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The Kinks’ Music – The Kink Kontroversy

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on February 12, 2012

A revised version of this essay appears in Preservation: The Kinks’ Music 1964-1974, available in paperback , hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK) , and for all non-Kindle devices from Smashwords.

The Kink Kontroversy, the Kinks’ third album, was their last in their early ‘beat group’ mode. While it’s a definite improvement on the previous two albums, it’s also a step back in terms of Ray Davies’ songwriting from the non-album tracks that had recently appeared as singles and EPs. It seems, bizarrely, that Davies was seeing his singles as the place for experiment, while the albums were to be kept as close as possible to a formula. This would change with the next album, Face To Face, but here we still have a raw rock group rather than the Kinks as they would become, although the darker, more melancholy tinge to the lyrics is quite pronounced.

The Album

Milk Cow Blues
Writer: Sleepy John Estes
Lead Vocalist: Ray & Dave Davies

The album opener is the only cover on the album, a version of an old blues standard. Happily, it’s credited to the correct writer, Sleepy John Estes (most recordings credit Kokomo Arnold, whose recording of the song was more successful than Estes’ original), though truth be told there’s not much to have written in this collection of floating lyrics. [FOOTNOTE: A 'floating lyric' in the blues is a line that is used in many different songs, for example “don't the moon look lonesome shining through the trees/don't your heart feel lonesome when your baby packs up and leaves” or in the case of this song “don't that sun look good goin' down?/that old moon looks lonesome when my baby's not around”.] This is actually one of the most successful of the Kinks’ blues covers, largely because they completely abandon any pretence of playing the blues and instead turn it into a proto-psych rave-up, something like a three-minute version of Love’s Revelation, with a very prominent piano part from Nicky Hopkins.

Ring The Bells
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This song has one of Davies’ loveliest melodic ideas, based around a beautiful acoustic guitar riff tic-tocking between D and Asus4 chords. It’s such a nice melodic idea, in fact, that the Rolling Stones used it as the chorus to Ruby Tuesday a year later. The later song is better than this one, and more developed – this is still from a period where Davies believes that a two-chord riff and some repeated lyrics are enough by themselves to carry a song – but the similarity is so strong it’s astonishing that there appears not to have been a lawsuit.

Gotta Get The First Plane Home
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A very simplistic song, this track works better than the song due to its well-thought-out arrangement. Session drummer Clem Cattini [FOOTNOTE: Mick Avory had had a falling out with the rest of the band, especially Dave Davies, and barely plays on the album] uses the kick drum and toms to accentuate the riff, which itself is doubled on guitar and bass, while playing straight fours on a cymbal, while Nicky Hopkins plays boogie trills in the very highest range of the piano. Ray Davies also adds some good, if incongruous, blues harmonica. An example of how unpromising material can still be turned into an adequate record, given the right attention to detail in the arrangement.

When I See That Girl Of Mine
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A track that seems to have been written in the style of the Everly Brothers, this would have fit perfectly into the pop landscape two years earlier. Were it not for the prominence of the bass, this could pass for something Mitch Miller would write for Gerry And The Pacemakers or Freddie And The Dreamers, with its four-chord banal chirpy verse. It all falls apart slightly in the middle eight, with some rough double tracking and an ineffective key change, but it’s still a catchy enough piece of nothing. Bobby Rydell covered this in the US, which pretty much says it all.

I Am Free
Writer: Dave Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

The first sign that Dave Davies was going to become a serious songwriting rival to his brother, this is one of the highlights of the album. The lyrics are sixth-form nonsense, written by someone who likes using big words without caring very much if he actually understands what they mean, but musically this seems to be an attempt at sounding like Dylan, with its folk-rocking six/four strum. The thirteen-bar verses sound untutored, but utterly natural, and go well with the lyric about wanting to escape from civilisation and be free.

Till The End Of The Day
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A top ten hit in the UK, this barely scraped into the top fifty in the US, marking the start of the time when the Kinks’ fortunes in the US took a turn for the worse, after they were banned from performing over there thanks to their violent reputation.

It’s also a turning point in another way, being the last of the band’s generic pop singles. After this, all the rest of the band’s hits would be music that only they could have done.

This is a good thing, as this is musically by far the least interesting of the band’s run of sixties hit singles, the only real point of note being the way that while its tonal centre is in F (or possibly Dm), it starts in D major and wanders back there occasionally by having A chords rather than the expected Am.

It’s a catchy enough pop tune, but they’d done better before, and would do much better afterwards.

The World Keeps Going Round
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Another of the many simple, repetitive songs Davies wrote in this early period, this one appears to have been inspired by the Beatles’ Ticket To Ride, sharing with it its broken drum part, clangorous guitar and general world-weariness. It also strongly resembles the Beatles’ later Rain, which has very similar lyrical sentiments.

That said, this is again a clearly minor work, from a writer who still thinks repetition is the key to success.

I’m On An Island
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This is one of the few tracks on the album which points the way forward to the band’s later work. An ersatz-calypso track driven by acoustic rhythm guitar and piano, this immediately sounds worlds more professional than anything we’ve heard so far, and the song itself is one of the earliest examples of Davies mocking his own depression, something that would come up again and again over the next few years.

Something that could have been self-indulgent moping (our protagonist is ‘on an island’ because he’s alone since his girlfriend left him, and he wouldn’t mind being alone if he could just be alone with her) becomes instead a tongue-in-cheek piece of self-mockery, and Davies’ vocal here, which could easily have fallen onto the wrong side of the comedy racism borderline, just about manages to remain delightful rather than annoying.

The middle eight, interestingly, bears a strong melodic and syllabic resemblance to that of So How Come (No-One Loves Me)?, an Everly Brothers track that similarly straddles the borderline between comedy and angst.

Where Have All The Good Times Gone
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This, on the other hand, is an absolute masterpiece, and may well be the first post-modern pop song. Davies here impersonates Bob Dylan ca. Like A Rolling Stone to deliver a song that is, in part, a denunciation of the way the simple pop music of a year or two ago was being replaced by more complex, mature, downbeat music, like Like A Rolling Stone, the Rolling Stones’ version of Time Is On My Side, and the Beatles tracks Help! and Yesterday, all of which are parodied during the course of the song.

Except that the song itself is an example of the very form it’s parodying, because it’s a lyrically mature, complex song about depression and nostalgia, of precisely the type that was only just becoming possible for pop bands to record.

And this tension is at the heart of the song – it’s a song about depression, and the tricks it plays on you. The protagonist is depressed not because of anything in particular, but precisely because he’s depressed (“wondering where I’ve gone wrong/Will this depression last too long?”). While he starts by singing about how much better things used to be, soon he realises that “Yesterday was such an easy game for you to play, but let’s face it things are so much easier today” and that he needs bringing down to earth.

Not only that, but the idealised past, the ‘good times’, when described seem anything but – they’re obviously self-deceiving recollections (“they always told the truth”), but even so they still manage to sound awful (“didn’t have no money”, “Daddy didn’t have no toys and Mommy didn’t meet no boys”).

This tension – this longing for a past which is acknowledged as being mythical and never having really existed, while also trying to push forward in progressive directions that wouldn’t have been possible in the past, and self-reflexively commenting on both these tendencies – would become the most important and unique aspect of Ray Davies’ songwriting within a couple of years, dominating the band’s best three albums, Something Else, Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur. We see it here for the first time, in a song that was only considered at the time to be good enough to be a B-side.

It’s Too Late
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This, on the other hand, is a very basic country song of a type that could have been written by Hank Williams, but played to a slowed-down Chuck Berry rhythm, but without Berry’s swing – it sounds for all the world like a prototype for Status Quo.

Had this been played looser, in a more honky-tonk style, this could have been a very decent little track, but as it is it’s a bit flat-footed.

What’s In Store For Me
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

While this song is credited to Ray Davies, it sounds to me far more like Dave Davies’ work, both melodically and in its subject matter (the lyric is about wanting to see the future, with lines like “I wish I had a crystal ball”, which would fit rather well with the younger Davies’ well-known fascination with astrology and the occult).

Either way, this is a minor track, over almost before it’s begun. The one interesting feature here is the rhythm guitar part stabbing on the off-beat, a trick presumably borrowed from the Beatles’ She’s A Woman, and one that gives the track almost a ska feel.

You Can’t Win
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray and Dave Davies

And the album finishes with a chugalong R&B riff, one of the band’s best attempts at playing Mod style soul music. While this is still unimpressive stuff in itself, the difference in technical competence between this and the work on the band’s first album is astounding. From here on out, they were going to be able to turn that competence towards far more interesting material.

Bonus Tracks

Dedicated Follower Of Fashion
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

The first Kinks single to follow up on the social satire style of Well Respected Man, this could almost be part two of that song, but this time attacking, rather than the upper classes, the London fashionable set (although there was a great overlap between the two groups at the time).

While the song was apparently written as a straight attack, written after an argument (a fashionista had criticised Davies for wearing a comfortable but unfashionable jumper), Davies clearly saw an element of himself in the character. He’s later stated that the lines “they seek him here, they seek him there” (taken, of course, from The Scarlet Pimpernel) were aimed at much at himself and his desire not to be recognised, as well as his lack of a clear sense of identity, as at the character in the song. [FOOTNOTE: This would also make the slight homophobic/transphobic tinge of some of the lyrics seem slightly less offputting - Ray Davies has always been publicly ambiguous about his sexuality, while his brother is openly bisexual. If these lines are aimed at Davies himself, that would take the sting out of the song somewhat.]

In fact the song played a part in Davies’ increasing mental ill-health – he claimed later that people would sing the “oh yes he is” chorus at him in the street, and that in his fragile mental state he believed they were saying they knew who he was better than he did himself.

That said, none of this would have been apparent to listeners at the time, who would have taken the song for what it seems – a witty, playful attack on conformity. The language in the song is beautiful – Davies coined the word ‘Carnabetian’ as an adjectival form of Carnaby (after Carnaby St, the most famous fashion-shopping street in London at the time) and there are some lovely lines like “in matters of the cloth he is as fickle as can be”. Davies’ vocal is also extraordinary, running through a wide variety of different accents and voices effortlessly.

The song does have a bit of a nasty edge to it, as many of the whole 60s ‘attacking conformity’ genre did, but at least here Davies is attacking the hip and trendy rather than middle-aged normal people.

One thing that is always said about this song which is a complete nonsense, though, is that it’s a ‘music-hall’ song. This shows that most people who write about pop music haven’t got ears. Davies’ vocal and the call-and-response chorus do owe a little to music-hall traditions, but musically this is a country-folk song.

I’ll go further and go out on a limb and say it was patterned specifically after Johnny Cash’s cover of Lead Belly’s Rock Island Line. Both songs start with a strummed acoustic guitar, playing the same pattern (slightly stressing the off-beats), then bring in a prominent bassline mostly playing around with firsts and fifths, a similar simple drum pattern, and rockabilly picked guitar (Dave Davies seems to be doing a fairly accurate impression of Luther Perkins, Cash’s guitarist). The parallels aren’t exact – Rock Island Line starts slow and then builds up to a faster pace, while this track stays at one tempo throughout – but this song as recorded owes at least as much to country blues as it does to the music hall.

Sittin’ On My Sofa
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

The B-side to Dedicated Follower Of Fashion was this riff-driven freakbeat 12-bar blues, sounding much like every other London band of the time who had heard a few Stax records. It would have been great to dance to in a Mod nightclub, and it is far more accomplished musically than anything the band had done for their first two albums, but it’s still ultimately forgettable (and, at 3:07, rather too long for the few ideas it has).

I’m Not Like Everybody Else
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

This track, apparently originally intended for The Animals, was released as the B-side to Sunny Afternoon, but has become one of the band’s most-loved tracks, mostly for its punkish attitude (it includes another little dig at the competition – “I won’t say that I Feel Fine like everybody else”). In truth, though, it’s nowhere near the song its reputation suggests. It’s a very callow piece of work, and it exalts individuality in the most generic way possible, so that it was perfectly possible for IBM, the apex of corporate responsibility, to use it in a TV commercial.

Likewise, I remember seeing Ray Davies perform this live at Glastonbury, in front of an audience of about twenty thousand people, all singing happily along, in unison. Davies even introduced the song by saying “None of us are like anyone else, are we?” and pointing a mic at the crowd to get them to bellow “NO!” as one. The crowd appeared not to see anything amusing in this, though one hopes that Davies at least was aware of what he was doing.

It’s a catchy enough song, but at three minutes twenty-eight it outstays its welcome somewhat.

Mr. Reporter
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This is a minor piece, a Dylan pastiche right down to the ridiculously lengthened nasal vowels. It’s one of the earliest of that annoying subspecies of song, the whine about what a difficult life it is being a rock star. In this case, Davies is attacking, at inordinate length, reporters who misquote him. Some of it is frankly bizarre – “Why, Mr Reporter, do you like some things more than most?” – and there’s an anger to the song that unfortunately means it is lacking in craft. This is a purely relative judgement of course – compared even to the songs the band had been recording three months earlier for the album proper, this is a minor masterpiece – but compared to what Davies was capable of, it clearly falls flat.

The band would return to this song again, for a version with Dave Davies on vocals for a projected solo album, but while that version is an improvement on this, both tracks remained unreleased for good reason.

Time Will Tell
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A thinly-recorded outtake that sounds more like a demo than a finished recording, this track is more interesting than much of what made it to the actual album. A fuzz guitar raveup, it points the way to another possible direction for the Kinks’ music, a road never travelled. Because this song keeps much of the feel of the first three albums, but with more competent musicianship, and with lyrics that seem to deal very frankly with Davies’ increasing depression and feeling that he was an actor playing a role – the chorus starts “time will tell if I’ll survive/I’d rather be dead than just pretend I’m alive”.

This sounds a couple of years ahead of its time, and could easily have been a garage-psych classic for a band like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.

And I Will Love You
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A rather pretty little track that was never taken any further, this is another of Davies’ songs of this period that is based around the repetition of a couple of phrases over and over, and is one of his last songs in that style. It does, however, show the increasing musical sophistication of the band, being based around a bossa nova beat and with a hammond organ pad that one assumes they weren’t taking entirely seriously, but which is still a more adventurous sound than much of what they’d used on record earlier.

Davies here uses the same strange vocal style he uses on I’m On An Island – a style that sounds like a caricature of an ethnic accent, except that no accent in the world sounds anything like it. It’s an odd style, and one he’ll return to at several points in the future, but it works.

All Night Stand
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A very hissy acoustic demo, this song seems to have been written as a favour for Shel Talmy – it shares a title with a book Talmy’s new publishing company was releasing, and was recorded by a band called The Thoughts on a label Talmy owned.

While catchy, it seems completely tossed-off, and its origin is probably visible in the last lines – “Can’t get these people off my back/ten percent for this and that”. Davies was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the number of people, Talmy included, who had business interests in the Kinks but who appeared to have little sympathy for his creative aspirations.

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