Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
By the late-‘60s, The Kinks had moved away from their early R&B-influenced, riff-based rock sound and morphed into a more distinctly British band, centered on the unique worldview of main songwriter/singer/multi-instrumentalist Ray Davies. This change took place over the three albums I discussed in my last post, and the “new” Kinks fully blossomed with the release of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968) [for the sake of brevity, I will now refer to this album simply as Village Green]. Along with lead guitarist/vocalist Dave Davies, drummer Mick Avory and bassist Pete Quaife (who would depart the group after Village Green), Ray continued the nostalgic subject matter begun on the brilliant “Waterloo Sunset” and expanded it through an entire album. It’s not so much a concept album as a collection of songs held together by the prevailing notion that the modern world (and Britain in particular) had lost the charms of a more innocent time, which may or may not have been as perfect as it looked through Ray’s rose-colored glasses.
For fans of the more hard-driving sound of “You Really Got Me” and “Till The End Of The Day,” the bulk of this album might lack the musical punch that they’re looking for, but just like many of their contemporaries (i.e. The Beatles, The Who and The Rolling Stones) their musical boundaries were expanding and, beginning with Village Green, The Kinks sounded like no one but themselves. Ray’s ambitions were probably as grand as those of The Who’s Pete Townshend, both of whom sought to broaden the scope of what their respective bands could do. Village Green is now acknowledged as one of the all-time classics, and I’m not going to argue with that assessment. One of the record’s strengths is its tightness: 15 songs in just under 40 minutes, with 14 of them clocking in at less than 3 minutes. This is an album that invites the listener to keep coming back, which I did numerous times this past week, and it became more enjoyable with each successive spin. While I could highlight all 15 songs, a handful of them didn’t make my lists of key tracks. That doesn’t mean they’re not great songs, but I wanted to focus on the ones that had the biggest impact on me. The bottom line is that Village Green is an essential album that keeps improving with age.
♪ “The Village Green Preservation Society” – The jaunty melody and lyrics highlight a plethora of things from the past that shouldn’t be forgotten, setting the mood for the rest of the album. The subtle organ splashes, which I hadn’t noticed before, add nice accents to the funky beat. Nice backing vocals as well.
♪ “Do You Remember Walter?” – Looks back at innocent times with a childhood friend. I like the way it moves from tight verses (“Walter, wasn’t it a shame…”) to a more open feeling at “Do you remember Walter…” The key phrase here is: “Yes, people often change, but memories of people can remain.”
♪ “Picture Book” – Features an absolutely brilliant climbing 4-note melody and a killer chorus: “Picture book, pictures of your mama, taken by your papa a long time ago.” It has a great groove, fantastic vocal arrangement & pretty acoustic guitar strumming. I also love the abrupt ending.
♪ “Animal Farm” – A nice blend of acoustic guitar & piano gives way to a more driving rhythm & one of Ray’s strongest vocal performances. I love the way his voice goes higher as the verses progress, and that descending 3-note guitar motif during the chorus is beautiful.
Other Notable Tracks:
Village Green is the final Kinks studio album I own via an expanded edition CD, so this will be the last time I’ll be discussing bonus tracks (or in this case, bonus track) in this series. Although it was later reissued as a 3-CD “Special Deluxe Edition,” my copy only has a handful of bonus tracks…and only one of them is worth noting. Fortunately, it’s one of their best. One of these days I’ll have to get the 3-CD version, now that I’ve become much more familiar with the original album.
The Essential Bonus Track:
♪ “Days” – A shuffling rocker with one of Ray’s catchiest & lightest melodies. Although seemingly happy on the surface, he’s looking back on someone who’s no longer in his life. It’s emotionally complex for such a deceptively simple song, and he could even be singing about the band (which always seemed on the verge of breaking up).
Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire (1969), which I will be referring to simply as Arthur, was originally intended as the soundtrack to a TV play for the BBC, but when that project fell through The Kinks released it as their latest studio album. Even though it doesn’t follow a strict narrative structure, Ray once again tells an overarching story via thematically linked songs. The title character is loosely based on his brother-in-law, who moved to Australia with his wife (Ray’s sister) a few years earlier, as a British everyman in retirement looking back on his simple life and how he was shaped by his home country. This allows Ray to continue his nostalgic streak with added layers of cynicism, sarcasm and humor. The songs, as well as the production, have more punch than its immediate predecessors, but there’s still a lot of subtlety to the arrangements, and once again the band members prove themselves to be better musicians than they’re often given credit for. They may not be virtuosos, but they play exactly what each song requires, making these albums a satisfying listening experience from start to finish. I should note that Arthur marks the first appearance of John Dalton as The Kinks’ new full-time bass player, a role he would continue through 1976. Arthur finds the band in the middle of a string of classic releases. It’s hard to compare it with Something Else By The Kinks, Village Green or Lola Versus… (which I’ll discuss below), since each offers up a number of new Kinks standards along with excellent album tracks, so I’ll just say that it’s another gem in their catalog, with 10 noteworthy songs out of 12.
♪ “Victoria” – Grabs listeners immediately with the great groove and instantly memorable twin guitar melody. I love Ray’s throatier vocals, Dave’s tasty guitar solo, the simple yet brilliant chorus (“Victoria” sung several times with strong harmonies) and the cool half-time shift at the bridge (“Land of hope & gloria…”).
♪ “Drivin’” – Has a playful melody that bounds from side to side, a bouncy shuffle groove, lots of dynamics and I love the vocals at “We’re going dri-i-i-i-ivin’.”
♪ “Shangri-La” – Begins with pretty fingerpicked acoustic guitar & Ray’s soft vocals, later joined by horns, harpsichord and Dave’s high harmonies. The song gets heavier & more “rock” in the second half, but never loses its sense of melody (especially that killer chorus). Ray’s impression of Shangri-la seems to change from optimism to pessimism over the course of the song.
♪ “Young And Innocent Days” – A simple structure, soft & tender, with nice acoustic guitar work. The chorus is a monster, with those nice tight harmonies (“It was great, so great, young and innocent days”).
♪ “Arthur” – This album closer has a bouncy, quasi-Celtic vibe to the melody. Musically it’s similar to “Victoria”; the two songs forming perfect bookends. There’s a big hook at “Arthur the world’s gone & passed you by, don’t you know it? Don’t you know it?” The lead guitar mirrors that melody, and overall the song pretty much sums up the story. It would have functioned perfectly as the theme song over the closing credits.
Throughout Ray’s nostalgic songwriting he’s also shown hints of bitterness & anger along with a sly sense of humor, but the overall feeling was usually a positive one. That all changed with Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part One (1970). Yet another long album title, it will now be known as Lola for the remainder of this series. This time the focus is on greedy capitalists and the shady dealings in the music industry, where the artist is the last one to see any money from the music they’re creating. Musically they cover a lot of ground, but lyrically it’s much more negative than anything they had done to that point, so I give them a lot of credit for making such a strong album in spite of the somewhat self-pitying subject matter. While most fans know & love the title track, which was The Kinks’ first big hit in a few years (especially in America), most of the others are lesser known (with one exception) but every bit as strong as the best tracks from the last several albums. I might not rate it quite as highly as Village Green and Arthur, but it’s a close call and I still consider Lola to be another essential record.
♪ “Lola” – What can I say about one of the Kinks’ most well-known & beloved songs? Great acoustic strumming leads to banjo plucking, subtle percussion & vocals before the whole band kicks in. Funny lyrics about Ray’s encounter with someone who “walks like a woman & talks like a man.” Simply a great song that never gets old.
♪ “Apeman” – I always thought this was a bigger hit in the US than the UK, since I heard it a lot when I was a teenager, but apparently it charted a lot higher in their home country. Ray affects a Caribbean accent as he sings “I’m an ape man, I’m an ape ape man…” about getting away from the grind. Even with the upbeat nature of the music, the lyrics are a little dark (“I don’t feel safe in this world no more, I don’t want to die in a nuclear war”). I challenge anyone not to sing along with that chorus, though.
♪ “Powerman” – Blends intense riffing with acoustic strumming and a great bass line. It could pass for a David Bowie song from that era. Depending on whether he’s referring to a “powerman” or simply “power, man” it’s clear that he feels helpless with everyone taking a piece of the pie (“He’s got my money & my publishing rights”). I love that rockin’ chorus: “It’s the same old story, it’s the same old dream. It’s power man/powerman and all that it can bring.”
A lot of great live albums were released in the late-‘60s. Seminal releases by Cream, James Brown, Johnny Cash, The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and The Who come to mind, but sadly The Kinks’ sole live album from that decade, Live At Kelvin Hall aka The Live Kinks (1967 US, 1968 UK), isn’t one of them. It was recorded at a Scottish performance in April 1967 when they were still teen idols, but even the obligatory cacophony created by thousands of screaming girls, which should have simply highlighted the hysteria that surrounded the band, was mixed too loud and overshadowed the songs. Since it sounds like those screams were enhanced in the studio, and it’s been acknowledged that instrumental & vocal overdubs were added later in the studio, this is one of the least essential live recordings I’ve ever heard. It does feature a decent set list (“Till The End Of The Day,” “A Well Respected Man,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Dandy,” “You Really Got Me”), but due to the atrocious recording quality it’s impossible to enjoy…or even decipher…most of the performances (regardless of whether it’s the stereo or mono version, both of which are included on the latest edition of the CD). When I was younger I enjoyed the fact that they included “Batman Theme” in the closing medley (between “Milk Cow Blues” and “Tired Of Waiting For You”), but it didn’t hold up for me all these years later. I did enjoy hearing the crowd singing one of the choruses during “Sunny Afternoon,” but other than that I recommend staying away from this live recording unless you’re a Kinks completest.
That closes out this particular chapter in The Kinks’ discography, one that many critics & fans consider their creative peak (I agree, but I also think there are other peaks ahead, which I hope to confirm in the coming weeks). As they entered into the ‘70s there were many changes on the horizon, eventually resulting in a rebirth at the end of the decade. I still have plenty of ground to cover before I get there, but this is a good time to take a deep breath & enjoy all the great music I listened to this week on the three studio albums discussed above. Please share your thoughts on these albums in the Comments section. Hopefully we share similar favorites.
[As I did in my previous post, I want to highlight a song that has become so ubiquitous over the years from constant radio play that many people probably don’t even listen to it anymore. “Lola” is such a well-constructed song, and so uniquely a Ray Davies creation, that I hope listening to it with fresh ears will remind you why you used to like it. Or perhaps you’ve never heard it, and in that case…enjoy!]