2003 and 2004 in those dark days before social media and iPlayer, but I hope a few of those who did appreciated the music. Eddie Marsan sings Hold Me Close by David Essex in his pants in a hotel room in one scene. I wish that was on YouTube. It was Babooshka by Kate Bush in the script, but Simon was on-set and will have approved the Essex.
Ooh La La, which is my favourite Rod Stewart song without him actually on it, has also been used in the film Rushmore, and, on TV, in Blackpool, Californication and Entourage. But it’ll always be the Grass theme to me. And a select handful of others.
Don’t ever let it show …