Monday, 28 July 2014
The Kinks "Low Budget" (1979)
The Kinks "Low Budget" (1979)
Attitude/Catch Me Now I'm Falling/Pressure/National Health/(Wish I Could Fly) Like Superman//Low Budget/In A Space/Little Bit Of Emotion/A Gallon Of Gas/Misery/Moving Pictures
The recession is all but over now, apparently. George Osbourne waved a magic wand and saved us all singlehandedly, even if it took a lot of making up figures (take the illegally 'sanctioned' unemployed and those forced against their will to become self-employed out of the equation and we're more or less level with five years ago, which is a gain of sorts I suppose given how many jobs were lost for no good reason a few years ago) and ignoring the 'co-incidence' that every other world leader is promising exactly the same thing in the press. What nobody seems to realise is that market crashes are the downside of capitalism - they'll come and go once a generation or so for as long as we have a system based on supply and demand and have done since at least the industrial Revolution, possibly Roman times. We're just unlucky this one is showing the teeniest tiniest signs of recovery at a time when the UK elections are beginning to brew and enable our chancellor to look marginally less thick in talks than usual. Ray Davies is probably sitting chuckling at the English newspapers specially imported into his American home (along with some particularly English teabags and scones, so we'd like to think) because he remembers the last time the world suffered a financial meltdown we were told there was no back from, recording the definitive soundtrack album to it in fact. I like to think it was more than co-incidence that I managed to update my rather battered vinyl copy of 'Low Budget' to CD about a month before the 2007 crash happened. The soundtrack of much of the last few years for me therefore - all those awful voxpops of rich people indulging in benefits-baiting, the waiting nervously for scary DWP letters threatening to stop my money if I don't agree to sell my firstborn over to the Government, the putting up with grinning public schoolboys claiming 'we're all in this together' while spending £50 on a burger during a meeting about foodbanks - has been 'Low Budget'. Many a time I've screamed 'you're such a misery!' at whichever cultural hooligan happens to be on the news abolishing another life-saving local library, turned up 'Attitude' loud on my CD player in the hope of drowning out David Cameron at his smuggest, travelled to pointless jobcentre interviews with 'pressure pressure I got pressure' ringing in my ears and listened to this album while sucking polo mints and wondering 'where have all the good times gone?' 'Low Budget' has been of great emotional support during these troubled years - and will be again circa 2032 when it all happens again (assuming, of course, that Alan's Album Archives isn't earning - and paying - so much tax that it singlehandedly saves the world from the brink of destruction, unlike a handful of companies I could name who could have saved us all the bother between them. We can but dream - Kinks albums are good for encouraging dreams).
'Low Budget' isn't just a clever title and a funky cover (a pair of high-heels standing on a tarmac-ed road surrounded by cigarette stubs, a million years away from the 'cleverness' of the 'distorted' cover for previous Kinks album 'Misfits'). It really is a low budget return-to-basics Kinks album. In 1979 the band had seen a shift in fortunes, signing with new label Arista in 1977 and moving away from their 1970s penchant for concept albums (which I happen to love and rather miss) into more 'mainstream' directions. While this was good for business, it was bad for the band - more perfectionist than ever Ray Davies drilled the band through so many takes of the songs on 'Sleepwalker' and 'Misfits' that a lot of great material somehow got lost. The band lost a lot of members even by their usual standards in this 1977-79 period too, losing bassist John Dalton (a Kink since 1968) and keyboardist John Gosling (a Kink since 1970) as well as relative newcomers bassist Andy Pyle and keyboardist Gordon Edwards. Something, clearly, wasn't quite working for the band and while predecessor 'Misfits' sold as well as any 1970s Kinks album, I don't think I'm alone amongst longterm fans in finding it a little 'flat' and characterless. Edwards didn't in fact leave, he was pushed after failing to turn up to early sessions for the album and for the first time since 'Arthur' in 1969 The Kinks were a streamlined quartet, without a piano player, horn section, girl chorus or radio announcer in sight, with Dave for once encouraging his brother and suggesting he play the keyboard parts himself. Along with loyal new bassist Jim Rodford - who served with the band to the very end in 1995, longer than Pete Quaife and John Dalton's eras stuck together - The Kinks were suddenly a real one-take no-overdubs band, with the grungiest, simplest sound they'd had since 1965 and 'Kinks Kontroversy' before 'Mr Pleasant' and 'Dedicated Follower Of Fashion' began to shape and develop the Kinks sound. While the loss of the keyboards at least was a happy accident (well, an unhappy one for poor Gordon Edwards, who simply got worn out keeping the peace between two warring brothers - he should have set up a help-group for the non-Gallagher members of Oasis) the new sound was perfect for the times. The Kinks were one of the few bands embraced by both the working class punks (the 'You Really Got Me' era three-chord thrashes) and the more upmarket new wavers (The Pretenders and The Jam both had hits with Kinks Kovers in this era, 'Daviod Watts' and 'Stop Your Sobbing' respectively) and this era of The Kinks somehow managed to be both: 'Attitude' finds Ray out-shrieking Johnny Rotten, 'Low Budget' is a comedy song that's also deadly serious in true Paul Weller manner and the squelching keyboards and slightly atonal, robotic vocals on 'In A Space' could have been any new wave act with an intriguing production button.
The Kinks might have happily sat out 1979 nursing their wounds and building on their stage act, but the band were keen to play Britain after quite a lengthy spell away touring America and Arista would only put up the money if the band had something to promote. Originally 'Low Budget' was meant to be kept simple and recorded as quickly as possible - a four-track EP (one of many 1960s concepts suddenly and briefly back in fashion again) containing 'Low Budget' 'Superman' 'Pressure' and one other song, possibly 'Misery'. However after suffering what by his standards was a bit of writer's block during the course of 1978, Ray Davies was suddenly inspired and during his time in America turned out dozens of songs - not just the rest of the LP but the backbone of many future Kinks albums too ('Give The People's title track plus songs 'Destroyer' 'Better Things' and 'Yo Yo', as well as a first draft of 'Massive Reductions' from 1985's 'Word Of Mouth' were first tried at this session, along with at least three unreleased songs: 'Hidden Qualities' 'Laugh At The World' and 'The Optimist'). Ironically, given that there wouldn't have been an album at all if the band hadn't wanted to 'keep in contact' with their British fans, the move to America suddenly gave Ray a whole new perspective. Freed of the 'Sunny Afternoons' 'Waterloo Sunsets' and 'Autumn Almanacs' her was surrounded by in Britain (well, not so much the 'Sunny Afternoons' maybe), a whole new world was suddenly opening up for him creatively: it's easy to be nostalgic on a village green that shuts every Sunday and some afternoons; less so on a thriving metropolitan city where everything is happy. That's why this album is suddenly filled with messages not of 'preservation' and songs praising 'the last of the steam powered trains' but lyrics declaring 'You can't live in a time zone - you've got to move on!' and tackling such up-to-date subjects as petrol shortages, the new Superman movie and the state of the UK's national health service (which always seemed rather out of place on such an 'American' themed album).The most telling moment of all comes not from the album but from the next American tour, when The Kinks fire up the title track of 'Low Budget' and Ray dreamily sings the opening phrase to possibly his most overtly nostalgic song 'thankyou for the days...' before ruefully shrugging his shoulders and bawling out the song's first lines. This is suddenly a band looking forward, not back.
However the key theme that crops up time and time again across this record is tightening your belt, making do and surviving till your next pay check. The backdrop is split between Britain (a land full of a failing national health service - how familiar does that sound post Stafford hospital? - three-day-weeks, strikes and power cuts) and America (going through a recession of its own they tried to call back in lots of loans given during better years in the 1960s/early 1970s only to be told 'no!' by quite a few countries and additionally suffered a petrol shortage that will have huge repercussions in the years to come - especially in the Gulf War and its various sequels). What's odd about this is that Ray finds himself repeating a lot of 'Arthur', his masterpiece of an album that came with the tagline 'the decline and fall of the British Empire'. Only this time it's the Western World that's declining, without even the hope that America can get the empire out of its 'fix' this time around because they're suffering too, turning 'Low Budget' into a kind of eerie sequel, backing up Uncle Arthur in his pledge to go elsewhere (not that Australia coped any better, then or now). While not quite as long or as bleak as the recession we're slowly recovering from now (thanks, in the UK, to unnecessary tampering from the Coalition or we'd have been better placed than most to weather out the storm), the world still seemed in crisis and 'we all have to learn to economise'. Throughout this album Ray acts as a kind of funky taxman, imploring us to pick up our clothes in sales (even if they don't quite fit), deal in drugs rather than cars because hash is easier to buy than petrol and to get someone else to pay for a round of drinks. This is the perfect backdrop for Ray's short-term pessimism, long-term optimism outlook and he turns in some of his wittiest one-liners here (especially in the title track) before adding that it's important to remember to smile because one day it will all pass (or you'll never get to go to any parties at his house). The album serves as a kind of extension of the knowing 'Money Talks' from 'Preservation' - in the 20th (and now 21st) centuries economics is king and if you have it you can get what you want - if you don't have it you'll suffer. Sadly Ray never does get round to giving the bankers a good kicking (a song on the same sarcastic lines as 'Dedicated Follower Of Fashion' or 'Mr Reporter' would have made this album perfect!), but he's clearly on the side of the 'little man'.
There's another theme running through this album though, one that often gets overlooked because of the 'low budget' idea. For the past seven years now the world has been in a go-slow moment, with the sad global news stories about being stuck in the red seeming like it has lasted half a lifetime. In most sensible countries across the world (ie not Cameron's mob) the general idea has been to let things fix themselves and that too much tampering could set us backwards. Whether co-incidentally or not, most of the popular songs from the past seven years tend to be slow gaping ballads with not much going on (just think of the era's best-selling artist Adele, whose records would have put me to sleep even if I didn't suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome). By comparison, 'Low Budget' is a fast album, one where you have to keep moving in case life drags you down with it. Life is moving fast, too fast in many ways. The album ends by coming right out and saying that life is a series of blurred images, moving pictures that pass you by before you have time to fully analyse them, leading to a particularly mournful middle eight about 'never having a chance to make much sense of it'. Even before that, though, there are hints: there's a terrific middle eight during 'In A Space' where Ray lists the time mankind has been on planet Earth and imagines being stuck like this for near-enough eternity ('Seconds into minutes and minutes into hours...'), ending up in a painful sounding scream, while the Kinks suddenly step up a gear, thrashing wildly as if willing time to move forward just by sheer power. The narrator of 'Low Budget' may sound laidback but reveals in the last verse that till recently he was a 'toff' and that circumstances can change in the blink of an eye. 'Superman' similarly charges past on a wild spree of flashy guitars and thumping drums, whistling past your ears like a speeding bullet. Both 'Misery' and 'Attitude' charge out of the blocks as if throwing everything at the world and can't wait to get to the 'next' chapter of world history. Both 'Pressure' and 'National Health' talk about the price paid for a life where you have to live on your toes - discussing 'Pressure' as if it's a contagious disease and adding that nervous tension 'is the biggest killer that's around. The characters of 'Low Budget land' - like the ones who live in most Kinks songs across the 1980s, notably the car driver who suffers a nervous breakdown during 'Aggravation' on 'UK Jive' - are all struggling to slow down, to relax, to get off the crazy money-go-round of life. Only 'A Gallon Of Gas' comes anywhere near laidback - and that's clearly not from the narrator's choosing at all, desperate as he is to buy his petrol and be on his way, a clever musical metaphor for being stuck in a car going nowhere.
So, if the songs are this good and the Kinks are really cooking with gas, man (despite the petrol shortage) then why isn't 'Low Budget' on our 'core' list of perfect or near-perfect albums? Well, it has to be said that anyone coming to this album after the handful before it (as everyone was, of course, when 'Low Budget' was brand new) will be in for a shock. It isn't that this album is loud, it's that it's so consistently loud: only 'A Gallon Of Gas' and 'A Little Bit Of Emotion' put their foot on the brake pedal, as it were: everything else is louder than anything being made by The Kinks' contemporaries (a quick check: The Who have just done their most prog-rock album 'Who Are You?', The Rolling Stones are recording the wimpy ballad-fest 'Emotional Rescue' although 1978's 'Some Girls' is pretty similar in feel to ':Low Budget' and The Hollies are busy recording 'A Crazy Steal', their second ballad-filled album in a row) and a good half of the bands half their age. For a young fogey like me, it's all rather tiring (by contrast 'Misfits' is a rather good album to sleep through, featuring songs with similar tempos). It has to be said, too, that not every song is touched with Ray Davies inspiration: 'A Little Bit Of Emotion' is twee and trite by his own high standards and 'National Health' sounds dangerously like it was written simply to give the audience something to sing along with that wasn't the Banana Boat Song ('ooooooh aaaaaaah!') Also, having three one-word titled songs featuring short bursts of energy without much in the way of melody other than wild thrashing chords ('Attitude' 'Misery' and 'Pressure') is at least one example too many. 'Low Budget' could well have been perfect has one or two of these listed songs made way for that first draft of 'Yo-Yo' (one of Ray's most unfairly neglected tracks) or even 'Massive Reductions' (a song that fits this album's theme of budget and economy really well, but with noticeably more humanity than any track that actually made it to the album, the narrator having been laid off 'for the good of the company').
Or the album could have featured a song or two from Dave Davies. The younger brother is disappointingly quiet across this album after his shock return to the credits for 'Trust Your Heart' on 'Misfits'. Goodness knows there was no shortage of material to choose from: Dave was on a real high in 1979/80, working on his first solo album - the similarly noisy but wonderfully titled 'AFL1-3603', the first album ever to be named after its own barcode. 'Move Over' and 'Nothing More To Lose' would have fitted this album's proto-punk/heavy metal feel well (and would have delivered the kicking to the bankers we cried out for in our opening paragraph), while 'Imagination's Real' is a delightful and very Kinks-like song that would sound good on any album but especially here alongside 'Superman'. Perhaps Dave wanted to keep all his best material for himself (which doesn't seem very likely) or perhaps his brother didn't want any of his songs on the album (which sadly seems more than a little likely, given what will happen to the band across the next decade). Interestingly 'Some Girls' - the Stones equivalent of this album - is very much the moment a sleeping Keith Richards takes back the band from his partner before causing all out-war: the smaller arrangements and emphasis on the guitar may actually have helped Dave's creativity here. Certainly he's all over the album, clearly revelling in the chance to be at the focus of the band's sound again after so many years playing second fiddle to girl singers, horn parts and June Ritchie in a wig. Jim Rodford is hands-down the best addition to the Kinks Krew in the second half of their career, adding a power and drive that doubles up Dave's parts without getting in the way. Drummer Mick Avory, whose been through oh so many changes in the Kinks' sound down the years, takes to the new feel of the album well too, thrashing away on drum fills on songs like 'Attitude' and 'Superman' that make him sound a lot younger than his 35 years (an old man then in rock terms). Freed from the endless retakes of 'Sleepwalker' (which largely worked) and 'Misfits' (which largely didn't), The Kinks really do sound like a band again here - and one that can compete with any of the youngsters going after their crown.
Perhaps that's the greatest legacy of 'Low Budget' - it added more fuel to the Kinks fire and helped keep it burning a good few years past the point when otherwise it might have gone out. While weak by their standards 'Misfits' isn't bad, just lacking direction and the sound of a band stuck in a rut - but 'Low Budget' opens up lots of avenues again, giving the band a thoroughly 'American' sound that, yes, is rather hard to swallow for anyone who owns the band's decidedly English run of 1960s albums but is better than flogging a dead horse (something which sounds dangerously like Coalition policy). Ironically given the album theme about 'tightening belts' this was The Kinks' biggest hit in some years and clearly hit a nerve with a public coming to terms with the fact that even the richest nation in the Western world wasn't infallible (yet another fall for the Brits wasn't quite so shocking, somehow). The good news is that 'Low Budget' generally deserves its high sales and largely good reputation amongst fans: 'Superman' may well be the ultimate Ray Davies song, a weakling yearning to be strong and trying to wish fiction into reality with the single best Kinks riff since 'Lola'; 'Low Budget' is a hilarious character-driven song built for the stage that updates the lyrics to 'Sunny Afternoon', 'In A Space' is a clever attempt that almost pulls off a song that sounds like it really shouldn't belong in The Kinks' orbit and 'Moving Pictures' is yet another near-miss hit single, a killer pop song with a great hook that deserved to do better. Yes the other songs don't quite match it - and as we've seen both 'National Health' and 'A Little Bit Of Emotion' aren't amongst the band's best. But 'Low Budget' is a clever, often powerful work that's brave enough to completely change the band's sound round to a high-adrenalin scream but witty enough to temper the harder edges with great one-liners and a winning combination of irony and sarcasm. In short, this is one of those occasions when buying the low budget, 'no frills' service beats the pricey but bland goods every time, returning the Kinks to roughly where they left off about 15 years before.
Many a Kinks fan must have wondered whether the wrong LP was in the sleeve when 'Attitude' started playing. Ray Davies doesn't sing, he barks; the drums don't patter, they clout and Dave's guitar sound feels like more than just a razor blade has been slashed at the amplifier. Coming from the same place as memorably sarcastic 1977 B-side 'Prince Of The Punks' (un-seasonally stuck on the back of the 'Father Christmas' single), the first verse of 'Attitude' is an in-your-face put down of every wannabe young rock and roller on the planet, played in 'their' language of stinging chords, anger and mayhem: 'You go down the pub, you wear make up, and old dad's trousers - why don't you tidy up?' sings Ray, instantly sounding young and middle aged at the same time. Thankfully the song soon settles down (even the Kinks couldn't keep up that onslaught for long!) but the effect is clear: the times they are a-changin' and typically Kinks, they aren't entirely sure whether the past was better. The song 'proper' when it does arrive is far more humane and sympathetic, Ray offering some worldly advice that he can put up with the unknown assailant's bad manners, ignorance, looks and behaviour - it's their attitude he can't stand. There's some kindness in the cruelty, though, which is something the blistering 'Punks' never had - Ray seeing a bright future by adding adding 'you may have the illness but you've got the cure, you've got the answer, you will endure' before getting out of his comedy rant by adding the genuinely funny mixed metaphor line about the person's ignorance of the life around them: 'you gotta join in the dance - only it isn't your dancing you gotta improve, it's your attitude!' The overall effect is therefore less nasty than it might have been - it sounds instead like an old friend letting off steam about someone's bad habits while hinting that their bond is still unbreakable. Many a fan must have wondered who this song was written about: candidates include Tom Robinson (the 'inspiration' for Prince of the Punks' and Ray's protégé before the pair fell out, over Ray's poor timekeeping if Dave's autobiography is to be believed- this song is certainly up the Robinson band's alley), Pretender Chrissie Hynde (Ray's new girlfriend who knows every Kinks song backwards - this song is at one with later tracks like 'Property' and 'Add It Up' about their fractured relationship - although admittedly its a bit early yet for things to be going this wrong this fast), brother Dave ('change your attitude!' is such an elder brother thing to say, while many of the opening lyrics sound like the younger Davies of ten years before, experimenting with his sexuality and basically inventing the David Bowie look back when the singer was still recording singles about 'laughing gnomes'; compare with the similarly big-brothered 'Long Way From Home' on 'Lola V Powerman') and Ray himself ('You gotta be positive...don't be so defensive', lines only a nudge aware from similarly world-weary autobiography from 'Sitting At My Hotel' to 'A Face In The Crowd'). The end result is a fascinating track, with the fire of the great Kinks trilogy 'You Really Got Me' 'All Day And All Of The Night' and 'Till The End Of The Day' reawakened for a whole new audience and suggesting what a Kinks born into the punk/new wave scene might have sounded like. You can't live in a time zone, indeed. 'Low Budget' is off to a blistering start.
'Catch Me Now I'm Falling' is more traditional yet still undeniably aggressive. Inspired by his recent and (for the moment) temporary move to America, this is Ray's look at the credit crunch from a purely Atlantic angle. Many countries were shocked when America - then still very much a super power that was apparently 'winning' the cold war - began to suffer as much as everyone else during the 1979/1980 recession and instead of bailing everyone else out had to shame-facedly ask for money back (a fact all but forgotten now after being overshadowed by the fall of communism a decade later). Ray takes on the persona of 'Captain America', a previous superhero calling on some old favours from some old mates that suddenly don't want to know, getting more and more irate as 'I call up your office, but your secretary tells me sorry, but you've gone out of town'. This is a huge shock for a band that used to be so English their amplifiers probably came stuffed with teabags and Ray's accent is gradually getting more American and less cockney across this era. There's another twist though: by his own admission Dave had been in a bad place for most of the 1970s (again read his excellent autobiography for more) and was slowly beginning to come back to full strength by 1979, at a time when yet another Ray Davies relationship was on the rocks (with Yvonne Gunner - the pair split in 1977 after a tempestuous three-year marriage). My take on this song has always been that there's a little bit of jealousy in this song too - that Ray was 'there' for his brother but that Dave didn't return the compliment during big brother's bad spell (of course, if you believe Dave the support was always one-sided from younger brother to old anyway). It may be significant that the line 'the next time you're in trouble better not come running to me...' leads directly to his brother's solo-ing. Ah well, who knows - Ray's never really spoken about the inspiration for this song. Talking of Dave though, Davies junior gets a nice lot to do on this one, with a storming guitar solo in the middle based around the riff that's a dead ringer for the Stones' 'Jumping Jack Flash' and some nice harmonies to his brother, but it's the rhythm section who come off best on this track, turning in a backing that manages to be both carefully controlled and dangerously reckless, with Avory impressing despite being well out of his comfort zone. The result is another strong recording, although it has to be said that at 5: 58 'Catch Me' does go on a bit too long, with a full straight unnecessary repeat of the lengthy middle eight and solo (there's an even longer 6:47 edit of the song added to the CD re-issue, most of which is taken up by the lengthy fade). This is a song born for live playing and like half of the songs on this album (well, six out of 11) there's a similarly blistering attack on the band's next in-concert album 'One For The Road' which sounds even better, the band clearly knowing the track that much better after playing it live for the best part of a year.
'Pressure' is another fascinating little song, starting with a Ray Davies Chuck Berry guitar riff that's about as 1950s as apple pie, milkshakes and bad Elvis Presley films about doing the rhumba in a sports car before the sheer might of the Kinks crash in and turn the song into another song neatly on the punk/new wave divide. On the plus side, 'Pressure' is a taut little song that at 2:25 seems like the shortest Kinks song in an awful long time (actually its only five years with 'A Face In The Crowd') and again draws back to the band's past as a bona fide rock and roll band. The band are on great form and clearly having fun without having to be drilled through endless retakes as per the last few years. Despite the unusual setting this is still clearly a Ray Davies song too: the Kink's rants about the pressures of modern day existence generally get treated as ballads on Kinks albums but this song's crunch and slightly dizzying pace is the perfect accompaniment to another list of complaints. Typically Ray, though, the song started off as something bigger - the centre-point for a whole musical about 'pressure' getting passed from one character to another until the point where they all have nervous breakdowns. And that's the trouble with 'Pressure' - it sounds like a nice little titbit from a bigger project, less substantial than the other songs on the album even if thematically and musically it fits rather well. Always in danger of turning songs into lists when inspiration lessens, the second verse is particularly irksome ('I get it driving in my motor car, I get it when I'm drinking in a bar, I get it riding on the subway, I get it regular everyday'. *Yawn*) Still, this song is so quick and played with such fire and venom its only after several repeat playings that the emptiness of the song really hits you - or perhaps the pressure of having to find some fault in this great LP has got to me?! ('Oh yeah!)
'National Health' is an oddball song. I have this wonderful image of a whole load of American Kinks fans - the country that bought this album in droves - revelling in the US settings, the 'Captain America' references and the use of the word 'gas' instead of 'petrol', before having to get their encyclopaedias to check just what exactly the 'National Health' might be. Anyone reading this in Britain now will know - it's the health service free to all taxpayers that Cameron and co are trying to kill off through starvation of funds and the oxygen of bad publicity to the point where in 2014 it seems like the whole process is flat-lining. That said, it wasn't in a great state in 1979, Ray adding the knowing chorus 'blame it on the national health' as a whole nation of people grow iller and iller, working harder and faster to keep up with their careers and the demands on their time. Ray tries to slow the album down by telling his audience to relax, although his advice that regular exercise is a good substitute for qualades and valium and that every pill will eventually 'send you round the bend' should, perhaps, be taken only with proper medical advice. This is the first appearance of a theme that occasionally crops up in Kinks songs ('Too Hot' from 1985's 'Word Of Mouth' uses the metaphor of a gym session for a metaphor of the state of the nation) and Ray's comments about nervous tension being the world's 'greatest killer' is probably true (heck, as a chronic fatigue patient I'd say it's very true!) But here's the problem: Ray's already made his point in the first verse; thereafter there's nowhere for the song to go except a rather cute 'woooooah aaaaaaah' singalong chorus (which the audience do indeed sing along to with aplomb on 'One For The Road') and a few references to medical practices of the day (although I have to pull Ray up one thing: Sigmund Freud' does not 'recommend it'; his much misquoted remark was actually that 'being totally honest with one's self is good exercise'; his idea of exercise was getting off a psychiatrist's couch!) The result is a song that isn't really bad but isn't quite on a par with the other songs here and - despite the song's references to exercise and hard work - rather takes the lazy way out.
'(Wish I Could Fly) Like Superman' is a masterpiece, however: a stunning combination of every Ray Davies idea of the past few years. Inspired by watching the 'Superman' films, this is Ray in pure Clark Kent mode, trapped in a life where he's forever doomed to be the weedy human who never gets the girl, frustrated by all the hurt in the world that he'll never be able to heal. Usually Ray Davies narrators have a fine time blurring the thin line between reality and imagination, but this one already knows that wishing is futile - but goes on wishing anyway. In contrast to the rest of the album 'Superman' is pure disco, with a tough throbbing beat, a fast-plucked rhythm guitar part and a chorus that goes on forever (well, two minutes or so at the end of the song on the 12" mix). That sounds horrid on paper and I hate the average empty disco fodder as much if not more than the next music fan - and yet, not for the first time, an AAA disco song sounds great: these writers have come from another background and know just how to raise and ease the tension and add emotion to the singalong choruses and easily imaginable dance action(or was that just me doing the superman pose to this song when I thought no one was looking?!) Like The Beach Boys' 'Her Comes The Night' Pink Floyd's 'Run Like Hell', the Rolling Stones' 'Miss You' and Stephen Stills' 'You Can't Dance Alone' this song is a career highlight, a disco song that also features the best rock and roll 'tricks' in there somewhere too. Ray excels himself here with a narrator everyone can identify with (or at least I did before I got fat): a 9 stone weakling 'with knobbly knees' staring at his mirror, reaching for his clothes 'before it made me depressed' and turning on the radio to reports of a 'gas strike, oil strike, bread strike, lorry strike'. The message is clear: he doesn't actually want to be superman at all - but only a superman can cope with the world in crisis as it was in 1979 and he's tired of seeing robbery and violence everywhere without a super hero to sort the world out. One of the reasons the first Superman film did as well at the box office as it did was that it caught the times perfectly: one weedy human really can sort the world out but is forever trapped into keeping it quiet and unable to get the girl he wants in his 'normal' everyday life; with the world (or the capitalist bits of it at least) heading for meltdown, you can so tell where the film is coming from - and this song with its mournful 'Animals' cry (in both senses of the word) 'Hey girl, we've gotta get out of this place!') 'Superman' became the closest thing 'Low Budget' had to a hit single, hitting #41 in the Us charts. It's a highly clever, moving and believable song perfect for the time that deserved to do even better - especially in the superior 12" mix (added to the CD re-issue as a bonus track) which with louder drums, more echo and full two -and-a-half minutes of extra material (mainly the chorus repeated over and over) is far more intense and powerful. Legend has it that Ray Davies made his only ever trip to a disco when the song came out, to see how it sounded and came away satisfied that it had 'rocked everything else away'. A dancing song designed to make people think, 'Superman' is disco at its finest.
Low Budget's title track starts the second side in a grumpy mood, a slow 12 bar blues that's one of those jokes about a situation so unfunny you don't know whether to laugh or cry. With that usually fat and full Kinks sound reduced to guitar bass and drums Ray puts on his best growling voice for a hilarious attack on class and status that wouldn't have sounded out of place next to 'Sunny Afternoon' or 'Dead End Street'. Ray takes the part of a till-recently millionaire, now a 'cut price person in a low budget land' passing on tips to 'survive' the economic storms: buy size 28 trousers even if you take size 34, suck polo mints not cigars, not buying rounds for his friends. Ray Davies has long has a, erm, reputation in the business for being 'tight' with his money, something whicvh often gave his reckless brother kitrens according to his autobiography, but as a fellow Cancerian I kind of know where Ray's coming from. Money is important per se, but the security and peace of mind it helps buy is incredibly important; that's why in song Ray has always had a mixed feeling, discussing how 'Money Talks' with real insight during the 'Preservation' rock opera before giving all the best lines to The Tramp, the one character with any sense in Preservation land and the one best suited to rule, if only he hadn't ducked responsibility. For another comparison 'Dead End Street' is a devastating glimpse at life without money - but its polar opposite 'Sitting In The Midday Sun' has no need for earthly ties. As a result Ray sounds both heartfelt and mocking across this song, unsure whether he's laughing at himself or at the world, hustling away for a buck and a dime and buying shoes that give pain and trousers that don't fit simply because they're cheaper. The best line of the song, though, came not on album but in concert where Ray changes his line 'dropping my standards so that In can buy more' to 'dropping my standards and dropping my drawers'. The result is a chugging blues that gets by thanks to clever lyrics and a sterling band performance, with a singalong chorus everyone 'going skint' can join in with.
'In A Space' is the album's biggest surprise: The Kinks suddenly sound like Blondie! Using the old trick of having Ray and Dave singing an octave apart that the band hadn't used in years, the unusual sound really suits this song about change and not standing still. 'I'm in a space leased by kind permission of the human race' Ray sings mischievously, adding how insignificant he feels before trying to get things done in a jaw-dropping middle eight that comes out of nowhere, all about the unmoving locked in human condition which by the end has left Ray screaming like a punk rocker with a stubbed toe ("Seconds into minutes and minutes into hours and hours into days and days into months and months into years and Years TO DECADES! TENS INTO THOUSANDS!! THOUSANDS INTO MILLIONS!!! MILLIONS INTO BILLIONS!!!! BILLIONS INTO ZILLIONS!!!!! AND FOREVER!!!!!! AND FOREVER!!!!!!!") The most exciting 30 seconds or so in the Kinks' canon, this part still catches me by surprise despite having played this album zillions of times myself down the years, with an urgency that's delightful for a band who've been going some 15 years by this point. The major hook of this song is population control: that everyone has their own 'space' but with more and more people being born there simply isn't enough anymore (anyone whose ever visited a residential area of Britain, with houses tightly packed together like sardines in a tin, will know where Ray is coming from - although again it's a very British problem on an album seemingly written for the Americans who don't really have the same problems). Ray will get even more paranoid about it during 'Babies' from 'Phobia' in 1993 with 'boys and girls' who are 'always popping out there', unloved and uncared for on a world with no room for them. Ray also gets moony-eyed staring at the stars and wondering whether the Earth is 'it' or whether mankind will 'fill up' the world as well as their home planet. A fascinating song that's most unusual for The Kinks, with the welcome return of a harmonica part (for the first time since 'Steam Powered Trains' in 1968, I think), some synthesiser warbles, nice harmonies and a funky bass riff from Jim Rodford at his best. An unexpected album highlight.
Alas 'Little Bit Of Emotion' sounds rather empty and po-faced after so much comedy gold and quirky ideas. Ray sounds like some overgrown hippy, recording his first real 'summer of love' song about 12 years too late for it to do any good (ah well, that's The Kinks for you!) The theme of the song is that everyone is the same: that underneath their exterior everyone is vulnerable, emotional and fragile - it's just that some people can hide the fact better than others. With a cod-reggae accent that's rather grating Ray urges the world to 'show a little bit of emotion', recounting the stories of an erotic dancer cut off from her feelings of disgust while she works and a 'loony', who 'seems like he came from outer space' - locked away not for the harm he can do to others or himself but because he doesn't have the inhibitions everyone else 'suffers' from. As a general rule I've come to beware of Ray Davies songs that include the phrase 'look at' instead of inhabiting the body of his characters and 'Little Bit Of Emotion' doesn't really get under the skin of the people in 'Emotion'-land. That wouldn't matter quite so much if 'Emotion's lyrics came hand-in-hand with a strong tune, but this one coasts, becoming in danger of ending up in 'loungeville' thanks to a slow tempo and a moody saxophone part. Easily the weakest song on a strong album.
'A Gallon Of Gas' is something of a fan favourite, despite being another flop when released as a single. Another chugging 12 bar blues suspiciously close to Peggy Lee's 'I'm A Woman' (interestingly the search engine I've just double-checked this fact up on has insisted on giving me lots of copies of a Chrissie Hynde interview from her period living with Ray, where she uses the phrase repeatedly...) 'Gas' is another funny song about a narrator whose waited years to buy a cadillac, but it's now no good because he can't buy any petrol for it. Note the American accent Ray uses and the colloquialism of 'gas' for petrol - this song is my candidate for the moment the Kinks became more interested in their 'American' audience than their 'British' one. Like 'Low Budget' this is a bitter comedy about a very unfunny situation and references the oil shortage when crude oil rose to $35 a barrel (pretty reasonable in today's but a sign of impending Armageddon in 1979!), effectively the main 'trigger' of the 1979-80 recession in the same way that bankers who can't add up were to us in 2007 (although as we've said, capitalism the way it's run will always result in peaks and troughs - how about we put some money aside next time we're doing well for times like these which are as inevitable as Spice Girls reunions!) The big 'joke' in this song is that slightly more relaxed drug laws now mean that the presumably rock star-narrator can get hold of till-recently illegal substances far easier than he can petrol. In truth, the joke is beginning to wear a little thin by the end of the song (especially the American single version which add an extra two verses, which actually is the only one you can readily hear now - the CD re-issue of the album accidentally replaced the 'album' version with it and then added exactly the same recording at the end as a 'bonus track' - oops!), but the joke is still a good one and the band were clearly fond of it (the song was revived by The Kinks during their last tour and, while one of the few album tracks not on 'One For The Road' a live version made it onto final Kinks release 'To The Bone'; Dave also performs this song often in his solo shows; one of the few of his brother's songs he's revived).
'Misery' is another two minute burst of aggression and when hard at the right time this sarcastic song about a local misery guts who dampens everyone else's spirits can be a powerful tonic (my university days with an irritating flatmate were much enlivened by playing this song and 'Attitude' every time he woke me up with Enya in the middle of the night). Ray urges his friend not to 'take yourself so seriously', tells us that he's only happy ';when he'd feeling really down' and warns him that with that look on his face 'you're never going to come to any parties at my house!' before adding that that way madness lies. Like 'Attitude' though, there's a feeling of kind warning underneath all the ranting: that the narrator is genuinely worried for his friend whose down-in-the-dumps mood has clearly gone on longer than is healthy. Like 'Attitude' too, ,much fun can be had guessing who Ray's singing about here: his ex? Tom Robinson? Dave? (his plea to 'not take yourself so seriously' is sung in such a way that it sounds almost painful, so while it could be that Ray's a great actor singing about a made up person, I'd plump for there being some truth in this song somewhere. According to both Dave's autobiography and Ray's own (you know the one, the 'unauthorised autobiography' X-Ray' that crops up on these pages quite often and features an elder Ray from the future being interviewed by a teenage reporter) Ray can be quite a grumpy character so maybe this was a message to self? (Then again, anyone whose just written 'A Gallon Of Gas' and 'Low Budget' in the same writing session arguably isn't taking himself all that seriously!) Perhaps 'Misery' is an amalgam song, inspired by lots of miserable people who don't seem to have the humanity to make life better for everyone else (who mentioned the Colaition?) The result is another good song played with real attack by an on-form Kinks, who manage to mix Chuck Berry and new wave with aplomb with Ray's vocal especially great, although this third attempt to strip the Kinks back to basics forgivably has less of an impact than the first two.
The album then ends with 'Moving Pictures', a song that's 90% of the way to being a classic. Returning to theme of 'Celluloid Heroes' and how 'everybody's a star' Ray imagines everyone's life as a bunch of film reels in synch (or not in synch as the case may be), moving past blurringly. Yet again this album tackles the bigger questions ('We live! We die! no one knows why!') before deciding that life just has to be lived in the moment, without any longer plans - because there probably isn't one anyway. So far the song is in danger of treating this big subject as another 'joke' - the song has a Madness-style funky riff and a nursery rhyme/haiku quality on the verses but that's all gone for one of the most poignant middle eights of Ray's career with a sudden unexpected switch to the minor key. 'Life can often not be very nice, but you have made your choice and so you pay the price...' he adds wistfully, 'this' Ray clearly believing in karma. If the verses think the lack of a plan means 'fun' however', the middle eight makes it clear how little time there is to do what you have to do in life with so many blurry images flooding past: 'there isn't any time to make much sense of it, it soon fades away!' A song that manages to provide both warning and release and building on the classic Ray Davies theme of life as a movie, 'Moving Pictures' ought to be one of the Kinks' most powerful songs. So why isn't it? Well, for once on this album the Kinks haven't quite clicked on the backing track - indeed it wouldn't surprise me if this was a song left over from the overdub-fest 'Misfits', even though all the Kinks reference books have it as a period recording. The backing ought to play cat-and-mouse with the listener, switching from one section to the other, but instead they coast, Dave especially getting by with the most minimal solo of his career. The band badly need another take - or perhaps an arrangement of the song that builds, instead of repeating itself over again and then fading simply on the verse, that middle eight seemingly forgotten. Given his usual ability to make the most out of his songs, I'm surprised workaholic Ray didn't do more with this song, Even sounding like its half-finished, however, 'Moving Pictures' is a special song, with a clever idea, real emotion and an ear-catching quick-stepping strutting riff. Again, the song deserved to do better than to miss the charts (although that said all the best Kinks singles seemed to always miss the charts - at least from 1969 onwards!)
Overall, then, 'Low Budget' is an excellent LP that gets things right more often than it gets them wrong. The Kinks sound reenergised, determined to prove they still have a place in the musical pantheon and at various times out-punk the punks, slip more discs dancing than the disco-ers and wave goodbye to the new wavers. In short, it's exactly the album The Kinks needed after their slight dip in form in 1978 and this record deserved it's strong sales. Of course it's never going to match the 19650s classics for many and why should it? This is The Kinks taking on a whole new era which isn't of their own making, rather than helping to form and shape it as before - of course 'Low Budget' is not going to sound like 'Village Green' and if it did chances are the album would have turned out slightly anodyne and out-of-step with the world as happened with 'Misfits'. However The Kinks do more than simply try to keep up with the joneses (or at least the Ramonses) on this LP: the passion is heartfelt, the fire in the recordings is tangible and the invention is genuine, not an attempt to copy younger bands. Things will get harder for The Kinks, as they try to tackle this sound again with slightly less fire and energy across the 1980s (up until the under-rated and similarly noisy 'UK Jive' at least) but for now 'Low Budget; sounds like the way to go, the new direction for the band the silver lining in the cloud that was the 1979/1980 recession (just as the death of last year's Spice Girls musical is for us in 2014). Yes not everything's perfect and even the deepest song on this album doesn't have the layers of Arthur's 'socks', but that's not The Kinks' fault - they do all they can to make a deep record that will still sell in their then-current timezone. As they will tell you, the 1980s are here and they're staring right at them - why should they wait for the 1960s to happen again? For life and the music scene are always moving, always moving pictures. Overall rating - 7/10