What do I mean by “the middle albums”? I think of the Kinks catalogue being divided into three periods. The first was their early success to about early 1968, then late 1968 to 1975 encompassing their concept albums and more reflective songs, the 1976 to the early 1990s when they regained their mojo. Ray Davies, the main songwriter, also took over production of their albums, and the result was pretty clear.
Let me say this, despite whatever criticism I might have, I’m a big kinks fan. The 1968-1975 period is very uneven. I respect the musical genius of Ray Davies and the combustible Davies brothers at work, but even they can have failures and allow artistic freedom to pile on the excess. It was fun revisiting these albums.
The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968)
This is a loose concept, more of thematically related songs about the kaleidoscope days of the past, a nostalgic appreciation of the old English culture and tractions. The songs are picturesque and reflective, a lot like the Beatles’s Magical Mystery Tour but without the walrus and psychedelics. There’s a maturity in Ray Davies’s writing, both in lyrical composition and his blending musical styles that sound a bit old-fashioned yet hearty slices of pop, pop ‘n’ roll. This album was out of step with the times, considering the smoldering rock and blues burning the Marshall amps. The record company did not really push the album and it disappeared. The Kinks were in a heady period and were adrift in battles with management, publishers and recording label, and couldn’t yet legally tour in America, yet they kept moving forward.
The title song is quite good, better than I recall. “Do You Remember Walter” and “Picture Book” have a lot of hooks, great guitar work by Dave Davies. “The Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” is a bluesy, acoustic rocker. “Sitting By the Riverside” has a catchy vibe, and “Animal Farm” has a bouncy, ringing guitar beat. “Village Green” has an old European feel to the arrangement, like mandolins and dancing chorus are going to appear anytime. “All of My Friends Were There” sounds like it could have been the Beatles’ Revolver. “Days” was not included on the album, rather released as a stand alone single.
Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (1969)
Arthur is one of the best albums recorded by The Kinks. Conceived as some sort of television story, based on their brother-in-law and his generation. Ray Davies started working on Arthur before Village Green was finished. It starts with the classic, “Victoria” and the evocative “Yes Sir, No Sir” and the lovely “Some Mother’s Son” about a son killed in war. “Drivin’” is referred to as a romp; it is a jaunty song with singalong chorus. “Brainwashed” is built on a descending scale, common in those riff songs. It is a rousing song, clever and memorable. “Australia” is smooth, upbeat and textured, like a mid-60s Beatles song. The outro is a lengthy mess of solos and jam-type mishmash, glorious! “Shangri-La” is a really good song that should have been a hit, but wasn’t. A bit of melodic pop worthy of the Beatles’ Revolver. A comment on the achievement and trappings of working class success. “Mr. Churchill Says” is a bluesy, rocking collection of declarations by the wartime prime minister – sacrifice and stiff upper lip type stuff. “She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina” has a dignified harpsichord, a bouncy song that gains speed as it builds to an ending. “Young and Innocent Days” is a dirge-like ballad, with lovely harmony vocals. “Nothing to Say” is another rousing, rocker, typical of the strong writing by Ray Davies. “Arthur” is a groove rocker, which sums up the character at the heart of this collection.
The single, “Plastic Man” appears as a bonus track. Sometimes Ray Davies just can’t help himself, too deliberate in his social and political commentary that he dooms some of own material. The single was not a success, despite being a bouncy, melodic song. “King Kong” is a driving rocker. Too bad it was a lost b-side.
On the deluxe edition of the CD is the “lost” Dave Davies album, which was never completed. A rousing and jagged collection of pop-rock songs, thankfully rescued from obscurity. Dave never had a great singing voice, like Keith Richard, but expressive, and let his aggressive guitar a lot of his mood setting for his songs.
Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (1970)
The musicianship and arrangements are less crowded, yet stronger. Ray Davies’s songwriting shines through like a Klieg light. The songs feel deeply personal and cynical.
The Lola album is more in the spirit of the times, soulful and bluesy, “Strangers” in particular fits the bill. “Denmark Street” is a rowdy rocker and “Get Back in Line” is a gentle, sweeping song with a soulful organ, much like Procol Harum. “Lola” was of course a sizable hit and a Kinks classic. “Top of the Pops” is a heavy guitar riff song, proving the band could still rock. “This Time Tomorrow” reflected the uncertainty of being on the rock and roll treadmill. The arrangement is quite nice with great vocals and finger-style guitar playing. Dave Davies provides “Strangers” and “Rats” which are leaner, more linear guitar songs. “Apeman” was another hit, reflecting Ray Davies’s unique view, like “Lola” is a rousing singalong.
This album reestablished the Kinks in America, selling well and scoring chart hits. They were able build their own studio, Konk, and gain financial stability.
Muswell Hillbillies (1971)
Hailed as a classic, but this does not sound like Kinks music we were accustomed to. Another loose concept, these were song of American roots. Slide guitars, dobro, piano, accordion with country/folk arrangements. Tales of the working man, struggles and love, you think Woodie Guthrie will emerge in the vocals.
Actually, this sound is not as strange as it might seem. Country-rock was a new genre, courtesy of Rick Nelson, Poco, the Byrds and others. There is a thread of Cajun, like Dr. John is tinkling the ivories. If you listen to Bob Dylan, Delaney and Bonnie, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, and The Band, Americana was already entwined with rock and roll. Look back a bit further and the Sun Records gang (Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny and Carl), along with Fats Domino and that blending of rhythm and blues with folk was underway.
Ray Davies grew up with dancehall, skiffle, blues and other music in working class England. The music of his youth and his parents around Muswell. These might not have been better times, but his spirit was not in the 20th Century, it was much earlier.
Everybody’s in Show-Biz (1972)
Ray Davies moved from loose-themed albums to full concept, musical productions. This was the first of several in a row.
The album was a two-disc set with the first being the new songs, and the second being a live set of tracks.
I can’t help but think of Joe Walsh as I listen to these somewhat clever, humor-intended songs. Walsh would more fully explore the rockstar lifestyle on his own albums. This isn’t a bad album as much as it’s camp is in your face, rather than remaining in your memory. “Celluloid Heroes” is a Kinks classic. There are moments on this album, just not enough of them.
Preservation Act 1 (1973)
The Kinks were now full time residents of musical theater as Ray Davies fully invested himself in writing satirical/homages to the bygone vaudevillian era. Campy and witty, mostly; yet who was the audience he sought to serve? Good question.
It is best to focus on a few of the standout songs, rather than what the album sought to be. The lead-off song, “One of the Survivors” is a fine rocker. “Sitting in the MiddaySun” is rather nice. “Where Are They Now” plows familiar ground, nostalgic and reflective. “Sweet Lady Genevieve” had the stuff to be a classic, but not quite the creativity to be so. “Preservation” is the best song not on the album. If Ray Davies had invested a bit more in the music rather than the “story,” this could have been a meatier album. Just sayin’.
Preservation Act 2 (1974)
This is a difficult album to review. It’s a step down from Act 1, which is not a good sign. I can only imagine what the record company might have thought when this album was heard for the first time.
“When a Solution Comes” is a heavier song. “Artificial Man” has some melodic flair. The album ends with “Salvation,” one of the best songs on the album, but certainly not a classic.
This album, comprised of two discs is a mess, and it’s not even interesting. To reduced it to a single disc wouldn’t help because whatever story narrative would be completely lost, although, that might actually be an improvement.
Soap Opera (1975)
Another concept album, on fame and turning an ordinary person into a star. It might have worked had this been an interesting set of songs, which it wasn’t. The production was rather over the top and not in a good way. Maybe this album would grow on me if I gave it many more listens but I’d be afraid of going insane. Only one song stands out, “You Can’t Stop the Music” which is the last song on the album. Actually, I can stop the music.
Schoolboys in Disgrace (1975)
A concept album and not a very good one. Most of the songs are not memorable, certainly not on their own. Yes, there’s a story, but on the whole it’s disappointing. “No More Looking Back” is the best of the bunch.
The Kinks ended the first half of the 1970s on a sour note. A series of increasingly self-indulgent story albums evaporated whatever forward momentum the band developed just a few short years earlier. The Kinks went from new-found success as an album-band to running it into the ground and probably many fans. I respect the talent and the ambition, just not the outcome.
Better things were ahead.