A long time has passed since Spectrum Culture published its PLAYLIST feature. No, we haven’t gone into hibernation. Instead, we’ve spent the past year buried in the Kinks discography, listening and (re-listening) to everything from the self-titled 1964 debut to Phobia, the band’s last gasp in 1993. That’s 30 years of music, folks!
For this feature, we are tasked to pick the best song from each album in an artist or band’s discography. There can be only one winner. We wrestled with our choices on classics such as Something Else by the Kinks and held our noses while treading through A Soap Opera. We lost some members along the way, but we did it. We are confident this is the best of the Kinks, album by album. We are proud to present PLAYLIST: The Kinks. – David Harris
“You Really Got Me” from Kinks (1964)
On first approach, the Kinks’ debut is just another bit of British Invasion R&B, covering American icons like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Where the Rolling Stones’ first release the same year shows off their blues worship, the Kinks seem satisfied to stroll through a simple set of Mersey Beat rock’n’rollers, tossing in a couple of skiffle tunes for variety. The relatively weak material offers no hint of what the band was capable of. Right up until the last song on side one shatters the illusion.
“You Really Got Me” is shockingly different from the very start. The raw crunch of Dave Davies’ guitar riff strikes like a cobra hypnotizing its prey. Guitar distortion had turned up before; Link Wray’s “Rumble” was a popular example. But marrying that menacing edge to insistent power chords was a new sound for 1964, destined to spawn countless imitators. When the story made the rounds that Davies had cut his amp speaker with a razor blade, it seemed like you could hear the violence of that act in the visceral chop of that short, staccato phrase. Singer Ray Davies capitalizes on that dark mood, shaping the love song lyrics into a threatening obsession. The sensual build of the song rises to a climax on the title line. Then it drops into a brief refractory period before starting all over again. Where the other tracks have an adolescent quality, this is grown-up music.
The rest of the album has little to offer beyond the upbeat rabbit punch of “Revenge,” but the dangerous feel of “You Really Got Me” created a mystique for the Kinks and its genetic model would turn up again later in heavy metal, punk and garage rock. – Jester Jay Goldman
“Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl” from Kinda Kinks (1965)
More than most of their peers in the British Invasion, touring took its toll on the Kinks. After their single “You Really Got Me” launched the destinies of a thousand garage bands, the band worked their way through a grueling worldwide tour marred with on-stage fighting, illness and a notoriously unexplained ban in the U.S. They still managed to find time to record their second album in a brief two weeks (beginning a day after their return to London) and despite it all, produced an album with only one cover in an era which expected new releases to be padded with them.
“Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl” is the finest of the bunch on Kinda Kinks, a deceptively simple, melancholy song from a group mostly known at the time for their aggression and fondness for American R&B. Pitched a thousand miles away from the epic fuzz and screams of their hits, “Nothin’ in the World” opens with a handpicked acoustic guitar melody. There’s no percussion. There’s no roar. There’s none of Ray Davies’ trademark snottiness, replaced instead by the singer wistfully repeating “Met a girl, fell in love, glad as I can be” only to follow it up with “But I think all the time, is she true to me?”
It’s a far cry from the standard-issue machismo of rock stars singing about their love lives. When Mick Jagger was still tauntingly singing “Time Is on My Side” and John Lennon was warning wayward girls to “Run for Your Life,” Davies turns to introspection, filtering the mournful sound of the blues through a distinctly English phrasing. Just a year before, the Kinks had sounded irresistibly full of energy, but “Nothin’ in the World” shows them exhausted and heartsick, but no less amazing for it. – Nathan Kamal
“Till the End of the Day” from The Kink Kontroversy (1965)
Much as anything, it’s that opening guitar bit, three sharp, pointed hits of the strings, offering neither menace nor brightness. Instead, it’s simply a musical statement of easy authority, a reminder that these guitars slung on their shoulders sounded beautiful and powerful. They were a juiced-up hot rod engine, ready to roar to racing life, sure, but also cool as can be just sitting there idling. Then the song does spring forward, with Ray Davies intoning, “Baby, I feel good/ From the moment I rise.” The song settles into a steady groove as the lyrics, straightforward and direct, offer a celebration of the youthful abandon that rock ‘n’ roll was still in process of simultaneously reflecting and defining in 1965: “You and me, we’re free/ We do as we please, yeah/ From morning/ Till the end of the day.”
To a degree, the song’s sentiments had a twist of irony, reflecting an unbound existence the Kinks didn’t quite have at the time. The group’s reputation as disruptive brawlers and general miscreants was so strong that the American Federation of Musicians restricted them from receiving permits to perform in the States, effectively banning them from the country at the precise time that any band with a British lilt to their voices was almost guaranteed massive success, as long as they could perform on television and play barnstorming tours. That the Kinks directly and cheekily acknowledged it with the title of their album didn’t undo the damage to their collective career, which contributed mightily to them remaining forever behind their contemporaries in terms of commercial success. – Dan Seeger
“Sunny Afternoon” from Face to Face (1966)
It begins with a descending bass line, a pulsing, dirge-like beat that announces one of the Kinks’ great singles. Does that musical descent, set in a landscape of threatened luxury, foretell the decline of a great songwriter?
The Kinks’ first three albums featured some of the most powerful hit singles of the British Invasion. Like much of the work of their fellow Brits, those albums are sprinkled with their share of uninspired covers and filler. But even on their first album the Davies brothers showed they were made of more than a few power chords. Ballads like “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Tired of Waiting for You” vied with the Indian influenced “See My Friends” to show the band’s growth, a growth that turned increasingly introverted.
Face to Face is the first great Kinks album, the dawn of a sadly brief golden age. Over the course of several albums, the band created a musical survey of British character that is the Winesburg, Ohio of British rock. Like Sherwood Anderson’s classic stories about vivid American characters, Ray Davies observed the quiet lives of ordinary Englishmen. But just as his melodic and lyrical gift peaks, you can hear traces of the self-pity that would sink the latter-day songwriter. “Sunny Afternoon” comes near the end of an album that takes the inhabitants of its world along an exuberant, carefree existence, only to finally run afoul of lovers and the taxman. It was Ray Davies’ great gift at this time to be able to take such morose sentiments and make of them a catchy tune. – Pat Padua
“Waterloo Sunset” from Something Else by the Kinks (1967)
“Waterloo Sunset” just might be the most quintessential Kinks track from the most quintessential Kinks record. A 2004 London FM poll called it the “Greatest Song about London” and critic Robert Christgau sang its praises as “the most beautiful song in the English language.” Following the departure of producer Shel Talmy, Ray Davies took over producing duties, steering the Kinks sound away from the classic rock stasis that had run its course with Face to Face. While songs such as “Death of a Clown” and “David Watts” are among the group’s best, it is impossible to deny “Waterloo Sunset.”
Opening with a driving bassline adorned with a languid lead guitar lick, the melancholy-tinged song introduces us to a lonely narrator who longs to be part of the world, yet remains apart. As Davies sings about Waterloo Station and the Thames, a tape-echo on the guitar gives the song its unique sound. Although the Terry and Julie who appear in the song are rumored to be actors Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, Davies has since denied that story.
“Waterloo Sunset” is not an unsung gem hidden in the Kinks’ discography. It was an immediate hit, reaching #2 in the British charts and faring well in other European countries, as well as Australia and New Zealand. Though released as a single in the United States, “Waterloo Sunset” didn’t make much of an impression in 1967. Shows what we know. – David Harris
“Do You Remember Walter?” from The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968)
In 1968, everything was about the future. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey took viewers past the stars, making tin can robots and little green men a thing of the past. The Beatles released a self-titled album that would come to be known as The White Album, a kaleidoscope of style and songwriting that would change perceptions of what an album could be. But for the Kinks, it was the year they released The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. It’s an album that deliberately turns its back on all trends of the time, ignoring psychedelia for nostalgia.
Where the Kinks had once been known for their outrageous fashion sense and the Davies brothers’ Angry Young Man stance, retiring from touring and a decline in their commercial fortunes seemed to put them in a more contemplative place. One of the many standout tracks on Village “Do You Remember Walter?” finds Ray Davies singing to a childhood friend after many years, thinking back on how life has changed. In its simple, earthy details like “smoking cigarettes behind your garden gate” and its acknowledgment of grandiose, unfulfilled dreams, the band builds a sorrowful masterpiece out of everyday feelings.
“Do You Remember Walter?” strikes to the heart of the Kinks’ strange backwards rebellion, turning towards symbols of English country life even as it was dwindling in favor and existence. It brings a poignant beauty to a way of living that was soon to disappear, even if no one else seemed to care. But the beauty of the Kinks and their love for the land of their childhood can be summed up by the heartbreaking final words of the track, directed to someone the singer no longer knows: “Yes, people often change, but memories of people can remain.” – Nathan Kamal
“Shangri-La” from Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (1969)
Ray Davies followed The Village Green Preservation Society with another concept album written for a television movie that never came to fruition. No matter, Arthur is one of the group’s most-beloved albums and one of the last, great Kinks records before Davies pushed the group into a vaudevillian grotesquerie.
Taking cues from ‘60s forebears Brian Wilson and the Beatles, Davies experimented with song structure on Arthur. On its best track, “Shangri-La,” Davies begins with gentle folk and slowly builds to a full-force rocker. Although its title may evoke James Hilton’s mystical utopia, Davies’ Shangri-La is the name of Arthur’s suburban home in the failed television play. It serves a superficial symbol of hollowness. With its caustic opening verse (“Now that you’ve found your paradise/ This is your kingdom to command/ You can go outside and polish your car/ Or sit by the fire in your Shangri-La), Davies is both feting and condemning the staid plainness of suburban life.
While the lyrics may paint a bleak picture, “Shangri-La” is one of the Kinks’ most exciting sonic ventures with multi-layered vocals and surprising tempo changes. It may be overshadowed by the wildly popular, straight-forward rocker “Victoria,” but “Shangri-La” is a more daring, more emotional sonic journey. Perhaps too much for some listeners in 1969. Released as the second single from Arthur, “Shangri-La” failed to chart in the UK. – David Harris
“Strangers” from Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (1970)
It’s hard to overstate how far the Kinks had slipped by the time the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s. Their concept albums weren’t hitting on either side of the Atlantic and single after single was being largely ignored. In the States, they hadn’t been to the Billboard Top 40 since “Sunny Afternoon,” in 1966, and the 14 singles they’d released across the last three years of the ‘60s yielded only one tepid trip into the “Hot 100.” Then came “Lola,” by far the biggest worldwide hit of the band’s career and the song that helped elevate the album that had its name in the title, despite a ludicrously cumbersome name.
“Lola” had a whiff of novelty to it, with its goofy spelling lessons and (then quite unique) gender switcheroo, but it gave only the barest sense of the scabrous near-satire contained elsewhere on the album. And yet the absolutely pinnacle of the record finds the band in a wistful, tender-hearted mode, courtesy of the finest piece of songwriting Dave Davies ever signed his name to. Set to a lovely, ruminative acoustic guitar, the song finds its sweetness in the chorus: “Strangers on this road we are on/ But we are not two, we are one.” As always with the Kinks, it’s a little more complicated than that, as there’s a tone of quiet desperation in the lines “If I live too long I’m afraid I’ll die” and “This love of life makes me weak at my knees.” The Kinks were better than most when it came to tilting at life’s uncertainties, and “Strangers” is somehow infused with both the worry and hope of everyday existence. – Dan Seeger
“God’s Children” from Percy (1971)
You have to wonder how a British comedy about a penis transplant starring one-time pinup favorites Elke Sommer and Britt Ekland could possibly be forgotten. Then again, will tomorrow’s moviegoers remember Lindsay Lohan for her movies? Those who do remember Percy do not remember it fondly, with perhaps one exception. For the movie’s soundtrack, the Kinks provided some of Davies’ most lushly orchestrated Hallmark card sentiments (“The Way Love Used to Be”), along with instrumentals conducted by film composer Stanley Meyers. If that sounds more like a contractual obligation than a fully realized album, you’re right. Percy was the last record the Kinks made for their UK label Pye. “God’s Children” leads off the album with lovely harmonies from the frequently disharmonious brothers, and the hummable chorus, “we are all God’s children” sounds like a good message for the kids. But Davies didn’t have to use platitudes to convey that humanistic warmth and all-embracing love and humanity. The characters brought to life on The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society embodied such sentiments without sentimentality. When you consider that a line like “they’ve got no right to change us” is a justifiably angry response to a specific kind of organ transplant, you might look the other way and cough. Davies still had a gift for melody in 1971, but “God’s Children” already shows the lyrical swan dive of a songwriter who rhymes “sinner” with – guess what? – “winner”! – Pat Padua
“20th Century Man” from Muswell Hillbillies (1971)
Starting with 1968’s The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, the band fell into the habit of creating loosely structured concept albums. The collected songs wouldn’t quite connect into a narrative, but a recurring theme would come through. Muswell Hillbillies follows that pattern, using the idea of escape and its flip side, exile. The title tune refers to the north London suburb that the Davies brothers moved to when their old neighborhood was cleared for urban renewal. It bemoans their banishment, conflating their old home with an idyllic West Virginia that exists only in their minds.
While “Muswell Hillbillies” closes the album with a rebellious regret, “20th Century Man” kicks it off with greater hyperbole. It’s not just Muswell Hills that they resent; it’s all the pressure of modern life. They decry the aggravation and insanity of our times, looking backward and seeking simplicity. The verse delivery owes a small debt to “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by the Animals, which is referenced lyrically as well. After their rougher interpretation of the blues during their early days, the comfortable blues rock vamp shows how far they’ve come. Once it gets rolling, Ray Davies tosses in the perfect slide guitar accent to propel the tune. A decent track, what elevates it is the smooth transition to English folk rock on the bridge. The retro feel and droning twang make their point every bit as well as the words. The segue back to the main melody fills out into a strong rock arrangement that recalls the Who’s interpretation of Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues.” Davies feels trapped and can only vent his angst, “I’m a 20th century man, but I don’t want die here.” – Jester Jay Goldman
“Sitting in My Hotel” from Everybody’s in Show-Biz (1972)
“Write what you know,” is what the old adage says and, by 1972, Ray Davies was completely immersed in his bubble of celebrity. Everybody’s in Show-Biz provides various snapshots of that experience, most of which share a disillusioned sense of fame and the boring minutiae of rock star life. The constant hustle in “Here Comes Yet Another Day” leads to the unappetizing choices in “Motorway.” Ultimately, Davies closes out the studio side on “Celluloid Heroes,” where he bows to the pressure and yearns for his inner life to match the public’s airbrushed assumptions.
If “Celluloid Heroes” is Davies’ drunken fantasy, then it comes well after the sober sadness of “Sitting in My Hotel.” The simple piano accompaniment at the start captures the feeling that his life is spiraling out of control while he sinks into a nostalgic reverie. The music swells as he reflects on the trappings of his success. But even so, he senses that he’s untethered from reality and he misses the grounding that he had from his friends and his rough beginnings. In contrast to all the campy turns and clever tunes that fill the album, “Sitting in My Hotel” is a refreshingly honest song that serves as its emotional heart.
Perhaps the Kinks regretted that vulnerability, because the studio half of Everybody’s in Show-Biz is paired with a collection of live recordings from a two night stand at Carnegie Hall. The performances draw largely on their previous two releases and their exuberance and wacky humor contrast sharply with the mood of the studio tracks. The first half may be introspective and dissatisfied, but the clear message is that, in the end, the show must go on. – Jester Jay Goldman
“Sweet Lady Genevieve” from Preservation Act 1 (1973)
The Kinks never had the kind of wholehearted devotion that the public showed the Beatles or even the fickle infatuation given to the Rolling Stones’ manufactured scruffiness. The Davies brothers were too weird in their choice of projects (like the Percy soundtrack) and too vocal in their sibling bickering to charm in the same way. While they first exploded into the music scene by setting the foundation for garage rock and then slowly segued into barbed, literate examinations of humdrum lives, they exchanged more and more of their popular support for critical raves, until the ratio was hopelessly skewed. By 1973’s Preservation Act 1, even that was fading.
By all reports, Ray Davies was in bad shape by the time he began constructing a rock opera based on the Village Green concept so brilliantly illustrated by The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. The resulting release stretched over a bloated pair of LPs to poor critical and commercial reception, but in their darkest years, the Kinks could be counted on for moments of sheer joy. “Sweet Lady Genevieve,” the standout track of Preservation Act 1 is a three and a half minutes of tearful sincerity, sung by a character denoted as “The Tramp” to his long lost titular love. A mid-tempo piece of folk rock backed by a delicate organ and the occasional burst of harmonica, the song is a plea for forgiveness for sins of the past, for cruelties of youth. But more than that, it’s a plea for connection after separation (one of Davies’ favorite themes), with the singer claiming “You’re not the child who smiled so innocently/And I’m not the rogue that I used to be.” It’s an un-ironic gem in a nearly forgotten misstep, and more gorgeous for its heartfelt unaffectedness. – Nathan Kamal
“Salvation Road” from Preservation Act 2 (1974)
It would be easy to blame the drugs, but it’s more likely a case of unchecked ambition. Ray Davies’ original dream of a full-on theatrical production of Preservation never gelled and it eventually split into two flawed parts. Preservation Act 1 is the setup, introducing some characters, but the story is fairly opaque.
Preservation Act 2 attempts to blend narrative with the music, but loses its thread all too easily. Songs are interrupted by announcements and often seem to be little more than overly dramatic speeches set to music. Like its predecessor, Act 2 muddles the plot and sows confusion. It doesn’t help that the two obvious factions in the tale, Flash and Mr. Black, are both villains.
As he slaved over the Preservation project, Davies considered it his masterpiece in progress. Unfortunately, he was never quite able to articulate his storyline, although the live performances worked better. Despite all of these problems, the album has some strong songs like the brooding introspection of “When a Solution Comes” and the rough bluesy stomp of “Money Talks.” The best of all is the big finale, “Salvation Road,” which has a jaunty, uplifting tune as it marches forward into a desolate future. It’s easy to imagine Davies reaching the end of his rope with his story. One evil has been swapped for another and there’s little chance of a happy ending, but the album is almost full and deadline is due. Punch drunk, he raises a glass and toasts the misery. But the contrast crowns the album with a kind of resilience, even if the lyrics could be about his real life: “Goodbye youth, goodbye dreams/ The good times and the friends I used to know.” – Jester Jay Goldman
“Everybody’s a Star (Starmaker)” from Soap Opera (1975)
If you’re looking for an indicator of just how whacked-out goofy pop culture got during the 1970s, you could do far worse than seeking out a few minutes of “Starmaker,” the Granada Television musical written by and starring Ray Davies that eventually morphed into the concept album Soap Opera. The very beginning is good enough, as an oddball group of dancers in sparkly outfits and floppy, blonde afro wigs (making them look like a band of cavorting William Katts) provide the program’s opening credits on rainbow-streaked cue cards with big, blocky, golden letters. Eventually, they shimmy their way over to Ray Davies, who is up on a raised platform, adorned in a silver jumpsuit that glows in the studio lights as he sings “Everybody’s a Star (Starmaker)” while mugging for the camera. It’s nutso, especially when the cameras capture the audience, sitting sedately as they watch.
The very title of the opening track to Soap Opera borrows a line from “Celluloid Heroes,” the melancholy salute to Hollywood icons released three years earlier on the album Everybody’s in Show-Biz. By now, Davies’ natural cynicism had swamped out any sentiment, and the assertion of universal celebrity is now a thesis about the capability of the music industry machinery to make any old schmo into a rock star, a concept as pertinent back when KC and the Sunshine Band was routinely topping the charts as it is now in the age of hideous Canadian usurpers Justin Bieber and Robin Thicke. “Everybody’s a Star” is Davies and the Kinks at their most indulgently theatrical, warping rock ‘n’ roll into a modern show tune with gonzo commitment. – Dan Seeger
“I’m in Disgrace” from Schoolboys in Disgrace (1975)
Ray Davies’ dalliance with theatrical Kinks albums came to an end in 1975 with Schoolboys in Disgrace, a release that split the difference between classic rock and the songwriter’s vaudeville aspirations. It’s one of the bands briefest (clocking in at barely 36 minutes) and most stripped-down albums, particularly after the overstuffed Preservation records, which is fitting for a sequence of vignettes of childhood hard knocks. Schoolboys in Disgrace found the Kinks just before their transformation into elder statesmen of arena rock and fittingly takes them back to their harder roots.
Purportedly the boyhood story of Preservation’s main villain, Mr. Flash, the nearly title track “I’m in Disgrace” begins elegantly, with a repeated piano flourish acting as a counterpoint to Davies singing, “The first time that I saw you/ You were the lady of my dreams,” only for a fuzzy electric guitar to kick in at his words, “Now I wish I’d never seen your face.” Over a riff that distinctly hearkens to their old peers/rivals the Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” Davies wails over his ambiguous fall from grace. It’s a deceptively simple song, bringing up questions of consent, seduction and rape as background vocals confirm that the singer is indeed “in disgrace.” – Nathan Kamal
“Sleepwalker” from Sleepwalker (1977)
Sleepwalker represented a major shift for the Kinks. After years on RCA (their label since 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies), the band had moved to a new home, signing with Arista Records. It was suggested that it might be time to move on from the concept albums and more theatrical songwriting in favor of a return to the sort of direct, punchy rock songs that had made their name in the first place. Ray Davies didn’t exactly bring the group fully back to the garage rock sound, but there was a noted leanness to the songs that had been missing for some time. That also didn’t mean Davies was going to slip back into simple, pining love songs. He still had a clear predilection for crafting material that was a little twisted.
The album’s title cut is a nifty rock shuffle that opens with Davies singing, “Everybody got problems, buddy, I got mine/ When midnight comes around, I start to lose my mind.” This isn’t some bland complaint about insomnia. The character in the song is on the prowl, warning, “Better close your window tight/ I might come in for a bite, oh yeah.” The track’s buoyant music and the keening vocals by Davies convey the opposite of menace, which of course makes the song all the more weird and unsettling, the perfect expression of the Kinks’ resolute refusal to keep it safe, even when supposedly trying harder to be a nice, uncomplicated rock ‘n’ roll band. – Dan Seeger
“Misfits” from Misfits (1978)
The strongest track on the Kinks’ second album for Arista is a pleasant, mildly hummable and modestly anthemic number about generic misfits, who are “everywhere” you know. But remember when Ray Davies would actually create misfit characters? Like the aging neurotic of “Where Did My Spring Go?” or the kid who wants to be like “David Watts”? Those specific, memorable figures, written with an unassuming literacy and drawn with shape and color, are not the exclusive territory of Davies’ classic mid-‘60s era. But after around 1970, Davies began to lose the ear for living characters in favor of self-pitying generalities.
Misfits is one of the more successful of the Kinks’ Arista albums, its melodies and arrangements relatively modest, its arena-rock bombast kept in check, for now. But it’s still full of clunkers embarrassing to anyone who owns their best work. Compare the reggae-flavored race number “Black Messiah” with the clever calypso-tinged number “I’m On an Island” from Kontroversy, and you hear the difference between an artist inspired by different musical traditions to a journeyman awkwardly pandering to a cause. Except when there was a paycheck in it—the Kinks were one of the prominent holdouts when everyone else was boycotting Sun City. – Pat Padua
“Catch Me Now I’m Falling” from Low Budget (1979)
“Sure,” the album-oriented rock fan may have rationalized in the late 1970s, “Arena rock sucks, but it isn’t the worst of all possible career turns for veteran rockers like the Kinks. They could have gone disco!” Low Budget turned the most neurotic rock ‘n’ roll fears of our imaginary album-oriented rock fan into reality—complete with a 12” extended disco mix. It’s hard to pick among the saddest reasons that “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” is the best song on an awful record. That it cribs from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”—and badly at that? That its very title, unbeknownst to its author, is a desperate cry from the depths of an artistic nadir marked by an alarming lack of self-awareness? That taking on the persona of Captain America to satirize a nation in peril also satirizes a songwriter in peril? That I can think of half a dozen disco albums from that same year that had better music? That in the US, this was the highest charting original Kinks album? It’s no wonder their next album was called Give the People What They Want, but Ray Davies, try as he might, could no longer give the Kinks fans what they needed. – Pat Padua
“Destroyer” from Give the People What They Want (1981)
The Kinks found a second life with Sleepwalker and Misfits, veering away from the vaudevillian circus and ill-begotten concepts that plagued most of the group’s ‘70s output. Davies continued writing hard rock songs on the band’s first record of the ‘80s, Give the People What They Want, one of the most wryly appropriate titles in rock history. It may not contain any truly great Kinks hits, but it’s exactly what the fans wanted to hear—loud, ballsy rockers.
Released as the album’s lead single in the USA, “Destroyer” may sound extremely familiar to any rock fan, let alone Kinks aficionados. It doesn’t take a Berklee grad to recognize the main riff from “All Day and All of the Night” recycled into a beefier, angrier form on “Destroyer.” Listen to the lyrics and you will reencounter a famous character from Kinks-songs past. Dripping with paranoia and the sound of a man constantly looking over his shoulder, “Destroyer” rides the Kinks’ past glories and still emerges as the best song on Give the People What They Want. If something isn’t broken, why fix it? But no one ever said anything about electrifying the shit out of the thing and rocking the hell out. – David Harris
“Heart of Gold” from State of Confusion (1983)
As the Kinks pushed into the ‘80s, they continued to cut hard rocking songs, but on State of Confusion Davies tempered these with quieter tracks, including standout “Heart of Gold.” Less schmaltzy than “Don’t Forget to Dance” and more wistful than “Long Distance,” “Heart of Gold” may be Davies’ best pure folk song. The cynicism found on tracks such as “Destroyer” and “Low Budget” seems to have fallen away, leaving room for the shining, major chord simplicity of “Heart of Gold.”
Despite the song’s sunny sound, Davies’ lyrics are still flecked with sadness. “Underneath that rude exterior/ I know you’ve got a heart of gold,” he sings in the chorus about a woman who has rebuffed his affection. Rather than demonize his rejecter, Davies uses the song to try to understand exactly “why you have such bitterness.”
Davies is one of the most aloof lyricists of his era, although sentiment and nostalgia often find their way into his songs. “Heart of Gold” just may be the singer’s most contemplative song since The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. It is certainly the best on the record, even if it’s overshadowed by hit single “Come Dancing.” In this case, sentiment wins, Ray. – David Harris
“Living on a Thin Line” from Word of Mouth (1984)
It is tempting to read into a songwriter’s emotional state through their work, though there’s never any certainty that art and artist are in alignment. It is particularly easy to hear “Living on a Thin Line” and think of the strain of a group working far after their prime and looking at an uncertain future. Written by the consistently underrated younger brother Dave Davies, the track first appeared on the 1984 album Word of Mouth; it found the Kinks after years of roster changes and resurgent commercial success. But that latter day glow was about to fade, with Word of Mouth falling far down the charts from its immediate predecessor State of Confusion and producing the band’s final U.S. Billboard single, “Do It Again.”
Over and over, Davies sings the chorus “Living on a thin line/ Tell me now, what are we supposed to do?” sounding confused and uncertain. Over a monumentally deep bass line and a hard drumbeat, he lists out a litany of failures, lamenting a lost England and fears for the coming century. Buoyed by echoing counterpoint vocals, it’s a song that somehow gives strength to ambiguity, sounding frustrated as he sings, “Does it matter much, does it matter much to you/ Does it ever really matter?,” only to resurge with, “Yes, it really, really matters.” It’s one of the Kinks final truly memorable songs, finding them uncertain again and showing their age, but proving they can still pull out greatness when they need to. – Nathan Kamal
“Lost and Found” from Think Visual (1986)
It’s not classic Kinks by a long shot, but “Lost and Found” gets closer than anybody would have expected from the aging rockers. Its lyrics sound like the dreams of a mild-mannered Travis Bickle, “Waiting for the hurricane/ To hit New York City.” But Davies finally drops arena swagger to let in some melody. What happened? The Kinks’ commercial resurgence in the late 1970s rewarded the worst music of Ray Davies’ career, but that success didn’t last. As the Rolling Stones and the Who filled stadiums to support mediocre, bombastic albums, Davies looked inward. In 1983, he had a child with Chrissie Hynde, who with the Pretenders had definitively covered the early Kinks’ ballad “Stop Your Sobbing.” Hynde left Davies for Jim Kerr of Simple Minds, and this Kinks fan took it kind of personally. Really, Chrissie? Simple Minds? Then again, have you listened to the Kinks’ arena rock era lately? Whatever the reason, in the mid-1980s Davies spent time away from the Kinks, and his solo work began to show hints of his mid-‘60s introspection. Davies appeared on the big screen in director Julien Temple’s Vincente Minnelli-inspired rock musical Absolute Beginners in 1986. Playing its young protagonist’s middle-aged father, Davies contributed one of his most charming songs in years, a longing for “The Quiet Life.”
That same year the Kinks signed with a new label. Think Visual was the Kinks’ first album for MCA, and Davies found something of his old observational gift, if not for the lovable eccentrics of the mid-‘60s, for the blue-collar workers of the early ‘70s. It was a step in the right direction. – Pat Padua
“Aggravation” from UK Jive (1989)
Ray Davies spent plenty of time bucking modern sensibilities and corrosive progress in his songwriting over the years. Though there’s surely some irony to the Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One single “Apeman,” it wasn’t hard to imagine Davies actually craving the tropical primitivism of the song, especially as he aged into his natural cantankerousness. By the time of UK Jive, his songwriting had come all the way around the almost nonstop derision towards the messy ugliness of life heading into the last decade of the 20th century. Davies was only in his mid-40s when UK Jive was released, but he sounded convincingly like a crusty old dude mad at the kids on his lawn when he sang lines like, “Who needs it?/ The aggravation/ The daily goddamn hassle.”
“Aggravation” is the opening track to UK Jive. The album may not be especially well-regarded in the Kinks catalog, but there’s an appealing hard rocking forcefulness to its best track. Spreading out to over six minutes, the song races with nice bluesy breakdown riffs as Davies rages blindly against every bit of the world that besets him: “Aggravations everywhere/ Get out of my way, get out of my hair.” It may not be his most artful songwriting, but there’s a rough-edged honesty to it. He’d had just about enough of all this shit, and he didn’t care who knew it. – Dan Seeger
“Phobia” from Phobia (1993)
The Kinks’ final fade began in the mid-‘80s. By 1993’s Phobia, they seemed to realize this would likely be their last album, because they packed in enough songs to completely fill a CD. They had already abandoned the grand scope of their thematic albums; now, they just meandered through the odds and ends they had at hand. The album starts out well enough with the crinkly foil distortion of “Wall of Fire,” but too many of the songs seem poorly planned at best. From the pathetic midlife crisis in “Only a Dream” to the melodramatic “Don’t,” the band takes on weak subjects and fails to make them click. The nadir is “Babies,” which imagines unborn children, fearful of being born.
Fortunately, the long track list includes a few decent ones. “Hatred (A Duet)” has the Davies brothers scoring points for honesty and “Phobia” makes arena rock out of an updated ‘80s angst. The verses lurch forward with giant robot crunch, while the chorus switches between haymaker taglines and rabbit punch phrases. Strip away the Def Leppard bombast and you can hear the faint bluesy pulse that the Kinks followed at their very start. Some of the band’s old theatrics peek out as well during the vocal bridge, even if they’re dressed in heavy metal drag. Short instrumental breaks throughout the song use a brick or two from Pink Floyd’s “Young Lust” as touchstones to reset for the chorus. Lyrically, the theme is simplistic, but the music makes a valiant effort to update the Kinks’ sound to reflect a more modern, hard rock drive. I appreciate the gesture, but the power of “You Really Got Me” would have been enough. – Jester Jay Goldman