Monday, 11 September 2017
The Kinks “Misfits” (1978)
Misfits/Hayfever/Black Messiah/A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy/In A Foreign Land//Permanent Waves/Live Life/Out Of The Wardrobe/Trust Your Heart/Get Up
‘For all we know we might still have a way to go…’
How very Kinks. After a difficult 1970s when they’d been as far away from the mainstream as it was possible to get (Music hall concept albums about schoolboys! Diatribes about fictional politicians! A double album about life on the road! Whatever the hell ‘A Soap Opera’ is all about!) they’d signed with new label Arista on the understanding that they’d go back to writing ‘proper’ songs again. Somehow they had clawed back their old sound and fanbase with 1977’s ‘Sleepwalker’, their most ‘mainstream’ album since ‘Something Else’ a decade before – job done you might think. Now here they are with a sequel that delights in making The Kinks out to be outsiders again and where, less than a year after ‘getting’ modern music better than most of their surviving contemporaries, The Kinks are again celebrating the fact that nobody else makes music like this and that they truly are not like everybody else. All these characters on this album are prevented from being their true selves and are frowned upon for daring to be different – but different they are, to the core. Everyone else is away in a ‘foreign land’ while The Kinks look on enviously; while rock music is all about death and celebration and endings with the death of Elvis The Kinks are pushing on come what may, embracing the fact that they still exist in any form; while the rest of the music world is acting like supermen here they are suffering with hayfever; while everyone else is acting hip and cool and trendy, here The Kinks are with some unlikely subject matters about allergies, a black Jesus and middle aged hairdos. Everyone else is trying to sound cool but The Kinks have gone back to sounding like the misfits they always were, throwing their lot in with the disenfranchised, the confused and the lonely over the rich, the trendy and the cool. In fact these people, the ‘mainstream’, often sound like the ‘aliens’ across this album and their responses to the world (to make money out of people’s misery, to make people feel ridiculed and abandoned) sound like a betrayal – it’s The Kinks and misfit people like them who stayed true to themselves who really understood how the world worked (or should work). In a way ‘Misfits’ is the long awaited sequel to ‘The Kinks Part One – Lola v Powerman and the Money-Go-Round’ where a series of individuals stay true to themselves and beat the faceless power-mad corporations, Ray finally making good on the album’s promise by delivering a ‘part two’ but without quite as many digs at the music business along the way.
The Kinks were always rock’s survivors creating against the odds and in 1978 they are in very nearly a unique position: apart from The Rolling Stones and The Hollies they are the only band still recording, still inventing, still making music regularly and they’ve been through enough patterns, fads and changes to know that they’re here to stay. Like ‘Sleepwalker’ Ray Davies is too keen on his concepts to totally dilute them but instead of the great long nightmare of the night/album before (What is there left to say? Are The Kinks still relevant?) this is an album with a real get-up-and-go, desperate to keep pushing and carrying on, whatever it takes. Encouraged by the higher sales for ‘Sleepwalker’ Ray urges us ‘every dog has it’s day!’ in the title track, to come out of the wardrobe and embrace our true selves, to live life for ourselves, that music is important for fans as well as bands in understanding the world and – at the end – to ‘Get Up!’ Even though a third of this album started life as abandoned ‘Sleepwalker’ outtakes (‘Black Messiah’ ‘In A Foreign Land’ and ‘Hayfever’, which was recorded so many times it nearly split up The Kinks for good in 1977), ‘Misfits’ has a very different sound. ‘Sleepwalker’ wallows in its lost and confused state, where life on the road is cold and mean, where The Kinks are suddenly nervous that they’re wasting their time and ‘only’ writing jukebox music that nobody really listens to and where the band’s hapless narrators are such losers that they can’t even commit suicide properly, surviving more by accident than purpose. This album is the next logical and more positive step on though: ‘Misfits’ is a beautiful track about how even the most insignificant of us is significant, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy’ is a pact between band and fan that music is important and central to so many people’s lives in a mad scary world that it needs to be taken seriously and ‘Get Up!’ demands we make the most of our lives, however limited they may be. The Kinks are still horrified by the mean-ness of the outside world, but they’ve found a second wind and are there with their shirt-sleeves rolled up and ready for another round, whatever life can throw at them.
Life had been throwing a lot at The Kinks in 1978. This album features no less than three bass players: John Dalton appears on ‘In A Foreign Land’ recorded during the ‘Sleepwalker’ sessions; the rest of the album features short-lived member Andy Pyle who after taking part in Jethro Tull spin-off Blodwyn Pig and Muswell Hill rival Rod Stewart’s band was overjoyed at being a Kink – and then discovered how hard it really was trapped between Ray and Dave in The Davies’ most ‘perfectionist’ period, drilled through take after take. Andy got drunk to blot out the pain – not unusual for a member of The Kinks who all seemed to go through this stage at one time or another, though this example was particularly quick – and began skipping sessions. Somewhere between the completion of the album and the album pictures taken for the packaging he was replaced by Jim Rodford of the Zombies spin-off band Argent, who appears as a midget in the album’s weird distorted packaging alongside a kingsize John Gosling, a pensive Ray and a blue-eyed Dave looking like a Care Bear. However Gosling’s presence on the album was pretty minimal too, with very few keyboards used on these songs and he too will hand his notice in to the band before the recording of next album ‘Low Budget’. Gosling had been unhappy in the band since his friend Dalton had left but had been friendly with Andy and the pair had planned to work on a new band outside The Kinks during their downtime – Ray thought this was ‘disloyal’ when the band could be doing, say, an extra hundred hours’ rehearsal perfecting the backing vocals on ‘Hayfever’ and pretty much forced Gosling out of the band, keeping his overdubs to a minimum. That leaves The Kinks down to their core trio of Ray, Dave and Mick Avory, the three members who’d survived fourteen years together: no wonder ‘survival’ and longevity is on the band’s mind as they make this album. Unfortunately The Kinks is also a very unhappy place to be and in many ways it’s only Rodford’s good-natured humour who does all the right things (agreeing with Ray, drinking with Dave and sticking up for Mick) that allows the good ship Kinks to stay afloat for another seventeen years.
You can kind of tell that The Kinks aren’t flying the way they used to across this album. There’s always been something slightly off about this LP for me and it’s not a problem with the songs (which feature two classics and some other good ‘uns’) or the individual performances (which can be quite strong) or even the production (which like ‘Sleepwalker’ makes everything sound grandiose, in comparison to the more basic grunt of the next run of Kinks LPs). It’s the mood: you can tell this is a band who are playing by memory rather than instinct, who have been dragged through so many endless takes of these songs that they’ve forgotten why they sounded so good on take one. ‘HayFever’ especially seems to have driven the band crazy – the others actively groaned when Ray suggested re-recording it after doing it in five different ways for the ‘Sleepwalker’ album and it’s that ‘do we have to?’ feel that comes across most from this recording and some others here rather than the quirky fun of Ray’s words. When Arista asked for Ray to write more ‘normal’ songs for the next few Kinks albums in 1977 he seems to have taken it to mean that the band should sound more ‘normal’ too and he tries to drill them into a tight, disciplined unit he can dance over, knowing that they are all ready to catch him when he falls. But The Kinks aren’t that sort of band: the more you try to make them upstanding citizens of rock and roll the more they’re going to misbehave and the result is one of Ray’s rare lapses as producer. These are, after all, songs that celebrate the misfit, the outsider, the unusual, the individual. Taking these songs and giving them to a band with the message that they have to sound commercial and mainstream and popular is one of the rare times The Kinks gets something this basic ‘wrong’. ‘Misfits’ would be an amazing LP if it walked the walk the way it talked the talk, but instead it’s the sound of a misfit trying to act like the cool kid. The Kinks have never sounded as anonymous as they do on this album and that really hurts it, with ‘Misfits’ sounding just that bit much too ‘old school’ and ‘smug’ for the new legion of music fans who wanted something more from their bands in 1978.
That’s a shame because The Kinks could have delivered the 1960s survivor album of the century: they were certainly very popular with the new musical elite snapping at their heels in a way that the Stones and Hollies weren’t. The early Kinks in particular, ramshackle and raw yet deeply authentic, were a touchstone for many punks and new wavers in this era. In 1978 The Jam turn ‘David Watts’ from sarcastic singalong into a snarling marching storm of class elite protest (without quite ‘getting’ the song’s quiet subversion). The same year Van Halen turn ‘You Really Got Me’ from a song of desperation to a wild howl (without quite ‘getting’ the song’s energy and obsession). A year later Kinks fan, journalist and soon-to-be Ray Davies girlfriend Chrissie Hynde turns ‘Stop Your Sobbing’ from a paranoid rant into a cutely commercial number (without quite ‘getting’ the irony of the boyfriend trying to prevent the girlfriend being paranoid, while becoming paranoid himself). The Kinks will re-act by making sure these songs are in their setlist (‘You Really Got Me’ always was of course) and basking in the glow that so many younger hungry bands identified with their 1964-1967 work. But did they try and return to that young and hungry sound themselves? No. Making an album about longevity and survival wasn’t what their new teenage fans wanted to hear and hearing these songs back to back with either the early Kinks days or the new wave bands who identified with this band afresh reveals what’s missing: excitement. You know exactly where this album is going to go from first note to last and only when Dave Davies loses it with passion during the second half of ‘Trust Your Heart’ (his first song on a Kinks album for six years and the only real surprise here) does any of it sound ‘real’ (the band should have trusted their hearts, rather than their heads or their bank balances, a bit more across this album). ‘Sleepwalker’ suffered from this problem of multiple re-takes too but somehow that album kept its heart thanks to the superb raw vocals over the epic backing tracks and it was a suite of songs that often sounded lost, dazed and confused and thus suited sounding slightly out of place in a mainstream world. ‘Misfits’ though is an album where everybody should be authentic and true to themselves – and yet The Kinks sound just like everybody else. When this album puts on its best dress, it doesn’t sound ‘like a princess’ but like it’s a selling out of what this album stands for. If ever a Kinks album needed a remix to sound sparse and funky, it was this one which really needs to be raw and painful, not given a surface sheen of polish.
What a pity, because the songs are, if not quite up to the standard of ‘Sleepwalker’ or ‘Low Budget’ around it, then still very high quality. The two ballads on this album are amongst Ray’s greatest ever work: he spends the title track and what may be his most INFJ song celebrating the lovable losers who never get celebrated, the band and fans alike who ‘are lost without a crowd yet still go your own way’, while ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy’ is a gorgeous hymn to the power of music that is for many people ‘the only thing that gets them by’. Other bands might look down on their fans and their obsession but The Kinks are music fans too and know how important it can be, with this sequel rebutting ‘Juke Box Music’s dismissal of ‘only’ music a tribute to those who make it and those who connect with it. The rest of the album can’t compete but has its moments too: ‘In A Foreign Land’ is what modern-day listeners would consider ‘so off-shore’ as Ray finally follows his uncle Arthur into getting so fed up of the state of the UK that he considers emigrating; ‘Live Life’ is a burst of rock and roll adrenalin (sadly undermined by the ‘take 100’ feel of the performance) that updates ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’ as Ray vows to only live life for himself and ignore the mad crazy world around him; ‘Out Of The Wardrobe’ finally offers up a sequel to ‘Lola’ eight years on and while it’s more diet coke than cherry cola it’s worth waiting for with Ray nailing the difficulties faced by his sexually ambiguous character (although he’s strangely dismissive of the poor chap’s wife who’d been with him for decades without realising he might be gay). And then there’s ‘Get Up’ which takes the opposite tack of ‘Life Goes On’ from ‘Sleepwalker’ by no longer putting an arm around us but instead putting us back in the fight, reaching out a hand to help us up from the ground where the bullies of life has just kicked us down for being a ‘misfit’. Because we know better now: the world needs us misfits and this album is a celebration of everything slightly quirky or unusual that makes the world as colourful as it does.
What this album lacks, though, is a protagonist for the misfits to pull together to fight. Every unheroic hero has someone they can prove their selves against: Clark Kent has kryptonite, Lola had Powerman and the Money-Go-Round, our mascot Max The Upstanding Singing Dog has drunken canine Bingo and I have the Spice Girls. But ‘Misfits’ feels as if it’s a song short: we can get behind the narrator of ‘Misfits’ whose clearly a Kinks fan, sympathise with the narrator of ‘Hayfever’ whose sex life is curtailed by his body’s allergies, at a push we can accept the fight back against the ugly racism heard on ‘Black Messiah’ (if you read it rather than hear it), wallow in the song-for-fans ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy’ where music is the only thing in life that makes sense, possibly find some sympathy with the tax exile even if his feeling lost is of his own doing, laugh at the idea that a doctor’s only prescription for depression in a mad old world is to get a new hairdo as if that’s going to fix all our woes, agree to live life for ourselves, celebrate the bravery of the man who comes out of the wardrobe and finds himself accepted by those he loves as much as before and learn to, truly, trust our hearts. But as good a song as ‘Get Up’ is, this album needs a bigger finale: not many of these characters actually ‘win’ and this LP needs another song where being a misfit and staying true to yourself is the only real way to be. This is, after all, the album where the ‘old wave’ gets cut down, where Elvis has died and where even the Messiah turns out to be ‘one of us’, harassed for being an outsider in a land that doesn’t understand him. They say the meek will inherit the world, but surely it’s the misfits who deserve it the most, the people who stayed true to themselves and kept on fighting against the odds. ‘Misfits’ as an album feels more like the school bully we thought was our friend but still stole our pocket money anyway, offering up nuggets of reasons to be ourselves but covering it with a surface sheen that tried to sound like the establishment and then wrapping things up with a song that threw us out into the harsh cold world anyway.
The end result, then, is a draw. This album has many wonderful things to say and sometimes says them quite wonderfully too, but it would have been better still if The Kinks had recorded it the way they did ‘Low Budget’: as a mean, hungry, anxious LP where being true to yourself in a world that always lies to you is a difficult and desperate thing. At times The Kinks sound like they’re on holiday: ‘In A Foreign Land’ is performed in such a smug way you can just imagine the band sipping cocktails while they’re making it. At other times they sound like they’ve suddenly become middle-aged: ‘Permanent Waves’ is a really odd sneering take on youngsters who’d just discovered The Kinks, a characteristically bad pun on ‘new wave’ that condemns the need to fit in and have the right haircut. At times they sound like they’ve lost the plot: who seriously thought that singing a song about racism on ‘Black Messiah’ in an accent that sounds like a Jamaican province of ‘Muswell Hill’ was ever going to work? At times The Kinks try to sound like 10cc on tracks like ‘Hayfever’, without the lightness of touch to be truly funny. And at other times The Kinks sound perfect: ‘Misfits’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy’ are exactly the sorts of moments Kinks fans live for, little nuggets of brilliance that no other band could offer: so profound, so heartfelt, so uplifting and so true. However ‘Misfits’ remains a misfit even in a whole catalogue of Kinks misfits and concept albums about schoolboys, corrupt politicians, Village Greens and Second World War veterans – an album that’s half-sure that it wants to be like the cool kids and half-adamant that it’s born to be a nerd. Sadly The Kinks will do their best to become more mainstream with each record they make from now on, losing their inner geeky-and-proudness even though it’s the individual quirky eccentricity of this record that works the best. At least, though, the band will learn not to make their albums quite as over-produced as this one again and will instead go low budget…
‘Misfits’ is a beautiful song, the only time in a series of writing songs about under-dogs and the neglected that Ray actually admits that’s what he’s doing – with the hint that he’s a misfit too. The song starts with a whole run of contradictions: Ray empathises with a character who ‘set out to outrage but can’t get arrested’, desperate to be anonymous inside a large crowd but unable to walk to the same beat as them all because they’re not like everybody else. Ray recognises the difficulties of living life this way: the missed opportunities, the loneliness, the being afraid of what you really are. Ray knows what it’s like to never fit in, to be forced to hide your true self, to struggle in a world that wants everybody to be the same – so he offers up the closest thing in the Kinks kanon to a spiritual prayer. Here he offers a very Kinks-like respite: that there are more of ‘us’ than we think and ‘every dog has his day’, a chance to make good on who we are and achieve what we are meant to do. This gorgeous song grows in stature from a very simple, humble opening to the point where it becomes one of the great Kinks singalongs, the whole band joining in and giving these lost isolated characters the unity and strength they deserve. It would be easy to make a song like this condescending and the middle eight comes close, as Ray gazes at ‘the losers, the mad-eyed gazers, the loonies and the sad-eyed failures’ all around him, talking about how they messed up. But even this section turns good: not all misfits turn out that way and all misfits might have their chance in the future one day too. Other writers would try to change them or make them ‘winners’, but all Ray does is give them a shot at redemption and a lot of love, which is somehow enough. Dave Davies, always a good judge of his brother’s material, reckons this song is one of his best in his autobiography ‘Kink’ and I’m not going to argue. He also says that ‘Misfits’ would have been his personal choice for the band name over ‘The Kinks’ and that sounds like a pretty neat fit too. This is Ray’s show, though, and never has his myers-briggs type (loving the weird, sticking up for the under-dog and hiding his real self) shown more in song. This album is off to a cracking start.
Which disappears like a rash about thirty seconds into ‘Hayfever’ when you realise that this promising song is just a novelty song dressed up to sound good. This song’s poor narrator is the silliest take yet on The Kinks’ run of lovable losers: a boy whose been waiting to take his girl out to a dance for ages and finally gets the nod, only to realise that every time he goes outside he sneezes. Sadly Ray chickens out of trying to rhyme traditional remedy ‘betahistine’ but there are some clever lines here, such as the boyfriend being asked to make love and choking ‘but I can’t hardly breathe!’ or running around looking for tissues ‘sniffing like a hound’. But The Kinks are more into drama and tragedy and this song falls between two stools: you’re so busy wishing the narrator well, as per so many great Kinks songs, that you don’t know whether to laugh, cry or, well, sneeze. Aachoo! Sorry, I think this song is catching. The band performance doesn’t help matters either: it starts off with the Rhodes piano (one of John Gosling’s last contributions to The Kinks) so traditionally linked to feelings of nostalgia and loss in Kinks terms (as best heard on ‘No More Looking Back’), but Ray has a comedy twinkle in his eye. Next he’s serious but the band aren’t – especially the quirky oompah riff and backing vocals. And the doowop Beach Boys style middle eight just confuses matters even more: since when did people get the sniffles the most in the 1950s? Despite the many re-takes of this song, with backing vocals, without, slower, faster, funnier, sadder, it still feels like The Kinks mis-read this song. Had they done it more in the style of 10cc (whose rocking ‘You’ve Got A Cold!’ from 1977 is a typical piece that sounds hysterically funny to everyone but poor Eric Stewart) then they might have caught the hit of the decade. Instead all they caught was the weakest moment on one of the Kinks’ weakest albums that caused an allergic reaction in the band and many of their fans. Or am I just being too a-choo-choosy?!
Even stranger (assuming you have the European or current CD version; American copies have ‘Live Life’ in its place and switch the two sides around, for unknown and probably very weird reasons) is ‘Black Messiah’. 10cc had, not coincidentally, just released the similar sounding ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ and suggests that Ray had been paying perhaps a bit too much attention to the band’s humour and their famously OTT production levels. Sadly neither quite come off on this song which tries to take a sad subject (racism) and make it funny. ‘Everybody got the right to speak their mind!’ raps Ray like he’s Bob Marley’s Kinky kousin, before taking us off on a supposedly blasphemous song where God is really black who will show everyone of every colour the error of their way one day. It makes sense: given that he was born in Bethlehem and descended from parents who lived in Jerusalem, Jesus almost certainly was black, so why not his creator too? But what’s blasphemous is that accent on a song about racism and the way that Ray treats this song to the usual tongue-in-cheek that’s his stock-in-trade when doing dodgy Americans. Admittedly Ray adds the line that turns the tables on him and his race and has him ‘the only honky living on an all black street’, but he’s still clearly trying to sound black and it’s a little…uncomfortable (if par for the times. At least he didn’t ‘black up’ for an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show like Grace Slick did, I suppose). The problem is bigger than just a bad accent though: Read the lyric booklet and this is a sad song: there’s a black man so tired of being chastised for his skin colour that he’s done the very Ray Davies thing of slipping into his imagination for salvation and invented a Black Messiah he believes in absolutely, one who has the power and influence to do what he can’t. But hear it and this song is clearly jovial and jaunty, a laughter-fest where a hastily re-assembled Kinks’ horn section gets one last hurrah and everyone is in the party spirit. Surely this song would work better slower? And isn’t ‘Black Messiah’ a syllable too short for a chorus? (‘A Muswell Messiah’ scans better, they should have stuck with that). For some reason Arista got very excited by this track and assumed it was a natural hit single. They were wrong: it flopped badly and generally gets ignored now by compilations who otherwise love drawing attention to these ‘lost’ mid-1970s singles. The sad truth is that it’s just not very good or very Kinks-like as The Kinks try to be the ‘medium’ of a religion they don’t really believe in and discover that they are ‘average’ in other ways too.
Thank goodness, then, for ‘Rock and Roll Fantasy’, which very nearly almost sort of was the album’s hit single and is one of those Kinky ballads you are all but guaranteed to shed a tear to. I suspect that Dan the Fan is the brother or maybe the boyfriend of Linda from ‘Jukebox Music’ who ‘believes the things that they say’ and cries her heart out to the music when all her friends are dancing and paying no attention to the lyrics. You see, Dan is clearly one of ‘us’ if you’re an obsessive enough fan to be reading this. He isn’t a casual music-goer who only buys what’s in the charts. He adores his music, he hangs on every word his favourite musicians say, he ‘plays rock and roll day and night’ and music is the only thing in his crazy life that makes sense. Which of us haven’t turned out stereo ‘way up high’ to drown out the sound of the mess around us as Dan does here? He is us – we are him – and after fourteen years Ray has finally put us in song. He would be devastated if his favourite band (who might well be The Kinks) disband: they owe it to him to keep going, whatever is happening to themselves. This song is, then, Ray’s promise in a difficult period to his fans and his own brother that despite the hard decisions and ideas of ‘breaking up the band, starting a new life, being a new man’ that they are needed and won’t leave their fans songless and alone (or at least not for seventeen years yet). Ray was inspired to write this song the day that Elvis died in 1977 (‘The King is dead, rock is done’). An avid newspaper reader, he was struck both by the despair fans felt that he kept making new music without ever approaching his best and the general casual outsider who assumed that as Elvis was one of the most important figured in rock then the genre would surely be buried along with him. Ray knows that rock and roll is bigger than any one band or individual and also as an aging writer how hard it was to keep making music that was vital and approached his best. But, in true Kinks spirit, failure is no reason not to keep trying and he knows that someone, somewhere, out there will ‘need’ the music he and his peers write to get them through a long and lonely night. Speaking partly to ‘us’, partly to his brother but mostly to himself, Ray sings about how the band have ‘been through it all’ and yet ended up the ‘same’, shocked that the band has lasted this long but eager that the band will last as long afterwards (interestingly had ‘Phobia’ been released in the first half of 1993 as planned then this album would have been released right smack bang in the middle of the Kinks’ discography). Then, just in case we’re getting a bit too full of ourselves, Ray sweeps the mat underneath us in a more subtle way than on ‘Jukebox Music’. ‘Don’t wanna waste my life living in a rock and roll fantasy’ Ray sings, sticking to the album theme by urging Dan out the door to fulfil his own dreams, ‘not hiding away anymore’. Whatever part of the song appeals to you, though, this track works well as a song of solidarity to the band, a song of pride to the fans and another song on this half concept album about grabbing life and making the most of it. Only a slightly schmaltzy arrangement that never quite gets going stands in the way, with Gosling’s other ‘farewell’ performance sounding like a church organ and the whole band clearly driven through so many extra takes and rehearsals that they probably felt as if they were living a rock and roll nightmare. Even so, it’s a glorious moment that all fans should hear – it was, after all, written for ‘us’.
A clucking of Dave Davies guitar later and we’re sailing away ‘In A Foreign Land’. A jolly mid-paced rocker, this is another of those songs that’s right in the middle between tragedy and comedy, leaving us unsure whether we should offer hugs or ha-has at the narrator involved. It’s also so very Ray Davies if rumours about his stinginess are to be believed: the narrator is a tax exile who doesn’t seem to mention anywhere in the song that he had a chance and could have stayed at home and just paid more money. Instead, boo hoo, here he is surrounded by ‘bananas and sand’, asking for message to be given to ‘my mother and all my ex lovers’ that at last he’s financially wealthy – if a little lonely. He’s given up champagne and caviar to drink a lot of rum, won’t you feel sorry for him? Thankfully Ray has just enough of a twinkle in his voice to suggest that he doesn’t mean this song at quite the face value that The Kinks’ slightly stodgy performance suggests. Unfortunately, though, while his vocal soars their performance is very much tethered to the Earth, laying down roots in a way that this carefree, careless song doesn’t really need. It could have been a clever knack of making the narrator sound like a lost Charlie away from home and a foreigner in a strange land, but if so it doesn’t quite come off and just makes him sound like he’s having a panic attack or drinking too much coffee. It also sounds strange for such an English band (who have only just begun to reach out to an American market) to embrace moving away from their old Village Greens without so much as a backward glance, but then this song is about an unfeeling tax exile. One wonders if Gary Barlow has heard this one yet…
‘Permanent Waves’ ups the ante of novelty songs to higher than any previous Kinks record and is perhaps a gag too far. Ray wasn’t the only songwriter to equate the ‘new wave’ movement with a hairdo, but he scores points for being the first. Unfortunately he loses them again for a song that by his standards really isn’t that funny: Ray’s latest hapless hero goes to the doctor feeling depressed and gets told to get with it man and change his hairdo (that’s NHS cutbacks for you). He does, but the minute it rains his hair is soaked through and looks as miserable as it always did, taking all his new-found inspiration with it. A very Kinks dig at dedicated followers of fashion, this song tries hard with its near-rhymes of ‘craze’ and ‘rage’ with ‘rhymes’ but something about this song just isn’t funny. The backing is clearly meant to be comedic but isn’t, as the band have clearly been drilled through so many re-takes they’re in a murderous mood rather than a funny one. The sound is clearly meant to parody new wave too, but it’s a very odd, very British version of new wave: everything’s at a distance, the main riff being played on a chirpy synth (a part that sounds suspiciously like Ray’s work), the guitars have been ‘whitewashed’ to lose all colour and Ray is doing his best to sound like a male version of Blondie. It’s all so clear-cut and sterile though where we’re used to tears and tantrums from Kinks morality tales like this and the synthesiser parps like a frog throughout. And how many good lines can you fit into a song that’s just about a new haircut anyway? This album really needs a trim to make it more substantial and this song could have been shaved off no problem.
‘Live Life’ is a gutsier rock and roll recording that features the best Kinks performance on the album as Dave and Andy hit their single greatest guitar-bass groove together. Ray tries hard to hold it together on the vocal on this song about the world going mad (has there ever been a more apt Kinks song for our times now?) the way he did on ‘20th Century Man’, but for all his suggestions to himself to ‘think normal, act under control’ he can’t hide his paranoia anymore and ends up screaming the chorus. The song sounds great when Ray is demanding that we ‘live life for yourself’ and damning the ‘crooked politicians and the unemployment queues’ over a wailing Dave Davies guitar that finally gets the chance to do what it was born to do: rant and rave with glorious wild abandon. I even like the sneaky nod of the head to ‘dedicated followers of any old thing’. But somewhere the song gets weird: Ray’s latest advice is that we should turn off the televisions and stop reading the papers and then all the madness will go away. Which might help your blood pressure in the short-term but really doesn’t work that well, I’ve tried. Trump still does something stupid, Korea still point their missiles and Theresa May still cosies up to the DUP and grants them money trees even though it breaks at least three British laws. Also, the entire theme of the Kinks LP two releases from now (‘Give The People What They Want’) is about how hiding in your head in the sand won’t save you and the only way of learning how the world works is to watch it (while making up your own mind rather than relying on the news anchors to do it for you). Ray’s clearly taken to the then-new American device of twenty-four-hour news, but it’s interesting that his first re-action is one of panicked fear. Interesting, too, that The Kinks are already so keen on attracting a transatlantic audience that they cut a whole English-centric and oddly brutal verse from the US mix of this song (thankfully restored on the CD in all areas): ‘They live in the slums like the poor people do, but they’d rather sniff coke instead of glue, right-wing fascists beat up the blacks, then they salute the Union Jack, you can’t pretend there’s nothing wrong, but it’s not the end so carry on’. This sums up this song’s trouble with mixed messages: the world is clearly mad, but do we step in to help or pretend it isn’t happening? The chorus seems to hint that leaving alone is the best policy, but is that really true? Listen out too for the unexpectedly graphic chorus: ‘Ooh, life’s a mother’, though The Kinks never quite use the ‘f’ word. Close to a classic, but no cigar – thankfully there’s a guitar, though, and Dave sounds wonderful.
Fans had been waiting for a song like ‘Out Of The Wardrobe’ ever since ‘Lola’. Back in the 1960s The Kinks’s slightly homosexual air (summed up best by Dave and Mick making a rare truce and dancing together, cheek-to-cheek, on a TV show that nearly had The Kinks pulled off air) was genuinely daring. Being gay was a criminal offence until 1967 (celebrated by Ray on ‘David Watts’) and still daring enough in 1970 for the cross-dressing‘Lola’ to become a brave ‘did they really just say that?’ moment of popular culture. By 1978 however glam, punk and new wave between them have made being a trans-sexual mainstream and different sexual quirks were becoming more accepted. Ray celebrates the fact that one of his greatest outsider characters might be turning mainstream at last with a most unusual song, unlike any that he ever wrote (my guess is that he was trying to copy the style of his protégé Tom Robinson and his song ‘Glad To Be Gay’, despite the bust-up that led to the mocking, menacing B-side ‘Prince Of The Punks’ where a character like Tom ‘tried to be gay but it didn’t pay, so he bought a motorbike instead!’) Over a Noel Coward style backing track, Ray speak-sings this tale about a man whose suddenly so comfortable in his cross-dressing nature that he admits his sexual preferences to everyone at last. This ought to be a shock to his wife, but she takes it in her stride and they find a way of making it work (by swapping clothes mostly). How very Ray to make a whole song out of the pun that the husband is now on the ‘other’ side of the family wardrobe and this is a rare Kinks song that ends happily, with the husband in a dress and the wife smoking a pipe, each one getting what they want and to hell with what the world outside their door thinks. This song was rightly championed as the liberal Kinks being on the ‘right’ side of the political agenda at last, with a brief recap of the gay rights for listeners who weren’t ‘hip’ enough and this sort of song was still new enough to be of a comfort to many, with Ray asked to write it many a time by cross-dressing fans of ‘Lola’. But what it gains in courage it lacks as a performance: there’s no excitement here, no daring or naughtiness in the performance at all which even for this album sounds oddly stilted and lacking in joi de vivre. This is a major life change that has all the risks and all the drama of any other Kinks song, but ‘Out Of The Wardrobe’ sounds like a bank holiday weekend walk round Ikea by the time it appears on record, a curiously ‘flatpack’ recording that sounds like a basic take The Kinks haven’t added much to yet.
Dave makes a grand return on ‘Trust Your Heart’, his first song since ‘You Don’t Even Know My Name’ from ‘Everybody’s In Showbiz’ six years before. Thankfully he sounds much more confident this time around as well he might with a three album solo deal in the works and having regained some of his confidence within the band after the lost drunken concept album years. This song, on which Ray probably doesn’t appear, sounds like a prototype for his records to come and sees him become contemporary far more effortlessly than his brother did on a track that starts pure new romantics and ends up gritty punk. Like many of his best 1960s songs I suspect that it’s yet another tale of his teenage love Sue and the way they were cruelly split up by their parents when she got pregnant. Dave’s narrator still sees ‘her’ face in a ‘misty haze’ and wishes that he’d never made mistakes in the past. Searching for the answers to learn from so it doesn’t happen again, he figures that the only thing that’s true for all his relationships is that he should have trusted his heart more, stayed with those he cared for and ignored the ones he didn’t. Dave starts this overlooked song like a crooning angel, using his lovely high falsetto for pretty much the last time before drinks and drugs made this impossible, before turning devil for a manic rant at the end when Dave sings with too much passion to stay in character anymore about how he wants to ‘protect the weak and feed the poor, what on earth do we need Government for?’ However the song’s main message is ‘Why bear malice? Just let it go’, Dave’s new philosophy that could work equally well to his band and brother directed specifically to his girlfriend and those who tried to break them apart. He gets the last laugh as the two are still psychically linked and still feel the vibe they always did. The result is a sweet song that will cause you to say ‘awww’ if you know even a little of the true story and a much nicer future for the character in ‘Susannah’s Still Alive’ to enjoy. However the song itself is slightly clumsily fitted together, veering between lots of sections that don’t’ necessarily belong together and isn’t up to Dave’s very finest. At least The Kinks sound like they’re really playing on this one though, with Dave’s old sparring partner Mick Avory sounding ten years younger in an instant and clearly enjoying flexing his drummer muscles.
‘Get Up’ tries so very hard to be a rousing finale and succeeds in production terms, with an ear-catching crashing guitar-part and whalloped drums that make The Kinks sound more like AC/DC, but this song smacks a little bit too much of ‘rousing album finale’ and doesn’t do the same job noisily that ‘Life Goes On’ did so subtly. Ray admitted that he wrote this song to himself with a few digs at the disintegrating Kinks thrown in (‘Get up off your arses, men!’) but it sounds oddly patronising in his hands, as he steals the ‘Get Up!’ refrain from The Beatles’ ‘Your Mother Should Know’ and starts off the song singing about ‘the little men who get forgotten’. After fourteen ‘gets ups’ in just over three minutes, you could also say that The Kinks maybe make their points a little too often and a little too loudly. Nevertheless, like ‘Misfits’, there’s just enough sense of autobiography in this song to overcome any restrictions as Ray sings again about how times can change and how the overlooked may be the biggest heroes of them all. This is a real union song, as Ray speaks of how even the smallest can stand tall against ‘the big mouths’ when there are enough of them working together and urges every scared, beaten and defeated one of us to get outside our houses, off our easy chairs and off to ‘war’ because the battle isn’t over yet. There’s something really affecting about the way Ray sings ‘it all depends on you!’ as he urges us off to war, our battles not won yet when so many people are poor and destitute. A shame, then, that the rest of the band either can’t or won’t show the same passion as one of Ray’s best vocals and they sound like a very sloppy sort of revolution, full of twinkly excess noise and a curious stop-start boogie-woogie riff that keeps cutting in and out seemingly at random. The song ends curiously, sounding as if they’re going to give us a ‘false ending’, but no – that really was it as the album seems to end almost mid-note.
So ends perhaps The Kinks’ most inconsistent LP, high on the novelty comedy songs and yet glorious on the few tracks that offer us true substance. It’s an album of misfits in so many ways – songs abandoned from a previous LP and songs in styles that the band won’t ever return to again, be it hokey new wave or racist reggae. True to life some of these misfits are true beautiful overlooked gems that are as great as anything The Kinks ever did, some are born losers that were too ambitious or too strange to work the way the band wanted and others are nice tries that don’t quite hit the spot but have some nice ideas. The album’s biggest weakness is the band performances: this is too wooden to be the uplifting ode to individuality it was meant to be when scribbled in Ray’s notebook and yet the problem lies just as much with their central creator’s precise demands as much as theirs. This is an album that should be true to itself, quirky, ramshackle and remain gloriously amateurish that instead has been dressed to the nines with every track given the same sparkle. And yet, like many a misfit, under that sparkle is true beauty and there are some gorgeous moments on this LP. Even at their weakest or near-weakest The Kinks still sound remarkably good, so if you’re new to this band take a good look around – the glorious misfits are everywhere.