Monday, January 2, 2012

21 Underrated Songs by The Kinks You Need to Hear Now!

The Kinks are an uncommon group. A plethora of bands seem to sit under that name: the pioneering heavy garage rockers who forged “You Really Got Me”, the distinctly British craftsmen who fashioned “Waterloo Sunset”, the olde tyme big band that made Muswell Hillbillies, the theatre group that staged Preservation Acts 1 and 2, the arena rockers who bludgeoned their way through Give the People What They Want, the ‘80s poppers who made a splash on MTV with “Come Dancing”. The Kinks’ reputation is equally schizophrenic (acutely so; not to mention paranoiac). They scored a wealth of hits in their U.K. homeland and enough in the U.S. to make them more than a cult band on both sides of the pond. Yet The Kinks are a cult band because the mass of their discography—and the mass of their greatest recordings—are barely known outside their fanatical following. And most Kinks die-hards do not worship the band for “You Really Got Me”, “Lola”, or “Come Dancing”. It is their peculiar, unashamedly sentimental, quiet masterpieces that moved Rolling Stone’s Paul Williams to scrawl that Kinks fandom is not just an enthusiasm for “some rock group. It’s more like a taste for fine wines from a certain valley, a devotion to a particular breed of cocker spaniel.” Williams wrote this astute observation in his review of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. If ever there was proof of The Kinks’ cultiness, it is the fact that their greatest album was a complete flop in both England and America. But the record has built a following over the years that now allows it to be spoken in the same breath as Pet Sounds, Revolver, Beggars Banquet, and Blonde on Blonde. As Ray Davies himself noted, “It’s the most successful failure of all time.”

So many of The Kinks’ commercial failures were artistic triumphs that they are poorly represented by the usual crop of “Greatest Hits” compilations. That means there are numerous treasures for the budding Kinks kultist to discover. The following is a starter list of twenty-one wonderful creations that never slipped onto singles or major hits compilations. For anyone interesting in traveling to the marvelously realized nation Ray Davies, Dave Davies, Mick Avory, and Peter Quaife founded, here are twenty-one splendid tickets.

1. “Wait ‘Til the Summer Comes Along” (from the E.P. The Kwyet Kinks) 1965

We begin in a suitably untraveled, leaf-strewn nook of the Kinkdom. A spot where younger brother Dave huddles with his acoustic guitar, fending off winter winds and dreaming of summer. Dave’s first solo composition (he’d co-written the pleasant pop piffle “Got My Feet on the Ground” with Ray for the Kinda Kinks L.P.) is strong and mature, highly reminiscent of John Lennon’s recent dark country/folk numbers on Beatles for Sale. In his autobiography, Kink, Dave explains that he wrote “Wait ‘Til the Summer Comes Along” “during a moment of depression and reflection” and that the song is “about loss and regret.” He was possibly reflecting on a girl named Sue, whom he’d gotten pregnant while still a teenager. His mother prevented him from seeing Sue again and kept him from knowing about his daughter for years. Dave's pain over the Sue situation inspired much of his work, and the first song in this sad series is likely “Wait ‘Til the Summer Comes Along” (“Can it be that she never wanted to break some poor mother’s heart”). If so, it is an ambiguous but suitably fine forerunner.

2. “The World Keeps Going Round” (from the album The Kink Kontroversy) 1965

After delivering the usual Mersey Beat sentiments of love and lust on big hits such as “You Really Got Me” and “Set Me Free”, Ray Davies started expressing a more
personal worldview on material such as “See My Friends” and “A Well Respected Man”. Late 1965’s The Kink Kontroversy laid the Davies’s stance bare over an entire L.P for the first time. Small town dreams easily crushed. Aching nostalgia and near patriotic regard for the family home. Depression. The latter emotion saturates “The World Keeps Going Round”, from its bleak declarations of “You worry about your home; what’s the use of worrying when you’ll die alone” to Ray’s lugubrious vocal. The track is both plodding and forceful, and like Dave’s “Wait ‘Til the Summer Comes Along”, there’s a light hint of hope. Despite Dave’s “loss and regret,” the coming of summer offers some solace. For Ray, his “The world keeps going round” mantra is a reminder to himself that life goes on.

3. “I’m on an Island” (from the album The Kink Kontroversy ) 1965

And now we take a plane ride from a drizzly street in Muswell Hill to a tropical getaway populated by one Raymond Douglas Davies and Raymond Douglas Davies alone. Had another singer performed “I’m on an Island”, it might have taken on a totally different tone. But coming from a man who once mused “isolation is a nice thing,” it’s about as joyful a statement as one could expect from that complicated fellow. The calypso rhythm is playful, yet typically lazy. Ray’s trademark smirk is detectable in every lyric.

4. “Rosy Won’t You Please Come Home” (from the album Face to Face) 1966

Six months before The Beatles turned the tables on hippie ideology by empathizing with parents rather than kids in “She’s Leaving Home”, The Kinks did the same thing but without the irony. That’s because Ray’s message hit a lot closer to home. In 1963, his sister Rose and her husband Arthur immigrated to Australia. The split was terribly painful for the Davieses who’d remained in England. Nearly a decade earlier, Ray’s sister Rene died while out dancing on his 13th birthday, a traumatic event that lends deeply sad undertones to the seemingly jolly hit “Come Dancing”. The loss of another sister, even if by far less tragic circumstances, affected him profoundly enough that he was still feeling the sting three years later. On “Rosy Won’t You Please Come Home”, he voices his mother’s pleas with such aching yet reserved sincerity (“And I’ll bake a cake if you tell me you are on the first plane home”) that there’s nothing comical about this vaudevillian weeper.

5. “Rainy Day in June” (from the album Face to Face) 1966

While Mother Davies laments her departed daughter over an uneaten cake in the kitchen, strange things are happening in the back garden. A mighty eagle descends on its prey. Elves and gnomes cower in fear. A demon stretches its crinkled head and snatches a butterfly. The apocalypse or just a summer storm? Ray Davies is best known for his vérité character sketches, but he was not totally adverse to the psychedelic fancies of the day. “Rainy Day in June” rumbles ominously. Rolling thunder. Ray’s imagery is vivid and a little funny. The use of sound effects is an innovative touch The Kinks intended to run throughout Face to Face, linking its perfectly diverse pop songs together. Pye Records nixed the concept, but remnants of it remain in “Rainy Day in June”, and the track is difficult to imagine without them.

6. “Two Sisters” (from the album Something Else by The Kinks ) 1967

Now we move along, just a few blocks away from the Davies home. Not too far, because Pricilla never managed to escape her hometown the way her cosmopolitan sister Sybilla did. Pricilla drudges over the washing machine and the stove, catering to her husband and children. Liberated Sybilla spends her evenings chatting with her “smart young friends” over cocktails at hip London nightspots. Anyone remotely familiar with The Kinks’ story will recognize the two sisters of “Two Sisters” as stand-ins for two brothers. While young Dave raved around the Swinging London scene, gobbling pills and indulging in wild parties and wilder sex, Ray remained at home with his family, writing his songs, grappling with depression. “Two Sisters” concludes with Pricilla’s revelation that “she was better off than the wayward lass that her sister had been” and the comical image of the housewife running “‘round the house with her curlers on; no longer jealous of her sister.” Yet Ray’s envy was not resolved as neatly as his wishful song. The Davies brothers continued to live diverging lives with diverging philosophies that led to much discord. These roiling emotions are set against an ironically reserved backdrop of Elizabethan harpsichord and frail melody. Astonishingly beautiful; astonishingly complex.

7. “No Return” (from the album Something Else by The Kinks) 1967

As the moon rises on Ray Davies’s sleepy community, he steps outside, strolls down the sidewalk, gazes up at the stars, and contemplates his love’s departure. Once again, a message of sadness reclines in magically placid music, a bossa nova as plush as a feather bed. Ray sinks into it, his whisper of a voice barely audible over lightly plucked nylon string guitar and brushed drums. Like Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared”, “No Return” is not a song about losing love but about the fear of losing love. Whereas Roy sounds positively terrified, Ray is at peace. Perhaps a man who dreams of solitude on a desert island might not mind being deserted by the love of his life.

8. “Lazy Old Sun” (from the album Something Else by The Kinks ) 1967

The moon sets. The stars truly do disappear. Up comes the sun: fat, lazy, but hiding behind thunderclouds. Ray laments the missing sun even as the track conjures punishing heat and blinding sunlight. Maracas play over-excited locusts. Sweat and exhaustion pour from Ray’s voice. Mick Avory languidly pounds along his toms while a droning guitar wanders in and out of the skyscape. Rasa Davies howls wordlessly in the distance and a Mellotron trumpet climbs to the heavens. “Lazy Old Sun” is remarkably vivid, picturesque music. Ray’s search for the sun seems to suggest more than longing for light and heat. He marvels about the sun’s ability to create rainbows, the fact that it will remain long after he is “dead and gone.” It is his “one reality.” The sun is life. It’s disappearance signals Ray’s depression. But as in “The World Keeps Going ‘Round”, there is hope. The sun will inevitably return to “kiss (him) with one ray of light.” This will not be the last time Ray Davies will fix his eyes on the sky to ponder unwieldy issues.

9. “Lavender Hill” (outtake) 1967

On “Two Sisters”, Ray Davies envied the young people skipping through Swinging London. On “Lavender Hill”, he has a slight go at them, fashioning a hippie-dippy wonderland where the sun does not hide as it did in “Lazy Old Sun”. On Lavender Hill, flower children lay back in the grass as the “sun saturate(s them) with love.” The birds “sing sweet melodies.” Everyone dreams of “daffodils that sway in the breeze.” Clearly, this isn’t Ray Davies at his sincerest, otherwise those daffodils would be weeping and the birds would be chirping a death march. Satirical it may be, “Lavender Hill” still paints an inviting portrait of communing with nature. Ray’s failure to understand real hippie ideology makes the song even more humorous than he intended. What hippie would rhapsodize about “tidy ladies” who “shine their shoes”? Sounds like something Pricilla would say.

10. “Pictures in the Sand” (outtake) 1967

Like “Lavender Hill”, the outtake “Pictures in the Sand” was originally released on the Great Lost Kinks Album compilation in 1973. Unlike “Lavender Hill”, the song has not been allowed renewed life on any of the recent expanded editions of The Kinks’ ‘60s albums. Rumor has it that Ray Davies blocked its release (just as he had The Great Lost Kinks Album withdrawn shortly after its release). His problem with the song is anyone’s guess. “Pictures in the Sand” is easily as pleasing as most of the songs The Kinks produced during their finest era. Dave’s guitar swirls and Mick’s drums pound in an exciting opening flourish. Then everyone relaxes into a vaudevillian rapture about whiling away life by the seaside, drawing pictures in the sand. The mood is jolly, summery. Ray Davies, a sworn enemy of photography, should adore the idea of pictures destined to be swept away by the tide. Yet he doesn’t. Maybe “Pictures in the Sand” is simply too happy. Letting his guard down to grieve over depression is one thing, but allowing himself to reveal a lighter side may be too much for Ray Davies. Sadly, “Pictures in the Sand” remains out of official print, but cagey Kinks fans have long swapped this excellent track unofficially.

11. “Do You Remember Walter?” (from the album the) 1968

The nostalgic, quietly melancholic The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society was a total commercial failure when released in the waning days of the most tumultuous year of the 1960s. Within a decade or two, it came to be rightfully regarded as The Kinks’ masterwork. Yet it has rarely been represented well on compilations. Even 1972’s The Kink Kronikles, which specifically focused on the nearly hitless years of 1966-1970, only represents the album with its title track. Perhaps Village Green Preservation Society is simply too perfect to dice up and scatter. As a result, it is beloved as a whole but obscure in parts. “The Village Green Preservation Society” has received its share of airing and “Picture Book” received resurgence when Hewlett-Packard used it in a 2004 ad. The better “Do You Remember Walter?” remains known only to the cultists who’ve embraced the original album. The track sums up the appeal of The Kinks and this particular album quite thoroughly. There is force in the pulsing rhythm and Mick Avory’s snare-shock that ignites it. Yet the recording is as flaky as a French pastry: light, buttery layers of guitar, bass, drums, and voice. The tale of possible reunion between childhood mates (just as “No Return” is a tale of possible romantic rejection) is humorous (“I bet you’re fat and married and you’re always home in bed by half past eight) but sad. The boys who lived for adventure—playing cricket in the middle of a thunderstorm, sneaking cigarettes, dreaming of fleeing to sea—have now grown up and probably apart. What would a Rock & Roller like Ray Davies have to say to a regular bloke like Walter? Although the songwriter is obsessed with simple people and simple things, he fears he’d have nothing to say when confronted with the real thing.

12. “Big Sky” (from the album The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society) 1968

Of course, there are bigger things than Ray Davies. As he did in “Rainy Day in June” and “Lazy Old Sun”, he once again takes a moment to turn his attention upward. The Big Sky of “Big Sky” is God, whom Ray portrays as unmoved by human suffering, curious about their bizarre behavior, but only slightly. The Big Guy is “too big to let it get him down,” “too big to sympathize,” “too occupied.” How could someone who believes in God not become completely depressed after concluding His stance is one of complete indifference? His worshippers run helter skelter below, miniscule ants destroying each other, crying out for help from the great, apathetic being. As always, Ray finds a ray of hope in the grandest tragedy of all, singing, “One day we’ll be free, we won’t care, just you see.” Free from life? Free in “heaven”? Whatever his dream of freedom is, it’s enough to keep him going. The Kinks keep churning out one of their heaviest riffs (contradicting claims that Village Green is nothing but lightness and preciousness). Rasa Davies keeps chirping her angelic harmonies. Acoustic guitar keeps twanging like some makeshift substitute for more exotic Eastern instrument. The world keeps going ‘round.

13. “Animal Farm” (from the album The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society) 1968

Big Sky looks down on a world that’s “big and wild and half insane.” But Ray knows there is freedom to be had. Living in a dirty old shack, getting up at the crack of dawn to feed the pigs and the goats. A farmer’s life is a busy one. Constant work keeps him from worrying about that indifferent God and the wild, half-insane world He created. For one brief moment, Village Green Preservation Society is free of doubt, free of fear, free of struggle with big, big questions. Life on the Animal Farm is a complete antidote to a “hard, hard world” where “dreams often fade and die.” The narrator is happy tending his farm with his little girl by his side. The tune is nursery-rhyme simple. Ray’s vocal is joyous and even a bit rambunctious. “Animal Farm” is an oasis in the churning world of The Village Green Preservation Society.

14. “Wicked Annabella” (from the album The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society) 1968

But lights do dim. Day does fade. Children are swept off to bed. They peer out their open window. What is that out in the dark of night? A glimpse of a hideous face? Tendrils of tangled hair? A shadow crossing the moon? What’s out hiding under the forest’s sticks and stones? Little demons enslaved by a wicked witch, employed to carry home little children who refuse to settle down at bedtime? “Wicked Annabella” is a scary story to keep the Village Green’s naughty children in line. “Better get to sleep or the boogie man will get you”— a threat not dissimilar to “Better follow His commandments or the Big Sky will damn you.” The Kinks create one of their most perfect tone poems. Mick Avory’s slow, rolling drumming conveys the churning dread of children anticipating a visit from Wicked Annabella. Pete Quaife’s spontaneous quote from “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” implies the piety of good children who do as they’re told. Dave Davies’s unbelievably filthy guitar conjures images of Annabella’s monstrous demon legion, and his distorted, sinister whisper is the voice of the witch, herself. Delightfully terrifying.

15. “Misty Water” (outtake) 1968

Nefarious spells and child snatching are not the only things that go on in the night. Quite like Annabella, Anne Maria and her daughters crowd around a steaming caldron, but it isn’t poisonous brew they’re stirring. They are the local moonshiners, and the narrator of “Misty Water” is so enamored of their product that he falls in love with the matriarch: “Though Maria is not lovely, she’s the lady of my dreams.” An intoxicating blend of The Kinks at their airiest and their Chuck Berry-inspired rockingest, “Misty Water” was originally slotted for Four More Well Respected Gentlemen. When that album evolved into The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, it fell away, possibly because of its passing similarities to “Wicked Annabella”. Fortunately this wonderful track was resurrected for The Great Lost Kinks Album, and more recently, the essential deluxe edition of Village Green Preservation Society.

16. “Yes Sir, No Sir” (from the album Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) 1969

The pain that drove Ray Davies to write “Rosy Won’t You Please Come Home” was still festering three years later when he used the relocation of his sister and her family as fodder for a T.V. movie and soundtrack album. The movie stalled, but the album didn’t. Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire cast a satirical gaze on mid-century Britain as viewed by a lower-class family who’d lived through two world wars, seen members flee to Australia, and watched passively as Queen Victoria’s imperialist agenda crumbled. The Kinks expand beyond Village Green’s faded sepia photographs to widescreen cinematic vistas. Following the opening scene in which the conservative patriarch pines for an empire that wasn’t nearly as egalitarian as he chooses to remember, we are thrust onto the training grounds of a dehumanizing military. Soldiers line up to be abused by their sergeant and dream of dying in battle rather than enduring another moment of his soul-crushing authority. “Yes Sir, No Sir” is Ray Davies at his angriest. An anonymous officer lays out his pawns’ mission with chilling forthrightness: “Give the scum a gun and make the bugger fight and be sure to have deserters shot on sight. If he dies we’ll send a medal to his wife.” The Kinks deliver their anti-war message sardonically: weeping, snapping militaristic drum rolls, enunciating with the pomposity of an officer far removed from the battlefield’s dangers. Devastating.

17. “This Time Tomorrow” (from the album Lola vs. Powerman and the Money-Go-Round) 1970

Since “Rainy Day in June” on Face to Face, The Kinks almost always allotted one spot per album to consider matters above the atmosphere of little town England. On “This Time Tomorrow” the band finally joins the thunderclouds and lazy old sun residing in the big sky. They jet through the clouds on their way to an unknown location to play yet another gig. Lola Vs. Powerman and the Money-Go-Round is a song cycle about the hollow rewards of rock stardom. Between the unscrupulous managers and publishers, smarmy T.V. presenters, and confounding big city folk, the life is stifling. Though confined in a “spaceship somewhere sailing across an empty sea,” the band finds some degree of escape traveling “seven miles” above “fields full of houses” and “endless rows of crowded streets.” While “in perpetual motion,” the unwieldy “world below doesn’t matter much to” The Kinks. The soaring melody breaths release even as Ray’s voice is small and sad. He’d champion even more extreme modes of escape a few tracks later on the comical “Apeman”, but “This Time Tomorrow” is prettier, more powerful, and more complex, at once melancholy and awestruck.

18. “Moments” (from the album Percy) 1971

One of the great ironies of the Ray Davies songbook is that he composed some of his most achingly lovely ballads for a flaccid comedy about penis transplants. Both the Percy film and its soundtrack have drifted into obscurity. Too bad, because The Kinks’ music is some of their finest. “God’s Children” has received a second life on a few compilations, but the similarly beautiful pieces “The Way Love Used to Be” and “Moments” are buried deeper in their catalogue. “Moments” is particularly striking, a deliberately paced reflection on good times with seemingly life affirming sentiments from the pessimistic Ray. “I ain’t gonna let this big world get me down, I gotta learn to keep a hold of my head and keep my feet on the ground.” Quite an antidote to “The World Keeps Going ‘Round”. Or is it? Just as that earlier track couched a grain of optimism, small clouds gather over “Moments”: “I say I’ll never do you wrong but then I go and do the same again.” The “moments of stress” the singer is begging his love to forget are his own romantic indiscretions. Ray Davies simply cannot deliver a romantic song without twisting it into something more complex, something darker. Yet the music is stunningly romantic, recalling the lovelier moments on The Beatles’ Abbey Road.

19. “Dreams” (from the album Percy) 1971

As noted right above, Percy houses one of the great lost Kinks ballads. It also contains a severely underrated rocker in “Dreams”. The song is typical of the more raucous Kinks tracks of its period: the band plays with strength and joy, yet Ray’s voice is buried, fighting to shout above the din, failing admirably. “Dreams” is more than good-time Rock & Roll. The track ping-pongs between the forceful passages that constitute its bulk, an opening flourish of music-box delicacy, and some appropriately dreamy, psychedelic swirls. Ray addresses one of his favorite topics— a small man with big ambitions—so it’s easy to detach this track from Percy’s penile concept and take “Dreams” on its own terms as a quintessential Kinks corker.

20. “Have a Cuppa Tea” (from the album Muswell Hillbillies) 1971

By 1971, an interesting trend had become apparent in The Kinks’ recent records. Each album found the band decrying threats against the small England they’d celebrated on Village Green Preservation Society. Lola depicted a world that should be ruled by art being dominated by shady businessmen. Percy is a screed against unnatural body modification. Muswell Hillbillies imagines England descending into an Orwellian fascist society in which every family’s freedom is threatened by invasions from bureaucratic “people in grey.” But no matter what the government does to those simple Muswell hillbillies, they’ll never kill their cockney pride and never, ever take away that most English of English rituals, that great equalizer crossing all class borders from Northumberland to Cornwall. “Tea knows no segregation, no class nor pedigree… no one religion nor political belief.” Never before or since has anyone sang so proudly or with such resolve about afternoon tea, and no one could pull it off as convincingly as The Kinks. Ray praises the drink’s powers as an elixir of mental and physical health, as the magical glue that adheres families together. “Have a Cuppa Tea” is exhilarating, a knees-up send-up as sincere as any grand piece of comedy could ever be. Even with such hilarious strokes as “Tea in the morning, tea in the evening, tea at suppertime… You get tea with your afternoon tea,” there’s no blunting the impassioned desperation of Ray’s climactic exclamation: “For Christ’s sake have a cuppa tea!”

21. “Where Are They Now?” (from the album Preservation Act 1) 1973

Ray Davies originally conceived Village Green Preservation Society as a large-scale stage production. This is hard to feature considering how modest that album turned out and how much its modesty contributes to its magic. Yet the concept continued roiling away in Ray’s imagination. In 1973, he finally unveiled the first act of Preservation. The record was a sketchy introduction to characters he’d set into a play in the bloated Act 2, the first Kinks record that could really be deemed a failure, even though it did include a couple of excellent songs (“Artificial Man”, “Mirror of Love”). Since Act 1 isn’t dependent on conveying plot, Ray could focus on writing standalone songs, and the album is much better than its reputation suggests. “Where Are They Now?” is one of its best tracks. Like the original Preservation Society, the theme here is intense nostalgia, though that album mostly fixated on an England that preceded the advent of Rock & Roll, Mods, and Swinging London. Just a few years removed from the ‘60s, Ray Davies is already yearning for the decade on “Where Are They Now?” Instead of championing vaudeville, little shops, and antique tables, he is now lamenting the passing of Mary Quant, Teddy boys, beatniks, and protest songs. As ever, the world is going ‘round just a little too fast for Ray Davies, and as always he expresses this with a light sigh, a gorgeous melody, and a poet’s insight.

Narrowing this list down to just 21 songs was a painful process. Here are 21 more that could have just as easily made the final cut:
“I’ve Got That Feeling”
“It’s Alright”
“Nothin’ in This World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl”
“You Can’t Win”
“Don’t You Fret”
“Too Much on My Mind”
“Session Man”
“Situation Vacant”
“End of the Season”
“Picture Book”
“Village Green”
“Till Death Us Do Part”
“Lincoln County”
“Mr. Churchill Says”
“You Don’t Know My Name”
“Sitting in My Hotel”
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