Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
The four releases I’ll be discussing here were among the least-played Kinks titles in my collection until this past week, even though I’ve owned all but one of them for many years. This was the beginning of a period in their career when they had essentially become a cult band in both the U.S. and their native England. Sure, they had a couple of FM radio hits during this time, and they rebuilt their audience in America after a 4-year ban from live performances with the massive success of “Lola.” Unfortunately, they were also becoming known for erratic, alcohol-fueled concerts that kept them from more mainstream acceptance and their slow progression away from straight-forward rock & roll and towards a more “musical theater” approach didn’t help their commercial fortunes. I’m getting slightly ahead of myself here since that change wouldn’t come to full fruition until the albums I’ll be discussing in my next post, but I wanted to explain why this era was a transitional one for them. That doesn’t mean these records should be overlooked, as they’re filled with plenty of great songs. Hopefully you’ll feel the same way after reading this post, if you’re not already familiar with them.
Their final release on longtime label Pye Records was Percy (1971), the soundtrack to a British comedy about the world’s first penis transplant (yes, you read that correctly…and no, I have not seen the film). Recorded by the 5-piece lineup which would remain together for most of the decade (lead singer/multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Ray Davies, lead guitarist/backing vocalist Dave Davies, drummer Mick Avory, bassist John Dalton and keyboardist John Gosling), this album consists of 13 tracks written by Ray, 6 of which are instrumentals. On first listen last week it seemed to be mostly incidental music and lesser-quality songs, but I’m glad I stuck with it because there are a number of excellent songs which have become new favorites. Percy was mostly a forgotten album for many years, especially in the U.S. where their label (Reprise Records) never released it, but it has since become a word-of-mouth keeper. It’s not the place to start your Kinks collection but don’t let its semi-obscurity scare you away.
♪ “God’s Children” – One of Ray’s prettiest songs, featuring chiming guitar, shimmering piano & sweeping strings. It has a spiritual feel, both musically & lyrically, and an uplifting melody as he pleads that “we gotta go back, the way the good Lord made us all.”
♪ “Dreams” – Begins as a tender ballad with fingerpicked & strummed acoustic guitar and piano before moving through several distinct sections in less than 4 minutes. It rocks harder at “I could be a king or a football star” then shifts to a half-time groove leading into “Dreeeeam….I’m far away.” One of their most cinematic numbers.
Other Notable Tracks:
Their first release after signing a new worldwide contract with RCA Records was Muswell Hillbillies (1971), possibly their most American sounding album even though the lyrics are still based in England (the title is a nod to the London suburb where they grew up, Muswell Hill). I’ve always enjoyed this record whenever I played it, yet the majority of the songs never stuck with me. The overall vibe was warm & inviting but it took until this week to realize it’s another fantastic record that ranks up there with their best. The addition of a horn section headed up by trumpeter Mike Cotton is notable, since they would play a major part in The Kinks’ live performances over the next few years. There’s actually not a bad song here, but I’m leaving a handful of them off my lists of highlighted songs because I didn’t think they measured up to the others.
♪ “20th Century Man” – Probably the most well-known song from the album, and also the longest. In nearly 6 minutes, Ray bemoans the state of the modern world (“the age of machinery…too much aggravation”) as he sings in a slightly detached semi-mumble. Country elements mingle with bluesy rock, and Dave delivers some nice slide guitar work. The steady, stomping arrangement is deceiving, as this is one of their most complex songs, as well as a statement of intent: “I’m a 20th century man but I don’t want to be here/die here.”
♪ “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” – I’m not sure why he pronounces it as “skits-o-freena,” but the loose New Orleans-style horn arrangement & his conspiracy theory lyrical content eventually helped this boozy barroom blues to burrow under my skin. Reminds me a bit of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” with lines like, “The milkman’s a spy & the grocer keeps following me.”
♪ “Skin And Bone” – A stomping rockabilly blues that sounds at times like John Lee Hooker covering the old standard, “Shortnin’ Bread.” I love the guitar work (lead & slide) as well as the funny story about “Fat Flabby Annie” who loses so much weight that “you can’t see her walk by.”
♪ “Muswell Hillbilly” – The brilliant chiming circular lead guitar pattern is the key to this song’s greatness, as are Ray’s strong lead vocals. Focuses on the plight of the working class in modern England, with a Brit dreaming of America (“I’m a Muswell hillbilly boy, but my heart lies in old West Virginia”). This album closer forms a perfect pair of bookends with “20th Century Man,” the two longest & strongest songs here.
For their next release, Everybody’s In Show-Biz (1972), they paired 10 new studio recordings with a selection of performances from two nights at Carnegie Hall in March ’72, originally issued as a 2-LP set but now available on a single CD. The majority of the new songs have always been overshadowed by “Celluloid Heroes,” which I’ll discuss more below, so it took until this week to finally get acquainted with them. It’s fitting that a collection of songs addressing the various downsides of life on the road would be combined with a live record that showcases them as a tight-but-loose rock & roll machine. Nearly half of the 11 live songs are from Muswell Hillbillies, and based on the audience reaction throughout the performance, that album was already a fan favorite. It’s worth noting that Ray was becoming more animated on stage at the time, opting to be a performer as much as a singer & musician. In his own way, he was embracing the glam rock trend (which was hot at the time) without altering the band’s musical style. Of the live tracks, “Brainwashed” (originally from the Arthur LP) benefits from the beefed up arrangement, with rumbling bass, chunky riffs, rolling drums & blasting horns. “Top Of The Pops” has them sounding like a ‘70s arena rock band, years before they would actually become one. The 5-song Muswell Hillbillies “suite” is broken up by an impromptu version of “Banana Boat Song,” with Ray getting the crowd to participate in the call-and-response of “Day-O” that would become one of his trademarks. I like how he introduces his brother as “Dave ‘Death Of A Clown’ Davies” (in a nod to Dave’s hit single that didn’t lead to his expected solo career), and the way he adopts an American accent to impersonate Johnny Cash. It’s nice to hear him being so playful, so even though many of his songs about rock stardom focus on the negative aspects, he could still shine while he was on stage. Here are my highlights from the studio portion of Everybody’s In Show-Biz
♪ “Celluloid Heroes” – A contender for best Kinks song of all time, and for many years it was my undisputed favorite (it’s still in my Top 5). A maudlin yet upbeat tale of old Hollywood royalty, as observed on the Walk Of Fame “along Hollywood Boulevard.” Gorgeous music, affecting vocals & a brilliant melody make its 6:20 running time fly by.
♪ “Sitting In My Hotel” – A slow, mournful piano ballad with tender high vocals addressing his feelings of isolation as a rock star. I love the up & down melody at “If my friends could see me now I know they would smile” as well as the vocals in the chorus (“Seven stories high, looking at the world go by”). After the full band joins in, Mike Cotton’s soaring trumpet plays a similar role to the flugelhorn on The Beatles’ “Penny Lane.”
Other Notable Tracks:
During their banishment from American stages, The Kinks’ star lost some of its luster here, and many of their best songs (both singles & worthwhile album tracks) were mostly unknown to U.S. fans. The majority of those songs eventually appeared on CD reissues, but for many years there was only one place to find them: The Kink Kronikles (1972). This 28-song, 2-LP set gathered the cream of the crop from their 1966-1970 output, and has been an essential part of my Kinks collection even in the years since I acquired these songs elsewhere. Any Kinks collection that includes “Victoria,” “The Village Green Preservation Society,” “Waterloo Sunset,” “David Watts,” “Autumn Almanac,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Apeman,” “Lola” and “Days” could easily be mistaken for a “greatest hits” but the intention of Reprise Records at the time was to expose these under-heard gems along with some actual rarities like single-only releases and b-sides. Anyone who owns the most recent expanded CD reissues could probably skip The Kink Kronikles, although they would be missing a handful of excellent songs (5 of these tracks don’t appear on any other CDs I own, 3 of which I’ll discuss below). Also, the 8 pages of detailed & informative liner notes by John Mendelsohn are the perfect accompaniment to all this amazing music.
♪ “She’s Got Everything” – Sounds like a throwback to their earlier beat group sound, and I love those “doo-doo-doo” backing vocals, splashy cymbals & that awesome drum-free guitar riff. It’s bright & fun (“I got a girl who’s oh so good…”) and includes an absolutely scorching guitar solo from Dave.
Other Notable Tracks:
You know an artist is special when even their transitional periods yield a bumper crop of memorable songs, and after spending a lot of time with these four releases this past week I have an even greater respect & admiration for everything The Kinks accomplished during this era. It helped confirm my main reason for starting this blog: getting to know the lesser-played albums in my collection. Not all of them will be classics, but in the process of learning all of these long-forgotten songs it allows me to become a bigger fan. Hopefully my enthusiasm helps to lead some of my readers towards new discoveries as well. Please let me know what you think of these albums, whether they’re brand new to you or you’ve owned them for years. Thanks.