Originally published May 2013, revised August 2016.
Something 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 greatest all-time albums list from Rolling Stone, a remarkably generous placement for an album with two magnificent songs, a couple of good songs, a few nice songs and some “ehh” songs. As a whole, Something Else doesn’t quite measure up to its groundbreaking predecessor or the exquisite Village Green. Its real value lies in those two great songs where Ray Davies took the art of songwriting to the highest level.
Something Else is also noted for having three Dave Davies tracks that hardcore Kinks fans are quite fond of. Personally, I don’t find any of the tracks particularly compelling, including “Death of a Clown,” a song co-written with his brother that has attained a status with Kinks fans that is close to sacred. It’s simply too Dylanesque for my tastes, right down to the exaggerated pronunciation that was a Dylan trademark. The other two, “Love Me ‘Til the Sun Shines” and “Funny Face,” simply do not flow well; “Funny Face” sounds like Dave had a bunch of song fragments laying about, stuck them together and hoped for the best. I would have preferred replacing those two songs with the contemporaries “There Is No Life Without Love” (which wound up on The Great Lost Kinks Album) and “Susannah’s Still Alive” (released as a follow-up single to “Death of a Clown”). Although Ray would often snarkily introduce him in live performances as “Dave ‘Death of a Clown’ Davies,” my personal favorite Dave Davies song would come later on the Lola album: the magnificent “Strangers.” Here, he’s simply starting the journey to extend his potential.
Ray has a few misses as well, with the dreadful samba “No Return,” the been-there-done-that-on-Face-to-Face song “End of the Season,” and probably my least favorite Kinks song, “Lazy Old Sun.” Ray does continue the slice-of-life character sketches he began exploring as far back as “Well Respected Man,” but the samples on Something Else contain comparatively weak story lines. “Afternoon Tea” is a nice song that goes nowhere, and Ernie K-Doe did a much better job with mean ass mothers-in-law than Ray does with “Situation Vacant.” Two sketches that work much better are “Tin Soldier Man,” with its mechanical music reflecting the conformity of the characters, and “Two Sisters,” marked by dark brush strokes describing the stifling homemaker life of a jealous sister. “Harry Rag” is difficult to classify, but it’s a fun little number about the nicotine habit sung with boozy enthusiasm.
The wow factor of Something Else comes from the two best tracks, which are worth the price of admission and then some. “David Watts” and “Waterloo Sunset” were both crafted with stunning poetic economy, using very few words to paint pictures that are as vivid as a Chagall painting. Ray Davies sidesteps the trap that would ensnare him during the creation of Arthur and avoids filling in too many blanks, giving listeners room to ponder meanings and plumb the depths of the stories.
There is much to ponder in “David Watts,” which on the surface seems to be a song about a lower class boy engaging in hero-worship. However, the lyrics tell a deeper story of class tensions and latent alt-sexuality. The boy begins his tale with a combination of self-deprecation and self-pity (“I am a dull and simple lad/Cannot tell water from champagne/And I have never met the queen”). What’s important is how he ends the verse: “And I wish I could have all that he has got.” This is a message of class resentment that throws his claims of humility into question and colors the rest of his tale. While he describes David Watts as a superman who aces his exams and always comes through for the team, there is an underlying tone of bitterness at the unfairness of the birthright and the economics of a system that supports unearned hereditary wealth: “And I wish all his money belonged to me.” The final bridge is a model of the effective use of ambiguity in poetry:
And all the girls in the neighborhood
Try to go out with David Watts
They try their best but can’t succeed
For he is of pure and noble breed.
We’re not sure if this is an admission of homosexual attraction, anti-sexual morality or bitter sarcasm about David’s allegedly superior breeding (Ray has consistently denied the homosexual connection). At the end, we don’t know if he truly admires David Watts or simply wants to usurp his place in society. The beauty of the song is that all the possibilities could be true.
Comparing the character of David Watts to the similar character of Steerforth in David Copperfield is interesting, for in Dickens’ novel the admirable character of Steerforth is exposed as less-than-admirable, an exposure that actually heightens David Copperfield’s sense of loss: he has lost his friend and his hero in one tragic act. The narrator of “David Watts” gets no such resolution, but while he still has the hero, one gets the feeling from the undertone that someday the admiration will turn into abhorrence.
“Waterloo Sunset” is slightly less ambiguous but even richer. The narrator is a shut-in who lives life vicariously through the window of his abode. From his window to the world he watches the bustle and noise of modern life, a development in human evolution that he finds appalling. The faceless crowds around Waterloo Station are “swarming like flies,” echoing the trend of early 20th century writers to demonstrate the dehumanization of the species by comparing humans to insects. The narrator wants no part of that raucous world where “the taxi lights shine so bright,” and maintains contact with humanity only from a safe distance. Although the narrator claims “I don’t need no friends,” he has vicariously adopted a couple of young lovers who meet amidst the crowd that surround Waterloo Station every Friday night. The drama from his perspective becomes Terry and Julie’s escape from the madness of Waterloo Underground to the river crossing, “where they feel safe and sound,” and can share in the safety he experiences through his separation from the faceless, swarming masses. What is key here is that the pathos of the story is allowed to exist without further explanation or resolution; at the end we are left with a question that Paul McCartney just as wisely refused to answer: “All the lonely people . . . where do they all belong?”
The dichotomy of timelessness and the temporal is also a major theme. Placing little confidence in humanity, the narrator seeks refuge in the natural world and its cyclical nature (“As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise.”) However, the narrator thrills equally to the journey of Terry and Julie and their search for love as a refuge from a cold and distant world. He champions that which endures as opposed to the short-term outlook of modern man, a foreshadowing of the theme that Ray Davies would explore in Village Green and in Preservation. It is heartening to see that the narrator still recognizes love as something that can endure, indicating that perhaps he has not entirely given up on humanity after all.
“Waterloo Sunset” is also a melodic and harmonic masterpiece; in fact, it’s hard to think of another Kinks number that is so thoughtfully and perfectly arranged. Jon Savage quotes Dave Davies in his tragically out-of-print biography of The Kinks as saying, “We spent a lot of time trying to get a different guitar sound, to get a more unique feel for the record. In the end we used a tape-delay echo, but it sounded new because nobody had done it since the 1950s. I remember Steve Marriott of the Small Faces came up and asked me how we’d got that sound. We were almost trendy for a while.” The Kinks were often casual about the recording process, but here they achieved perfection.
In the end, while it may not be quite as sharp as the masterpieces that surround it, Something Else confirms The Kinks commitment to follow their own path, ignore the psychedelic trends of the time and create songs of great depth about those who are often forgotten or ignored in our progress-obsessed society. While this choice met with limited commercial success at the time, it was a courageous choice that would eventually be recognized as a choice that led to a tremendous leap in the art of modern songwriting.