Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
I’ve reached the point in The Kinks discography where there are several albums I barely know. Most likely I’ve only ever played them once or twice prior to this week, and it’s probably been close to two decades since the last time I gave those discs a spin. In fact, I’m not sure I was familiar with a single song on any of the albums I’ll be discussing here, so these were like completely new releases for me. The mid-‘70s was a time when lead singer & chief songwriter Ray Davies took The Kinks into theatrical territory, a process which can be traced back to 1968’s Village Green Preservation Society album and blossomed into full-fledged concept albums five years later. I’ll get to those shortly, but first I want to discuss a collection of rarities originally released by Reprise Records after the band left that label to sign with RCA Records.
The Great Lost Kinks Album (1973) was not sanctioned by the band; in fact, they didn’t find out about it until after its release. It was eventually deleted, creating a much sought-after LP that was highly valuable for many years until the majority of the songs appeared on expanded CD versions of their individual albums. It features recordings made between 1966 and 1970, with 10 of its 14 songs from ’68 & ’69. I never got an official copy of this album, but a few years ago a friend gave me a copy on CD-R that included an additional 11 tracks. The majority of these extra songs either appeared on the expanded edition of Something Else or sound like Dave Davies recordings made for his aborted solo album. While there’s very little here that I would consider absolutely essential, there were a number of excellent tracks that grew on me with each subsequent listen, and I’m glad I had a copy so I could include it as part of this series.
♪ “Lavender Hill” – Cut from the same cloth as “Waterloo Sunset” (“The only place that I wanna be, Lavender Hill for me”), which is high praise. It’s not quite a classic, but it’s close.
♪ “Mr. Songbird” – A playful, bouncy tune from late-’67 that’s light as air (ah, that beautiful flute). Has a sing-songy vibe that reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).”
[The Kinks – “Mr. Songbird”]
Other Notable Tracks:
Ray’s first full-on conceptual project was quite an undertaking. Billed as “A Play In Two Acts,” the two separately released Preservation albums (which I own via a 2-CD set that includes both) tell the story of an English community that’s taken over by a greedy capitalist named Flash, and the seemingly good-intentioned politician (Mr. Black) who attempts to defeat Flash and return the village to the way it was before (harking back to the nostalgia of The Village Green Preservation Society). By the end of Part 2 it’s hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad, with Ray’s songwriting alternating between cynicism, optimism, anger & humor. With most concept albums, I don’t spend much time trying to decipher the story. Instead I focus on the songs and how they work both individually & collectively, but with such a specific narrative structure here (especially Part 2) it helps to understand which character is singing each song, and it allows the listener to appreciate tracks that may not work on their own but which push the story forward. The lineup for both parts is the aforementioned Davies brothers, founding drummer Mick Avory, bassist John Dalton & keyboardist John Gosling…along with several horn players and female singers.
Preservation Act 1 (1973) is the stronger of the two albums. It has less of a theatrical structure and more songs that function well on their own, and it’s also a shorter & tighter record: 12 tracks in 44 minutes vs. the more sprawling 67-minute, 21-track second part. This must be one of the most divisive albums in their catalog. It wasn’t a hit in its time and hasn’t been hailed as a lost masterpiece in the intervening years, but time has been kind to it. And speaking of time, I’m really glad I spent so much of it with Preservation Act 1 this past week. What used to be an album that gathered dust on my shelf, and which I remembered as a bloated vanity project for an overly ambitious Ray Davies (who was actually battling through the dissolution of his marriage at the time), turns out to be a very solid effort with more than half the songs making a strong impact on me.
♪ “Where Are They Now?” – A piano ballad with sad, wistful vocals that eventually fills in with organ & sparse drumming. The heartfelt vocals are distinctly Ray as he waxes nostalgic (“Where are all the swinging Londoners/the Teddy Boys now? I wonder what became of all the rockers & the mods”). I love the subtle build in intensity & instrumentation throughout the song.
♪ “One Of The Survivors” – A powerful, chugging riff-rocker with power chords that remind me of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard.” It has a great chorus (“He’s one of the survivors, the motorbike riders”), cool riffs, and references to Jerry Lee Lewis, Dion & The Belmonts, “Hound Dog,” Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy” and many more.
♪ “Sitting In The Midday Sun” – Hidden within this grandiose story is an overlooked classic; a throwback to Village Green. What a lovely melody with the flute giving it a pastoral beauty, and the chorus is pretty close to perfect (“Just sitting in the midday sun, just soaking up that currant bun, with no particular purpose or reason…”).
Other Notable Tracks:
Of the two parts, Preservation Act 2 (1974) comes across as more of a “stage play,” with five interspersed spoken-word “Announcement” tracks helping to narrate the story. It took more time for the songs to make their way into my brain, partially because of the extended running time but also due to the theatrical nature of the record. Fortunately I gave it the attention it deserves, and although it’s not as strong as Act 1, the hit-to-miss ratio is nearly as high. It actually takes some time for the album to gather momentum, with the first three tracks being among the weakest ones here. Actually, the band plays incredibly well (especially Dave, whose searing guitar work was probably an intentional way of putting his stamp all over his brother’s creation), and the down & dirty rock ‘n’ roll groove of “Money Talks” is the best of the first three tracks. The album kicks into a higher gear about a third of the way through (starting with “He’s Evil,” which I’ll discuss below), and after that it’s pretty enjoyable through the end. It’s likely that I won’t be revisiting Preservation Act 2 nearly as often as the majority of albums that preceded it, but at least a handful of its songs would be worthy inclusions on a career-spanning Kinks compilation.
♪ “Mirror Of Love” – A pretty, Music Hall tune with some fantastic high vocals from Ray as he sings the part of Belle, Flash’s “special floosie.” There’s some great tinkling piano throughout, and Ray really captures this female character (“Why I love you though you treat me so bad, ‘cause when I look at you I’m looking through the mirror of love”).
Other Notable Tracks:
There’s not much more I can say about these records. I’m sure a lot of old fans were turned off by the new direction Ray’s songwriting had taken, but others who prefer cohesive storytelling and rock operas might have preferred this era to some of their earlier material. Personally, I’m glad I finally got to know all of this music. Most of it isn’t as immediately accessible as their more well-known material, but these weren’t merely vanity projects either. At the very least, anyone who might doubt their status as musicians should check out this portion of their catalog. I continue to be impressed not just by the songs but by the individual performances as well.
Coming up next time are a couple more concept albums as well as the beginnings of their transformation into an arena rock band. I’m looking forward to hearing them again after so many years.