Thursday, 7 April 2011


Humble Pie were the stinkiest, skeeziest band of their era. Unlike peers such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Free, they had no ambitions toward spiritual uplift or magical enlightenment. Nor did they attempt to add symphonic grandeur or modernist edge to their sound. It was as though they had taken the most disreputable themes of the Rolling Stones as a base to build on, or, rather, tunnel down from. Lyrically they offered no expansive vistas, no deserts or mountains or streams, and no visions of progress or redemption. Humble Pie were an indoors band, and indoors meant either the bar or the coke den or the brothel.

What they did have was a killer groove, and a thick, soupy sound that unrolled like the smoky fug in a late-night bar. Even George Clinton would have needed to wear a gas mask when wading through the acrid hum of songs like "One-eyed Trouser Snake Rumba" or "Wrist Job". But like all truly great bands, they have that knack of convincing you, while you’re listening to them, that they’re the greatest band in the world. The best rock music is about a certain kind of precision-timed looseness, and in this respect, Humble Pie had found the Holy Grail. Their riffing ranged around the beat as though tied to it with elastic, giving their music a kind of immaculate swagger, a gold-toothed loucheness.

The band were formed in 1968 by the former Small Faces singer Steve Marriott, along with Herd guitarist Peter Frampton. The Gollum-esque Marriott was a notoriously bi-polar character. Known to friends and colleagues as a particularly generous and spontaneous individual with an impish sense of humour, in private he was consumed with doubt and envy of those he considered were unfairly more successful than him. Marriott even gave a name, "Melvin", to this grouchy, unattractive side to his personality, and his entire career was a battle between "Steve" and "Melvin" to see which one would eventually come out on top. It was this internal battle that no doubt gave his live performances their explosive intensity - in my opinion he was the most exciting front man of them all.

If The Small Faces are remembered for their moddish neatness and their insertion of a particularly English sensibility into psychedelia, then Humble Pie were the absolute opposite, a filthy immersion in Americana, and this is why so few admirers of the former band have any interest in the latter. Humble Pie began as a kind of super group, hoping to take the commercial success of The Small Faces onto the world stage, but after their first record company, Immediate, folded, they were picked up by American management and an American record company, and became, with their self-titled third album, a de facto American band. Based in the US, and with all their efforts made to crack that market, their manager Dee Anthony did whatever he could to limit their return to British soil in case it prompted them to become homesick.

It was also Anthony who encouraged them towards a funky, hard-rocking sound, and it was this coarsening that prompted the departure of Frampton in 1971, and his replacement by Clem Clempson, whose playing dovetailed perfectly with the palpitating rhythms of Greg Ridley and Jerry Shirley. By 1973’s "Eat It", the band had even picked up their own backing group, the Blackberries, made up of former Ikettes Venetta Fields, Clydie King and Sherlie Matthews, allowing them to plunge even deeper into the Southern Soul sound that had been their initial inspiration.

Humble Pie were a band who eventually died of exhaustion. By 1974, they had toured the USA non-stop for four years, and returned to Britain to find themselves not only physically shattered, but also penniless, their earnings eroded not only by their own indulgences, but by the familiar record company and management racketeering. After the band fell apart, the impulsive Marriott became suspicious of success, and the remainder of his career was spent in half-hearted attempts to rekindle former glories while consuming hefty amounts of drugs and alcohol and evading the taxman, who was still chasing him over royalties earned more than a decade before. Marriott was to die in a house fire in 1991, caused by him falling asleep in bed with a lit cigarette. His blood sample was found to contain traces of valium, alcohol and cocaine. A deeply tragic, though not entirely surprising end.


Anonymous said...

great piece, but I must confess I find 'The Light of Love' weirdly more mystical and uplifting than any Free, Deep Purple or Led Zep.

I think it's on their first LP.

Paul STN

Anonymous said...

actually, it's not even that weird - it seems to me to be intentional.

Paul STN

Phil Knight said...

Yeah, they do have their expansive moments - "Silver Tongue" and "Strange Days" are other ones, but this side to their music did tend to be shunted aside as their career progressed.

Also, you gotta have an angle, aintcha?

lonepilgrim said...

Thanks for reviving interest in this band - I'd never heard them and for some reason thought they were a particularly lumpen metal band.
You can currently download some live tracks from a 1970 BBC broadcast featuring John Peel here:

Phil Knight said...

Thanks again - I'll dip in and have a listen.

Anonymous said...

How do you know Steve did "a hefty amount of drugs"? Did you tour and party with him? What is and what constitutes "a hefty amount of drugs"? How do you get drugs when you go city to city not knowing who anyone is? Did Steve ever get arrested for trying to buy "drugs"? Dee Anthony should have left them alone instead of running off Frampton.

Phil Knight said...

Because Steve himself says so in the lyrics to "30 Days In The Hole".

If Steve sang about holding down regular employment and investing in property to fund a comfortable retirement, I would have thought he did that instead.

Phil Knight said...

I also forgot to point out that the post above was a manifestation of Tao.