Before I had the honor of writing about music and nonfiction for actual publications, I posted reviews of my favorite albums on Amazon.com. I have reposted some of them on this sadly negelected blog in the categories of Amazon Flashback and Amazon Reviews. Inspired by Pitchfork’s Sunday review feature, I have decided to begin reposting my Amazon reviews on a regular basis. Since Pitchfork’s selection was Something Else by The Kinks this past Sunday, I figured that I would make it mine today. (Save for edits for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and factual accuracy, the pieces will appear exactly as they originally did.)
Britpop Ground Zero
In late 1960s, rock ‘n roll began to outgrow “Satisfaction,” “Love Me Do,” and “You Really Got Me.” Not only did bands become more socially and politically aware, they became more ambitious and eager to experiment. For their trouble, many of the great bands from this era–such as The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, and The Beach Boys–were rewarded with not only a secure musical legacy, but healthy financial benefits as well. The Kinks, who were banned from the US between the crucial years of 1965 and 1969, received neither. They had a handful of successful singles, but their LPs went almost completely unnoticed by record buyers.
Fortunately, the pendulum has swung, and The Kinks are now recognized as a major influence on subsequent generations of British rockers. To quote Mick Jones of The Clash, “As far as The Beatles, The Stones, and The Who are concerned, we don’t really hear that much about The Kinks. But they’re just as important, you know.”While the influence of The Beatles and The Stones spreads across the entire spectrum of popular music, that of The Kinks and The Who is most obvious in the punk (British and American) of the late 70s and the Britpop of the early 90s. Like Newton and Leibniz’s independent but nearly simultaneous invention of calculus, the fuzzy power chords of these bands’ 1964-5 singles laid the groundwork for punk, while assertions like Pete Townshend’s “hope I die before I get old” and Ray Davies’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”–a B-side that appeared 10 years before The Ramones’ debut–were philosophical proto-punk manifestos.
In the late 60s and early 70s, both bands turned toward catchy, melodic pop songs whose influence would be heard in everyone from The Jam and XTC to Blur and Pulp. And the career trajectory similarities don’t stop there: The Kinks and The Who could also be credited–or, if you prefer, blamed–for inventing the rock opera/concept album with their 1969 releases Arthur and Tommy (although The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow was released a year earlier than both). In the late 70s and early 90s, British groups would be inspired to sound like these British bands who had influenced them, rather than like the American artists who had influenced the British bands of the 60s.
Something Else by The Kinks was arguably the first full-length instance of what would be called Britpop a quarter-century later. (Or maybe it was Face To Face. Take your pick.) The proto-punk and American R&B elements of their first records were less salient on this record, having been replaced by a “distinctly British” blend of marching drums, slow to mid-tempo rockers and ballads, and primarily acoustic–but nonetheless rocking– guitars. Furthermore, the themes moved beyond boy loves girl to musical snapshots of schoolyard jealousy, sibling rivalry, disappointed in-laws, bittersweet solitude and, of course, underachieving circus folk.
It is one thing for a record to culminate in a one-two punch or trio of great songs, but quite another for it to start off with a right, left, and uppercut. That is what we get on Something Else. With the Stonesy thump of “David Watts” (later covered in a faithful if perfunctory manner by The Jam), the quirky, melancholy folk of “Death of a Clown,” and the thinly veiled allegory “Two Sisters,” this record wastes no time getting started. And it is hardly on cruise control before closing with “Waterloo Sunset,” a feather in the cap–if not jewel in the crown–of 60s British pop.
After the 1-2-3 punch that opens the record, things slow down a bit with “No Return,” which, like the similarly hazy and dreamlike “Lazy Old Sun,” shows that while the Kinks were not a psychedelic band or a bunch of hippies, they were clearly not impervious to the atmosphere of Swinging London. The same can be said of the hilarious “Harry Rag,” which humorously mocks the idea that anything is bearable if you’ve got the right stuff to take your mind off of it. “End of the Season,” sung by Ray in a mock lounge singer voice, is another highlight, and the music hall ditties “Tin Soldier Man” and “Situation Vacant” contribute significant personality to the record.
Then there are Dave Davies’ songs. I am a great fan of underdogs and unsung heroes, and I think that it can be said that Dave wrote at least one great song for every dozen or so that Ray did (see Dave’s The Album That Never Was for examples). The absurd folk of “Death of a Clown,” which reached #3 in the UK, is proof enough: “The trainer of insects is crouched on his knees/And frantically looking for runaway fleas.”
But Dave also contributes the steady rockers “Love Me Till the Sun Shines” and “Funny Face.” Hence, Something Else was for Dave what Revolver was for George Harrison. (The weakest track on the record is probably Ray’s “Afternoon Tea.” While its subject is quintessentially English, it hardly makes for compelling listening in this case.) And it would be a travesty to not give props to Nicky Hopkins for his superb piano and harpsichord work.
The bonus tracks on the 2000 reissue are far from the throwaways meant to entice completists that such tracks often are. First of all, Dave rears his underrated head with “Lincoln County” and the excellent “Susannah’s Still Alive,” which was a hit single in its own right. And Ray’s songs–especially “Autumn Almanac,” “Wonderboy,” “Polly,” and “There’s No Life Without Love”–are as good as anything to be found on this or any other Kinks record of the era.
It may be a bit unfortunate that this rerelease is in mono, for it is tempting to say that the stereo version packs more punch. But that is ultimately a matter of taste, and the fact is that this is a fascinating collection of songs, sounding very much like a product of its time–perhaps somewhat charmingly dated–and yet still unlike albums by the band’s peers. These elements combine to create a precious gem of the British Invasion, one which would itself spawn the gems of future British Invasions.