Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Unlike the period covered in my previous post, which included the four Kinks albums from 1979 to 1983 that I’ve loved since they were initially released, the albums I’ll be discussing here represent an era when the band’s commercial fortunes took a tumble and, coincidentally, my interest in their music waned. I still bought everything they released but found myself playing each record less than the previous one. However, after listening to each of them a number of times this past week, I have a much better appreciation for the work they did between 1984 & 1989. None of them would be in my top 10 Kinks albums, but plenty of these songs are as integral to their discography as many of their classics. There was a lineup change with the departure of original drummer Mick Avory after years of clashing with lead guitarist Dave Davies. Dave’s brother, lead singer/chief songwriter Ray Davies, continued to crank out the tunes as the band entered its third decade, and they were joined by keyboardist Ian Gibbons, bassist Jim Rodford and new drummer Bob Henrit, who previously played with Rodford in Argent. This lineup remained consistent through the end of the decade.
I was at the height of my Kinks fandom when they released Word Of Mouth (1984). At the time I really enjoyed the modern production flourishes but over the years the synthetic sounds have badly dated much of the material. Three of the songs were recorded for the soundtrack to Ray’s Return To Waterloo film, which was released a year later, and those three featured Avory on drums. Ray had recently been dumped by Chrissie Hynde (of The Pretenders), yet even in the aftermath of that split he still managed to deliver some of his most upbeat songs. He would address it in a more melancholy way on the following album. Although I don’t enjoy Word Of Mouth from start to finish as much as I used to, there are still a couple of killer songs that haven’t aged a day, and a few others that I had forgotten about. All in all a pretty good album that’s a product of its time, but it holds a special place in my heart since the ensuing tour was the only time I saw The Kinks in concert.
♪ “Do It Again” – A huge song on FM radio, but I’m surprised to find out it wasn’t more successful on the Pop charts. I love that “A Hard Day’s Night”-esque guitar chord in the intro. It’s a melodic & driving rocker with fluid guitar solos & crunchy power chords. The echo-y vocals are the only distinctly ‘80s flourish.
♪ “Living On A Thin Line” – Dave wrote & sang this tight, tense yet huge-sounding rocker. It also got a lot of FM radio play back then, and it’s one of Dave’s strongest songs. I love how he sings in a lower register with high harmonies, giving the song a unique intensity.
Other Notable Tracks:
At the end of their contract with Arista Records, the label predictably put together a compilation of their best recordings from 1977 through 1984, somewhat incorrectly titled Come Dancing With The Kinks: The Best Of The Kinks 1977-1986 (1986). Originally released as a 2-LP set with 19 tracks, it was trimmed down to 16 tracks on one CD. The missing songs were worthy inclusions but the casual fan would still be very pleased with this collection. Arista smartly chose live versions of three early classics (“You Really Got Me,” “Lola” and “Celluloid Heroes”) from the excellent One For The Road album to lure fans who might not want only newer songs, and the remaining tracks are very well chosen. In fact, all but one of them were included in my “Essentials” lists for their original albums, and the one that wasn’t is a new song to me. “Long Distance” was originally a bonus track on the State Of Confusion cassette. It’s a pleasant, Tom Petty-ish number that has elements of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Although it doesn’t really belong on a “best-of” I’m still happy that they included it here since I would have been unaware of it otherwise. I think all of their Arista albums are worth hearing in their entirety, but for someone who just wants an overview of those years this compilation is pretty much perfect from start to finish (and it was the CD debut of their incredible holiday standard, “Father Christmas,” which I raved about in Part 6 of this series).
By the time their first album for MCA Records was released, Think Visual (1986), I was still interested in hearing what they were doing but not nearly as excited as I had been a few years earlier. I always liked the two songs that received airplay at the time (“Working At The Factory” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Cities”) but after playing the album a couple of times I moved on and rarely returned to it. I’m happy to report that, after playing it 5-6 times this week, it’s one of those records that holds up extremely well, and a couple of songs I had previously overlooked have become new favorites. Once again they occasionally succumbed to the prevailing production trends of that time, but in most cases those sounds weren’t obtrusive and in fact even added to the album’s charm. If you’ve never heard Think Visual, or wrote it off like I did and neglected it all these years, I recommend giving it another chance (especially the “essential” songs discussed below). Hopefully you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
♪ “Working At The Factory” – On the surface it seems like a song about factory workers, but it’s really a criticism of the record industry and how the life of a working musician had become an assembly line (“Never wanted to be like everybody else, but now there are so many like me sitting on the shelf”). The melody is especially gorgeous at, “They sold us a dream but in reality it was just another factory.” This is another song that got significant radio play at the time of its release but has since been forgotten. It deserves to be re-discovered.
♪ “Lost And Found” – Although the melody might be a little too close to The Four Tops’ “It’s The Same Old Song,” that didn’t distract me from this lovely ballad. It’s subtle but still upbeat, and the chorus immediately gets stuck in your head.
♪ “How Are You” – This is one of those hidden gems that you hope to find when digging deep into an artist’s discography. It’s simply stunning, with that chiming guitar motif & Ray’s pleading vocals (“It’s been a while, I haven’t seen you for at least a year or more”). He’s imagining that he’s bumped into an old lover on the street, and even though he’s trying to remain positive you can hear the sadness in the lyrics and his vocal delivery (“How are the nights? Are they still lonely? Are you still struggling the way that I am?”).
For their second concert recording of the ‘80s, Live: The Road (1988), they gave us one excellent new studio recording (which I’ll discuss below), another new song recorded live and 10 others (9 of which came from the previous four albums…only “Apeman” pre-dates 1981). This wasn’t a career overview like One For The Road but more of a snapshot of The Kinks at their arena-rocking best on tour in 1987. The set list is a good one, with nearly every previously-recorded song being either “essential” or “notable” on their respective albums. The new song from the concert, “It (I Want It),” sounds like it was part of a larger concept, beginning with a spoken introduction from Ray followed by audio clips of Gorbachev & Reagan. Without any other context, this nearly 7-minute track is a dramatic & theatrical statement about consumer culture, with the titular “it” being any product being forced down our throats by advertisers. This song is a product (no pun intended) of its time that features some good playing but is otherwise forgettable. The majority of the set is expertly performed and I’m sure the concerts themselves were great, but as a listening experience Live: The Road is a bit flat, possibly due to the sterile digital recording. However, I still consider this a worthwhile purchase if only for the new song that opens the album.
♪ “The Road” – A 6-minute odyssey through Ray’s musical history, looking back at gigs (his own as well as his first time seeing The Rolling Stones), putting the band together and, unsurprisingly, living on the road. The sentiment is similar to his earlier song “Life On The Road” (from Sleepwalker) but this one packs more of an emotional punch and is much more specific in its references. Beginning simply with acoustic guitar, pulsing synth & light percussion (“I think about the friends I’ve left behind on the road”), it picks up in intensity at around 1:00 (“On the roooooad…”) and shifts to an even faster rhythm 30 seconds later. I’ve always loved the way he describes the original members of the band, mentioning Pete (Quaife), “Mrs. Avory’s child” and “Dave The Rave.” One of many great melodies pops up at, “Every day is when I can’t get used to it,” and the name-checking of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Led Zeppelin & Free has always appealed to me as a big fan of all four artists. This song really covers a lot of ground, going through tempo changes, mood shifts and cheeky self-references (“dedicated followers of fashion” and “well respected men who came dancing”). I imagine that some of the modern production touches have kept this song off certain fans’ radars but, getting past that, I think it’s one of Ray’s most expressive songs and deserves better exposure than being the opening track of an average live album.
UK Jive (1989) was one of my least-played Kinks albums prior to revisiting it this week. Initially I only recognized a couple of songs by title but each time I played it certain tracks kept growing on me. Sonically speaking it’s a very brittle recording with a big snappy drum sound that’s indicative of the late-‘80s (which I find more off-putting than some of the production trends from earlier in the decade). The songwriting is pretty good but nearly half of the 12 songs are only average and don’t hold up to repeated listening. There are, however, a handful of excellent tunes and several other very good ones. You can tell the band was running out of steam but even at this stage of their career the Davies brothers were still capable of greatness. I’m not sure how often I’ll revisit UK Jive in the future, but I would definitely include a couple of songs on a career-spanning anthology.
♪ “War Is Over” – I love the power-pop feel with the rising vocals in the verses (“Side by side they marched together fighting so their children could be free, to build a better world, a new society”), the tight Beatle-y harmonies and the strummed acoustic guitar. Not a fan of the synth horns but otherwise this one really stuck with me
♪ “Looney Balloon” – A moody yet touching waltz with military snare drum, chiming guitars and soft vocals during the verses. The lyrics deal with our planet and all its craziness, all set to an arm-in-arm sing-along arrangement (not dissimilar to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”). There’s a super-catchy chorus (“Drift awaaaay, just drift away, drifting away on this looney balloon”) and some subtle & tasty guitar work from Dave. It probably could have been shortened by about a minute, but that didn’t stop me from loving this song.
The albums I’ve discussed here (other than the Arista “Best Of” CD) are likely well known only to devoted Kinks fans, and I’m eager to find out how others feel about them. I imagine anyone who lost interest during their early-‘80s resurgence wouldn’t have jumped back on board for these records, but perhaps some fans stuck with them and found as much to enjoy here as I did.