Man, I just can’t seem to get away from The Kinks.
After spending months in their company reviewing nearly everything from Face to Face to Schoolboys in Disgrace, I began suffering from Kinks Withdrawal Syndrome (KWS). The cause of this debilitating condition can easily be traced to listening to dozens of albums by other artists, past and present, who simply don’t measure up. While listening to often muddled music in my search for albums to review, I found my mind wandering to fragments of “Waterloo Sunset” and “Celluloid Heroes” and longing for sparkling wit, exceptional insight into human and social conditions, engaging music and artistic commitment.
You can’t begin to appreciate how rare those qualities are in today’s music until you spend every week for almost two years listening to new releases. It’s like looking for a 1/16-carat diamond in a 20,000-foot mountain of shit. When I find one, it’s an orgasmic experience, but I’m fully aware that next week I’ll be back digging into the shitpile, which diminishes both the impact and duration of the climax.
I had several Kinky choices available to me. I could have decided to review the albums from the Arista period and beyond. There were also the possibilities of taking a leap into Ray Davies’ solo career or covering Dave Davies’ recent release. Last but not least, there was Come Dancing with The Kinks, their Arista-period hits collection.
I chose the latter because frankly, I don’t care much for the Arista period and find all the albums from that period lacking in one way or another. First, the production is too slick and too commercial. Second, although he did not descend to the depths that McCartney did with his Wings and solo efforts, the lyrics are generally not Ray-Davies-level quality. Finally, the style The Kinks adopted is called “arena rock,” which to me means “rock for the masses.” In addition to the dumbing down of the lyrics, the greatest loss suffered during the Arista period is the feeling of intimacy between artist and listener. The Kinks never felt distant or inaccessible before this period; their music felt and sounded very human, and we often experienced it in very personal ways. The music from the Arista period is full of distance—The Kinks became tiny dots on the stage enhanced by televised images on Jumbotrons rather than the guys hanging out at the pub on the cover of Muswell Hillbillies.
So, reviewing this collection allows me to cover the Arista period without spending too much time there. Fortunately, Clive Davis did not have The Kinks’ bodies snatched and replaced with the souls of K. C. and the Sunshine Band. There is enough evidence on this record to confirm that the band is in fact The Kinks. Maybe not The Kinks at their best, but still The Kinks. The track order is an annoyance, for rather than take the chronological route, the powers that be decided to open with their top-charting single, “Come Dancing,” followed by tracks from Low Budget, their best-selling album. I’m reviewing the 2005 CD release that begins with . . .
“Come Dancing”: Ray Davies created a beautiful and touching tribute to the sister who gave him his first guitar but died before the age when she could worry about the dating habits of daughters. The preservation theme gains a new lease on life through the dramatization of the impact of demolition on a real, human life. The intimate meanings people attach to places are juxtaposed against the ironic indifference in Ray’s reverse-order description of the sequence of destruction that finally brings us to the Palais that held his sister’s fondest memories. The joyous Wurlitzer-driven music takes a sharp turn into the harsh shock of distorted guitar after Ray delivers the core lines of the song:
The day they knocked down the palais
My sister stood and cried
The day they knocked down the palais
Part of my childhood died, just died
“Low Budget”: The best thing about the Arista period was that Dave Davies finally got to really play some gee-tar! I love this underplayed opening riff that just sucks you right into the groove and the way they left that right channel wide open for guitar fills throughout the song. Ray’s vocal is satirically playful and the feel of the song is best described as “modern reverse gospel rock.” It moves, makes you laugh and reminds you that The Kinks hadn’t entirely lost the common touch. The video opens with an extended lead guitar intro that’s to die for—so much so that I’m thinking of starting a Kickstarter project to cryogenically freeze Dave Davies’ fingers like they did with Ted Williams’ brain.
“Catch Me Now I’m Falling”: When I said I didn’t care much for the Arista period, I’m talking about songs like this one: social commentary with no meat on the bones. America’s in deep doo-doo, Europe gives America the cold shoulder. The lesson is . . .? The “Jumping Jack Flash” riff rip-off falls flat on its face, as does this overly repetitive, boring song.
“A Gallon of Gas”: Another yawner and a complete waste of the blues idiom. Hard to empathize with the sentiment here, for it feels like Ray is pandering to the moronic masses who thought that being unable to drive was the end of civilization.
“(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman [Disco Edit]”: The second hot rocker on Low Budget features some intense bass picking from Jim Rodford, more great licks from Dave Davies and the ever-steady drumming of Mick Avory. Ray’s first-verse delivery is suitably defeatist and reflects the wimpy Walter Mitty dreams of the lead character. The theme is the classic Kinks theme of the choice between escaping or withdrawing from our crazy world, and while the narrator claims “I’d really like to change the world/And save it from the mess it’s in,” we know (and he knows) it’s not a serious option. This song brilliantly encapsulates the nature of the paradox that underlies this theme: the world we created is a world we can no longer control. Trying to become Superman is as sensible an idea as any in a world gone mad.
“Sleepwalker”: Oh, Lord, how I detest this song. I find the character irritating and the choppy rhythms even more distracting. The song never really finds a groove. It’s too bad, because I really love Dave Davies’ guitar work here.
“Full Moon”: Detest isn’t a strong enough word for how I feel about this silly characterization. Fortunately the Ray Davies Creepy Period ends here.
“Misfits”: Too slick with little in the way of substance. I’m not sure if Ray is arguing for conformity (“Why don’t you join the crowd and come inside?”), condemning a society that creates misfits, or if he’s expressing doubts about his sellout to Arista. Maybe all three, maybe none. In any case, the repetition of the cliché “every dog has its day” sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it.
“A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy”: Misfits was an excessively overproduced album, and this second drama queen number is way over the top. Like “Stairway to Heaven,” the content simply doesn’t justify the dramatic production designed to communicate that you’re listening to something of major significance. You’re not. The message contradicts itself several times over so you don’t know if Ray is trying to convince the person he’s having a conversation with that he should stick with it or knock off the childish fantasy crap. As readers know, I love ambiguity, but this is just a garbled mess. This should be my least favorite track, but they saved that for later.
“Do It Again”: Is that the chord from the opening of “A Hard Day’s Night?” Pretty close. Dave Davies is fabulous once again (is there a pattern here?), but this song is superficial arena rock that leaves me cold.
“Better Things”: A Hallmark card.
“Lola [Live]”: “Lola” is the classic crowd-pleaser but I’ve never heard a live version that compares with the original, this one included. The only possible reason for including it in a set is to allow fans to go home and tell their friends “And they did ‘Lola!’” Mission accomplished.
“You Really Got Me [Live]”: This one’s much better because of Dave Davies’ too-short opening solo. Are you noticing the pattern here?
“Good Day”: A neurotic Hallmark card.
“Living on a Thin Line”: My favorite song from the Arista period comes not from brother Ray but (I think there’s a pattern here) but from brother Dave. Overall a cleaner, sparser arrangement than the period norm, the clarity helps highlight the way Dave integrates the melodic line and the dominant guitar riff on the chorus—a moment of pure genius. The lyrics (dare I say it?) are the strongest on the entire record. The line “Now I see change/But inside we’re the same as we ever were” is played out every day in those tragic communications that pass for the news. Even better and more disgustingly relevant in our times is the verse that paints us as victimized by weak-minded leaders stuck in historical patterns who are always ready to repress the working folk and call on youth to make another meaningless sacrifice for the permanent war economy.
Now another leader says
Break their hearts and break some heads.
Is there nothing we can say or do?
Blame the future on the past,
Always lost in blood and guts.
And when they’re gone, it’s me and you.
And just like seagulls, those leaders crap on us and move on.
“Destroyer”: By way of contrast, no song on the album demonstrates the decline in Ray Davies’ lyrical ability better than this one. He drags Lola into this pale imitation of “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” for no ostensible reason other than her marketing value. He rips off Mick Jagger’s vocal riff from “Shattered” and throws in the main riff from “All Day and All of the Night” for good measure. Simply embarrassing on every level.
“Don’t Forget to Dance”: At last we arrive at my least favorite track, dominated by an excessively melodramatic vocal and lyrics clearly targeting the middle-aged-divorcee market segment that Rod Stewart exploited to great personal advantage. I recommend that the next update to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary include a link to this song in their definition of “overproduced.” This is as manufactured and lifeless as a record can get.
“Father Christmas”: I hate ending reviews on a sour note, so I am very happy that “Father Christmas” ends this album, even if it is way out of sequence. This story of a guy who plays Santa Claus only to get mugged by some young thugs is a brilliant piece of music-making. The melody and harmonies make for a pleasant listening experience, and the lyrics are real Ray Davies-quality. At his best, Ray always looked for the underlying cause, so while other fake Santa Clauses might have gone after these punks with an AK-47, this Santa Claus listens and learns:
But give my daddy a job ‘cause he needs one
He’s got lots of mouths to feed
But if you’ve got one, I’ll have a machine gun
So I can scare all the kids down the street
Poverty and unemployment create more than a drop in consumer spending—they undermine the social fabric by creating the anger and powerlessness that leads too many to turn to violence. The “seasonal message” delivered here has a real and personal meaning once you understand the context:
Have yourself a Merry, Merry Christmas
Have yourself a good time
But remember the kids who got nothin’
While you’re drinkin’ down your wine
Save them if only to save yourselves! I read today that back in my homeland the gap between rich and poor has increased to all-time levels. So much for Obama the Socialist! History (a topic about which Americans are completely ignorant) tells us that such disparity eventually leads to the bloodiest revolutions; in a society like America, though, the marketing power of the American Dream manages to keep people in their place by encouraging the naïve belief that anyone can make it to the top. The problem is that “The kids who got nothin’” don’t believe in that dream and they’re seriously pissed off about it. As we know nearly all assassins and mass murderers are social outcasts, a society that ignores those kinds of imbalances will inevitably create more Sandy Hooks, more Columbines, and more and more people going postal after they lose their jobs and get sick of living with the shame of unemployment. Americans believe that’s the price of freedom; Ray Davies says here that it’s an unnecessary sacrifice that could be avoided if we accepted the fact that we are all part of the same community and what affects one affects us all.
My apologies for spending so much time on one song, but “Father Christmas” is exactly the kind of song I’ve been missing in my Kink-less period. I wish there had been more of these in the Arista years. I’m delighted that the boys in the band finally earned some decent money during this period, but I regret the loss of poetically economical songs characterized by beauty, substance and unusually perceptive social and human insight.