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Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Kinks: Something Else By The Kinks

THE KINKS: SOMETHING ELSE BY THE KINKS (1967)

1) David Watts; 2) Death Of A Clown; 3) Two Sisters; 4) No Return; 5) Harry Rag; 6) Tin Soldier Man; 7) Situation Vacant; 8) Love Me Till The Sun Shines; 9) Lazy Old Sun; 10) Afternoon Tea; 11) Funny Face; 12) End Of The Season; 13) Waterloo Sunset; 14*) Act Nice And Gentle; 15*) Autumn Almanac; 16*) Susannah's Still Alive; 17*) Wonderboy; 18*) Polly; 19*) Lincoln County; 20*) There's No Life Without Love; 21*) Lazy Old Sun (alternate take).

On a purely formal basis, the leap from Face To Face to Something Else is neither as huge or as unpredictable as the leap from Kink Kontroversy to Face To Face — this is, essentially, just Vol. 2 of Ray Davies' ongoing project on the «Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of Select Members of the British Society (Which They Never Meant to Publish on Any Account, But Took Kind Advantage of Mr. Ray Davies to Do for Them)». Some of the more critical contemporary reviews actually latched on to that, complaining that Ray's passion had become an obsession, and that the Kinks were becoming boring and formulaic, instead of pushing forward and breaking the good old boundaries.

So why is it that, eventually, Something Else emerged as a critical darling, typically rated maybe half a notch below Village Green as the ultimate Kinks experience? The inclusion of ʽWaterloo Sunsetʼ, Ray's equivalent of ʽYesterdayʼ in the public conscious, has a lot do with it — but mostly, I guess, it is the tacit understanding that Something Else was the first Kinks album on which Ray's artistic vision is given to us without any signs of compromising. In 1966, he was still a pop songwriter, albeit a brilliant one — yet for each ʽSunny Afternoonʼ, there was still an ʽI'll Remember Youʼ, nice formulaic pop songs without a soul of their own. If Face To Face was their Rubber Soul, a brilliant record with certain elements that still tied the band to their some­what more constricted past (like ʽWaitʼ, etc.), then Something Else is their Revolver: a record where each and every song transcends mere «good» and heads straight for the upper levels of «revelatory» or, at least, «insightful».

In terms of stunning musical breakthroughs, it is hard to say in which precise spots Something Else hits anything like that. Apart from a little bossanova on ʽNo Returnʼ and maybe a bit of French pop influence on ʽEnd Of The Seasonʼ, Ray here is perfectly fine sticking to the same old sources of inspiration: a little pop, a little music hall and vaudeville, a shot of rhythm'n'blues to make sure the wolves still have their teeth intact, and a splash of the harpsichord to show that they are still committed to that baroque-pop spirit. From this point of view, the album is not really «something else!» with an exclamation sign, more like a humble, excusatory «just some­thing else» without demanding any unreasonably high expectations. The real task that Ray sets for himself has little to do with «blowing minds» by means of strange sounds never heard before, and everything to do with writing a percep­tive chronicle of everyday life in his native country — life as it happens to people who might never have even heard of the UFO Club — and presenting it in the format of catchy, easily acces­sible, and aurally friendly pop tunes.

So far, so good. But here is the true catch that separates Something Else (and its follow-ups) from oh so many pop-rock and roots-rock albums championing the underdog: believe it or not, it actually has a very distinct psychedelic flavor of its own, though it has nothing to do with the psychedelia of Sgt. Pepper, Piper, or Are You Experienced?. Because first and foremost, Ray Davies is not actually a chronicler: Ray Davies is a dreamer. Most of his best songs are dream tunes — fantasies that are grounded in reality, but twist it according to their creator's impulses, "I-wish-it-were-so" types of songs. "Wish I could be like David Watts", "living in a little tin wonderland", "as long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise", these are just the most obvious bits on this particular album. With the exception of just a few obvious downers such as ʽDead End Streetʼ, Ray seems to have sworn off thoroughly depressing songs forever — no matter how gloomy the reality, it is always within your mindpower to create a bubble of light in which you can safely deposit your conscience. This is the essence of Ray's unique vision, and Something Else is the first of several records on which it turns out to be fully realized.

What I mean is that ʽDavid Wattsʼ is a fun song whose continuous fa-fa-fa-fa's will probably stick in your head with the same ease as the Beatles' yeah yeah yeah's; but it is also more than a fun song — it is a song about "lying on your pillow at night", with echoes of today's vivacious school team performance still in your head, and fantasizing about what it would take to live somebody else's life. (Given that the real life David Watts, according to Ray's memoirs, was gay, some people offer a homoerotic interpretation to the song, but sexual themes are clearly not its main point — the protagonist does not wish to fuck David Watts, he wishes to be David Watts). Just think of the song's crude, monotonous, crazyass-pulsating bass/piano duet as a musical representation of one's wildly pulsating brain, still heavily adrenaline-charged from the day's events, and all of a sudden, ʽDavid Wattsʼ is no longer just a funny-silly novelty tune, but a masterful exercise in music psychology.

Fast forward a bit to ʽTin Soldier Manʼ, and the pattern repeats itself, except that this dream is not so much a wish fantasy as an impressionistic metaphor — portraying your routinely disciplined, punctual, petty-tyrannical neighbor as a living and breathing tin soldier, to the sounds of one of the catchiest and most carnivalesque military marches ever written in the land of Gilbert and Sul­livan. It is not a mean song, though: you may read your social criticism into it if you wish, but you may just as well look at it as a grown-up child's instinctive impression of the behavioral patterns of his curious neighbor. There is certainly nothing bitter or sardonic in the music, those bouncy, uplifting, toy-military chords that get your feet tapping (it is probably one of my own most-often-whistled melodies of all time, because how can you ever abstain?..): Ray is building up his own little collection of Pictures At An Exhibition, open for your own additional interpreta­tion: take pity on the tin soldier man, despise the tin soldier man, or simply take the time to tap your foot and admire him as an exotic exhibit.

Fast forward once again, to the very end, and the reason why everybody loves ʽWaterloo Sunsetʼ is because the whole song is a dream — or, at least, a piece of alternate reality that the hero has constructed for himself, completely blocking out those "millions of people swarming like flies 'round Waterloo underground" and fully concentrating on Terry and Julie instead (and still prefer­ring to admire them from afar rather than introducing himself directly into their lives). The usual focus of attention here is brother Dave's dense and juicy guitar tone, coming in colours every­where from your speakers; but for me, the chief hook of the song comes with Ray's rising to dreamy falsetto on the "but I don't... need no friends"  and "but I don't... feel afraid" mini-bridge: this is the part where quiet, peaceful observation is brilliantly resolved into some sort of inter­nalized spiritual orgasm — the protagonist being at peace with the world as long as the world does not bother him and lets him freely concentrate on select individual spots of beauty that he has chosen for himself. In a truly alternate reality where literature characters come to life and move freely across time, this would probably have been Boo Radley's favorite song.

Of course, Something Else also features plenty of songs where the outside observer seems to disappear, giving way to third-person narratives about peculiar types of situations: ʽTwo Sistersʼ, for instance, about a quiet and ambiguous rivalry between a housewife and a socialite, or ʽSitua­tion Vacantʼ, about how your mother-in-law can really spoil your day (indeed!). But even ʽTwo Sistersʼ sounds dreamy, with Nicky Hopkins' harpsichord melody taking your mind far away from the possible reality of the song — let alone the fact that the story of two sisters only serves as an allegory for two brothers (Ray and Dave), which is certainly not a fact that one is obliged to learn in order to enjoy the tune as a modern fairy tale (and, for that matter, don't the names Sylvilla and Percilla actually sound as if taken from something by Charles Perrault?). ʽSituation Vacantʼ is a harsher, harder-rocking little number with distinct bluesy overtones (still, even that does not prevent Hopkins from inserting a few extra baroque piano flourishes), but, hilariously, it is also the one song on the album that comes closest of them all to traditional psychedelia — you just have to watch for the coda and its combo of ghostly falsettos, buzzing lead guitars, and wobbly bass piano chords. It does not fit in all that well with the overall mood of the album, but a bit of unpredictable diversity never hurt a great record.

And what about brother Dave? He has a hard time living up to Ray's level, but at least he has the good sense to cautiously follow in his footsteps than insist on recording ferocious rock'n'roll and spoiling the party for good. ʽDeath Of A Clownʼ, the song that almost won him a solo career, fits in brilliantly with Ray's subject matter — not as dreamy and reclusive, given Dave's extroverted nature, but providing the picture gallery with another subtly painted character portrait (for some reason, «sad clown» imagery was really popular with British pop bands around 1966-67: the Hollies, for instance, had at least a couple of songs devoted to the same matter). ʽLove Me Till The Sun Shinesʼ and ʽFunny Faceʼ are nowhere near as catchy and sound inspired by Small Faces, but Dave is no Steve Marriott when it comes to belting, and the Kinks' rhythm section cannot hope to match that competition in terms of power and crunch, but at least both songs are still in a pop vein and do not detract from the overall mood. ʽFunny Faceʼ does stick out as a bit of a sore thumb in between the stylishly sentimental ʽAfternoon Teaʼ and ʽEnd Of The Seasonʼ, which is probably why my brain always tends to scratch it out of existence.

So much said and I have not even had the chance to extol the virtues of ʽHarry Ragʼ (ruffiest and gruffiest and funniest and catchiest ode to tobacco ever recorded!), or those of ʽLazy Old Sunʼ (another brave attempt at hammock-style psychedelia), or the decidedly uncatchy, but charming bossanova experiment of ʽNo Returnʼ — and then there are the bonus tracks on the CD edition, representing con­temporary A- and B-sides, all of which are treasurable one way or the other, and most of which would legitimately fit in the same picture gallery. Of these, it is impossible not to say a few words about ʽAutumn Almanacʼ, a solid contender for the most accomplished and, well, fundamental song Ray ever wrote — not only is it technically brilliant, combining a catchy chorus with a never-ending stream of fluctuating-alternating verse melodies that flow in and out of each other more smoothly than rivulets, but it's got Ray's entire emotional palette (tenderness, humor, sympathy, humility, sadness, nostalgia — everything but anger and bitterness, which he was moving away from at the time) flashing across your brain in three minutes time: submit to it properly and it might just leave you a better person by the end, or at least make you think more fondly of the autumnal season. There's more ideas and feelings contained in that one pop song than in an entire pop album by the average pop artist — Ray sure as hell ain't greedy with his hooks, and the result is a masterpiece that always sounds fresh and exciting, no matter how many times I hear it. "This is my street and I'm never gonna leave it", in particular, despite the soft and feeble delivery, is as decisive and definitive a statement as any punk slogan ever voiced.

That ʽAutumn Almanacʼ became the last Kinks single until ʽLolaʼ to hip the Top 10, and that Something Else became their last album ever to chart at all in their native homeland is at the same time understandable and bewildering — understandable because people like loud, flashy, egotistical thingies that help them tickle their pride or rally their resources, but bewildering because while he was still in his prime, Ray never betrayed the cause of the well-crafted pop hook (or a whole smattering of those) in favor of his lyrical portraits or sentimental mood swings. With the exception of ʽNo Returnʼ (too jazzy) and ʽFunny Faceʼ (too Davey), I can still vividly remember how each song here goes without listening to the album for years — and the same goes for vaudevillian singles like ʽWonderboyʼ, allegedly well-loved by John Lennon (it does have a bit of the «positive John» mood in it) but despised by the record-buying public back in early 1968, though, frankly, it is just not as anthemic as ʽHey Judeʼ, but it also teaches you to love life and take it as it comes in memorable verses and choruses. Perhaps they should have attached a four-minute epic coda of la-la-la's at the end?..

Anyway, fortunately, by the 21st century the reputation of the album — and post-ʽSunny After­noonʼ Kinks in general — has recovered so well that there is no sense defending it; there is only sense in trying to understand and interpret it to the best of one's ability, and explain why it is one of the most intelligent and emotional artistic representations of one person's inner world in 1967. There are psychological corners explored here that you won't find on Sgt. Pepper, or on Smile, or on any other of those albums with their big guns, blasting away at the sun, while Ray Davies here is just fussing around with his microscope. And, of course, this does not make Something Else better than any of those albums — it is simply needed to round out and complete the picture of 1967 as one of the most awesome years in popular music. "Lazy old sun, what have you done to summertime?" is the Kinks' perfect response to the Summer of Love; and, for what it's worth, the album came out on September 15, opening Ray's personal Autumn of Sympathy, which is every bit as deserving of its own thumbs up.

14 comments:

  1. No comment on the ripping off of Let’s Spend the Night Together for both the piano riff and the vocal hook of David Watts?

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    1. What? There's some remote similarity, but no way that's a rip-off. The Kinks did some very obvious rip-offs of the Stones later in their career ('Catch Me Now I'm Falling' = 'Jumpin' Jack Flash'), but these songs have distinctly different melodies.

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  2. I have criticized you (and stick to that criticism) for comparing the BeeGees with Biedermeier culture, but here

    "Ray is building up his own little collection of Pictures At An Exhibition"
    I think you're spot on. The comparison extends to the entire career or at least up to 1970. Mussorgsky's collection of miniatures is both about the paintings as about Mussorgsky's reflection on them; The Kinks' miniatures (it applies to Dave's best songs as well) have the same duality. Just replace paintings with images of daily life.

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  3. Strong review, thanks George. Seems your sentiments to this album have grown compared to the old site review, where you were a little harsher on it.

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  4. Im sure Lennon liked ‘Wonderboy’. Compare the verses of ‘Wonderboy’ and ‘Beautiful Boy’

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  5. George, I'm curious as to which musicians your opinions have changed on the most drastically in the years since the original webpage stopped being updated. Many of these re-takes seem more generous toward modern music than the young and bold Mr. Starostin who wrote the review credos on the old page. Just wondering :)

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  6. Hoping that Days of Future Passed fits into the '67 reviews. After all, it was your first that I ever read. I realize the Moodys haven't had the kind of critical revival that the Kinks, Faces, and Prettys have had, but it's still the first and most successful merging of five-piece rock and orchestra in one album.

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  7. Out of curiosity, I listened to the album again, after reading your review. You're right; it's a gem. Maybe the older one gets, the better one gets to appreciate the past. Thanks.

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  8. "Wonderboy"'s chorus hook ('cos I'll see you and you'll see me') was nicked by Noel Gallagher and mixed with elements of 'with a little help from my friends' to make 'she's electric'. at least he knew the song...

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    1. Oh, not again. Yes, the line is similar to "Cos I'll be you and you'll be me" line in Oasis song and yes the coda is nicked from 'With a Little Help of My Friends', but that's not what makes 'She's Electric' a great song, it's individual in its' own right

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  9. Glad to see you like this album as much as I do. Shows that psychedelia doesn't necessarily mean bombarding you with 11-minute narcotic visions and distorted riffs (not that there's anything wrong with both approaches obviously). These songs can suck you into an alternate state of mind while giving an elusive impression of being totally grounded in a British reality of that time. Yes - this is a dreamer's world and maybe that's why this album never finds any true appreciation from either rock critics("too mellow") or non-rock fans.

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  10. Unlike most Americans I love "british" sounding music and this is very british sounding. I like power pop-happy music.
    I think Paul McCartney's brother's group Scaffold is the most british-listen to "Thank you Very Much" one of their singles. I am not too interested in a song writers perspective but I 'm glad George is. Added incite into my respect for the Kinks music, whose songs I enjoy.

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  11. I remember instantly liking 'Situation Vacant' when I first heard this record back in my 15. I thought it was such a cool song with a hip electric organ sound in the chorus and the guitar was MEAN in contrast to tuneful piano and the coda was psychedelic as hell and completely unexpected in otherwise a jolly pop song (with yet again, dark lyrics). So many contrasts in just 3 minutes. By the way, I was overwhelmed that you disliked it in your initial review (my God, it was marked in blue).

    With 'No return' Ray obviously had Astrud Gilberto in mind when he wrote it. Funny thing it was nicely covered by her daughter, Bebel Gilberto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxRx_cPDqdM

    The bonus tracks are a real treat here: 'Wonderboy', 'Act Nice & Gently' and of course the mini-suite 'Autumn Almanac' all deserve their place on almost any Kinks compilation.

    The hits are fine, no doubt here, it's just that I've always preferred 'Face to face' to 'Something Else' just because the creative leap from 'Kontroversy' to 'FtT' was much much more impressive compared to the organic growth of the formula on 'Something Else'.

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  12. I see that your appreciation for this album has grown over time. Your comments about the psychedelia contained in this album are quite perceptive; I don't know of anyone else who described this album this way. Thanks for introducing me to classic-era Kinks years ago on your old site; I liked this album right away. Indeed, "Autumn Almanac" is one of my favorite Kinks songs. It flows seamlessly from one catchy part to the next.

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