Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Kinks (1964)


(Pye [orig] / Castle [reissue])

RECOMMENDED

The first generation of British Invasion bands -- most specifically the so-called Big Four (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who) -- cut their teeth on a wide-ranging series of modern standards, most of them derived from U.S. blues and R&B. The base repertoire of artists admired and worshipped was universal, and in all of these bands, passionate. Perhaps no one in the early '60s UK scene had a taste for the most obscure and scarcely exported American blues quite like Ray Davies. And perhaps no one in the group entire seemed quite as uncomfortable singing his favorite songs as Ray did.

To state the deadeningly obvious, the Kinks stand apart from their three internationally beloved peers in myriad ways. They were never as popular as the others. They were driven disproportionately by one personality (some would say two, and they'd be very generous). They were never interested in a rebellious image like the Stones or the Who, much less a rebellious actuality like the Beatles at their youngest and dirtiest. But in investigating their debut album, which most people don't, the difference that matters most is that the Kinks simply weren't great at covering the American masters, a feat at which all three of the aforementioned bands, with whom they broke across the universe in 1964-65, excelled.

As a result, the starkly titled Kinks (or You Really Got Me, in America on Reprise sans three tracks) suffers. Let's get this out of the way: it's the worst Kinks album of the '60s, and as UK debut albums go, Please Please Me (or Introducing the Beatles, if you like), The Rolling Stones (or England's Newest Hit Makers, if you like), and The Who Sings My Generation (I don't even know if there was an alternate American version of this one) all pretty well destroy it. But if you're anything like me, in the time since you've listened to this record -- if you bothered at all, given its rep -- you've forgotten one fascinating thing that also sets the Kinks apart: on their very first record, their originals are already fully formed and accomplished, as much as they would be six years later; Davies' songcraft emerges from nowhere improbably developed, mannered, original, affecting. Only six original compositions reside on this album, but four of those are shocking, compelling winners.

This schism in the early Kinks output begins with their first 45, a miserable, tired-sounding cover of "Long Tall Sally," sequelled immediately by the infectious, sparkling "You Still Want Me," a Davies composition that feels exciting and new even today. Neither single charted but their third, "You Really Got Me," was in a different world and was a burning legend the moment it was pressed. In this case, the success was owed as much to Ray's brother Dave and his dangerously loud, bleeding guitar as to the basics of the songwriting. It's difficult to pare down the beginning of punk and garage to one record, but "You Really Got Me" lays claim to the groundbreaking of that parallel pop that was with us for decades after. Maybe "Louie, Louie" (also covered, badly, by the Kinks around this time) deserves equal distinction but it cannot match the urge of feeling, the (literal and otherwise) plainspokenness. Davies' hopping-mad, formless guitar solo offers the second moment in British Invasion rock when everything threatens to go screaming and howling off the rails and throttle us all into some bloody destiny, the second moment when that feels legitimate and in the realm of the possible (the first being John Lennon's apocalyptic, terrifying vocal on the Beatles' blistering cover of the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout"). Partisans for rock's dunderheaded quotient might make some claim that "You Really Got Me" marks the founding of hard rock; I hope the Kinks would rebuke such a dubious honor. Instead, the song and specifically that solo invents the underdog-guitar hero, the Lou Reeds and Thurston Moores who treasure emotionally draining insanity over technical prowess.

But "You Really Got Me," which is featured on this album, and its almost equally famous followup, "All Day and All of the Night," which isn't, don't actually say much about the Kinks except that they were capable of being loud. Having proven this, after one more soundalike single, they turned down their amps and -- for the remainder of their artistically vital period -- never really cranked them again. The Kinks' two most famous '60s songs have little to nothing to do with the actual appeal of the band, or the band's and Ray Davies' real characters. Nevertheless, "Really Got Me" drops a fascinating hint. The batshit screams of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis had long faded from the airwaves by 1964, and it would soon be left up to another generation to go crazy in public. Still, surely a tradition had been established, one proudly taken up in the UK by both John Lennon and Paul McCartney, soon enough by others. The pregnant pause just before Dave's solo is the ideal moment for a release of primal tension, an "AAGAGAHHHHAGAHHAHH!" or a "WAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHHA"... but from Ray, who can't break his shy British boy dignity even in this moment of truth, all we get is a half-hearted, almost gentle shout of "Ohh, come on!" that sounds as though it was belted out at some manager or band member's annoyed insistence. Davies seems embarrassed by the outburst even while it's emerging from him. And the clincher is that, unless I'm forgetting something, this is the one and only time that an actual British accent was audible on any of the giant hit singles of 1964.

Everyone is obliged to comment about the Kinks being the most defiantly British of all rock bands, but most pinpoint this as a turn of events, not their natural state, that began sometime in the middle '60s. Their fourth album, Face to Face, is regarded as the ultimate radical departure. Undoubtedly it is, but the Kinks' style, the mode of expression they'd build on for the next seven years, is firmly in place here. "I Took My Baby Home" is no less an ear-candy pop masterstroke than "She's Got Everything," recorded four years later; you hear either song and can't believe it isn't worldwide-famous and a blazing all-time radio hit. "So Mystifying" is an antecedent to "Fancy." "Stop Your Sobbing" is punk cynicism, sarcastic love, pure beauty, smirking like the endlessly surprising character portraits on the sophisticated Something Else (1967). It becomes hard not to feel as though Davies was chomping at the bit to move beyond covers-band mode, knowing that others could record blues and R&B better than some surly white boys from Muswell Hill, that their time and talent could be more adequately applied. I cannot help feeling that Davies had interest in injecting literacy, nostalgia, articulate regret, classical insecurity into his songs long before the Beatles had the same idea. That he also had "You Really Got Me" in him only proves the depth of his rock & roll committment.

Davies is one of rock & roll's only poets -- it's an exclusive group that might include Smokey Robinson, Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Dylan on a good day -- and "Stop Your Sobbing" is a poem. To me, it's indisputable that the Stones and the Who were not cranking out originals as strong as it and "I Took My Baby Home" yet in 1964, nor would they ever match the dumb-luck perfection, distorted dirt, and spontanenous combustion of "You Really Got Me," the most exciting and immediate UK single of all.

Neither of the two remaining originals will stay with you as long but they are enjoyable: "Revenge" is a scrappy and fun instrumental, "Just Can't Go to Sleep" is the kind of dance music Davies could (and probably still can) write with one eye open. These two filler cuts are bettered by some strong covers: of Chuck Berry's "Beautiful Delilah," of the oddly affecting "I've Been Driving on Bald Mountain," and of standard blues "Bald Headed Woman." The rest of the album is overstuffed with shoddy, unnecessary covers; "I'm a Lover, Not a Fighter" bloodlessly redirects its New Orleans origins, "Long Tall Shorty" feels tired and overlong, and "Got Love If You Want It" just wasn't made for the Kinks. But worst of all are two rock classics: Bo Diddley's "Cadillac" and Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business," both of which make our Muswell Hillbillies sound like inexperienced kids in over their heads. Which may be what they were, but if they could write stuff like "Stop Your Sobbing," why were they bothering with trying to duplicate sounds of their gods? You're better off listening to Berry or Diddley anyway. Thankfully, the band would make no further embarrassing mistakes like this except for a slightly less misguided cover of "Dancing in the Street" on their second album.

And then there are the peripherals. Castle's compact disc of Kinks offers crucial context for this record with an incredible twelve bonus tracks, incorporating all the concurrent single and EP cuts, including the major hit and classic "All Day and All of the Night." Bonus tracks aren't really our concern here, but these make such a difference in appreciation of the LP I can't help pointing them out. Be sure you find the 26-track Castle version, not the 16-track CD on Sanctuary.

Overall, this is a frustrating album that's fun for hardcore fans of the Kinks and may be choppy for others. As evidenced by the quantum leap forward a matter of months later on the excellent Kinda Kinks, this band was already prepared to issue a knockout album that could have competed with the near-simultaneous Beatles for Sale. Was Shel Talmy holding them back? I'm sure third parties would say that they just weren't ready yet; the songs say otherwise. The evolution business model worked for the other three British Invasion biggies; they publicly grew into their own as composers until each developed a distinguished, separate set of ideas and styles. Ray Davies was formidable from the earliest; the Kinks needed no such hand-holding. They got it anyway. That's the music business, I suppose.

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