Updated May 2016
I am always thinking ahead. It’s one of my worst tendencies, and it while sometimes it prepares me for the future, I usually wind up getting virtually fucked in the ass (without lube).
Even before I started the Great Broads series, I was thinking about what to do once I’d completed it. The idea that most appealed to me was to do a series on great garage rock. Garage Rock is a very loose genre, but in general it implies high-energy rock with little attention to polish. The first bands I thought of were Them, 13th Floor Elevators, The Seeds and The Leaves. Once my dad found his Them album, they shot to the top of the list, but when I listened to the others, I realized they were pretty much one-hit wonders.
The Leaves were a real disappointment. I love their version of “Hey Joe,” and was excited about having the chance to explore them further. I should have been tipped off to the band’s limitations when I saw there were three different versions of “Hey Joe” on The Leaves Are Happening: The Best of the Leaves. Except for that one song, they filled most of the space on the record with knock-offs of The Beatles and The Byrds.
So the idea of a garage rock series foundered on the beaches of L. A., but I still held hope that I could find at least one other great garage band to pair with Them. Two reviews don’t add up to a series, but at least it’s a gesture.
My dad solved my dilemma. “You’re forgetting the greatest garage band of them all!” he observed.
“Who’s that?” I asked, miffed at the possibility that my knowledge of musical history might have a noticeable gap.
“The Kinks, of course!” he smiled.
“Which one?” I sighed, unhappy about the possibility of doing yet another Kinks review.
“Oh, it’s gotta be The Kink Kontroversy. The deluxe version.”
“Yep, you’re right,” I said with glum submission.
My reluctance to do The Kinks had everything to do with secondary considerations and nothing to do with their music. I love The Kinks! It’s just that Kinks fans make a big deal out of The Kink Kontroversy because they claim it contains the first seeds of Ray Davies’ shift from Top 40 to modern rock poetry. I think “A Well-Respected Man” is much stronger evidence, but I will concede that a few of the songs do hint at the future breakout, much like side two of Help! anticipated Rubber Soul. Personally, I think what’s more important is that The Kink Kontroversy is the last album where The Kinks did what we now call garage rock, and if you imagine a world where they had dropped out of sight before Face to Face, you could make a very compelling case that The Kinks were the best garage band of all-time.
The Davies brothers weaned themselves on blues and R&B, a stage of development that I consider an essential prerequisite to creating great rock ‘n’ roll because it gives you heightened awareness of the importance of groove and the feel of a song. Most great blues recordings are terrible recordings from a technical standpoint, but the magic still shines through. Attempts to smooth out the rough edges through overproduction pretty much kills the thing that makes blues sound so vibrant and alive. The Kinks early recordings reflect those values: they’re raw, noisy, sloppy and bursting with energy.
“Milk Cow Blues” opens with a nifty little guitar duet, but what I love about it more than the technique is the sound: it sounds like they walked into the studio, said hello, plugged their guitars into their amps and let ’em rip. Dave Davies takes the vocal on the first verse and chorus, and there’s a moment when he raises his voice enough to create mike distortion while the guitars raise their intensity to create overload and the result is a heavenly burst of pure energy. Ray takes over the vocal on verse two, slurring his words and riding the guitar waves in a wonderful example of—I need to create an oxymoron here—dissonant synchronicity. Here they cut to the instrumental break, where Dave’s stinging licks are joined by an exceptionally muscular bass run from Pete Quaife that probably shook the crap out of the primitive speakers of the day. What’s amazing about the track—and something that characterizes nearly all The Kinks’ rockers—is (another oxymoron) their tight looseness (or their loose tightness, if you prefer). They never lose the groove, they hit all the right dynamic cues, but the result is not the mechanical sound produced by anal retentives, but a cool, energetic bash. Toward the end of the song when they let it all go for a few measures before bringing it down is one of those delightful moments of excess that defines rock ‘n’ roll energy.
Scaling it way, way down, next up is “Ring the Bells,” a pleasant acoustic number that opens with the sustained chord pattern that was in vogue at the time (The Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone”), supplemented with some clever chord shifts midway through the verse. This is still a boy-loves-girl, song, though, and while a nice tune, it’s not next-level material.
The Kinks get back to the garage with “Gotta Get the First Plane Home,” a more impatient rendering of the goddamn-I-hate-touring theme than Mick Jagger’s psychological treatise in “Goin’ Home.” “When I See That Girl of Mine” begins with what sounds like a false start—a single unadorned note on the bottom guitar string. We finally get a three-note guitar intro that opens up to a solid mid-tempo rocker.
The first sign that The Kinks were moving away from testosterone-estrogen interactions comes not from Ray but from Dave Davies, in the form of “I Am Free.” Although Dave slurs some of the words to the point of unintelligibility, this flowing number in 6/8 time does express the need for a resilient frame of mind in the face of society’s attempts to deny the dignity of the individual. “I Am Free” is also a lovely song with a melody that sticks in your head for days. “Till the End of the Day” follows, a song I’ve already covered in my review of The Kinks Greatest Hits.
Side two opens with “The World Keeps Going Round,” a geez-will-you-grow-up message from Ray that opens with a highly distorted chord. There’s a microscopic connection to Ray’s future in the image of the “big old sun,” and you could make a case that the song deals with the impact of modern life on folks like Arthur, but it’s not as clear a break from the past as “I’m Free.” Ray will need to connect with his sense of humor before that happens.
And voilà, he does just that in the very next song! The story line on “I’m On an Island” may have its roots in girl-abandoning-boy but what Ray is describing through both lyrics and his tongue-in-cheek, poor-me vocal is the childish absurdity of taking rejection to the limit and whining, “I’m not going to play with you anymore!” The narrator has a brief moment of lucidity when he realizes the nonsensical situation he has created for himself:
I’m on an island
And I’ve got nowhere to run
Because I’m the only one
Who’s on the island.
We’ll hear the theme of escape again, most memorably in “Apeman,” and both songs have a Caribbean feel.
Having taken the first step, Ray takes a more sizeable leap in “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” a precursor of the preservation theme central to his work. The song is full of ironic passages where the narrator longs for the return of a happier past that in reality was anything but:
Ma and Pa look back at all the things they used to do
Didn’t have no money and they always told the truth
Daddy didn’t have no toys
And mummy didn’t need no boys
Won’t you tell me
Where have all the good times gone?
Where have all the good times gone?
While Ray references The Stones’ “Time Is On My Side” in the second verse, the more interesting citation is of McCartney’s “Yesterday,” released a couple of months before the recording of The Kink Kontroversy. He uses the line to temper the narrator’s desire for a return to a mythical past:
Well, yesterday was such an easy game for you to play
But let’s face it things are so much easier today
Guess you need some bringing down
And get your feet back on the ground
Ray’s ambivalence about past-and-present continues all the way through Other People’s Lives, so it’s not surprising to find it in its place of origin. The song itself is a pleasant, laid back mid-tempo number with solid harmonies and a semi-cynical, sneering vocal from Ray that adds to the rich subtext of the lyrics.
The last three songs are not in themselves remarkable, but they’re good, solid songs that rise above the level of album filler. “It’s Too Late” is a thumping rocker with strong harmonies, a good groove and a clean, simple arrangement that serves as a solid backdrop for a hot Nicky Hopkins piano solo in the break. The Kinks get back to more of a garage sound with the bouncy number “What’s in Store for Me?” where Dave assumes lead vocal duties and spices up the mix with a fine solo. The original album ends with the vocal duet, “You Can’t Win,” an original R&B-influenced number with a good steady beat.
As noted, the second CD contains alt-takes, interviews, BBC performances and unfinished pieces. They certainly made a good decision not to release the sentimental and painfully traditional “And I Will Love You,” a definite step backwards. The different version of “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” has a slightly cleaner mix than the original, but I’d be happy with either. My favorite track is the very rough Ray Davies solo demo “All Night Stand,” a reflection on the endlessly erotic life of the touring rock star. It’s a brutally honest admission of lust and greed:
All night stand,
With a different girl each night.
All night stand,
With two hundred miles to ride.
But I won’t give it up,
As long as I can make the bread.
When I do, I shall stop,
Close my eyes and go to bed.
The difference in how The Kinks and The Beatles handled the media is clarified in the song, “Mr. Reporter.” The Beatles charmed the pants off the press, even after Lennon allegedly put his foot in his mouth during the Maureen Cleave interview. Ray Davies was always skeptical of the press and kept them at arm’s length throughout his career. “Mr. Reporter” is in essence a primitive version of the brilliant “Other People’s Lives.”
In the end, the bonus tracks rise far above the low bar I’ve set for deluxe edition content, but what makes The Kink Kontroversy worth your hard-earned currency is the original album, where The Kinks bid farewell to their roots with some of their best blues/garage work, and crack open the door to one of the great musical journeys in rock history.