Building A Library - The Kinks
1996 was a banner year for Ray Davies - one of the most talented writers and conceptualists rock has ever produced. After more than 30 years with the Kinks, the group he has led off and on with his brother Dave, Ray was enjoying a new career as a solo artist. His keen wit and storytelling ability enabled him to take his remarkable one-man play, 20th Century Man, to packed houses and critical acclaim all over the United States. The play, based loosely on his equally remarkable fictionalized autobiography, X-Ray, provided a unique insight into the forces that have shaped Davies's long prolific career as a rock songwriter.
As it that weren't enough, two of his classic songs - "Tired of Waiting" and "You Really Got Me" - were turned into soundtracks for ubiquitous television commercials for, respectively, a cold remedy and an automobile.
The best news for fans of Davies's work, however, is that he has been encouraged to reassemble the Kinks for a 1997 tour in support of the band's current two-CD live retrospective release, To The Bone.
Davies's solo success is ironic in light of his desperate efforts to keep the Kinks going in face of general disinterest from the record industry. Despite Davies's' own well-documented talents, a track record of hit singles over more than 30 years, and the continuing support of a hard core of fans who have faithfully followed the Kinks from the start, the group has been roughly treated by a series of record companies, and found itself in the mid-90's without a major-label deal.
The fact is that the Kinks have created one of the most important album catalogs in rock history, and yet it is in shambles. None of the major labels that have released the band's albums over the years has treated this body of work with much respect. The only company that has served the Kinks well is the specialty reissue label Rhino, which has actually enhanced the part of the catalog it controls.
Conceptually, Ray Davies has consistently been one of rock's try visionaries. The Kinks more or less accidentally invented heavy metal with the monster riff that powered the band's #1 1964 single (1965 in America), "You Really Got Me." That was the loudest, rawest piece of primal rock to ever top the charts at that point, and its echoes are still being heard in the countless generations of bands that have followed the noise:
Before George Harrison introduced sitars into the Beatle's music, the Kinks used droning, Indian-sounding music modality on the eerie single, "See My Friends."
A year before the Beatles incorporated sound effects to help fashion a series of unrelated songs into the concept album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Ray Davies had applied the same techniques to the making of Face to Face, an album that has been out of print for so long it's become one of the true "lost" albums of the rock era.
Before the Who assembled the "rock opera", Tommy, Davies had written the album-length Arthur, which was then performed by the Kinks as part of a British television special that was never aired.
A decade before MTV debuted in 1982, Davies tried to get his record company to finance a series of multi-media rock stage plays featuring videos as an essential part of the concept. The record company rejected the idea, but Davies went ahead anyway and produced Soap Opera, Preservation, and Schoolboys in Disgrace. The Kinks had an essential combination of elements necessary for a rock band to achieve greatness over an extended period of time: a songwriter of extraordinary skill and imagination, and a group developed and sustained by a virtuoso instrumentalist. The two elements will inevitably come into conflict over the course of a long career; the test of a truly great rock band is to transcend or even feed off that conflict in order to maintain its creative edge. The fact that these two elements of the Kinks' identity are represented by brothers makes the initial bond and subsequent conflict all the more intense. Ray and Dave Davies can create together or war with each other, but they can never stop being brothers. That bond has been the secret weapon that has made the Kinks one of the most important bands in rock history.
"Before we even had a band, me and Ray used to play together," recalled Dave. "Ray was very much the instrumentalist and I was the rhythm guitarist, but when we formed the band it changed. My playing was more aggressive, and it seemed to fit better when we had drums in the band."
"Ray and I have a very special relationship; it's been terrible at times, and yet we are still trying for something. We have the same goal but different methods of getting there. We're both fighting against each other and with each other. It's a fusion of tension that makes something real. Ray is an intellectual person, whereas I'm not, and I've gotten into a lot of emotional difficulties because of that. He's stimulated my intellectual part and I've stimulated his feeling part."
Ray's remarkable description in X-Ray, of the band's early days reveals an awful lot about what makes the Kinks tick as well as what forces produced the golden age of British rockers who emerged in the 1960's.
Few groups of popular musicians were as unanimous in their influences as the English rockers of the 0's. They were all well-versed in American blues and roots music. Like the Rolling Stones, Animals, Who, Them, etc. the early Kinks were a blues band capable of delivering a fast-paced backbeat and a particularly raunchy guitar-driven sound. These bands understood the importance the guitar as the center of their sound. The rattle and hum of rock guitar, which set it apart from the 'clean' tones used by most country and jazz guitarists, are traceable back to the secondary ambient sounds that are a central part of the African musical aesthetic.
Early rock bands had to be pretty innovative to come up with the appropriate distortion techniques. He arrived at his distinctive instrumental voice during jam sessions with Ray in the family sitting room. He had a little green 10-watt Elpico amplifier whose tinny sound the brothers hated. He ran the Elpico amplifier's speaker output leads through a Vox AC 30 speaker, then slashed the speaker cone of the Elpico to produce a buzzing, distorted sound. The boys christened this piece of customer equipment "the fart box."
The earliest Kinks albums, made before Ray developed his unique songwriting voice, are studded with blues covers and '50's rock songs culled from a variety of black American sources, some fairly obscure: "Milk Cow Blues," "Long Tall Shorty," "I'm A Lover Not A Fighter," "Cadillac," "Long Tall Sally," "Beautiful Delilah", "Too Much Monkey Business", etc.
Ray enthusiastically admits to the blues influence, tracing it back to his first glimpse of Big Bill Broonzy on a British television documentary. Ray began his professional career playing rhythm guitar for the Dave Hunt band, whose residence at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond was later taken over by the Rolling Stones.
Meanwhile, Dave had formed an instrumental band called the Ravens, with his friend Pete Quaife on bass, and the band recruited former Rolling Stones drummer Mick Avory. Ray joined them in 1963. Rechristened with the attention-getting (they hoped) name the Kinks, the Davies brothers and friends cut their first single, a remake of Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," for producer Shel Talmy. The session, which also yielded "I Took My Baby Home," "You Do Something To Me," and "You Still Want Me", was an uneventful start for the Kinks, but better days were ahead.
Talmy had been pressuring Ray to write some Beatles-type songs, but during a package tour of England the band was getting it's best response from another of Ray's songs, "You Really Got Me." Though he wrote it, Ray attributed it's sound to the whole band, describing it as "a sort of Ventures- like instrumental track with a vocal line on top."
The band went into the studio to cut "You Really Got Me", didn't like the way it was produced, and insisted on recutting it with a sound closer to the live performances. Dave pulled out all the stops on the second take, even adding the doctored "fart box" to his gear for it's particular distortion, and proceeded to record a milestone in rock history.
There has been much subsequent speculation as to whether it was actually Jimmy Page who played the dexterous guitar solo on "You Really Got Me". (Page was a session guitarist at the time and was used extensively by Talmy.) Page was also rumoured to have played some trademark guitar parts on the recordings of another of Talmy's famous clients, the Who. Session musicians standing in for band members was common practice back then. Nicky Hopkins also did a lot of uncredited keyboard work on the Talmy-produced albums.
Popular music history has since proven that the idea is more important than the instrument. The use of samples and other sonic prosthetics has become standard practice in the studio. It doesn't matter so much who actually played what on early Kinks records as much as it matters that the band came up with the ideas in the first place. For the record, the official line is still that the Kinks played all the music.
The first seven Talmy-produced albums collect a wildly inconsistent bunch of songs ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Ray Davies's Tin Pan Alley-level writing discipline enabled him to churn out an enormous quantity of work, some of it made to order but much of it superb, while Dave sang most of the reconstituted blues songs.
You Really Got Me and Kinda Kinks are packaged together as a Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab gold disc; Kinks-Size and Kinkdom are collected as a Rhino twofer. The best way to approach the early material, however, is to head for the collections - the Rhino Greatest Hits disc, or the quirky, lovable Kink Kronikles
The Rhino collection is without question the best-value Kinks release on the market: 18 tracks of hits and essentials. The set starts off with the rip-roaring noise of the early singles, including "You Really Got Me", "All Day and All of the Night", "Set Me Free", "Who'll Be the Next In Line", "Come On Now", "Everybody's Gonna Be Happy," "I Need You" and "'Till the End of the Day."
But as early as "Tired of Waiting for You", it was obvious that Ray was not simply going to churn out a series of soundalike songs. The complexity of his vision and the torrent of influences he was drinking in led him to write a series of more thoughtful singles for the Kinks in a quieter, folk-rock style - closer to what Bob Dylan was doing then than the metal crunch of "You Really Got Me." The Rhino Hits package backs up the folk-rock singles "Tired of Waiting" and "A Well-Respected Man" with the little-known "You Do Something To Me" and "You Still Want Me."
"Stop Your Sobbing", originally written in response to Talmy's request for Beatles-style material and one of the earliest manifestations of the emotional delicacy Ray could wrap into a lyric, went on to become an integral part of the Kinks legend when Chrissie Hynde recorded it with the Pretenders. "Something Better Beginning" also looks forward to Ray's later writing with its interesting melody and a well-developed story-line with a barbed edge.
Ray continued to pursue the role of social critic he first took on with "Well Respected Man" in the arch "Dedicated Follower of Fashion", a manners-skewing caricature that reportedly delighted no less a wit than Noel Coward. The rest of the album contains Ray's dramatic self-description "I'm Not Like Everybody Else", the strangely prophetic lament "Where Have All the Good Times Gone", and one of his greatest songs, the languorous #1 hit from the summer of 1966, "Sunny Afternoon."
"Sunny Afternoon" was the centerpiece of Face to Face, an album that marked a dramatic change in Ray's songwriting. He extended the conceit of "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" into "Dandy", a song covered by Herman's Hermits for a #1 hit before Ray could release it himself. Ray dealt with the peculiar difficulties of the deteriorating British class system in "Sunny Afternoon", "Most Exclusive Residence For Sale". He languished in exquisite solipsism on "Fancy" and "Rainy Day in June", and began to turn out a series of cameo tunes on such odd topics a studio musicians ("Session Man"), rude neighbors on the telephone ("Party Line"), and extraordinary vacations ("Holiday in Waikiki").
Ray was turning into nothing short of a eccentric whose songwriting vision was sharp as a tack. He was still capable of producing hit singles, yet focused on a series of themes about which no one else in the rock pantheon would dream of writing - with a few exceptions. The Rolling Stones later did songs apparently fashioned after "Dandy" ("I'm Just Sitting On a Fence") and "Party Line" ("Connection").
Sadly, "Face to Face" is simply impossible to come by, leaving a cavernous gap in material between "Kontroversy" and the extraordinarily quirky albums that followed: Something Else, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and Arthur.
"Something Else" is the last of the Talmy-produced albums, though it's evident that Ray was calling most of the shots, writing intensely personal songs based on memories of childhood - like "Harry Rag", a title inspired by his father's slang phrase for cigarettes; "End of the Season", with its recollections of schoolboy rugby games; and the catchy put-down of a twisted gentryman, "David Watts." Then there were songs reflecting ambivalent feelings toward marriage ("Two Sisters", "Situation Vacant"), and more of the witty cameos - like "Afternoon Tea", which turns a distinctively English ritual into a love song; the bossa-nova "No Return"; and the wonderfully evocative "Lazy Old Sun."
Dave also stepped in with his best compositions to date, particularly "Death of a Clown", which became a kind of trademark for him. "Something Else" concludes with one of the best-written songs of the rock era, the chilling, bittersweet "Waterloo Sunset". Initially inspired by Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in Far From the Maddening Crowd, "Waterloo Sunset" has taken on a life of it's own. From the simple, elegant melody to the soaring chorus, this song fires the imagination with a subtle grace few rockers have ever achieved.
At this point Ray Davies produces his own work as the hauteur of the Kinks. New Kinks projects were conceived as large-scale works in which the songs and the sound of the band itself were in the service of a larger concept. Ray's first such project, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, was an unabashedly nostalgic look at the world he remembered from his childhood, a world that was now slowly disappearing right before his eyes. It was 1968, and the rock rank and file was calling for revolution, but the Kinks were celebrating the past. In fact, Ray was taking a route dramatically similar to the one Bob Dylan had taken no long before, disengaging himself from the pop world make a more personal music. "Village Green" parallels the themes of both Dylan and the Band's The Basement Tapes and Music From he Big Pink - the search for meaning in the past, he attempt to deconstruct the myths of history to find some kind of truth applicable to an increasingly hostile world.
In the title track and "Village Green", Ray celebrates the central principles of social organizations common to old European towns. He finds a kind of pantheistic truth in the countryside, commuting with nature and animals in "Big Sky", "Sitting By the Riverside", "Animal Farm" and "Phenomenal Cat".
In "Do You Remember Walter?", "Picture Book" and "People Take Pictures of Each Other", Ray explores the persistence of memory as a spiritual principle in itself, concluding in "Walter" that "People often change, but memories of people still remain". He extends his nostalgia to the personification of a bygone era's symbol of power in "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains," and introduces the incorruptible character of "Johnny Thunder" - who is, in Ray's world of ideas, the last of the rockers, and who turns up later in the album and stage versions of "Preservation".
While "Preservation" contained several songs that didn't seem to fit is theme, Ray's next project was a full-fledged concept album commissioned to accompany a television show. "Arthur" was a story based on the history of an average middle-class Briton, whose son Derek is about to emigrate to Australia. (The concept was inspired by a cousin of Ray's who'd done just that). The events portrayed in the songs occur in the minds of the Morgan family on Derek's last day in England. Davies uses this framework to write a song cycle about English history, beginning with the traditions of the Victorian era buried deep within the psyche of the British middle-class ("Victoria"), and continuing with the struggles of World War II ("Yes Sir, No Sir", "Some Mother's Son", "Mr. Churchill Says").
Davies goes on to depict life in post-war England, epitomized by the middle-class homeowner living in his own "Shangri-La". But Arthur's Shangri-La leaves son Derek feeling "Brainwashed" and looking for a new start in "Australia". Davies leaves no doubt as to where his sympathies lie on the album-closing title track, which celebrates the protagonist's life choices with a joyous chorus of "Somebody loves you don't you know it."
"Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneyground, Part One" was the last album recorded by the Kinks under the band's original recording and management contracts. The band had been ill-served both financially and promotionally, and was eager to sever business ties. Several of Ray's songs for this record were cynical denunciations of the world of popular music, and his bitterness translated into great rock and roll.
"The Moneygoround" is Ray's fairly straightforward description of where his songwriting royalties disappeared to, using the actual first names of its handlers. In "Denmark Street" Davies heaps scorn on the denizens of London's publishers row. "Top of the Pops" is a satiric look at the group's rise up the charts, titled after England's weekly hit-parade television show. Dave's guitar part really burns on this track and on "Powerman", Ray slaps at the mogul who's "got the money and my publishing rights."
"Lola" wasn't part of the satiric song cycle aimed at the record industry. It was written before the rest of the album, after Ray took an enforced rest following a particularly hectic American tour. The song is a witty tale of a naive boy's nightclub encounter with a transvestite. Ray's deft handling of what would have been a lurid story in the hands of most rock songwriters kept "Lola" on the light side of controversy and enabled it to become a #1 hit single as well as his theme song, despite the fact that Ray was anything but a glam rocker.
Nevertheless, RCA records, undoubtedly impressed by the success of "Lola", signed the Kinks to join a roster of sexually ambiguous glam rockers headed up by David Bowie and Lou Reed. But instead of delivering a record like "Ziggy Stardust" or "Transformer", the Kinks began their association with RCA by recording one of the most down-to-earth albums in the bands career, Muswell Hillbillies. The cover shows the group standing at the bar of a cavernous old- fashioned London pub, having a pint with the locals. One of the songs, "Alcohol", offers an ironic tribute to the drinking life. The protagonist is a swell who's fallen from grace and hit the skids, leading Ray to deliver the dramatic homily that went on to become a staple of the group's stage act for year's to come: "Sad memories I can't recall / who thought I would fall / a slave to demon alcohol."
In fact, Muswell Hillbillies became the blueprint for a revamped Kinks sound, returning the group to its foundation in blues and roots rock while changing the lineup to include a new bassist, John Dalton, and keyboardist John Gosling, as well as New Orleans-style jazz combo, the Mike Cotton Sound. This version of the Kinks was a musical versatile line-up that could rock out with abandon, turn around and play music-hall arrangements for some of Ray's more outrageous stage theatrics, or handle expertly the subtleties of country and folk blues numbers. Dave and Ray had developed a distinctive two-guitar sound over the years, and when Ray put his mind to it, as on "20th Century Man", "Here Come the People In Gray" and "Muswell Hillbilly", the pair could weave a rhythmically ambitious bed of guitar parts.
Emboldened by his new band's versatility, Ray tried in 1972 to convince RCA to back the group in a series of conceptual album-length stage shows he was developing.
"I wanted to do visual albums over at RCA", said Davies. "I taped the meeting because it was such a ludicrous meeting. I was trying to get them to finance this film I wanted to do of us on tour so I could score the next album based on the film, which ended up as "Everybody's In Showbiz". They said they weren't in the film business. But now they are heavily involved."
"Everybody's In Showbiz" was an ambitious record that shows the outline of Ray's plan. Half of it is live concert recordings, mostly of the "Muswell Hillbillies" material, and the other half of a studio set of songs about life on the road - "Here Comes Yet Another Day", "Unreal Reality", "Hot Potatoes", "Sitting in My Hotel", "Motorway" - and Ray's ultimate fantasy song about stardom, "Celluloid Heroes".
In defiance of RCA, Davies went ahead with plans to record and stage his masterpiece, Preservation, an epic tale of change of survival. It originally appeared as two separate albums, but it seemed more a blueprint until the Kinks performed it as a triumphant stage show. Years later, Rhino reassembled the project in coherent form, adding a prologue and collecting two albums' worth of material in a single package.
After the prologue, the piece opens with a beautiful evocation of sunrise in "Morning Song", which makes excellent use of the horn section and a small choir. Ray delivers the classic Kinks love song "Sweet Lady Genevieve" in the person of the Tramp, one of the three main characters he portrays in Preservation. "There's a Change In the Weather" deals with individual reactions to change from different parts of the English class system.
The Tramp also sings "Where Are They Now?", asking the question "I wonder what became of all the rockers and the mods? / I hope they are making it and they all got steady jobs/ Oh, but rock and roll still lives on...." As if to prove this last statement, Johnny Thunder, the character from Preservation Society, returns in the next song, "One of the Survivors".
The evil politician Mr. Black (also played by Ray) makes his appearance in "Money and Corruption/I Am Your Man," in which Ray satirizes the self-serving moralizing politician whose idealism is just a con job. Two of the play's most powerful songs, "Here Comes Flash" and "Demolition", usher in Ray's third character, the real-estate-developer-politician Flash. The Tramp returns to sing "Sitting In the Midday Sun", which sums up the Tramp's answer to the troubles of the world: "I'd rather be a hobo, walking around with nothing/ Than a rich man scared of losing all he's got."
By the time Ray's morality play reaches the open warfare of Act II, the action seethes with a Brechtian life seldom glimpsed by the rock imagination. Mr. Black's people's army and Flash's people's army and Flash's government clash; "Money Talks" precedes dim views of Flash in "Scum of the Earth", and of Black in "He's Evil." The Tramp returns to condemn it all in "Nobody Gives."
Flash undergoes a transformation in "Flash's Dream", which leads him to confess his sins only to be overthrown by Black, who ushers in the new era of the "Artificial Man". In the finale, "Salvation Road", Ray draws a satiric picture of "The People's Army" singing a Salvation Army-style hymn to their newly sanitized land - not a happy ending, but a powerful one.
Ray lightened up considerably in his next stage project, Soap Opera, designed to accompanying television drama. This was followed by the last of his rock plays, Schoolboys In Disgrace, a prequel to Preservation in which Flash, Mr. Black, and the Tramp are schoolboys in the same English grammar-school class. "I'm In Disgrace" and "The Hard Way" went on to become Kinks classics.
The Kinks resurfaced in the late 70's on Arista Records, where Ray was persuaded to drop the theatrics and go back to writing individual songs. Sleepwalker and Misfits marked a return to the cameo songwriting style Davies had perfected in the 1960's, and contain several memorable songs.
On Sleepwalker Ray celebrated the band's continued success on the concert circuit in "Life on the Road", and the transforming power of rock on "Juke Box Music." He explored the nether regions of his psyche on the title track, "Sleepless Night" and "Full Moon". On Misfits also includes a striking statement of purpose, "Rock and Roll Fantasy", written shortly after the death of Elvis Presley and sounding like a plea to the rest of the band to continue on: "Dan is a fan and he lives for our music/ it's the only thing that gets him by..../and when he feels the world is closing in he turns his stereo way up high / he just spends his life living in a rock and roll fantasy."
Though Ray had always kept his songwriter's eye on England, the rise of punk in the mid and late 70's made the Kinks passe in their homeland and forced the group to concentrate on its American audience, which was growing quickly as the 70's turned into the 80's. The tough, blues-based Low Budget became one of the group's most popular albums. Once again, the Kinks were playing to packed houses; "Superman" became the band's biggest hit since "Lola".
The group's confidence grew as Kinks riffs were appropriated by half the heavy-metal bands in the business, and young groups of every genre covered songs from the bands catalog - the early 80's featured some of the best Kinks performances ever. This era is well-documented on One For The Road, a recording that demonstrates once and for all that Dave Davies is one of the most underrated guitarists in rock history. Give the People What They Want completed the Kink's renaissance as the band headlined arenas, including Madison Square Garden. State of Confusion featured the huge hit "Come Dancing" and the remarkable "Heart of Gold", Ray's bittersweet send-off to former lover Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders.
The band celebrated it 20th anniversary by re-releasing "You Really Got Me", which once again appeared on the British charts, and Ray reprised the group's career with the great "Do It Again", on Word of Mouth. That album also included one of Dave's best songs, "Living On A Thin Line", Come Dancing - The Best of the Kinks does a fine job of collecting the high points of Arista era.
Despite the fact that Ray had anticipated the video revolution by a decade, the advent of the video age in the 1980's spelled doom for the Kinks as record companies looked for fresh faces to fill MTV's power rotation. The band resurfaced again on MCA with the release of Think Visual, Ray's thoughtful rocking takes on the video revolution. But turmoil at MCA left the Kinks stranded once again, and though the band followed with a fine live set (the Road) and the quirky UK Jive, its stay at MCA barely registered on rock's Richter scale.
The band's next stop was even worse. In 1993, just as the band was releasing Phobia, it's first album for Columbia, a high-level Columbia executive threw a temper tantrum at a company meeting and singled out the Kinks as an example of the label's over-reliance on older acts. Though Bruce Springsteen's pair of solo albums was making the loudest hiss at the time, the Kinks were made the scapegoats.
So it was that Ray Davies found his band staring down the time tunnel toward the millenium without a record contract. Though he'd kept the Kinks together through all the fickle twists of the pop music industry over three decades of change, he was finally forced to face the seeming inevitability of his band's extinction.
In 1994 Ray decided to convene the band in their Konk studio in London to record "unplugged" versions of some of his favorite tunes before a small audience of fans and friends. "We wanted to record some of the lesser-known songs that had not been on any of the numerous compilation albums," Ray wrote in the liner notes for To the Bone. "The band had been on a long world tour and were very tight, so it was decided that the recordings were good enough to make it into an album. These recordings have been cut together with some live performances during the same period."
Ray's own performance is a cross between the carefully considered ambience of his confessional one-man show and the freewheeling abandon of the Kinks. Dave is in particularly good form on this material, which includes two new songs recorded in 1996, the title track and "Animal". He shines on "You Really Got Me", opens a slow tempo version of "Set Me Free" with a marvelous solo, and draws rave reviews from Ray for his work on "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" and "Gallon of Gas."
A document that stretches all the way back to the beginning and touches on every aspect of the band's history, including clever new arrangements of such chestnuts as "Do You Remember Walter?" and "Apeman", To the Bone would have served as an appropriate finale to the Kinks recording career. But in what may be the greatest irony of a life steeped in that quality, Ray's solo success seems to have whetted the music industry's appetite for the Kinks. Instead of the end the band thought it was, To the Bone now stands as the beginning of a new chapter in the story of the Kinks.
Maybe they'll finally get that happy ending.
John Swenson, Stereophile, May 1997