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 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”).
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.
I had a conversation with a colleague the other day about legacies – the argument being, if the stones had called it quits in the mid 70s, they might be remembered as a more potent group.
Despite their being some enjoyable stuff in this period, do you think the Kinks might be remembered differently if they’d wrapped things up after the first 10 years?
That’s an interesting conversation, Geoff. I don’t think The Stones’ reputation would be any different had they quit in the mid-’70s because they’ve continued to release some solid music since then, and they haven’t done anything truly awful. This concept would apply more to artists like Elton John and Rod Stewart, whose legacy & impact has been severely diluted by years of forgettable and occasionally embarrassing releases.
As for The Kinks, I think they still have a good reputation in spite of the less commercial albums they released in the ’70s, especially because of their career resurgence in the US during the ’80s. I’m sure there are a lot of fans who wish they quit after Muswell Hillbillies, but having come to their music in 1979 I’m a fan of all eras of the band.
Once again you provide me with an “a ha!” moment, Rich! Misfits, one of my favorite Kinks songs, absolutely does sound like a prototype for Don’t Forget To Dance, but I never made the connection. Misfits and Sleepwalker, and bits of Soap Opera are part of my collection, but I’ll have to go back and check out Schoolboys In Disgrace, an album that, due to its poor reputation, I have never listened to. Thanks for this series. Really enjoying it, and I hope you’ll include One For The Road album in Part 6, really the point where I became a somewhat fanatical Kinks head.
Hi Ian. I hadn’t made that connection between “Misfits” and “Don’t Forget To Dance” until playing the Misfits album again last week. That track had me thinking, “where have I heard this before,” and I kept waiting for it to go into a different chorus. After the third time I played the album, that’s when I had my own a-ha moment.
I hope you like Schoolboys In Disgrace whenever you check it out. To me it’s by far the strongest of this batch of albums.
Of course I’ll be including One For The Road in this series…in the next post, actually. Sadly, I think I got rid of my original vinyl copy (with the poster that was hanging on my wall for years) and my CD pressing is an edited one from the late-’80s that’s probably missing a song or two. I might have to scour the internet for those songs so I can paint a complete picture of that album.
It’s taken me a while, but I am really enjoying Schoolboys, and have cherry picked a bunch from these other mid-period albums, mostly all based on your recommendations (although I think I found more to love on Misfits than you). This series was invaluable in rediscovering the lost gems of one of my favorite groups. Thanks, Rich!
Ian, it brings a smile to my face knowing I helped in some small way to inspire your rediscovery of this era of The Kinks’ career. I may feel more strongly about Misfits the next time I go back to it, but in the context of the rest of their catalog it wasn’t as strong as some of the others. It’s all about context, right? Thanks for your feedback.
Pingback: THE KINKS Part 8 – Doing It Again On This Looney Balloon | KamerTunesBlog
Like “Stop Your Sobbing” when I heard the cover first, I actually knew “The Hard Way” from the Knack’s version before I heard the Kink’s do it on One For The Road! And I hadn’t heard the studio version until today.
Hi Todd. I had forgotten about The Knack’s version of “The Hard Way.” It’s possible that I heard their version first as well. One of these days I’ll have to do a brief series on their catalog (I own all of their albums), since they’re highly underrated. What did you think of The Kinks’ studio version?
My theory, and I’m a huge fan of the Preservation Act 1 & 2 albums, is that the Kinks went from a hard rock band to a progressive band with the awesome horn section and the ladies, back to a hard rock band with albums such as Low Budget and the later ones. Perhaps I’m getting a bit ahead of your curve, but what do you think of that?
Off topic, but I just completed my Jill Sobule collection on CD, and its been one hell of a rewarding experience to finally have it all, including a very rare live DVD. She’s way more than the I Kissed a Girl girl.
Cheers, man, I really like your writing style and your musical taste.
Hi again, Digital Dave. Great to hear from you. I think you’re spot-on regarding your analysis of The Kinks’ career path. The one era you might have missed, though, was the more British-centric late-60s when they were less of a hard rock band & much more diverse. Their catalog wouldn’t be nearly as impressive had they stuck with one sound, even if Ray’s songwriting continued to be strong. Their constantly evolving sound is what makes them special.
As for Jill Sobule, have we discussed her before? Forgive me if I stated this already since I remember talking about it relatively recently, but sometime in the mid-’90s I shared a cab with her in New York City after seeing a show with some friends from my days working at Atlantic Records. Somehow one of those friends ended up in a cab with me & Jill, and when the friend got out first I spent 5 minutes chatting with her before she went on her way. I don’t know much about her music other than that one big album…which was very good…but I always knew that she was an artist who would unfortunately be known for one big song when there’s so much more to her. Congratulations on completing your CD collection of her music. That’s always a rewarding experience. I recently did the same with Canadian country/rock band Blue Rodeo.
Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog and that we share similar musical tastes.
Like to stick in my 2 cents on the “Progressive” aspect of The Kinks. While all the other bands of that genre combined classical or jazz with rock, Ray & Dave were unique (w/ possible exception of Stackridge) in combining English Music Hall with rock. The whole arc of “The Preservation Act” albums, and the characters created for it, has a distinctly British Vaudeville atmosphere.
The Pretty Things, with “S.F. Sorrow” & Pete Townsend, with “Tommy” were conceived as “Grand Rock Operas”, Ray went in a different direction, a more sentimental, low-budget approach.
Great points about The Kinks’ unique progressive approach. Since prog-rock is probably my favorite sub-genre, I have a very broad view of what is considered “progressive.” To me it’s anything outside the norm, so even quirky pop/rock bands like XTC, Talking Heads & 10cc would fall under the prog umbrella. There’s no doubt that Ray’s one-of-a-kind approach to theatrical rock makes much of The Kinks’ music truly progressive.
By the way, nice inclusion of “low budget” into your comment. Well played.
I thankest thee and curtsy most low…
“Schoolboys in Disgrace” and “Sleepwalkers” are two much underestimated albums I really love a lot. Big fan of all their stuff, 19 LPs altogether, but these I can listen to over and over. “Juke Box Music” should be ranked along with “Lola” as an all-time Klassic Kinks rocker with a great human interest storyline. Thanks for writing about the lesser- known stuff from their catalogue!
Many fans of the classic ’60s recordings have voiced their displeasure regarding their mid-’70s albums, but to me they’re a natural progression both sonically & in Ray’s songwriting.
As for me writing about the lesser-known stuff, that’s one of the things I try to do here. The artists I write about are often not in the upper echelons of my favorites yet I’ve usually accumulated most or all of their catalogs. Each series allows me to revisit their discographies & get re-acquainted with them. It takes a lot more time than if I wrote about my favorites, but I’m getting a much better appreciation of each artist & hopefully that comes through to my readers.
I really like what I’ve seen so far, much respect for that approach- way too many writers focus on the million-sellers, to the detriment of other songs and albums that the public should be open to. Just because a playlist consultant decides a song gets heavy rotation doesn’t make it any better than the B-side (Chuck D; “B-side wins again & again, DJ gives us a try, but never really gives it a try…”
My collection has a lot of deletes and cutouts I bought cheap over the years, giving me endless “new” music to discover.
Pingback: KamerTunesBlog Year In Review 2014 | KamerTunesBlog
Pingback: Forty Year Friday – …AND THE REST (PART 1) | KamerTunesBlog