A reviewer on AllMusic.com makes the astonishing assertion that The Kink Kontroversy was the album where The Kinks “came into their own as album artists—and Ray Davies fully matured as a songwriter.” That’s quite a claim for an album that would challenge even the most skilled genetic archaeologists to find traces of mature Ray Davies DNA in its contents. I am of the opinion that The Kink Kontroversy is a great garage album with a few interesting variations like “I Am Free,” “I’m on an Island ” and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone.” It took a physical and nervous breakdown for Ray Davies to reflect on life and music to truly come into his own and establish a new direction, and Face to Face marks the moment when The Kinks shifted their focus from the singles-based rock scene to the pursuit of an artistic vision, one dealing with the tensions in modern society and their impact on the common people.
Like its predecessor, Face to Face would open with a Dave Davies vocal and initiate a decades-long debate about which brother actually wrote the song “Party Line.” My vote is for Dave; the lyrics simply don’t read like a Ray Davies composition. A pleasant little song, “Party Line” is primarily interesting because my ears tell me that The Rolling Stones lifted part of the melodic line and subject matter for the song “Connection” on Between the Buttons. Plagiarism aside, I like The Stones’ song better.
“Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home” is slightly more interesting, as it introduces the subject of how the strict class separations in 1960’s Britain could divide even those in the same family. The music and arrangement are a bit odd, with the harpsichord overlay failing to compensate for a pretty predictable melody. The door to the future opens wider with “Dandy,” an acoustic strum delight that allows Ray Davies more room for theatrical vocal expression, a trait he would exploit in full throughout his career. The lyrics aren’t particularly deep, but they effectively form a vivid character sketch, another form that Ray would master over time. The theatrical potential in the song is demonstrated when one compares the Kinks’ version to the Herman’s Hermits production Peter Noone’s sweeter vision bleaches the nuances from the original, where Ray varies his vocal from “oh, you naughty boy,” to “goddamn I wish I could get that kind of action.”
“Too Much on My Mind” is where things really get interesting. While the song may certainly be self-confessional and Ray may be describing his temporary collapse, the brilliance of the song is that he manages to transform personal experience into universal experience: the experience of the common man trying to deal with the anxiety and time-fixation of contemporary society:
There’s too much on my mind,
There’s too much on my mind,
And I can’t sleep at night thinking about it.
I’m thinking of the time,
There’s too much on my mind,
It seems there’s more to life than just to live it.
Here the harpsichord is tastefully used, and Dave’s spot-on harmonies help to create a sound that is appropriately sad and lovely at the same time.
The harpsichord is used with more ironic effect to open “Session Man,” where Ray’s acerbic humor comes to the fore in this sketch of the mechanical, professional studio musician. “Session Man” features Ray’s tongue-in-cheek willingness to twist pronunciation to suit both the rhyme scheme and the message, forcing the word “progression” to rhyme with “man” and “musician.” It’s ironic that this attack on studio musicians features ultimate session man Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, but it sounds like he and Ray smoothed things over before the recording.
He reads the dots and plays each line,
And always finishes on time,
No overtime nor favors done.
He’s a session man, a chord progression, a top musician.
He’s not paid to think, just play.
One idea that Ray Davies had for Face to Face was to link all the songs together through sound effects. The record company stuffed shirts would have none of it, so instead of a continuous album we have fourteen separate tracks, some of which contain stray loops from the vault. “Rainy Day in June” opens with predictable thunder, introducing one of the more curious songs in The Kinks’ catalogue. With its odd shift from paranoid overreaction to a rainstorm to hand-clapping revival tune in the middle eight (accompanied by more thunder), this track simply does not work for me; it’s only value is that it reaffirms that The Kinks aren’t the same guys who did “Tired of Waiting.”
“A House in the Country” begins the trilogy that will continue two tracks later with “Most Exclusive Residence for Sale” and conclude near the end of the album with “Sunny Afternoon.” I do wish they hadn’t scattered the three parts all over the album, as when I’ve set up the playlist to hear them in sequence the cohesion is much more apparent and impactful. This first part of the trilogy describes the protagonist on top of his privileged world, and is told from the perspective of the working classes, who often take great delight in wishing for the day when the uppers get their comeuppance:
Well, he got his job when drunken Daddy tumbled down the stairs,
From that very day this boy has more than had his share.
One of these days I’m gonna knock him off of his throne,
‘Cause he’s got a house in the country, and a big sports car. (2)
And he’s oh so smug, oh yeah,
He’s got everything he needs,
‘Cause he’s gotta house in the country
Where he likes to spend his weekend days.
This is the most kick-ass rock song on Face to Face, and the earthiness of the style and arrangement mirrors the earthiness of the narrator.
Next up is a song that makes me laugh every time I hear it, “Holiday in Waikiki.” Appropriately opening to the sound of splashing waves that lead into an imitation of Hawaiian drum style, the music is just your basic three-chord blues structure without the return to the tonic (I-IV-V instead of I-IV-I-V.) It hardly matters; the greatness of the song lies in the witty lyrics and Ray’s sardonic delivery. A first-person account from a guy who won a competition in his local rag for a trip to Hawaii, he arrives to find himself in Ripoff City in the state of Faux Polynesia:
Across the coral sands I saw a hula-hula dancer looking pretty.
I asked her where she came from and she said to me, “I come from New Yawk City.”
And my mother is Italian and my dad’s a Greek.
I’m just an English boy who won a holiday in Waikiki.
The second song in the trilogy begins to describe the downfall of the man who has too much. “Most Exclusive Residence for Sale” is told from a more detached, gossipy perspective, describing a pattern of excessive spending on real estate, women and baubles for the babes. The song describes how he spends himself broke, gets hauled into court, finds himself forced to sell his magnificent property and starts drowning his self-pity in booze. Now we’re ready for “Sunny Afternoon,” but we’ll have to wade through a few more tracks to get there.
Luckily for us, Face to Face is pretty pleasant place to do one’s wading. “Fancy” comes next, a period piece with Eastern influences, though the feel is more Arabic than Indian. I’ve always thought that The Kinks did better with drone songs than The Beatles (thirty seconds of “See My Friends” will demonstrate that) and “Fancy” confirms that perception. “Little Miss Queen of Darkness” is a character sketch with a snappy, jazzy feel about a girl who fails to find love at the discotheques of the era; it’s followed by “You’re Lookin’ Fine,” a rather dull R&B number filled with period clichés. Both songs serve as warmups for the main attraction and the conclusion of the trilogy.
“Sunny Afternoon” is a song that has aged exceptionally well because of its essential timelessness and brilliant arrangement. The tempo and beat are in perfect sync with the story line, a 4/4 song where beats two and four are stressed, reflecting both the feel of a lazy day, the tedium of a tick-tocking clock and the narrator’s impatient boredom. The great line for me is the bitterly sung, “All I’ve got’s this sunny afternoon,” underscoring the point that we’re dealing with a soul who believes that possessions make life worthwhile, and that natural beauty is a given, requiring no appreciation or attention. Ray’s vocal is one of his best, capturing the empty ennui of the decadent upper class, and the background vocal harmonies are truly exceptional. While the song obviously stands well as a solo piece, in the context of the trilogy the protagonist gains a touch more of our sympathy . . . or at least understanding.
Face to Face ends with the comparatively primitive “I’ll Remember You,” a pleasant song with nice harmonies and delightfully cheesy guitar, but it suffers from having to follow “Sunny Afternoon.” Duh.
Consisting entirely of Davies compositions (I still insist on giving Dave credit for one), Face to Face is the first pure Kinks album. In that sense, it holds the same place in their catalog that Aftermath holds in The Stones’ catalog. The difference is that The Stones were a great cover band before that, while The Kinks generally treated covers like the obligatory filler material they were. The change in sound and style is therefore much more dramatic on Face to Face, involving greater risk and greater courage. While the transformation would not result in consistent commercial success, Face to Face is the moment when Ray Davies chose to make a commitment to follow his artistic instincts and explore his expressive gifts, something we can all be very, very thankful for.