Classic Music Review: Muswell Hillbillies by The Kinks

Muswell-Hillbillies1

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.

22 responses

  1. Michael Chaney | Reply

    Well, I love everything about this album. I have no substantial criticisms. Yes, a few of the songs are weaker than others, but the first eight are nearly perfect, along with two of the remaining four, and overall, for me, the album is a tour de force.

    One aspect of it that deserves special mention is the lyrics, for my money some of the most incisive and poignant Ray has ever written. For example, Alcohol is flawless and brilliant on every level; the woeful tuba, the Ole-proclaiming trumpet, the clarinet, the accordion, the filled-with-regret / beaten-by-booze vocal delivery and yes, the masterful lyrics. Who else could paint such a full story with such clarity in so few words? I’m truly surprised that the ARC didn’t quote them all:

    Here is a story about a sinner,
    He used to be a winner,
    He enjoyed a life of prominence and position,
    But the pressures at the office,
    And his socialite engagements,
    And his selfish wife’s fanatical ambition,
    It turned him to the booze,
    And he got mixed up with a floosie
    And she led him to a life of indecision,
    The floosie made him spend his dough,
    She left him lying on Skid Row
    A drunken lag in some Salvation Army Mission.
    It’s such a shame.

    Oh demon alcohol,
    Sad memories I can’t recall,
    Who thought I would say,
    Damn it all and blow it all,
    Oh demon alcohol,
    Memories I can’t recall,
    Who thought I would fall,
    A slave to demon alcohol.

    Barley wine, pink gin,
    He’ll drink anythin’,
    Port, Pernod or tequila,
    Rum, scotch, vodka on the rocks,
    As long as all his troubles disappeared.
    But he messed up his life when he beat up his wife,
    And the floosie’s gone and found another sucker
    She’s gonna turn him on to drink
    She’s gonna lead him to the brink
    And when his money’s gone,
    She’ll leave him in the gutter,
    It’s such a shame.

    Oh demon alcohol,
    Sad memories I cannot recall,
    Who thought I would fall,
    A slave to demon alcohol…

    And ARC, how can describe as “pedestrian” the brilliant Have A Cuppa Tea, a song of Ray’s contempt for unreflective conformity and mindless British obsession? Or maybe it’s the benign analog to Alcohol. At any rate, the lyrics are first rate.

    In my view, the best writing–song or prose– paints clear, compelling pictures with economy. I listen to Have A Cuppa Tea and I’m right in the house with these people.

    Granny’s always ravin’ and rantin’
    And she’s always puffin’ and pantin’,
    And she’s always screaming and shouting,
    And she’s always brewing up tea.

    Grandpappy’s never late for his dinner,
    Cos he loves his leg of beef
    And he washes it down with a brandy,
    And a fresh made cup of tea.

    Have a cuppa tea, have a cuppa tea,
    have a cuppa tea, have a cuppa tea,
    Halleluja, halleluja, halleluja, Rosie Lea
    Halleluja, halleluja, halleluja Rosie Lea.

    If you feel a bit under the weather,
    If you feel a little bit peeved,
    Take granny’s stand-by potion
    For any old cough or wheeze.
    It’s a cure for hepatitis it’s a cure for chronic insomnia,
    It’s a cure for tonsilitis and for water on the knee.

    Tea in the morning, tea in the evening, tea at supper time,
    You get tea when it’s raining, tea when it’s snowing.
    Tea when the weather’s fine,
    You get tea as a mid-day stimulant
    You get tea with your afternoon tea
    For any old ailment or disease
    For Christ sake have a cuppa tea.

    Whatever the situation, whatever the race or creed,
    Tea knows no segregation, no class nor pedigree
    It knows no motivations, no sect or organisation,
    It knows no one religion,
    Nor political belief.

    I don’t have any of the problems that ARC has with the recording and mixing of the album. It may be that because I bought it the day it came out and listened the first couple hundred times on a just OK record player that those things were never on my radar. Back then, you accepted whatever sound emerged from the cheapo speakers; it was all about whether the songs were good, the music and lyrics. I was knocked out then and I’m knocked out now.

    Forty-plus years on, and almost band has put out an album with so many stories so brilliantly told, lyrically and sonically.

    This album is in my all-time top 25.

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  2. Sorry, but this album is brilliant from start to finish. Not a unforgettable track on this album. I fully understand your perspective when you reviewed Arthur and Something Else where there might be a difficult song to really fall in love with.

    But Muswell Hillbillies is BRILLIANT through out.

    No problem, I respect your POV. But this time I must respectfully disagree.

    GSTK

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  3. I am not 100% sure about this, but I think Ray used old microphones to record the vocals only — but not the other instruments. He was going for a sound similar to that on The Beatles’ intro to “Honey Pie” — (where McCartney says, “Now she’s hit the big time!”) a retro-1920s tune on The White Album.

    Side one, apart from the opening track, is not as strong as some of the live performances of some of the same songs. But they are only “weak” in comparison to “20th Century Man,” which is arguably the best Kinks song ever (and that is saying something because there are something like 500 song versions they have recorded.)

    But side two is another story altogether. The only song on Muswell Hillbillies that I think is not strong is ironically the title track. Apart from that song, I think side two is the best album side of any Kinks record with the possible exception of side 2 of Sleepwalker.

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  4. Note: Even by 1972, many people did believe a revolution was coming inevitably. It sounds cliché today to talk about a leftist revolution due to the corruption in the western government — (but maybe Obama is changing that perception on the right). But what i like about Ray Davies is that he manages to sound apolitical on this album except for his advocacy for Everyman. As Ray once explained — most of the albums from this time through the rock
    opera period deal with a former socialist trying to cope with the idea of being rich. 🙂

    It was a transformational period for Dave too. The guitar playing on this album is innovative, but shy. He was definitely learning and growing as a guitarist during this period much more so that in the 1960s. But there isn’t a single track in which he breaks about and raves on a solo. That being said, I think the guitar playing and vocal harmonizing on side 2 are among the most beautiful arrangements The Kinks have ever done.

    You don’t see Dave break through with raw aggression again until Schoolboys, which to me does not even sound like the same person as a year earlier. It was as though he got abducted by aliens and they replaced Dave with a clone who had supernatural talent. Or so he claims. Has anyone got a better explanation?

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    1. Great point on Everyman, which I cover in my Preservation review. Did I read somewhere about a Dave Davies bio coming out? Maybe that will explain the mystery.

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  5. Another great job on this review! I have to say whether I agree with you or not, you write the best Kinks album reviews on the web.

    I’d like to focus on your read on Alcohol, which I agree turned into a much different and entertaining song live. I value the studio version just as much, though. It’s Salvation Army vibe is perfect for a sinner’s revival, and the subdued tone is much more serious than the live version, which camps things up a bit with John Gosling’s horror show organ. In fact, the whole album comes across as pretty serious as it tackles (as you mention in your review) alcoholism, anorexia, nervous breakdowns, paranoia, eminent domain, etc.; almost too serious. I think it was very brave for Ray not to sugar coat things too much on this record, though understandable that the live shows needed to be more fun. I wonder if Ray always envisioned these songs differently live, or if they just evolved that way?

    After hitting it big again with Lola and changing record labels, I am sure RCA would have enjoyed more of the straight ahead rock sound on Lola (maybe all of us would have). The fact that the Kinks came up with muddy Muswell Hillbillies, instead, pissed off a lot of people, I’m sure. This album illustrates, more than any other, why the Kinks are a great band on their own terms but never could have been universally popular. 20th Century Man is a great song, a powerful song beyond the reach of most other bands, but who has ever heard it outside of Kinks fans? Geez, they haven’t even tapped it for a commercial yet.

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    1. Ooh—good point on the Salvation Army feel of this version of “Alcohol.” I’d never heard it that way, but it makes perfect sense and gives me a whole new sense of appreciation of the album version. Thank you!

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      1. You’ve mentioned that you’re not going to delve into the Arista years, but it just occurred to me that “Give the People What They Want” is interesting to consider as a continuation of the bleak subject matter of “Muswell Hillbillies” ten years later, as it deals with serial killers, domestic violence, pedophiles (kind of), paranoia, media cynicism, personal disconnection, etc. It also includes my favorite Kinks song from the Arista years, “Better Things,” which is a much-needed dose of optimism after the preceding songs. Unlike Muswell Hillbillies, this album was a huge hit in America, though the quality of the songs was not up to Ray’s earlier standards. It might be interesting to dissect all of that, and a recent listen revealed to me that some of the songs are much better than I remembered them from 30+ years ago (“Killer’s Eyes” is chilling considering all of the recent mass shootings in America and terrorism everywhere). Just a thought – you don’t really want to be finished reviewing the Kinks yet…

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        1. Oh, I will probably get to them, but I need a break. The Kinks reviews have been among the most intense for me, in terms of both the energy it takes to write them and the responses from the readers. I’ve loved doing them and getting all the feedback, but I know I have to clear my heart and mind before going onto the Arista years because I have a definite aversion to that period. While I know they did some good stuff, the recordings from that period sound too “slick” for me. Going into a set of reviews with that kind of attitude isn’t healthy, so I need some time so I can consider them from a fresh perspective.

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          1. Agreed. I worked in a record store in the n the late 70’s and early eighties so I heard these albums the most (I made sure they played in the store) though I know they are not as good as the reprise and RCA years. I really think Low Budget is pretty bad, and I wish State of Confusion was more consistently good. I cringe thinking of your dissection of their faults. Sleepwalker, Misfits, and Word of Mouth are generally better, but, like you said, a little too slick (except for Father Christmas, which legitimately kicks ass). Of all of them, the one I’d be curious about your relisten would be GTPWTW. You’ve earned a rest, I guess.

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  6. Muswell Hillbillies is one of the Kinks strongest efforts, up there with The Village Green Preservation Society. Brilliant Kinks!

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  7. Maxwell Hillbilies is sixth in eleven comments on the work of The Kinks that appear on the web. I just want to mention that with the economic situation of Spain, Here Comes The People in Grey has been proposed as an anthem of struggle for those who are being evicted from their homes. The validity of the discourse of the Kinks forty five years later continues to attract attention. It is one of his great qualities not only as artists but also as citizens.

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    1. This is why I rate Ray Davies higher than Lennon-McCartney; he is unusually perceptive about the underlying dynamics of modern society, and his songs continue to have real social relevance. My partner is from Madrid, and we’ve been following the crisis there, caused primarily by the people in grey in Brussels and the IMF.

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  8. I absolutely love this album. I can’t think of another album where the production sound, and even the artwork on the brilliant album cover so perfectly matches the subject matter of the material.
    Growing up in post war Britain this captures the times brilliantly – the bomb sites, the Unions hold over industry, strikes and unemployment , the forced migration of people into new areas and towns. It was a tough time for Britain. But while the album deals with some pretty dark subjects, there is also a healthy dose of black humour in there — which cuts right into the heart of the national psyche. And, at the end of the day, there’s always the escapism of hollywood or the cure all cup-of tea. Pure genuius.

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    1. Very well put! Thank you for taking the time to join in!

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

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

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

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  12. […] Muswell Hillbillies […]

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  13. Hi ARC. This was the first Kinks album I ever bought. I got it in 1974 when I was about 16. The second, a few months later, was Something Else. I’ve got pretty well all the Kinks albums, even the really shit ones. I passionately love music to the point of obsession, and it can still make my heart sing and make me cry, has done since I was around 5 and heard She Loves You on my mum’s kitchen radio. I play in a couple of reasonable-to-good pub covers bands which means I’m livin’ the dream! And, I have been passionate about riding motorcycles since I was nearly that young too. Apropos of nothing.
    Anyway! I learnt something from your piece. I didn’t know about the recording technique. I’m a bit puzzled about the mics though. There’s some pretty stunning recordings around dating way back into the early 50s. Really since tape replaced direct to wax, recordings have sounded “modern” if the budget was there and that was the production decision. In the early 60s you had The Beatles being recorded with pristine clarity, not to mention some awesome fidelity in the jazz and classical world, and you had the early Stones and Who records – for instance – which sounded like the band was recorded on a cheap cassette player through a closed door. And by 1966 you had tough workhorse mics like the Shure M58 being used in both live gigs and the studio , and they’re still the standard club level PA mic in 2014.
    So is it possible that it was EQ or some other such signal mod in the case of Muswell Hillbillies? Not that it matters a flying fuck. It’s the music, whether it was shouted into a modified tin bucket in 1914 or Pro-Tooled into lifeless submission in 2014. Does it move your ass, mind and soul (2 out of 3 will do) or does it not?
    I stumbled across your website quite recently. It’s a fucken’ hoot! Keep it up! And you are SO on the money about Rolling Stone. Bunch of fucking tossers. I read a long piece on Linda Ronstadt in the mid 70s, and another one on the Wilson sisters (Heart) a year or so later, both of which were so patronising, condescending, misogynistic and passive-aggressive hostile that they helped me to a more complete awareness of why the feminist movement was so necessary. At least nowadays RS is utterly irrelevant. 40 years ago people believed it really was enlightened, counter-cultural and anti-establishment. If you’re an inadequate socially inept male, or just a pig, and you are writing about a beautiful young woman who is strong, smart, talented, successful, pleasant, articulate and (worst crime of all) sexually active, just not with you, and you are none of those things, AND she’s way out of your league in every way, then get your revenge on them by implying (a) they fucked the right people to make it, and (b) they aren’t really that great, and (c) they’d be fucked without the true talent – the guys.
    Cheers, Dave

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    1. Hello! I’m laughing about your closing rant, which is balls-on perfect. As you know from the recording process, a lot of variables are in play, and I think that whatever mikes they used on Muswell Hillbillies didn’t particularly work well with the recording equipment. I’ve recorded a little bit, and I know that I can sing or play songs using the same set-up that sounded great last time that sounds horrid the next. Now, I don’t have a recording studio to control some of the variables, but even in the studio sound can go wacky. I once read a book on “the science of acoustics” and I concluded that the human race really hasn’t figured it out. Perhaps if Ray had had Geoff Emerick on the board it all would have worked out—it DOES sound like an EQ problem to me, but I also know that EQ can be a pretty tricky thing. I just wish the album didn’t sound so muddy, because it has some of Ray’s best songs in a long line of best songs.

      The Beatles were very fortunate to have such a talented producer and brilliant engineers, and I always thought it odd that many rock songs produced in the 60’s didn’t sound as good as jazz records of the same period. I think it’s practice, practice, practice—the kind of guitar-heavy rock that dominated the mid-60’s was a new experience for engineers, who tend to be thick and dogmatic in general. On the great jazz records, you always had producers who were jazz aficionados and took great care in creating a compatible sound space.

      Thank you for reading my work and I’m delighted you’re enjoying it. It sucks to feel sometimes that I’m working in the dark. Cheers!

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