From MAGNET: Real Music Alternatives
The Over/Under: The Kinks
April 14, 2009
The Wilco Over/Under was really well-received. So much so that somebody calling himself “sgtpepper64” on ViaChicago, the Wilco message board, lavished this praise on MAGNET’s Roob (you’d know him if you saw him): “What a dick who doesn’t know shit.” The Robert Pollard Over/Under was really well-received, also. So well-received that Pollard’s wife deleted Roob from her Facebook friend list, no doubt furious over the part where he called Pollard “the greatest songwriter who ever lived.” The R.E.M. Over/Under went well, too. So well that some guy called “haggis” on Murmurs, the R.E.M. message board, wrote, “This is crap. The guy obviously has serious R.E.M. issues” after Roob said that R.E.M. was one of his favorite bands ever. OK, so on we go with the Kinks. As the years go by, it becomes more and more apparent that the Kinks were equal to—if not superior to—the holy trinity of the Beatles, the Who and the Stones. When all is said and done, the Kinks just may be recognized as the greatest band ever. But for now, they’re just more fodder for MAGNET’s weekly Over/Under. Hopefully, Pete Quaife’s wife doesn’t zap Roob from her Facebook friend list after this one.
:: The Five Most Overrated Kinks Songs
1. “Celluloid Heroes” (1972)
“Celluloid Heroes” gets the same big, giant asterisk treatment that we gave Robert Pollard’s “Subspace Biographies” back in February. The problem isn’t the song, it’s the arrangement. The studio version pretty much renders a brilliant song unlistenable. Ray Davies penned a stunning tribute to the actors and actresses whose lives were torn apart by the same Hollywood machinery that made them stars, then he ruined it with a John Tesh-ian wash of synths that drown out the song’s power. Nothing wrong with keys in Kinks music. A bunch of early Kinks tracks were beefed up with some glorious barrelhouse piano, much of it provided by Nicky Hopkins. But here, John Gosling’s keys detract from an otherwise classic Kinks song. If we want synths, we’ll pull out Rick Wakeman’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. They don’t belong here.
2. “Come Dancing” (1983)
Davies mined the same territory—sentimentality with a twist—far better before and since. “Come Dancing” is a tough listen, one of the few flat-out duds in the Kinks’ vast catalog. For a songwriter who was so brilliant at creating these lonely images of pedestrian life in small-town England, “Come Dancing” tries too hard to tug at the heartstrings and conjures up an image of happy times that have slipped through one’s fingers. Gotta admit, by the time this track ends, I’m glad they knocked down the damn palais.
3. “Juke Box Music” (1977)
Davies is a god at crafting devastatingly beautiful choruses. Nobody in the history of pop music wrote such unforgettable verses and then just blew you away with an even more heart-wrenching or uplifting chorus. And then there’s “Juke Box Music,” with its chorus of “It’s only juke box music/Only juke box music/Only juke box music/It’s only music/Only juke box music/Only juke box music.” Etc. And so on. The verses are pretty meh, too, but this is the worst chorus in Kinks history. Other than maybe “Rock ‘N’ Roll Cities.” And that doesn’t count.
4. “Destroyer” (1981)
I had a girlfriend in college who loved Harry Chapin. OK, stay with me here, this is difficult for me. I’d be in my apartment blasting Uriah Heep or King Crimson, and Janet would sit there studying, then politely ask if we could listen to “Verities And Balderdash” next. Anyway, when tickets went on sale for a Harry Chapin show at Ohio State’s Mershon Auditorium, I had no choice. If I refused to go, she’d refuse to give it up. Come to think of it, she refused anyway. But the point is, Chapin sucked, and the low point of the evening was this pathetic song he did where he took the characters from that morbid “Taxi” song and continued the story years later. It was called “Taxi The Sequel” or “Taxi II” or some such crap, and the realization struck me at that moment that the worst thing any artist can do is recycle old material. It’s sad and it’s pathetic and it’s an open concession that, “Hey, I just got nothing anymore.” So when “Destroyer” starts out, “Met a girl called Lola, and I took her back to my place,” I hearken back to Mershon Auditorium and Janet and that horrifying “Taxi” sequel. Come on, Ray. Not another Lola song. It’s not funny, it’s not clever, it’s not necessary. Of course, “Destroyer” also lifts the “All Day And All Of The Night” riff, so now you have a rare case of multiple self-pilfering. Harry Chapin would have dug it. Janet probably would have, too.
5. “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” (1979)
Low Budget as a whole is underrated. Ironic that it took a British band to provide the most perceptive musical chronicle of the U.S. circa Jimmy Carter’s presidency. But “Catch Me Now I’m Falling,” built around the legendary “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” riff, is a low point here. I have no problem with borrowing a riff from the Stones and tweaking it to fit a new song. Think of World Party’s “woo-hooo” bit in “Way Down Now,” which cops from “Sympathy For The Devil” without stealing. But this is flat-out robbery. And a band that created so many unforgettable riffs—from “All Day And All Of The Night” to “You Really Got Me” to “She’s Got Everything”—just shouldn’t have to resort to it. This was Ray and brother Dave Davies—while still fine songwriters—admitting that they had run out of riffs, so they just shrugged and used somebody else’s. Still bugs me. Not only that, this is the worst couplet in Kinks history: “Now I’m calling all citizens from all over the world/This is Captain America calling.”
:: The Five Most Underrated Kinks Songs
1. “Plastic Man” (1969)
At first glance, a totally ridiculous track, almost novelty. But it turns out “Plastic Man” is much more. It’s not only a biting social commentary on the disingenuous dirtbags who invade our lives on a daily basis but a great little rocket-fueled music-hall rave-up with a gazillion beefy chord changes and a healthy dose of hyperkinetic drumming courtesy of the underrated Mick Avory.
2. “Mindless Child Of Motherhood” (1970)
The first Kinks show I saw was at the long-forgotten Westchester Premier Theater in Tarrytown, N.Y., in 1978. About 40 minutes into the set, Ray introduced Dave, who was about to sing his crowning achievement, “Death Of A Clown”: “This is me brother Dave, and he’s going to sing ‘Death Of A Clown’ now. It’s a great song, but he’s actually not much of a songwriter. Just got lucky with this one, then, didn’t you Dave?” Dave was clearly pissed, but the show went on without any fisticuffs. “Death Of A Clown” may be Dave’s masterpiece, but he penned a few other terrific Kinks songs: “Living On A Thin Line,” “Susannah’s Still Alive” and “Mindless Child Of Motherhood,” to name a few. The latter, originally released as the flip side to the “Lola” single, is a tightly wound powerhouse mid-period Kinks track that holds its own against the best of Ray’s 1966-1969 songs. Luck had nothing to do with it.
3. “Sunny Afternoon” (1966)
The magnificent “Sunny Afternoon” has never been accorded the same legendary status as Ray’s finest songs—”Days,” “Waterloo Sunset,” “Victoria,” et al—but it belongs in that category. “Sunny Afternoon” came along in the summer of 1966 and showed remarkable growth for a band that just two years earlier was releasing straight-ahead covers of songs like “Long Tall Sally.” Now, Ray was emerging as a master storyteller and melodicist, and “Sunny Afternoon” was one of the first and finest of his richly detailed vignettes of everyday life, rising atop an unlikely musical amalgam of Vaudeville, ragtime, pop and Broadway. It would prove to be fertile territory for the Kinks over the next decade, but they never did it better than on “Sunny Afternoon.”
4. “Shangri-La” (1969)
Ray never really needed to put out that endless string of late-’60s/early-’70s theatrical concept albums, because he had this remarkable ability to condense an entire theatrical concept into one song. He didn’t need the 40-minute form because he could so remarkably use the five-minute form. Consider “Shangri-La,” which outwardly is yet another Davies tale of a British suburban loser and his mundane life. But musically, “Shangri-La” is astonishing. It starts out with Ray singing over a little acoustic guitar, then some horns kick in, then a harpsichord appears out of nowhere as the whole thing speeds up and changes key, a device that usually destroys pop songs but here deftly creates musical tension. Then comes Dave’s otherworldly “you can’t go anywhere” harmony—with apologies to the Pips for their work on “Midnight Train To Georgia,” I submit that this is the greatest harmony vocal in pop-music history—setting up the triumphant hook. And that’s just the first minute and a half. After another verse, with more insanely great Dave harmonies—check out the “TV set and a radio” bit—and another chorus, the thing changes key again, then descends from music-hall pop into a hammering hard-rock verse, then morphs into the “la-la-la-la” version of the chorus. Then we skid to a halt, slow down and get one more chorus, with Dave’s “you can’t go anywhere” harmony just falling impossibly out of the sky and twisting itself into Ray’s lead vocal. There’s so much happening here, but it all works together, thanks to the genius of the brothers Davies. “Shangri-La” was released as a single but didn’t go anywhere, except in the Netherlands, where it peaked at number 27. But 40 years after it was released, “Shangri-La” stands as an epic, sprawling, five-and-a-half-minute mini-opera unto itself. A masterpiece.
5. “Better Things” (1981)
By the early 1980s, with outstanding comeback records Misfits and Low Budget fading in their rear-view mirror, the Kinks had ceased being a relevant band, and Give The People What They Want was the first in a string of desultory records that continued with State Of Confusion, Word Of Mouth, Think Visual and UK Jive. But each record seemed to have one damn good track buried somewhere within—often at the end of side two. Think Visual had “Lost And Found.” Word Of Mouth had “Do It Again.” State Of Confusion had … hmmm … I’ll get back to you. And for anybody who dared make it to the end of Give The People What They Want, there was “Better Things,” a vintage Kinks track with hopeful lyrics, old-school Kinks harmonies and a poignant Ray vocal. Sentimental without being cliché. That’s what Ray always did best, and with “Better Things,” he conjured up his old brilliance and did it one last time.
Read our 2008 Ray Davies cover story and Dave Davies feature. Plus, MAGNET had Black Francis, Robyn Hitchcock, Neko Case, Of Montreal and others write about their favorite Ray songs, and then we picked 10 overlooked Kinks tracks you need to know.