Wednesday, 3 December 2014
You can now buy 'All Our Yesterdays - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Small Faces' in e-book form by clicking here
News, Views and Music Special: R.I.P. Ian 'Mac' McLagan
Two years on from the premature death of Pentangle guitarist Bert Jansch, Alan's Album Archives has lost another giant: keyboard player Ian McLagan, known the world over as 'Mac', now sadly lost somewhere up the wooden hills to Bedfordshire one final time. He may have been one of The Small Faces, but 'Mac' was a giant in musical terms, the lynchpin of the band's mod groove and the stability that enabled Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane to soar off to goodness knows where. A key practitioner of the Hammond organ and his beloved Wurlitzer, Mac did a great deal to make the keyboards 'cool' again in the guitar-led 1960s and was in great demand during and after the band's split including Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry, although it was The Small Faces and their later incarnation The Faces for which he'll be forever known. His sad untimely death at the age of 69 from complications that followed a sudden stroke has robbed of the world of a masterly musician and an occasional under-rated songwriter and now leaves drummer Kenney Jones with the sad task of being the only remaining Small Face from the 'classic' line-up.
So firmly ensconced in the band was Mac that many fans forget that he wasn't actually a founding member, replacing original keyboardist Jimmy Winstun, another excellent player but whose elder age, harsh aggressive playing and larger height meant he never quite fitted into the band (and who refused to play second fiddle to Marriott's cheeky charisma). By comparison 'Mac' was 'one of the lads' from day one, sharing the same height, same age (nearly anyway - Mac was the eldest by a mere two years), same drive, same love of clothes and a similar sense of humour (what other mod rocker do you know with a 'jokes' page on their own website?!) which allowed him to be greeted as a long lost 'soul brother' by the rest of the band. Before he joined The Small Faces Mac had played with The Cyril Davies' All-Stars and the jazzier Boz People (with a founding member of King Crimson) and then formed his own London blues band The Muleskinners. Small Faces manager Don Arden, tired of getting it in the neck from Steve and Ronnie about Jimmy's playing and personality, was on the lookout for talent when he spotted Mac's band and poached him in November 1965. By this stage The Small Faces had had very little success, releasing two relatively flop singles: 'What'cha Gonnna Do 'Bout It?' which peaked at #14 in the UK charts and 'I've Got Mine' which missed them entirely. This must have been hard for Mac, given that the rest of the band had known each other for years and even shared a house for some considerable time, although it speaks volumes how quickly his charming, cheeky, self-deprecating persona slotted into the band as a person as well as a singer; a neat contrast to the sensitive Lane and moody Marriott and effectively the glue keeping the band together. Fitting into the band's sound remarkably quickly, Mac plays a major role on third single 'Sha La La La Lee', the start of an unbroken run of nine top twenty hits which saw Mac playing more and more of a role. At this point most of the band are still teenagers, with Mac still aged a very young twenty!
Mac's keyboard style changed with the fashions with the day, starting off as a neat foil to Marriott's alternating screeching blue eyed soul and silly novelty songs, sounding alternately light as a feather and heavy as an axe as the occasion demanded. While Mac wasn't a natural writer and left most of the composing duties to his colleagues, he was a major part of the arranging team and gets two co-writing credits as early as the first album (which was already part recorded when he joined the band). The band were getting big success with Decca, including the band's only number one hit 'All Or Nothing' in 1966 and were rightly hailed as one of the greatest new bands on the planet , but the band were unhappy: mis-management meant none of the band were making money despite their fame and disagreements with producer Shel Talmy over the music they were making soured their time at Decca. The band mutually took the decision to leave for new and hipper label Immediate in 1967 and actively sought to break their 'teeny bopper' image with a series of deeper, cooler songs (including the outrageous drug name-dropping song 'Here Comes The Nice'!) The plan half worked: The Small Faces were as popular as ever, especially after the twin releases of 'Itchycoo Park' and 'lazy Sunday' in 1967 and 1968, but the band were still viewed as a 'novelty' act and were poorer than ever, with Immediate suffering problems from the first and all but collapsing by 1969.
However the 'Immediate' period is generally seen as a 'golden' era for The Small Faces - and especially for Mac, who began to experiment with his characteristic keyboard sound, coming up with some nicely psychedelic sounds and some hard rocking power chords as well as his old pulsating 'soul' style. Mac also began to grow as a writer, composing his first solely written instrumental, the rather chirpy 'Happy Boys Happy' and first solely written song 'Up The Wooden Hills To Bedfordshire' for the first 'Immediate' Small Faces LP (confusing called 'The Small faces' - which is what their sole album on Decca had been called too, thus causing apoplexy and misunderstandings for many a collector down the years!) That track also saw the debut of his striking and memorable voice: deeper and less commercial than Steve's or even Ronnie's, but with a delightful soulful purr that suited his understated compositions. Mac also got a song on the follow-up album, the best-selling critically acclaimed 'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' in 'Long Agos and Worlds Apart', a deeply unusual sepia-toned psychedelic song that manages to combine 1867 and 1967 to great effect. That album was also something of a tour de force for Mac's playing, with the keyboardist gaining four other co-writes on the album (including three on the famous 'gobbledegook' side featuring narrator Stanley Unwin telling the tale of 'Happiness Stan' and his search for the missing part of the receding moon and dangly). Few keyboard parts are as special as those delivered on the album's first two tracks, 'Ogden's itself and 'Afterglow', powerful soulful rockers that feature a truly remarkable echo-drenched organ sound - quite the opposite of the dry brittle sound so associated with organ players in the 1950s (and Mac's own early style). Mac also contributes several charming solo instrumentals as the 'link' bits behind Unwin's narration, the only times his playing can be heard solo on The Small Faces' canon.
Alas, the momentum that greeted Ogden's (a parody of a psychedelic LP< still taken seriously by many of the band's followers) couldn't last and the band split before being able to release a follow-up. Steve Marriott was tired of all the touring and the screaming that still greeted the band at every show they played (some live tracks released on unfinished record 'The Autumn Stone' reveal Mac as being particularly key to the band's live sound, playing loud and hard above all the noise and effectively becoming the band's time-keeper) and frustrated at his new song for the band, 'The Universal', peaking just inside the top twenty instead of at number one as hoped. Marriott was also keen to move the band's song along to a harder, aggressive sound and even dabbled with the thought of hiring some soulful backing singers as permanent matters; the rest of the band disagreed. Marriott quit after a bad gig and left to start Humble Pie, leaving the rest of the band confused and uncertain about their next approach.
Ronnie, Mac and Kenney still wanted to carry on, though, and decided on two new members to fulfil Marriott's roles as a singer and guitarist. The last of these was easy - Ronnie Wood had been a friend ever since his band The Birds supported The Small Faces on tour and they were also on friendly with his second band, The Jeff Beck Group. Finding the singer was more of a problem and even when Rod Stewart was brought along to rehearsals as a friend of Ronnie Wood's the band still weren't convinced (Rod actually sings very little on the band's first album, with Ronnie Lane taking more of the lead vocals). The group then settled on retaining 'half' of their name, realising the new six foot members of the band meant they no longer qualified as 'Small' - although they still more than lived up to the idea of a 'face' (mod slang for trendsetter!) The band soon gelled into a solid rock unit, ironically playing a lot of the harder-edged songs Marriott had wanted them to and quickly making a name for themselves as a 'good time rock' band (generally giving up rehearsals 'early' so they could get down the pub!) Mac got increasingly little to do in The Faces, his playing like the rest of the band gradually growing sloppier as the band's boozy good-time revelrie slowly became their de facto sound. What was worse Mac's songwriting all but dried up, although first record 'First Step' is well worth looking out for anyone curious about what happened to Mac's sound after The Small Faces dried up, containing several Mac-led instrumentals including the funky 'Looking Out The Window'. Thereafter McLagan generally only gained writing credits on a song written by the group as a whole, although these include major hits such as 'Cindy Incidentally' 'You're So Rude' 'Bad'n' Ruin' and 'Three Button hand Me Down', with Mac at long last getting his share of the success and money he'd deserved for so long.
The Faces ended up slowly disintegrating, with Ronnie Lane leaving for a countryfied solo career, Rod Stewart releasing his own huge albums on the side and paying less and less attention to The Faces and the killer blow being the job offer to Ronnie Wood from The Rolling Stones to replace Mick Taylor in the band in 1976. Mac also threw his lot in with the Stones for a while, playing on their #1 UK hit 'Miss You' and their title track of their 1978 'Some Girls' album as well as regularly appearing alongside his old friend on stage from the late 70s to the 1990s. He also turned to session work, appearing on a whole string of albums from the 1970s and 1980s including Pete Townshend's first solo album 'I Am', Thin Lizzy's 1975 LP 'Fighting', Bob Dylan's 1984 concert recording 'Real Live', Bruce Springsteen's 1990 record 'Viva Las Vegas', Mick Taylor's live set with Carla Olsen 'Too Hot For Snakes' and just about every Ronnie Wood solo album under the sun. Mac's busy decade continued when he got married in 1978 to Kim Kerrigan, the first wife of Who drummer Keith Moon and he adopted their daughter Mandy (Kim later died in a car crash in 2006).
However Mac's greatest contribution to music post-Faces came with the invention of his 1977 'Bump' Band and their first record 'Troublemaker' came out in 1979, followed by the wittily titled albums 'Bump In The Night' and 'Live Bumps'. However arguably Mclagan's most lasting and moving work is 'Spiritual Boy', a collection of Ronnie Lane covers released on the tenth anniversary of the bassist's death in 2006. Mac's last album, 'Never Say Never', came out in 2009 but he continued to tour throughout his life, playing some well received dates in America just five days before his death. The devastating news for fans is that McLagan had been the chief mover behind a planned Small Faces reunion with old friend Kenney Jones, with a new tour and possibly a new album due sometimes in the first half of 2015. At least Mac got to finish his book before he died, though, with 'All The Rage' appearing in shops in 2000 and again in an expanded edition in 2013. Full of dry wit, humour and pathos, it's as likeable and personable as Mac himself always was, a memorable read from someone who had it all so young - and yet kept giving his all, night after night, no matter who he played with.
So far it's a bit early for tributes, although awed messages from heartbroken fans and respected notices from all the leading papers are beginning to appear in my twitter timeline. Kenney, the last surviving member of The Small Faces, has spoken out, however, saying: 'I am completely devastated by this shocking news and I know this goes for Ronnie and Rod also'. The creators of Mac's excellent website www.ianmclagan.com also had this to say: 'Ian's artistry, generosity and warmth of spirit touched countless dozens of other musicians and music fans around the world. His loss will be felt by so many'. Mac was an often overlooked but central figure in the music scene in the 1960s, pioneering the use of keyboards and especially the organ as a rock and roll instrument and adding his voice to one of the greatest and most distinctive bands of the 1960s. Perhaps his greatest legacy, though, was that he managed to remain so nice despite the sheer amount of difficulties and the traps of fame he met along the way, remaining his cheery self-deprecating warm-hearted self until the end. They don't make 'em like Mac anymore, more's the pity - the quiet shy keyboardist everyone admired, a member of 'the world's greatest rock and roll band' who was so versatile he could play in a whole wide range of styles and the Small Face who left a big, big impression, Mac will be missed and loved by fans the world over in what now seems ever more like an era from long agos and worlds apart. RIP Mac.
It's become a habit now with our (thankfully infrequent) AAA obituary columns to add a 'top five' covering an artist's greatest record moments. So here is Mac's top quintet, a remarkable selection of performances:
5) 'Up The Wooden Hills To Bedfordshire' ('Small Faces' 1967): Taking it's name from an old 'posh' English saying for 'it's time to start preparing for Bed', Mac's song from near the end of the band's second album is part of a neat theme about 'dreaming' that runs throughout the album. Mac's slightly surreal song is a match for his colleague's better known songs, with a nice folky backing bouncing off Mac's soulful, deep vocals.
4) 'Long Agos and Worlds Apart' ('Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' 1968): Mac's song tends to get overlooked during the many pulsating powerful tracks on the first side of the Small faces' biggest album, a little like Mac himself, but there's much to admire after you've got past Marriott's soulful shouting and posing. A slightly 'backwards' echo-drenched effect makes Mac sound as if he's singing down the end of a tunnel, as he tells us of his distant memories before the band pile together for a memorable 'showaddy waddy help me help me' chorus, ending with a characteristic organ flourish.
3) 'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' ('Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' 1968): The opening track to that album is an instrumental re-write of flop second Decca single 'I've Got Mine', first recorded with Jimmy Winstun. Mac's version is a lot more powerful and edgy and shows off just what skills he brought to the band's table: the organ doesn't just play along with the rest of the band, it swirls around them painting gorgeous washes of sound, the perfect backing for the cacophony the rest of the band build up. Few keyboard parts have ever sounded as graceful and yet powerful as this one, soul music turned up to the highest notch possible.
2) 'Afterglow' ('Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' 1968): Sticking with the band's most famous album, Marriott's heartbreaking song of innocence and purity wouldn't sound a tenth as good without Mac's expressive organ to drive the song along. Turning from simple calm ballad to a tortured brainstorm of emotion that leaves Marriott an emotional wreck, the organ sways this way and that as if trying to shake off the fear that runs through this track, eventually softening down to a place of peace and calm, content merely to rest in the 'afterglow' of love rather than the peak of the fire.
1) Tin Soldier (Single, 1968): Mac's favourite Small Faces moment - and mine - is another Mac special, the organist playing the song's hypnotic pleading riff solo for a couple of bars before the others all join in and the song gets increasingly more passionate. Marriott's plea for his soulmate Jenny to get back together with him is a totured epic, scaling new heights of emotion and frenzy, with Mac more than anyone whipping up the storm that drives him on. A relative flop (after predecessors 'Itchyoo' and 'Lazy Sunday'), thank goodness this song has begun to get the respect it deserves the last couple of decades, one of the greatest singles of the 1960s recorded by anybody.
Monday, 1 December 2014
You can buy 'Maximum Consumption - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Kinks' by clicking here!
The Kinks "The Kink Kontroversy"
Milk Cow Blues/Ring The Bells/Gotta Get The First Plane Home/When I See That Girl Of Mine/I Am Free/Till The End Of The Day//The World Keeps Going Round/I'm On An Island/Where Have All The Good Times Gone?/It's Too Late/What's In Store For Me/You Can't Win
Change - it's a theme that will follow the Kinks through to their dying days, with the band always pushing ahead to the next big thing and offering up a few detours of their own along the way. In retrospect it seems very odd to hear The Kinks advocating the need to change as early as their third album - released just 13 months after their first - but the 1960s were a decade that changed on a weekly basis and The Kinks sound determined not to be left behind, a trait they'll still be pursruing at the end 30 years later. For years 'Kontroversy' has been seen as the last of the Kinks' great 'Merseybeat' albums (well they're Londoners but you know what I mean - even the Californian Beach Boys had their fair share of 'Merseybeat' records), the last of their records reflecting the sound and the fury of their R and B roots. That era is there on the cover in all its splendour: a close-up of Dave Davies in the middle of a soaring guitar riff, with close-ups of all the band in action. People might nominate 'London Calling' by the Smiths or the first Elvis sleeve as the greatest rock and roll action shot of all time but I say it's this one: Dave's red jumper augmented by a guitar power chord played so fast his hand is still a blur. That's what the first two Kinks records sounded like a - blur - and so does 'Till The End Of The Day' (a self-conscious third song written around the band's famous 'You Really Got Me' riff) and this album's powerful opener, the band's last ever cover song 'Milk Cow Blues' (till a brief snatch of the Banana Boat Song in 1972 at least) a final wonderful blast of adrenalin to remind the world where The Kinks have been.
However everything else that follows Sleepy John Estes' song (which has never sounded more wide-awake and vibrant) is new-style Kinks, from a time when the band weren't quite sure what new-style Kinks consisted of yet. The year 1965 was seriously split in music collecting circles. After Merseybeat and R and B united so much of the young music collectors of the world, record buyers now ended up in smaller pockets collecting folk-rock (as led by The Byrds), Motown (as led by the Supremes), a kind of softer, balladeer version of R and B (as led by the Rolling Stones) or pure pop (as led by Herman's Hermits and the Dave Clark Five). The Kinks cover all of these styles in turn (Dave's 'I Am Free' is more like the next year's break through act Simon and Garfunkel than The Byrds but is still pure folk; 'The World Keeps Going Round' is white man's soul; 'Ring The Bells' was deliberately written to sound like the Stones and 'When I See That Girl Of Mine' is the single poppiest song Ray Davies had yet written). And that's not all: a lifelong fan of Harry Belafonte, Ray even sneaks in a bit of calypso for 'I'm On An Island' and whatever the hell the complete one-off hybrid 'It's Too Late' is meant to be (if the likes of Nirvana had ever released a 'grunge-pop' album it might conceivably have sounded like this!) 'The Kink Kontroversy' is an eclectic record then, a pic and mix of a whole load of styles done Kinks style and probably the last thing their fans would have expected when they brought this record with that cover home. That's very unusual: even The Beatles nailed their sails to the mast by turning 'Help' and 'Rubber Soul' into folk-rock records (with a bit of pop and rock thrown in), even if they ended up as Beatley-sounding folk records. Of all the other bands we collect only The Kinks' old rivals The Who and The Hollies had similar problems and they simply divided their material between poppy singles on the one hand and harder R and B edged material in the former's case and folk-rock sounds in the latter's. Only The Kinks tried to adopt absolutely everything, which is both this record's greatest strength and it's weakness: the band still have unlimited horizons by the end of the record, able to go just about anywhere - but they still sound just as 'lost' and uncertain about what they're meant to sound like by the end of the record as the beginning. Ironically the only 'sound' they seem truly at home on is the one they're leaving behind.
Most bands in 1965 are straining at the leash to adopt whatever new sound they've adopted. After years of plugging away at R and B covers in tiny clubs, the fact that they suddenly have a nationwide, sometimes global audience and their managers on at them to write original material changes the whole game plan. The Kinks, as always, aren't playing by the same rules. Ray Davies started writing his own material earlier than most and has already abandoned the poppier, simpler material bands like The Stones and co are coming up with. Forced to follow a new road before the band are quite ready - whilst knowing that the band have to move into something new - Ray spends the entire album looking over his shoulder at what's just been and sighing. Nostalgia is not a major part of the 1960s rock and roll psyche: there are so many wonderful colourful new things happening every tomorrow why waste times looking back over the past? But Ray Davies has always been a writer as interested in preserving as experimenting and this record is the start of another life-long favourite theme: that the past was a better place than the present. Many recent critics reviewing Kinks Kompilations have looked back at a song like 'Where Have All The Good Times Gone?' and said 'how dare they - 1965 was one of the most exciting musical years ever!' But unsure of quite where he 'fits' in this new fragmented world Ray spends the record wishing it was 1964, the year of The Kinks' 'breakthrough'. (There's a fascinating BBC radio interview towards the end of 1964 when Brian Matthew tries to suck up to Ray by saying what an amazing, brilliant year it's been for The Kinks: two number one records and two hit albums virtually from nowhere. Most other musicians would boast, talk about things being even better the next year and waxing lyrical on how their styles will never go out of fashion. Ray simply sighs and talks about his worries over what might happen in 1965). Hence songs like not just 'Good Times' but the timid 'I Wonder What's In Store For Me' - the complete opposite of the sure and aggressive narrators of the 'great three' singles: 'You Really Got Me' 'All Day and All Of The Night' and 'Till The End Of The Day' (deliberately written as the last possible moment The Kinks can get away with returning to their 'signature sound' before it becomes old hat), the frustrated 'It's Too Late' rueing becoming stuck in a rut and one of the most depressing of all the 1960s recordings made by anyone: the what's-the-point-in-suiciode-because-my-problems-will-just-carry-on-when-I'm-dead song 'The World Keeps Going Round'. I've always felt that The Kinks exist in a kind of 'parallel 60s' that exists alongside the other inhabited by every other band of the era: in monochrome not colour, full of wicked conmen and fake advertising rather than flower children and drug-fuelled adventures into the unknown, the museum on the corner where everything from the past is preserved and filed away for future reference which has set up shop in the middle of the psychedelic road full of exotic boutiques and brightly coloured carnivals. While the first two albums found The Kinks more or less on the same road as everyone else, this is where they find their own sound - and they do so by following many different roads.
Much of 'The Kink Kontroversy' was written on tour. That's not new for The Kinks - most of 'Kinda' kinda had been too - but this is the album where you can feel the pressure beginning to 'get' to Ray Davies in particular. That second album had been a whirlwind rush of adrenalin: 'Come On Now' 'So Tired Of Waiting For You' 'Look For Me Baby' - the song titles alone have a feeling of adrenalin and urgency to them. 'Kink Kontroversy' has similar themes: 'Tell the world I'm in love!' shrieks 'Ring The Bells', 'Gotta Get The First Plane Home' runs another, 'When I See That Girl Of Mine' runs a third, all desperate to get home from tour and back into the arms of security and home. But all three are relaxed bordering on sleepy; 'Ring The Bells' sounds like it was recorded in the middle of the night (which, given Ray's insomnia and the band's growing recording hours seems possible), not so much a celebration of impending marriage as quiet reflection of happier times (for the record Ray married Rasa on December 12th 1964, making this the first record since the wedding; interestingly this is the only song of his that ever makes any real reference to marriage - and then it's on a song deliberately designed to 'copy' another's sound - not that the Rolling Stones ever sang about marriage much either except running away to avoid it, it has to be said). 'Gotta Get' tries to nail an R and B groove, but compared to the hurried sound of the first two records it sounds like its playing in slow-motion. 'Girl Of Mine' is happy-go-lucky pop and sounds like many a 1964 track in demo form (as heard as an extra on the 'Kinda Kinks' deluxe set): happy-go-lucky, bouncy, jolly and a little bit silly. On the album it sounds slow and stately, a relaxed groove that oozes a warm glow rather than a shriek of joy. Add in the sleepy 'I Am Free' (which has the slowest tempo of any Kinks track thus far), the slow calypso of 'I'm On An Island' and the laidback groove of 'You Can't Win' and suddenly that album sleeve of wild fury and untamed violence seems like it's been put on the wrong record.
However for the first time Ray Davies is not the only writing member of The Kinks. Dave Davies gets his first ever composition for the band with 'I Am Free', which - in typical brother style - sounds like what Ray's been trying to write for this album but more so. 'I Am Free' is a fascinating first composition: it has a slower tempo than just about any Kinks song thus far and completely ignores tries and tested Kinks templates like a strong hookline, a bright sunny melody and lyrics about still largely physical matters (usually boy v girl, occasionally boy v society). Dave's song takes place all in his mind: a world-weary shrug that's even more lethargic than his brother's insomniac songs, it's a nice bit of folk-rock debating what it is to be free, with Dylanesque lyrics his brother hasn't touched on yet and the distinctly troubled statement that 'I am free'. With lyrics about 'refusing to be a machine' and 'I won't convalesce when society doesn't need me' it sets the tones for just about every Dave Davies song to come: the man apart, trapped into something he doesn't want to be and which society wants less, working things out in his own mind rather than taking action the way Ray would (which is interesting in itself: most people who know The Kinks would say that Dave is the more confident, 'doing' brother and that Ray is the 'thinker'). This song could have slotted in nicely on any of Dave's softer-edged solo work like 'Chosen People' or 'Bug' and is a very impressive debut. Sadly Dave will only get a single co-write on the album's flimsiest song the next time around (the superb 'Face To Face' from mid 1966), but will really hit his stride in 1967, giving the band a second writer with a style sympathetic to but different to what his brother is writing. Frankly it's The Kinks' loss that his writing isn't encouraged more: given the age-gap between the brothers, Ray and Dave were more or less the same age when they began writing songs and in any other band the younger brother would have been a fine lead writer for any band.
So far so unusual, but there's been nothing here really to match this album's name 'The Kink Kontroversy'. Was this just a groovy name that Pye's publicity department came up with to give themselves another excuse to use lots of kinky-booted 'K's on the album cover? Well, possibly, but Ray Davies has given a few interesting insights into that name down the years. About the only point agreed in both Ray's and Dave's autobiographies (the playful imaginative 'X-Ray' and the straight-as-a-dye 'Kink', which couldn't be less different or more like each brother) is that 1965 was a rotten year. The band suffered calamity after calamity leading to the cancelling of several shows due to injury and illness - some inflicted (like the time Mick Avory tried to kill Dave on-stage and fled the stage after throwing a cymbal, convinced the brother was dead and he was going to prison with several hundred witnesses in the crowd to testify against him). The Kinks were getting a reputation for being 'unreliable', something that wasn't always their fault (crowd control was poor in 1965 and still a few years away from catching up with the sudden interest in live music; for some reason The Kinks - perhaps booked into hotels and venues after the Beatles and Stones et al - always got the short end of the straw). Ray also mentions something interesting in the sleevenotes for Castle's 1990s re-issue of this album, murmuring something about 'publishing disputes'. More usually its the beginning of 1966 that's' cited as the 'breaking point', with the band's split away from producer Shel Talmy (who claimed part of their royalties as recompense for the termination of his contract) dragged out into a year-long court case, the pressure of which on top of all the Kinks responsibilities end up in Ray having a nervous breakdown and storming into his music publisher's office with an axe. Did Ray simply misremember when asked about this album? Or did the troubles start earlier? If the latter then that gives this album an interesting twist: no wonder Ray's yearning for the 'good old days' so soon in his career; already music has moved from being his last refuge to the source of most of his troubles. Sadly we don't really know anymore - this was the period when bands were routinely asked about their favourite colours and taste in girls rather than their hopes and fears, but there's no getting away from the fact that 'Kink Kontroversy' is a much more 'down' album than its two predecessors, beginning with a row between two lovers (expertly played without much acting from a 'love-hate' relationship point of view by Ray and Dave) and ending with a weary cry of stubborness.
In a way this is the perennial 'difficult third album', a relatively modern term for a band who've spent years preparing their first album and are driven to their second by a combination of adrenalin and stardom. The Kinks, of course, aren't that simple: the truth was Ray had almost nothing ready for the band's first album and many of the 'cover' choices on the first two records were specially prepared for the album - only half a dozen or so were played by The Kinks (or their 'original' name 'The Ravens') live. However it does sound like a third album: it's world-weary, the band stuck on a revolving door of TV-radio-touring commitments that leave them little time for rehearsal and less time for songs. What's more, it was an important album: The Kinks' first attempt to extend their sound with the more awkward sounding single 'Everybody's Gonna Be Happy' had blown their strong sales record and even the follow-ups 'Set Me Free' (deliberately written to sound commercial, though no worse for that) and 'See My Friends' (brilliantly inventive and new) had only rescued sales a little bit. Ray must have breathed a sigh of relief when back-to-basics single 'Till The End Of The Day' went top three, despite being adamant that it would be the 'last' in that style. What's more rock and roll's most dysfunctional band after The Who had reached their first truly sticky point, exacerbated by so many long hours of travelling and playing when all small mistakes are inevitably magnified. Ray and Dave bickered; Pete and Mick got fed up of having to intervene. Dave got mad at Mick for always taking Ray's side; Mick fought back - often physically. Tales of Kink in-fighting are rife in this period, the biggest single year of Kinky arguments until the 1980s - with the incident of Mick and Dave on stage only the peak of a brittle and unforgiving year. No wonder this album often sounds as tired and resigned as it does: while The Beatles and even The Stones were still largely best friends and on the same message, The Kinks were a band held together with a bit of glue, a lot of hope and more than a bit of praying. The fact that there still was a Kinks going by album three seems nothing short of incredible when you read all the stories - the fact that there'll still be a Kinks going in 30 years nothing short of a miracle.
Overall, then, 'Kink Kontroversy' is a mixed little album, understandable given the circumstances if perhaps a little disappointing given their peaks. The last great returns to the 'old' sound on 'Till The End Of The Day' and 'Milk Cow Blues' are superb, two of the greatest band performances the original line-up of the band ever gave. Songs like 'Where Have All The Good Times Gone' and 'The World Keeps Going Round' are huge break-throughs for Ray as a writer, weary resigned songs that no one else was writing and few authors would have managed to make as pretty. Dave's 'I Am Free' is a promising first song, sounding slightly out of place here but adding to the record's impressive eclectic sound. With just eight months between records though - a gap filled by two singles, endless touring and a whole host of TV and radio appearances - 'Kink Kontroversy' was always going to struggle in the consistency stakes and so it proves, with the rest of this album's material lagging behind even 'Kinda Kinks' for the most part, rushed and rather average by the band's high standards. Also many of the avenues explored on 'Kontroversy' will be deemed null and void once the band discover their 'true' calling on their next single 'Dedicated Follower Of Fashion', a sideways look at the 60s culture through more acerbic eyes, keeping the 60s generation honest with a dry wit and sharp eye that will last across their 'first' masterpiece 'Face By Face' and - ooh - for very nearly a year (a long time in the 1960s!) However just because the Kinks never returned to many of the ideas and style raised in 'Kontroversy' that doesn't mean they're worthless. This is still half an excellent LP from a band who are already ploughing their own furrow and going somewhere new - and far from being kontroversial, that's exactly what the Kinks should be doing and will do brilliantly from here-on in.
'Milk Cow Blues' is one of the greatest album openers ever. It takes just ten seconds a magnificent swirl of Dave's aggressive guitar to get you straight into the song, an angry song about a bitter betrayal. Channelling all of the pent up rage that's been building for the past year The Kinks turn in one of their greatest band performances here, transforming the haunting blues original by Sleepy John Estes into a screaming fit. Not that this is just demented noise: it's a tightly controlled piece that plays cat and mouse throughout the song, using every trick in the book of the band's early sound when they were particularly strong on dynamics (see any live version of 'Got Love If You Want It). A chugging rhythm guitar part from Ray sounds like a nagging wife - the piercing wild shrieks of Dave's lead the narrator's desperate urge to run, his single greatest guitar part outside the 'big three' singles of 'You Really Got Me' 'All Day and All Night' and 'Till The End Of The Day', packed with more distortion than had probably ever been heard on record up to this point (most bands would have included a sticker saying 'its' not the fault of your record player' - but Pye seems to have assumed that Kinks fans are use to such distortion by now). However, believable though the song and its maddening fury is, we never really find out what the narrator's 'girl' has done wrong - the only thing mentioned is that 'I'm sick of all your crying', which puts us back into 'Stop Your Sobbing' territory, with the band terrified to the point of instability over the sign of tears. There's also no mention of milking cows or being on a farm, which is a shame (unless this is one of those risque blues songs that can't come out and say what its 'actually' about!) The original features one voice throughout, but by turning this into a duet for Ray and Dave to sing the Kinks must surely be talking about themselves here: that the 'sun looks good going down'. The irony is that they've never sounded better - or tighter - than here, with this track about a break-up the early Kinks at their absolute best. That's especially true of the killer finale which reaches a real peak of wrath, with a guesting Nicky Hopkins suddenly popping up out of nowhere on piano until gradually winding down into gentle seething fury again, the argument avoided once again - for the time being.
'Ring The Bells' is a calming influence, mentioned in more than one musical paper as the band's next single. Borrowing heavily from the Stones (the chord changes sound like 'The Last Time' combined with 'It's All Over Now') and a touch of Beatles (the lyrical references to 'I Feel Fine'), this is a sweet song that starts off as heartfelt pretty ballad before gradually becoming something harder-edged. Ray's doey-eyed narrator has just proposed and been accepted and wants the whole world to know both about his wedding and the fact that he's 'in love'. Already we're heading into Ray's last overt love songs for teenage bride Rasa, whose presence hovers over this and the next two tracks but then largely disappears till things start going wrong circa 1970. Ray is clearly in a happy mood, but sadly doesn't sound as inspired as usually does: 'Can you hear the bells are ringing, can you hear what they're singing?' goes the middle eight as if borrowed from a musical, while the verse is repeated a few too many times for comfort - unusual for The Kinks. The end result is nice, with a pretty band performance that features the quartet lighter on their toes than normal and correctly realising that swamping the song with a thunderous heavy attack is probably a bad idea. There's even a delightful high pitched wordless harmony vocal way in the distance which helps 'lift' the song and makes it even more 'top' heavy (fittingly, it sounds as if it's sung by Rasa, perhaps calling Ray on towards her). However this is very much a '1964' style song, full of the cliches of the era and a general clumsiness about it. Thankfully 'Ring The Bells' stayed as a so-so album track; it might have sank the band's career again had it been released as a single.
The energetic R and B-style 'Gotta Get The First Plane Home' sounds at one with the 'urgent' Kinks of the previous year - especially 'Come On Now' and 'It's Alright!' which both share a similarly tricky angular riff driving the song relentlessly on. Ray's narrator is at the airport looking at his watch, desperate to fly home to the arms of his new wife, wanting this 'wing thing to fly high over the sea...'. Ray may well have written the song doing just that - this sounds very similar to his memories of recording 'Kinda Kinks' in his book 'X-Ray' where he spent hours in transit dreaming of home and just a few short snatched precious hours with his beloved when he got there. Once again The Kinks turn in a dynamic performance, with Dave nailing the riff and Mick Avory doing a good job of an aeroplane hitting turbulence and rocking from side to side. However Nick Hopkins is off the boil for once and simply tinkles away oblivious to what everyone else plays. The result is a fun but short 1:45 minutes that the band clearly relish playing (Dave's yell of delight at getting the start right suggests that we're a few takes into this song's difficult opening!) but creatively speaking is more of a 'low budget' aircraft.
'When I See That Girl Of Mine' is another surprisingly old-fashioned song. First attempted at the tail end of 'Kinda Kinks' but not taken any further, it's a pretty but also rather false song about the narrator wanting to dress up properly to see his girl for the first time in a while. The fact that Ray rhymes the title with 'the sun will shine' tells you everything you need to know about this Buddy Holly-style crib. However the middle eight comes to the song's rescue. Dropping to a growly register Ray sounds even more like John Lennon than ever, recycling the fab four's 'I can't hide' middle to 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' for a powerful soar of 'They can see'. Once again a tighter-than-it-needs-to-be band performance comes to the rescue, highlighted by Dave's sensitive backing vocals and Pete's fabulously busy Paul McCartney-style bass. The result is rather anachronistic filler, but pretty anachronistic filler.
Dave's first song 'I Am Free' is, as we've seen already, a fascinating song. As the sleevenotes trying to keep track of which Kink is singing what puts it 'Dave wails on his own' and wails is the word - this song doesn't have a fully designed melody so much as a floaty line that features the narrator barely rising out of his stupor. Not for the last time, Dave's music and words tell us different things: this is a song about the power of the mind, that here away from the touring entrapment 'the doors are open wide' and Dave can go anywhere, free to wander wherever he chooses. However the music doesn't agree: a listless melody hops about from one foot to another in apoplectic misery, too tired and too weighed down to do anything or go anywhere. In a way this song sounds like an angry response to the band's strenuous touring diary: 'I don't care to be a symbolised machine' a full year before Ray catches up with similar thoughts. By the end of the song Dave comes to the conclusion that actually he is free but only because 'society doesn't need me' - who'd care or miss him anyway? Dave shows off a distinctly poetic touch quite unlike his brother's empathetic realism and musically breaks boundaries too: half the speed of most Kinks tracks and held together by a simple jazz shuffle from Avory and some fat chords from Nicky Hopkins, this would be considered the 'slowie' even on a folk album, never mind a rock one. Dave fits in a great solo though, resisting the temptation to play at his usual power and speed. Long dismissed as an odd song by a beginner writer, 'I Am Free' is actually one of the highlights of the album - a confrontational wolf in humble sheep's clothing that only bares it's teeth if you listen properly. Your first thought on hearing this song is that if this is 'freedom' then put me back in the cage! (Ray will be obsessed with the idea of 'freedom' circa 1970, writing songs about it for both 'Lola v Powerman' and 'Percy').
'Till The End Of The Day' roars out of the blocks with such rage and passion it's hard to reconcile the finished product with the malaise that went into writing it. Worries about whether he still 'had' the magic touch after three lesser selling singles, Ray called into his music publisher's office and poured out his heart. The pressure was getting to him, he said, he wasn't enjoying writing any more and it was becoming the job he's always vowed never to take rather than the glorious hobby it had always been for him. Luckily Ray's publisher, used to dealing with paranoid teenagers, sent Ray packing with the best advice he could have given: 'Don't write for the band - write for yourself using chords you enjoy'. This is the result, a third song squeezed from the 'You Really Got Me' template and using the same fierce energy and commitment. Skirting lyrically very close to 'All Day And All Of The Night', this song delights in the idea that having married someone you get to spend all day with them - well in between tours and recordings and things. Once again this song is about 'freedom' and the joyous prospect that 'we do as we please' with no parents or chaperones getting in the way of this newly-wed couple. Ray gets up and sees the 'sun up' - a symbol used many times across many albums as an totem of his 'inspiration' - and 'I feel good because my life has begun'. Tapping into the same frenzied ball of energy and adrenalin as 'Got Me' and 'All Day', as a song 'End Of The Day' is arguably the weaker of the three because it runs out of things to say a bit quicker, but against all odds lightning really does strike three times: this is still a fabulous track from a band happy to be back on familiar territory again. Dave's solo may well be his best of the lot, a maddened little squeal of delight that's positively infectious. An excellent arrangement then gets better still with a sudden unexpected double-time rhythm suddenly thrown into the mix at the two minute mark (just when things have finally settled down) pushing the song headlong into a wonderful frenzy of noise and feedback, collapsing exhausted into bed at the end of one heck of a busy day.
That song - released a few months before the album - sits in stark contrast to 'The World Keeps Going Round', the most lethargic song on The Kinks' most lethargic album. An early sign of the strain Ray was under (explored more later in songs such as 'Too Much On My Mind' and 'All Of My Friends Were There') this song finds Ray's troubled narrator worrying about everything: his job, his girl, even the weather, despite feeling slightly silly because none of these things have ever let him down before. Then again that's only if you take this song literally: I'm convinced that, yet again, the 'sun' is Ray's inspiration, now burning at a slightly less intense wattage than in the 'good old days' of last year, that suddenly seem like a lifetime ago. Elsewhere the lyrics on this song are brutal: we think that Ray's offering himself comfort with the repeated line 'what's the use of worrying...' but listen to those lyrics! Ray's advice to worrying about his girl running off with someone else is 'what does it matter 'cause you'll die alone!' Elsewhere 'Rain will fall, times will be hard and you'll feel mighty low'. Throughout the song the world carries on, oblivious to Ray's problems, an unstoppable force that won't slow down or give him time to recover, the time that once stretched out endlessly on 'Till The End Of The Day' laughing at him and the small amount of time he has left to fix his problems. The Kinks once again turn in an excellent performance, with Mick Avory's time-keeping superb across a tricky irregular metre and waking the song 'up' every few bars with a noisy drum roll that sounds like an alarm clock. The backing vocals too are most unusual: structures to sound like a Motown band, they're heavily treated with echo and feature Rasa once more as the 'lead' singer at the back. The Kinks as The Supremes? Unlikely but true. The result is one of Ray's real breakthrough songs, ironically coming along just at the point when he's describing how uninspired he feels, a sorrowful piece well out of step with everything everybody else is doing but all the better for that. 'The World Keeps Going Round' sounds like a well kept secret, a small window into the 'real' Kinks behind the hit singles and noisy calypsos, a testament to both the skill and bravery of writer and band. Another album highlight.
Talking of noisy calypso, the slab of escapism 'I'm On An Island' is up next and features an early example of Ray Davies trying to sound like his idol Harry Belafonte - and sounding drunk instead. Given his later penchant for writing songs about imagination and his current problems, it seems perfectly plausible for Ray to suddenly be on a desert island. A belated attempt to turn this into a love song is better, Ray adding that 'there's nowhere on earth I'd rather be...' with a sudden rush to the head of warmth and affection. This section is much more likeable than the doo-dum-doo-dum *smash* rhythm the band have got going in the verses and which sounds about as convincing a picture of the Hawaiian experience as the fake holiday and grass skirts made of pvc on next album 'Face To Face'. Once again Mick Avory comes to the rescue of lacklustre material with some exciting drum frills. Give that drummer a coconut!
The most substantial song on the album by a country mile is 'Where Have All The Good Times Gone?', a head-hanging tirade of a song that's always been popular with fans since appearing as the B-side of 'Till The End Of The Day'. People have read everything into these lyrics: Ray's relationship with Rasa growing cold after their marriage or even the decline of the 1960s spirit as Merseybeat fizzled out (before The Beatles bounced back with 'Rubber Soul' a fortnight after this record, there was a feeling in the air that the leading band of the era had perhaps peaked and an expectation that other bands would soon follow). However I've always taken this song as being about the band again: The narrator 'never used to worry about a thing' - see 'Going Round' for how much he worries now - and admits that 'Once we had an easy ride and always felt the same': the Kinks were a far more fractious band than the strong unit they'd been in 1964 and while it wasn't 'easy' at the start of the year (with two flop singles) the band got three top two hits in a row - a performance only The Beatles could match. Ray adds a twist of the knife in further in the third verse and a thought that's clearly been troubling him for a long time. The Davies family was made up of six sisters all born before Ray and then Dave came along and with quite a gap before they arrived. The family was already complete before they got there and Ray was shipped out to his much elder sister Rose's for much of his childhood. 'Daddy didn't have no toys' he sighs, with perhaps everything suitable thrown out long before his birth on the assumption they'd never be needed again; 'Mummy didn't need no boys'. Even the idea that 'let's face it - things are so much easier today' is no consolation to him: Ray wants life to be hard, to return to how things used to be because then he had a sense of purpose as part of a family unit that had to pull together; now splintered, with Ray still awfully young to get married and live away from home, Ray feels inadequate, in 'need of some bring-me-down'. The result is sombre and sober, with one of the most personal songs of Ray's career matched by an impassioned vocal on the verge of tears throughout (he can only get through it in later concerts by affecting a 'comedy' vocal - this song may still be too raw for him to sing 'straight'. Or perhaps he likes sounding like a comedy punk?!) With a nagging riff that seems to forever look back over its shoulder, this is a blues song attached to a rock and roll beat, Ray beginning each verse with a sighed extended 'weeeeell' and ending each and every verse and chorus musically looking at his feet, curling the lines off at the end. Dave's awkward electric guitar rattles weave in and out of the track cleverly, sometimes sounding supportive of his brother, sometimes mocking him. The result is an exquisite, intelligent, heartfelt song that once again far from suggesting what an inadequate uninspired hack that Ray Davies is shows that he was one of the poets of his age, able to convey real emotion in a way that manages to touch the heart of any empathetic listener. Won't you tell me, why have all the good songs like this gone - not just in The Kinks kanon but in everyone's?
Anything would sound like an anti-climax after that and 'It's Too Late' sounds like one more than most songs would. The same churning blues riff is played throughout the track, come chorus verse or middle eight, and repeats the same album trick of using repetition for urgency. Despite all that, though, this song doesn't sound urgent at all: it's bluster, only coming alive for the singalong chorus. For once The Kinks are sleepwalking, though, giving this song a throwaway ramshackle performance that's sloppy and messy, with each section sounding the same. Easily the worst song on the album, at least 'It's Too Late' fits the half-album theme of wanting to go back to the past ('The wheel of time grinds against your brain, now'), the girl in the song apologising after a lot of prompting but admitting her fault 'too late'. Ray's narrator comes across as rather cold and distant, ignoring his girl even when she's admitting her faults - could it be that actually her was wrong in the first place, not her? This song sounds like a sulk - possibly the sulk of a newly wed finding out married life isn't as fun as it sounded.
'What's In Store For Me' is 'Good Times Gone' with a twist: Dave's unprecedented third vocal on the album (this time on Ray's song) wonders about the future with a little hope and a lot of trepidation. Sighing that he's going to have to wait to see 'what life's cut for me', this is another narrator who knows 'I've done wrong' and anxiously waits to see if he could put it right. Is this Ray regretting a row with Rasa? Or could it be that a cheeky brother is putting lines like 'I've done some right - but also lots of wrong' into the mouth of his own brother to sing?! (and if you think Ray might be writing directly for Dave then listen out for yet another line about the elder Davies' legendary insomnia - 'I'll live the life I've got, then I might sleep at night'). Dave's the star of this recording once again, with an expressive vocal that's quite unlike the normal material Ray gives him and some excellent juddery electric guitar that strains at the leash to get on with things (in a neat mirror of real life his guitar and Mick's drums seem to be in a constant fight in this song, each one trying to musically 'stab' the other). One of the more overlooked early Kinks recordings, this is no classic and what the future has in store in real life turns out to be a lot more exciting than anything this song can imagine, but it's a likeable track that offers a highly fitting stepping stone between the poppier Kinks of yester-year and the growing complexities to come.
The album ends with 'You Can't Win' - effectively 'It's Too Late' part two and another song that sounds inspired by a marital tiff. This song features another tough riff that sounds as if its spitting feathers of indignation (in fact its a very Who-sounding backing track all round this one). Over and over again Ray keeps returning to the title phrase as if he's sulking and muttering under his breath: You say you 'don't understand? Huh what's there to understand? I'm right! You make the same mistakes? Huh - don't you learn? You can't win! What else can I say? You've lost! Give Up! I'm boss! A nice middle eight - sung first by a double-tracked Dave and then a double-tracked Ray before the pair join in some rare and belated unity - offers this song's lone crumb of comfort, that 'there's no need to be sad' just as long as you agree with me! A very unusual song for The Kinks there's no warmth in this song, just fire and fury, with the stubborn narrator simply refusing to believe that he might be wrong and that there might be another point of view (usually Ray is a genius at understanding other people's points of view - then again he's never had to adopt to marriage and babies and in-laws and juggling family and career before - it's the sort of thing that's broken lesser man than him before now). However, at least unlike 'It's Too Late' there's a strong hookline to this song, with some clearly cut lines between each section of the song and a cracking band performance that features the rhythm section holding the brothers and Nicky Hopkins' best work on the album (chirruping on regardless, like a nattering girlfriend) at bay. Dave's stinging guitar sounds like it has the final word, brittle and harder-edged even compared to normal and once again he's in danger of upstaging his brother.
Overall, though, it's Ray who benefits most from the dramas that went on behind the scenes during the making of 'Kink Kontroversy'. No longer a mere teenage pop star but an 'adult' family man, Ray's experiences and changing world view will benefit his band for many a long year to come. Take the three 'pop' songs from side one and the two 'angry' songs from side two away and you have a ridiculously accomplished set of songs for one so young, already honing his own sound. Unlike the rather rushed recordings on the first two albums, 'The Kink Kontroversy' is also a major step forward for the band, who now sound every bit as good as their material with much tighter performances all round (especially the double-tracking). Yes this is a minor and rather patchy work by Kink standards, without the exuberance of the earliest years of the concepts of the later years and rather lacking in direction as the band's original style becomes more and more used up and the Kinks long to go somewhere 'new'. However its a very important step in the Kinks story in terms of what comes next and in 'Milk Cow Blues' 'Till The End Of The Day' 'The World Keeps Going Round' and 'Where Have All The Good Times Gone?' positively nails four possible ways forward (some old, some new) which all sound pretty darn good to me. After this album's temporary breathing space the sky is truly the limit from here until at least the end of the 1960s (some would say the end of the Kinks' Kareer).