Friday, September 14, 2012

Track by Track: 'Something Else by The Kinks'

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been taking a close look at albums of the classic, underrated, and flawed variety, and assessing them Track by Track.

Welcome to Daviesland, a kurious little nook of England where The Kinks secreted themselves some two years after being unofficially banned from touring the United States. Since that unfortunate event, in which Ray socked an insult-spewing musician’s union representative, the boys enjoyed a steady string of top ten hits in their homeland, but only managed to sneak into the U.S. top twenty twice with “A Well Respected Man” and “Sunny Afternoon”. Unable to promote themselves properly in the world’s biggest Rock & Roll market, and apparently satisfied with all they’d achieved thus far, The Kinks resigned themselves to more modest, domestic ambitions. The U.S.-friendly heavy riffing of their early smashes blared one final bang in late 1965 with “Till the End of the Day”, which flitted in and out of the Billboard top 50 in the wink of an eye. Afterward, Ray Davies, Dave Davies, Pete Quaife, and Mick Avory seemingly set out to become the most English of all English bands. The first unfiltered evidence of The Kinks’ new modus operandi arrived in early 1966. “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” is a boisterous knees up, name-checking swinging London’s sartorial Mecca Carnaby Street without any concern for whether or not Yank listeners would get the reference or cotton to the record’s musical hall camp. Not surprisingly, it barely peaked into the U.S. top forty. The similar “Sunny Afternoon” did, but the failure of such a perfectly formed pearl to get closer to Billboard’s top spot indicated that America’s affair with The Kinks might be over for good.

Of course, it wasn’t, but some four years would pass before The Kinks reclaimed their former stateside glory with the hard rocking “Lola”. In the interim, their music became more modest, quieter, and very, very English. By retreating from the world outside of their U.K. microcosm from 1966 through 1970, they developed a personal voice quite unlike any of their peers and created the most splendid music of their career. 1966’s Face to Face was The Kinks’ first great album, almost every track distinctly conceived and realized with intricate details. Even as it bounced from old-fashioned Rock & Roll to music hall to light psychedelia to acoustic raga rock, the album remained cohesive because of The Kinks’ perceptive and distinctive musicianship and Ray Davies’s keen lyrical focus on a cast of tragicomic characters so lifelike their fingerprints can be felt between every vinyl groove.
Yet certain compromises tug at Face to Face’s leash, restraining it from the masterpiece status it so rabidly craves. Pye Records was not on board with Ray’s concept of joining each track with sound effects, which would have made the L.P. a truly innovative item some eight months shy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Several newly recorded numbers were nixed in favor of “You’re Looking Fine” and “I’ll Remember”, a couple of leftovers from earlier sessions that sound distractingly out of date in the company of “Fancy”, “Rainy Day in June”, and “Sunny Afternoon”.

With klassic Kinky irony, the band’s waning international popularity occurred just as their unique influence took hold of their more popular peers. The Beatles scored their first hit of 1967 with the “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” single, two tracks that make specific references to English locales. The Rolling Stones, Britain’s greatest proponents of American blues and Rock & Roll, dipped into music hall on Between the Buttons and scored their fourth number one hit in the U.S. with “Ruby Tuesday”, an airy pastoral fit for Face to Face. Kinky anglophilia was so rampant in these days that a studio creation called The New Vaudeville Band managed a massive, Grammy-winning hit in late ’66 with the gimmicky “Winchester Cathedral”. Yet the band that inspired the whole wave couldn’t cash in. Not that The Kinks really tried to.

When futuristic psychedelia started to dominate the pop scene in 1967, The Kinks immersed themselves deeper in a world that pined for the past, where depressive housewives, unemployed newlyweds, conservative cricketers, window-gazing loners, and dead clowns fail to assimilate into the libertine Swinging London scene… much like Ray Davies, who’d recently found himself domesticated with a new wife and daughter. Something Else by The Kinks is the least psychedelic, least ’67-sounding album released by a major group between Sgt. Pepper’s and John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan’s late ’67, back-to-the-roots game-changer. Yet the album could not have been made during any other time because it is a reaction to 1967, an uncomfortable shrug against the radical changes happening in the pop world.

Something Else was The Kinks’ first album to fail to come within a hair of the U.K. top twenty and to miss the U.S. top 150 altogether; the band’s first significant international commercial letdown. Creatively, it was The Kinks’ greatest triumph to date. Ray’s ousting of Shel Talmy (who received co-producer credits on the original album for contractual reasons) resulted in a clarity that serves his delicate creations far better than that American producer’s booming wall-of-noise. Ray’s personal frustrations drive him to compose his most perceptive and consistent material to date—not a single piece of past-due filler in the batch. Meanwhile, dark horse Dave prances to center stage with rookie compositions that flaunt a master’s touch. The lightness of the material prevents drummer Mick and (particularly) bassist Pete from making many audacious contributions, but this is no longer an audacious Kinks. This is not the power-chording Kinks of yore. This is a new age for the band, and what they may have been losing in power and popularity, they gained in grace, insight, and beauty, mapping a wondrous world where the corner of the Kinkdom is forever England.
Something Else by The Kinks
Originally released November 15, 1967
Produced by Ray Davies

Track 1: David Watts (Ray Davies)

We begin with one of the strange little tales so integral to Kinks lore. It is August 20, 1966. The Kinks convene at the Rutland County Agricultural Showground where they are greeted by a disappointing crowd of 2,000 amidst scary, scary rumors of a showdown between Mods and Rockers. The confrontation never goes down, lobbing egg in the faces of the 60 cops dispatched to maintain control. After the show, The Kinks retire to the country manor of middle-aged concert promoter David Watts. After tiring of smooching the small band of policemen frolicking at his soirée, Watts quickly develops designs on the loveliest Kink. Despite his omnivorous sexual appetites, Dave Davies feels a bit put off by the elder fellow’s overzealous lechery. As the pink champagne and hash continue to flow, Dave becomes aware of a nefarious plot: brother Ray has apparently promised his younger sibling to Watts in exchange for his lush manor. Dave politely agrees to “think it over” and excuses himself. The groundwork for a truly Kinky klassic is laid.

“David Watts” is a wonderful rocker in and of itself, but its back-story adds a delicious layer of irony. Ray’s song is not a tale of intergenerational homosexuality but an envious ode to the school golden boy, the one who excels at such stereotypically hetero pursuits as fighting, football, and attracting the girls. Ray cannot resist dropping a few hints as to the nature of the real David, smirking “he is so gay and fancy-free” and mentioning that “all the girls in the neighborhood... can’t succeed” in snaring our hero. Because he doesn’t swing that way? Don’t be silly! He’s simply too “pure” and “noble” to succumb to pleasures of the flesh.

As is so often the case with Ray Davies’s character studies, the subject of the story is not quite as fascinating as the storyteller. The singer imbues his narrator with such palpable envy (“When I lie on my pillow at night, I dream I can fight like David Watts”), such drooling desire for his schoolmate’s status. The infectious “fa fa fa fa” chorus is an inarticulate cry of frustration, yet oddly polite enough to suit the song’s sheen of reserve when it enters in unison with the bouncy piano lick. As Ray’s envy swells throughout the song, the performance intensifies. Pete Quaife’s octave-hopping bassline seems more neurotic. Mick Avory bashes his kit more manically. The track reaches its peak, everyone but Quaife drops out in exhaustion, Ray howls out from the emptiness: “Wish I could be like! Wish I could be like! Wish I could be like!” Mick counts the group back in with a massive “2, 3, 4!” thump on his toms. Everyone explodes around Ray, who can only wail about his unfulfilled wish through the fade.

Track 2: Death of a Clown (Ray and Dave Davies)

While Ray was poking fun at his brother—and possibly attempting to sell him into sexual slavery—Dave was working up a coup of his own. Examples of his development as a songwriter were sparse indeed. The Kinks had not recorded one of Dave’s songs since late 1965’s “I Am Free”, a pretty but minor cut from The Kink Kontroversy. The only other evidence of his compositional talents was “Wait Till the Summer Comes Along” from the Kwyet Kinks E.P. Excellent as that folk tune is, it still must have come as a shock when Dave produced “Death of a Clown”. This was a dramatic art piece, the work of a seasoned professional. The song was only missing a central lick to hold it together. Ray suggested a minor key melody based on the “Harry Lime Theme” from The Third Man. To approximate the sound of that piece’s zither, Ray plucked the strings of his piano instead of fingering the keys. The haunting, harp-like tinkling can be heard on the completed song.

Although Ray initially found the song to be Dylanesque, it is far too English to compare to America’s bard. More pub sing-along than folk-rock, “Death of a Clown” spins images of a circus’ melancholic collapse. The lion tamer and his charges have lost the will to entertain. The trainer of insects finds that his performers have gone AWOL. Not only is the clown dead, but so is the fortuneteller, who has apparently passed away from lack of interest. The survivors give up and get drunk.

The lyric was born from recent changes in Dave’s life. After getting his girlfriend, Lisbet, pregnant, he decided to marry her and ostensibly hang up his raving party-man persona. “Death of a Clown” is a eulogy to Dave’s days as the tippling fool— a role he later said he often played despite his own profound weariness.

Without Ray’s minor key flourish, the desperation at the heart of the song would not have been so deeply felt. Ray’s new wife Rasa is one of the key contributors to the magic of Something Else, and she plays a particularly central role in “Death of a Clown” by matching that section’s melody with choir-girl “la-la-las”: a wistful counterpoint to the taught “fa fa fas” of “David Watts”. The recording is as vacant as “Watts” is dense, the echoing emptiness of an evacuated circus tent. Quite a sad number to feature so early in the L.P. When released as a Dave Davies single in July, “Death of a Clown” somersaulted to #3 on the U.K. charts. The successful launch of Dave’s solo career might be a happy twist on a morose song if it weren’t for the fact that he was so reluctant to have a solo career.

Track 3: Two Sisters (Ray Davies)

In November of 1966, the clown was not dead yet. Dave was some six months from marrying Lisbet and well engaged in the full-tilt partying that earned him the title “Dave the Rave.” Ray had another name for his little brother: Sybilla. At least, the fun-loving London lass was Dave’s persona in “Two Sisters”. Ray gave himself a gender reassignment too, and Priscilla was born.

Ray and Rasa had already been married for two years, and as would be the case with Dave’s upcoming nuptials, a pre-wedlock conception was the initiating event. Ray found himself with a pregnant wife nearly simultaneously with his first smash, “You Really Got Me”. As his fellow Kinks indulged in all the hedonism virile pop stars enjoyed in the ‘60s, Ray was stuck at home. “Two Sisters” is an expression of that weary frustration. Housewife Priscilla tends to the laundry and the babies and the breakfast, jealous of Sybilla, who gads about town with “her liberty and her smart young friends.”

In his “unauthorized autobiography” X-Ray, Ray revealed that Priscilla drew equal inspiration from Rasa, who in keeping with the chauvinistic times, was the Davies who actually did all the housework and baby raising. The track’s final twist was more personal. Seeing his little Louisa scurry about on the carpet eased some of Ray’s irritation about having his wings clipped, and with classic Davies bitter-sweetness, the track’s bitterness is sweetened with the final, funny image of Priscilla resigning herself to motherhood and running “‘round the house with her curlers on” in a state of domestic bliss. Sybilla, however, is condemned as a “wayward lass.” Reactionary tisking or sour grapes? When it comes to Ray Davies, it’s probably both.

At barely a tick over two minutes, “Two Sisters” is the kind of economical, impeccably realized tale that is Ray’s forte. There are two distinct (if caricaturish) characters, colorful details, costumes, and a satisfying twist. A few lines of dialogue and it would be fit for the stage. The Kinks first recorded “Two Sisters” as “Sybilla and Priscilla” in late ’66, but the version that ended up on Something Else was re-cut a few months later in February 1967 with session-man Nicky Hopkins’s exquisite harpsichord dominating and a light string accompaniment layering color over the final verse. Mick Avory gives the baroque arrangement thrust with his four-bangs-to-the-bar beat, only expanding into fills and releasing the track from tasteful control on the bridge in which Priscilla indulges in fantasies of freedom. Ray’s voice is reserved but wracked with underlying emotion, rising into pained yearning on that bridge. “Two Sisters” is a very British expression of stiff-upper-lip quiet desperation.

Track 4: No Return (Ray Davies)

Ray resigns himself to more pop-friendly matters on the album’s first love song. Of course, “No Return” is a love song Ray Davies-style, which means it’s neither the typical romantic celebration nor a tough-guy Rock & Roll kiss off. It has more in common with Roy Orbison’s paranoid “Running Scared”, but unlike that nerve-wracking number, “No Return” is resigned, perhaps even slightly hopeful. The singer takes a moonlit stroll, imagining—or is it fantasizing?—about being abandoned by his love. Even as he ruminates on how lonely he would be, how “stars would shine no more,” there is a trace of that Davies smirk in his melancholy sigh. A man who once dreamed of being shipwrecked alone on 1965’s “I’m on an Island” probably wouldn’t mind getting dumped and left to his solitude. Perhaps this is yet another fantasy of freedom from the family-shackled man.

Ray’s dreaming is complimented by a dreamy bossa nova rhythm. His finger picked nylon-string accompaniment showcases his rarely flaunted guitar expertise. Just as Mick’s abandoned drumming brought the bridge of “Two Sisters” to a head, Ray does the same for the bridge of “No Return”, both as composer (the key shift from C major to E major provides unexpected release) and guitarist (he rakes an emphatic exclamation down his strings after “now it looks like you’re gone”). Another miniature jewel.

Track 5: Harry Rag (Ray Davies)

The inward focus of Something Else stomps outward on the fatalistic “Harry Rag”. No longer is Ray merely examining his own jealous foibles. Such self-examinations are nuanced, forgiving. Ray’s criticisms tended to be sardonic, even vitriolic, spawning attacks like “A Well Respected Man”, “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”, “Mr. Pleasant”, and “Plastic Man”. His targets this time are smokers; “Harry Rag” being Cockney rhyming slang for “fag.” Ray lines ‘em up, and shoots ‘em down with the song’s cancerous weapon, though the song is more about addiction than the disease to which smoking was first linked just a few years earlier in the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health.

Each verse introduces a new victim, and no matter how bold or sickly or destitute or smart they may be, that nagging nic-fix usurps all other needs. Ray tosses himself among the lot but undercuts any real personal resonance by placing himself mid-song between Tom’s mum and the “smart young ladies” instead of in the climactic final verse. In “Harry Rag”, he’s just another nicotine stain.

Taken at face value, the lyrics can almost be interpreted as ode rather than denunciation. In his book The Story of The Kinks: You Really Got Me, Nick Hasted even contends that the song (his favorite on the record) is “about the restorative pleasure of cigarettes.”  However, the brooding minor key sets a spiteful tone, as does Ray’s muscular acoustic strumming and Mick’s crisp snare, which marches each addict off to bed. Ray spits his words, rolling them over his tongue with sadistic pleasure, spurring a cruelly jolly pub sing-along from his band mates that is short on restorative pleasures. “Harry Rag” is the first track on Something Else that falls short of the brilliance of its predecessors, but it varies the mood with a tartness only ameliorated by Rasa’s angelic “oohs.”

Track 6: Tin Soldier Man (Ray Davies)

From Ray’s nastiest Something Else song to his most peppermint sugar-coated. “Tin Soldier Man” began life as the clunkier “Sand on My Shoes”. Ray wrote this remorselessly old-fashioned number to please his old dad, who had a fondness for a local pair of Egyptian-sand-dancing buskers. Fortunately, Ray scrapped that recording and rethought his song, pepping up the tempo, toning down the cornball rooty-tooty arrangement, and tailoring it to fit the recent strain of kiddie pop tunes spearheaded by “Yellow Submarine”. With its big brass arrangement spotlighting the bass saxophone and jaunty oompah beat, “Tin Soldier Man” conjures images of little metal men coming to life and marching along a tot’s dresser-top while he’s asleep. Perhaps this number was written to please a Davies of a much younger generation, namely little Louisa.

To the older listener, it’s all so incredibly twee that “Tin Soldier Man” may elicit cringes on first listen. But the melody lodges in the brain so unshakably that it’s best just to accept the song and allow it to work its magic. Listen to the shades of subtlety in the performance: Ray’s audible grin, his confidential whisper of the nonsensical “wicky wack wack ooh, and he’s got a little tin lady too,” Mick’s saucy little solo at 2:13, the final joyous descending chord sequence, which nods its tin noggin to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. And is there a touch of Davies socially commentary here? Is he having a go at the military? Is he mocking the suited drones who march off to their office jobs every day like tin-brained soldiers? Or is Ray, himself, the “quiet city sport with a wife and little kids to support”? If this is some sort of commentary, it certainly isn’t as insightful as “Two Sisters” or as contemptuous as “Harry Rag”. “Tin Soldier Man” is just a bit of silliness to boggle up the mood with a tune for the young ones.

Track 7: Situation Vacant (Ray Davies)

From out of “Tin Soldier Man’s” toy-chest debris, a music box melody rises. Another youngster’s fancy? Mick’s 2-3-4 whacks put paid to that notion. “Situation Vacant” is the closest Something Else comes to the Chuck Berry Rock & Roll of The Kinks’ early years. Its lyrical concerns are decidedly adult. Newlyweds Susie and Johnny are doing just fine until Susie’s ambitious mom pokes her nose in and pushes Johnny to quit his job so he can find a higher paying, more prestigious position. In natural Kinks fashion, the old lady’s meddling ends in tragedy. Johnny can’t find work, he and Susie lose their apartment, she moves in with her mother, leaving her “little mama” as the only one who’s satisfied.

“Situation Vacant” is a classic Ray Davies character piece in which ambition leads to misery. Here was a guy who fulfilled every young man’s dream by becoming a Rock star in his early ‘20s, yet happiness still eluded him. Ray’s dissatisfaction with his home life spills over into his work yet again, although there’s no reason to believe Rasa’s mom was a troublemaker like Susie’s. The disastrous message is clear enough that delivering it via melancholy messenger would just be overkill. So The Kinks lope in the opposite direction with a lazy Berry boogie, Ray imparting the tale with his drunken drawl. Dave finally gets a chance to whip off a few licks on his Flying V, but keyboards are most prominent. Ray stabs out some rudimentary organ riffs. Nicky Hopkins sets an elegant tone with his intro before going barrelhouse on the verses and resuming a lighter touch for a refrain in which everything drops out save his piano and Ray’s mock-demure voice. Then everyone returns to rock raunchier than before. After a false fade, Nicky plunks down his keyboard, ushering the band back in for a more ominous run through of the chugging riff. Ray leans on the low end of his organ while Rasa wails wordlessly in the background, ending Side A of Something Else on an unexpectedly creepy note.

Track 8: Love Me Till the Sun Shines (Dave Davies)

From poppy rocker to pub lament to drawing-room baroque to bossa-nova idle to sneering folk to chipper children’s song to rolling rocker; Side A of Something Else is a line-up of conscious contrasts in the Revolver mode. Side B, however, begins with an ominous drone very much in step with the one that finished off the previous track. Like “Situation Vacant”, “Love Me Till the Sun Shines” is an electrified rocker. Unlike that side A closer, the ominous air purveys the entirety of the side B opener. Dave sings his plea for love-and-nothing-else as a threat that totally contrasts the sweet sentiment. Whereas “Harry Rag” was Ray playing the role of the sniping narrator, Dave seems to be sneering despite himself. There is a mild Eastern flavor in the rumbling riff that drives the track, as there is in the singer’s melismatic “suuuuuunshine.” Mick gets the opportunity to hit harder than anywhere else on the record, and he’s even allotted a few bars for a simple but effective run of solos before the final verse. “Love Me Till the Sun Shines” is taught where the majority of its album mates—including the rocking “Situation Vacant”—are loose and limber. As the scorching version The Kinks cut for the BBC attests, it would become even harder and fiercer live.

The album’s toughest number is also its most vulnerable. Dave gives his lover lots and lots of leeway: she can wear his clothes, play his records, move into his flat, help herself to his money, and snog his mates. That he doesn’t expect her to cook for him suggests a more equitable love than anything chauvinistic Jagger or Lennon would have demanded, while his uncharacteristic revelation of “you don’t have to sleep with me” implies love on an even higher plane. Or is it desperation?

In his autobiography Kink, Dave lists “Love Me Till the Sun Shines” among the songs inspired by his teenage girlfriend, Sue. Years after Dave’s mother broke up their relationship, he was still aching for her. This composition is his plainest expression of that need, though it does not seem to address Sue directly. That he only wants to be loved “till the sun shines,” or a single night, suggests he’s singing to a substitute, a “helpless” colleague in heartsickness who can help him through the night as he yearns for his true love.

Track 9: Lazy Old Sun (Ray Davies)

The eerie drone persists through “Lazy Old Sun”, though Ray’s textures are completely different from Dave’s electrified onslaught. Dave wants to be loved until the sun shines. Ray just wants it to shine, but the lazy old thing would rather hide behind thunderclouds. In keeping with the album’s underlying irony, Ray’s lament stirs sensations of punishing heat and blinding sunlight. Sweat and exhaustion pour from his voice, which struggles to a fraught cry on the second and fourth lines of each verse. Maracas play over-excited locusts. Mick languidly pounds along his toms, while Dave’s swelling guitar wanders in and out of the skyscape. Rasa howls from the sweltering mountaintops, and a Mellotron trumpet climbs to the heavens. “Lazy Old Sun” is remarkably vivid, picturesque music, and like “Fancy” on Face to Face, it’s an authentic approximation of Indian music executed exclusively with Western instruments.

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, which had come to a head the year before with a full-on nervous breakdown. But there is hope. The sun will inevitably return to “kiss (him) with one ray of light,” but if that sun is anywhere near as hot as this track, he might be better off without it. Raise your hands to the stereo speakers and feel the heat radiating from the cones.

Track 10: Afternoon Tea (Ray Davies)

Back on Earth, Ray turns his attention to more mundane, if no less heartbreaking, matters. He sits at his favorite café, wistfully sighing over memories of Donna, the girl who used to join him every afternoon for a little teatime rendezvous. But now Donna has “walked away”—no further explanation offered— leaving our hero in his preferred state of self-pitying isolation.

Unlike “Have a Cuppa Tea”, Ray’s greatest ode to Britain’s national beverage, “Afternoon Tea” forgoes overt Englishness for a light ska feel, though without the cod-Jamaican accent the singer affected on “I’m on an Island” and would do so again on “Apeman” and “Supersonic Rocketship”. An earlier version fell into the more predictable music hall swing one might expect from an ode to the very British ritual of afternoon tea.

At 3:28, “Afternoon Tea” is the longest track on Something Else, achieving that length with perhaps one too many repetitions of the title line. In contrast to economical numbers like “No Return” and “Two Sisters”, it feels a bit stretched beyond capacity. Dave and Pete’s unison chirp of the title is a little too twee. Still, “Afternoon Tea” is a pretty track that further expands Something Else’s stylistic palette. With its longing for days past, “Afternoon Tea” is also the album’s most explicit expression of nostalgia, a theme that would fully flower on the following year’s The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society.

Track 11: Funny Face (Dave Davies)

Dave maps out his recent songwriting development with amazing clarity on Something Else. “Love Me Till the Sun Shines” is akin to the simple statements of his earliest compositions, “I Am Free” and “Wait Till the Summer Comes Along”. With its picturesque metaphor, “Death of a Clown” is the next step in his evolution. “Funny Face” is the first hint of the surrealism (“All the gates of love you won’t walk through; the only gates you see are colored blue”) he’d continue to develop through his most masterful works from “Mindless Child of Motherhood” to “Strangers”. Once again, Dave’s doomed affair with Sue is the inspiration, but he recasts their separation as a medical drama with mother Davies playing the doctor who prevents him from seeing his terminal love. In “Death of a Clown”, his imagery is playfully morbid. In “Funny Face”, it’s utterly bleak. Dave’s only contact with his love is one final glimpse of her through a winter-frosted windowpane, her eyes smudged with mascara and pinned with medication. Although the doctors say she “won’t last any longer,” the chorus concludes, “Funny Face is alright”; the doctor’s diagnosis is a lie meant to rid Dave from her door. The sinister whisper and halting palm-muted riff of the verses and the choir-boy sigh of the pre-chorus overflow with anger on the title chant, climaxing with the shuddering riff that churns through the fade. “Funny Face” is Dave’s least celebrated but most accomplished song on Something Else; melodically and stylistically unique, poetic in the highest order, a strange yet strikingly clear snapshot of a single, pivotal moment in his life.

Track 12: End of the Season (Ray Davies)

With dour Dave taking such a dominant role on Side B thus far, it has lacked the humor (albeit dark humor) that kept Side A afloat. Ray pulls Something Else back into lighter (albeit dark light) territory on “End of the Season”. He croons the part of a posh twit who misses his girl, the summer weather, and Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home’s conservative administration in equal measure. He is the twin of the layabout from “Sunny Afternoon”, another victim of Harold Wilson’s progressive taxes on the rich, though as Nick Hasted points out in The Story of The Kinks, Ray avoids the “solipsism” of George Harrison’s “Taxman” with a self-aware smirk. Ray must have realized that the sympathy he felt for the lower classes was at odds with his own infamous stinginess, because he always expressed his dissatisfaction for paying taxes with his tongue lodged in his cheek. So while he voices the “strictly second class” protagonists of “Dead End Street” with a straight face, he voices the wealthy antihero of “End of the Season” sarcastically. After all, the guy’s biggest problem is that he can’t find a place to play cricket in the wintertime. Poor boy!

The backward 1920s feel compliments the character’s backward conservatism beautifully. To the chirping of summer birds, Ray begins with a suspenseful introduction that creates the sensation of rising even as the melody and harmony never shift from D major. Then with Pete Quaife’s tiptoeing bass descent, the band settles into an ear-catching half-step chord progression while Ray does his best imitation of Rudee Vallee crooning through his megaphone. With an arrangement favoring low-end instruments (bass, piano) and high voices (Dave and Pete substitute for Rasa’s falsetto nicely), there is no middle range. Spruced up with ample echo, the track feels hollow, which abets its wintery desolation and the auditory-illusion that it is reverberating from the horn of an ancient Victor V phonograph. What may have been conceived as a sort of Bonzo Dog Doodah Band parody is rendered exquisite by The Kinks’ irrepressible sensitivity.

Track 13: Waterloo Sunset (Ray Davies)

Side B of Something Else by The Kinks begins with the hours leading up to the sunrise. The sun rises, though it hides itself behind thunderheads. Then the afternoon, which passes lonely into frosty landscapes of lost love and privileged idleness. It is a day in the lives of all the people scuttling about London: the lower classes indulging in their one-night stands, the middle classes whiling away the hours at their cafés, and the upper classes strolling down Saville Row. The day draws to a close with a panoramic view of London and its “millions of people swarming like flies ‘round Waterloo underground.” Ray conjures his anthem for one of the world’s most bustling cities with signature intimacy. A masterpiece is born.

As was the case with “David Watts”, our observant narrator is our most interesting character in “Waterloo Sunset”. He perches at the window of his flat, gazing out at all the people who pass by, fixating on two particularly lovely young Londoners. Terry and Julie (rumored to be scene-making darlings Terence Stamp and Julie Christie) meet up on Friday nights, but they don’t head off to any swinging clubs. They are content to be alone, to “cross over the river where they feel safe and sound.” The observer, as we now know all too well, never feels safer or sounder than when he is completely alone. Terry and Julie only need each other. Ray Davies really only needs himself. The mere sight of other people is enough human contact for him, and with a view of the sun setting over the muddy old Thames, he is in paradise.

“Waterloo Sunset” is the perfect anthem for London…or for any other city for that matter. It is a graceful expression of simultaneous society and isolation, living literally surrounded by people, yet still feeling alone. That Ray finds comfort in that isolation, that he still loves people enough to want to connect with them via observation, is emblematic of his deep and complex humanity, as is the fragility of his melody. It is simple, direct, and indelible, so obvious it is amazing no songwriter had stumbled upon it before 1967. The arrangement too is the essence of simplicity, not even requiring anything as exotic as the organ of “Love Me Till the Sun Shines”. Ray on acoustic guitar, Dave on electric lead, Pete on bass, and Mick on drums, joined by unofficial Kink Rasa for her most heart-rending falsetto. An early take featured Nicky Hopkins on piano, but Ray deemed it “too professional” and took over the part himself. His elementary piano chords are only audible over the stunning coda, with its rainbow arches of overlapping vocals.

While “Waterloo Sunset” is regularly held up as Ray’s masterpiece, the other Kinks played important parts in bringing the track to life. Dave devised the central guitar riff (based on Ray’s melody, of course), employing a wiry tone to draw out that melody’s delicacy. Rasa dreamed up the transcendent falsetto parts. Pete masterminded the cheeky yet pensive “Sha-la-la” harmonies. But the song does belong to Ray, and he boasts of polishing the lyrics like “a pebble which had been rounded off by the sea” in X-Ray. It is, indeed, a perfect pop song, and a perfect statement to round off a near-perfect record.

Something Else by The Kinks was released 45 years ago tomorrow.
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