Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
How do you follow up a 2-part concept album that most fans & critics found disappointing (even if, in hindsight, they’re filled with some excellent songs and the story isn’t as convoluted as it initially seemed)? If you’re The Kinks’ principal songwriter Ray Davies you continue down that same path, taking your frustrated bandmates (Ray’s brother, guitarist Dave Davies, drummer Mick Avory, bassist John Dalton & keyboardist John Gosling) and record label (RCA Records) along for the ride. Eventually financial considerations would require that they return to more commercially viable music, but in the mid-‘70s Ray was stubbornly forcing the band in a theatrical direction. I wasn’t yet a fan, having only reached the age of 10 in 1976, but casting an eye back to that era it’s easy to see why longtime Kinks fans were not happy with the music they were recording at the time. However, after spending the majority of this past week with the four albums they released between Preservation Acts 1 & 2 and Low Budget (when their resurgence as an arena rock band began), I was pleased to find a lot of excellent music covering various styles, even if these records are occasionally spotty and far from their best work.
Soap Opera (1975) is the only true “concept album” out of the batch I’ll discuss in this post, with specific characters, narrated dialogue and a somewhat coherent story. Essentially it’s about a rock star (Starmaker) who decides he wants to switch places with an ordinary man (Norman) to learn about the mundane existence of 9-to-5 workers, hopefully providing him with songwriting material. Over the course of these 12 songs, Starmaker moves in with Norman’s wife, goes to work, has drinks at the pub with his coworkers, commutes to/from the big city, and eventually tires of this lifestyle. At some point it appears that it’s actually Norman dreaming of being a rock star, and perhaps there was no Starmaker after all. I’m not sure if this was Ray’s intention or if he lost track of the narrative, but the end result is a slightly confused (and confusing) record. It doesn’t include any essential tracks but at least half of them are very good & worth discussing. Maybe the biggest problem is the derivative nature of so many songs, like the Grease-influenced Broadway show tune vibe of “Rush Hour Blues,” the campy Music Hall of “Holiday Romance” (which only Queen could have pulled off) and the ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll shuffle of “Ducks On The Wall” (the Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano is its sole redeeming feature). I would only recommend Soap Opera to the most open-minded fans, and it should definitely be far down the list of Kinks albums if you’re just discovering their music.
♪ “Education” – The longest song here, at more than 7 minutes, goes through various sections & moods: The dramatic intro that reminds me a bit of Cream’s “White Room,” the Randy Newman piano-and-vocal vibe (especially at “Everybody needs an education”), the bouncy, Elton John-esque rocker (with horns, piano & guitar all blasting away), the “Teacher, teach me how to read & write” portion, those R&B-inspired backing vocals, and typically great lead guitar from Dave
♪ “I’m In Disgrace” – An apparently real-life story about a student (Dave?) getting a classmate pregnant. There’s a nice quiet intro with rolling piano & sparse hand percussion before it kicks in with that phenomenal riff-heavy chorus (“I’m in disgrace…because I fell for your pretty face”).
[The Kinks – “I’m In Disgrace”]
♪ “The Hard Way” – A tight, fast-paced riff-rocker with punk energy that’s a throwback to their early hit-making days, but slicker. Sung from the perspective of the frustrated headmaster (“Well, you do it your way & I’ll do it my way and we’ll see who’s the one to survive”). There’s great interplay between the sax and two guitars in the instrumental section.
♪ “No More Looking Back” – Has a ‘70s soft rock feel with the steady rimshot rhythm & bubbling organ. Lyrically, Ray doesn’t want to look back but the pull of his adolescence is inescapable. Features some stellar twin lead guitars and Dave shreds throughout the song.
As their RCA contract came to an end, The Kinks signed with Arista Records under strict orders from label boss Clive Davis to drop the concepts of recent years & record songs that were radio-friendly and marketable to an American audience. Ray even moved to New York City for several months to get a feel for the culture & musical trends. Although their full-on return to commercial success was still a couple of years away, they started laying the groundwork with their Arista debut, Sleepwalker (1977). While not quite as concise as the previous record, it’s still an easy record to digest even though many fans of their late-‘60s to early-‘70s golden era still dislike the slicker direction their music took. I, on the other hand, have no problem with this change in their sound, and I liked Sleepwalker a little more each time I played it.
♪ “Life On The Road” – An emotional & powerful way to start the album, as it builds from just organ, bass & vocals into a driving, horn-infused rocker. He’s looking back at his wandering ways (“I said goodbye to my friends & my folks back home and I left for a life of my own”), secure in the knowledge that his rock & roll lifestyle is what he wants (“I’m livin’ the life that I chose…”) even though he longs for something else (“Sometimes I hate the road, but it’s the only life I know”).
♪ “Sleepwalker” – A funky groove, excellent lead guitar, Ray’s high vocals and a killer chorus (“I’m a sleepwalker, I’m a night stalker”) have always made this one of my favorite Kinks songs.
♪ “Juke Box Music” – Lots of things to love about this one: the percussive groove, Dave’s power chords & melodic solo, jangling guitars, the lilting melody in the verses & the simple, straight-ahead chorus (“It’s only juke box music…”).
Other Notable Tracks:
Special mention has to go to a single-only release recorded at the same time as Sleepwalker:
Their sophomore album for Arista, Misfits (1978), is sonically similar to Sleepwalker but it’s not quite as strong a collection of songs. Perhaps that had something to do with the turmoil going on behind the scenes, as various band members came & went. John Dalton was replaced on bass by Andy Pyle (with Ron Lawrence on a handful of tracks), and although Mick Avory was listed in the credits, several songs were handled by other drummers. In spite of this, two new classics emerged as well as a couple of very strong songs, while the remainder are either musically strong but lyrically weak (“Hay Fever”) or simply generic (“Live Life”; “In A Foreign Land”; “Black Messiah”). Only “Permanent Waves” deserves a mention due to the hints of modern bands like Talking Heads & Dire Straits (even though the latter band’s debut wouldn’t be released for a couple of months).
♪ “Misfits” – A pretty, light, melodic, midtempo tune that points ahead to their 1983 hit single, “Don’t Forget To Dance.” I like the arrangement, especially the keyboard-and-vocal-only section (“Look at all the losers…”). The lyrics could be autobiographical: “You’re a misfit, afraid of yourself so you run away & hide.”
♪ “A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy” – A mini epic that’s likely about Ray & Dave which builds from quiet (“Hello you, hello me, hello people we used to be”) to midtempo rock (“There’s a guy in my block, he lives for rock…”) to an ecstatic chorus (“He just spends his life living in a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy”).
[The Kinks – “A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy”]
Other Notable Tracks:
Extra special mention has to go to the A-side of the single I mentioned earlier:
I realize the era I covered in this post is not the most beloved portion of The Kinks’ catalog, but there’s much to enjoy here and I’m hoping other fans agree. However you feel about these albums, I’d love to hear from you. Thanks.