Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Breaking Down The Kinks' Run of Greatness: 1966-1971

Spotify has a lot of great music, but if you rely solely on their volumnious database you will still miss out on one of the greatest runs by a band in rock history, and I'm not talking about the Beatles.  It's generally acknowledged that groups like the Fab Four, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Doors put together great runs of albums in the period roughly between 1966 and 1972.  The group with the longest winning streak in that era, however, was The Kinks, and many of their crucial albums are missing from the streaming database.

In America they're known mostly for their early, proto-metal rockers "All Day And All Of The Night," and you really got me, along with their early 80s nostalgia exercise "Come Dancing."  During their 1966 to 1971 winning streak, the Kinks stopped touring America due to a dispute with the musicians' union, and made music so indelibly English that it did not play well to Yankee tastes.  It also happened to be odd enough that the band did not retain their popularity in their home country, either.  Apart from weirdos and afficianados like myself, this music has mostly been forgotten, a real crime.  In the interests of spreading the Gospel of the Kinks and my own obsessive tendencies, here's a breakdown of the albumsof the era, all of which deserve your attention.

Face to Face 1966

This 1966 album begins the run, full of songs commenting on life and the class system in Britain.  "Sunny Afternoon," taking the point of view of a drunk aristocrat's ennui was the hit, and the last one the Kinks would have for awhile.  On this album Ray Davies' jaundiced eye towards modern life comes forth, satirizing tourism in "Holiday in Waikiki" and poking fun at the Carnaby Street fashions of "swinging London" on "Dandy."  "Session Man" is a great sleeper track that mocks the pretensions of session musicians, and was likely inspired by experiences the band had when the label put session men on their records.  It's derision of musical virtuosity is punk as punk can be, a whole decade early.

Something Else 1967

On Something Else the Kinks perfected the formula they started on their previous record.  There are many snapshots of daily life, the mundane world that most rock bands just completely ignore.  Daily rituals like "Afternoon Tea" get a song, and the album ends with "Waterloo Sunset," the most beautiful ballad about a train station, or perhaps anything else, ever recorded.  In between there are tales of schoolboy envy ("David Watts") family conflict ("Two Sisters"), and the "Lazy Old Sun."  Dave Davies also offers two of his best songs on this album, the darkly humorous "Death of a Clown" and the gutbucket rock of "Love My 'Til The Sun Shines."

The Village Green Preservation Society 1968

This concept album may have been the band's best yet, but it sank faster than a cinder block.  Perhaps this was because its evocation of small town life and its nostalgia for the old days was wildly out of touch with the spirit of revolt and progress in 1968 when it came out.  The harpsichords and psychedelic touches of the last two albums dropped out in favor of a folk-pop sound that bands like Belle and Sebastian have been very heavily influenced by.  It's hard to choose individual songs to highlight, since the album holds together really well as a cohesive whole.  The best moments deal with memory, and how we are constantly trying to preserve what the passage of time is continually wrenching from us.  "Picture Book," "Do You Remember Walter" and "People Take Pictures of Each Other" all hit this theme really well.

Arthur 1969

Arthur might very well be the best of The Kinks' albums, strange since it was written for a TV special that never actually materialized.  It is a concept album unlike any other, telling the story of the decline of the British Empire through the experience of one ordinary person.  The rollicking "Victoria" is a fun little send-up of naive patriotism, but things get pretty serious pretty quickly on "Yes Sir" and "Some Mother's Son," unsparing looks at trench warfare during World War I.  In the first song a bewildered private is constantly being ordered around by callous bourgeois officers who laugh about sending the cannon fodder off to die.  The second is one that always brings a tear to my eye, telling the tale of an anonymous soldier dying in a trench, and the hole that will be left in his family's life.  The album tells the tale of Arthur's achievement of a middle class life in Australia, but on "Shangri-La" Ray Davies wrote perhaps the best critique of postwar suburbanization to find its way onto a rock album.

Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround 1970
The Kinks had their first hit in awhile stateside with "Lola," a rollicking song about gender-bending romance.  Ironically, the song came on an album revolving around the vagaries of the music business.  Ray Davies details the ways bands are parted from their hard earned money on the humorously bitter "Moneygoround" once they are lucky enough to hit the "Top of the Pops."  The album also contains the affecting "Back In The Line," a wrenching song about having your livelihood in the hands of careless jerks whose butts you have to kiss to survive.  This acid take on the music business ended up being the Kinks' comeback, and helped launch them to a new label.

Muswell Hillbillies 1971
For a large part of the 70s the Kinks wandered in a wilderness of half-baked concept albums and rock operas that could not equal what they had accomplished on Arthur, before playing things safe and settling into hard rock in the later part of the decade.  Before that strange journey, they put out a truly stellar record with a heavy folk and country influence.  It begins with "20th Century Man," the best summation of Ray Davies' critique of modern society's inhumanity.  Other highlights include the country-ish "Muswell Hillbillies" and musical hall-inflected "Alcohol."

The Kink Kronikles 1972
The Kinks' old label neatly summed up the band's golden era on this double LP compilation, one of the few able to combine well-known songs like "Lola" and rarities like "Willesden Green" in a seamless fashion.  Even if you own all the other albums, it's a must have for the presence of great stand-alone singles like the wistful "Days," the jaunty "Autumn Almanac" and bouncy "Wonderboy."  My favorite has got to be "Big Black Smoke," a dark tale of a young country girl corrupted by London's bright lights.  It's the kind of social realism that we get so little from pop music, and something the Kinks provided in admirable abundance.

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