“From the dew soaked hedge creeps a crawly-caterpillar, when the dawn begins to crack”
The Kinks are apparently reforming! Despite Ray stamping on Dave’s 50th Birthday Cake, despite Dave brilliantly stating although he loves his brother “I just can’t stand to be with him. About an hour with Ray’s my limit, so it would be a very short re-union”, apparently the lure of playing together again is just too much! It’ll probably last five minutes if it even does happen, but those five minutes might just be the greatest five minutes in the history of rock’n’roll.
It wouldn’t be The Kinks if there wasn’t some sort of drama. There’s the infamous story of when former drummer Mick Avory responded to Dave kicking over his drum kit mid set by smacking him round the head with a hi-hat; fearing he’d killed him, he fled the scene, only to later be told he hadn’t actually killed him. When questioned by the police, they said it was part of their act! It’s rumoured this incident was one of many that prompted them to be banned from entering America, something which can surely only have been America’s loss!
The influence of The Kinks should not be forgotten, whilst many just labelled them a Southern Beatles, they were so much more than that. Blur, Pulp and by extension all of Brit-Pop would surely have sounded entirely different without them. The likes of The Jam & The Knack would surely not have carried the same punch without the influence of Ray and the boys, and there’s even plenty of evidence that they played a major role in taking rock’n’roll and turning it into just simply rock, influencing the likes of The Stooges, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Based on the stormy relationship between the brothers, their influence of Noel & Liam certainly seems to be pretty strong too!
My early memories of The Kinks are generally formed around car journeys, traipsing around the country as a child was always something of a chore (especially if you happen to be one of my parents), but without those many hours with nothing to do would I have ever heard Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder or The Travelling Wilburys? Along with a love of Radio 4 Comedy Series’ and an encyclopaedic knowledge of The Archers, an awful lot of my musical influences can be traced directly back to those formative years. The Kinks though, were always the best bit, the likes of Dedicated Follower of Fashion, and Plastic Man were daft enough to entertain me as a child and brilliant enough to still make me incredibly happy now.
Whilst many of the other tracks went straight over my head back then, now I see just how crushing the realities are. Take Dead End Street, written in 1966 and still hauntingly relevant today. It’s a snapshot of where we were as a society then, and where we still remain now. “I’m deep in debt and now it’s much too late. We both want to work so hard, we just don’t get the chance, people live on dead end street, people are dying on dead end street, gonna die on dead end street” It’s well worth remembering that was coming up for 50 years ago when you hear someone complaining about immigrants taking jobs, or talk about the good old days with specs so tinted with rose they clearly couldn’t see what was going on beyond them.
Then there’s Sunny Afternoon, a song with it’s tongue lodged firmly in it’s cheek, poking fun at a rich man, wailing about a taxman who’s “taken all my dough, and left me in my stately home” a situation so dire he can’t even “sail his yacht” the poor guy! Ringing any bells Jimmy Carr? Gary Barlow? Whilst it’s sad that so many of the problems The Kinks sang about still remain problems, it’s also a sign of what a wonderfully inclusive song-writer Ray is, what else of that era still sounds so fresh?
As well as tackling the big subjects, they also possessed a beautiful eye for detail. Take Waterloo Sunset, a song I always loved, but until you have escaped the hustle and bustle of Waterloo station, walked across the bridge and seen just how beautiful that sunset is, then you’ll never truly know the paradise the song describes. A hymn for the loners, a love song to London’s “dirty old river”, and a warning to the “people so busy” they can’t see “the world from their window” is a paradise.
My favourite Kinks song though, is one my Dad pointed out the simple beauty of a few years back: Autumn Almanac. It was recorded in 1967, a non-album single between Something Else By The Kinks and arguably their greatest, and most ambitious work The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. It is in some ways a bridge between their early rockier work and the more melodic, mellow stage that would produce some of their most memorable moments. It is a song that is pure poetry, not for its deep hidden meanings but for its simple stunning descriptions of the everyday. Wikipedia compares the writing here to the pastoral-romantic tradition of the poetry of Wordsworth, and that’s probably a good reference point.
Opening with a crunchy and oddly aggressive guitar line, it soon becomes a warm coo of a track, full of gorgeous female backing vocals. Yet there’s a heavier, darker side here too, the drums crash heavily throughout, there’s blasts of electric guitar that sound almost like someone plugging in and unplugging a live lead. The whole track is delightful contradictions, part the beauty, part the beast.
The opening lyrical salvo is surely one of the most beautifully, articulate and descriptive pieces of lyricism ever put to tape, don’t ask me what it is about the line “breeze blows leaves of a musty coloured yellow, so I sweep them in my sack” that I find so wonderful, I think it’s how something can simultaneously be so inane and so beautiful. The second verse see’s Ray lamenting the end of the sunny afternoons, as “tea and a toasted, buttered, current bun, can’t compensate for lack of sun.” As the chorus kicks in, we get surely the only mention of rheumatism in rock history, as Ray laments his creaking joints as the cold nights draw in.
A typically Kinks moment follows, as over pounding drums, Ray puts on a slightly silly voice to sing in the voice of a brilliantly British stereotype, it’s the kind of person who’d put tiny England flags on his car for the world cup, and compare the players to lions and soldiers before demanding people much more talented than he lump it long whilst also keeping the ball better and every other cliché he can think of at the time. “I like my football on a Saturday, roast beef on Sunday’s all right” he sings, before a woozy trombone joins the swaying verse. It’s a similar character to the ones that would permeate the entirety of The Village Green Preservation Society, the sort of little England, that you’re never quite sure if they love, or pity, or perhaps both.
The trombone is in itself a brilliant story, it’s unaccredited and rumour goes that not knowing where else to find a brass player, they headed to the pub and came back with him. Like everything about this track, that’s brilliant! The end of the track is a suitably delirious romp, my best estimate at the lyrics are “bum-bum-bum-bump-a-wawo”.
It’s a brilliant, meandering, complex song, with of a multitude of sections, styles and sounds. It’s a complete delight, and a perfect example of what The Kinks were capable of. It might not be their most famous number, but to my ears it’s certainly one of their best, and with a back catalogue as brilliant as theirs, that’s saying an awful lot.