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’d planned to stop my reviews of The Kinks after Schoolboys in Disgrace, but a nice gentleman named Steve suggested that my work would be incomplete without at least taking a look at the hits that made them famous, a fair point indeed. So, as I did for Past Masters 1 and 2, I shall do the same for The Kinks and consider this first collection of their greatest hits.
This is like reviewing an entirely different band! Had they retired after this album, the early Kinks would have later been reclassified as one of the greatest garage bands in history. That said, The Kinks Greatest Hits definitely reveals a progression in terms of lyrical sophistication that would lead step by step to Face to Face and beyond.
“You Really Got Me”: Third time’s the charm! After two failed attempts at getting to the toppermost of the poppermost, Dave Davies took a razor blade to his amp and the rest is history. The distortion created by that surgery flavored the memorable two-chord riff with an unusual sting for the era, and helps explain why this song continues to sound so fresh today. Ray’s vocal is sheer perfection, moving from cool detachment in the verses to growling it out in the climaxing choruses (climax = double entendre). As the chords move up the scale, unholy background vocals and (on verses two and three) driving piano cause the song’s temperature to rise and rise until the explosion of the triple repetition of “you really got me” (explosion = double entendre). The intervals between the verses create little islands of stillness so you can catch your steamy breath, but you know The Kinks are just teasing you before they turn up the heat full blast again and again.
Did I miss anything? Guitar solo? Is there a guitar solo on this track? Really? Let me listen again . . . oh, that guitar solo!
Dave Davies’ marvelously manic attack is simply one of the greatest moments in rock. You can easily put his solo in its proper context context by comparing his work to anything George Harrison was doing at the time. George tried his best to hit the notes, like a good schoolboy, and sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t and sometimes Paul had to step in and do it for him. Dave Davies didn’t care so much what notes he hit as much as he wanted to ride the kinetic energy of rock ‘n’ roll and allow instinct to guide his fingers over the fretboard. The cascade of bends and fills that dance both on and off the beat is a mind-boggling combination of blues riffs and sweet defiance of convention, but most importantly, he captures the sexual and rebellious feel of this archetypal expression of rock ‘n’ roll. Solos like these are why they call the best of them “killer.”
“Tired of Waiting for You”: After “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” I suppose The Kinks felt they had to do something more subdued to show off their range, but a song title that begins with the word “tired” wasn’t a particularly wise choice. The best part of this song is Mick Avory’s drum work, a dazzling display of nimble work on the toms, snare and cymbals. Ray’s vocal is also a high point, covering an impressive range and executed with superb phrasing. I like the song, but it doesn’t knock my socks off.
“Set Me Free”: This is the stronger of the two mid-tempo hits because of its unusual rhythmic mix and remarkable chord complexity (still debated on KindaKinks.net). The rhythmic interplay between Dave Davies’ rhythm guitar and Mick Avory’s drum patterns is fascinating, as Dave accents different beats in the verses. When they come together in the choruses after that simple but exciting shift to the D chord at the end of the verse, it’s a little moment of musical heaven.
“Something Better Beginning”: Yecch. This song is so pre-Invasion high-school-cliché that I’m surprised they got through it without breaking down in fits of laughter. The Honeycombs did a version of this song that was even worse. Even though it wasn’t a hit, I would have preferred the inclusion of “Nothin’ in This World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout This Girl,” even with all the apostrophes. It’s a fabulous acoustic number with a nice rhythmic pickup in the chorus and helps the fan broaden his or her perspective on The Kinks’ early period.
“Who’ll Be the Next in Line”: While I appreciate The Kinks trying to vary the pattern with a sort of faux-Rumba, this song sounds forced and never really finds a groove. It’s also awkward to sing the contraction, “who’ll” because, phonetically speaking, the syllable ends in a lateral consonant requiring the tongue to block the airflow, necessitating oral acrobatics to get to the plosive “b” that follows. In simple terms, it’s a difficult song to sing along with. You add the fact that it doesn’t have a strong hook and I’d file this one under “curiosities.” When I listen to this song, I tend to tune out everyone except Pete Quaife, who excels on the bass here. However, I did find a cover version of the song by French icon Francoise Hardy that I found . . . well, charming.
“Till the End of the Day”: Yes, yes, I know. It’s the same chord pattern (in a different key) as “All Day and All of the Night” played to a slightly different rhythm, but the energy The Kinks bring to this record make it a winner in my book. The opening “Baby, I feel good” is such a strong invitation to get up and rock that you can’t dismiss this song on the basis of self-plagiarism. While Dave’s solo here is less manic than his other great early contributions, it’s a sweet piece that should have received a bit more gain in the mix. The harmonies and background vocals help build the excitement, and Ray’s enthusiastic and loose lead vocal simply knocks me out.
“Dedicated Follower of Fashion”: Who was the idiot responsible for the track order on this album? I can understand separating “You Really Got Me” from “All Day and All of the Night,” but I really resent this song appearing before “A Well Respected Man,” because it diminishes the importance of the single that moved The Kinks from boy-meets-girl rock to social commentary. Harrumph!
Bitching now complete, I love this song! The brilliant invention of the word “Carnabetian” is enough to make my twiddle diddle (I find intelligence incredibly sexy), but Ray’s tongue-in-cheek vocal of remarkable variation is the real centerpiece. The call-and-response pattern “Oh yes, he is” forces you to sing along at those points, but after that you want to shush everyone so you can listen to Ray’s delightful articulation. The Big Ben-like opening and closing chords are a brilliant touch.
“A Well Respected Man”: The relative quiet of the opening, with that faint strum leading to a clear and confident vocal over acoustic guitar, may be Dylan-influenced, but I hear it more as the sound of a man who has found his inner voice and mission in life. Ray Davies takes on one of the most important and most despicable aspects of UK society—class consciousness—and exposes it for the hypocritical bullshit it is (in somewhat polite language suitable for the censors):
And his mother goes to meetings while his father pulls the maid
And she stirs the tea with councilors while discussing foreign trade
And she passes looks, as well as bills, at every suave young man
Here Ray also displays his talent for mimicry, delivering the line “And he plays at stocks and shares, and he goes to the Regatta” in the bored, smug tones of the uppers. Although simple and subtle, the harmonies in the chorus provide a nice variation from the necessarily steady delivery of the verses, which are phrased like the indictment they represent.
“Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy”: This was a hit? Really? Hmm. Let me check . . . ah, it was the first of their singles not to crack the UK top 10, so I’m not alone in my indifference. It’s clearly the most dated song of the bunch, sounding like something that might make the soundtrack of an Austin Powers sequel. The hand-clapping in the chorus is really annoying, because either The Kinks lacked the tight hand-clapping skills of The Beatles or the engineer forgot to turn off the echo effect: the claps sound off-rhythm and choppy.
“All Day and All of the Night”: There are many things that make this song one of the hottest ever recorded—Ray’s slightly Caribbean-tinged sneer, Dave’s distortion and killer solo, the demonic background vocals—but for me it is one single musical decision that sends me over the edge. The line in question is “The only time I feel all right is by your side.” Usual rock dogma would dictate that the band hold onto the final chord of the transition line from verse to chorus and drive it home. What The Kinks do is brilliant: as Ray holds the note at the end of the line, instead of sticking on the A-chord, the band plays the three-chord pattern using the A-G-C chords. This has the effect of increasing the original tension of the defiant A chord, creating a dissonance of intense excitement. I’ve heard this song what, a billion times, and that move never fails to send me into fits of ecstasy.
This concludes my look at The Kinks, and what a delightful journey it has been. The experience certainly confirmed my decision to rank Ray Davies above Lennon & McCartney on my great songwriters list, but I also developed a deeper appreciation for their commitment to follow their artistic instincts instead of following the trends of their times. Before I leave, I want to thank all of The Kinks fans who not only read my pieces, but also took the time to comment on them. The comments were often brilliant and insightful, and while we did have our disagreements, the level of engagement was both thrilling and deeply appreciated by this reviewer.
God Save The Kinks!