You can’t tell the story of The Kinks without noting the many ironies surrounding their rise from humble beginnings as “Muswell Hillbillies” to rock music superstardom. They made their name originally on two riff-laden singles that pointed the way to hard rock genres from garage to punk to metal, but they built their legend on a series of concept albums with music that often borrowed liberally from the pre-rock era. Their songs often paid tribute to the quaint eccentricities of British life, yet they usually garnered more acclaim and success in the U.S. than in the UK. And though they were led by two brothers, any familial bond was hard to discern from all the dustups and disagreements they had through the years.
The Kinks were always hard to categorize in comparison to the hallmarks of the other British Invasion legends, whether it was the Beatles’ pop perfection, The Rolling Stones’ bluesy glory or The Who’s visceral power. But what they did have was Ray Davies, a brilliant songwriter who very early in the game understood that there were characters and subject matter underserved by pop music’s typical tunesmiths. They also had his brother Dave, a guitarist who could do gentle and understated just as well as ragged and raucous, and an unheralded, oft-changing rhythm section that took whatever the wide-ranging songs required in stride.
Very simply, The Kinks were a one-of-a-kind band. And while we hope against hope that Ray and Dave can coexist long enough to produce more new music (their last new studio album was released in 1993), we can take a look back at some of the legendary albums this band has produced.
Like the Beatles, Stones and practically every other British band of any notoriety in the ’60s, The Kinks released many singles that weren’t included on full-length LPs. Their American label Reprise Records took advantage of this by packaging many of these hits together in this compilation that was only released in the U.S. Of course, the monolithic singles “You Really Got Me” and “All Day And All Of The Night” are included, as Dave Davies’ feral, fuzzed-out guitar riffs set the template for so much of the hard rock that followed. In addition, Ray Davies’ ability to put together indelibly sardonic character sketches is in evidence on “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion” and “A Well Respected Man.” The Kinks classic lineup, which also included Pete Quaife on bass and Mick Avory on drums, was equally adept at finesse and fury, and there’s not one song out of the ten included here that isn’t an irresistible combination of songwriting and performance.
It took a while for The Kinks to find their stride as album artists. Their 1964 self-titled debut is mostly cover material, which was never their strong suit, while ’65s double shot of Kinda Kinks and The Kink Kontroversy have many high points but suffer in the consistency department. Face To Face is where it all comes together for the first time on a full-length. There’s still rock energy to spare in tracks like “Party Line” (with Dave on lead vocals) and “A House In The Country,” but the album really soars when it allows Ray to show his contemplative, insightful side on some of the softer tracks. “Too Much On My Mind” is a telling portrait of the burdened artist, while “Rainy Day In June” is a harrowing depiction of despair. The ragtime-style bridge in “Sunny Afternoon” gives a hint of the stylistic detours to come, and “I’ll Remember” is a sweetly sentimental closer.
If all it contained was “Waterloo Sunset,” this album would deserve a place on any hallowed list of rock’s classic LPs. Ray Davies’ masterpiece of a ballad, somehow uplifting and heartbreaking all at once, put the Summer of Love into bittersweet perspective. But before we get to that closing track, we’re also treated to a thrillingly diverse set of originals. The album benefits from Dave’s improvement as a songwriter and record-maker, with “Death Of A Clown” an offbeat commentary on the absurdity of performing life and “Love Me Till The Sun Shines” an affecting groover. Ray’s highlights include opening track “David Watts,” a relentlessly catchy tale of a loser’s envy of a rich overachiever, and the family drama “Two Sisters,” where the personalities of the two characters at the heart of the song bearing striking similarities to those of the two brothers leading the band. And did I mention that “Waterloo Sunset” is included?
There was a musical countermovement to the counterculture in the late ’60s, especially evident in rootsy American groups like The Band or Creedence Clearwater Revival. But nobody was as eloquent about preaching the joys of home and tradition as Ray Davies on this lovely collection of songs. His feelings about modernity are evident in the opening line of “Animal Farm”: “This world is big and half insane.” So he dives into a nostalgic wormhole, fetishizing old friendships (“Do You Remember Walter?”), relentlessly documenting the past (“Picture Book”) and lamenting what can no longer be (“Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains.”) The melodies are sturdy, the musicianship is impressive (with Ray playing brass and woodwinds and Stones’ sideman Nicky Hopkins on keyboards), and the thematic soundness makes for an album that is best enjoyed start to finish rather than cherry-picked. To think the gorgeous single “Days” was nearly included on this album as well; that would have been almost too much greatness for one sitting.
Intended as the soundtrack for a television movie that never got made, Arthur represents the further flourishing of Ray Davies’ grand songwriting ambitions. Although there’s no linear storyline, the songs here are all connected to the working stiff title character who acts as avatar for all of Davies’ thoughts on class warfare. Even when he’s changing his voice to embody this struggling schlub on songs like “Yes Sir, No Sir” and “Nothing To Say,” Ray never condescends or mocks him. If anything, the music lends this sad sack undeniable dignity on the sweeping “Shangri-La” and the hushed “Young And Innocent Days.” Arthur also benefits from several songs that need no context to shine, like the thrilling “Victoria,” with Dave’s guitar crackling all around the soaring chorus, and the mournful “Some Mother’s Son,” a searing anti-war lament.
Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneyground, Part One (1970)
It’s burdened by one of the most cumbersome titles in rock history, and the concept of a musician whining about the rock-star machinery isn’t nearly as sympathetic as the ones that preceded it in the band’s catalog. Luckily there are many individual standout songs which rise above all of that. Long after you’ve heard the twist ending of the saga “Lola,” which put the band back on the radio and not just in the dens of rock critics, the song still compels thanks to its smooth transitions from folky acoustics to rock thunder. “Apeman” is one of Ray’s funniest satires and boasts a sly calypso rhythm, while “This Time Tomorrow” is a moving contemplation of an unknown future. The heart and soul of the album is Dave’s “Strangers,” with a tale of thwarted friendship that says more about the sacrifices made and the price paid by an itinerant artist than any of Ray’s music-biz broadsides.
It’s easy to get caught up in Ray Davies’ songwriting when talking about The Kinks, but the band’s inherent musicality and versatility played a great part in their success as well. That trait is on full display on Muswell Hillbillies. Check out the opening track “20th Century Man” as an example: Ray’s acoustic guitar rolls and tumbles, brother Dave’s slide moans and stings, bassist John Dalton provides a peppy bottom end and Mick Avory handles all the song’s stops and starts without breaking a sweat. Elsewhere on the album, everything from Salvation Army jazz (“Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues”), gritty blues (“Holloway Jail”) and Vaudevillian melodrama (“Alcohol”) are expertly tackled. (Kudos as well to Ray’s production work, as he seamlessly incorporated the brass elements to the band’s broader sound.) Some other highlights include “Oklahoma U.S.A.,” one of the band’s prettiest ballads, and “Muswell Hillbilly,” a defiant ode to tradition over change and idiosyncrasy over conformity.
The Kink’s 1977 Sleepwalker returned the band to their rocking roots after their concept albums started to seem bloated and stale in the middle of the decade. Misfits, released a year later, got the formula just right, balancing between bruising rockers and delicate ballads. “The King is dead / Rock is done,” Ray Davies sings on “A Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy,” trying to make sense of what it means to be an aging musician. But he quickly silences any doubts with the next line: “You might be through, but I’ve just begun.” The band seconds that emotion on energetic tracks like “Hay Fever” and “In A Foreign Land,” sounding very much like the whippersnappers of “You Really Got Me” all over again. The title track is a wistful beauty, as Ray finds common ground with “the losers and the mad-eyed gazers,” “the loonies and the sad-eyed failures.” Dave Davies’ “Trust Your Heart” adds a nice bit of romanticism to the mix on this, perhaps the band’s most underrated LP.
The discofied “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” gave The Kinks an unlikely hit single on 1979’s Low Budget. Two years later, Give The People What They Want eschewed such stylistic curve balls in favor of rock and roll heat thrown straight down the middle. Maybe the album title was prophetic, because longtime fans of the band certainly gloried in hearing the crunch of Dave Davies’ guitar once again at the forefront of the band’s sound. Meanwhile Ray Davies’ narratives are perfectly-pitched for the full-throttle approach, with tunes boasting enough spry melodicism to keep things from getting too heavy. “Around The Dial” gives a shout-out to the kind of independent-thinking DJ who was slowly becoming extinct, “Yo-Yo” takes dead aim at an inconsistent lover and the title track is a fierce castigation of those who cater to the basest human desires. Lest you think it’s all doom and gloom, the album sails off into a gentle good night with the lovely “Better Things,” as Ray wishes “that the verses rhyme / And the very best of choruses to follow.”
Many of the band’s ’60s contemporaries floundered at the height of the MTV era, partly because they tried to stay “modern” with often excruciating results. But The Kinks stayed largely above the fray with State Of Confusion, in part because, on the album’s best songs, they weren’t afraid to show their age. “Come Dancing,” which was inspired by Ray’s older sister, is a loving homage to a different era that struck a chord with audience members of all ages, giving the band one of their biggest hits ever. “Heart Of Gold” is another winning character sketch, while “Bernadette” is a fun, wild raver with Dave Davies screaming out the lead vocals. If only the band had included the cassette-only track “Long Distance,” but that’s nitpicking about an album that’s rock-solid as is.