Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Out of all the artists & albums I’ve revisited and written about here over the past three years, there’s never been a batch of records I was more familiar with than the four Kinks albums I spent time with the last 6-7 days. As I explained in Part 1 of this series, I was introduced to them via their late-‘70s & early-‘80s resurgence as an arena rock band. I had very little knowledge of their ‘60s & ‘70s recordings beyond the cover versions I knew from Van Halen and The Pretenders, as well as a single LP collection of their earliest hits. Eventually I acquired their entire discography and came to love so many of their classic albums (which was only enhanced as I’ve become reacquainted with them recently), but those first few albums I heard after discovering them always had a special place in my heart. Ironically, listening to them so soon after working my way chronologically through their catalog, my initial reaction was slight disappointment. It was then that I understood why so many fans who grew up with their earlier records were underwhelmed by their arena rock incarnation.
It was interesting to hear them in this new context, but after playing them another 3 or 4 times I was reminded why I loved them in the first place. They may not be stone-cold classics like Something Else, The Village Green Preservation Society, Muswell Hillbillies, etc., but when you have the unique songwriting & vocals of Ray Davies combined with the musical muscle of lead guitarist Dave Davies, drummer Mick Avory and new guys Jim Rodford (on bass) & Ian Gibbons (on keys beginning in 1980), there are sure to be a number of unforgettable songs…and they didn’t disappoint.
I’ve always disliked the cover for Low Budget (1979), but that’s about the only negative thing I have to say about this album. It’s clear that they were influenced by punk & new wave in the sleeker arrangements and aggressive vocals & guitar work, but the most noticeable differences from earlier recordings are the topical lyrics focusing on the state of America (which was going through another energy crisis at the time), resulting in them sounding more American than ever before. They also cranked out a set of tunes that were a perfect fit for FM radio, and it’s no surprise that it’s their highest charting US album. The majority of the 11 songs included here are worth noting, but a few didn’t hold up as well as I had expected. So if you don’t see one of your favorites listed below, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a clunker; it’s simply not as strong as the others.
♪ “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” – A tender piano-led intro gives way to a “Jumping Jack Flash”-indebted riff. Sung from the perspective of America looking for assistance from other nations during tough times. Even though it’s 6 minutes long, it never overstays its welcome. Dave is impressive on all of his solos, and there’s a nice sax solo as well.
♪ “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” – Also known as “The Kinks go disco” with that Giorgio Moroder-style dance beat. I love the blend of Ray’s lower vocals mirrored by the higher vocals during the verses. On the surface it’s about a man striving for strength in the face of adversity (“Dissatisfied with what I am, I want to be a better man”) but it could also be an observation about society as a whole.
♪ “Low Budget” – A loose, ragged rocker with Dave riffing like Keith Richards at his best. Ray’s vocals are strong & forceful, and it’s packed with memorable melodies (“Times are hard but we’ll all survive, I just got to learn to economize”; “I’m on a low budget, what did you say…I thought you said that”).
♪ “Little Bit Of Emotion” – I always liked this song a lot but I probably didn’t consider it essential until playing it numerous times this week. It’s pretty & tender with twangy lead guitar & the first appearance of a strummed acoustic guitar on the album, I believe. The drum sound is a little plastic (not surprising considering the era it was recorded) but it’s not a distraction. I love Ray’s over-enunciated English vocals in the chorus (“A little bit of real emotion”). Probably the most subtle, heartfelt performance on the album.
Other Notable Tracks:
Throughout the ‘70s, the double-live album was a rite of passage for just about every rock band. The Kinks may have joined those ranks a little later than the rest with One For The Road (1980), but their muscular sound in ’79 & ’80 was perfect for showcasing their recent material while beefing up some of the earlier songs. Emboldened by the commercial success of Low Budget, they were a confident live band who brought tons of energy to every performance (although sometimes at the expense of subtlety & nuance). As a 14-year-old hearing The Kinks in concert for the first time, this is the version of the band I always think of first, and I consider myself lucky to have discovered them at that point in their career. The track selection favors the ‘70s (12 of the 19 songs are from that decade, including 9 from the 4 most recent albums) but also highlights 7 key tracks from the ‘60s.
I like how the lead track, “Opening,” acts like an overture with several identifiable riffs getting the crowd excited. “The Hard Way” is super-fast & energetic, and possibly better than its studio counterpart. “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” is faster than the original and packs more punch, but it lacks some much needed finesse. The sing-along version of “Lola” was an FM radio hit and is still fun to hear. Ray’s introduction to “All Day And All Of The Night” has always been a highlight for me: “Rock bands have come & rock bands have gone…but rock ‘n’ roll’s gonna go on forever…All Day And All Of The Niiiight!” The tighter & heavier version of “20th Century Man” is excellent, especially the Who-like instrumental section with Dave channeling Pete Townshend. This version of “Stop Your Sobbing” was the first time I heard The Kinks perform it after falling in love with The Pretenders’ interpretation. “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” replaces the original’s disco rhythm with a driving rock beat, and it’s equally as effective. “Celluloid Heroes” has long been near the top of my list of favorite Kinks songs, and that likely started when I heard this version. It’s a masterpiece, and Dave’s guitar work is stunning. I like how they ended the album with two of their most quintessentially British songs (“Victoria” and “David Watts”), even though they’re performed a little more forcefully here than on the originals. I’ve never seen One For The Road on lists of all-time best live albums, but it deserves to be in the mix. It certainly sent me on my way to becoming a bigger Kinks fan over 30 years ago.
The Kinks have always been a band that likes to surprise their fans rather than repeat themselves, so even though it must have been tempting to record “Low Budget Part 2” they chose to go in another direction with Give The People What They Want (1981). A rawer & heavier record than its predecessor, with metallic guitars & loud, bashing drums, it still boasts a slew of great songs and about the same hit-to-near-miss ratio as Low Budget. There are also a handful of diversions from the otherwise heavy sounds, giving the record a nice balance as well as a few of its best songs.
♪ “Around The Dial” – A propulsive, rocking tune with heavy guitars and snarling vocals (“Are you listening? Are you listening to me? Can you hear me?”). It’s an homage to FM radio, and musically it takes cues from artists like Blondie, The Buzzcocks and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts.
♪ “Destroyer” – The big radio hit at the time, and deservedly so. They borrow a riff from one of their own songs, “All Day And All Of The Night,” and it immediately catches your ear. I also like how they reference “Lola” in the first line. The lyrics are about the effects of paranoia, and that intense mood is captured throughout. Dave really showcases his guitar prowess here.
♪ “Art Lover” – A pretty melody with a slightly disturbing vocal from Ray. I always thought he was playing a pervert looking at young girls, but now I see that it might be about a father who can’t see his daughter anymore after a divorce (or death?). Even if that’s the case, his delivery of lines like “Come to daddy, come on” is a bit creepy…yet it’s one of the charms of this intoxicating song.
♪ “Better Things” – How could they hide such a brilliant song at the end of the album? It’s a melodic classic that starts off with plunking piano before morphing into a jangly pop/rock song with a Pretenders-inspired guitar line. This song has some of Ray’s best melodies as well as possibly the most uplifting lyrics he’s ever written: “Here’s hoping all the days ahead won’t be as bitter as the ones behind you” is one of many great lines.
Shifting gears once again yet not straying too far from the successful template of the previous couple of albums, they streamlined their sound & polished off those metallic edges for State Of Confusion (1983). It has the reputation of being a soft album because of two hit singles (both of which are essential Kinks songs that would have to appear on a career-spanning anthology), but it still contains a number of excellent rock songs. Several months before the album was released I remember seeing the promotional video for “Come Dancing” multiple times on HBO (then still known as Home Box Office) and not knowing where the song came from. Apparently it was released as a single in the UK more than 6 months before this album appeared, so imagine how pleased I was to find it included on State Of Confusion. The video, which is included at the bottom of this post, is like a mini movie that adds some nice visuals to a song which was already quite vivid in its nostalgic look back on Ray’s boyhood, when his sister would go out dancing with a different suitor every weekend. It’s one of many highlights on an album that probably deserves a stronger reputation than it has.
♪ “State Of Confusion” – Begins with guitar stabs reminiscent of The Police’s “Roxanne” and then turns into a catchy, stomping & upbeat rocker. There are various hooks throughout: “I’m in a state (state) of confusion, whoooahh”; “Don’t know why I feel this way…”; “Should feel happy, should feel glad, I’m alive and it can’t be bad.” He’s trying to stay optimistic in a negative world.
♪ “Come Dancing” – From the strumming guitar intro to the fake steel drum sounds and on to the dance-band horn section, there’s a reason why this was one of their biggest hits. Some elements of ‘80s production pop up (like the keyboard & drum sounds) but it still has a timeless quality.
♪ “Don’t Forget To Dance” – A beautiful ballad with pretty guitar & keyboard work, and Ray’s soft & warm vocal performance is especially inviting. The synthetic drum sound probably turned off some fans, but it’s never hindered my enjoyment of this gorgeous song. The lyrics are sung to an old woman, but they could be a pick-me-up for anyone with “a sad & lonely heart.”
♪ “Heart Of Gold” – A perfectly arranged acoustic pop/rock tune which at times reminds me of The Grateful Dead’s 1987 hit single, “Touch Of Grey.” I love the bouncy bass line and various guitars (chiming, jangly and strummed acoustic…all lovely).
I had so much fun spending time with these albums again after all these years. I realize they probably appeal mostly to people in my age group who discovered The Kinks at that time, but maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that they’re just as highly regarded by fans old & new. Please let me know your thoughts on this era in the Comments section. Thank you.
As promised above, here is the “Come Dancing” video for your listening & viewing pleasure.