Primer is The A.V. Club's ongoing series of beginners' guides to pop culture's most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: The Kinks, broken down by 20 songs that define their themes and styles, and five albums that every serious rock fan should own. Kinks leader Ray Davies releases his latest solo album, Working Man's Café, next week.
The Kinks 101
In early 2008, The Kinks wound up, oddly and out of the blue, at the top of the U.S. album chart. Admittedly, that didn't have much to do with Ray Davies and company, who have been on hiatus as a group since 1996. It was Juno's recent Oscar nominations that catapulted the film's soundtrack into Billboard's number-one spot. And nestled between the disc's indie-pop and classic rock cuts is The Kinks' "A Well Respected Man," a top-20 hit from 1965 that predicted the wit, sophistication, and iconoclasm the band would make its trademarks.
The Juno soundtrack's sudden success is just the latest twist in the long, unpredictable chart history of The Kinks—inarguably one of the greatest, most vital rock bands of all time. Yet The Kinks had all the initial commercial promise of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who, contemporaries that have perpetually overshadowed the group. Formed in 1963 by London-born brothers and singer-guitarists Ray and Dave Davies, the group hit pay dirt with its third single, 1964's epochal "You Really Got Me," as well as its immediate follow-up, the similarly slashing "All Day And All Of The Night." It's hard to hear such overplayed, over-licensed songs with new ears, but their jagged sensuality and adenoidal snarl still have the power to liquefy gray matter. Taken together, they're a building block of rock 'n' roll; even if the band had broken up at the end of 1964, The Kinks would have become legendary as forefathers of heavy metal and punk rock.
In spite of their early reputation for raw, provocative rock, The Kinks always drew from richer sources. Granted, Dave—while unfairly stereotyped as a one-dimensional guitar-basher—had more of an affinity for the frenzy of Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran. But Ray idolized crooners like Frank Sinatra, country craftsmen like Chet Atkins (and especially the lonesome Hank Williams), and urbane showtunes à la Rodgers and Hammerstein. That fraternal tension has since become infamous—and it's easy to hear as far back as 1965's "Tired Of Waiting For You," a song that's evenly split between slow, solemn melancholy and sharply riffed angst. "Tired Of Waiting" became The Kinks' third and last top-10 hit in the U.S. until 1970's "Lola" a funny, poignant anthem of gender ambiguity and erotic confusion that helped set the stage for emerging, openly androgynous stars like David Bowie and T. Rex's Marc Bolan.
The Kinks have since suffered an eternal stretch of hitlessness, as well as a string of poor-selling albums often hampered by overblown concepts, tired tunes, and bloodless production. But they briefly livened up that dry patch in 1983 with "Come Dancing." Ray credits MTV and the song's kinetic, nostalgic video for breaking "Come Dancing" in the States, where it became that band's fifth and final top-10 single. As a Kinks song, it ain't so hot. As an '80s pop hit, it's brilliant: Clever, bubbly, and calypso-flavored, it could easily pass as one of Madness' best tunes.
Madness, of course, was just one of the many exciting new groups of the late '70s and early '80s that had strong roots in The Kinks' music. The Jam was The Kinks' clearest heir, and the young band honored its ancestor with a tightly wound version of "David Watts," Ray's class-conscious stomper from 1967; meanwhile, everyone from The Fall and Mission Of Burma to The Pretenders and Van Halen was also covering The Kinks in the studio and onstage.
"David Watts" is the opening track of Something Else By The Kinks, the band's first major artistic breakthrough. While much of its predecessor, 1966's Face To Face, is sonically and lyrically innovative—like the hit single "Sunny Afternoon," a mocking yet sensitive character study of the idle rich—Something Else beams confidence and maturity. The band needed it:? In 1965, the American Federation Of Musicians had banned them from touring the U.S., presumably due to the group's rock-star hooliganism, and the subsequent estrangement from America's UK-hungry music fans contributed to Ray Davies' nervous breakdown and the band's near-breakup. That desperation fueled Face To Face, but it had stabilized by the time Something Else was in the works, and the result was "Waterloo Sunset," widely regarded as the best song Davies has ever written. A shy yet soaring story dealing with voyeurism and isolation, the single also boasts immaculate craftsmanship and a sumptuous arrangement. Davies' ghostly yet gutsy delivery still moves emotional mountains.
Two non-album singles released around the time of Face To Face and Something Else, "Dead End Street" and "Days" are flip-sides of Ray Davies' genius. The first is an acidic, whimsically cynical portrait of poverty and hopeless hope, while the second is stately, plainspoken, and in earnest awe of love. They also illustrate the myriad, often overlapping approaches Davies takes to songwriting: Sometimes speaking in character, sometimes autobiographically, and often in some tricky combination of both, he brought a literary complexity to pop music that still echoes.
Davies' heady combination of sarcasm and sincerity, novel and diary, is the bedrock of "The Village Green Preservation Society." The title track of one of The Kinks' most revered albums, "Village Green" is a vividly masked pastiche of Davies' conflicting appreciation and suspicion of the past—one that finds time to laugh at its own breathless joy while making a double-edged statement about social conservatism. Village Green is also The Kinks' first fully realized concept album, a format the band would use both wisely and recklessly in the years to come.
Soon after Village Green's release, the U.S. ban on The Kinks' live shows was lifted. But instead of making their music more universal in an attempt to woo the States again, Davies and crew released their most blatantly, idiosyncratically British album to date. 1969's Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) is a song-cycle steeped in English history and sociology, and its sprawling tracks remain resonant, insightful, and ambitious. Ironically, America ate it up; while it didn't exactly set the U.S. charts on fire, it reestablished the band critically in a land that had almost forgotten them, and paved the way for the massive success of "Lola" the following year. Among the disc's solid wall of amazing tunes are the jaunty, acerbic "Victoria" and the staggering "Shangri-La," an anguished epic that's nearly a rock opera unto itself.
1966 to 1970 is usually referred to as The Kinks' "golden age," an unsullied stretch of excellence that spans Face To Face through Lola Versus Powerman. "Get Back In Line" is one of Lola's standout tracks, but it's easy to see how it's a transition from the golden age into the murkier Kinks catalogue of the '70s. Like most of the album, it's markedly different from Arthur: With his keen eye turned inward and fixed on the band's past struggles with the music industry, Davies displays a newfound solipsism that would hinder the band's work during the rest of the decade.
1971 saw the release of two Kinks albums: Percy, the soundtrack to the forgotten penis-transplant comedy of the same name, and Muswell Hillbillies. Percy never received much attention, but there are some quietly stunning tracks hidden on it, including "God's Children," a plaintive plea for equality and naturalism in the face of an increasingly mechanized society. Davies picks that ball up and runs with it on "20th Century Man" from Muswell Hillbillies. Countering the neurosis of modern living with rustic, Americana-inflected twang, the song kicks off one of The Kinks' greatest full-lengths with balls and a conscience.
Muswell, sadly, is The Kinks' final masterpiece. Starting with 1972's Everybody's In Show-Biz and lasting until 1976's Schoolboys In Disgrace, the group unleashed a string of lavishly conceived, theatrically executed missteps that nonetheless produced some haunting tracks—for instance, "Celluloid Heroes," the sweeping final track on Show-Biz, in which Davies reflects tenderly on stardom and mortality. Just as aching is "Sweet Lady Genevieve" from the adventurously flawed Preservation: Act 1. An unabashed, wide-eyed love song, it's one of the most vulnerable tunes Davies ever put to tape.
After finally declaring rock-opera bankruptcy with Schoolboys, the Kinks released 1977's Sleepwalker, the band's tightest and most streamlined album since Muswell Hillbillies. It's far from a great record, but it marks a major turning point for the band. Perhaps feeling his encroaching middle age, Davies returned to comforting, meat-and-potatoes rock that nonetheless would never be as sweet as The Kinks' early teacup-trapped tempests. That said, every album since then has boasted at least a small batch of worthwhile songs—in the case of Sleepwalker, one of those gems is "Sleepwalker" itself. Peel back the shiny production, and there's a classic Kinks song underneath, one full of charm, sturdy hooks, and ego-puncturing silliness. It's no "Waterloo Sunset," but it's at least a dignified sunset.
1. Something Else By The Kinks (1967)
Although not a concept album like those that would follow, Something Else is as coherent a disc as The Kinks would ever make. It's also the band's most solidly gratifying: Taking in a dizzying vista of everyday observations, acute class conflict, political probing, and a weird, music-hall-informed psychedelia—not to mention Dave Davies' greatest success as a songwriter, the indelible, tragically funny "Death Of A Clown"—the album would be perfect even if it didn't include "Waterloo Sunset." But, of course, it does—and that song pushes Something Else into the upper bracket of all-time rock 'n' roll must-haves.
2. The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968)
Awash in bucolic imagery and idyllic quaintness, Village Green still has a bitter core. Painted by Davies as an embrace of country life, it's just as much a violent rejection of everything else—and the urban paranoia that would soon surface in his work lurks behind every one of the album's leafy glades and patches of William Morris wallpaper. That subtext, though, makes the record's sterling pop all the more ominous and revolutionary—as if swiping a song title from George Orwell's Animal Farm wasn't enough of a clue.
3. Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) (1969)
When the Davies' Uncle Arthur migrated to Australia right before The Kinks formed, it left an impression on Ray in particular; years later, that sense of loss and disintegration permeated Arthur, The Kinks' best balancing act between sky-high ambition and rock immediacy. Originally commissioned for a BBC program that never materialized, the album breathes pure Britishness—most heavily on "Mr. Churchill Says" and the bracing, facetiously imperialistic "Victoria."
4. Face To Face (1966)
While not quite as timeless as the run of albums that would follow it, Face To Face is a bright, punchy snapshot of The Kinks' swift evolution from R&B; string-maulers to refined, sophisticated songsmiths. Bouncy, cheeky tunes like "Dandy" and "A House In The Country" are drawn back to earth by the magnificently glum "Rainy Day In June" and droning "Fancy." Both ends of that spectrum, though, are grafted with buoyant harmony and empathy in "Sunny Afternoon."
5. Muswell Hillbillies (1971)
Choosing between Lola Versus Powerman and Muswell Hillbillies is tough. But a freewheeling fun almost gushes out of the latter, a sense of shambolic glory that propels Muswell into The Kinks' top tier. Sure, there's gravitas galore—the disc is named for the Davies' native London neighborhood of Muswell Hill, but it harnesses a world's worth of ennui even while name-checking rural America. And songs like "Alcohol" are amply and appropriately intoxicating.
Preservation: Act 2 (1974): Preservation: Act 1, bloated as it was, had some decent songs and at least one true keeper in "Sweet Lady Genevieve." Its sequel is twice as long and half as good: Swollen to a double album and peopled by barely sketched characters operating within a flimsy plot, Act 2 is a tedious example of Ray Davies at his hammed-up worst.
Word Of Mouth (1984): Failing miserably to capitalize on the good will generated by "Come Dancing" the year before, Word Of Mouth is a painfully backward-looking album whose opening track, the aptly (and sadly) titled "Do It Again," recycles the band's own 20-year-old riff from "She's Got Everything." In spite of a few random bursts of energy and beauty, the rest of the album sounds dated and deflated. Self-mythology never rang so hollow.
Think Visual (1986): Weirdly—and surely accidentally—the song "Lost And Found" from Think Visual employs the same distinct guitar hook as The Smiths' "The Boy With The Thorn In His Side," which was released mere weeks later. The unavoidable comparison, however, only makes "Lost And Found" sound worse: Adequately catchy yet ploddingly dull, the track could be a particularly bland Dire Straits B-side. Sadly, it's also about as electrifying as Think Visual gets.
UK Jive (1989), Phobia (1993): Um, these are just bad.
The Kinks, like all great bands, have been subject to revisionist history. One such injustice is the disregard given their pre-Face To Face albums. Sure, early songs like "Stop Your Sobbin'," 'Set Me Free," and "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion" receive a decent amount of attention, but discs like 1965's Kink Kontroversy tend to get overlooked. Which is a shame: Easily the best of the band's first four full-lengths, Kontroversy features winners like the spectral "Ring The Bells," the tough yet sugary "When I See That Girl Of Mine," and the hit single "Till The End Of The Day"—not the mention the anthemic "Where Have All The Good Times Gone." Essential '70s collections like Kink Kronikles and The Great Lost Kinks Album helped round up more stragglers like "She's Got Everything" and the elegiac "I'm Not Like Everybody Else."
Another great Kontroversy track is "I Am Free"—which also happens to be Dave Davies' first standout lead vocal for The Kinks. The tension and competition between Ray and Dave is probably both more and less dramatic than it's been portrayed in the press over the years, but one fact is incontrovertible: Ray put a limit on his little brother's contributions to The Kinks after "Death Of A Clown" became a huge hit for the band in 1967. Dave's been lucky to eke out one composition per album ever since. But, oh, what compositions they are: More erratic and organic than Ray, Dave produced a body of tunes in the '60s that—had they been assembled, which was the plan until a frustrated Dave aborted the solo project—equal almost any album in The Kinks' catalogue. From "Love Me Till The Sun Shines" and "Mindless Child Of Motherhood" to the fragile "This Man He Weeps Tonight" and "Susannah's Still Alive," Dave's golden-age songs are sad and soulful, gruff and muscular. And then there are his bona fide solo singles from the late '60s, "Lincoln County" and "Hold My Hand," both of which appear on the double-disc collection Unfinished Business: Dave Davies Kronikles 1963-1998.
As fate would have it, Dave wouldn't release his first solo album until 1980, and they've all been pretty spotty since, including last year's shaky Fractured Mindz. (Keep in mind this is the man who confessed in his autobiography Kink that he's been in communion with an extraterrestrial intelligence since the early '80s.) But there's just something about Dave's flamboyant yet underdog spirit—plus the near-fatal stroke he suffered in 2004—that keeps most Kinks fans perpetually rooting for him.
Since The Kinks went on indefinite hiatus in 1996, Ray embarked on his retrospective tour-plus-album project The Storyteller and released two solo albums of new material. Unsurprisingly, 2006's Other People's Lives and the new Working Man's Café could very well have been Kinks albums—in fact, they would have made the best Kinks releases since the early '80s. Since the name Ray Davies is synonymous with The Kinks, he's dabbled very little in solo work in the past—although his appearance in the 1986 musical Absolute Beginners resulted in "Quiet Life," one of the best songs of his latter-day career. [The clip below has two minutes of dialogue before the song kicks in. It's worth the wait.]
The music of The Kinks has always had a strong cinematic feel—which is probably why so many young filmmakers have recently begun using it prominently in their soundtracks. 2007 alone saw three high-profile indie films—Hot Fuzz, The Darjeeling Limited, and Juno—featuring vintage Ray Davies compositions such as "Village Green," "Powerman," "This Time Tomorrow," and Dave's heart-stopping "Strangers." Darjeeling writer-director Wes Anderson is the one person most responsible for this Kinks big-screen renaissance; his use of the band's formerly little-known album track "Nothin' In The World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout That Girl" turned heads in his 1998 breakthrough Rushmore.