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 with 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’m recommending that the next update to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary include a link to this song in their definition of the word “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 that 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, 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.
While there have been dozens of tedious songs and full-length works about the rock star experience in the music business, we have also been treated to a few works that provide genuine insight to the broader human condition. Some have mirrored the experience that many law school graduates have encountered in their careers as attorneys: you start out with high ideals/artistic aspirations and find out you’ve wound up inside a system as filthy as a crumbling sewer. Others have taken another route, ascribing more mundane motives to their heroes (Ziggy Stardust, for example) and focusing on the self-destructive nature of self-absorption. For me, the one recording that best describes the experience of the typical naïve lower middle class rock-and-roll wannabe as he encounters the exploitative reality of the music business is The Kinks’ gem, Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part One.
I read many reviews about Lola (we’ll just call it that to keep things tidy) and the reviews remain mixed at best, largely because most reviewers interpret Lola as a Ray Davies bitch session. I find that response rather curious. When I listen to Lola, I don’t hear Ray and Dave Davies playing themselves: I hear them as actors playing roles in a cohesive story about a young man with talent and not a whole lot of connections . . . the everyman of the 1960’s who saw Elvis or The Beatles on TV and felt both the meaning and the magic of the music.
The main character is introduced in both “Introduction” and “The Contender,” where he clearly identifies himself as a member of the lower middle class with visions of freedom in the world outside: “I don’t want to be a deserter of highways, a sweeper of sidewalks—I gotta do it my way.” He doesn’t have the smarts or the resources to be a mathematician, a politician or a decision-maker . . . his only shot is the music that expresses his emotions and may fulfill his ambitions. This is a guy who fully understands both sides of The Beatles: the lower-to-middle-class Liverpudlians who wanted to get to the “toppermost of the poppermost” and sung about their greed in delightful fury on “Money”; and the talented blokes who wrote beautiful, meaningful songs that moved millions. I’ve known many a musician in my short life, and I’ve met people who are at various places on the spectrum: some want the money, some want the sex, and some want to make beautiful music.
The problem is that all of them want to be heard—and to get yourself heard in the 1960’s, you only had one narrow path available to you: the music establishment.
Our hero seems to be a seeker of beauty, so he writes what is of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard, Dave Davies’ “Strangers.” The song is a musical and lyrical masterpiece, with its simple chord structure and arrangement, punctuated by Mick Avory’s almost funereal drums, serving to strengthen the emotional impact of the words:
So you’ve been where I’ve just come
From the land that brings losers on
So we will share this road we walk
And mind our mouths and beware our talk
‘Till peace we find tell you what I’ll do
All the things I own I will share with you
If I feel tomorrow like I feel today
We’ll take what we want and give the rest away
Strangers on this road we are on
We are not two we are one
Having written this thing of beauty, he naturally wants the whole world to share the experience—but to accomplish this laudable goal, he has to shift from the sublime to the tawdry and follow his nose to a publisher on “Denmark Street” who might be willing to take a flyer on the kid:
You’ve got a tune it’s in your head you want to get it placed
So you take it down to a music man just to see what he will say
He says ‘I hate the tune, I hate the words but I’ll tell you what I’ll do
I’ll sign you up and take it round the street and see if it makes the grade
And you might even hear it played on the rock ‘n’ roll hit parade!’
Our hero leaves Denmark Street almost completely discouraged by the experience and appalled by both the commercialization of music and the rude dismissal of his creation. This leads us to “Get Back in the Line,” where we find our hero dismissing his dream as silly and unrealistic—while at the same time dreading the humiliating reality of the meaningless quest for meaningless work in the union hall:
Now I think of what my mama told me
She always said that it would never ever work out
But all I want to do is make some money
And bring you home some wine
But I don’t want you ever to see me
Standing in that line
‘Cause that union man
Got such a hold over me
He’s the man who decides
If I live or I die, if I starve or I eat
Then he walks up to me
And the sun begins to shine
Then he walks right past and I know
That I’ve got to get back in the line
Desperate to avoid a life of quiet desperation, he goes back to guitar or piano and creates the antithesis of “Strangers,” a catchy song with a strong hook loaded with sexual innuendo and more than a hint of gender identity issues. “Lola” is as perfect a hit single as one could imagine, and a major departure from the blatantly non-commercial songs that Ray Davies had been writing during this period. Some have observed—and I agree—that Ray Davies could have written hit after hit had he wanted to. After all, he knew all the formulas and certainly knew that sex always sells; he just chose to do something different and outside of the mainstream. Here he reconnects with that skill to place the perfect song to complement his narrative.
And how could there be any doubt that “Lola” would get to the “Top of the Pops?” That song is a hoot, as Ray takes us through the steady climb up the charts, verse by verse, blow by blow. Along the way, Ray provides us with satirical commentary about the inflated importance of rock stars and the transformation of normal person into music god:
Now my record’s number 11 on the BBC
But number seven on the N.M.E.
Now the Melody Maker want to interview me
And ask my view on politics and theories on religion
Now my record’s up to number 3
And a woman recognized me and started to scream
This all seems like a crazy dream
I’ve been invited to a dinner with a prominent queen
And now I’ve got friends that I never knew I had before
It’s strange how people want you when you record’s high
‘Cos when it drops down they just pass you by
Now my agent called me on the telephone
He said, “Son, your record’s just got to number 1.”
Any joy our hero might feel about his artistic success is dampened by his agent’s laser-like focus on commercial success:
And you know what this means?
This means you can earn some real money
Yeah, right. “The Moneygoround” quickly dispels that notion, as various shadowy facilitators of chart-topping success step in to get their piece of the action. The continuing naiveté of our hero, expressed in the line, “I thought they were my friends” tells us that the guy who wrote “Strangers” is still very much alive.
Success sends our hero on tour in “This Time Tomorrow,” describing the dull and disconnecting experience of modern flight in one of the loveliest songs The Kinks ever recorded. The melody is so strong it stays in your head for days, and the arrangement combines both subtlety and strength. The instrumental version on the Deluxe Edition is superb, highlighting the talents of John Dalton on bass and the amazing John Gosling on piano, a man who clearly had “the touch.”
All change involves loss, and “A Long Way from Home” gives our hero to self-reflect on all he has lost in his pursuit and achievement of success. The song could be a message given by a friend, but is more powerful—and consistent with the narrative—to imagine the hero looking into the mirror:
You’ve come a long way from the runny-nosed and scruffy kid I knew
You had such good ways . . .
You’ve come a long way, you’re self-assured and dressed in
Funny clothes, but you don’t know me.
I hope you find what you are looking for with your car and handmade overcoats
But your wealth will never make you stronger ‘cos you’re still a
Long way from home
His quiet reverie is interrupted by the harsh guitars of “Rats,” a journey through the metropolis through the perspective of one who’s absolutely fucking had it with the teeming masses who push and shove their way through life. This sets the stage for a compensating fantasy in the song “Apeman,” where he fantasizes about a life with his woman where “I’ll keep you warm and you’ll keep me sane/And we’ll sit in the trees and eat bananas all day.” Ray’s vocal is spot-on, as he adjusts his tone back-and-forth between faux-Caribbean and naïve idealist.
Refreshed by both the fantasy of escape and the realization that the desire to “bring you home some wine” is all that really matters, our hero is now willing to face reality square in the eye in “Powerman.” Matured by disappointment and free of illusion, he realizes the fix will always be in, but his love more than compensates for his financial losses:
Well, I’m not rich and I’m not free
But I’ve got my girl and she got me
He’s got my money and my publishing rights
But I’ve got my girl and I’m alright
The album ends with “Got to Be Free,” an upbeat, breezy number based on the melody of “Introduction.” Our hero has now come full-circle. He realizes that the classic lower middle class belief that riches can buy freedom is a seriously flawed idea. He is now philosophically and emotionally committed to an alternative, though he has no coherent idea how to realize his commitment or what exactly his alternative might be. The notion of freedom is something that people have struggled to define for centuries, but I think what Ray Davies is getting at here is closer to one of Camus’ definitions of freedom: the freedom to think and act how one chooses . . . though unlike Camus, Ray Davies would always place such freedom in the context of more traditional values.
Beyond the strong narrative, Lola features three of The Kinks’ most beautiful songs, two of their greatest hits and some of Ray Davies’ most effective satire. Unlike their later Arista recordings, Lola is not over-produced, so the playful energy that defines much of their best work still shines through. For all these reasons, Lola remains my favorite recording in their catalogue, a brilliant work of a band at the top of their game.