Saturday, 4 February 2012
This week, it’s time to see what are the best-selling AAA albums of all time. No surprises here, really, although it’s worth noting that we’ve extended the list from our normal top five into a top ten to include some more unusual names. By the way there’s a bit of a debate with the actual true figure of album sales – the top seven here are all present day but the data for some of the other albums is slightly older so I’ve bumped them up a couple of million sales to keep them in tandem with the figures for how much the top albums on this list have grown. It’s also worth noting that ‘The Monkees’ is actually tied with no less than four other Beatles albums (‘Rubber Soul’ ‘Help!’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘With The Beatles’) as well as follow-up ‘More Of The Monkees’, but we’ve gone with the first Monkees set a) for the sake of variety and b) because the recent CD re-issue of that first Monkees set a couple of years ago sold more copies then the second. The best album of all time though? Surely it can’t possibly be the album I’ve seen listed as no 1 (Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’), which allegedly has double the amount of sales of album no 2 (AC/DC’s ‘Back To Black’, itself a questionable entry). Even more worryingly still, The Spice Girls sold enough copies of their first two albums ‘Spice and ‘Spiceworld’ to make nos 8 and 9 on our list. Please buy some of these AAA albums and overtake them, I’m begging you!...
1) Pink Floyd “Dark Side Of The Moon” (1973) – 45 million:
Every three minutes, someone somewhere buys this album, which is allegedly owned by a third of the world’s population. And yet a little known fact about ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ is that it never actually made it to #1 in the UK – instead it was a word-of-mouth seller that took on a whole new lease of life when ‘Money’ was chosen as a single (albeit only in the US) which gave the album lots of radio airplay. Predecessor ‘Obscured By Clouds’ (1972) was, interestingly, one of the band’s poorest sellers (possibly because it isn’t an album per se but the soundtrack to an obscure French film), although successor ‘Wish You Were Here’ (1975) was another huge and much anticipated seller that only just missed out a placing on this list itself. Does ‘Dark Side’ deserve such huge sales? Well, we haven’t reviewed this album yet but if we had we’d tell you it’s a strong album, with one of the best half-concepts of any album ever made, but it’s far from the Floyd’s greatest hour (as so many fans seem to think) despite containing many songs which are great. Track to download: ‘Us and Them’.
2) The Beatles “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” (1967) – 32 million:
The best-selling Beatles album isn’t a surprise either. In its day Sgt Pepper’s was the best non-musical soundtrack selling album of all time, not just a record release but an event, the first real time that pompous critics and classical music buyers properly discussed a Beatles product. For fans too this was the first release after the end of the band’s touring days and after an unprecedented nine months in the studio fans were more curious than ever to hear what their idols had been up there. ‘Sgt Peppers’ was the album that made most fans buy their own record players instead of borrowing other people’s and it was an album analysed long after the needle had lifted from the grooves. Strangely predecessor ‘Revolver’ had shown a slight downturn in sales from The Beatles’ heyday with ‘Help!’ and ‘Rubber Soul’, despite it’s obvious worth and successor ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ wasn’t The Beatles’ best-selling either, no doubt because it was actually a double-EP in Europe (and an LP only in America at first). Does Sgt Pepper’s deserve to be the best-selling Beatles album? Well, again, we haven’t reviewed it yet but, erm, no. Undoubtedly a huge move forward in it’s day, to contemporary ears it’s the most dated of Beatles albums, with Lennon in a particular slump and with far too much filler to match its reputation (certainly a lot more than on ‘Revolver’). Still a great album cover, though. Track to download: ‘A Day In The Life’.
3) The Beatles “1” (Compilation, 2000) – 31 million:
Every five years sees another onslaught of Beatles releases. This was by far the most successful of all of them, a simple re-tread of every single American #1 single The Beatles ever had, as repackaged in time for the millennium and the end of the century that will arguably be talked about as ‘The Beatles’ century’ in generations to come. What’s odd, though, is the amount of rule bending that’s gone on in some areas and on the other-hand what’s missing: ‘Love Me Do’ is included, despite being only a #17 hit in Britain (issued retrospectively in America two years on), ‘Please Please Me’ is there despite only being a #1 hit on some charts in Britain in 1963 (and again was only a retrospective hit in America and never a #1) and strangest of all ‘Eight Days A Week’, simply an album track from ‘Beatles For Sale’ in Britain’, although it did indeed make #1; ‘Yesterday’ makes more sense despite only being an album track in Britain as at least it nearly made the top of the charts in 1977 – note also the missing single ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’, a #2 hit, although bizarrely ‘Something’ has been added despite making only #3. A mess, in other words, although at least it was cheap – presumably because EMI saved money by not giving this compilation any proper packaging. There isn’t really a follow-up or predecessor, although you could the last previous Beatles compilation, ‘At The Movies’, from 1982 – it’s track listing was even more haphazard but at least the packaging (featuring the ‘I Am The Walrus’ characters passing popcorns to the Hard Day’s Night and Help Beatles) was hilarious. Worthy of being #3 in the list? Hell no, a cash-in in all but name, although at least it did help stave off EMI’s financial problems for a further decade or so. Track to download: ‘Day Tripper’.
4) = Dire Straits “Brothers In Arms” (1986) – 30 million:
This was the album that, more than any other, launched the age of the compact disc. Legend has it that you couldn’t buy this record in any other format (not true – I used to have this on a cassette) but whatever the sales of other formats most people converted to CD to hear this album because it had such crisp, clean, clear sound. All previous Dire Straits studio albums had sold well (they’d all be comfortably in the top 50 had this list continued, barring perhaps second album ‘Communique’) and had been growing in size bit by name as their reputation spread. The fact that this album had a near record four singles released from it (the most of any album on this top 10 barring ‘Morning Glory’) and that they all charted in the top 20 undoubtedly helped. Predecessor ‘Love Over Gold’ also sold well, although successor and final Straits album ‘On Every Street’ didn’t – perhaps because of the six year gap that allowed all the fuss to cool down (this album’s success had a heavy toll on main star Mark Knopfler, who never attempted this rock style again in order not to ‘disappoint’ anybody expecting a follow-up). Worth a place in this list? Yes and no – actually it’s the little known tracks that makes this album such a delight, whereas many of the singles haven’t aged that well. Certainly it’s not as groundbreaking or as lovely to listen to as ‘Love Over Gold’ in our humble opinion. Track to download: ‘The Man’s Too Strong’.
4) = Pink Floyd “The Wall” (1979) – 30 million (counting it as a double album – ie the sales are counted twice over):
The ‘other’ Floyd albums the general public owned in the 1970s was in fact the last #1 of the 1970s and the first #1 of the 1980s. It’s also the highest selling true ‘concept album’ in history, following the fading rock star ‘Pink’ and all his difficulties, with sales no doubt boosted by the first Floyd single for 11 years ‘Another Brick In The Wall’. Fan reverence and awe for the majesty of ‘Comfortably Numb’, recognised as the best Floyd track in years and the thrilling concert shows (with a real wall made of cardboard bricks built across the stage) undoubtedly helped sales too. Those points aside, though, it’s hard to see why such an uncomfortable, uncompromising and – for the day – expensive album sold so well though, especially as predecessor ‘Animals’ hadn’t sold too well at the height of punk and an anti-Floyd backlash, or why successor ‘The Final Cut’ became one of the band’s worst sellers (despite making it all the way to a UK #1). Worth a place on this list? I’m surprised to see it there for all the reasons above, but yes – album no 76 on our main list is an exhilarating roller-coaster ride that’s just autobiographical enough to sound honest and just fictional enough to relate to every man. Track to download: ‘Nobody Home’.
4) = The Beatles “The Beatles” aka “The White Album” (1968) – 30 million (counting it as a double album – ie the sales are counted twice over):
Again, this is a double album so back in the days when it came out the album sales were counted as being for ‘two’ LPs per one sold (simply because it cost double the price of a single record). By and large that still counts for the album on CD as well, although to be fair it costs more like half as much as a single CD as double in most shops. Seen as the true follow-up to ‘Sgt Peppers’ (with the EP ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and film soundtrack ‘Yellow Submarine’ distractions), it’s no wonder ‘The White Album’ - released in time for the lucrative Christmas market, which played a much bigger part in record release dates than it does now -sold so well. The success of tie-in single ‘Hey Jude’ didn’t do any harm, either. We’ve already discussed predecessors - the successor was the forthcoming ‘Abbey Road’. A worthy winner of this list? Again yes and no – our review no 25 is a real grab-bag treasure trove full of The Beatles’ highest and lowest moments, all cobbled together into an appetising stew that takes much digesting but makes more sense of each track when heard together. Track to download: ‘Mother Nature’s Son’.
7) Simon and Garfunkel “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970) – 25 million:
Recently re-issued on CD for what must be the 10th time of the CD age, no doubt this album will keep logging up sales with re-issues for some time to come. The last re-issue was the one to have by the way – after several near-tries Warner Brothers (the current owners of the S and G catalogue) finally got things right, with a fascinating making-of, a period TV special I’d been salivating to own for years and a period live CD. In fact all these extras rather eclipsed the original album, which must be the worst Simon and Garfunkel ever did as a duo and is showing it’s age more with every year. The reason this album sold so well is simply down to the success of the title track as a single, the prestige the duo earnt from single ‘The Boxer’ (released a full year before the album) and a growing word-of-mouth fanbase that had been rising ever since ‘The Graduate’ film three years before. Predecessor ‘Bookends’ was, naturally enough, the duo’s best-selling album up to that time and – as every fan knows – there sadly never was a follow-up, despite aborted attempts in the 70s, 80s and 00s. Does this album deserve to be here? Not really, it’s ‘Bookends’ and ‘Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme’ that are the artist’s best work – by contrast ‘Bridge’ is a series of solo songs with some truly horrible up work alongside two fine singles and a forgotten gem in ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’, our recommended track to download.
8) Oasis “(What’s The Story?) Morning Glory” (1995) – 22 million:
The most modern studio album on this list, I’m actually amazed it’s not higher – and that predecessor ‘Definitely Maybe’ didn’t make the list either (It would have been no 17 I think, had the list continued, after a whole load of Beatles albums). The group of the 1990s in spirit, in fact more people bought the first Spice Girls LP than this – a shocking comment on our times. Looking at it another way, though, Oasis outsold every single Beatles LP barring two with only their second effort – and with three decades’ less time to add up such sales! ‘Morning Glory’ was the pinnacle of the Oasis story and seemed to be everywhere when it came out, no doubt helped by three #1 singles (‘Wonderwall’ ‘Some Might Say’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ – ‘Roll With It’ only made #2!) As discussed predecessor Definitely Maybe almost did as well, whereas successor ‘Be Here Now’ has had one of the most curious journeys of any AAA album; hailed as a masterpiece on its release it initially sold even more copies than ‘Morning Glory’ but then went out of fashion and a backlash started that Oasis never quite recovered from. Does Morning Glory deserve its place in the list? Well, in terms of keeping up the spirit of the first successful album while appealing to a wider audience then yes, with some amazing album highs, although what this album lacks is consistency, with a few ugly tracks left in that should have been left on the cutting room floor (opening tracks ‘Hello’ and ‘Roll With It’ bring the album to a halt before it even starts). Track to download: the gorgeous ‘Champagne Supernova’.
9) The Beatles “Abbey Road” (1969) – somewhere around 18 million:
Our final Beatles album was another huge seller, no doubt boosted by 2010’s re-issue of all the studio albums (it surprised many that initially ‘Abbey Road’ was the biggest initial seller). Rumours of the band’s break-up, sadly true, boosted sales as the world took a last chance to say goodbye (we didn’t know if ‘Let It Be’ would ever come out back then), although surprisingly there was only one (double-sided) single released and by Beatles standards that did very badly indeed (‘Something’/’Come Together’ #3). The iconic cover, a favourite of many record stores to stick in their windows, undoubtedly helped too. We’ve mentioned the predecessor (The White Album) already – successor ‘Let It Be’ didn’t do half so well. Does Abbey Road deserve a place on the list? Most fans would say yes, but to these ears it’s a muddled mess, with only George Harrison up to form and the much celebrated medley at the end is more a chance to tie up loose ends than a thrilling journey in it’s own right. Track to download: ‘Because’.
10) The Monkees “The Monkees” (1966) – somewhere around 15 million:
Most readers are probably reeling in shock right now, but if so they’ve forgotten (or never realised) how big The Monkees were. After all, what better advertisement for a record is there than a television shows – and who couldn’t love the band after seeing that? Popular single ‘Last Train To Clarksville’ and the chanced to own the TV theme undoubtedly boosted sales, while a timely Christmas release made this the desirable xmas gift for people of a certain age in 1966. Successor ‘More Of The Monkees’, the only other album released before the ‘don’t-play-their-own-instruments’ backlash, sold equally well (and would have been =10 on this list with this record and four other Beatles records). Does this album deserve to be on this list? Well, that depends on whether you see this album as a ‘record’ on its own, made by studio musicians and two Monkees vocalists and mainly written by outside writers (to be fair, not that unusual back then) or as the tip of a workload-filled iceberg and pioneering multimedia experience that included an amazing TV series. Not as worthy as later albums like ‘Headquarters’ or ‘Pisces Aquarius’, but a worthy one all the same. Track to download: ‘Saturday’s Child’.
You can buy 'Maximum Consumption - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Kinks' by clicking here!
The Kinks “Sleepwalker” (1977)
Life On The Road/Mr Big Man/Sleepwalker/Brother//Juke Box Music/Sleepless Night/Stormy Sky/Full Moon/Life Goes On
Well, here goes. I’ve been wondering how to write this review for years now, probably since I started this site and was forced to leave ‘Sleepwalker’ off the list proper. You see, I used to love this album. It just happened to be, by the law of averages and the stock featured in local second hand record chains, the first Kinks album I owned after ‘Arthur’ (my candidate for the greatest album the Kinks ever made) and along with that record it was a life-changing event discovering this band, something that every true Kinks Kollector will be nodding along to right now, whatever their first album happened to be. Had I made this site 10 years earlier than I did, ‘Sleepwalker’ would have been on the list of core album reviews for sure and even at its worst its still an under-rated record, full of pathos wit and sophistication. But somewhere down the years I fell out of love with this record, feeling I’d already found everything of value in it and moved on to all the other Kinks albums I hadn’t found yet (there are quite a few of them over a 30 year period after all). After 10 years of playing this album sounded, well, average. In fact, more than that, in places this record irritated me – after getting to know all the other Kinks albums in one form or another this record’s glossy production techniques got on my nerves compared to the more subtle tones of, say, ‘Face to Face’ or even the later records like ‘UK Jive’ (both entries on our classic 101 album reviews, in place of this album) and by contrast ‘Sleepwalker’ seemed comparatively shallow, content to hide its darker side and depths behind wishy-washy production values and lacklustre performances. Yet it seemed wrong to betray this album by marking it down in the present after I had loved it so much in the past and after all, it had paved the way to so many glorious Kinks records it seemed wrong to knock it for being a stepping stone to greater things. So what to do, dear reader? Recommend an album I hadn’t played in years or try to re-capture the joy I used to find when I first owned it? Being a collector has never been so hard – well, not since I had a bash at sitting through three hours of Godley and Creme’s Consequences rock opera anyway. But then I had a brainwave: I’d simply ignore this album altogether and decided to concentrate on solo Beatles albums so obscure that only I seemed to own them, talking about yet another aborted CSNY reunion or making jokes about the Spice Girls instead.
But all that has changed. Last week BBC6 repeated their old friend the ‘Kinks Kristmas Koncert’ from the Rainbow Theatre in 1977, much of which was spent plugging this album, and – inspired – I went onto Youtube to have a look for the soundtrack of the whole show so I could add it to my mp3 player. And – glory be! –there was a 40 minute concert of The Kinks from the same year plugging their ‘Sleepwalker’ album and, hallelujah, it was jaw-droppingly amazing. The promising songs that had sounded flat on the record instead sounded bare-bones and funky and the autobiographical touch to many of the lyrics was loud and proud instead of humbly hidden under anonymous arrangements. In short, I’ve fallen in love with this album all over again as, freed from the cloying arrangements and multiple re-takes, these songs sound pristine, emotional and honest, everything Ray Davies was at his best. I now adore ‘Sleepwalker’ again and hope to goodness the Kinks release this mini-concert soon so that fans all over the world can have the same epiphany I had last week. God save The Kinks! (in the meantime this is the link to the complete show: http://youtu.be/z3yEk28Wnt4)
For those of you who can’t get Youtube or want to read on to see how much more hyperbole I can get into this article, the show starts strangely with Ray Davies murmuring ‘I’ve got to take these stupid glasses off’ and humbly lurching into this album’s closing song ‘Life Goes On’, adding ‘this is about a man who tries to kill himself, its a nice happy song, sing along’ and sternly lecturing the TV audience ‘if you don’t know it, learn it’, seemingly talking about the message as much as the song. As part of the record ‘Life Goes On’ is a jokey song about a suicide victim’s hapless attempts to kill himself before reaching some sort of an epiphany that ‘I’m too young to die’ and that he has more to live for. This is clearly not the gutless stepping stone I’ve been taking this song to be all these years but a cry from the heart, tidied up so as to not ruin the band’s chances with new label Arista too badly. You see, in this version the one suffering is clearly Ray himself and that song is just the tip of the iceberg.
We’ve mentioned before on this site how when the ill-fated Kinks Preservation tour lurched to a halt Ray Davies leaned into the microphone at the end of the last show to leave what he expected to be his last will and testament before either killing himself or retreating into self-bred isolation. Tired of an endless tour that neither fans nor band seemed to enjoy, distant and lonely from his disintegrating band and afraid of what he would go home to after his first wife left on Ray’s 31st birthday, this was a cry for help every bit as real as the lyric for ‘Life Goes On’. The fact that Ray’s message ‘I quit –I’m leaving show business for good’ was drowned out by the band’s ‘playout’ music piped round the hall at every venue this year meant that only a handful of people ever heard it –and they all thought it was part of the show. Ray recovered enough to add two more under-rated minor gems to the Kinks’ rock-opera project on which the things troubling hi slightly surfaced, albeit hidden behind characters, backing singers and a horn section (‘A Soap Opera’ about an ordinary man’s marriage troubles when he gets obsessed with being a star and crosses over the path from fantasy to reality; very Kinks that theme and ‘Schoolboys In Disgrace’, an album with more apologies than John Lennon’s ‘Mind Games’ which teaches you how to say ‘sorry’ in three different languages). But ‘Sleepwalker’ is different: thanks to demands made by the band’s new record label Arista, and particularly boss and old-time Kinks fan Clive Davies, Ray is passing on the whole rock opera concert in favour of a much more bare-bones old fashioned record style, designed to hit the American audiences who hadn’t really heard much of this most English of bands barring the one true hit with ‘Lola’ in 1970. For the first time since the acerbic ‘Lola vs Powerman’, the last of Ray’s really autobiographical albums, he’s writing about himself and his problems and the result is a humbled, messed up, scared album. Just to ram the point home, this album was in the charts against RCA’s compilation of the prog-rock years ‘Celluloid Heroes’, whose two most revealing moments (the title track and ‘Sitting In My Hotel’ sound odd set against the highlights from three separate stories). The Kinks were transforming and, for the first time in years, Ray had to confront his demons and write from the heart, with no characters to hide behind and no metaphors to cover up the fact that the scared and troubled soul on stage wasn’t just an act, it was really him.
Now, most reviewers have the same mixed reaction to this album that I do. Most of the books on the subject that are out actively loathe this album: Johnny Rogan (who wrote that massive Byrds book we spoke about above) actively loathes this record, seeing it as the start of everything that was wrong with the 70s/80s Kinks, an overblown mess of stilted productions and average material. The band themselves began to hate this material after a while, with long-term bassist John Dalton (with the band off and on since Pete Quaife’s car crash in 1966) leaving during the sessions and long term keyboardist John Gosling (with the band since dressing up in a gorilla costume for the video of ‘Apeman’ in 1970) leaving soon after and even Dave, while praising the songs, bemoans the fact they were done to death in his excellent autobiography ‘Kink’. In typical Kinks style, arguments over the arrangements and numerous delays also meant that this album was delivered to Arista late (particularly a month-long debate over whether the track ‘Brother’ should have a string arrangement or not), ruining their planned chances of an album at the same time every year and biting the only hands still interesting in feeding them.
After sitting through take after take after take of this material, the band must have wondered if they’d ever get this album finished – perhaps it was just that Ray was so close to this album he didn’t want to finish it and let it go. Instead he did the next best thing and hid his revelations behind a sea of anonymity, singing about love death betrayal and fear in such an anonymous, bland way that he could have been singing about anything. ‘Sleepwalker’ is, for the most part, a record of great songs that deserves to be far better known – the problem is that it doesn’t sound anything like as good as it should. The band interplay of the late 60s/early 70s is now a bland emotionless mess, a result of both too many takes (the band too afraid of mucking up their new record contract perhaps) and perhaps Ray balking at having to write as himself for this next stage of his career. ‘Sleepwalker’ is a triumph for Ray and at times Dave shines too (there’s more of his distinctive playing on this record than any of the rock-opera albums, for instance), but as a band the Kinks sleepwalk their way through this album rather than live it. To be fair, though, this transformation from that our most wonderfully shambolic and English of bands into universal stadium rockers was what Arista wanted and – after years on the road to dwindling audiences with a massive and costly horn and backing section – what the Kinks finances needed too.
More to the point this anonymity is what many of the fans wanted too, after several years of making albums no other band would ever contemplate, and at the time this album was greeted as nothing less than a masterpiece. The fans who had lost touch with The Kinks during their rock opera phase and didn’t understand stories about wicked rulers, ordinary men who think they are stars and wicked schoolboys began to flock back to the band in droves and the band got the first positive contemporary reviews they’d had in some time (if you doubt the feeling against the band’s rock operas concepts of the time, which I must admit I enjoy, have a look at the sleeve-notes for the infamous bootleg ‘The Great Lost Kinks Album’ from this same period, which is far more scathing than anything I’d dare to say about anybody except the Spice Girls). ‘Sleepwalker’ was seen as a step in the right direction at the time, even if fans now see it as the spawn of the Kinks’ unsteady 1980s phase where everything is set to a guitar riff and the band go all American on us (a strange criticism given how every other band went American in the late 60s – just look at the Stones’ catalogue and Mick Jagger dropping cockney for an accent more Bronx than Bugs Bunny!) The arrival of punk in 1976 gave this second view an added kick, dismantling respect among younger audiences for exactly this sort of crafted, polished, time-consuming album didn’t help its reputation either (even if many of the punk and new wave acts loved the 1960s style Kinks and started covering such songs as ‘All Day And All Of The Night’ ‘Stop Your Sobbing’ and ‘David Watts.’. For Ray’s less than happy riposte see the ‘Prince of the Punks’ single added as a bonus track to the CD version of this album, which is hilarious even by his high standards and really deserved a place on the album...) Alas by the time the decidedly more average and much more hurried album ‘Misfits’ came out in 1978, even ‘Sleepwalker’s benefactors had started kicking the Kinks, hence this album’s rather mixed reception with other reviewers and fans over the years, but for a time there ‘Sleepwalker’ was the album people had been after for a long, long time.
In its own way, though, ‘Sleepwalker’ has its own theme that’s as strong as any of the early 70s Kinks LPs and its one which most reviewers don’t seem to have noticed (although CD sleeve-note writer John Swenson came close). Fittingly for a band that were trying to change – and as the work of a man who’d vowed to do the same - ‘Sleepwalker’ is all about transformation. On this record life is transitory and goes in cycles, sometimes good and sometimes bad and none of our identities are fixed because we’re always learning who we are. With that ‘I Quit!’ message still ringing in his ears, Ray spends most of this album telling us how different our lives can be, although the change that comes isn’t always for the better. He starts the album by telling us the changes he went through on a personal level to join ‘life on the road’ before looking at a star’s disintegration and betrayal of all he was in this album’s last finished track ‘Mr Big’. ‘Juke Box Music’, like its soon-to-be cousin ‘Rock and Roll Fantasy’ on ‘Misfits’, questions whether Ray is wasting his time writing music instead of doing something else, apologising for ‘only’ making one of the definitive songs of his career and wondering why it doesn’t transform everybody’s life like his own. ‘Brother’ looks at transformation in a wider sense, being the band’s most hippie song about brotherly love (how very Kinks that this song came out at the height of punk, the next generational reply to the summer of love). There’s also the great ‘insomniac vampire’ trio of ‘Sleepwalker’ ‘Sleepless Night’ and ‘Full Moon’ where the narrator turns into a zombie and later a werewolf, a far more comical interpretation of the ‘transformation’ idea (although hearing the Old Grey Whistle Test version of the latter song I’m starting to sense that that one too is highly revealing). Finally, the album ends with ‘Life Goes On’, another semi-autobiographical song about a man who tries to take his own life only to find it goes badly wrong, causing him to reflect on whether being alive is really so bad – or alternately whether there’s any point to any of us being alive when by and large not many people will notice we’re gone. In the ‘Sleepwalker’ universe the world is a changing, mutating sprawling mass, one that’s as likely to take the things we hold dear away from us as to make us rich and famous. If ‘Sleepwalker’ has a message it’s that life is a journey and that we’re never the same for our experiences, whether good or bad. What a fitting message for an album where the Kinks seek to ‘transform’ their fortunes and become a kick-ass American stadium band for the first time, not just the sweet English relics of a bygone era. Whether that’s a good transformation or not is up to you.
There’s a case to be made that, however bland the recordings often sound, during this album’s early sessions at least The Kinks are inspired. A total of 21 songs were recorded during sessions for this nine-song album, something that’s pretty rare for The Kinks who only really left that many songs over in their early pre-Kinks days as ‘The Ravens’. Most of the songs we’ve got to hear to date are pretty wonderful too – the band could easily have managed two strong albums in 1977 or made this a double album if they’d wanted, although on balance the better songs do just edge it onto the album. Thankfully Velvel, the record company who bought up the Arista and RCA Kinks albums, saw fit to include three of the best songs as extras on the album, so fans can wallow in the greatness of ‘The Poseur’ (originally this album’s title track, before Arista pointed out what fun sarcastic reviewers like me would have with that title), ‘Artificial Light’ and ‘On The Outside’. All three songs are excellent if not quite classics and fit this album’s theme about transformation and Ray’s more caustic writing: ‘Poseur’ is about that irritating guy at the disco who thinks he’s it but secretly knows he isn’t, ‘Artifical Light’ is a re-write of Ray’s BBC song from 1969 ‘When I Turn Off The Living Room Light’ about how all prejudices vanish when we can’t see what people look like (John Lennon stole the idea for his ‘bag’ idea where in his utopia vision of the future everyone would dress in bags not clothes) and ‘Outside’ is a much-belated follow up to ‘Lola’ and finds the singer urging an unhappy gay man trying to live an empty lie to become his real self. Other songs started at this album were abandoned until the next album, although ‘Hayfever’ (in which a partnership isn’t compatible because they’re allergic to each other), ‘In A Foreign Land’ (in which a troubled celebrity leaves for another country to start all over again) and ‘Black Messiah’ (in which our views about Jesus are wrong – being born in Bethlehem to local parents means he would almost certainly wouldn’t have been white, despite centuries of brainwashing by the Western church) all fit this album’s themes, they just aren’t as good as this album (or its other outtakes, bizarrely). There are also five other songs that have yet to be released: ‘Lazy Day’ ‘Child Bride’ ‘Everything Is Alright’ ‘One Woman Man’ and ‘Back to ‘64/Decade’ – if they’re up to the rest of the sessions’ high standard, let’s hope they see the light of day sometime soon.
Even with what we do have, though, ‘Sleepwalker’ is still an under-rated album, unlucky enough to be sandwiched between two albums that nobody apart from me seems to like (‘Schoolboys’ especially is a nifty little record I’m sure we’ll be turning to sometime soon) and it shouldn’t be lumped in with some of the more anonymous work to come. Indeed, Ray’s actually not been writing from the heart this often and this movingly since the last time he was writing as ‘himself’ (on the bitter and caustic ‘Lola vs Powerman’ album) and that for one is a great reason to love this album – it’s just a shame that this album isn’t given the ragged, almost confessional feel of the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ performances to make the most of this album’s strengths.
The album starts with Ray’s most openly honest song for a while, ‘Life On The Road’, which is a sister song to one marked the end of the band’s time with Arista (even though it actually ended up being released by record company no 4 MCA) ‘The Road’. Both songs find the narrator lonely and scared, an innocent naive lost in a world much bigger and scarier than he is, with no real roots except the narrator’s conviction that for all his troubles he’s in the right place. ‘The Road’ is the most autobiographical of all Kinks songs, with name-checks for all the original band and is in its own way the band’s manifesto – ‘Life On The Road’ is notably more personal and clearly a song about Ray, not his brother or bandmates. The song starts with a swirling church organ and a verse about Ray as a Muswell Hillbilly youngster mesmerised by the ‘bright city lights’ of inner London, quoting the street names in the way that the inter-war crooners used to sing of ‘New York New York’ (cue Max the Singing Dog). There’s a great interim where the narrator starts chasing the rowdy women he’s heard about before finding the tales he heard when young aren’t real (‘I searched night and day to find a kissable lady, but all that I caught was a cold’). The roads that used to spark awe and that he later strutted down now wear him out, giving him ‘holes in his shoes’, but still he keeps walking, sure in his dream. There’s even a final verse clearly set in the then-present, with ‘punks’ assuming Ray is ‘gay’ (after writing ‘Lola’), trying to get him to ‘come out and play’ – the narrator isn’t quite sure why he says yes. Notably, even after telling us of all the down and outs propping up the roads ‘paved with gold’ and all the misery and pain it causes, Ray still ends the song singing ‘I want life on the road, give me life on the road’. The lure of music is simply too great. As the first ‘real’ song written since his ‘I quit’ line (Ray dated his first draft of this song to mid-1974 in a later interview), this song sounds like the real Ray coming to terms with the fact that his ‘retirement’ (in whichever form) was a failure and that he can never truly give music up. Apparently this is just another ‘character’ and ‘only bits of it are me’ – but even if only partly true there’s a realism about both the lyrics and the way Ray sighing sings the song (with one of his better vocals) that makes it clear how much this song really means to him. It’s a pleasure to travel with Ray and find out why, although like many songs on this record there’s something distant about this track which prevents the listener from getting as involved in it as they’d like to be.
‘Mr Big Man’ is someone who found the road to glory paved with gold and transformed from someone who was ‘really lots of fun’ into a money-grabbing image-obsessed egotistical star. Ray’s narrator sings this song as someone who used to know the man well when they were both ‘down and out’ and, far from being impressed with his fame, he’s horrified at how its ruined what used to make the man so special. It’s also hinted that the un-named man took to believing his image because he had such a low person of himself (‘inside Mr Big is very small’). This is kind of ‘Do You Remember, Walter?’ revisited, but with the distance in social class counting for more than the distance in time and it makes for a nice segue from the last song’s mood and discussion of fame, without being nearly so distinctive as a song. This song was a surprising late addition to the album’s sessions and the only recording to feature the band’s latest short-lived bassist Andy Pyle on bass instead of John Dalton (it may also be John Gosling’s last recording with the band). Dave turns in another great little guitar solo, punctuating the bitter betrayal at the heart of the song, although again there’s been one too many takes and/or overdubs and there’s not as much emotion at the heart of this song as there should be.
The title track of the album is another fascinating look into Ray Davies’ world. An insomniac close to rivalling your truly, Ray turns the fact that he seems to be living in a ‘separate world’ to the ‘day’ people into a great riff-driven song about how he appears to become a different person at night, freed of the need to be ‘someone else’ for other people. The Kinks’ best rock song in some time, this track features the best band performance on the record and which marks the first time Ray’s had a go at re-writing his ‘You Really Got Me’ riff since 1966 (and under-rated B-side ‘She’s Got Everything’). The call and answer finale is especially thrilling. The best part, though, is undeniably the sweet yearning middle eight when all the rock posing gives way to a cute piano riff from John Gosling and a Leslie speakered-Ray telling us about walking round on tip-toes, spying on everybody sleeping and stealing a little bit of their soul (a line that’s either about Ray being an observer-style writer or the makers of the Twilight films should have got Ray in to do the music). Again, this is a song about transforming against your will, with this time Ray’s troubles and anxieties making him turn into a different person, and this song might well have been the start of a whole new concept album in years gone by – although it’s rather refreshing to hear The Kinks keeping things simple and going for a great no frills rock and roll feel instead.
‘Brother’ goes completely the other way, being perhaps the most prog rock song the band ever did (outside the eight minute long ‘Education’ on ‘Schoolboys’ at least). A long, slow ponderous song with some unusual 10cc-style sudden loud passages fighting for our attention, its a very summer-of-love song about how strangers are just brothers you haven’t met yet. Many fans at the time took this song to be about the relationship between Ray and Dave; not so according to Ray, but that said the lines about ‘I’m gonna stay, I couldn’t leave anyway’ do sound like the brothers talking in the wake of Ray’s crisis (without his own house, Ray lived on Dave’s couch for a couple of months, the closest the brothers had ever been according to ‘Kink’, although typically neither of them talked about their own breakdowns to the other). The opening verse about ‘the world’s going crazy and nobody gives a damn anymore’ is a bit of a lazy re-write of ‘Nobody Gives’ from ‘Preservation Two’, however, but without that song’s feeling of desperation and sadness – this rather heavy arrangement of the song simply struggles on to a rather limp end, with Mick Avory on particularly poor form (his noisy drum fills are nothing like as strong as the similar ones on ‘She’s Bought A hat Like Princess Marina’). There’s one passage, though, where this song comes alive, when the song transforms into a new key on the line on the line ‘the old world’s failed...now it seems so far away’, with the whole band suddenly coming together properly. A curious song this one, more airy-fairy than Ray’s usual writing and sticking out like a sore-thumb on this often caustic and bitter record. A good job the band didn’t get round to adding strings by the way, as they were planning when they held up this album’s release – they’d have most likely overpowered a song already rather over-heavy on sound effects, although they do crop up on the song’s fade.
‘Jukebox Music’ is, fittingly, at the heart of this album and pretty much at the heart of the Kinks’ discography (on album 14 out of 26) and its message is at the heart of pretty much every Kinks record. The story is that of ‘Lady Linda’, a pretty girl that all the guys are trying to get to dance with them – but all she’s interested in is the words. The chorus of this tune (interestingly sung by Dave on stage but Ray on the record) tells us that its dangerous to believe so much in music, that the writers have nothing special to say and that ‘its only there to dance to, so you shouldn’t take it to heart’. But Ray sings this song in such a way that he seems to be shaking his head all the way through it and the band turn in perhaps their most committed performance of the whole decade. The question is this: should music be about trying to impart our experiences to others (as Ray often does on this album?) Or is it simply a bit of escapism to dance to? On this magnificent song The Kinks manage both, with another fine riff-driven song with a magical instrumental section so alive it seems to come with its own mirror-ball and some of Ray’s best lines. Ray clearly identifies with the isolated music fan with her ear so firmly tied to the jukebox that she’s deaf to all else in her life and this song, along with close cousin ‘Rock and Roll Fantasy’ (from next album ‘Misfits’) seems to be Ray trying to come to terms with the fact that fans really do listen to his songs intently and that he has a responsibility to tell them the truth. Some fans are confused by this song, which seems to act against everything The Kinks have ever stood for, but I see this as Ray wondering whether he should return to writing in the wake of that ‘I Quit’ shenanigan and working out what made him start in the first place. One of Ray’s best songs, then, but this is a team effort, with John Gosling’s swirling synthesiser a special star (without that part this song would be very angular and guitar heavy) and Dave’s guitar and harmony vocal work cutting through to the heart of the matter. Add in a moving middle eight sung by the brothers together (‘It’s all because of that music that we’re slowly drifting apart...’) and you have a true masterpiece, possibly the first truly great Kinks recording since ‘Celluloid Heroes’ (perhaps after ‘(A) Face In The Crowd’). Fittingly for a song about being transformed by music, the song doesn’t know where to end, settling down after four minutes of rock and roll into a bluesy-crooner shuffle before finally collapsing back into the song’s rock and roll riff. Superb. If you too let the music dictate the way that you feel then you can’t do better than this song, one of the many Ray Davies songs guaranteed to make true passionate Kinks fans cry.
Following that onslaught ‘Sleepless Night’ seems particularly ordinary. A rare example of a Ray Davies song given to Dave to sing (despite the fact the younger brother was writing better, albeit punkier songs for his first solo album in this period), its another song about being unable to sleep – although in this case the down and out narrator is kept awake by the flimsy walls of his room and the noises made by the rather amorous couple next door. You wonder why the band decided Dave would sing this song as Ray does a rather better job (the key is a bit uncomfortably high for Dave) and Dave already has his hands full with a snarling but fun guitar part. In fact Ray’s middle eight is one of the best moments of this whole record, barging into his brother’s vocal unexpectedly to tell us that he used to be the lover of the lady next door and suggesting that its more than just the noise that’s stopping him sleeping. ‘Nothing hurts people more than other people do’ he sighs, a classic line that sums up this album’s mood rather well, although its sad that by the end of the song there’s no resolution and the problems are just as bad as ever. Again its John Gosling who makes this song special, with a slowed down version of the guitar riff played on a twinkling organ. A rather ordinary song despite that middle eight, which perhaps explains why its the only one of this album’s songs not be played on the band’s 1977 tour.
‘Stormy Sky’ is the first in a long series of breathy Kinks ballads clearly written to order to give the band a much needed fit (which, sadly, they never had, even though these songs are clearly better than pretty much anything in the charts at the time). Ray’s often used the weather as a metaphor for something bigger happening for the human race (think of the hurricane in ‘Lost and Found’ or ‘Summer’s Gone’) and this song has a similar feeling of oppression and fear of something out of your control happening, albeit much happier than usual (‘perhaps it’ll pass us by?’ he asks at one stage). Like ‘Lost and Found’ the threat of something bigger makes both hurt parties in a relationship find support in one another and forget their recent disagreements, turning what should be a harrowing event turn into a chance of transforming into something better. The ending of this song is magnificent, with Ray finally dropping the sighing, cod-falsetto of this song for a strident, passionately yelled last reprise, but the rest of the song and recording isn’t really up to much – Ray’s written better versions of this song before and will again later, while the sweet tune is perhaps a little too MOR for most Kinks fans. Like many of the songs from this album, the slowed down, much darker, stripped bare version from the Old Grey Whistle Test suits this song’s feeling of impending doom better.
‘Full Moon’ is a magnificent song, although its taken me about two decades’ worth of playing to realise it. Once again you have to turn to the OGWT for the definitive version, one that strips away most of this album’s superfluous arrangement for an opening that has just Ray and an organ part. Another song about Ray’s insomnia, this song has him going all out and acting like a madman every time a full moon is out (that’s Cancerians for you). Although most of the song tries to make a joke about it, laughing that his loved ones have learned to take no notice when he ‘mumbles like a loon’, but the middle eight makes it clear that this song is no joke. ‘You see before you a truly broken man, ‘cause when it gets to midnight I don’t know who I am’ sings Ray, with such direct melancholy (in either version) you don’t quite know what to think. To ram the point to all true Kinks fans home, the song ends on the la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la’ riff from ‘Johnny Thunder’, the one character from ‘Village Green’ that Ray has gone on record as saying is loosely based on himself (as an aging 50s rocker in a world where the 60s transformation never happened) – forget the MOR touches on this song or the jokeyness of this song, this is as real as any song Ray ever wrote. We’ve already written about the problems Ray was facing in the mid-70s and how many of the songs from this album find Ray at a crossroads, unsure after his intended grand announcement of leaving show business whether to carry on or not. The line here ‘when the image in the mirror isn’t you at all’ is the message that’s been underpinning all of these songs: do we really know who we are or are we simply seeing ourselves as others see us? That’s a great idea for a song and a writer with the subtlety of Ray Davies really knows how to make the most of this song, balancing the serious and jokey lines so that we’re not quite sure which to believe and sounding just as true to both. Alas the album version of this song is clearly taped after one rehearsal too many and has lost all the spontaneity this great song deserves. Perhaps the band should have waited for a full moon before recording it?
‘The album then ends with ‘Life Goes On’, which is clearly the only resolution this troubled album can have. Ray can sing all he likes about how this song happened to ‘my best friend’ and the facts may have been changed a little for comic effect, but the events are real: ray actually took an overdose of sleeping pills in the wake of his announcement, before being discovered by Dave and having his stomach pumped by local hospital staff that, miraculously for the day and age, never leaked the incident to the press. A failure at dying, Ray seemed to have taken his recovery as a message that ‘life goes on’, turning in this sad little song about a man so low on money he tries to kill gas himself to death – only to discover his account is outstanding and his gas supply has been cut off. What could be quite an undignified, rude little song taking the mickey out of suicide victims is handled superbly here, with Ray adding just enough sadness to his vocal to make you believe every word he says (particularly on the OGWT version) and just enough of a rousing chorus to send the album out on a still-happy note. Thanks to another rousing riff and a ‘life goes on and on and on’ chorus, Ray manages to get away with perhaps his most depressing lyric of all time, telling us that life goes on somewhere whether we live or die and that ‘no one cares if you’ve been good or bad, right or wrong’. That’s something we all face, too, whether we choose the manner of our death or not as death will swallow us all up and in a few generations’ time no one will remember us at all or what we did. Even in life we aren’t spared life’s cruel blows: ‘No use running round looking scared, because life will hit you when you’re unawares’ runs the middle eight of this song. That said, this song isn’t ultimately depressing because even if we are forgotten the human race is not and Ray marvels once again at people’s capacity to pick themselves up and move on after a disaster, optimistically proclaiming that even with all sorts of natural disasters ‘the people recover and they come back for more’. Ray’s finally found his answer about why he’s carried on living and it’s a moving moment, not least because he doesn’t flinch from telling us how hard that decision was. The result is a gorgeous song, handled with care and with Ray at his absolute bravest and best on the vocal, with the angelic vocals of the band sympathetically humming their way along with him. Another album highlight and =one of the most moving Kinks songs of all.
So ends one of the haziest, craziest Kinks albums of all. On the one hand its merely a stepping stone from the band being one of the most out-there prog rock theatrical touring troupes, more like medieval players than the other glammed up rock and rollers to becoming perhaps the definitive oldies stadium act in America during the 1980s. Whether that’s a good thing depends on your tastes; certainly ‘Sleepwalker’ is a more normal album than ‘Preservation’ ‘Soap Opera’ or ‘Schoolboys’, although it does have its weird somnambulist moments too. My advice is buy it, listen to the highlights and then view the Old Grey Whistle Test performances to get the definitive versions of these songs. Even with the ups and downs I’ve had with this record there’s something of genius going on in this album and Ray Davies has never been better or more honest – even though sadly his band are somewhat sleepwalking through this album at times, with some great ideas pushed far best their logical end.