Monday, December 20, 2010

The Kinks: Muswell Hillbillies Revisited

Most people remember The Kinks as one of the original British invasion bands with their early hits, You Really Got Me, All Day And All Of The Night, Tired Of Waiting, and many more.

What most people do not remember is that The Kinks were banned from American stages from 1965-1969. Apparently appalled by the Kinks onstage behavior (Ray and Dave, the brothers Davies, thought nothing of letting sibling rivalry spill right out in front of all those screaming teenage girls, often going as far as actually coming to fisticuffs!), the American
Federation Of Musicians denied permits for live appearances to the group for 4 years, lifting the ban only when Ray Davies himself went to L.A. in 1969 and made the case for lifting the ban. The resulting tour in 1969 was apparently horrible as the effects of 4 years of not touring left a trail of disinterested audiences and questionable performances.

The ban also aided in creating what many Kinks fans might call the "golden era of the Kinks". Free from any American influence, the Kinks created a uniquely English oeuvre during this period with albums such as Face to Face, Something Else, and the album many consider the Kinks greatest, The Village Green Preservation Society.

A few more albums, Arthur-Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire, Lola versus Powerman and the Money-Go-Round, Part One, a dispute with their long-time record company, Warners/Reprise over the stateside release of Percy, a Kinks soundtrack to a film about a penis transplant, and the group found themselves newly signed to RCA Records. RCA, meanwhile, is wringing their hands with anticipation of more hits like "Lola", which had been an international smash!

The Davies brothers used the advance monies from their RCA contract to build Konk Studios, a facility that was still in operation until July 2010 when Ray put it up for sale. Konk came later, so it was Morgan Studios in Willesden, North London that the Kinks entered in August of 1971 to record their first album for RCA and the followup to Lola vs. Powerman.

RCA anticipated more hits in the form of singles, but Ray was determined to move past the concept of "singles" and wanted to focus on making an a more cohesive piece of work in the form of an album consistent in theme and musical presentation. Furthermore, while RCA may have expected an album of transatlantic rock, what the Kinks were about to deliver would be very different. Ray describes the process leading up to the recording as somewhat soul searching as he made the decision to make an "existential" record, a move he later called "the classic thing of not delivering what people think you're going to deliver."

On November 24, 1971, the album, Muswell Hillbillies, was released in the U.S. Transatlantic rock it definitely was not. Instead, the lyrics reflected growing up working class in the Muswell Hill suburb of North London, the destruction of the Old Victorian neighborhoods and displacement of families, and the general stress and insanity of technology and life in the 20th century. The reality of the lyrics was reflected even in the album art. The cover shot was taken at Archway Pub, a pub that several members of the Davies family visited every Thursday night. The gateway cover picture of the Kinks was taken against a corrugated fence built to hide a bombed out London neighborhood just like the one the Davies family had been moved out of. Many of the characters that populated the songs were actual people the family knew. Uncle Son, Rosie Rook, and Ray's grandmother from "Have A Cuppa Tea".

Of course, many of the Kinks songs reflected their working class ethos, especially considering that Waterloo Station from the song "Waterloo Sunset" is only four Underground stops away from East Finchley, where Muswell Hill was located.

As for the sound of Muswell Hillbillies, well, that was straight out of America, a winning combination of roots blues and even a little country topped off by one of the most American sounds, dixieland jazz, from the horn section that would come to be know as The Mike Cotton Sound. The cumulative effect was that of an English Cabaret transported somehow to the middle of Appalachia.

Wanting the album to sound antiquated, Davies recorded much of it on dated equipment, using 10 year old microphones at times. As a result, there is a denseness to the album that makes it sound like a bad recording at times with acoustic guitars and vocals. The vocals are buried just a bit at times, to great effect.

Davies makes his declaration of faith in the opening song 20th Century Man, which continues to this day to be a staple of his live shows.
"This is the age of insanity, a mechanical nightmare.... the wonderful of technology.. napalm, hydrogen bombs. biological warfare"
Over a blues based riffs accentuated by the occasional slide guitar, Ray professes his disdain for all things modern, his desire to be elsewhere other than the 20th century. In mid song a Byrds-like electric guitar breaks in as Davies recounts his feelings of being "controlled by civil servants and people dressed in gray" upon his family's uprooting and relocation to Muswell Hill.

The family's Victorian home was in a bombed out section of London thus the relocation, but Ray never understood why some homes were rebuilt, while in other cases, entire neighborhoods were leveled and moved to urban projects. To Davies, and to The Kinks, for that matter, such inequities were attributed to class differences. If you don't think The Kinks were one of the precursors to the Punk movement, give a close listen to Dead End Street.

Next is Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues, one of the funniest of all Kinks songs as the singer takes us through his process of total mental breakdown, crying out not only about the world around from the previous song, but also adding in the paranoia of a breakdown as the milkman becomes a spy and "the grocer keeps on following me", all to the happy beat of the dixieland jazz horns and John Gosling's music hall style piano. Another song that became a fixture in the live shows of the era, as demonstrated below.

Here the album takes a definite storyline feel, as the character of
Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues is now sent on a Holiday as seen in the opening video here. It is a typical English working class holiday "lying on the beach, my back burned rare,the salt gets in my blisters, the sand in my hair, the sea's an open sewer, but I really couldn't care" as the protagonist makes the best of a less than ideal situation.

Next it's on to the obsession with being thin that continues to this day with Skin and Bone, a song that Ray always introduced as "a story about a girl named Fat Flabby Annie". We follow Annie down the path to a fake dietitian's diet which reduces her to a waif as she succumbs to yoga and meditation and throws away the "good food' guide, meaning pizza, mashed potatoes, and alcohol amongst others. It's sort of a demented Richard Simmons workout song!

Alcohol would become a staple of the Kinks live shows for many years. The tune was ripe for loose interpretation. For example, in live performance, the lines,
"Here is a story about a sinner, He used to be a winner who enjoyed a life of prominence and position," became "Here's a sad and woeful story about a middle class executive, who enjoyed a life of prominence and position" with the last word drawn out nasally over a trumpet that sounds like it belongs in the bull ring. As the ever inebriated looking John Gosling sat behind a piano littered with beer cans, Ray warbled this tale of downfall and woe while balancing a beer can on his head. Interesting to note that when I last saw Ray back in 2008, he wasn't doing this song, but he was still balancing beer bottles on top of his head.

Primitive as this video from 1975 is, it clearly shows the mileage that Davies drug from this hilarious tune.

In Complicated Life, the singer's obsessions begin to physically drag him down and he strives to "uncomplicate my life" and the while acknowledging that he has to "stand and face it, life is soooo complicated" as side 1 of the album concludes. The music is a return to the blues foundation that started the side with 20th Century Man.

Side 2 begins with Here Come The People In Grey, meaning the faceless gray suited army of bean counters first mentioned in the opening song
. The song recounts the story of a working class family uprooted by the borough surveyor who uses "compulsory purchase to acquire my domain", leaving the family unprepared and apprehensive as they are moved forcefully and completely from their familial home. This song sounds very much like a remembrance of the Davies family experience that resulted in Ray and Dave growing up in the urban renewal project of Muswell Hill. Musically, this song is closer to previous Kinks styling than the rest of the album, driven by Dave's slightly fuzz tone guitar.

Nostalgic to the core. Have A Cuppa Tea is another one of the Kinks more endearing songs, as should be any song that begins with the lines "Granny's always raving ranting, and she's always puffing and panting".
The sound is pure Music Hall from the piano tinkling that drives it to the horn section accentuating the verses with sloppy delight!

Holloway Jail is pretty much a straight out blues based prison song about the singer's lady friend being taken to the London jail sometimes called Holloway Castle, where adult women and youth offenders found themselves after running afoul of British law. It is particularly funny listening to Ray try to rhyme jail and hell (which comes out as hail!).

In Oklahoma USA, the singer recounts that "all life we work but work is a bore, if life's for living, what's living for" while telling the story of a poor girl living in a house that is "near decay" while dreaming of a life that is far away and driven by the glorious vision presented by Hollywood. A gentle and elegant piano phrase begins and forms the musical core of this song, one of Ray's most beautiful compositions. Kinks fans were delighted when Ray resurrected the song sans piano for US tour in 2006 as shown below:

Uncle Son stands as a true memory of Ray's actual Uncle Son, a real person. Uncle Son has led the good life, done the right things, tolerated the dictum of liberals, conservatives, socialists. generals, and preachers yet still managed to live out his life in dignity as "just an ordinary man". Davies asserts that the likes of Uncle Son will not be forgotten "when the revolution comes". Over and over in his career, Ray has returned to the theme of ordinary people quietly leading lives of desperation.

The final song, Muswell Hillbillies, is a bonified Kinks classic with one of the greatest opening lines in history:

"Well, I said goodbye to Rosie Rooke this morning, I'm gonna miss her bloodshot alcoholic eyes"

The song is a countrified rock song that Ray would often use to introduce the band members in concert, ending with the line, "well, I guess you all know me, I'm Johnny Cash." Lyrically, the singer rails against the move to Muswell Hill, recounting that while photographs and souvenirs of the previous life may be all he has left, "they"(the people in Grey) will never change him or make him forget where he really comes from.

Even after these 39 years, listening to this album felt as comfortable as the old wood bar of the Archway Pub on the front cover and as refreshing as that first pint after a hard day's work! If you've never been to Muswell Hill, there's no time like the present. Even if you have, this great album is highly recommended for reconsideration. Listen...again!!

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