Compilation albums rarely make anyone happy. Read the reviews of any compilation album on Amazon and you’ll read stuff like, “How could they have left off X?” or “The idiots used the live version, which is crap!” and similar complaints. Compilation albums are the blonde who looks hot as she whizzes by in her convertible, but when you pull up next to her at the stoplight, she never turns out to be the girl of your dreams.*
Unless you’re talking about The Kink Kronikles. The blonde turns out to be Lana Turner in her prime. Oh, you can argue that they should have included “Strangers” instead of “Get Back in Line,” just like you could argue that Lana might look a bit better in the tight jet black sweater instead of the midnight blue. Who cares? It’s Lana Turner! Who cares? This is The Kinks in their prime!
The collection features songs from the bulk of their golden era, from Face to Face to Lola. It features all the hits from that period, a handful of B-sides, several excellent album tracks and a few gems that had been tucked away in the vaults. It’s a remarkably delightful listening experience that feels surprisingly unified. If you’re going to introduce a neophyte to the wonders of The Kinks, this is the album I would recommend.
I’ve already reviewed the songs that appeared on their studio albums (links below, after the full track listing), so this review will focus on the B-sides and (at the time) previously unreleased tracks.
“Berkeley Mews”: Douglas MacCutcheon wrote a funny little piece on searching for this London street on Songplaces.com. Wherever the real encounter took place, Ray’s dig at the pseudo-intellectuals who sprung up all over the world to impart wisdom to the masses in the 1960’s is both brilliant satire and a very strong piece of music. I take exception to Mr. MacCutcheon’s characterization of the rock segments as “a typical rock & roll back beat,” because the statement implies something played in a pedestrian manner. Au contraire! The Kinks kick ass on this song, and the burlesque sections make the rock sections even more powerful in contrast. There is a debate over the actual lyrics in the crucial line, “I staggered through your _____ dining room . . . ” Mendelsohn’s original liner notes say “shitty,” MacCutcheon hears “chilly,” and I hear a compromise, “chitty.” I like mine because it could have been a way to get past the censors, but I’ll take any of the three options. The bridge features some surprising chord changes before finding resolution, and the band handles those and the stutter-stop rhythm linking the bridge with the verse with great finesse. One of my favorite lost Kinks songs!
“Willesden Green”: I wrote in my review of Muswell Hillbillies that The Kinks didn’t do country all that well, but this track from Percy may be the exception to the rule. The only Kinks song not to feature a Davies brother as lead singer, “Willesden Green” works primarily because John Dalton makes it work with a vocal that combines a little bit of Conway Twitty with a whole lot of tongue in cheek. The spoken verse is a hoot-and-a-half, delivered with the face-saving defiance of a man who couldn’t make it in the city and is headed back to the burbs. Nice warm background vocals, too.
“This Is Where I Belong”: A relatively rare (for The Kinks) love song, I love it for the strength of the melody, Mick Avory’s strong drumming and Dave Davies’ memorable filler riff. The recording sounds a bit primitive but I actually rather like that, as the recording doesn’t distort the sincere emotions with fluff or syrup. I tend to trust expressions of love more when there’s an almost uncontrollable force behind them that can’t be bound by shy squeamishness, and The Kinks’ show of force here suits me just fine.
“Dead End Street”: No witty social satire here—this is a clarion call to draw attention to the extent of urban poverty and class discrimination in the UK. The intensity The Kinks bring to this track stands in stark contrast to the more lyrical feel of other songs during this period, further intensifying the urgency of the message. The double-tracking on the “What are we living for?” lines gives more emphasis to the point of the song: shouldn’t we have a greater purpose than survival? The lyrics are painfully direct and to the point; there’s no Dickensian juicy joint of lamb on the Sunday dinner table to welcome a happy family:
There’s a crack up in the ceiling,
And the kitchen sink is leaking.
Out of work and got no money,
A Sunday joint of bread and honey.
This is a song that never fails to move me; it not only reminds me how good I have it in contrast but also to continue my modest efforts to rid the world of the cancer of poverty. Alex DiBlasi has written a superb and more detailed analysis of “Dead End Street” you can read on KindaKinks.net. The second half of his treatise deals entirely with the promotional film shown here:
“Autumn Almanac”: I know several loyal Kinks fans who absolutely despise this song. It does have a rather jaunty feel to it that some may find annoying. As a character sketch, though, it’s superb, a dramatic monologue about a chap who likes his routines, feels tremendous loyalty to his neighborhood and wants to stay where he is—not out of conditioning as in “Shangri-La,” but out of choice:
This is my street, and I’m never gonna to leave it,
And I’m always gonna to stay here
If I live to be ninety-nine,
‘Cause all the people I meet
Seem to come from my street
And I can’t get away,
Because it’s calling me, (come on home)
Hear it calling me, (come on home)
There’s a part of me that wishes for that kind of life; it’s the life I had in San Francisco before education, economics and value conflicts sent my boot heels to be wanderin’. Neighborhoods matter! Continuity is as vital as change! The bouncy music reflects an empathy for someone who is happy with a life that others might find dreadfully boring. And kudos to Ray for mentioning Armagnac, the under-appreciated relative of our more famous Cognac. Vive la France!
“Did You See His Name?”: One of the best examples of Ray Davies’ gift of poetic economy, this song relates a modern tragedy with astonishing impact in less than two minutes. A man steals a tin of beans from a grocery store and finds his name and address published in the paper, excluding him for employment and companionship. I’ve never understood how media publication of any crime can be reconciled with our alleged belief in rehabilitation, for the primary effect of media coverage is to significantly reduce the chances of the accused or the guilty of ever finding a place in society (unless you’re as wealthy as Martha Stewart). In this case, the character snuffs out his life in his cramped maisonette. So much for Christian forgiveness.
“Wonderboy”: Hmm. John Lennon was obsessed with this song, according to Ray’s story in X-Ray, and lo and behold, it is very, very similar to “Beautiful Boy” in terms of subject matter and tone. I’ve never wanted babies or been particularly fond of them, so both songs are closed books for me. If I had to choose, I’d take this one for its more interesting melody.
“King Kong”: This “Apeman” doppelgänger rocks pretty hard in spots, and I think if they’d committed to it all the way through, this song would have turned out much better. First, it would have meant a more prominent role for Dave Davies, whose solo here feels truncated. Second, the “la, la, la, la, la” sequences break the flow and seem completely out-of-place. It’s like having a guy on top of me banging away with all his might suddenly pulling out, jumping off the bed, pulling a bouquet of posies out of thin air and crying, “You’re my forever valentine, snookie ookums!” Son of a bitch wouldn’t get out of that room alive.
“Mr. Pleasant”: “A Well Respected Man” dealt with old money; “Mr. Pleasant” deals with the nouveau riche. The message is the same: greed is a virulent disease that corrodes other human values, like honesty in relationships. The Kinks are very good at working the music hall genre, and the melody here is certainly catchy. It may not have the impact of its progenitor, but one thing I like about Ray Davies is he has a clear sense of artistic priorities. “Mr. Pleasant” is a nice addition to his work on social and economic corruption.
“God’s Children”: I can’t listen to music with religious overtones very well, so I’ll limit my comments to say this song from Percy has a lovely melody. ‘Nuff ced (a phrase chosen to honor Red Sox fans with a sense of baseball history).
“Mindless Child of Motherhood”: Don’t care for this one either. The title is a mouthful to sing and makes the chorus very clunky. The lyrics seem to indicate that Dave is searching for a woman who gave birth to a “bastard child,” and is willing to do the right thing, but what does he mean by the “mindless child of motherhood” at whom he directs his frustration? This is a song best described as “labored,” pun intended. Dave’s guitar work, though, is excellent. How about an instrumental version, folks?
“Polly”: While I like the music, I have to take exception to the lyrics, which treat a young woman’s liberation as a fleeting period in her life that she will eventually regret to return to hearth and home. Polly “had to break the chains,” and kick up her heels, as did her mama in her time—the old myth of “she needs to get it out of her system before she settles down.” Unfortunately, Polly repents, returns home with her tail between her legs and “Mummy’s proud ’cause Polly’s still in chains,” implying that women are aiders and abettors of female repression. The line might have been ironic had not the narrator emphasized three times, “I think that pretty Polly should have stayed at home.” Ray, I love the idea of preservation, but don’t try to apply it to “preserving the old ways” that left my sisters and me second-class citizens. Harrumph!
“Big Black Smoke”: Another song about a poor young country lass corrupted by the city, this one has more ambiguity and color than “Polly.” This nameless young lass indulges in sophisticated pleasures like cigarettes and Dexamyl (purple hearts) and is exploited by a loser guy who takes all her money and drags her down into the hellish world of the Big Black Smoke. The Kinks give an energetic performance, and the opening bells indicate that it could have been headed for a slot on Face to Face, but didn’t make the cut. It wound up as a B-side to “Dead End Street,” which makes for the ultimate anti-urban single.
“Susannah’s Still Alive”: Originally released as a Dave Davies’ single as the follow-up to “Death of a Clown,” this song belongs in the Rock Lyrics Hall of Fame solely for the use of the word “bedraggled” in the opening line. Although the story takes a couple of detours, it’s a vivid picture of a girl compensating for the absence of her soldier boy by sharing her bed with bottles of whisky or gin. Given such a bleak reality, it’s an oddly cheerful-sounding song, but I wind up forgiving the inconsistency and enjoying Dave’s enthusiasm and the catchy chorus.
“She’s Got Everything”: If this song seems out-of-place, it’s because it is! The recording precedes Face to Face and was only pulled from the vault because they needed a B-side for “Days.” The song is okay, but they don’t sound particularly committed to it. Its value is in demonstrating how dramatically The Kinks had progressed from their early period.
“Days”: As noted above, Ray Davies didn’t write too many love songs, but when he did, he came as close to perfection as you can get. “Days” and “The Way Love Used to Be” belong in any list of great modern love songs. “Days” has an unusually quick tempo for a romantic number, with quick chord shifts on the off-beats that reflect the heart-skip that accompanies the excitement of a romantic encounter. The opening key only applies to the verses; both the chorus and bridge are in different keys. Despite the rhythmic variations and the key changes, there are few songs I’ve heard that flow so well, thanks to Mick Avory’s steadiness.