Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Kinks: Face to Face (1966)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Mysteriously difficult to acquire in America for a number of years, this is one of the Kinks' essential records and deserves a place in the pantheon alongside Something Else, Village Green, and Arthur. Of course, I'm slightly biased in my cheerleading; an import of this was one of my early grown-up purchases and I listened to it all summer one particularly bright and elated year, so its songs jump out to me with promise and delight as much as the Beatles records that reigned supremely over the springs and summers of my childhood. But it isn't just me -- this is the album that determined what sort of the band the Kinks would be for the next several years, thus pointing forward to their most lasting and meaningful work.

Neither Rubber Soul nor Revolver have the operative Britishness of Face to Face, which is seeped thoroughly in mod culture without being either an empty exercise in style or a brash half-hour of sneering "attitude," hence it's fair to call this the seminal pop album of mid-'60s Britian. The cover art -- cooked up between recording and release to the band's objections -- is the most "of its time" the Kinks ever were in the '60s, but it's appropriate to the riffology and revelation in the music, which is quite consciously like nothing they'd done before but also fits firmly with both its period and its band's legacy.

The most pressing fact of the fourth Kinks album is composition -- as with the Beatles' third album two years earlier, it's the first to feature no outside compositions, in this case meaning that every song included is fully the work of Ray Davies. Because it's a transitional effort, caught halfway between the stomping blues-rock of the Kinks' first two years of recordings and Davies' erudite, sarcastic lyricism and sophisticated melodies of the late '60s, it has perhaps the broadest reach and appeal of any of their core LPs. One is struck yet again by, incredibly, how much more idiosyncratically the Kinks approached the incoming self-conscious seriousness of late '60s rock than nearly any other group, Beatles included. For now, the evolution remains coy: "Dandy," more famous as covered by Herman's Hermits, boasts a level of subversion and anger in Davies' vocal performance that's easy to ignore but harrowing if you listen carefully; and "Party Line" is a triumphant return in all its novelty and grossout humor but its secret political jabs are a riot.

The swinging-London satire is hardly all-encompassing, with "I'll Remember" too early an effort (actually recorded for The Kink Kontroversy) to be infected with any supposed concept, and "House in the Country" a classicist enough Stones-ish effort that the Pretty Things later covered it (discarding, as with "Dandy," a lot of its stark bitterness), but the songs are mostly of a piece with the outside-looking-in subtext of much of the more celebrated Something Else, and if anything they often have more kick and spark to them: the William Castle-like "Rainy Day in June" and class-teasing "Most Exclusive Residence for Sale" are angst and bluster enough even without the accompaniment of "Holiday in Waikiki."

Maybe you have to have spent a lot of time listening to oldies radio to appreciate the brilliance of "Holiday in Waikiki," which is in certain respects the perfect Ray Davies number, balancing his familiarity of pop music form with his scathing cynicism without falling into the ferocious negativity of something like "King Kong" or "Plastic Man." Davies' trip to Hawaii introduces two fixations -- a skepticism that some would label anti-Americanism but consistently leads to some of his most hilarious observtaions, and a love of saying the words "Coca Cola." These two, you'll note, are not unrelated matters, nor is Davies' intimate relationship with American blues records that would never cease but which stops being apparent on his records here.

No doubt this was a calculated change, as calculated as the ease with which the average listener fails initially to notice that "Holiday in Waikiki" is about how shitty a time our hero is having, tempered by the sound of waves and surf-rock drums and a delirious Dave Davies guitar. But its sharpness reigns over everything and turns the song into something nasty and feral and special like a great Ealing Studios comedy. Conversely: "Little Miss Queen of Darkness" could be a pleasant but flaccid little country or cabaret tune without its lyric, and "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home" is merely passable par for the British Invasion course if you subtract the giddy vocal performance and unusual rhyming structure, but in their current form both are remarkable songs. Ray Davies is the rare pop performer whose lyrics deserve to be considered with some gravity.

What wasn't planned, sadly, was the Kinks' falling out of favor in America, a turn of events that would have consequences for decades to come. (The unavailability of Face to Face on CD Stateside when I purchased it in 2003 being one of them.) Scapegoat after scapegoat would be trotted out through the years. The band's U.S. label, Reprise, was quite faithful to the group but couldn't sell their later records to save its life. The Kinks themselves got deported and were unable to tour. And the group's aversion to anything that could be labeled "hardness" left them out of the classic-rock grit of the turn of the decade. But the real reason seems to have been that they simply moved too fast for the American audience. The case in point is "Fancy."

"Fancy" remains one of the most sophisticated and brilliant songs released in a rock music context in the '60s. Laid against other Indian-infected recordings of the period, it crumbles them all (especially the Beatles' comparatively silly "Love You To") except possibly the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" and shares with that song the menace of revolution. Dark and stinging, its romantic arrogance is as enigmatic as it is sensual -- "my love is like a ruby," Davies announces, sounding then like a boy caught in some sort of a web, but soon enough he's asserted himself and you can almost feel the cold gae in his eyes with his prounouncement: "no one can penetrate me / they only see what's in their own fancy." Was this therapy for Ray Davies? As much as "Waterloo Sunset" was, this is more so -- its sparkling strangeness and intensity are some sort of a hallmark in this band's output, in the sense that they'd never exactly build on it -- it stands alone, even now.

But they would build on an equally radical selection. "Sunny Afternoon" preceded Face to Face by some margin in both recording and release, and if any single track marks the transformation of Ray Davies' songwriting to the wounded sensitive character studies and dejected, alienated rants of his band's subsequent albums, it's this one, the moment when everything changed. Along with contemporary tracks and singles like "I'm Not Like Everybody Else," "Dead End Street," "Big Black Smoke," and the cathartically romantic "This Is Where I Belong" (all of which are included on most contemporary CD releases of Face to Face), this is the Kinks' "Dylan goes electric" moment. It's still surprising to hear "Sunny Afternoon" on mainstream oldies stations now -- it was a major hit in the U.S. as well -- with not just its belligerent attack on a proto-Yuppie with a yacht and a "life of luxury" who's cruel to his girlfriend but one written from his perspective, so that we're actually meant to laugh at the foolishness of the part Davies chooses to play. It's a surprisingly smart and fully-formed piece of mockery for a three-minute pop song, and musically its slow-burn calmness and broken-down big band march somewhat suggest Otis Redding's later "Dock of the Bay" turned angrily upside-down.

That the Kinks managed a massive hit with such an idiosyncractic number was a miracle in its time, and by many accounts allowed Davies and the band to pursue their increasingly eccentric instincts on Something Else and Village Green, a change in tack that would culminate in Pete Quaife's departure from the band -- he wanted to play rock music and had little interest in Anglo-centric pseudo-showtunes. But Face to Face demonstrates that the change wasn't so sudden or out-of-nowhere; it's just sounded that way in the U.S. for all these years. Sadly, the Americans wouldn't follow the band much further down this path, and indeed they would remain a cult band in most of the world for the rest of the '60s.

As it still stands, Face to Face captures something special that still seems alive and new in even the well-trodden context of the Beatles' contemporary records, which are relevant because the two bands accidentally evolved similarly, not just because Dave Davies' voice occasionally sounds just like Paul's (see "Party Line," one of his two leads here). The Beatles were a better rock band than the Kinks; they had to be. But despite exceptions like "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," which boast a once-in-a-lifetime emotional closeness that "psychedelic rock" generally cannot hold, the Kinks were stronger at integrating a real fire-breathing human personality into their late-'60s album-length musical-theater experiments. Perhaps it's because one band consisted of dueling pop geniuses and the Kinks were always pretty much just Ray with the occasional assist. Face to Face does have a couple of slow spots -- the pleasant "Too Much on My Mind," the total filler "Session Man," and "You're Looking Fine," which is most notable for Nicky Hopkins' lovely piano work -- but Revolver has "Doctor Robert," "And Your Bird Can Sing," and "Love You To" and doesn't have "Holiday in Waikiki" or "Fancy." Both are great records but let's be honest -- these days, Face to Face probably has more to teach us.

The Kinks (1964)
Kinda Kinks (1965)
The Kink Kontroversy (1965)

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