Friday, 24 July 2009
The Kinks "Think Visual!" (1986) (Revised Review 2015)
The Kinks “Think Visual” (1986)
Working At The Factory/ Lost and Found/ Repetition/ Welcome To Sleazy Town/ The Video Shop// Rock and Roll Cities/ How Are You?/ Think Visual/ Natural Gift/ Killing Time/ When You Were A Child
"They sold us a dream than in reality was just another factory!"
So, it's come to this. The Kinks have spent their careers documenting the battle between the light and the dark and now, just short of their 25th anniversary, the latest results are in - and they don't make for happy reading. Ever since 'Face To Face' way back in 1966 Ray Davies has been hinting that the world is a cruel and wicked world but usually dangles some carrot in front of Kinks fans about how it will all get better than this. Short-term pessimism, long-term optimism, that's been The Kinks way for ever so long but suddenly here after another failed marriage behind him and already at loggerheads with new record label London, Ray has thrown in the towel. 'Think Visual' is an album that returns in part to the theme of 'Lola v Powerman' but says effectively that the fight is over - that the conglomerates have won. The Sleazy Town that once had character is now a faceless parking lot and office blocks that look like everywhere else. The people who live in 1986 have no purpose anymore - they're herded like sheep towards a grave 'killing time' with vacuous entertainment until they get there. The Video Shop is the only place on the high-street that's offering escapism and even that's in low-quality bootleg copies. The world is obsessed with how things look, not what it makes people feel. Even music, even rock and roll - the one great last bastion of individuality over a society that doesn't care anymore - has become streamlined and pre-packaged like every other industry. Ray Davies has been writing about his worst fears across the past twenty years, lands where wicked politicians rule a dazed people, where everywhere looks the same and where there is no point to anything anymore (Margaret Thatcher is Mr Black! At least when Gordon Brown and David Cameron aren't): but now he doesn't need to imagine these fears because they've all come true - Ray just needs to observe instead, turning his usual hawk-like eyes on a society he stopped caring for long ago. All Kinks albums have hope inside them somewhere, even if it's well hidden; 'Muswell Hillbilly' has paeans to cups of tea and mad uncles as well as tales of cruelty and acute schizophrenia blues, 'Preservation' ends with the baddies winning but at least Mr Flash gave them a run for the money and at least The Tramp survived to see through it all; 'Give The People What They Want' damned everything and everyone to hell but still ended with a curious timid belief that, tomorrow, we would all be given 'better things'. Think Visual is the blackest of black Kinks albums in more ways than it's seemingly in-mourning cover: it's a frightened, tortured, cynical, angry album without as many of The Kinks' usual caveats of beauty and beliefs to soften the blow.
Partly because of this, but mainly because nobody can flipping get hold of it (please re-issue the three London albums soon somebody!), 'Think Visual' has become something of a forgotten Kinks album. Few fans ever got to hear it the first time round and as there's never been a second time round to date and the few that did hear it told the younger fans not to bother I can probably safely say that less people reading this will review will know the album than usual. I struggled for years till I could afford this album secondhand (and even then in rotten condition on vinyl) and seriously considered paying slightly less of a fortune five years earlier for a copy of the album that had a blooming great footprint through it (don't you just love charity shops sometimes? Clearly whoever had paid good money for the album because of The Kinks name before me was furious about how bad the album was and that footprint says more to me than any review ever could). Was it worth the wait and the aggro and the cost in cleaning polish? Well, it's by The Kinks so of course it was, but 'Think Visual' isn't exactly the easiest Kinks album to fall in love with. Note that usually when I talk about a forgotten Kinks album I refer to it as a 'lost classic' - I haven't' this time because I'm still not sure what I think about this album. There are more songs on this album that I adore than most records I own from the 1980s: 'The Video Shop' is great fun and a welcome relief from all the bleakness of the rest of the album, 'Welcome To Sleazy Town' is easily the best of the cod-blues songs The Kinks have been trying to add to the set over the years, Dave's 'When You Were A Child' is one of his loveliest ballads and the cynical, dismissive sneer that is 'Working At The Factory' may well be the greatest Kinks song of the 1980s - it's certainly the most honest. But the rest is, well, poor. Not even alright but weak: 'Lost and Found' tries hard but it's not the hit single it thinks it is but a minor ballad; 'Repetition' is, well, 'Repetition'; 'Rock and Roll Cities' is the single noisiest song Dave Davies ever gave to The Kinks and sounds like it was written in less time than it took to sing; 'How Are You?' is a nice idea that runs out of steam after the opening verse; 'Natural Gift' sings about other people's talents but doesn't demonstrate many itself; the title track is presumably sarcastically upbeat and contemporary but has far less fun parodying modern culture than anything on 'Give People What They Want' and 'Killing Time' is the one Kinks song I can't remember once the record has stopped playing (does it even have a melody?) I adore quite a large percentage of The Kinks' back catalogue and dislike very little yet almost all of what I really don't like seems to be on this poor album - only the rather bland 'Misfits' comes close (and has a similar mix between the oh-so-good-it-hurts and the can-I-get-away-with-this?) I can't help but wonder if Ray was just so fed up of the world and what it was listening to that he wrote the bulk of this album in five minutes in despair. His quote of the year - 'Nothing can possibly be as bad as I think it is' - says much about this album and what it stands for.
'Think Visual' is, at heart, an album about people not giving The Kinks their dues and so comes perilously close to listening to people moaning for 40 minutes. Like all these records it always seems a bit off to me that bands should moan about their falling record sales to the very people who are still loyal enough to buy even the later poor-selling albums; their chief audience just aren't going to hear it and even long-term fans are going to take umbrage to being told their purchases aren't enough to make the stars happy after a time. However Ray (and Dave) make a fair point to some extent: The Kinks' Katalogue, certainly after the Pye years of the 1960s, has been notoriously badly handled, misunderstood and dismissed merely for not having the magic something many a 1960s record came with. Funnily enough, the main difference between bands of the 1960s and 1980s was hope: the last AAA album I own which claimed that the world could still be saved if everyone tried hard enough and were nice to each other came out about 1971. This is an album devoid of all hope and as far away from the 1960s dream as you could ever get - although this in itself is nothing new (The Kinks famously sang 'Where Have All The Good Times Gone?' at the height of the 60s dream). Few artists have ever made the point as well as the marvellous 'Working At A Factory', a song which effectively throws in the towel and says that making music in a pressured environment to live has now become like every other repetitive job and damns the modern music scene to hell while embracing it in desperate search of one final hit that never came. However hearing a whole record of how things aren't working is far less interesting than what The Kinks are normally capable of and we desperately need something else across this record (at one stage 'Think Visual' included an early version of 'The Informer', a song polished off for last record 'Phobia' in 1993 - it's a shame it isn't here as its wider sense of injustice in the Irish troubles would have fitted the album theme marvellously, whilst offering up a different subject matter to explore). The main problem with 'Think Visual' is not that it consists of people ranting (The Kinks have always done that occasionally) but that it only really consists of people ranting - furthermore people who till now we've always used a beautiful escapism from our own ranting.
More interesting than merely hearing that The Kinks were fed up might have been exploring the reasons why they were feeling fed up. Few bands had ever lasted as long without a pause as The Kinks (22 years - only The Hollies and Rolling Stones could match that in AAA terms and they'd released less albums across a similar period); certainly no rock and roll band involving brothers had lasted as long. Though Ray and Dave had formed an uneasy truce for most of the past decade tempers still flared between them and the sessions for 'Word Of Mouth' had been crunch time, leading to Dave refusing to work on the curious film 'Return To Waterloo' (which became billed to Ray solo despite featuring every other member of The Kinks) and founding member Mick Avory leaving the band. The rest of the 1980s are going to see the biggest split yet between the brothers and the feud is already heating up on this album, signposted by a September 1986 gig while working on the album where the brothers bickered most of the night on stage, peaking with Dave using his guitar to 'fart' each time Ray tried to sing the opening line to 'Celluloid Heroes'. Ah, younger brothers! Elsewhere Ray’s also feeling very very angry, watching yet another promising Kinks moment (their signing with London/MCA after some very tense years with Arista and RCA) turn very very sour very very quickly. The union had seemed to promise so much at the beginning: though a smaller label they were at first keen to have an act of the Kinks' Kalibre on their books (in fact they were so keen they angered the band by announcing they'd been in talks whilst The Kinks still secretly hoped for a new deal with better terms on Arista again, who backed off once the band were apparently 'signed'). But once the band were signed the record label cared little about the actual music. This record was given hardly any publicity and there were problems with delivery dates and last minute re-mixing which had dogged the band ever since Pye said 'no' to 'You Really Got Me' as the first single. For the first time The Kinks are the star act on a particular label and must have been expecting a greater say in their records than they were allowed. Ray's also still recovering from his explosive and very public split with Chrissie Hynde (the source of most of the past three noticeably grumpy albums) something even his third marriage - to Irish ballerina dancer Pat Crosbie in 1984 - doesn't seem to have healed. Add in the fact that Ray was most likely poorly and didn't know it yet (he'll feel more and more run down until the start of 1988 when doctors will finally diagnose a blood clot in his lungs) and you have lots of reasons why Ray in particular is feeling under par. However we're used to hearing The Kinks work out their problems in public - aside from the record label baiting 'Working At The Factory' there's very little 'cause and consequence' here.
And yet The Kinks are never less than interesting, even in failure. It's a real shame that so many fans didn't get to hear this record not because of how good it is (though parts of it are) but because of how different it is. To some extent the last few Kinks records, stretching back to 'Low Budget', possibly even 'Sleepwalker', have had a similar 'feel'. Short bursts of bare bones rock and roll, occasional ballads, a slight sense of whatever happens to be in vogue that week and an intended hit single or three. 'Think Visual' is has moved on from this formula well with a much more updated sound than normal and a return to the playfulness of styles that The Kinks hadn't used since the concept album years. There are several overdubs across this album featuring orchestras and blaring horns and synthesiser licks play a much more prominent part. 'Sleazy Town' comes with a dash of blues, 'Repetition' has a touch of reggae, 'Think Visual' roars with the best of whatever was in the charts in the mid-1980s all speed and fury and 'The Video Shop' in one go out-scores, out-skas and out-laughs anything Madness ever recorded. For once, for perhaps the first time in their careers, The Kinks have been left down not by what happened in the studio (too many re-takes, not enough spontaneity) but the songs themselves. Even if the material has less to offer than normal, at least The Kinks are doing something different with their sound. New drummer Bob Henrit - who joined mid-way through 'Word Of Mouth' - has a chance to find his own style within the band and Ian Gibbons is far more integral to the band's sound than he has been so far the past decade.
There’s a particularly major fault with ‘Think Visual’ that has prevented this album from propping up the top end of Kinks albums ever since its release 23 years ago – Ray Davies didn’t take his own advice with the title. It's a return, of sorts, to the concept albums of old - although the concept is one of those sort of 'half ones' that run through the likes of 'Sleepwalker' rather than a full blown 'Preservation' and the theme is nothing new to The Kinks Kollektor (in fact, against all odds, it’s the last time that happens on a Kinks LP – UK Jive and Phobia are much more esoteric). Unfortunately writing a collection of songs about the facelessness of society and the mundanity of living in a modern repetitive world means that the songs inevitably turn out a bit, well, faceless and repetitive. Ray has by now become so good at getting at the heart of the man in the street’s dilemmas and has become so good at putting their frustrations and malaise into music that this record sounds more like a psychiatrist couch session in many ways, but with the same points being made over and over.
Every song seems to come with the same stabbing accusatory finger, nearly every song is a complaint (until 'How Are You?' at least, which simply offers old friends a warm hug and sounds very 'wrong' in context whilst being 'right' in content). To some extent that doesn't matter as The Kinks disguise the fact with their eclectic musical tastes but the problem is this album spends so long telling us to ignore the surface and dig for something deeper that it's a shame to find that 'Think Visual' is pretty much the same song repeated, say, eight, times. Even Dave's 'Rock and Roll Cities' gets in on the act of being weary and cynical, even if the nostalgic 'When You Were A Child' is much more Kinks-like. Normally I'd accept this stark black and white creation from one of my favourite groups and enjoy it as it was, but The Kinks have always been so colourful it seems a shame to restrict their palette so dramatically and it's sad that their wide worlds of varied characters have been reduced to a borderline-racists Jamaican bootleg video seller and a man about to escape a tropical storm which sounds naggingly like every other breathy ballad around in 1986 (if better than most, simply because Ray Davies is a better writer than most). I can’t think of a single Kinks record less visual, less one-themed or less likely to sell than this one quite frankly.
Until now The Kinks were always oblivious to fashions (heck, they invented fashions that everyone enjoyed two or three years later but died a death at the time) but following their second (or is that third?) wind with the hits, semi-hits or almost-hits of ‘Come Dancing’, ‘Don’t Forget To Dance’, ‘Do It Again’ et al, this is the moment when Ray Davies says ‘enough!’, goes back to writing about his muses as if hit records had never happened and reconciles himself to the idea that Kinks records are going to sell only to fans from now on. The Kinks even stop to ask 'how are you?' to fans they haven't chatted to for a while, imagining the audience in the 'Do You Remember, Walter?' role of old friends who seem to have moved on and left them behind ('I bet you're making all the same mistakes, you're a lot like me, that's why I'm still your friend!') This is virtually a record that has ‘for fans only’ stamped all over it and to be honest us core faithful wouldn’t have this band any other way. So it's a shame that there isn't more of what fans came to love about The Kinks across this record and that while they're still brave enough to extend the band sound in terms of genre, they largely play it safe across this record with no real themes you wouldn't expect from their past few albums (although 'Working At The Factory' does take things further than ever before' and 'The Video Shop' was a bit of a shock!) 'Think Visual' doesn't really contain much that's new or much that sounds like The Kinks you remember - and yet the band don't sound that commercial or in tune with the times either; instead this is a collection of all those bland tracks that were always used as 'filler' across previous LPs now largely extended to fill a full LP. And no Kinks fan ever wanted that.
‘Think Visual’ isn’t the greatest Kinks LP ever made, then. It’s not even at the head of the ‘second division’ of Kinks albums headed by follow-up ‘UK Jive’ (see review no 93 on our main list). But it is worth a second, third and fourth listen and by the time you get that far you realise what Ray and Dave and the other Kinks were trying to do with this record, rather than concentrating on what’s actually here. 'Factory' is worth the price of admission alone but it's presence here at the start means that the album has nowhere to go - the rest can't possibly match it's open heart and bitter tears. Even so, 'Sleazy Town' comes close, being one of the better 'I'd rather be a reckless character than a faceless nobody' Kinks songs, 'When You Were A Child' is a real return to the Kinks ballads about memory from the days of old and 'Video Shop' is a brave attempt at something different the album could have done more with, Even on this, perhaps the least satisfying Kinks records, there's still oh so much going on in here and oh so much worth your while - even if you do have to wait years to track this record down and clean it of footprints. Like many a mid-to-late period Kinks record, this album is filled with moments of absolute pure genius, even if it is sandwiched by tracks that make you wonder what on earth they were all thinking. The record won't be for everyone - but if you wanted to know if Ray ever sounded as bitter as he did on the venomous ‘Lola Vs Powerman’ record from 1970 in a 1980s setting then this record is for you. 'Think Visual' is The Kinks' darkest, saddest album – but consider it as a piece of mass produced factory fodder produced during a bad time for the band and a rotten one for the music world in general and you might yet be impressed at how even one of the weakest Kinks albums can glitter with the best of them. Personally I only wanted to put my foot through part of the record.
The record kicks off in great style with perhaps the best track, certainly the most important song on the whole record.  ‘Working At the Factory’ is grumpy Ray, updating his youthful cry ‘where have all the good times gone?’ by reflecting on how great the past actually was compared to the present. ‘Music set me free’ Ray tells us, with some wonderful opening verses about how his teachers, parents and peers expected nothing from him and expected him to become factory fodder like all those other souls of the time, underestimating the hold of rock and roll on both the elder Kink and his whole generation. ‘But that was in another time’ sighs Ray in the present, realising that his current shenanigans with yet another record company could well be the last roll of the dice for the band and that the 1980s music scene expected everybody to be sunny, bright and brash (if ever a band represented everything the Davies-named ‘hateful 80s’ represented the Kinks were they). Like the post-10cc Godley and Creme who came up with the song ‘we’re all working in a factory’ the same year, this is Ray Davies drawing a line in the sand and promising his fans that he would rather get out than his musical job ‘just another factory’. The song’s opening riff is so out of place in this song – melancholy, minor-keyed and quietly subtle, it just doesn’t belong every bit as much as Ray feels out of touch with the charts and record company expectations. The rest of the song is the Kinks of the early 1980s – brash, arrogant and sarcastically spoofing all the heavy metal and empty-headed rocking going on at the time, slipping in nuggets of home truths in the song that only like-minded souls would get. Other than the delayed release of the out-take ‘Entertainment’ on ‘UK Jive’ this is the last time Ray ever uses one of his favourite themes: pretending to give the public exactly what they want while the two-faced lyrics deliver anything but. ‘Factory’ is an impressive song that stands head an shoulders above most of the Kinks’ 1980s output, celebrating the band’s uniqueness and uncompromising battling stance even as they acknowledge that such a stance is what’s killing the band off. Irony of ironies, the tune is one of the poppiest and most singalong things the Kinks ever wrote and would have had a good chance of being a hit with a different set of lyrics. Ah well, that’s just the point – Ray’s telling us that he can play the record company game if he wants, but he’s not willing to compromise his writing skills any longer, damning the music business for ‘selling us a dream that’s just another factory’ and damning himself for playing along for so long. Many Kinks reviewers compare this song to ‘The Moneygoround’, the band’s anti-music business hustlers ripping off the band, but actually it’s closer to ‘Denmark Street’, trying its hardest to throw everything its got at this song to make it work and ruining the effect with throwaway lines about how it only matters if it sells because the music publishers can’t stand the music they’re peddling anyway. It acts as a fine complement to George Harrison’s ‘Blood From A Stone’ from his ‘Somewhere In England’ too – a song the ex-Beatle was virtually frogmarched into writing as ‘something modern that might sell’ with the record company seemingly oblivious to the fact that the song’s lyrics poked fun at all of the idiots who actually liked this sort of music and expected him to write it. Never provoke the quieter water signs is all i can say – no wonder the record companies had so many coups on their hands in the mid-80s.
Unfortunately, the effect is rather undermined by the sequencing of this album, which represents this album’s best attempt at an empty, singalong single that the people at London records were probably after. But unlike most reviewers who love the last one and hate this one, I don’t see  ‘Lost and Found’ as the complete sell-out Ray promised us he would never do. It’s actually pretty deep too in a catchy but deep kind of way; this song about a hurricane blowing over the bay into ‘New York City’ was real and experienced by Ray whilst meeting up with his ex-wife to make some settlement or another. Most reviewers think that the latest mega-Kinks metaphor in this track is that his love is a hurricane that’s blowing out of control, but the metaphor is actually a lot more subtle than that – Ray’s actually showing us how petty our own small problems are and that when the time of possible destruction comes about we’ll forget about our troubles in a flick of an eye. That’s why the characters in his song are both ‘lost’ and ‘found’ – they’re lost because they’re confused and can’t work out how their lives got out of control, but thanks to the latest crisis that pulls them together they’ve suddenly ‘found’ what made them meet up in the first place again. The tune is pretty – perhaps Ray’s prettiest since ‘Don’t Forget To Dance’ – and Dave’s exhilarating out-of-control-but-upbeat-about-it guitar solo is his most suitable for a Kinks record in many a long year (even if it is a bit short). So why isn’t this song a classic? It’s way too 80s – crashing drums drowning out everything else, twinkly keyboards, even a gruff saxophone on the fade-out, in short everything the record company probably told Ray to put on this song and exasperated him so in the previous track. It’s in your head, it’s in your eyes, it’s boring and it’s no surprise.
Talking of which  ‘Repetition’ is up next and is another last for the Kinks – the last time they make the whole point of a song how boring and monotonous it is (think ‘Predictable’, ‘Pressure’ and ‘Cliches of the World (B Movie)’). But this latest slab of Ray’s man-in-the-street-character trying to overcome his self-imposed obstacles is perhaps the best of the lot, full of clever quick-witted rhymes and an energetic vocal performance that successfully distract from the same walking-pace-trot underlining the whole of this song. His exasperated cries to his characters to ‘kick that habit and just walk out that door’ sounds like nothing less than an author losing faith with his own creations – Ray Davies is the ‘ordinary people’s champion like no other but on this album he’s had enough with the tag and is looking for his own way out of the repetitive world he’s created for himself. The slight calypso backing makes for a nice change (a sound the Kinks have been mining successfully for years but don’t use elsewhere on this album) and this track might well have the best band performance on the record.
Against all the odds, given this album's reputation and the depths the album will succumb to on side two,  ‘Welcome To Sleazy Town’ is a third strong-ish song on the album in a row. Mixing the Kinks’ default mid-80s sound (riff-heavy rock) with blues, Ray came up with this pulsating number about how the cities and complexes of the 1980s are every bit as bleak and faceless as the music. Ray later admitted he’s written this song after visiting Cleveland and being dismayed by the amount of concrete there (why do so many AAA groups have it in for poor Cleveland? Jefferson Starship’s ‘Stairway To Cleveland’, which is effectively ‘Working At The Factory’ part three’ and their ‘Nuclear Furniture’ album, review no 87, both attack it without mercy; oh and incidentally that comment implies that Ray’s never visited Stafford or Skelmersdale, both of which are worse). In common with ‘Factory’ the theme of this song is ‘I thought things were bad then – but they’re blooming awful now’, with Ray recounting some memorable times in Sleazy Town that was dirty, uncomfortable and – yes, alright – sleazy, only to find on a return visit that this once colourful city is now bleak, depressing and just like all the others the visits. The theme bar excellence of the Kinks’ 1980s records is how individuality is being crushed and how things are the same everywhere (from young conservatives being unwilling to rock the political boat to DJs taken off the air for their controversial comments to the tabloid presses spreading lies for mass consumption, you name it ray wrote it) and that’s the case again here. ‘Sleazy Town’ was never a paradise but it had some values worth preserving, thinks Ray, but here it’s like the Village Green Preservation Society gave up saving villages, stepped down to save sleazy towns and still lost out to faceless corporations. No wonder Ray’s cross – this is his life’s work of maintaining traditions destroyed around him.
So, with this many undisputable classics or at least near-classics, why isn’t this album on the list proper? Well, alas, there are just too many duff moments to recommend this album to you whole-heartedly and many of them represent the worst Kinks songs of their 30-year history.  ‘The Video Shop’ is, curiously, often seized on as this album’s ‘other’ highlight (along with ‘Working At the Factory’) but this embarrassing song about Ray rounding up his ‘fellow’ UK immigrant brothers and setting up a bootleg video shop does nothing for me. The idea of an entire population finding solace from everyday mundanity in counterfeit videos is a very Ray Davies idea – but sadly it’s the only Kinks-like factor in this track at all. Ray’s Jamaican patois accent is embarrassing (it’s like his vocal in ‘Predictable’ but worse), the mock-reggaeish backing is limp in a way that the Kinks hardly ever were outside of this track and the simplistic rhyming scheme is way beneath Ray’s usual talent. Only the chorus (with its typically Davies-like line ‘and I can fly, fly you away’ – see ‘I Wish I Could Fly Like Superman’, ‘Loony Balloon’, et al) and the gently urgent middle eight with its descending-chords structure catch the ear at all – the rest just sounds a mess. And wasn’t 1986 a bit late even for Ray to be catching onto the whole video market? (he’s starred in a good half dozen promos by that point himself, some of them out on home video).
 ‘Rock and Roll Cities’ is the ‘other’ Dave Davies song on this album and sadly its all of his worst qualities sandwiched into one track. His high-pitched vocal turns into a Mick Jagger-like bark for the chorus and like the drum-heavy backing has all of the subtleties of a brick wall (not the Pink Floyd sort though, I hasten to add). In a way this is ‘Sleazy Town’ part two, with all the worst excesses of life on the road repeated in every city until they end up blurring and turning into one – although it’s closest cousin in the Kinks canon is with ‘Life On the Road’ with its drunken narrator lost and searching for the right path in more ways than one. The use of a megaphone to spoof an airport’s announcements (played over a fiercely soloing Dave whose clearly taking no notice) is the highlight of this rather generic and poorly mixed song – you really don’t need to hear the rest.
Alas, the second side of the record is no match for the first and we have to skip through to the album’s seventh song for the next strong piece of music.  ‘How Are You?’ is a delightful song, one of those pieces that everyone who only knows the Kinks via ‘Waterloo Sunset’ assume must be on every Kinks record but are actually few and far between. It’s a conversational-style song, with Ray breaking down the ‘fourth wall’ of the camera/speaker and addressing his listeners directly. Realising that he’s been so busy with his own problems he’s neglected his fans a bit for the past few records, here he addresses them as if he’s just walked up to them on the street and greeted them like a long lost friend. Asking about their experiences since the last album (‘How are the nights? Are they still lonely? Are you still dreaming and making big plans?’), Ray returns to his late-60s style of laidback melancholy here, with this song a close cousin of the whatever-happened-to-him song ‘Do You Remember, Walter?’ That song may well have been inspired by a trip a fast-disintegrating Dave Davies took back to his old family neighbourhood, bumping into old friends and finding out that one of the early band’s close friends had died from a drugs overdose the year before – and none of them had ever heard (see Dave’s fine autobiography ‘Kink’ for more details). This song may have been inspired by memories of the same or perhaps another chance encounter in the street but, whatever its inspiration, this is a great song and ones that fans will cherish (especially when Ray tells us ‘I bet you’re making all the same mistakes – you’re a lot like me, that’s why I’m still your friend’). Ray’s spot-on vocal was retrieved from his demo recording, incidentally, proving perhaps how much this song meant to him while he was writing it.
The title track  'Think Visual' is a real oddity – a two minute burst of record company sentiments squeezed into one of the most tightly packed and arranged rockers the band ever did. It’s clearly meant to be a sarcastic riposte a la ‘Give The People What They Want’ and ‘Entertainment’, telling us lots of empty record company slogans about what will sell to the kids and why we should all be doing it. But an unusually subdued Ray is singing this song straight, albeit without any enthusiasm at all, almost as if he’s brainwashed himself into believing these sentiments. Hearing the band’s very 80s idea of a retro sound for the backing and Ray Davies urging us to ‘flash those teeth! Open those eyes!’ is such a weird experience that most fans coming to this song fresh probably wouldn’t recognise it as being by The Kinks. Interestingly, the song works much better on the live ‘Road’ project even though they sing it just as straight – heard as a fluffy ball of energy this song starts to make some sense, but here the whole thing just falls flat.
 ‘Natural Gift’ is a song I really don’t like at all. Now, one of the biggest influences on Ray’s childhood was a chance meeting with a fortune teller who read the young lad’s hand and told him he would be ‘a preacher...but not in the traditional sense’ (an episode important enough to be in the autobiogs of both Kinks if memory serves me right). Well, she couldn’t really have called his career that of the traditional rock star could she? Either way, this is song is Ray’s preacher side, telling his audience that they should use the natural gifts they’ve all been given and sounding a bit miffed when they don’t. It might have been better had Ray put his lines about ignoring what others are up to and concentrating on your own strengths centre stage (all that stuff about scientists being a breed apart from writers, albeit dangerous, would have at least made for a more interesting song). But unlike ‘How Are You?’ there’s no genuine feeling behind the song and you get the sense that Ray doesn’t actually care that much about his audience after all – only the suddenly autobiographical-sounding middle eight catches the ear (‘You’ve got to STOP! this depression you’re in, now STOP! this psychological grip NOW!’) ‘Everybody needs some inspiration’ sings Ray on this song at one point, the only song on this album so generic and banal it sounds like he needs a healthy dose of the stuff himself.
 ‘Killing Time’ is so similarly uninspired and lacklustre it takes a lot of playing before you notice where the one song ends and the other begins. Like many a Ray Davies song, this is one about boredom ruling people’s emotions (see ‘Repetition’ above) and was inspired by a newspaper report about a breed of people in the 1980s who did nothing but watch television all day (the same report may have inspired the classic Garfield cartoon where the tubby tabby hears from the television that no one’s done anything special to make the news that day, looks at the reader and says ‘My God! We’ll have to start taking turns!’). While I can think of worse occupations, Raymond Douglas Davies apparently can’t and questions once again what exactly life is for when so many of us insist on ‘killing time’. Alas, unlike ‘Repetition’, this similarly repetitive song sounds every bit as dull and monotonous as the subject matter and Ray seems to be half asleep by the end of the track judging by his vocal. Another song that should never ever have been released – it just gives the record companies frustrated with the Kinks’ output yet more ammunition against them that they didn’t need.
Alas, there’s only one more classic to discuss and no surprise to learn that it’s a Dave Davies song, yet again tucked away at the end of the album (at Ray’s insistence, allegedly).  ‘When You Were A Child’ is more Kinks-like than most D D songs though, with its nostalgia-filled lyrics and belief that things are always better in the memory. It’s most certainly not the only AAA band’s foray into childhood on this list, but it is one of the few times the subject appears on an album after the psychedelia years. Quite why Dave was inspired to write this song then is unknown – perhaps he heard his brother’s vitriolic and game-playing lyrics and deciding to write a song about innocence for comparison instead. Like many a Dave Davies song, ‘Child’ acts as the ‘conscience’ of the record, keeping his elder brother’s rather grand ideas in check. Interestingly, despite being a ballad it’s delivered as a rather fierce one, with lots of riff-heavy electric guitars and a percussion-heavy mix that act as an interesting counterpoint to Dave’s nicely-naive vocal and the sing-songy nursery rhyme chorus. At surface level this is a happy-go-lucky song about childhood, but the lyrics are often surprisingly bitter and angry (‘Don’t it make you weep? Can’t you see?’) , less so at the Davies parents, I should point out, than the human race’s penchant for playing ‘adult’ games it doesn’t need and creating social conventions that aren’t necessary. Yet the line ‘why don’t they leave us be?’ sounds like Dave, too, is being given sleepless nights by record company pressure and the following line ‘can’t they see what they’ve done to you?’ sounds like uncharacteristic brotherly concern (you won’t be seeing that on another Kinks album any time soon!) A classic song structure, always falling between all-out rocker and singalong ballad, really adds to the texture of the song and Dave pulls off yet another late alb um coup with this impressive song.
So, a typically Kinksy mixed bag this record, with plenty of moments of absolute inspiration mixed up with songs that sound tired and drained. Which sums up the 1986 model Kinks pretty well too – let’s face it, the only other AAA group to have gone that without cracking up from boredom is the Rolling Stones and their records of the period are an even bigger mix of the inspired and the tired (with more of the latter, unfortunately, although things pick up for both bands briefly in the 1990s). ‘Think Visual’ was made under very trying circumstances and it kind of works from both sides’ points of view – yes, this was certainly not the kind of record that was going to create a big hit for the band in 1986 but just look how good some of these non-commercial songs are and how bad the band are when the record company twists their arms just enough to get them to acquiesce for a song or two. On the off chance that you happen to own both this album and follow-up ‘The Road’ (not a foregone conclusion as both are pretty hard to find and died a death on CD), try substituting the latter’s title track – a lovely bittersweet trot through the Kinks’ history, well out of place on a live album of Kinks’ greatest hits and misses – for the lesser moments of the former and you may well have a gem on your hands. ‘Think Visual’ is a stalemate, equal parts stale and equal parts inspiring your mates and although flawed and dull of some of the worst things the band ever did it’s still well worth a listen if you’re even just a teensy weensy bit Kinky.