Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
It’s hard to believe that more than two decades have passed since The Kinks last released a new studio album. When you consider that all four original members were still alive and active until the death of bassist Pete Quaife in 2010, it’s a shame that they simply faded away and didn’t stick together (with the then-current lineup of Ray Davies, Dave Davies, Bob Henrit & Jim Rodford) or even reunite with Quaife and Mick Avory (their drummer for the first 20 years). Sure, their commercial fortunes had been on the decline since the mid-‘80s, but for a band of their stature to just give up is an unfortunate way for their story to end. While many of their contemporaries kept their respective catalogs in the public eye with reunion tours, “classic album” performances and other publicity campaigns, the only Kinks activity has been CD reissues by various labels and a handful of separate solo albums & tours by Ray and Dave that simply preached to the converted rather than inspiring new generations of music lovers to discover their unique discography. Many Britpop bands in the ‘90s sang their praises, and they remain one of the most respected artists of the last half century, but I don’t think they’re as beloved by the general public as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys, etc. Hopefully something happens to change that, as they are inarguably one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
Columbia Records was probably hoping for a career resurgence when they signed The Kinks, who released just one album for that label: Phobia (1993). Sadly, it was a commercial dud. After all, how could a 30-year-old band fronted by a pair of bickering brothers in their late-40s compete with the new breed of young, post-grunge rock bands of that era? I probably played the album a couple of times when it was released and, until last week, hadn’t listened to it since. It’s actually an excellent record with a few minor flaws, yet for anyone who didn’t like their so-called “arena rock” years Phobia was not going to get them back on board. Before discussing my favorite songs, I should point out the aforementioned flaws. Of the 15 full-length tracks (“Opening” is merely a brief interlude to begin the album), 9 are 4-1/2 minutes or longer, and the total running time exceeds 71 minutes. I’m sure Ray felt he was making a bold statement about the state of the world, but in succumbing to the trend of utilizing the full capacity of CDs his message gets diluted. A band that used to subscribe to the adage of “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” was now guilty of padding things a bit, and I feel that some judicious editing would have made this a much stronger (and more easily digestible) album. With that said, more than half of Phobia stands up to repeated listening and could hold its own against the rest of their catalog. It may not be a lost classic but it’s certainly an underrated gem.
♪ “Still Searching” – A slow, moody song with light chiming guitar on top of a deep synth bed. The highlight is the gorgeous vocal melody (“Lookin’ at another sign for another town, wondering if I’m ever gonna settle down”) which is as good as nearly anything Ray has ever written.
♪ “Hatred (A Duet)” – A fun & funny vocal “battle” between Ray & Dave which playfully acknowledges their volatile relationship, all set to a bouncy rockabilly shuffle groove. The interplay between their voices is incredible (“Hatred, hatred, is the only thing that keeps us together…the only thing that lasts forever”).
[The Kinks – “Hatred (A Duet)”]
Other Notable Tracks:
Just because Phobia was their most recent studio album doesn’t mean this series is over yet. For To The Bone (1994, 1996), they recorded their own version of MTV Unplugged without the backing of that music channel which had no interest in the band by that point in their career. Combining an intimate performance in front of a small invited audience at their own Konk Studios with a scaled back mostly acoustic show in front of a larger crowd, they revisited highlights of their back catalog and presented a couple of new songs as well. It was originally released in ’94 as a single CD in the UK, and expanded in ’96 to a 2-CD set for the American market, although for some reason they excluded two tracks from the re-release: “Autumn Almanac” and “Waterloo Sunset.” I wasn’t able to find a copy of the former, but I did manage to hear the latter online and it’s very good; the slow, languid pace & stunning harmonies are a delight. Then again, it would be very difficult for The Kinks to do a bad version of possibly their greatest song. I love the intimate nature of these recordings, and it’s nice to hear them slow down a few numbers since they’re usually known for speeding up their songs in concert. There’s nothing revelatory about the majority of these versions, yet it’s a pleasure to hear a 30-year-old band sounding so engaged & still at the peak of their powers. Below I will focus on the two new songs (which are both noteworthy) as well as some key performances that stood out from the rest.
♪ “Animal” – A bright, bouncy Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne-type song with a catchy chorus (“It was really animal, truly animal”) that slips easily into Byrds territory at, “It could not compare to times we cared & were in control & less emotional.”
♪ “To The Bone” – I love the muted verses with fingerpicked guitar & tender vocals, and how it becomes a little more taut & bluesy for the choruses (“She rocks me to the bone, knocks me to the bone”). The groove is slinky & very cool.
Other Notable Tracks:
My most recent Kinks purchase was BBC Sessions 1964-1977 (2001), a 2-CD set that collects a number of recordings made for that British broadcasting institution over the years indicated in the title. As with most other BBC collections, the sound quality is stellar and the performances…especially the ‘60s recordings…are more raw & direct than their studio counterparts. In some ways they capture the essence of the band, without studio musicians & producers tinkering with their sound. It’s also fun to hear the interview segments with the DJ’s interspersed between many of the songs. They weren’t as cheeky as The Beatles (a tough act to follow) but you can hear a confidence & maturity in their replies, even from an early age. That maturity also extended to many of the performances, especially the subtler songs like “See My Friends” (listed here as “Friend”) and the only version I’ve heard of “This Strange Effect,” a hypnotic tune with mesmerizing lead guitar written by Ray & released by Dave Berry in 1965 (it was a hit in a handful of countries). This song might be the highlight of this collection for me. I also like the upbeat swing/blues of “Good Luck Charm,” which features only Dave with Nicky Hopkins playing barrelhouse piano. It’s nice to hear them do the bossa nova-lite “Monica” (originally from The Village Green Preservation Society) and a fantastic chugging version of Dave’s under-heard minor classic, “Mindless Child Of Motherhood.” The songs from the early-‘70s that feature a horn section, mostly taken from Muswell Hillbillies and the Preservation albums, really rock & swing in equal measure. That era is certainly a career peak for them as live performers. I’m glad they included “Mirror Of Love” (a favorite from Preservation Act II) and this version gives us a nice taste of New Orleans romance. Then there’s the subdued 1977 arrangement of “Get Back In The Line,” which is sparser than the original & is highlighted by John Gosling’s church organ. I can’t find any fault with this set, and even though it was aimed at dedicated followers of The Kinks it also functions very well as an early-career compilation which should appeal to anyone who likes their music. It has since been surpassed by the 2012 The Kinks At The BBC: Radio & TV Sessions And Concerts, 1964-1994 box set that includes 6 CDs & 1 DVD of BBC recordings. I’ve heard great things about that collection but haven’t purchased it (yet) due to the high cost. Perhaps I’ll change my mind one of these days, but until then BBC Sessions 1964-1977 will have to suffice.
That concludes this immensely enjoyable trek through The Kinks’ discography. Over the past two months I’ve gotten acquainted or re-acquainted with every officially-released album by this band that was once very important to me until their CDs began gathering dust on my shelves nearly 20 years ago. I can’t explain why I lost interest for such a long time, but this series has reinvigorated my love for their music and I won’t ignore them again. I think I’m now a bigger fan than I’ve ever been. In fact, last week when I watched the 2007 Wes Anderson film The Darjeeling Limited for the first time, I was pleased to recognize three Kinks songs that I otherwise would have had trouble identifying prior to this series (“This Time Tomorrow,” “Strangers” and “Powerman”). Hopefully a possible 50th anniversary reunion tour &/or album will happen while Ray, Dave & Mick remain in relatively good health. Even if they miss that opportunity, I hope something positive happens to remind music fans of all ages that the timeless music of The Kinks is still there waiting for them.
Thank you to everyone who has visited my blog during this series, and especially to those fans who shared their comments & insights. This process of listening to each album multiple times and sharing my thoughts on them wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable without comparing notes & discussing these albums with people who are also passionate about their music. I can honestly say that this has been as much fun as I’ve ever had covering an artist. I hope to hear from you once again regarding the records discussed above, and maybe we’ll chat about another artist down the line. Cheers to you all.