Thinking Kinks, At Long Last, Make It to the Garden
The Kinks, who will be at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, are as venerable a rock and roll institution as the Rolling Stones. They played their first engagement in 1963 in the vicinity of Muswell Hill, the working-class London neighborhood where they grew up, and like the Rolling Stones, who got together around the same time, they played American rhythm and blues material before they began writing and producing their own songs.
Ray Davies, the Kink's songwriter, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, has often written about what he calls "dodgy subjects." The 1966 Kinks hit "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" made fun of London's trendy types when "swinging London" was at it's zenith. "Lola", from 1970, told of a young man's encounter with a transvestite. On their new album, "Give the People What They Want" (Arista), Ray Davies subjects are dodgier than ever. Two thematically linked songs, "Give the People What They Want" and "Killer's Eyes," suggest that the advent of murderer-as-superstar - Lee Harvey Oswald and Mark Chapman - is the inevitable outcome of the graphic depiction of violence one sees in many films and on the evening news. In "Destroyer," Mr. Davies takes a long, hard look at his own self-destructive instincts and concludes that they have been both a crippling liability and one of the sources of his creativity. "Art Lover" depicts a weekend parent who is also a potential child molester.
Many rock lyricists would sensationalize subjects like these, if they dared to tackle them at all. But Mr. Davies songs are never sensational, and they are thoughtful enough to avoid easy answers. They have won the Kinks a reputation as a "thinking person's rock band," but they have also tended to put off casual listeners and helped limit the band's audience. Remarkably, the Kink's present American tour is the first that has found them playing mostly in arena-size halls. Ray Davies and his brother, Dave, the Kink's lead guitarist, are flying their mother in from England for their first headlining appearance at the Garden, and one can hardly blame them for considering it a milestone. Together with Mick Avory, the band's drummer, they have been playing together for nearly 20 years.
At 37, Ray Davies says that two decades of making records and touring have been wearing, but that he has no regrets. "When I was growing up in North London, there was no future that I could see," he said recently. "I was good at art and creative writing, but academically I was not very bright. I used to walk around the street saying "There's no hope for me. They're going to put me in a factory.' And there was no way I was going to have to end up in a factory, so I decided I was going to have to fight my way out. I went to art college during the day, soccer training in the evenings, and after that I learned how to play guitar by doing it, playing in a rhythm and blues group. When I heard Chuck Berry for the first time, I left art college and said, music, yeah, that's it."
The Kink's earliest hits were as rough and raw as their working class origins. "You Really Got Me" (1964) was built on a monolithic, chunka-chunka rhythm guitar part and featured a crazed, feedback-laced guitar solo from Dave Davies. The record went to number one in England and was a top 10 hit in America, and the Kinks followed it with several more hit singles that were similarly ferocious - "All Day and All of the Night," "'Till the End of the Day." These records influenced countless rock bands and were particularly important influences on the bone-cracking brand of rock that later became known as heavy metal. But by 1968, Ray Davies was beginning to write more complex songs, and the Kinks developed a subtle style in order to frame them properly. Songs like "Sunny Afternoon" and the gorgeous "Waterloo Sunset" featured an innovative blend of acoustic and electric guitars and smooth, sighing vocal harmonies. If these records still sound contemporary, it is largely because so many 'new wave' rock performers - Nick Lowe of Rockpile, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders - have borrowed from them. The Kink's late '60's recordings influenced the British new wave of the late 1970's as decisively as the earlier Kinks singles shaped heavy metal rock.
In 1968 the Kinks made their first concept album, "(The Kinks Are) the Village Green Preservation Society" and in late 1969 they recorded "Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)" which was one of the first "rock operas" and one of the best. During the 1970's, the band pioneered the integration of rock performances with theatrical elements. And Ray Davies kept writing songs that were lyrically ambitious and melodically unforgettable - "Lola" (1970), "Muswell Hillbillies" (1971), "Celluloid Heroes" (1972).
The Kinks growth was hampered during the late 60's and early 70's by Ray's legendary drinking bouts and by continuing spats between Ray and Dave. At one memorable New York concert, an inebriated Ray Davies tottered backward toward a bank of amplifiers. His brother, who was standing close enough to catch him, sulkily stepped aside, and Ray and the amps went crashing to the floor. The group played on until Ray was revived and resumed his singing and guitar playing.
Fortunately, those days are over. Ray overcame his drinking problem in the mid-seventies, and as he pointed out, "I've never been interested in drug abuse." He is getting along with his brother Dave as well. Three years ago the Davies brothers and Mick Avory added the bassist Jim Rodford and the keyboard player Ian Gibbons to their lineup, and as Ray Davies noted, "they've made us a much better band, a new band, really. As far as I'm concerned, the Kinks are three years old."
That may not be true, strictly speaking, but at recent concerts the band hasn't sounded much older than that. Like all the best rock and roll Kinks music, of whatever period, simply doesn't sound dated.
Robert Palmer, New York Times, September 30, 1981.