Monday, 13 June 2016
The Kinks "Muswell Hillbillies" (1971)
20th Century Man/Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues/Holiday/Skin and Bone/Alcohol/Complicated Life//Here Come The People In Grey/Have A Cuppa Tea/Holloway Jail/Oklahoma USA/Uncle Son/Muswell Hillbilly
It's glam-rock time! A colourful age when everyone's wearing outrageous costumes and saying outrageous things and bringing colour back into rock music just as it was getting too serious (although the real reason for the invention of this curious genre was surely the universal introduction of colour TV in mainland Britain in 1970). It's a genre The Kinks helped create overnight with their cheery and risqué 'comeback' hit Lola. So the band's next full LP will surely be full of bright cheery songs based on heavy riffs and light lyrics, right? Not even close. In typical Kinks fashion, the band buck the trend even when it's a trend they helped create and 'Muswill Hillbillies' couldn't be less out of step with its times. This is instead the most monochrome album ever mad, a dark and brooding record whose only humour comes from the morbid and dark variety (with songs about murder, insanity and madness). Slade wanted to party, David Bowie wanted to blast off into space and T Rex wanted to bang a gong and get it on. All three were high on something (probably the face-paints they were using). The Kinks are hiding under the table sobbing, laughing sarcastically at the fickle hand of fate and appearing only for nervous gulps of humble tea leaves to make things better and alcohol they fear will lead them on the merry path at hell. 'Muswell Hillbillies', it has to be said, isn't much fun at parties and 1971 was one long party so no wonder the record got overlooked at the time. These days many fans and reviewers rate it as The Kinks' best, perhaps because it's a good middle path between the honest autobiography of the 1960s years and the character-driven narratives of the 1970s (there isn't much honesty on this album but almost all the characters are 'real' - most of them taken from the Davies' extended family).
Is it really the best though? Truth be told there's something a little...dark in this album, even after you've got to know and love The Kinks' bitter humour that makes it more of an album to admire than love (and then only in bits). If most Kinks albums are lazy old suns, ultimately life-affirming as they twinkle in the musical sky, this one is a black hole sucking all of our hope and colour out of the world. Heck there's even a song about the 'people in grey' taking us away to incarcerate us for the rest of our lives against our will, a song that believe it or not is the 'light' number on an album full of acute schizophrenia paranoia, destitution, crime and the dangers of alcohol. Most of all, though, there's a theme across this album that's about as depressing a concept as you can think of: that our enjoyment of the world, it's beauty and kindness, is a myth and the world is really a horrible place where things you're looking forward to trap you as badly as the things you hate. Fancy a drink? That'll cost you - with your reputation, health and employability (it's very sad!) Going on holiday to the South of France you bought cheap? You're probably in a hotel next to a sewer and getting sand in your sunburn and your hair. Oh yeah and it's probably raining. They don't mention that on the brochure do they?! Found a diet that works? That's a shame because people only liked you when you were fat and jolly - and not who you really were. Fallen in love? Yeah, well, enjoy it while it lasts because they'll probably put her in prison. Worried to the point of acute schizophrenia and paranoia? Well, don't expect much sympathy. Everyone else seems to have it too these days in this supposedly evolved superior world we're living in. That just goes with the territory of being a 20th century man. And to think you've still got it better than your hardworking poverty-stricken ancestors had. In many ways 'Muswell Hillbillies' is the long awaited 'Lola Versus Powerman and The Money-Go-Round Part Two' - but it's less personal, more bleak and with a world that's tottering ever closer to the brink of insanity. Most Kinks albums feel like they're offering a warm musical hug to fans who thought they were the only ones made to feel this mad, sad and bad by the world they live in. By the end of 'Muswell', though, you'll be the fan trying to give the hug back to this album, no matter how depressed you feel. On the long list of AAA records at the psychiatrist couch, 'Muswell Hillbillies' is a basket case, in need of emergency treatment alongside 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' and Pink Floyd's 'The Wall'.
However it's not quite as satisfying an album as either of these two. It's not that the album is bad - no Kinks album is and no release with the glorious and oh so Kinks '20th Century Man' on it could ever be anything less than average by that track alone. Usually when Ray's in a bad mood he's inspired to write some of his greatest music, songs about the human condition that bring out his best qualities of empathy and universal appeal. Of all the writers in the pop world, you sense that Ray is the one who cared most about his creations as if they were living skin and bone and that he cares for them even when they're lovable losers, ignored or misunderstood by the rest of the world (the trans-sexual 'Lola' being a recent case in point). On 'Muswell' though you sense that Ray's in such a dark mood that even his creations are disappointing him so he 'punishes' them whenever he can simply for having the recklessness to believe they might get something for nothing or that their lives might get better. This is the only Kinks album where their usual message of short-term pessimism versus long-term optimism doesn't apply: the world's a wicked place and the endings of so many of these songs swipe the rug from under our feet even when we seemed to be in a safe and secure world. Very clever and all, but when you care about Ray's characters more than he seems to you worry about how they're treated here.
To be fair, The Kinks aren't in a good place in 1971 and a record like this is almost inevitable, despite the 'up' of 'Lola' and sequel 'Apeman' (both top ten hits, the band's first since 1967) and the stability of having signed with the band's second record label RCA Victor. Ray's first marriage to Rasa is in difficulties (she'll walk out on him two years down the line). Dave is clinically depressed, the lyrics of 'Death Of A Clown' coming true as he hides his demons in one long binge party that starts seeming excessive even to the rest of the Kinks, a band who all liked their drink in this era. As so often happens with The Kinks, success leads not to happiness but to difficulties: the words to 'Complicated Life' will tell you how much The Kinks resent being in the spotlight again and how difficult things are suddenly becoming again. The question is, having tasted success once, are The Kinks really that keen to suffer the problems it causes all over again? Take for instance the lifting of the ban on The Kinks in America in 1969, with an invitation to tour there arriving post 'Lola'. On paper that should have been a cause for celebration and an end to the resentment the band have felt ever since their hi-jinks on a plane in 1965 cut off the band's most lucrative market in one go. Instead it's just made the band feel ever more resentment as they work their way back up from square one, playing to low capacity crowds on the bottom of a bill that left them feeling frustrated and depressed.
Linked to this, 'Muswell Hillbillies' is the last of the Kinks run of 'English' albums that date back to at least 'Village Green' (possibly 'Face To Face'), the last time they've got their eyes squarely on their home market (except the album's oddity 'Oklahoma USA' and that all takes place in a clearly English girl's head anyway). All the other settings are firmly London-centred: women-only Holloway Jail is in Islington, Uncle Son and various Davies grannies and grandpas turn up to have a cuppa tea in Muswell Hill, Ray and Dave's home borough whose local characters are celebrated in the title track. In many ways this is even an anti-American album, with that same composition turning the period's other great genre success story (rootsy patriotic country-rock as championed by The Band and The Eagles) into a parody where all the exotic and breast-beating lyrics about the great open land of USA and preening cowboys are replaced by lines that champions the 'ordinary' English working class in their packed-in slums and where the inhabitant's pretty faces are replaced by 'bloodshot alcoholic eyes'. The fact that Ray sings this unashamedly English track in his best Transatlantic accent only adds to the pastiche, while the elder Davies brother must have counted his lucky stars the day he realised that 'Muswell Hill' and the American expression 'Beverly Hillbillies' offered him the perfect chance to compare the two countries: 'Oklahoma USA' is a tribute not so much to the place but the musical, where everything is perfect, everyone is handsome and there are movie stars ready to whisk you away (it's a small step from here to 'Celluloid Heroes'); just as with glam rock American culture is colourful, cheerful and heroic, everything Ray no longer feels. His characters are too downtrodden and too noble to embrace a life of the surrey with the fringe on top when they're destined to an endless working life that leaves them with acute schizophrenia paranoia or locked up in Holloway jail. Even after seven years of unlikely success, Ray can't entirely shake off the feeling that no one from The Kinks' end of London is ever going to be a success; there's just too much working against them. Perhaps that's why it's this album cover that put of the whole Kinks Kollektion features The Kinks in their natural habitat, sipping pints at Muswell Hill pub The Archway Tavern (technically two miles outside Muswell Hill, but close enough! Ex-Kinks members still meet up occasionally to play sets there as 'The Kast-Off Kinks'). It couldn't be less rock and roll or glamorous with even the band themselves unrecognisable (that's Dave with a beard while the Kink most in shot on the far right of the bar is Mick Avory, usually hidden behind a drum kit).
This would all be fine if Ray had kept to the contrast between what he knew growing up and the glamorous life he saw at the pictures. But arguably things get taken too far: his usual flesh and blood three dimensional characters feel more like cyphers at times. Even those close to him: for anyone who wondered why 'Uncle Son' got his confusing name, well, that's because the Davies' uncle really was called 'Son' and was one of the extended family Ray admired with his tales of hard-work and poverty giving him a relative he felt proud and slightly protective towards. 'Cuppa Tea' is a real Davies memory of the get-on-with-it working class sensibilities that 'cured' everything with a strong cup of char. Most of the characters in 'Muswell Hillbillies' are 'real' too. However oddly none of these characters - who all had real lives - feels quite as 'real' as Ray's usual characters. They lack his sensitivity, doubt and real emotion. Ray is trying to get into the heads of past generations, something he was mighty good at on the album for another uncle 'Arthur' (the branch of the Davies family he was closest to and lived with for a time) but here it feels as if these songs are anecdotes rather than full living breathing informative songs. You can learn a lot from poor 'Arthur' and his songs, which love them or loathe them make you feel something. You never really feel as if you know Uncle Son or the tea-swilling grandparents - or for that matter the more made up characters who inhabit 'Holiday' 'Alcohol' 'Skin and Bone' and the rest and who don't seem quite as 'real'. This isn't helped by the album's odd productions which makes everything sound slightly cold and calculating, as if this is being shot by a wildlife documentary maker poking his charges with a stick to make them re-act rather than the flesh and blood tragedy-comedies The Kinks usually manage. Ray sings as well as writes most of these songs at a distance, without his usual range of emotions as if he's trying to keep his feelings passive and neutral (the one moment he drops his guard down, on the eventual climax of '20th Century Man' after six minutes of being slowly pushed out of his 'polite' comfort zone, is by contrast one of the most mesmerising minutes in Kinkdom, so it's not as if he didn't know he was doing it). Perhaps Ray felt he's given away a little too much of his 'real' self on 'Arthur' and 'Lola V Powerman' (more autobiographical albums than reviewers give them credit for being) and wanted to withdraw, or maybe he felt than as this is more of an 'observed' album than a 'lived' one his vocal should reflect that.
Whatever the cause, it's a shame. There are moments sprinkled across this album where it sounds as if Ray's written some of his wittiest, most intelligent songs. A great deal of this album's tracklisting went on to become live favourites (you can hear no less than five of them on the live half of next album 'Everybody's In Showbiz') and for good reason: no Kinks song was ever more theatrical or built for the music hall stage setting than 'Alcohol' (whose studio counterpart on this album is too sober by half); 'Holiday' is sung so straight you wonder whether it's as horrific an encounter as the narrator thinks on this record but the live version is tongue-in-cheek and darkly sarcastic; 'Skin and Bone' loses all its studio flab and slight feelings of 'this is wrong' as we laugh at Annie's weight loss and depression when it becomes a ribald knees up on stage that involves Ray getting the audience to join in on the calisthenics, a song about the warmth of togetherness between band and crowd rather than the icy cold aloofness of this character assassination; even 'Muswell Hillbillies' itself, the perkiest song on the record, benefits from a quicker pace and a much bigger sense of fun. Only 'Acute Schizophrenia' gains from the film noir setting of the studio, a more obviously sad song performed with just the right shade of pained confession from Ray doing his best Max Miller impersonation. You sense that the rest of the album might have benefitted from the more hands-on feeling of on-stage playing too: 'Oklahoma City' 'Uncle Son' 'Cuppa Tea' 'Here Come The People In Grey...', the rest of the album feels as if it needs to 'warm up' somehow and that it would benefit from the humanity of the stage performance.
A couple of the songs do shine out in any form though, sharp enough as compositions even if the playing is slightly detached. That's the whole point, after all, of '20th Century Man', an update of the only 1960s bashing song actually written in that decade 'Where Have All The Good Times Gone?', this time turning its eyes on an entire century. The Kinks are meant to sound detached here, lost in a world that's supposedly 'progressing' but which continues to throw away all the grand traditions worth keeping from 'Village Green Preservation Society'. Modern society is itself run by people 'dressed in grey' so naturally that lack of colour and drabness gets handed down to the people who live there, their minds numbed to the pain by people cutting off their real feelings. At least if people lived hard lives in centuries past they were 'allowed' to feel their emotions - Ray's spent of his career so far feeling cut off from his peers, super-stardom, the music business and the whole 1960s dream. Only across six agonising minutes do The Kinks let down their guard to fully feel things, the song moving slowly from the bitter dark sarcasm common to the rest of the record to a lyric and vocal so real it hurts. If ever a nervous breakdown was captured in song then it's here as - sixteen years before Paul Simon's 'Boy In The Bubble' - Ray dissects the modern world and finds it wanting. It remains one of the most astonishing songs The Kinks ever made. Pretty astonishing too is 'Acute Schizophrenia', a song that picks up the theme of madness and portrays a pretty awful case study of mental illness as if it's the funniest thing that's ever happened to anyone. Everyone's in on the joke, even the narrator himself thanks to a twinkling Ray vocal, but it still sounds too likely to be anything but real. This is a harsh world we live in, what else can we do but laugh at it?
Which makes it odd that 'Muswell Hillbillies' is also the first Kinks album (of six) to feature a horn section. Usually horns suggest sorrow or bleakness as per 'Dead End Street'. They don't appear very often, but when they do they're not really used in this sense at all but to add oompah-ha-has to everything, turning everything they touch into a big fat joke, taking the slightly silly and making it sound pompous and making even the bleakest songs into a punchline for a joke. In time The Kinks' horns will add boozy revelry to the band's songs, becoming a sort of drunk Salvation Army Band adding theatricality to flesh out a song's bones. Here, though, they sound like the uncaring world laughing cruelly at sufferers, as if Ray is himself laughing at his characters for having the naiveté and hope he once did.
All of which makes for one highly unusual record, unlike anything else The Kinks will do again. While Ray will 'hide' behind characters for some years to come (the band's theatrical years are right on the horizon...), he'll usually give them some chance of redemption, from Flash's realisation in 'Preservation' to Norman Normal's escapism as the 'Starmaker' in 'A Soap Opera' (Ray's probably already senses the Rasa split on the horizon and isn't up to writing his true feelings out just yet). For once, though, Ray had no comfort to offer his characters or us. The world really is a dark and uncaring place and so are his songs. Some fans like that treatment. There's a fan for every single Kinks album in the pantheon with someone out there liking every particular Kinks album more than the rest (except perhaps for 'Percy'). For some reason 'Muswell Hillbillies' has the reputation for being liked by more fans than most, perhaps because it's distinctive sound offers such cohesion without being tied to a concept album like so many other Kinks favourites. But to these ears it's a curiously unlovable collection of emotionless tracks which all seem to come at the same sort of middling tempo and with so much darkness right the way through that you'd do anything for a burst of sunlight (surely even Muswell Hill had sun sometime?) 'Muswell' is easier to admire than it is to love, with a couple of highly impressive lyrics and a courageous decision to go bleak and black-and-white at a time when everyone else was doing the opposite, while the opening one-two punch is amongst the strongest in the Kinks Katalogue. But after this there's just too many filler songs and too detached a feel to the whole thing for this to be a truly classic album, too many Noel Coward, music hall and American country pastiches rather than the real heartfelt thing they usually give us.
Don't be fooled by the almost casual way Ray strums the into to '20th Century Man' for when the song's chug-a-long riff enters its unrelenting and fierce, stabbing away like Dave Davies with knitting needles into an amplifier into the social brainwashing idea that the 20th century was the peak of evolution and the height of mankind brilliance. This brilliantly judged song has Ray starting off as a dispassionate automaton before slowly finding his voice verse by verse, gaining in emotion as he learns to start thinking for himself and seeing what a mess the 20th century is (or at any rate the first seventy-one years of it up until this song; spoiler alert though, things don't get much better and arguably a little worse). It may take a full five minutes of slow-cooking to get there, but when we finally reach the ending the pay-off is massive; The Kinks were always the first to see through fakery and point out spin, even when it was over a generally accepted point about what was great and not (no band was ever more savage about the 1960s, whether it was at the time on 'Where Have All The Good Times Gone?' or later on 'Did Ya?') Here though the context is bigger, the stakes are higher and by turning the tables on the 'don't sulk, this is all for your benefit and you've never had it so good' culture is one of his most important battles. Technology may bring great things but it also brings the bombs that keep us scared and could destroy us at any moment; This is the age when we're free from toiling in fields and factories, but with more pressure to make your mark in life and every one in competition Ray's lost all ambition to be anything; Every generation is different to the rest, which is fine for some but not for Ray - he wants his parents' generation to understand him the way he once understood them (see 'Arthur'); instead of the great colourful heroes of old who actually did something the 20th century world will be remembered as a grey world ruled by 'bureaucracy' and civil servants. And that hippie idea of being free (sung with feeling a mere album ago on the closing track to 'Lola V Powerman')? That's a fairy tale. The 20th century is the least private and free of them all (except, perhaps, the 21st, not that Ray knows that yet). Above all the modern world is transitory and impermanent, unlike the things that have already proved to be of lasting value from the past. Though I personally don't buy Ray's claims of brilliance in past masters Shakespeare and Titian (who in truth couldn't hold a candle to 20th century masters such as say, Ayckbourn and Turner), The Kinks make their point well: the only thing that's great about the 20th century is that we're alive in it (or at least we were back then); our past ancestors would have wondered why we were all so scared and stuck in ruts while wondering why we didn't buy more with the extra money we were given and why the welfare state still has to exist at all if the modern world is meant to be any good at all.
This is a lot of ground for any song to cover, but of all the many Kinks Klassiks this one may well be the best constructed. Ray doesn't start barking right away, he lures us in as the venom takes hold and it takes the full six minute running time for him to totally shake off the way he's been told to think about the 20th century with the final verse screamed with such passion and desperation it may well be his best. The other Kinks too are the perfect back-up band: Mick's casual but crushing drum part holds the song to ransom, Dave's burst of colour on the guitar gives us just enough hint of what a great world this could be and Gosling's organ break in the second half really increases the tension. The middle eight, that's so firm and upright compared to the rest of this slightly scruffy song, is perfectly judged too, Ray born into a 'welfare state ruled by bureaucracy' as the tidy civil servants in grey try to tidy him up, tell him how to think and put an end to that weary but loveable off-centre riff that's been holding up Ray's way of thinking up till now, the only thing left fighting the might of unseen Government forces. As Ray put it in the original album's sleevenotes 'I wanted the song to sound as if I was the last man on the block who doesn't want his house pulled down'). One of the all time greatest Kinks moments, this is a song to be proud of and - irony of ironies - one of the greatest songs of the 20th century that nobody seems to know (outside Kinks fans; it wasn't really singles material so did well to make #106 in the US). Beware though, certain Kinks Kompilations down the year have cut this song down to shreds; stick to the full length album version if you can. Beware too the idiots at national Review who read this song as a support of the 'old ways' and an attack on the liberal party ('Got no liberty!') and rated it amongst their 'top ten conservative pop tunes' a few years ago; actually The Kinks have never been more anarchist than here - nothing is working for either side and everything should be started again from scratch.
'Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues' sounds musically as if it's going to be light relief, but Ray seems to have changed his mind before writing the lyrics. Madness is hiding just beneath the surface of many a 1970s Kinks number but it's never more obvious than here as the pressures of modern day living turn Ray's narrator into a housebound victim trapped by his own mind. The song could easily be misconstrued as an attack on mental health, especially given the tongue-in-cheek way Ray sings it (though more on stage than here). However the cleverness of what's easily this album's second best song is that his character is often paranoid for all the right reasons we can all relate to. There's a protest outside his door that's 'gone start the third world war' - why would you want to go out? The taxman's trying to take all his dough (or at least keep it's 'beady eyes' on Ray, another theme common to this songs - much to his more generous brother Dwve4's exasperation!) - it's not all in his 'head'. Of course it's all taken a bit too far - the woman next door almost certainly isn't working undercover for the KGB and the milkman's probably not a spy unless Ray is living in some ghastly 1950s American B movies. But you can tell how this character jumped from A to B and how a world where some people are out to get you some of the time has turned into one where everyone is lying all the time. Ray's laughing with us, in other words, rather than at us - a thin line the rest of the album never quite matches. The sadness, though, is that this doesn't help the character who winds up unable to trust anyone 'but much too scared to be on my own' despite the fact that he's done everything right by asking for help (the Kinks twist in this song is that his psychiatrist is overworked by seeing so many other cases of acute schizophrenia and paranoia). The Kinks horn section start to come into play on this track and are never better, alternating between mocking and vulnerable, while the song isn't really a blues in the '12 bar' sense but a slow song given added weight and claustrophobia. The only thing that prevents this being another career highlight is a slightly scruffy performance that lacks the clarity of much of 'Hillbillies' and has Ray mixed slightly too quietly compared to the horns and Dave's guitar (then again, perhaps it's deliberate - a neat and tidy song about mental illness wouldn't be quite right somehow).
'Holiday' is a fan favourite, lifted directly from Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline track 'Peggy Day' the year before plus a touch of the Noel Coward impressions Ray's been threatening to bring more into the open for a while now and contemporary hit-makers Mungo Jerry (well, 'In The Summertime' cribs from The Kinks' 'Sunny Afternoon' heavily so it's only fair). Sleepy and lazy and sung with a curious echo as if Ray had his head stuck down a drainpipe, it's all rather forgettable on record and it's easy to miss the rather cruel point of this unusual little song. The narrator needs a rest, he's saved up for months to be able to go abroad (to the South of France or New York's Staten Island, according to the live version on 'Everybody's In Showbiz') but so many things go wrong that by the end of it he needs a 'rest' more than ever! It's hard to get comfy with a sunburnt back and sand in your blisters, while the sea is an open sewer unsuitable for bathing. We're back in 'Holiday In Waikiki' mode (see 'Face To Face') where everything is artificial and made out of plastic, only this time the twist is that the narrator only went on holiday because everyone told him it was the best thing to do and he felt he ought to - if he'd put his feet up at home and gone to a few Kinks shows at the weekend for fun he's have had a much cheaper and happier time. As so often happens on this album, it's listening to the status quo and what other people do that gets the narrator into heaps of trouble. Just to run salt into our wounds and sand in our hair come multiple repeats of that 'oh so glad they sent me away to have a little holiday' chorus which becomes more mocking every time it comes around. Though fun in live shows, this peculiar studio version is too quiet to really hear and lacks any sense of drama or passion. You think the poor guy could get something positive out of his experience too, even if it's just a refund (as a typical Ray Davies character he's sure to have asked for one!)
'Skin and Bone' is even crueller. Fat flabby Annie's friends tell her to go on a diet, more because she's embarrassing to be seen with than out of a sense of worry about her health. Annie's game, so she goes on a crash diet getting rid of alcohol and pizzas and mashed potatoes (Ray has an obsession with mashed potato in this period...) and soon she's so successful that even a long list of relatives don't recognise her. Ray's twist, though, is that now that Annie's the same as everyone else she's lost her distinctiveness and identity - she's no longer the right size for cuddling but now it's a 'sin' that she's 'oh so thin' and her friends stay away. Annie's lost everything, simply for listening to what her peers had to say about her - if she's just carried on living the way she was she'd have been fine. Other people's opinions are a drag sometimes in the Ray Davies world, as he tries to teach his characters to stand on their own two feet and be themselves. He teaches Annie the hard way in this song though, without any happy reprieve - and in concert he even takes things out on the audience, getting them to do their daily exercises at the gig. A clever song, then, but with a very cold heart and things aren't warmed up by the rather timid version used here on record despite the presence of no less than three Dave Davies electric guitars. The slow tempo and more curious echo on Ray's vocals aren't helping either (ironically, this song sounds as if you're listening to it through a bowl of mashed potato!) Live the song is a much funnier, happier, faster beast but even then the humour is just that bit too dark.
As for 'Alcohol', well, is this the most sobering Kinks song of them all? Ray's latest narrator never used to drink much but the 'pressures of the market place' and trying to keep a 'floozy' by his side turns him to the bottle and soon he's a permanent drunk with nothing but memories he can't recall anyway. It's very sad, as even Ray's lyrics put it, with a stern brass arrangement straight out of the Prohibition era oompah-ing sadly by with wagging fingers. But not the way Ray sings it: this is a track made for laughs (especially on the live version) as the narrator falls further and further into a decline, with Ray dedicating a whole verse to simply a list of drinks. There's no happy ending here either: if anything the song tries to make out that it's the central character's fault again, also for paying too much attention to other people and gets as good as he deserves. Performed live with beers in hand 'Alcohol' became another boozy party song, but here in the studio Ray doesn't seem quite sure if this is a comedy or a tragedy and offers up a peculiar mixture of both. Though 'Alcohol' sports a pretty tune and the live versions brightened up many a concert with drama and cheek, this studio version is a bit of a drag to be honest, too uptight to join in the fun and the humour that is here again far too dark and sinister. At least John Gosling finally gets something to do though, enjoying the Salvation Army band style piano passages and becoming a fine double-act with the horns.
Side one ends with 'Complicated Life', another slab of self-pity unusual for The Kinks but common to this album. Even by Muswell Hill standards though, this song is dead miserable. A mere year on from being one of the biggest acts on the planet, The Kinks tell us that not just fame, but life is over-rated. Ray's just been to the doctor with a long list of symptoms caused by stress and his doctor's warned him he might be dead soon if he doesn't do something about it. So he does and he's amazed at all the complicated things that were slowing him down - not just women and work, but ironing his shirts and cleaning his shoes too. Only by taking everything out of his life without putting anything back in Ray's character is so bored, no one will hire him so he can't work and his cupboards are bare, the twist in this song being that we're all doomed whatever we do - the world is set up to make our lives complicated and there's nothing we can do about it. In retrospect it's hard not to hear something of a cry for help in this grumpy blues, with lines about life being 'over-rated' - especially given Ray's attempted suicide attempt after rasa leaves in 1973. This wouldn't be the first depressed Kinks song of course and if anything this one is a little more clear-headed and hopeful than 'Too Much On My Mind' from albums of the past or 'Life Goes on' as the ghost of albums yet to come. But it's the only one without a happy ending and no sense of where to go to find one. Even the music feels like we're wading through treacle, with even Dave's nice slide guitar on the right channel bouncing off his aggressive barking on the left sounding sleepy and tired. Life isn't just complicated, it's painful and sadly that sense of life passing you by comes over rather too loud and clear without any of the usual Kinks magic to lift things.
It would be wrong to say 'Here Come The People In Grey' lifts the mood over on side two and this album's hallmarks are all still here: mid-tempo riffing and a hard-to-hear Ray Davies vocal that's deeply depressing. Yet there also feels something slightly uplifting about this song, as if Ray's just come to a realisation that's been troubling his sub-conscious for years and now that he's discovered it he feels slightly better, even though it's not a nice discovery to make. An early use of one of Ray's favourite phrases 'compulsory purchase' that will be explored further in 'Preservation' kicks off the song and it's the ultimate Kinks battle: the little person whose built a real house out of love and where he's spent the best years of his life being told by some faceless corporation that they've come to tear it down for profit. No one ever told The Kinks you can't fight city hall, though, and this song sounds defiant and ready for a fight for the only time on this record ('Gonna fight me a one man revolution, someway!'), with Ray dreaming 'Apeman' style of living in a tent and paying no rent, a million miles away from borough surveyors. At least, come what may, he's going to lead a more colourful life than the people in grey who've come to take not just his soul away but their own, faceless Government bureaucrats following orders who've lost all touch with humanity. A glorious guttural guitar part from Dave (sounding remarkably like the early Mick Taylor-era Stones) is embellished by a nice R and B part, a style The Kinks haven't really used since the similar 'Last Of The Steam Powered Trains' in 1968 (but which might have better yet had Ray's harmonica part been louder in the mix). Though not up to the opening couple of tracks, a much under-rated song.
'Have A Cuppa Tea' is a good example of a song no other band would ever do except for The Kinks. Tea-drinking isn't sexy, hip, trendy, youthful or commercial and the lyric dealing with the Davies' own Granny and Grandpappy doesn't care for any demographic except Kinks fans - and English ones at that. This is perhaps the last overtly 'English' song The Kinks will write until as late as 1989's 'UK Jive' and fans in other countries must have looked on us with a mixture of pity, confusion and horror. Remember that awful lukewarm drink that tastes of burnt water and milk you got on that last European holiday when you were gasping and in need of some strong caffeine? This Davies bloke (or at any rate his Granny) reckons it's the cure for insomnia, water on the knee, hepatitis, tonsillitis, coughs, aches and pains and sings it's praises with nothing short of a reverential 'hallelujah!' Though ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek (like much of this album), this Kinks tribute to the English national drink is for the most part heartfelt: ok it may not cure all the things on the list, but Ray doesn't under-estimate it's healing powers; he's seen firsthand how much better his family are able to cope with bad news with a cup and saucer in their hand and knows it's the one thing that will bring Grandpappy back from the pub when he's had an argument at home. Ray goes further to say that this national past-time is the ultimate English drink: it crosses all boundaries of age, race, political beliefs and religion and what could be more English than taking a break from something important once a day to drink something as daft as the boiled leaves of an Asian shrub plant. Unfortunately like so many of Ray's novelty songs this track seems terribly lightweight and out of place in amongst the other songs on this album and the performance isn't quite as jolly as it ought to be, more a wake than a knees-up. The lyrics are most interesting when they're dealing with 'real' people in the Davies household who worship and believe in tea more than any politician or God - they lose our interest when they start becoming just another 'list' lyric of ailments and tonics. The tempo too is too fast to be pretty and too slow to be fun. But this is a song that The Kinks just utterly totally had to write and in many ways it's a surprise it took them seven years and ten albums to write a song about the national drink (and no 'Afternoon Tea' from 'Something Else' doesn't count - Donna was more interested in her scones than her brew!) An alternate version included on the 'deluxe' edition of the Muswell album features a far more outrageous American accent and lacks the jolly feelgood factor with its grumbling guitars that lack the finished versions' subtlety. They all sound a bit wrong (surely all that noise is going to chip the best china?!)
Even that brief moment of jollity can't last as we're back in the darker side of life. 'Holloway Jail' sounds like it started life as a spoof song akin to the title track, parodying the American predilection for making criminals sexy in song ('Jailhouse Rock', half the Johnny Cash songbook in the 1960s, etc) with the real hardship experienced this side of the pond. After all the setting is exactly what a pop song about jail would be about: 'Holloway' was a real place of correction in the London borough of Islington, the first given over to female-only inmates as long ago as 1852 (and very controversial it was too: Victorian society didn't like to think of the fairer sex as criminals and assumed back then they'd all been led astray by men, though that didn't stop them hanging them). The place still exists too, though it's slowly being shut down from 2015 while inmates are found new 'homes'. Note the word 'Jail' in the song title by the way - if this was a 'true' English song it would be a 'Prison', but Ray sings it in his best Transatlantic accent and The Kinks turn in a much more 'American country' sound on this one. The lyrics, however, aren't cute or fun but downright harrowing: Ray's narrator is left alone to fend for himself and his family while his 'baby' is sentenced (for what we never find out). A spiv with the very Dickensian name of Frankie Simes leads her into bad ways, she stayed loyal to him despite doing nothing wrong and now she's paying dearly for her brief crime. An all-women's prison is something that American songwriters could only dream of as a fun and possibly romantic setting, but Ray's too earthy a writer and tries to offer what life would really be like in a very earthy English way. In this world though there 'ain't no pity, there ain't no bail - and she assures me it's living hell!' Singer Vicki Brown (wife of Joe, mother of Sam) plays the 'Rasa' part on this song, adding a subtle feminine-but-tough vibe behind Ray's much more fragile vocal and it's most effective, while the Kinks performance is stronger and more together than most other 'Muswells' too. Gosling particularly excels himself on the floral piano part, a lone voice desperately trying to add colour in a world with so many dark and snarling guitars it's the epitome of darkness. As with the other songs on this album there's no happy ending and no glimmer of hope and the song ends suddenly, Ray's narrator still pining, as the cell door slams shut on a glimmering guitar chord and cymbal whallop. Another of the album's better songs, it's just a shame that this song doesn't have the usual Ray Davies touch of something 'extra' - the chorus is just the second part of the verse and there's no real middle eight or instrumental. Then again, this adds to the song's tightly packed claustrophobic feel - there's no chance of escape in this song, nothing to look forward to and no time off for good behaviour.
'Oklahoma USA' continues the theme of the differences between continents. Like an early 'Celluloid Heroes' or a late 'Princess Marina', this fragile piano ballad contrasts the agonising hard work and deprivation of an English housewife caught in drudgery and the Hollywood images of Oklahoma seen at the movies that promise how different life could be. Very is the answer: Doris Day and Gordon MacCreae don't seem the sort to do housework somehow and are more likely to be dancing to some exotic picnic than trudging to the corner shops for the tea. Ray's good at getting into the heads of characters like these and tells us much while technically telling us very little and offering up a sad little daydream as the only escape his character knows. At the same time though this song is hauntingly sad, even for this album, as she dreams of being 'taken away' by some dashing handsome lover, someone she already knows in her heart of hearts will never come. And why should it? Even the people in the real Oklahoma don't live that way - it's just a film. But why is it just a film? 'If life's worth living then what's living for?' asks Ray earnestly, wondering exactly that. A lovely melody is enhanced nicely by what's pretty much a John Gosling special, featuring not just his piano but accordion work (which gives this song a nice throwback feel to 'Sitting By The Riverside', the song of escapism on 'Village Green'; Ray must find himself drifting off and daydreaming a lot while passing accordion-playing buskers!) However there's something slightly unfinished about this song, which floats around quite nicely in your ears when the song's playing but isn't formed enough to stay there after the record stops. Once again, Ray's vocal is also hard to hear, mixed so low that even the sparse backing here drowns him out.
'Uncle Son' continues the Americana theme with one of those 'salt of the earth pioneer' songs the American market is so fond of (both back in 1971 and now). Uncle Son, though, is unashamedly English and a real man to boot - The Davies' uncle really was called 'Son', confusingly. Almost to the letter Son is described the same way as his brother Arthur, as 'just a working man' who got on with the job no matter the weather, no matter the circumstance, no matter the political party in power. Son didn't care to learn or educate himself but worked with his hands, making life great for others. Ray sounds quite in awe of his uncle (this side of the family is clearly where he gets his work ethic from!) and admires all the more for what he achieved despite a tough background and lack of learning. The best verse though isn't about Son at all but Ray's single-line put-downs of the three leading political parties of his day and what's wrong with all of them: 'Liberals dream of equal rights, Conservatives live in a world gone by, Socialists preach of a promised land...' Uncle Son is greater than all of them, though, in his nephew's eyes at least. Unfortunately what's a sweet message for a song was already better handled on Arthur, a series of compositions that got far further under the skin of the main character than here - I know 'Arthur' better than some of my own relatives, but I never feel like I know 'Uncle Son' that well at all. The tempo is all so slow as well, oddly so for a man who always liked keeping busy and bordering on lullaby levels at times. There are though some nice harmonies between the brothers that brighten this song up no end, Ray and Dave finally finding something they can agree on during this family praising number! A sparser, prettier take of this song without the harmonies appeared on the deluxe edition of the 'Muswell Hillbillies' album and is far superior, especially the far more 'human' Ray Davies vocal.
The title track of 'Muswell Hillbillies' seems almost dementedly happy compared to the other brutal songs on the album. The song is a spoof of all those American Hillbilly songs around at the time but given a distinctly English working class vibe. In this song Rosie Rook, the usual heroine in these style of songs, has bloodshot alcoholic eyes and impresses Ray not by riding a horse backwards or wearing a ten-gallon Stetson hat but by wearing her 'Sunday best'. Beneath all the yee-ha humour and a comical guitar riff, though, lies a song that's as dark as any on the album. Ray's moving house again and just as with 'Face To Face' it's a tragedy, separating him from a place he's got to know and love and putting him a new suburban climate where he feels out of place. In the song he's dreaming of 'West Virginia', but knowing Ray he's probably still pining for the place he was brought up. The second half of the song also finds space for a few of Rat's favourite digs as he complains again that everyone is being made to be the same ('uniformity', one of his favourite words, sounds rather good with a Texas accent!) and repeats the point of 'Shangri-La' that most English housing is 'identical little boxes', designed to inhibit creativity and uniqueness. This also leads to the most unashamedly working class verse on the album, Ray told to study elocution 'because they say my accent isn't right' and standing alone as the powers that be try to tear down the slums of his birth, fighting on anyway with 'cockney pride'. In retrospect this track sounds like Ray trying to convince himself on moving day that it doesn't matter where he moves anywhere in the world - he'll always be just a kid from Muswell Hill and The Kinks will always be a 'local' band. It's significant that after parodying and dreaming of American lands across this album, The Kinks will finally turn their back on their English roots from the next album 'Everybody's In Showbiz' onwards, having effectively promised their loyal home audience with this track that they're never going to change really. Unfortunately, bouncy as this song is, it isn't bouncy enough to off-set the last half hour of pure depression and lacks the usual joi de vivre of other Kink songs in the same vein (it's closest cousin is the title track of 'Arthur' which really does sound like a celebration of working class roots and salt of the Earth people who all too often go unrewarded; this lyric smacks too much of lots of other Ray Davies songs stuck together).
Still, at least the album ended on a positive note - against all odds given the eleven songs that went before it. 'Muswell Hill' sounds like a nice place to visit, in patches, but you really wouldn't want to live there. Often dull, curiously mixed and with a dark humour that lacks The Kinks' usual Sunny Afternoon specialness, 'Muswell Hillbillies' really stands out in The Kinks Katalogue for better and worse. At times the song's depression is spot on, backed up by witty intelligent lyrics, impressive band performances and a wickedly observant eye that gets the state of decay of Britain in 1971 spot-on, far closer to the real spirit of a splintered world than any glam shoe or outrageous make-up ever could. With '20th Century Man' Ray hits on one of the most winning of his winning formulas and 'Acute Schizophrenia' too shows what a daring, brave and satisfyingly funny-sad album 'Muswell Hillbillies' could have been. But too many of the other tracks end up being either overly cruel or deeply forgettable, not a complaint you can really make about most other Kinks albums. That's not to say this album is terrible, just patchy and slightly uncomfortable with the uglier side of humanity bringing out the ugly side to The Kinks too, a shame in what's usually one of the most naturally beautiful bands of the 1960s. Though seen as a brave and daring work by modern reviewers and regarded for some reason as one of The Kinks' more consistent albums (though in truth it's as up and down as 'Percy' and far more so than 'Lola v Powerman'), this is an album that thinks from its depressed bitter vengeful head more times than it's warm, tender, fragile heart and as such is as close to mediocre as a band as great as The Kinks dare gets, at least until the concept albums arrive in force (and even then they're much more fun to listen to, if far more bonkers as well). Even at the age of 'insanity', though, The Kinks still come up with at least a couple of songs as good as anything they've ever done and this album is still worth owning for the highlights. After all, what else have we got to spend the money on in this modern day world of technological progress and spiritual regression? Holidays near sewers, demon drink and fad diets that change who we are? No thankyou, better to buy a one-way ticket to escapism at the pictures, pour yourself a cup of tea and invest in a komplete kollection of Kinks albums. It's a hard world out there after all and we need all the help we can get, while no one else offers help like The Kinks.