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On the Surrey With The Fringe On Top by Mike Nessing

Contibuting  Editor Michael Nessing on he Kinks while signed to RCA records.

Whenever you read just about anything online or in print about the Kinks, all of the opinions dovetail together oh so nicely. British invasion band rides the wave. Dave Davies invents Heavy Metal by taking a razor blade to the speaker on his amplifier. Ray Davies’s practically unbeatable run of quality singles in the mid-sixties.

The mysterious banning of the group in America. The wilderness years at RCA. Their sudden rebirth as stadium rockers. The highs and lows of the band are well documented, and everybody seems to agree with each other on what those are. In some cases, even the band members themselves.

Well, I’m here to tell ya, it just isn’t so. One period in particular that sticks in my craw is between 1971 and 1975. All kinds of excuses come into play here. Ray was drinking too heavy, his marriage was falling apart, the band was rebelling against it’s leader, all great excuses except for one thing. The music doesn’t require any excuses. It’s as good an era as any in the band’s history, overshadowed only by the period that preceded it. By the way, that period is one of the greatest for any group ever. Tremendous LP’s and a run of singles that included “Sunny Afternoon”, “Dead End Street”, “Waterloo Sunset”, “Autumn Almanac”, “Mr. Pleasant” “Wonderboy” and last but certainly not least “Days”, this is an astounding run of quality work over a two year period. Impossible to top by almost any other pop group, much less The Kinks themselves.

So what we are going to attempt to do here is analyze the RCA years. We’re going to kick it off with “Muswell Hillbillies”, which is the first release during this timeframe. The record has a reputation of being a booze-soaked affair, but go back as early as “Face To Face” in 1966 and you can hear lots of slurred words and sloppy arrangements. Ray was no stranger to self-medicating but by now it was a source for the material itself, with “Alcohol” being the obvious example. This is what “sipping at your ice cold beer” leads to. It’s sadness tempered only by it’s humor, which by now Ray was a master at.. The comedic element in his writing is one of his most overlooked traits. There is nobody in the history of pop that can make you chuckle like Ray can.

Even the LP opener, “20th Century Man” is delivered in such a deadpan style to make it genuinely funny. It keeps the song afloat and puts a mask over the fact that it’s a absolute downer. “Napalm, hydrogen bombs, biological warfare”. Ray is painting quite the grim picture here. Notice how his voice is recorded to make him sound so small, like the voice on the dust speck from “Horton Hears A Who”. Speaking for the common man, but also skillfully demonstrating that no one is going to listen. Just about every song on this album carries the theme of alienation and despair sung in a comedic, cabaret style. This will be the main constant during this period . If only Marlene Dietrich could have covered a couple of these tunes. Or at least Lily Von Schtupp.

The record did not chart in the UK and sold poorly in the US. However, it received many positive critical reviews and has actually gained stature over time as one of The Kinks’ best records. Not bad for what can be arguably described as a departure from the formula success of “Lola”. Forging a new path along the shift in the pop landscape toward country rock with the success of bands like “The Band” , The Dead, Allman Bros and the like, Ray was applying his unique style and tailoring it more towards what the kids were buying and what the radio stations were playing. The result being an absolute gem of a record that does not fit easily into any commercial category. In other words, an absolute sales disaster,

Our next entry (at a later date) will be the second RCA LP, the half studio/half live “Everybody’s In Showbiz, Everybody’s A Star” in which Ray starts writing about food, the humdrum of stardom, writes another classic, and takes a horn section out on the concert trail.

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