Muswell Hillbillies is an irresolvable contradiction. It contains several of my favorite Ray Davies songs, but the album itself is not one of their strongest efforts.
The cause of this paradox is easy to identify: Ray Davies became obsessed with an idea. That idea was to give this album an “antiquated sound.” To accomplish that goal, he and the recording engineer used ten-year old mikes for most of the recording. The only song that doesn’t follow that dogma is the strongest track on the album, “20th Century Man,” which was recorded on (then) modern equipment. Most of the tracks sound dull and boxy; several would have to wait to realize their potential in the live performance recordings featured on the otherwise weak follow-up, Everybody’s in Show-Biz.
What Muswell Hillbillies does have going for it is that it expresses the themes of modern alienation and rising cultural paranoia with great power and insight. Ray Davies had not spent any time or energy on flower power, and by 1971, the mood of the time had shifted from love and peace to fear and loathing. The songs on Muswell Hillbillies reflect the rampant feelings of anxiety that would come to dominate the 1970’s and explode in the frustration of Never Mind the Bollocks. Unfortunately for The Kinks, either the dull sound of the recording or the public desire for escapist music caused listeners to run away from Muswell Hillbillies. The album didn’t even chart in the U. K.
Why people have such a hard time facing reality is beyond me, so I will be forever surprised and dismayed that “20th Century Man” did not turn out to be one of The Kinks’ major hits. Beginning with a tentative acoustic strum on extreme low volume that reflects the hesitation to deal with a difficult subject, the guitar finally communicates intent with a driving beat that’s picked up and reinforced by the thumping drums of Mick Avory. Ray’s phrasing of the opening verse is clipped and muted, as if the narrator is uncertain or still unwilling to engage with either reality or his underlying frustration. Gradually, the vocal picks up confidence, and after some lingering hesitation, comes to a boil:
My mama says she can’t understand me,
She can’t see my motivation
Ain’t got no security
I’m a 20th Century Man but I don’t want to die here.
This is the 20th Century,
Too much aggravation
This is the age of insanity
I’m a 20th Century Man but I don’t want to be here.
Bleak though the message may be, this song really rocks, and Ray gets the chance to belt it out towards the end. “20th Century Man” is a great opening track.
One of the earlier lines in “20th Century Man” is “I’m a paranoid schizoid product of the 20th Century.” We now get to see that aspect of the modern psyche in full bloom through the song, “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues.” The muffled recording on Muswell Hillbillies falls short in a very significant way: it doesn’t encourage the average listener to sing along. Some of Ray’s best “Everyman” songs often encourage the average person to join in and use music to release the anger, frustration and angst associated with modern living. When you’ve had a shitty day at work in a highly political organization where you never know what the fuck the truth is, who you can trust or whether or not you’re the one who’s insane, the experience of belting out, “I got acute schizophrenia paranoia blues!” is a healing moment. The Kinks eventually got this one right in the live performance disc on Everybody’s in Show-Biz.
The same is true of “Holiday,” “Skin and Bone” and “Alcohol,” all great songs that benefit from the looser feel and high-energy style of the performances on Everybody’s in Show-Biz. “Holiday” is the photographic negative of “Apeman,” demonstrating that in the modern world there is no escape from environmental abuse, and a vacation is likely to bring little in the way of relaxation:
Lying on the beach with my back burned rare,
The salt gets in my blisters and the sand in my hair,
And the sea’s an open sewer, but I really couldn’t care:
I’m breathing through my mouth so I don’t have to sniff the air.
Continuing to demonstrate unusual foresight, Ray Davies’s sharp eye and pen focused on the growing societal problem of dietary dysfunction long before Karen Carpenter’s death brought anorexic behavior into mass consciousness. “Skin and Bone,” another great live number, makes you long for the pre-television era when the pressure from the modeling industry to look “perfect” was not so ubiquitous:
Living on the edge of starvation
And she says she’s got no appetite,
And her father and her mother and her sisters and her brothers
Couldn’t see her when she walked by.
“Alcohol” is almost meek on Muswell Hillbillies, but the live performance allows Ray to wring out all the irony out from the noir clichés associated with alcohol abuse. The subject may be tragic, but the song (and Ray’s delivery on the live version) gives me the giggles.:
One song that absolutely does work with the primitive recording technique is “Complicated Life,” one of Ray Davies’ wittiest efforts. This is a story about a man who has succumbed to health-related paranoia, so the closed-in sound of the album beautifully reflects a closed-off life. The guy takes his doctor’s advice to reduce his stress and winds up putting himself in a state of self-induced paralysis, sealing himself inside a virtual vacuum:
Well I cut down women, I cut out booze
I stopped ironing my shirts, cleaning my shoes
I stopped going to work, I stopped reading the news
I sit and twiddle my thumbs ‘cos I got nothing to do.
I can’t imagine how a person like this would react to life in the Internet age, but the sheer amount of paranoia published on the Internet and in the halls of Congress would indicate that his kind still manage to cling to a meager existence.
“Here Come the People in Grey” introduces another main theme of the album, something that we know in America as eminent domain, the right of the state to take away your property and destroy the life in your neighborhood if they feel it’s in the public interest to do something else with the land. Given his passion for preservation, the destruction of Victorians in his old stomping grounds was bound to trigger Ray’s sense of outrage (a theme he would recall when designing the character of Flash in Preservation). Although you can tell that The Kinks are playing this song with enthusiasm and righteous indignation, the impact is dampened by the arbitrarily-imposed technical limitations. The line, “I’m going to fight me a one man revolution” should have had a much stronger effect than you get from the recording. The same is true for the rather pedestrian “Have a Cuppa Tea,” with its “Hallelujah Chorus” deadened by weak microphones. “Holloway Jail” suffers the same fate, aggravated by a weird mix that adds too much gain to the right channel guitar.
The most poignant song on the album for me is “Oklahoma U. S. A.” With an arrangement that foreshadows the masterpiece “Celluloid Heroes,” this is another superb “little people” song from Ray Davies. Here the subject escapes from her daily drudgery by dreaming of the world depicted the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical (an idealized world as far away from the real Oklahoma as you can get). The power of the song is magnified by the stark, haunting lines that end the song, words that workaholic Americans should seriously take to heart:
All life we work and work is a bore,
If life’s for living, what’s living for?
“Uncle Son” comes next, introducing a theme that Ray would take much further on Preservation: how the little man and his values are exploited and used by institutions playing power games. Although the ending line, “We won’t forget you when the revolution comes” seems out of character and over the top, the stark truth of Uncle Son’s position in the world is laid bare with brutal simplicity:
Unionists tell you when to strike,
Generals tell you when to fight,
Preachers tell you wrong from right,
They’ll feed you when you’re born,
And use you all your life.
The album closes with the title track, another song that improved by the energy infusion of a live audience on Everybody’s in Show-Biz. This version is too slow and Ray’s phrasing is too mechanical, hitting each note with unnecessary precision as if he’s reciting a poem in grade school. “Muswell Hillbillies” calls up another weakness in the album as a whole. Many of the songs have a country-western flavor with slide guitar and tinges of drawl in the vocals. To put it mildly, The Kinks didn’t do country as well as The Stones did. The Stones seemed to really love and respect the genre; it sounds like the Kinks are just screwing around and making fun of it.
So, there you have it: on one hand, not the best example of the recording arts; on the other, a songwriting tour-de-force. I don’t know about you, but part of the reason I love The Kinks is in part because they are as flawed as the rest of us. Although I think the artificially-induced sub-par recording quality of this album was an error in judgment, I do prefer the less-than-stellar recordings of the “golden era” to the sterile sound of most of the music produced during the Arista period. Focus on the excellence of the songwriting on Muswell Hillbillies and you will not be disappointed.