The Kinks’ Music: Something Else By The Kinks

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.

Something Else is the Kinks’ first masterpiece. Recorded while Ray Davies was twenty-two, and Dave Davies only nineteen, it’s an astonishingly mature album by any standards. When one realises it’s only three years since this band were recording mediocre blues covers, the rate at which the band were growing as artists becomes absolutely flabbergasting.

This growth was not, however, without its problems. Pete Quaife had already quit the band and rejoined once, but was becoming increasingly annoyed by Ray Davies’ autocratic attitude and paranoia — Davies had taken to making the band rehearse for recordings, and work out arrangements, without hearing his lyrics or vocal melodies in case they would tell his ideas to other musicians who would steal them.

Ray Davies was himself feeling confined by the band and the hit-making formula — after dumping Shel Talmy, the producer of the first four albums, halfway through the recording of this album, and becoming producer himself, he was looking across the Atlantic to the example of Brian Wilson, who would write, produce and sing on the Beach Boys’ records but would then send the rest of the band on tour without him. There were plans for both Davies brothers to release solo albums — and indeed three tracks from this album were released on Dave Davies solo singles – Death Of A Clown backed with Love Me Till The Sun Shines, and Funny Face as the B-side to non-album single Susannah’s Still Alive. The plan seems to have been that the Kinks would have become Dave Davies’ backing band, while Ray Davies would make solo concept albums.

That plan never came to fruition, and despite the difficulties, Something Else became the first of a run of studio albums that is equal to any in popular music. It is as far above Face To Face as that album was above The Kink Kontroversy. This album, more than any other, hit a perfect balance between commercial success (with three hit singles) and artistic achievement. It was, however, the band’s worst-charting album up to that point, and would be the last album the band made ever to hit the UK charts at all.

The Album

David Watts
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

The album starts with the most recognisable opening of any Kinks album, Ray Davies’ “nice and smooth” before the count-in to this song.“Nice and smooth” has taken on its own life in pop culture, becoming a catchphrase of King Mob in Grant Morrison’s comic series The Invisibles.

While it’s ostensibly about a schoolboy, David Watts was in fact a real person — a concert promoter in Rutland, who had once tried to buy Dave Davies from his brother for his own sexual uses. Once one knows that, lines like “And all the girls in the neighbourhood/Try to go out with David Watts/They try their best but can’t succeed” and “He is so gay and fancy-free” become not so much a gay subtext as outright gay text.

Musically, it’s a straightforward rocker, all on major chords and for the most part staying on the single chord of D. It’s a much more well-thought-out arrangement, and much tighter playing, than the earlier rockers, though, and is the first example of the two strands of the Kinks’ songwriting — the lighthearted social comments and portraits of odd individuals, and the hard rocking riff-based songs — coming together into a cohesive whole.

While this was never released as a single by the Kinks, the Jam had a hit with a soundalike cover version in 1978, which has led to this song appearing on many compilation albums and being one of the Kinks’ best-known album tracks.

Death Of A Clown
Writer: Dave and Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

While this song’s composition is credited to both Davies brothers, this astonishingly mature song is actually the first time that Dave Davies had equaled his brother’s songwriting ability, with Ray Davies’ only contributions being the ‘la la la’ bridge (sung by Rasa Davies) and the introduction (played on the plucked strings of a piano, and possibly inspired by the Beach Boys’ You Still Believe In Me, which started very similarly).

Musically, this is as Dylanesque as the Kinks ever got — simple chords, played on an acoustic guitar, with hoarse, almost sneering vocals — although Nicky Hopkins’ barrelhouse piano provides a feeling of continuity with the band’s other records from around this time. Lyrically, though, it’s a remarkable self-portrait from a young man who was increasingly unable to cope with the alcohol- and drug-fuelled life he was living.

It’s also a remarkable vocal tour de force, showcasing not only Dave Davies’ own voice (a very limited instrument, but expressive when used correctly as it is here) but also Ray Davies’ ability to take on other voices (in his wonderfully sarcastic backing vocals), and Rasa Davies, the Kinks’ in-studio secret weapon.

This was released as a solo single by Dave Davies, and reached number three in the charts, but Dave Davies soon found the pressure to write follow-up hits unbearable, and while he released several more solo singles over the next couple of years, he didn’t start a real solo career until 1980.

Two Sisters
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

One of the most beautiful songs Ray Davies ever wrote, this is a simple harpsichord-driven song about two sisters, one of whom is living a domesticated life with a husband and children, while the other is living a glamorous life of nightclubs and parties. Davies himself was having very conflicted feelings about his own life as a husband and father, in comparison to his brother’s more exciting lifestyle, but seems at least at this point to have accepted his life — the ending of the song, with Priscilla seeing her children and remembering the rewards of her own life, “so she danced round the house with her curlers on, no longer jealous of her sister”, is one of the most touching images Davies ever came up with.

No Return
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This rather lovely bossa nova track is in many ways the culmination of the fascination with descending chromatic scales seen in several songs on Face To Face. Whether it’s the D-C#-C guitar parts over C and B-flat chords at the beginning, the way the chord pattern over the line ‘passed me by’ is repeated a semitone lower for ‘said farewell’, or the way the middle eight’s chord sequence ends with F-E-E-flat-D, the whole backing track is built around a motif of descent by semitones, even as the melody soars upwards.

This lends a harmonic sophistication to the track that is rare in Davies’ work, but which suits the genre perfectly (Jobim, the master of bossa nova composition, often tried to fit all twelve notes in the chromatic scale into his songs). The lyrics, about the loss of one’s first real love, are so melancholy compared to the light sweetness of the melody and backing track that the song is lent a wistfulness that is rarely heard in pop music.

The track isn’t perfect — some of the acoustic guitar playing is a little hesitant — but this is the fourth minor masterpiece in a row on the album.

Harry Rag
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

After three rather dark, melancholy tracks in a row, we see here a return to the simpler, more bouncy feel of much of Face To Face, with a simple three-chord strumalong about the simple pleasure of smoking a cigarette. A variety of characters are portrayed, facing such eternal enemies as death and taxes with a smile, because they can smoke. Nowhere near as deep or powerful a track as the earlier songs on the album, this is nonetheless a fun singalong.

Tin Soldier Man
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This is another throwback to Face To Face, and a less successful one. It seems very much to have been written to a formula — simple verse with very few chords, bridge with yet another descending chromatic scale under a stationary chord, lyric mocking conformist city gents… it’s the kind of thing you’d come up with were you to try to write a Kinks-sounding song.

It’s not without interest — when Rasa Davies’ backing vocals come in with the key change to the relative minor on “wicky wack wack oo” the whole track sounds more alive — and it’s clearly been worked on. In particular, there are two different sections taking the place of the normal middle eight — the “every day you see his army” and “wicky wack wack oo” sections — showing Davies’ love of playing with the boundaries of normal song structure, something that would come out more on Autumn Almanac. It’s also one of the few tracks on the album to feature instrumentalists other than the four Kinks and Nicky Hopkins — having a small horn section — so may possibly have been considered as a single at one point.

Situation Vacant
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Another of the weaker tracks, this little slice-of-life story is essentially a mother-in-law joke writ large — Johnny quits his stable job in order to try to find a better job like his mother-in-law wants, but his mother-in-law gets what she really wants when Johnny’s wife leaves him because he’s got no job at all.

Once again this is musically a fairly straightforward rocker, with yet another chromatic descending bass part (under “for peace and quiet’s sake”), suggesting it was tossed off relatively quickly, but it has more imagination than the preceding track, especially in the way Rasa Davies’ wordless vocals over the fade merge with the lead guitar part.

Love Me Till The Sun Shines
Writer: Dave Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

Released as a Dave Davies solo track as the B-side to Death Of A Clown, this was a far less inspired song than its A-side. Other than some very mobile bass playing from Pete Quaife this is the kind of play-in-a-day song most people write once they’ve learned their first few guitar chords. It’s enjoyable enough of its type though, and it shows the quality of this album that even on the third comparatively weak song in a row it’s still sounding like the strongest album the band had made til this point.

Lazy Old Sun
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Yet another song built around a chromatic descent, this time the whole chord sequence goes down in semitones – F-E7-E-flat6-D-D-flat7-C7. After me pointing out the overuse of this technique in little spots in some songs on the album, one might expect that I would attack this as lazy. In fact this track, the closest the Kinks ever came to psychedelia (and one suspects a response to the Beatles’ Rain), is absolutely wonderful, with its low, moaning backwards guitar [FOOTNOTE At least, that’s my best guess as to what has been done to the guitar sound on the early part of the track.] and throbbing drum part (played exclusively on toms and bass drum, with added hand percussion). Rasa Davies’ voice sounds almost like a theremin here, and the whole thing is one of the best group performances on the album, though Ray Davies never thought it came off.

It also has some of Davies’ best lyrics, as he sings to the sun “when I was young, my world was three foot seven inch tall/When you were young there was no world at all”.

Afternoon Tea
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A bittersweet, enjoyable singalong track about the end of an affair, this features some nice country guitar from Dave Davies and a pleasant, simple chorus based around chords descending in whole steps. A lightweight song, but a necessary palette cleanser between two of the densest tracks on the album.

Funny Face
Writer: Dave Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

Other than possibly the final track, this is easily the highlight of the album, and the most emotionally raw thing Dave Davies ever wrote.

I don’t normally talk in my music books about the personal lives of the musicians, but it’s almost impossible to understand Dave Davies without understanding the central trauma of his life — when he was fifteen, he got a girl named Sue pregnant, and planned to marry her. His mother, however, thought that this would destroy his life, and so lied to him and told him that Sue had told her she didn’t love him any more, and that Dave was never to see her or their child. He only finally met his daughter in the mid-1990s.

And so we get this song, where the protagonist is being kept from seeing a woman he loves even though “everything you want was bought with lies”, who may be taken from him permanently (she’s being kept from him by doctors, and “they say you won’t last any longer”) and so he has to think of her “walking around in my memory”. However, he catches a brief glimpse of her “peering through frosted windows” and can reassure himself that “Funny face is all right”.

Davies sings the choruses in a falsetto utterly unlike his normal punkish howl, one that’s all the more affecting for being clearly out of his range, and these choruses, with their organ and Rasa Davies’ almost choral backing vocals, have a hymnal quality that is utterly beautiful.

This was released as the B-side to Dave Davies’ solo single Susannah’s Still Alive.

End Of The Season
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Noel Coward had become an influence on Ray Davies’ songwriting during the writing of Face To Face, and this is possibly Davies’ finest pastiche of Coward, down to a perfect imitation of him vocally. Musically, the song places a rather odd basic chord sequence (starting with G then moving to G#, back to G and then to E) against a bassline that moves from the tonic of whatever key the chord implies, to the superdominant, to the leading tone then back to the superdominant, a repeating ‘arch’ figure similar to some of those used in the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

The song perfectly follows pre-rock song structure, down to the use of an introduction using separate-but-related musical material from the rest of the song (in pre-rock music this would be called the ‘verse’, but that word has a different meaning now). The fun of the song comes from the way Davies juxtaposes this old style against more modern problems like nobody being at the club since a Labour government got in, getting no kicks on Saville Row, and there being no ‘chicks’ around, most of which are concerns one associates more with the Rolling Stones than with Coward.

Of course, now, the gap between 1967 and the present is much larger than the gap between 1967 and the pre-war era Davies is pastiching, and the song takes on a slightly different air, now that Swinging London is as far in the past as the British Empire.

Waterloo Sunset
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

There are two types of song I dread when writing about music. The first type is the dull song about which there is nothing much to say — a twelve-bar blues with lyrics like “I love you/yes I do/Ooh it’s true” — writing anything at all about such songs is a chore.

But then there are songs like Waterloo Sunset (are there any songs like Waterloo Sunset?), a song so obviously, blatantly perfect, and whose perfection is down to a simplicity and economy of expression, that to analyse it is pointless.

One can point out facts, of course — that Davies originally titled this song Liverpool Sunset, that the lead guitar has 50s-style tape echo applied, or that Davies wanted to call the lovers Bernard and Dorothy at first, because Terry and Julie sounded too glamorous — but those facts add nothing to one’s appreciation of the track.

And pointing out musical techniques is unnecessary. On some songs, pointing to the change between a minor seventh and an augmented minor seventh and how Davies does something similar on Set Me Free might give someone a new appreciation for the song. In this case, everyone already appreciates it.

The best I can do, really, is say that if you haven’t listened to this song in a little while, you should listen to it again. Listen to the mono version, not the abysmal stereo mix (thankfully both are on the deluxe CD version), and forget all the facts, like that this masterpiece only got to number two in the singles chart behind Brian Poole And The Tremeloes doing a bad cover of a Four Seasons song. Just listen and you’ll agree.

Waterloo Sunset‘s fine.

Bonus Tracks

Act Nice And Gentle
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

The B-side to Waterloo Sunset is the other type of song I dread writing about (though I wasn’t thinking of it when I wrote that passage) — it’s a twelve-bar blues with lyrics like “Come on baby, hold my hand/Come on baby, understand”. It has some nice country guitar, but is basically forgettable.

Mr Pleasant
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

The B-side to Autumn Almanac, but released as a single in many other countries, this is one of the band’s very strongest B-sides and appears on many ‘best of’ compilations. While it’s not up to the standards of their A-sides, and seems to have Davies trying to keep to a ‘satirical’ formula he’d already outgrown, it still has a lot more life in it than many of the other songs of this type, thanks largely to the vaguely ‘trad’ trombone part and to Nicky Hopkins’ barrelhouse piano.

Susannah’s Still Alive
Writer: Dave Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

Dave Davies’ second solo single (though again featuring all the other Kinks) is actually not as good as its B-side, but is still an extraordinarily good song. Once again apparently inspired by the girl he lost when he was fifteen, whose name was Sue, this tells the story of an alcoholic woman who is waiting for a lost love (a soldier, presumably dead) to return, and “wears nothing in her bed at night/She sleeps with the covers down, hoping somebody gets in”.

While musically it’s simple — driven by a riff that’s a variant on a standard boogie bassline, with vaguely Dylanesque harmonica from Ray Davies, and only four chords — it’s a far better song than one would expect from someone as young (and, frankly, thuggish) as Dave Davies was at the time. That it only got to number twenty in the charts is probably due to the slightly garbled lyric (the opening line is “Oh, Susannah’s bedraggled, but she still wears the locket round her neck”, in case you wondered) and bad double-tracking.

Autumn Almanac
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This may be the best single the Kinks ever released, and it’s certainly the most complex, despite its singalong sound.

Lyrically, the song is a portrait of a hunchbacked gardener Ray Davies employed at the time, who had scared him as a child and for whom he felt a great deal of empathy (Davies had damaged his back as a child, and has had to take pain medication for most of his life, and he worried for most of his teenage years and early adulthood that this damage would lead to him becoming hunchbacked). The description of someone living their entire life in one area, watching the football, having Sunday lunch and going to Blackpool for their holidays might sound mildly contemptuous, until one realises that Davies himself has lived almost his entire life within a mile or so of his childhood home and went to see every Arsenal home game around this time. (And Pete Quaife was quoted around this time as saying “LSD seemed to close minds into little boxes…The Kinks all agree that Sunday dinner is the greatest realisation of heaven”).

And here we get to the heart of Ray Davies’ writing in this period, which is that he is someone who has always felt attached to his family and local area, and felt a responsibility to them, even as he was having experiences that took him away from anything that could be offered by a pub in Muswell Hill. He disliked himself for getting above his station even as he resented the normality he wanted but couldn’t have.

Musically, this is quite astonishingly structured. It’s based around the simplest, most obvious chord pattern in music, a cycle of I-IV-V-I (or I-vi-V-I, its close relative), but by moving through different keys (usually by playing with major/minor relations) and time signatures it becomes quite bewildering. To break it down:

We start with an intro, cycling through IV-V-I in E repeatedly, for three bars of 4/4 followed by one bar of 6/4.

We then have the first verse, which starts with an Am, rather than the A major chord we would expect. This is the start of a vi-V-I sequence in G, after which the verse plays around with I, IV and V chords in G, and then the whole thing repeats. This is a total of two six-bar sections in 4/4.

Then there’s the section starting “Friday evening…”. This starts with Em (in the key of G) but then switches to E major, going back to the key we started the song in. This section goes i-I-IV9-V7-I-IV9-V7-I, a similar pattern to the intro, and consists of one bar of 4/4, one bar of 3/4 and four bars of 4/4.

We then, on the line “Tea, and toasted…” switch to a strange between-keys zone for six bars, before going into the second verse.

The second verse is structured the same way as the first, but has an extra 6/4 bar of D at the end before going into the next section.

The “I like my football” section is the simplest, just being on the I, IV and V chords of G, the same key as the previous section, and lasting a standard eight bars.

We then have the “this is my street” section, which starts with a key change from G to Gm, but over its eighteen bars (all in 4/4, but with the bass sometimes implying that they should be split into twos and sixes) wanders in a no-man’s land between G, Gm and E, never quite settling on any of them.

Verse three, the last verse, is the same as the first two verses, except that instead of ending “it’s my autumn almanac” it repeats “yes, yes, yes, yes” twice (over IV-V-I-V changes) before a coda which cycles through IV, V7 and I in 6/4 time.

This is a structure that doesn’t really admit of any analysis. Rather it’s the kind of structure that can only be created by someone who has internalised every lesson of pop song construction so thoroughly that he can ignore any of the rules that get in the way of what he wants to do and know it will work. That it sounds so casual, so effortless, is the true miracle of this song. Contemporaries were making music that was perhaps more complex, but where the Beatles, say, saved a song like Happiness Is A Warm Gun for an album track, this was released as a single and got to number three. A truly dazzling, breathtakingly good single.

Good Luck Charm
Writer: Spider John Koerner
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

A nice little oddity, this — a cover version of a ragtime-blues song originally released under the name Good Luck Child by Spider John Koerner, a Minnesota-based blues revivalist who was friends with (and an influence on) Bob Dylan. For this recording, done for a Dave Davies solo BBC session, Davies and Nicky Hopkins recast it as a Cockney knees-up.

Little Woman (backing track)
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: None

An absolutely gorgeous instrumental, with mellotron on flute setting (think Strawberry Fields), chorded piano and a very prominent, melodic bass line. This sounds at times like the Zombies’ Odessey And Oracle, at times like the Beach Boys, and at times it points forward to ideas that Davies would use on the Kinks’ next studio album, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. This really should have been taken further.

Sand On My Shoes
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This is an early attempt at Tin Soldier Man, with the same melody line and a very similar arrangement, with a lyric about being poor but happy, sitting at the beach. The subject (leaving city life behind to escape and live a more relaxed life) is one that Davies would return to, but the lyric here is half-baked at best, and the faked ending doesn’t do the song any favours. It’s easy to see why he rewrote it.

This entry was posted in music and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Kinks’ Music: Something Else By The Kinks

  1. TAD says:

    This was a good read. I’m woefully igornant of The Kinks music, so it’s a good intro for someone like me. I only know their hits, really. Like most Americans, I suspect (The Kinks have never been that big in the US, except for a handful of hit singles from the 60s).

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Weirdly, they were filling stadia in the early 80s in the US, at a time when they were making their most dreadful music.

      I think you’d at least like, possibly love, the studio albums from 1965 through 1972 — Face To Face, Something Else, Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur, Lola Vs Powerman And The Moneygoround, Muswell Hillbillies and Everybody’s In Showbiz. Of those, Something Else has the best individual tracks, but Village Green is the best album overall.

      Everything after 1972 is near-worthless bad hard rock and triple concept albums, and to be avoided.

      • TAD says:

        I bought Muswell Hillbillies many years ago (in the early 90s) and lsitened to it a couple times, and it did nothing for me. But I’d probably hear it differently now. My tastes have totally changed since then, musically speaking.

        The live album One For The Road was a monster here in the US, in terms of sales. I think that was sometime around 1980. The Destroyer song charted well back then, if I remember right. You’re right, The Kinks drew pretty well for their concert tours back then.

        I quite liked their Phobia album from the early 90s. It’s a bit over-long perhaps (you could easily cut 2-4 songs and it would probably help the album), but I thought the songwriting was strong. It wasn’t a ground-breaking album by any means, but it’s just simply an album of good Ray Davies songs, as I recall. I like the single, “Dreaming” I think it was called.

  2. cruth01 says:

    “Funny Face” over “David Watts” and maybe even “Waterloo Sunset”? Hard for me to see that one–FF does grow on me (a lot of Dave’s songs are an acquired taste for me) but still ranks kind of low on the album in my estimation. I like “Love Me Til The Sun Shines” better, and “Death of a Clown” better than either.

    I have to say, “Situation Vacant” has one of those little things I find it hard to get around (kind of like your complaint about “currant bun” on Preservation [why not rhyming synonyms??])–why didn’t Johnny keep his old job until something better came up? Did his mother-in-law insist he had to quit and go job-hunting full time? It seems implausible.

    It’s a good song, I think I’d like it 17% better if I didn’t keep getting caught up on that detail. It’s the kind of song that’s just generic enough that the lyrics matter a bit more than they would otherwise.

Comments are closed.