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"God Save the Kinks!" That was the rallying cry for years among diehard fans of the seminal British Invasion band that has hovered somewhere between the musical mainstream and the margins for some 35 years. It would make a perfect title for a boxed set, but alas -- or then again, maybe not -- this classic rock 'n' roll act has yet to get the bigtime retrospective set. That's apropos of the left-field status the Kinks have always held, and because boxed sets are symbolic tombstones for most of the acts they anthologize, it is utterly fitting for a band that remains active and creative, if also still rather elusive, within the rock pantheon.
Yet if one applies the primary factors of musical knighthood to the Kinks -- longevity, creativity, and prolificacy -- they measure up admirably to their Brit-rock peers and most everyone else. After all, the Beatles are long gone, the Who slipped into self-parody some time ago, and the Stones are now more of a cash cow than a genuinely creative rock 'n' roll force. Only the Kinks still enjoy remnants of the outsider status that was once the rock badge of honor, remaining true in spirit to their feisty, London working-class roots.
And even if the good Lord hasn't saved the Kinks with a four-CD omnibus or some such set, the deity seems to have heard the fans' prayers. The late '90s have yielded a bumper crop of notable handiwork from the Kinks, some new, some old, some combinations thereof. Both main singer-songwriter Ray Davies and his guitar-playing secondary singer-songwriter brother, Dave, have issued the near-obligatory autobiographies. Yet, in typical Davies fashion, Ray's "unauthorized autobiography," X-Ray, is an offbeat yet delightful bit of Orwellian futurism in which a journalistic spy attempts to divine the significance of the Kinks by interviewing an aging, slightly dotty yet still provocative Raymond Douglas Davies, while Dave's Kink is as direct and delightfully demented as the bar chords to "You Really Got Me."
At the same time, the Kinks have been musically looking back while still moving forward, or at least sideways, in their typical fashion. Their 1996 two-CD set To the Bone mixes recent live tracks recorded both in concert and in an intimate show at the band's Konk Studios in London, capturing vibrant renditions of some (but hardly all) of their best-known songs, as well as some offbeat numbers and even two new and quite strong compositions, "Animal" and "To the Bone." Aside from the band's natural agility as a musical unit -- once notoriously sloppy, they now sound more like a band than just about anyone else out there -- what may be most impressive about To the Bone is how such certified '60s and '70s Kinks classics as "You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night," "Till the End of the Day," "Sunny Afternoon," "Waterloo Sunset," "Lola," and Dave's "Death of a Clown" are matched by later yet equally timeless songs such as "Better Things," "Come Dancing" and "Don't Forget to Dance." It's also enhanced by brilliant yet lesser-known material such as "See My Friends" (one of the few whiffs of psychedelia that still endures as a song), "I'm Not Like Everybody Else," "Days" and "Dead End Street."
That group retrospective was followed by Ray's 1998 The Storyteller CD and tour, which interwove solo versions of more Kinks classics with other new tunes and snippets from X-Ray, making for one of last year's most delightful live shows. And now Velvel Records is reissuing remixed and enhanced versions of the Kinks catalog from 1971 through 1986, starting with Muswell Hillbillies and running through Ray Davies' rock stage-play phase (Preservation: Acts 1 & 2, A Soap Opera, and Schoolboys in Disgrace) and into the years when the Kinks finally became an American arena act, while still retaining their cynical edge on sets like Sleepwalker and Misfits. Though Davies sometimes suffered from conceptual excess, there's a plethora of gems throughout this period as well as the entire recorded history of the Kinks.
Stepping back and viewing the Kinks from the perspective of time reveals an act of enduring depth, breadth and fecundity. Some consider the opening chords of "You Really Got Me" the first six-string salvo of punk rock. Though quintessentially British, their version of Lazy Lester's "I'm a Lover, Not a Fighter" still kicks and jangles while much of the blues revivalism from their British contemporaries sounds like hammy, blackface camp in comparison. And if there's a pop song as emotive, touching, and cinematic as "Waterloo Sunset," I have yet to hear it. And then there are the enduring hallmarks of Ray Davies' writing: his gift for piquant reflections on the past, his canny observations on life's inevitable changes, and his feel for the souls of a rich cast of characters.
Why have the countdown years to the millennium become a time of retrospection for the Kinks? "It's like an introspective retrospective," Ray Davies says with his typically wry Englishness. "I think what happened is that there's a tremendous amount in my career with the Kinks that was left undone, in a sense. There were several record companies we were with, and some were happier than others. But I think it was a good time to take stock of it all and put the body of work in some perspective, particularly after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. That's what I'm doing with this period of music from Muswell Hillbillies onward that we are releasing through Velvel.