Some have expressed surprise that the Kinks should put out another box set, when Picture Book, a six-CD box set spanning the band’s whole career, came out less than six years ago.
The reason is very simple, really. This time they’ve got Andrew Sandoval, so they’re going to do it properly.
There were two big problems with Picture Book. The first was the comparative lack of interesting new recordings, but the second, bigger, problem was that it spanned the Kinks’ whole career.
Put simply, while one can argue about the exact length of the period during which the Kinks were what is technically known as Any Good At All, all but the most obsessive fan will agree that, say, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society or Arthur, Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire is more worthwhile than Schoolboys In Disgrace or UK Jive. While Ray and Dave Davies were always the core of the band, the team that made the great records was Ray, Dave, Pete Quaife, and Mick Avory, with Nicky Hopkins on piano and Rasa Davies on backing vocals. As those others dropped out one at a time, and particularly as Ray and Rasa’s marriage broke down, Ray’s songwriting deteriorated, and along with it the delicacy of touch that made the band’s late-60s work some of the best music ever recorded.
In my own book on the band, I took 1974 as the cut-off point, as the first ten years seemed as good a choice to cover as any. Here the cut-off is 1971, the end of the band’s contract with Pye Records, which also happily coincides with the band’s last notable UK hit singles, Lola and Apeman. So the five CDs here cover roughly the same ground as the first three CDs of Picture Book.
But this also has much more point to it than Picture Book. In the years since that release, Andrew Sandoval has supervised a series of double-CD deluxe editions of the Kinks’ albums, in much the same manner as his earlier wonderful Monkees deluxe editions. For these he pulled together a huge amount of previously unheard material — demos, outtakes, and BBC recordings, which essentially doubled the available 60s recordings by the band. The Anthology: 1964-1971 collects the best of these in one place, along with around twenty previously unreleased mixes, session recordings, and backing tracks (depending on what you actually count as unreleased tracks — the advertising claims twenty-five in total, but some of those are 19 seconds of studio chatter or an interview, but on the other hand the three takes of Dedicated Follower of Fashion only count as one track).
But it doesn’t make the other mistake that Picture Book made, which was to include alternative versions instead of the hits. While album tracks like The Village Green Preservation Society or B-sides like Big Black Smoke might be presented in live versions or different mixes, the singles are all here as you know them. Picture Book included outtake versions of Dead End Street and Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, but not the originals, which has to count as one of the more baffling decisions made for one of these compilations.
The result is the definitive collection of the Kinks’ best work, covering the hits, the important album tracks, and rarities like the live performance of This Strange Effect (a hit Ray wrote for Dave Berry) or the demo of I Go To Sleep. The tracklisting isn’t perfect — I’d have cut down disc one a bit, and included Yes Sir, No Sir, Moneygoround and Phenomenal Cat instead of some things like the rather poor live Chuck Berry covers, if we’re going purely on musical value. But on the other hand, the early Kinks did do a lot of raw R&B covers, and including some of them is important if you want to represent all facets of the band. It gets far more right than it gets wrong, including things like having the last of the Great Lost Kinks Album tracks to get an official CD release.
There’s not a HUGE amount here for those who don’t have the deluxe albums, but even for those who do having all of it in one place makes for a better listening experience, and the whole thing has been remastered. I am never sure to what extent I’m a decent judge of sound quality, but it sounds improved even over the deluxe CDs of a couple of years ago — listening just on headphones from my laptop, I not only heard guitar parts I’d not properly noticed before, but heard the plectrum hitting the strings.
The one problem I have is with the packaging. The booklet is very nicely done, but uninformative — it’s mostly a collage of news reports from the time, when it’d be nice to have had interviews with the surviving band members or something. I also thought that the quotes from members of Bon Jovi and Guns ‘n’ Roses and similar bands rather implied that I would respect the opinions of people in Guns ‘n’ Roses or Bon Jovi, which I could easily take as an insult, but I presume those are aimed at the band’s American audience, who mostly know them from their godawful stadium rock years.
But the case for the CDs themselves is simply *bad*. It’s a fold-out cardboard booklet, and it holds the CDs so tightly it’s literally impossible to get them out without gripping hold of them by the playing surface. I am convinced that sooner rather than later either the booklet will rip or the CDs will break, and it’s *so* bad that I would actually advise people just to get the MP3s rather than the physical media in this case — except that if you do you miss out on the vinyl-only live single that comes with the box.
But that’s the only flaw in an otherwise wonderful collection. Andrew Sandoval said on Facebook that it’s the best thing he’s ever worked on. I’m not sure I’d agree — I don’t think it tops the Nilsson box set last year, and it *may* not top some of the Monkees reissues he’s put out — but it’s very good. If you’re a Kinks completist there’s not a huge amount here you don’t have, but enough to keep you happy, while if you’re a more casual fan wanting to find out what there is to the Kinks other than that wonderful run of singles, you’ll discover exactly why the Kinks are second only to the Beatles among 60s British bands.