Having mentioned Ray Davies in all three XTC reviews, I developed an overwhelming urge to reconnect with the Kinks . . . and that meant having to open the door to the Arista period that I had scrupulously avoided except for a brief foray via the compilation Come Dancing.
Four of the songs on Low Budget also appear on Come Dancing; I panned two and gave a thumbs-up to the other pair. Since I’d already reviewed over a third of the album, you may wonder why I chose Low Budget over the other Arista albums. I could say, “Well, I just fucking felt like it” but I do have two very good reasons for re-engaging with this particular album:
- Dave Davies identified two of the songs on Low Budget as all-time favorites. I immediately translated that statement as “Dave gets an opportunity to show why he’s one of the great rock guitarists of all time” and I sure as hell didn’t want to miss out on that.
- My reviews of the four Low Budget songs on Come Dancing failed to take context into account. Low Budget is pretty close to a concept album (rather like The Jam’s Setting Sons) dealing with the dour mood in the UK and US in the late 70s caused by inflation, recession, labour troubles, oil embargos and generally lousy leadership. I felt the need to reconsider those songs (and the whole album) through that lens.
The commercial and critical rejection of the albums of the theatrical period left the Kinks in a bit of a pickle. The Brits had pretty much given up on the Kinks as far back as Lola vs. the Powerman and the Moneygoround but the band still had a modest but intensely devoted following in the USA—though not enough of a following to maintain commercial viability. With no market for their music in the homeland, the Kinks had essentially three choices: expand their American audience, resign themselves to the American casino circuit or call it a day.
The stronger rock songs on Schoolboys in Disgrace overcame the album cover that everybody loved to hate and earned the Kinks their highest US chart performance in years (#45). Clive Davis took notice and convinced the band to sign with Arista under the condition that Ray would abandon his fancy for full-length theatrical works and concept albums. This was a BIG change in operations, as one could argue that the Kinks had done nothing but concept albums and theatrical works since Village Green Preservation Society.
The first two Arista albums featured slick production, limp lyrics and predictable music—a tried-and-true-play-it-safe formula for pop music success. Their move from the fringe to the mainstream worked according to plan: Sleepwalker made it to #21 and Misfits cracked the Top 40. Wikipedia notes that the recording of Sleepwalker involved “more commercial and mainstream production techniques.” I am obliged to report that Ray Davies produced both albums, so he was all-in with the Davis approach.
Though I find the music of the Arista period far less interesting than the Golden Era or the theatrical phase, I can’t blame Ray for wanting to make some money. I consider the earnings from the Arista period as overdue payback for the money the Kinks should have pocketed during their artistic peak.
As is true with everything that happens in our karmic world, an upside is always attached to a downside. The move to Arista kicked off a period of band instability with John Dalton checking out during the Sleepwalker sessions (though he appears on one of the leftover songs slipped into Misfits) and Mick Avory skipping a few Misfits sessions as he pondered the possibility of a permanent exit. Bass replacement Andy Pyle and keyboardist John Gosling both departed after Misfits; the Davies brothers found a more-than-suitable substitute for Pyle in ex-Argent bassist Jim Rodford. Alas, the keyboardist they hired had the nasty habit of not showing up for recording sessions, so Ray fired his ass after one contribution and decided to handle the keyboards himself. Mick Avory was still on the fence, but the truth is he’d been on the fence forever due to his toxic relationship with brother Dave. He managed to get through the Low Budget sessions and stick it out for five more years before calling it quits.
Despite the change in sound, I don’t think the first two albums achieved what Clive Davis had in mind when he signed the band. In referring to Misfits, studio engineer John Rollo described the album as “beautifully recorded, but not that rock and roll.” Bingo! Though the term was in its infancy, Davis wanted the Kinks to become an arena rock band because . . . well, I’d like to think he told them that if they played in arenas they could “earn some real money” (after Robert, Grenville and Larry get their share). The concert scene had undergone significant change in the 70s from relatively modest venues like the Fillmore (capacity 1315), Fillmore East (capacity 2654) and Winterland (capacity 5400) to larger arenas and coliseums. Rock bands had to adapt to the new reality, and as Mick Avory explained to biographer Rob Jovanovic in God Save The Kinks: A Biography, Low Budget turned out to be the album that opened the doors to the world of arena rock:
Ray’s writing was [previously] too subtle. When we did the big arenas in the late seventies he was writing harder stuff that would come across. When we signed with Arista, Clive Davis would always talk about getting us into the bigger venues and the music changed so we could get them across in the large places. When we made Low Budget, that was a turning point really.
Despite the obvious nods to disco and club music scattered throughout Low Budget, the Kinks demonstrated that they still had a knack for the hard stuff.
“Attitude”: Well, Hallelujah and Praise Dave Davies! His opening riff on “Attitude” is one nasty piece of gee-tar picking, a clear message that the Kinks were determined to set the joint on fire. I’ll spare you the suspense and share one of my firm beliefs about Low Budget, best expressed by David Fricke of Rolling Stone: “And guitarist Dave Davies threatens to upstage his famous brother at every turn, peeling off leads and riffs with spirit and facility.”
Dave’s opening salvo gives way to a steady rock rhythm with Ray pounding the ivories and Mick Avory locked in drive mode. The heat from the lead guitarist seems to be contagious, for when Ray enters to deliver the first verse, his vocal is pure punk, shouting out the lyrics with plenty of grit. The song may appear to be a straight-out rocker, but closer inspection reveals more complexity. The chord pattern of the first verse is the most complex, moving from an A-Bm-C#m-D baseline to an E-F#m-G#m-A in the wrap. That pattern is not repeated or even suggested in the other three verses, so the first verse is really an overture. The remaining three verses all contain quirky variations and the bridge involves a very brief key change to Bb. The Kinks also mess around with polyrhythms on occasion, with some of the players sticking to double time while the others ease into half-speed. The band is so tight and so into the music that you scarcely notice even the most unusual changes.
“Attitude” is one of two songs on the album that addresses the human tendency to build façades and create fake public identities in a vain attempt to mask the true self. The most controversial verse is contained in the “overture”:
You go down to the pub
You wear make-up
And old dad’s trousers
Why don’t you tidy up
You talk like a docker but you act like a queer
You drink champagne then complain it’s too dear
You try so hard not to follow any trends
Then you cry in your beer and say you’ve got no friends
But is it any wonder that you’ve got no friends
It’s not the make-up
Or the way you dress
It’s not your appearance they all detest
It’s not your manners, that you gotta improve
ooooo–it’s your attitude.
Adopting a stance to differentiate oneself from the status quo is hardly unusual but in this case, it’s all attitude and no substance. Some have suggested that the line “You talk like a docker but you act like a queer” is a homophobic slur, to which I respond, “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Do you really think the guy who wrote “Lola” is an anti-trans homophobe?” To my ears, the line simply underscores the anti-hero’s fundamental “state of confusion.”
“Catch Me Now I’m Falling”: The verse riff is “Jumping Jack Flash.” The premises underlying the lyrics are deeply flawed. Biographer Nick Hasted described the song as invoking “memories of the United States aid to Europe via the Marshall Plan to criticize countries that were not helping the country in its time of need,” as reflected in the opening verse:
I remember, when you were down
And you needed a helping hand
I came to feed you
But now that I need you
You won’t give me a second glance
Now I’m calling all citizens from all over the world
This is Captain America calling
I bailed you out when you were down on your knees
So will you catch me now I’m falling
The flaws are pretty obvious to anyone with a rudimentary understanding of mid-20th-century history:
- Flaw #1: Marshall Plan funding ended in 1951. A whole lot of shit went down in the intervening twenty-eight years that raised serious doubts about the trustworthiness of the United States and the motives behind American help. CIA coups. Vietnam. Watergate.
- Flaw #2: There is no way in hell that Americans would ever ask for help even if they needed it . . . unless you define sending troops to support American wars as “help.”
- Flaw #3: The European countries that benefitted from the Marshall Plan were also dealing with slowing economies at the time and couldn’t have helped Uncle Sam even if they wanted to do so.
- Flaw #4: Later in the song, Captain America claims, “I was the one who always bailed you out of your depressions.” Talk about fake news! I guess Ray never heard of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act that put the nail in the coffin of several Western economies during the Great Depression.
The song isn’t a total loss. I love Ray’s piano tone in the introductory segment; Dave’s fills and solos are diverse and exceptionally well-executed; and Nick Newall’s saxophone adds an additional layer of grit to the mix. What I notice most is Jim Rodford’s solid bass contribution that provides the song with rhythmic variation and a strong bottom.
“Pressure”: Two songs with the same title were released within a three-year period, and I have to concede that Billy Joel’s “Pressure” on The Nylon Curtain is far more compelling, largely because Billy never lets up on the pressure. Given the song’s strong drive and the shouted repetition of “PRESSURE,” Ray could have achieved something close to Billy’s intensity, but he ends each verse with variants of the line “But I forget the pressure/When I am close to you.” Nice sentiment, but it feels disappointing somehow.
I certainly have no quibbles with the music. I love Dave’s Chuck Berry-like intro, Mick Avory’s crashing cymbals and Rodford’s driving bass. As in “Attitude,” Ray gives the vocal all he’s got, alternating between gritty and smooth with undeniable energy.
“National Health”: This odd little number is essentially a PSA urging listeners to toss their valium, quaaludes and cocaine down the loo and get more exercise. The best parts are Rodford’s bass and Dave’s solo; the rest is . . . meh. I did some research to find out if cigar smoker Sigmund Freud really did recommend exercise as a way to release nervous tension (“Even Freud recommends it”) and came up empty. Nice try, Ray!
“(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman”: Clive Davis wanted Ray to write a hit single that reflected the production values of then-contemporary popular music . . . in other words, disco. Rather than reject the request out of hand, “They did their research, heading to dance clubs to get the right groove, which they infused with their rock sound.” (Songfacts) Clive loved the song and released it as the first single (backed with “Low Budget”), but I imagine he was somewhat disappointed that the single failed to crack the Top 40.
I loathe disco, but I’ll say this: if every disco song was re-recorded with Dave Davies on lead guitar and Jim Rodford on bass, I’d warm up to disco in a heartbeat.
Rodford did his homework and mastered the double-note bass technique and funk leanings common to disco, but given his rock origins, he supplies his runs with a touch more punch. Dave’s counterpoints, riffs and elongated power chords give the piece a rawness alien to disco and thank fucking hell for that.
Best of all, the lyrics are reminiscent of Ray’s better character sketches from the Golden Era. In this case, the Everyman is your classic 126-pound weakling fretting about his sad physical state:
Woke up this morning, started to sneeze
I had a cigarette and a cup of tea
I looked in the mirror what did I see
A nine-stone weakling with knobbly knees
I did my knee-bends, press-ups, touched my toes
I had another sneeze and I blew my nose
I looked in the mirror at my pigeon chest
I had to put on my clothes because it made me depressed
Surely there must be a way
For me to change the shape I’m in
Dissatisfied is what I am
I want to be a better man
Superman Superman wish I could fly like Superman . . .
Already oriented toward doom and gloom, he expands his perspective to include what is going on in not-so-Jolly Olde England of the late 70s:
Woke up this morning, what did I see
A big black cloud hanging over me
I switched on the radio and nearly dropped dead
The news was so bad that I fell out of bed
There was a gas strike, oil strike, lorry strike, bread strike
Got to be a Superman to survive
Gas bills, rent bills, tax bills, phone bills
I’m such a wreck but I’m staying alive
Later he claims he wants to change the world but blames his inability to do so on his weak physique. I think someone needs to tell him that even if he beefs up to Schwarzenegger levels, he doesn’t have a chance in hell of changing the world because those in power pay scant attention to the needs and ideas of the common people. He’s a fragile man in a macho world and the human obsession with appearance renders him insignificant.
When asked which guitar performance he was most proud of, The Kinks’ guitarist Dave Davies noted “Low Budget,” as well as “You Really Got Me,” as a favorite. He said this:
I like “Low Budget” . It’s wild. I like that kind of, almost country-style playing. It’s like a shape; I don’t even worry about what notes I play as I’m doing it. And if you catch a few open strings, you might get lucky with a weird clunk or a harmonic or something. I think all the best stuff is the stuff that happens before you’ve even realized what you’ve done. So “Low Budget” and, obviously, “You Really Got Me.”
The opening riff to “Low Budget” is most definitely one of my favorite introductions ever, but I have to admit I had a hard time adjusting from the riff to the storyline about a former toff in decline. The riff is so fucking sexy that I can’t help but imagine it as theme music to a fuck where the guy strolls confidently into the bedroom wearing a full-length robe and then unties his belt to reveal a first-rate boner. I need an instrumental version for my fuck playlists!
Of course, I could use an instrumental version for non-sexual purposes as well. Often I’ll shut out everything else and just listen to what Dave is up to. His extended power chords are cut at just the right moment; his rhythmic punctuation is always spot-on; and his riffs and fills are endlessly delightful. I also love his vocal harmonies in the chorus that serve to encourage everyone in the listening audience to sing along.
Ray’s lyrics are painfully witty and . . . self-deprecating. According to Not Like Everybody Else author Thomas Kitts, the former toff in decline is Ray Davies himself:
In the title track of Low Budget, Davies gives us a self-deprecating playful self-portrait as he works out, for him, a nightmarish predicament. One of Davies’ fears is to be penniless, without the security and time for creativity that money provides him . . . The destitute singer identifies himself as once a “toff,” a swanky dresser and a cigar-smoking executive like Flash . . . but now he sucks Polo Mints and shops at Woolworth’s.
The verse that exposes the former toff as the songwriter is the final verse (not counting an extra verse in the extended version):
Art takes time, time is money
Money’s scarce and that ain’t funny
Millionaires are things of the past
We’re in low budget-ville where nothing can last
Money is rare there’s none to be found
So don’t think I’m tight if I don’t buy a round
What is most remarkable here is that while Ray may have been writing about himself, he created a song that everyone who has experienced the effects of an economic downturn can relate to. Listeners can raise their voices high to “I’m on a low budget” and leave their troubles for another day.
“In a Space”: Not even Dave Davies can save this rambling number about . . . living “on a planet driftin’ into space.” That’s it. That’s the whole storyline.
“Little Bit of Emotion“: Critics haven’t been too kind to this semi-acoustic number with a slightly different take on human façades, but while I think the verse that begins with “People learn their lines/And they act out their part” should be stuffed back into the cliché drawer, there are two verses in particular I found rather touching.
The theme here is emotional repression, one of the weirdest habits human beings have ever developed. We’ve set up a system where men are supposed to repress their emotions and be tough guys (though they are permitted to show emotion when they score a touchdown) and women are tagged as “too emotional.” In general, most people are uncomfortable with any kind of emotional display, a tendency that takes a whole lot of life out of life.
The first character sketch I found moving involves a girl who is apparently a pole dancer and (for the right price) a prostitute:
Look at that lady dancing around with no clothes
She’ll give you all her body
That’s if you’ve got the dough
She’ll let you see most
Anything but there’s one thing
That she’ll never show
And that’s a little bit of real emotion
A little bit of true emotion
In case a little bit of emotion
Gives her away
Think Jane Fonda in Klute dishing out stud-encouraging bullshit while simultaneously looking at her watch and you’ll get the picture. Of course, this girl feels emotions ranging from self-loathing to guilty pleasure while engaged in her work, but “Somehow she’s gotta get through every day/And the only way is not to show one little bit of emotion.” Years of therapy are unlikely to set her right.
The second involves the “village idiot,” an intellectually disabled man happy in his ignorance. What do people tend to do when they sense that someone with a mental disability lurks ahead? They cross the street. In this case, the disabled guy is completely harmless, but people have a hard time shaking their discomfort with someone who isn’t quite right:
Look at that looney
With a smile on his face
He knows no shame
And feels no disgrace
He’s got a look in his eyes
That makes it seem that he’s from outer space
Maybe that looney knows what it’s all about
He’s got something to say
But he can’t spit it out
He’s uncoordinated so we shut him out
In case he shows a little bit of emotion
A little bit of real emotion
We’re afraid to see a bit of emotion
So we walk away
You may be offended by Ray’s use of the term “looney,” but by using the common perception of the intellectually challenged, Ray gives us an opportunity to look into the mirror and examine our foundless fears.
“A Gallon of Gas”: I didn’t like this song when I reviewed it for Come Dancing, and while I certainly can’t fault Dave’s performance, I couldn’t care less about a rich dude who can’t find gas for his brand new caddy. Fuck that guy.
“Misery”: The theme is eerily similar to “Attitude” with a touch more emphasis on the misery caused by whiny moaners, but though the boys rock pretty hard, the song has kind of a been-there-done-that-and-do-we-really-need-to-do-it-again feel. The best part by far is . . . yes, you guessed it . . . Dave’s guitar solo.
“Moving Pictures”: The closing song is way, way too disco for my tastes. The basic message is “things change,” but I think I already knew that. This is the only song on the album that I can’t tolerate.
I think Ray should have shown some appreciation for his brother’s exceptional work by changing the artistic attribution to “The Kinks Featuring Dave Davies.” There’s plenty of room on the cover to accommodate such a move, and I’m sure Dave would have appreciated the recognition. While Dave identified “Attitude” and “Low Budget” as his favorites (mine too), his work shines on every track, even the weaker ones.
The stronger tracks more than compensate for the misses, but what makes the album a keeper is the undeniable energy of the band. The new lineup gelled pretty quickly and the decision to reconnect with their rock ‘n’ roll roots resulted in an album far more exciting than their first two Arista efforts.
In closing, I will temporarily set aside my status as a nonbeliever and sum up my reaction to Low Budget in one pithy phrase.
God save the Kinks!