Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane of Small Faces wrote this song, which is about skipping school to hang out at a park. Of course, with the lyrics, "What did you do there? I got high," it was fairly obvious that they were doing in the park, although the band denied that it was about drugs, kind of line John Lennon did with "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
," which was released the same year. Marriott told Creem
in 1975: "The thing about 'Itchycoo Park' was that the era was wrong, and the word 'high' freaked everybody out. All the radio stations. But that song was real. Ronnie Lane and I used to go to a park called Itchycoo Park. I swear to God. We used to bunk off school and groove there. We got high, but we didn't smoke. We just got high from not going to school."
"Itchycoo Park" is the nickname of Little Ilford Park in London. An "Itchycoo" is slang for a flower found in the park called a "Stinging Nettle," which can burn the skin if touched. Said Lane: "It's a place we used to go to in Ilford years ago. Some bloke we know suggested it to us because it's full of nettles and you keep scratching."
This was the biggest American hit Small Faces ever had (they were much more popular in England), but according to Ronnie Lane, they considered it a joke when they recorded it; the band would screw around in the studio to get a laugh out of their manager Andrew Oldham. The song came out sounding so good that they started to take it seriously.
Regarding the origins of this song, Ronnie Lane explained in a 1991 interview with Record Hunter: "'Itchycoo Park' basically came from me. I lifted it from a hymn, 'God Be In My Head,' and I also got the theme to the words in a hotel in Bath or Bristol. There was a magazine in the room with a rambling account of some place in the country and it was about 'dreaming spires' and a 'bridge of sighs' – there was a write-up on this town – and I just thought they were nice lines."
This song features one of the first uses of phase-shifting production, which you can hear when the vocals and drums become distorted in the song. The technique was called comb filtering, which could later be created using a processor, but at the time required three tape machines - two of them playing the same thing at different frequencies and the third one recording it. According to Glyn Johns, who engineered the sessions, it was a staff producer at Olympic Studios named George Chkiantz who came up with the effect, and Johns was looking for a place to use it. The Faces were always looking for new sounds and encouraged Johns to use the technique on this song.
Keyboardist Ian McLagan recalled to Uncut magazine: "We tried to replicate the phasing effect when we played it live. It was hopeless."
In the UK, this became a hit for the second time when it was rereleased in 1975, going to #9. A cover my M People made #11 in the UK in 1995.
On its release, the BBC immediately banned the song because of overt drug references - "What did you do there? - I got high" and "I feel inclined to blow my mind, get hung up, feed the ducks with a bun, They all come out to groove about, Be nice and have fun in the sun."
So Small Faces manager Tony Calder explained the song had an innocent interpretation. In Marriott's biography, All Too Beautiful, by Paolo Hewitt and John Hellier, Calder says: "We told the BBC Itchycoo Park was waste ground in the East End which the band had played on as kids. We put the story out at ten and by lunchtime we were told the ban was off."
McLagan (from Uncut magazine): "I never liked 'Itchycoo Park' because me and Ronnie had to sing, 'It's all too beautiful,' and you sing that a few times, and you think... It's not."
"But years after that I'd finally, properly, checked out the words, and realised it was about education and privilege," he added. "The 'bridge of sighs' is the one in Cambridge. The 'dreaming spires' are a reference to Oxford. Then 'to Itchycoo Park... That's where I've been,' Ronnie was saying, 'I didn't need privilege or education. Found beauty in a nettle patch in the East End of London."