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.
I’m still on a hiatus, but I’ve been holding this one in the vault for quite a while and decided that now is as good at time as any to release it.
Everybody’s in Show-Biz is a transition album between the The Kinks’ golden period and their theatrical period, featuring a studio LP and a live one.
At least we can all agree on that!
The live album is a hoot! The Kinks sound loose, playful and like they’re having fun with the crowd. The live versions of the songs from Muswell Hillbillies sound much better than the originals, which were diminished on that recording by Ray’s insistence on using dated equipment. “Alcohol,” “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” and “Holiday” are all show-stopping performances. “Top of the Pops” and “Brainwashed” are equally exciting. The snippets like “Mr. Wonderful,” “Baby Face” and “Banana Boat Song” were probably just as much fun for the boys in the band as they were the listening audience, adding some variation to the classic set list. The live disc may not make too many greatest live album lists, but it’s still a lot of fun.
The reason why the live performances don’t salvage the whole package is because the studio album is frigging awful. Most of the songs deal with the allegedly dreary life of rock stars, a topic most of the planet’s inhabitants can’t relate to and only wish they had it so bad. When asked about the album and specifically the subject of touring, Dave Davies remarked, “It doesn’t matter how luxurious your surroundings are, you go back to your hotel room and it is like a prison. We used to do 11, 12, 13 month tours of America and leave our families at home because we couldn’t afford to bring them over. It was hell.” Unfortunately, the songs on the studio album only hint at that hell and the existential pain of isolation and separation. Instead we learn that rock stars don’t change their underwear and eat vast quantities of food in strange combinations. “Look a Little on the Sunny Side,” where Ray expresses his frustration about rarely being able to give the people what they want, is itself a song that no one would want. There are a couple of songs that explore other subject matter: “Supersonic Rocket Ship” is a rehash of “Apeman” and not nearly as effective; “Hot Potatoes” attempts to deal with a nagging wife and her layabout husband with little success.
So, Kinks fans, I am sorry to say that I only liked 30% of the studio album. That actually makes this a relatively positively review compared to those written by most mainstream critics, who only liked one or two songs. The songs I like are, in ascending order, “You Don’t Know My Name,” “Sitting in My Hotel,” and “Celluloid Heroes,” a song which in this context is like finding a 10-karat diamond in a garbage dump.
Dave Davies’ “You Don’t Know My Name” features a sprightly guitar, an enthusiastic vocal and a toe-tapping beat to go along with the description of the mad whirl of constant travel. It’s one of the best-arranged and tighter performances on the studio disc, and one of Dave’s better efforts. Dave always brings a certain kind of energy to his songs that I find refreshingly compelling.
“Sitting in My Hotel” was obviously written in a moment when Ray was feeling fragile and uncertain about his artistic direction. There are hints of self-doubt as he imagines what his friends would say (“They would tell me that I’m just being used/They would ask me what I’m trying to prove”) and signs of depression (“Trying to hide the gloom/Sitting in my hotel room”). The device of using his friends to express the internal storm may have been an attempt to provide some aesthetic distance from the problem he was trying to deal with, but it plays out more like an avoidance mechanism. It also trivializes the fragility by confusing it with the cheap need to live up to the expectations of others. As in “Look a Little on the Sunny Side,” Ray expresses disappointment, frustration and hurt by critical and popular reactions to his work, but he never gets to the core issue. Am I here to please my friends, the critics and the fans, or am I here to write and sing about the things that truly matter to me? I wouldn’t go so far as John Mendelsohn and accuse Ray of indulging in self-pity, but I do think he missed the opportunity to confront the meaning of his life as an artist and/or entertainer. He poses the question but avoids the answer. Flaws aside, it’s a very pretty melody, and John Gosling is splendid on the piano.
All is forgiven with “Celluloid Heroes,” one of the greatest songs ever written, the long-form equal of “Waterloo Sunset.” Here Ray does confront the deeper issues hinted at in “Sitting in My Hotel” and then some. He also shifts his perspective from “me” to “we,” speaking to us as one human being to another, sharing a common and curious experience:
Everybody’s a dreamer
And everybody’s a star
And everybody’s in movies
It doesn’t matter who you are
At one time or another, many of us have fantasized about stardom, and that’s part of the meaning here. More importantly, “everybody’s in movies” because we project our hopes and dreams onto the screen, attaching ourselves to stars who have become archetypal symbols of human experience. Sometimes we relate to the stars on a more intimate basis than we relate to the people in our daily lives: we root for them, feel for them, empathize with them:
Don’t step on Greta Garbo
As you walk down the Boulevard
She looks so weak and fragile
That’s why she tried to be so hard
But they turned her into a princess
And they sat her on a throne
But she turned her back on stardom
Because she wanted to be alone
The reaction to Garbo’s exit from the scene is expressed in the tone of one friend standing up for another, justifying her decision through empathy and rationalization (“that’s why she tried to be so hard.”) This in itself is not “weird.” When a great actor touches our deepest emotions through performance, a connection is created that is as deep as any direct human experience. We can also relate to the evil of the invisible “they” who make our lives difficult through poorly-understood but very real powers. In the end, we love Garbo for having the courage to make the choice to leave it all behind, to defy “them” and all the expectations that “they” heaped upon a weak, fragile creature who was one of us.
Ray takes us through a series of archetypal heroes, all of whom represent different aspects of the human personality. Valentino is our deliciously guilty lust; Bela Lugosi our fear of what lurks under the bed; Bette Davis is our defiant heroine who pays for her brash independence with isolation. It is absolutely true that “if you covered him with garbage, George Sanders would still have style,” and “if you stamped on Mickey Rooney, he would still turn ’round and smile.” The former evokes our yearnings for unruffled dignity in the face of disaster and the latter our eternal optimism. Ray shifts his tone to somber affection when he sings of “dearest Marilyn,” the modern archetype of beauty and glamour—and a woman who desperately wanted to escape the archetype and achieve recognition as an intelligent, sensitive actress. She simply did not have Garbo’s strength to sever the ties to “them.”
But please don’t tread on dearest Marilyn
‘Cos she’s not very tough
She should have been made of iron or steel
But she was only made of flesh and blood
Up to this point, the music has built gradually to a peak in the second repetition of the chorus, a set of lines that would have you believe that the song is both a tribute and an elegy to the great stars of Hollywood past and those who wound up in B-movies or worse:
You can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard
Some that you recognize, some that you’ve hardly even heard of
People who worked and suffered and struggled for fame
Some who succeeded and some who suffered in vain
The music then softens as Ray delivers a variation of the opening verse where he slowly approaches the issue that was gnawing at his soul in “Sitting in My Hotel.” Success and failure are the yin and yang of the choice to become an artist:
Everybody’s a dreamer
And everybody’s a star
And everybody’s in show biz
It doesn’t matter who you are
And those who are successful
Be always on your guard
Success walks hand in hand with failure
Along Hollywood Boulevard
Once he opens the door to his fears, he makes the exceptionally courageous decision to go even further. It’s not simply musical success or failure that is troubling him; it’s something deeper and more elemental. In achingly beautiful lines, he comes face to face with the most basic human fear of all. I can never read or hear these lines without crying; in truth, I’m crying right now as I write.
I wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show
A fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes
Because celluloid heroes never feel any pain
And celluloid heroes never really die
Though steeped in the existentialism of Camus, I find it very difficult to accept that I will die sometime in the future. On a factual basis, I understand that death is inevitable and that no one gets a pass. On an emotional basis, I love life and never want to leave it, even when it’s painful. This is why “everybody’s a dreamer, and everybody’s a star.” We are the stars of our life stories and we all want to avoid the final curtain. Whether it’s the fear of what lies beyond or the simple love of life, only the twisted or terminally ill lose that intense and illogical hope that somehow life will go on forever. I am usually an extremely logical person, but a part of me can’t help but “wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show,” and I wish that for my parents, for my lovers, for my friends, for all of us. The thought of a final goodbye appalls me, frightens me and makes me want to scream “No!” with such power that death wouldn’t dare come near.
For the artist, the verse has even greater significance. “Celluloid Heroes” answers the song-ending question of “Sitting in My Hotel”: “What’s it all leading to?” As an artist, Ray Davies would have had to permit himself to hope that his work would outlive him, just as the work of the great Hollywood stars has outlived them. It is said that an artist attempts to achieve a form of immortality through his or her work, and while that may be a pale substitute for the real thing, it’s the only option open to beings limited by mortality.
I don’t believe that Ray Davies has anything to worry about on that score. His songs will be played and admired for generations to come; they will continue to move people a hundred years from now. His work will endure because few artists in any field have written more insightfully about the human condition and this mysterious experience we know as life.