Classic Music Review: Face to Face by The Kinks

A bit steep due to relative obscurity, but worth the bucks. Click to buy.

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.

24 responses

  1. […] S. Continuing my exploration of The Kinks’ catalog, my review of Face to Face is now […]

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  2. Michael Chaney | Reply

    Whoa? Really?

    The ARC wrote: “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.”

    Wow. I mean, what about Tomorrow Never Knows, one of the greatest songs of any kind ever written, let alone drone songs?

    Don’t get me wrong–there’s a lot in the review I agree with, but the drone song comment leapt out at me, especially because the ARC loves Revolver.

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    1. But the ARC despises “Love You To” on Revolver. I also think Ray’s voice is better suited to drone compared to John or George (I also detest “The Inner Light” and don’t get me started on “Blue Jay Way”). “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a great piece, but something of an outlier.

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      1. Michael Chaney | Reply

        Wow again. “Despises?” I dig ‘Love You To’ and ‘The Inner Light.’ ‘Fancy” is alright, but ‘See My Friends’, on the other hand, I always skip. It sounds whiny to me. However, we do agree on ‘Blue Jay Way’, a horrible song on all levels.

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  3. “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.”

    My goodness! Opinions are opinions, but I don’t think an album that includes “Till The End Of The Day”, “Where Have All The Good Times Gone”, “The World Keeps Going Round”, “I’m On An Island” and “Gotta Get The First Plane Home” should be that easily dismissed.

    To me, the most overrated Kinks album is the first, where the presence of “You Really Got Me” and “Stop Your Sobbing” serves as a smoke screen to conceal the fact that the rest of the album, although pleasant and entertaining, isn’t much above the average beat group of the era.

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    1. I don’t dismiss it, but to characterize it as “mature” is overstating the case. I like the album but I would say Face to Face is more along the lines of being “mature.”

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      1. Indeed, the Kinks took quantum leaps from Kinda Kinks to Kontroversy and then to Face To Face.

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  4. “which brother actually wrote the song “Party Line.” My vote is for Dave; the lyrics simply don’t read like a Ray Davies composition”

    I have a 1980 Dave interview for Creem magazine in which he says “Party Line” is his but he “got stuck for lyrics” and asked Ray for help. Indeed, the line “is she a she at all?” may well be Ray’s idea – let’s remember later songs like “Lola” and “Out Of The Wardrobe” and one of the first Kinks interviews, where a reporter asked if Ray and Dave are married and Ray answered – guess what? – “Yes, we’re sisters.”

    The Davies/Davies songwriting partnership didn’t go beyond a bare handful of songs, the last one – and maybe the best – being “Death Of A Clown”. “Too much arguments”, summed up Dave in the same Creem write-up.

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    1. Michael Chaney | Reply

      Along these same lines, I found out yesterday that Ray wrote “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” for The Animals, who rejected it, so the Kinks released their own version with Dave on lead vocals.

      PS — What the hell were The Animals thinking about?

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      1. You’re kidding! That song would have been perfect for Eric Burdon!

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        1. Michael Chaney | Reply

          In the words of Jack Paar (words you’re far too young ever to have heard spoken) — I kid you not.

          Or at least Wikipedia and other sources say it’s true

          –It’s funny to think that this song easily could have escaped notice at all. Ray Davies originally intended this song to go to the Animals, and you can absolutely hear that in the writing down to the last detail; this would have been a perfect companion piece to “It’s My Life” and “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” both hits for the Animals in 1965. But for whatever reasons, the band didn’t take the song, and the Kinks ended up recording it. —

          http://www.popthomology.com/2009/11/im-not-like-everybody-else.html

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          1. You forget I’m a student of cultural history! Jack Paar preceded Johnny Carson. And those were the two songs I was thinking of—the “life is fucked up” pair. What a colossal miss! Not quite Decca passing on The Beatles, but wow!

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  5. OK. Since we’re discussing I’m Not Like Everybody Else here, that was written around the time of the Kink Kontroversy sessions (along with Dedicated Follower of Fashion), but recorded and released a bit later. It follows a pattern with the early Kinks that their album tracks were often way inferior to their concurrent single and EP releases. This is especially true for the first half of 1965 and Kinda Kinks. I do think Kink Kontroversy already shows Ray taking leaps as a song writer (Where have All the Good Times Gone), but it really is a transition album for them. It is the last Kinks album where Shel Talmy’s production competes with Ray’s vision. I think it’s ironic that Milk Cow Blues is by far their best blues cover at the same time as it is their last. But this is supposed to be about Face to Face, right? I’ll get to that later, but you must be relieved this isn’t more about Arthur!

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    1. Amen to that! Great point about Shel Talmy, the best decision Ray made since deciding not to get his teeth fixed.

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  6. […] Else is a generally pleasant and sometimes stunning interlude between Face to Face and The Village Green Preservation Society. It’s listed somewhere in the middle of the 500 […]

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  7. Another incisive review, pretty much on the mark.

    The singles and b-sides during this period were the Kinks best. It is awesome to think that Dead End Street, Big Black Smoke, This is Where I Belong, and She’s Got Everything were all recorded around now. 1966 was truly Ray Davies best year as a songwriter (all in the wake of his nervous breakdown, as you pointed out).

    The release of this album was held up forever by publishing legal hassles, and the US touring ban was just taking hold. Because of this, Herman’s Hermits’ got to release Dandy first and it made it to #3 in the US, still the highest charting Ray Davies song in America – sad.

    Around this time, ray started re-recording Shel Talmy versions of songs, so he was battling his producer. As you mentioned, he envisoned the album tracks connected by sound affects a year before the Beatles featured such tricks on Sergeant Pepper, but he received no support. All in all, it’s amazing ray did not have more than one nervous breakdown this year!

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    1. Dead End Street is a prime example of a masterfully written song that no one wanted to hear. It’s odd that protest songs were very popular at the time but this song protesting real life social conditions was ignored. Probably had something to do with capitalist denial of the existence of poor people.

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  8. Face to Face has always held me spellbound – it’s such a unique and important ’60s album, and captures a fleeting, transitory period in 1966 (just as the film A Hard Day’s Night captures a fleeting moment in 1964). Part of its allure to me comes from the fact that it was out of print for years, and damned hard to find (after years of searching I finally found an import copy in 1981). Davies and the band certainly went on to do better and more polished work, but the songs are genuine manifestations of a young songwriting genius coming into his own. As you said in your review altrockchick, it was probably the most artistically courageous move by any major ’60s songwriters (apart from Dylan, of course).

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    1. My father has the original vinyl and when he told me I could pick five to take with me from the parental nest, I didn’t even consider it because I knew he’d never give it up. I think he felt the same way—it captured the feel of a brief moment in time that he cherished.

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  9. […] Classic Music Review: Face to Face by The Kinks (altrockchick.com) […]

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  10. […] Classic Music Review: Face to Face by The Kinks (altrockchick.com) […]

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  11. […] Classic Music Review: Face to Face by The Kinks (altrockchick.com) […]

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