Classic Music Review: Something Else by The Kinks

Something else indeed. Click to buy.

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.

26 responses

  1. Michael Chaney | Reply

    I totally agree with this review, with a couple minor exceptions; I’m not as taken with David Watts as is our ARC, and I like Love Me Til The Sun Shines and Death Of A Clown a bit more than she does. In fact, I’d take either of those two before David Watts.

    Of course, I agree that Waterloo Sunset is the hands down killer on this record. It probably belongs on the list of the top 10 best singles of all time. It’s timeless. FWIW, I’ve always thought that the intro, the descending riff, feels like you’re coming in for a landing. I’ve always loved the background vocals, too, especially that they come in early, rather than on the second verse, as was/is the usual structure. The sound of them is angelic.

    Well done once again. As is often the case, I feel like bagging work for a while and listening to this album.

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  2. Hey, I’m in your time zone the next couple of days so thought I’d chime in on your Something Else review. I’ll start with Waterloo Sunset and work my way back (what a treat!). I think your interpretation of the narrator as a shut might be a little too literal. I read somewhere recently an analysis of the song that pointed out how beautifully it deals with depression. I think anyone who has issues interacting with other people, or the world in general, can relate to this song; I’m a bit of an emotional shut in, myself, and I’ve always considered Ray a friend after hearing this song – the Kinks have always struck me as a strangely personal band, which is why is guess some people don’t get them at all while others, umm, probably like them too much. To think Ray Davies was 22 when he wrote Waterloo Sunset…wow. 2 more quick thoughts on the song – I loved Ray’s performance of it at the London Olympics. Even with the overblown production, it came across as very intimate. Also, though the recent performance of Waterloo Sunset on Ray’s Choral album was nice, it only pointed out to me just how unexpectedly perfect the Kinks own voices (plus Rasa Davies’) were on the background vocals. Oh, and Dave’s guitar counterpoints in the song are also amazing. Best…song…ever!

    I have never been a huge fan of Something Else, as a whole, though it is a very good album. I think Death of a Clown is a definite plus. The BBC version of Love Me Til the Sun Shines has a much faster tempo that surprisingly improves the song 100% – the version on Something Else is was painfully slow and somewhat of a botched job. As for Dave’s final song ( 3 on one Kinks album???!), I find Funny Face a bit eccentric but ultimately good, the middle eight is eerily beautiful and the chorus is rocking!

    I agree David Watts is every bit as good as you say, especially the lyrics. I find Two Sisters a little too pat, but you’ve got too love that two of the first three songs on the album are all about jealousy. What are some other good jealousy songs?

    The rest of the songs are very mannered, if you like that kind of thing. Harry Rag and Afternoon Tea are a bit more listenable than Tin Soldier Man, End of the Season, Situations vacant, No Return, and Lazy Old Sun. Autumn Almanac would have been a welcome addition to the album in place of any of these songs.

    I think you got this review pretty much right, though. Good job!

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    1. Sorry for the delay—I should have said that the only time I can check the blog is between 6 and 7 a. m. Paris time while my hair is drying! I tend to be cautious about beyond-the-text interpretations, but I agree with you that the gestalt is withdrawal and depression a likely cause. I did not see the Olympics performance (never watch TV), but I’m impressed that he chose that song. Totally agree about “Autumn Almanac,” a much more energetic performance. Cheers!

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  3. Fair enough on the “beyond-the -text” point, though I tend to think “look at the world from my window” could just as easily mean “through my eyes” without too much of a stretch. And don’t worry about missing the Olympic performance on TV – NBC in the US decided to cut it in favor of the Spice Girls reunion and other great stuff. That touring ban really killed Waterloo Sunset in America, but no one at NBC knew better? Ugh – but par for the course with the Kinks. Check it out if you like: http://vimeo.com/47521018. It’s even better-sounding than I remember Though the Cirque du Soleil stuff is really out of place, the children’s choir is excellent in the background.

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  4. There really is not a bad track on this album. I may have like some more than others, but after so many years of listening, they all are my favs now. I do appreciate your ‘review’ approach and think it is an objective of any “Something Else” review I ve read over the years.

    But it is a KINKS classic for sure.

    GSTK

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    1. Thank you. I know that feeling—certain songs resonate differently depending on where I am in my life’s journey.

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  5. Interesting review proving how different we Kinks fans are from person to person! For instance, I love Dave’s three songs on here but detest “Susannah’s Still Alive” – I like “No Return” and adore “Lazy Old Sun” but cannot abide “Tin Soldier Man” which to my ears is frankly unlistenable. “Harry Rag” also helps ensure this can only be at best, a patchy album. It’s a real mixed bag of highs and lows. Half a brilliant album and half throwaway tosh.

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    1. Thank you! I think the difference in views testifies to the range and richness of their work.

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  6. Musically the album seems very nice overall. Afternoon tea is a song that is not going anywhere, but neither has to. It’s a nice little vignette with a finely Dave Davies guitar playing.

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    1. It does have a nice overall feel and sense of unity. Thank you for the input!

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  7. Nice review, I differ a bit but it’s a good read. Thanks and as always “God Save the Kinks!”

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  8. […] Classic Music Review: Something Else by The Kinks (altrockchick.com) […]

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

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

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  11. Sorry bro, but I don’t think this is a fair review. The whole album is a thing of beauty and one of Ray’s biggest achievements as a songwriter. Lazy Old Sun is probably the coolest song on the album and is where Ray flirts with psychedelia, which he brilliantly succeeds at! End Of The Season is one of the most beautiful songs Ray has ever written, I mean just listen to the lyrics. Listen to Rays stunning voice. What is there not to like about it? Situation Vacant……another fantastic tune. No Return, I agree…..a pretty bad song. “Afternoon Tea is a nice song that goes ‘nowhere'”. lol what is that supposed to mean? Goes nowhere?

    I think you need to give this album another listen. It seems to me that you were actually pretty down on this album, aside from Waterloo Sunset and David Watts. Sadly, the Kinks work will never be embraced by the majority of people. Ray Davies……a forgotten genius in the world of music.

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    1. Wow—no one’s ever called me “bro” before. Have people started using that term for women, too? I respect your viewpoint and many people agree with you. I think it’s a fine piece of work but I like Face to Face and VGPS better. Thanks for the input!

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      1. I didn’t know you were a girl. lol. Wasn’t paying much attention to your username there. keyword: chick. haha.

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  12. I like your review, but can’t help feeling you’re a bit harsh on “no return” and “lazy old sun”. Both really were “something else” from Ray Davies, something a bit different. I read somewhere some time in the book someone wrote about the all Kinks tracks that no return was something heartfelt that Davies wrote about his (then) wife Rasa, and I doubt that the resulting calypso-esque sound was anything too conscious let alone pretentious. Lazy old sun was something a bit different and (unusually for the Kinks) bordering on the psychedelic trends of 1967.

    I also think that while I share your appreciation of “David Watts”, that you’re off the mark completely in the assumptions of homosexual overtones. You’re certainly not the first person in the +45 years to make that speculation, but it’s something that Davies himself has shot down time and time again when questioned about the song. He’s stated that the song is merely an innocent bit of British satire about a naive & small-minded schoolboy in his adolescence or teens having an obsession with another boy at his school who’s clearly amongst those who’re more successful. It’s hardly unusual and not sexual at all for boys within the small world of those British-styled schools to obsess over those other boys who are enjoying more success in the same way many in society as a whole obsess over celebrities in general. Because within the small world of those schools; the perceived “top achievers” such as the head boy are essentially celebrities. And those schools exacerbate this by deliberately shelter the youths from the wider world and reinforce the confidence and status of its supposed higher achievers by inflating the importance their achievements.
    There’s really nothing homosocial about it all.

    P.S. I like your blog and reviews a lot but I can’t help feeling that many of your reviews like those of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are not really of “alternative” rocks at all. I see the Pixies and the Kinks, but those were two non-mainstream acts that were nonetheless well-known.
    I was expecting to see some reviews of alternative acts that are/were maybe not so well-known to the general public. Examples; Tyrannosaurus Rex or the Damned.

    Otherwise; keep up the good work.

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    1. Good morning! Thank you for taking the time to share a different perspective. I tend to discount what artists claim their songs are about or not about, for they’re forever trying to rewrite history to fit their narrative, as John Lennon did when he tried to imbue “Help” with significance beyond the original meaning. On the “alt” issue, I picked alt for the name because it was the least offensive genre. I think genres are often meaningless, and that the music The Beatles and Stones did in their long-song period would be classified as alt rock today. I’m more interested in scoping out the history of modern music than sticking to a genre. That said, you’ll see more alt reviews in the future in the sense that alt=not popular.

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  13. Me and the Velvet Underground despair. This is the second of your reviews I’ve read and while I thought you had some fair points to make about the Monkees in general your dismissal of one of Lou Reed’s (and mine) favourite 60s songs, ‘Goin Down’, by complaining about Dolenz’s uber-tongue-in-cheek “Sock it to Me” lyric whilst ignoring the genius of the rest of lyric proper, its delivery and the stunning Shorty Rogers brass arrangement, plus the equally astonishing bass and drums parts of producer Chip Douglas and session drummer Eddie Hoh… made me question reality. Yours at least 😉
    And, lyric apart, not a word about the stunning chord sequence, melody and arrangement of ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’?? 😦

    So yes, it was a late 70s Trouser Press interview with Reed where he stated his adoration of the track. And this Kinks’ record – I can’t remember which magazine I saw it in, but Sterling Morrison spent some time waxing lyrical about ‘Something Else’, drawing particular attention to his two favourite tracks, ‘Lazy Old Sun’ and ‘No Return’. Admittedly, he didn’t mention ‘End of the Season’ but I will. It’s so NOT a re-run of anything on ‘Face to Face’ and one of Davies’ most witty, yet elegiac songs. I don’t know, maybe you have to be an English boy to really get ‘close of play’ (cricket) and being “down in the mud” in “the scrum” on a dismally English “wet afternoon”? ‘Waterloo Sunset’ aside, it’s my third favourite after the previously mentioned songs which, again, you dismiss out of hand. Isn’t taste just the weirdest damn thing.

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    1. Taste is indeed a funny thing. I’ve received lots of feedback on “Lazy Old Sun” and “End of the Season,” both on the blog and in conversation, and it’s always possible that I’m not connecting to certain references that are culturally-specific. As for the Monkees, it’s probably a generational thing. Other than the key change in the bridge, I don’t find the chord sequence to “Pleasant Valley Sunday” all that interesting. And I hear “Goin’ Down” as a trivialization of jazz, which definitely hits a hot button with me—to satirize a genre, one should really understand a genre, and it was obvious that Micky didn’t.

      I do appreciate the comment and especially the part about questioning my sanity—I question it all the time!

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  14. Tom the Grocer Boy | Reply

    Gee whiz, I’m only 4 years late to this party, but I’d like to add a comment, if I may.

    1) I like what Michael Chaney said about how the intro to ‘Waterloo Sunset’ was like “coming in for a landing”. It made me think immediately about ‘Big Black Smoke’ and its church bell intro “coming in for a landing” and then “taking off” again at the end with more bells and Dave’s town crier fade-out.

    2) Am I the only one who has always detected a bit of a dirty pun in the last verse of ‘David Watts’ – about the girls who “can’t succeed”? I suppose that it’s all in how the listener ‘hears it’ – or how Davies enunciates it.

    3) After listening to ‘Waterloo Sunset’ for almost 50 years and never thinking about it, it dawned on me one day, not long ago, that Ray might have unconsciously used the double negative “and I don’t need no friends” to obscure the fact that the ‘singer’ actually did need friends and was lonely and envious of Terry and Julie – or at least of the perceived safety of being cocooned in a relationship like theirs. A double negative is a positive. The singer was protesting too much. Who says that Terry and Julie didn’t need any friends? They were probably on their way to a party that night.

    I bought ‘Something Else’ brand new, in January of 1968. As ‘romyjones’ says, taste is “just the weirdest damn thing”. Now that I’m no longer a teenager, I find that ‘Something Else’ isn’t as completely enjoyable as it once was. I used to consider the entire record to be excellent. Now, certain tracks – ‘No Return’, and ‘Tin Soldier Man’ – annoy me to no end. ‘No Return’ sounds flat and out of tune; ‘Tin Soldier Man’ sounds immature and mean-spirited, poking fun at a guy who was being responsible for his family.

    As a teenager, I thought ‘Funny Face’ was clever but irritating because I didn’t understand it. Now that I’ve learned what it was about, I consider it to be one of the album’s best. I still love ‘Harry Rag’ and ‘Lazy Old Sun’ but cannot now get all the way through ‘Love Me Till The Sun Shines’ without being bored. ‘End Of The Season’ is brilliant in its Noel Coward-ness, but ‘Two Sisters’ is too ‘harpsichord-y’ for my old ears.

    I do want to add that I consider the album’s cover art to be the very best of The Kinks career. It’s a perfect representation of the band and their ‘homeliness’ and British-ness. In its original pressing, the green and white outlining of the text was almost tactile – as though it had been hand-lettered or embossed. The individual photos are perfect, too – and the turn of Dave’s head gives the cover a sense of ‘movement’. That was pretty impressive for Reprise Records, considering that The Kinks weren’t making them any money. It almost seems like The Kinks were being indulged and pampered, as they well deserved.

    Great blog post, altrockchick! Thank you!

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    1. Great comments—very insightful about how our tastes change over time, something that’s very hard to capture in a review.

      I was surprised to see the comment waiting in the queue because I just happened to be listening to Something Else at the time. I hadn’t listened to it since I wrote the review, so maybe there’s something to that universal flow of energy I used to hear about from New Agers in San Francisco!

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  15. Tom the Grocer Boy | Reply

    There’s no such thing as a coincidence, altrockchick! Cheers!

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