“I don’t like the hassling, silly things in rock. I want to keep writing very English songs.”
—Ray Davies, 1967
A few days ago I praised Phil and Dave Alvin as a two-man, American roots music preservation society, offering them up as a bizarro version of The Kinks. Granted, instead of preserving village greens, the Alvins are trying to preserve country blues (ba-dum-CHHH!). So, this time out I’d like to showcase the Brothers Davies in the last gasp of their golden age (roughly 1967-72). Of course, leave it to me to publish this post on the 4th of July — speaking of Dave Alvin. After all, nothing says, “America, fuck yeah!” like celebrating the most artful English band of its era, if not ever.
Though the video below is only a half-hour, it perfectly distills the songwriting genius of Ray Davies and the deft, versatile juggernaut that was The Kinks. You get the decidedly British lyricism and balls-out American rhythm and blues. You get Ray’s preternatural sense of melody and Dave‘s distinctive, biting guitar tone. You get a band that’s just as comfortable laying back on ballads and pop songs as they are swinging through trad jazz-influenced music hall and kicking up dust on rock ‘n’ roll — sometimes within the same song. And you get “Waterloo Sunset,” one of the greatest songs of the 20th century.
As I do from time to time, below the video itself is an annotated setlist. Rather than numbering the songs 1, 2, 3, etc, I’ve noted the time at which each song begins.
The Kinks In Concert
Filmed for BBC-TV
January 24, 1973
Ray Davies – vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica
Dave Davies – electric guitar, harmony vocals (lead vocals on “Good Golly Miss Molly”)
John “The Baptist” Gosling – piano, harmony vocals
John Dalton – bass
Mick Avory – drums
+ The Mike Cotton Sound
Mike Cotton – trumpet
John Beecham – trombone, tuba
Alan Holmes – baritone sax, clarinet
+ Unknown female backup singers
0:00 – Victoria
“I was born, lucky me
In a land that I love
Though I am poor, I am free
When I grow I shall fight
For this land I shall die
Let her sun never set
One of my favorite Kinks songs from arguably my favorite album — a toss-up between Arthur (1969) and Muswell Hillbillies (1971) — “Victoria” was the band’s first out-and-out rocker since Face To Face (1966) featured tracks like “Party Line,” “A House In The Country,” and “Holiday In Waikiki.” Lots to love here: Dave’s signature riff, Dalton’s driving, busy bassline, that “Land of hope and gloria” bridge is to die for, and of course, Ray’s lyrics function as both critique of and sly homage to the British Empire, which is probably true of the whole album.
As most Kinks fans probably already know, “Victoria” was the theme song to a long-lasting sitcom starring a frumpy landlord named Victoria, who ran a boarding house for over 60 years, and constantly got into hilarious misunderstandings with her tenants India, Australia, Hong Kong, etc.
As a related aside, this tune was forever launched into my personal pantheon with Grand Champeen‘s consistently top shelf covers. Here’s my favorite version.
Grand Champeen – Victoria
House Of Smoke & Mirrors, Austin, TX
June 3, 2006
2:56 – Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues
In the 1998 Konk/Velvel reissue of Muswell, Ray says, “I went inside myself and thought, ‘I just want to make my own existentialist type record.'” Given that the album continually addresses themes of paranoia, insecurity, and psychological distress (“20th Century Man,” “Alcohol,” “Here Come The People In Grey,” “Complicated Life”), I’d say he succeeded. “Acute Schizophrenia” is definitely of a piece with these songs. Viewed in a sociopolitical context, the lyrics of Muswell are clearly a reaction to the tectonic and so-called “progressive” shifts of the late ’60s/early ’70s. However, the album is also reacting against the musical trends of the era, with the anachronistic trad jazz horn section cleverly mirroring this sense of period dislocation.
As Dave says in the same reissue, “That was a period when everyone else seemed to getting really heavy and trippy. They were all smoking grass before they went on stage and then going into this tedious, boring shit with solos that seemed to go on forever. We didn’t fit into that.” Dave adds, “I love Muswell Hillbillies (opened gatefold pictured below). It really gave us the chance to stretch out. It’s a really strange record because it’s so rooted in our London backgrounds, yet it has all the emotional elements and a lot of the instrumentation of American blues. It’s a really interesting mesh of ideas.”
6:40 – Dedicated Follower Of Fashion
His world is built ’round discotheques and parties
This pleasure-seeking individual always looks his best
‘Cause he’s a dedicated follower of fashion
I could be wrong, but I think this is the very first anti-hipster song — at least “hipster” in the 2014 sense of the word. Think about it. Is the “Carnabetian Army” of the mid-’60s all that different from the mustache-waxed Portlandia contingent
8:16 – Lola
“I think ‘Lola’ is about two innocents who are being dragged unprotected into a world that is going to take advantage of them.”
–Ray Davies, 1998
The follow-up single to “Victoria” is a paean to transvestite love and, perhaps oddly, reinvigorated their career as they headed into the 1970s, especially in America. A love song about trannies might not seem to be the ideal subject matter for a hit song, but it’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world. These things happen. NO JUDGING! If it did nothing else, “Lola” clearly set the stage for David Bowie, whose own sexually ambiguous work would be a defining narrative arc of the coming decade. While Ray deserves a lot of credit for humanizing characters who could easily be cartoons to be mocked, my favorite part of the song is Dave’s high, keening tenor harmony, especially in the bridge where he basically takes the lead (“Well I left home just a week before …”). Like his guitar playing, the DD vocals are an underappreciated, yet vital component of The Kinks’ magic, and in their own way make “Lola” run.
13:01 – Holiday
Another of Muswell‘s reactions to the modern world, “Holiday” is a boozy, swooning trad jazz-flavored pop song that’s distinctively British in the sense that Brits are wont to “go on holiday.” But, the national character is subtly revealed in the song’s twist at the end. While the protagonist is going on holiday to the beach to escape the noise, drudgery, and pollution of city life, pollution has followed him there. Of course, he’s English so stiff upper lip and make the best of it, my good man. The final verse totally makes the song:
“Lying on the beach with my back burned rare
The salt gets in my blisters and the sand in my hair
And the sea’s an open sewer, but I really couldn’t care
I’m breathing through my mouth, so I don’t have to sniff the air.”
Genius. And as much as Ray was working against the tide of the times, he was also very much a part of it. The late ’60s and early ’70s were a post-Silent Spring era in that environmental issues went mainstream, and “Holiday” certainly fit in there thematically. In fact, Muswell shares this foreboding sense of eco-awareness with another landmark 1971 album: Marvin Gaye‘s What’s Going On and its hit single, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).”
15:55 – Good Golly Miss Molly
While “You Really Got Me” was The Kinks’ third single and first hit (don’t worry, we’re getting there shortly), their first single was Little Richard‘s “Long Tall Sally,” released in February 1964. Not only was this brand of early rock ‘n’ roll/R&B in the band’s DNA from the very beginning, “Good Golly Miss Molly” actually predated the formation of The Kinks by a few years. As a matter of fact, “Good Golly” was one of Dave’s showcase numbers in the fall of 1961, when the Davies boys, bassist Pete Quaife, and drummer John Start were playing gigs as The Ray Davies Quartet. This aggregation predated The Ramrods, who became The Boll-Weevils, who became The Ravens, who finally became The Kinks around Christmas 1963. Old school.
This performance is highlighted by Dave’s growling lead vocal and typically searing guitar work, and while each of the hornmen lay down solos, I think Alan Holmes’ baritone sax break is the most fluid. Also, Gosling’s piano playing is first-rate throughout, “The Baptist” going on several quality runs. Then again, it IS a Little Richard song. The piano playing better be good.
18:44 – You Really Got Me
Ray Davies: I must say something about Jimmy Page. I like him, he’s a nice guy. But, all this controversy about him playing on “You Really Got Me” is utter nonsense. The truth is, he was very jealous of The Kinks. When The Kinks had that hit, even The Yardbirds were jealous of us. We had taken the blues format and made a pop hit out of it. When you look at their first hit, “For Your Love,” it had nothing to do with the blues.
Mike Hammer: Do you think Dave’s been short-changed as a guitarist? When people think of guitar greats, names like Page, Hendrix, and Clapton invariably come up. But, Dave essentially invented power chords on “You Really Got Me.”
Ray Davies: Absolutely. I think that may be part of the resentment he’s had for me. He’s never really been recognized for his input into the early band. He’s a great guitar player.
—RockBill, May 1988
Ken Sharp: “Little Green Amp” is the first song on the new record (I Will Be Me, 2013). Tell us about the importance of that amp in launching The Kinks’ heavy rock sound on “You Really Got Me.” Does the amp still exist?
Dave Davies: With “Little Green Amp,” I thought it would be fun to do a tribute to that time and what I was doing and feeling. I went through a relationship. I fell in love at 14 and it all went weird. My little green amp was an Elpico (scroll to bottom of page). The natural amp didn’t sound that great. I was going through emotional turmoil anyway so I decided on a whim to cut the speaker cone with a razor blade and see what happened. And to my amazement, the sound was raw and dirty and actually worked really great on a song like “You Really Got Me.”
Ken Sharp: Besides “You Really Got Me,” did you use that little green Elpico amp on other Kinks records?
Dave Davies: Oh yeah. We used it on “All Day And All Of The Night” and “Tired Of Waiting For You.”
—Rock Cellar Magazine, June 27, 2013
20:45 – All Day And All Of The Night
“We had ‘You Really Got Me’ in the autumn of 1964 and we had ‘All Day And All Of The Night’ in November and December 1964. We went on a world tour in 1965 and we came back March 1965, switched on the radio and heard ‘I Can’t Explain’ and I thought, ‘Ooooh – someone’s pinched our sound.'”
–Ray Davies in New Musical Express, October 13, 1973
22:03 – Waterloo Sunset
“I must admit, I don’t get attached. I try to detach myself a bit. But, when we sang (“Waterloo Sunset”) the other night (Beacon Theater, NYC, October 16, 1989) I got quite emotional about it. It was almost like it was all in slow motion and I couldn’t finish it. I guess emotions are built up by what you think, and what you think other people think. Everybody’s got their own image of what happens in that song. So maybe I was just picking up on all that from the audience. It’s one of those things where at certain moments in plays — or any live theater — moments you can’t walk out on. You have to stay to the end of that moment.”
–Ray Davies to George Kalogerakis, Musician Magazine, March 1990
Other songwriters have written great songs, but not one of them has bettered “Waterloo Sunset.” Equaled, sure. Maybe. But bettered? Sorry, not gonna happen in this or anyone else’s lifetime. This performance is a bit more haphazard than the perfect recording, but so many of the touchstone elements are still in place: That immediately recognizable descending bass intro, Dave’s deceptively simple guitar riff that anchors the song, Ray’s heartbreaking vocal, the band’s “sha la la” backups, and those haunting female harmonies hovering over the song like ethereal ghosts from Christmas past. None of the parts are in and of themselves particularly sophisticated or difficult, but the way they all work together like a pocket symphony is achingly beautiful.
25:50 – The Village Green Preservation Society
It may lack the righteousness and glamour of “Street Fighting Man,” but unlike The Rolling Stones‘ modish call to arms, (Ray) Davies’ quiet song of defiance is not a pose. Taken either as autobiography or satire, as curtain-raiser for the album, or as the world’s gentlest and most oblique protest song, “The Village Green Preservation Society” is central to Davies’ map of the Village Green, and the great theme of his songwriting at this time — the ambiguous allure of the past. The Kinks simply dusted it with magic and passed it on.
–Andy Miller, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (33 1/3rd series), 2003, p. 51
Introduced by Ray as “a little-known album track,” “Village Green Preservation Society” is the title track to the album of the same name, and a mission statement of sorts. In fact, if I can return to the Alvin brothers, “VGPS” is as much a statement of purpose as their “American Music,” both songs blatantly embracing the past. And while The Kinks were certainly innovators (“protecting the new ways”), Ray’s songwriting was inspired as much by looking to the past as it was embracing whatever was happening in the present, let alone looking ahead to the future (“preserving the old ways”). This inspiration manifested itself early on in R&B and blues covers, but by the time “VGPS” was written, it was traditional English culture that was the focus of his nostalgia.
This version of the song is augmented by the house brass band, which probably makes it bigger than it needs to be. Still, it’s such a great song that it still works. The brother harmonies make the song work, Dave’s high-pitched harmony vocals being a particular high point.
29:12 – Village Green Overture
The outro is played by the same house brass band featured on “Village Green Preservation Society,” so let me leave you with this great quote. If you love The Kinks like a normal functioning human being or dislike them like some sort of unfeeling robot, the peculiar alchemy of Ray and Dave Davies has always been the key. Their relationship is what’s given the band legs and while the connection has veered between the sublime and combustible for the duration of their professional careers, neither is the same without the other. A couple of decades ago, in a moment of revealing honesty, both brothers explained what makes the other brother special. Ladies and gents, may I present The Kinks:
On the way to a series of endless promotion meetings, Ray and Dave are each asked to assess what the other contributes to the Kinks. Dave immediately praises his brother as the truly great singer-songwriter that he is. When his turn comes, Ray takes a deep breath. “Dave brings total spontaneity, aggression, immediacy and a unique vocal blend with me,” he says. “Dave does magic takes, and he stops me from disappearing up my own asshole.” Ray finishes and looks towards the door. “May I please stop now?”
–David Wild, Rolling Stone, May 13th, 1994