The Man in the Street
"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.
"It's allowed me to look at this period of music that, when I was doing it, I didn't really think of as a period in my career; it was just another album. But looking at it now, I was embarking on a kind of creative journey, unknown to myself, that was taking me away from what I started out as, which was as a pop writer, writing songs about England, primarily pop songs.
"Certainly looking at this period of music between 1972 and probably 1983/84, it shows me retracking my origins, if you like, and bringing it up to date," Davies continues. "Speaking mainly for myself, I think a lot of artists and writers take their inspiration from their own lives. I remember that Paul Schrader, the screenwriter and director, said something interesting: If you want to get a good story, get a personal problem and turn it into a metaphor. It does help to have that personal thing.
"But at the same time, you can't make your life an art, unless you are Andy Warhol. I am not my own subject matter. My subject matter started out being the man in the street, songs like 'Dead End Street.' But then I realized I was a man in the street, really, but for the fact that I played in a pop band. So I wanted to find out about my landscape, in a sense, where I came from. So that's why I did Muswell Hillbillies. It helped put myself into some perspective at the time. And I think it's a really interesting bunch of releases, and a perfect time for it to come out. Because I've done X-Ray now, and the book ended around 1973, and this work is taking over from there."
In writing his life story, Davies was determined to eschew the usual self-serving cliches of the genre. "I didn't want to write an ordinary autobiography," he explains. "I turned down the original proposal from the book company. I've got this kind of investigative streak in me, and I was thinking about how I would best approach myself from afar. And I thought that would be the best way to do it, was like an investigative journalist trying to expose something in this guy. I wanted to set myself up for something, in a strange way. But in the end, the investigator gets his comeuppance, in a sense. I guess it's kind of a cruel streak in me."
But one of Davies' major gifts has always been writing about people, often common folks, and really getting inside his characters, something a bit removed from the big fantasies and love songs that are often the pop- and rock-song staples. "I think it goes back to when I was an art student," ponders Davies. "I used to go out sketching for the day. Everybody had a project for that week to do. For my project I honed in on people in the parks, people I saw in railway stations sitting down and waiting for their trains, looking worried, looking happy, people in love -- a single person with a backdrop, with the world rushing forward. It was just finding a person in that moment in their life, almost like a still photographer who finds somebody and snaps it, and says, 'That's the moment.' I found them alive, or whatever, and I could grab that moment and write about it. That's maybe the way I started in my formative years as an artist, if you like, and it went on into my songwriting."
That unique sense of character and humanity is embodied in one of Ray's favorites among the rereleases, "Celluloid Heroes," which may be the best and truest pop song ever written on the subject of fame. "It's a song I never really thought about writing," Davies explains. "When I was on the Muswell Hillbillies tour, I did a home movie, just for my own reference, really, 16 millimeter. And at the end of the tour, I looked at it all and wrote the song as a kind of soundtrack to all the characters.
"I love characters, you see. Whenever we saw an interesting character, we'd stop and film them. It had nothing to do with the band, just people around us. That song was different for me. It was similar to 'Waterloo Sunset' in that it was me when I was really observing and thinking about something else and not thinking about my, as you say, personal metaphor or whatever. But because I'm not doing that, in a way it says more about me as a writer than the subject matter."
Though the activities of such Kinks contemporaries as the Stones and the Who have seemed market-driven for the past decade or more, the Kinks continue existing for the higher purpose of making music that matters. "We're always talking about these things -- doing another record. If I feel it means something to me, I'll do another Kinks record," Davies says. "In other words I don't want to do it for nostalgia. I want to do it because the songs and the performances are good enough. It doesn't make sense otherwise. It doesn't make sense if you're on your fiftieth album or your third album. It doesn't have anything to do with how long the band's been around. Even if it's your first album, it has to make sense."
In fact Davies finds himself surprised that the Kinks have lasted so long. "We just wanted to be a dance band, really. It just turned into a job, I suppose, for a while. And then it became almost vocational. I wouldn't have planned it this way. It just ended up this way. Yeah, it does surprise me, shocks me sometimes."
Davies' many attempts to transcend the limitations of the rock-band-playing-pop-songs mode on conceptual works such as (The Kinks Are) The Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire, and Preservation never reached full multimedia fruition and probably hobbled the band's ascent to rock superstardom. But this extramusical vision may also have preserved the Kinks, saving them from the junk heap of history. "It's really weird," Davies says. "I don't feel like a musician, never have.... I'm just kind of a creative person who looks for things to do. I think that's the best way to do it. I don't have time to practice, to become an accomplished player. I get my chops together when I'm on tour fine. But off the road I'm too busy writing to practice. I guess I'm just a creative person.
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