Saturday, January 30, 2010

SONG #74: Back To Front


Ha!  This one should get some conversation going.

The Kinks are a favorite answer for music geeks when it comes to talking about the most underrated bands.  They certainly were a pretty unlucky bunch.  The Kinks were the first band to introduce the guitar sound that has dominated rock music ever since; the first five seconds of "You Really Got Me" changed the sound of the electric guitar forever (even though it might have been played by Jimmy Page, but that's another story).  The initial half-dozen Kinks singles stand with any group's first six songs for originality, tunefulness, composition and range.  It seemed that The Kinks would sit with The Beatles, the Stones and The Who among the great quartet of British rock bands.

Then the band toured America, and ticked off the wrong promoter with some connections to some scary, powerful people, and the Kinks found themselves banned from touring the US for three years.  In those three years (1967-1969) pretty much everything changed on the rock landscape.  Shows went from lasting 25 minutes to 2+ hours.  Bands started touring with their own PA systems and reveling in the extra volume.  A band's live show became an important barometer for a band's significance.  Moreover, America fell in love with rock music and made heroes of every band barnstorming through the States, and bands responded by writing about American obsessions: girls, cars, girls in cars, cars anthropomorphized into girls, etc.

While all this was happening, The Kinks stayed home and made pastoral acoustic music about the British caste system that are among the most beautiful ever written, but completely out of step with the time.  Rather than writing about the road or his experiences in the US like almost all of his peers, Ray Davies wrote about English society in precise, intimate detail.  I've been listening carefully to The Kinks since 1982, and I still feel like their best records from the late 60s are impenetrable for me because I'm not from a London middle-class suburb.  Ray Davies is not unlike James Joyce, writing about his culture without much concern for whether those outside of it could follow his train of thought or not.

When The Kinks could finally tour again, they were not up to the challenge.  They still had the matching suits, and they couldn't jam a song out to save their lives.  The tapes of the 1969-1970 tours when they were supporting their strongest music are pretty sad-- guitarist Dave Davies is out of ideas for his solos about five seconds into them, and the rhythm section of John Dalton (a replacement for original bassist Pete Quaife) and Mick Avory would never be described as rock solid, or even rock, for that matter.  They were a band built for a Beatles-style live show, and they sounded lost.  It seemed like the Kinks had missed the boat.

They spent the 70s trying to catch up, and failing pretty miserably.  The Kinks' mid-70s records are among the worst ever made by a major band.  Davies fell in love with the rock opera concept, and for three albums in a row tried to tell a story through the songs, and the band went on theatrical tours where the albums were performed and acted out.  I have no problem with rock operas, but these are just dreadful, with laughably stupid plots and staggering amounts of filler.  The cover of 1975's Schoolboys In Disgrace says it all, really:

If the band were trying to be funny, that would be one thing, but this album was an attempt at a major statement about the English educational system.  It's as seriously-intended as "Another Brick In The Wall."  The band seemed destined to limp to a close, remembered for a few important early 60s singles.

And then... a miracle.  Davies seemingly overnight reinvented the band as a hard rock, arena act, and completely successfully.  In 1980, the band released a double live album, One For The Road, that cast all the early hits and newer tunes in a blooze, hard rock template.  They sounded more like Deep Purple or Foghat than the original Kinks, and for the first time, they broke in America.  

So when I started buying albums in earnest, the Kinks were suddenly a viable veteran rock act, making albums that were better and more current than the Beatles (done) the Stones (Undercover, anyone?), or The Who (It's Hard).  I saw the band in 1985 at the Naval Academy, and while the show was a total ripoff at 75 minutes long, the band was undeniably fired up and probably playing better than it ever had.  (The highlight was watching Ray come out for the encore in a Navy Basketball sweatshirt and having the Midshipmen go nuts-- Navy had made the NCAA tournament for the first time and had lost at the buzzer to Len Bias' last Maryland team that afternoon.  Ray was a good sport, but he looked totally lost in the sweatshirt; he must have been an XS back then.)

So here's the question-- do you buy this third round of The Kinks as an authentic version of the band?  Moreover, can you forgive them for the deliberate dumbness of the material?

When you compare the Kinks' records from 1979 to 1985 (Low Budget, One For The Road, Give The People What They Want, State Of Confusion, Word Of Mouth) to the ones from 1966-1969 (Face To Face, Something Else By The Kinks, The Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur, Lola Vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround) they barely sound like the same band.  The early incantation is a folk-art band with the occasional rock song that utilizes acoustic guitars, harpsichords, odd timings and interests in little tiny stories about middle class people and their private demons.  The later records are rawk albums with big, singalong (sometimes shouted) choruses and cookie-cutter arrangements.  Guess which version had hit singles?

Most of the Kinks fanatics I know (who love to use the "K spelling all ironically-- "Kalling all Kinks fans"... "Kool Kinks tunes to Klear Your Head".... it's why their parties are sparsely attended) dismiss this moment in band history as Ray making himself some money by cynically pandering.  "Give The People What They Want," indeed.  Me?  While the critic in me sees their point and likes to hold people to the authenticity fire most of the time, I love this stuff.  It might be because I was twelve when I first heard it, or that they were the only classic British band left that you could still go see live (The Who, of course "retired" in 1982, and the Stones disappeared for most of the 80s) or that, straightforward and consciously calculated as the material is, Ray Davies is a fantastic songwriter.  The guy breathes three minute melodies.  I went to see his solo show in 1996 when he unknowingly invented VH-1 Storytellers, and he played something like 35 songs over 3+ hours, and THEY WERE ALL GREAT.  It was so humbling-- they guy has written two lifetimes worth of snappy numbers.

So here's a song to help you decide whether you want to go exploring into this era, or whether "Come Dancing" and "Do It Again" are enough for you.  "Back To Front" is a deep album track, in the middle of side two.  It's a perfect example of the early 80s Kinks sound, however.  Mick Avory's drums sound like they were recorded in an airplane hanger, and have echo flange on top of them to make them sound extra enormous.  The band soon locks into a classic riff that you could teach anyone to play in an afternoon.  Ray's voice follows, using his "shout-sing" voice from this period.  He sounds more like a football coach urging on the band than a traditional singer.  The chorus, though, is classic Ray.  For almost all of his career, he's written about feeling just left of center and out of place in society ("I'm Not Like Everybody Else," "David Watts," etc).  "Back To Front" is a lobotomized version of these same concerns; in fact, considering the cockney accent he employs in the choruses and the general aggressive nature of the song, Ray sounds like an angry conservative here.  He wasn't, but maybe that's why the band finally clicked in America-- can't you imagine groovy young Reaganites dancing appropriately to this track?  Considering the nostalgia for times gone by in "Come Dancing," you could argue that what happened to Ray is that he finally figured out a way to assuage the conservative American audience that he wasn't a poncey Brit but a swaggering old-school rock singer.

Me?  I think I love it (and still do) because it reminds me of falling in love with rock music, and learning how to play it.  Objectively, I know this song (and dozens like it) is a throwaway, probably written by Ray in ten minutes, but I still end up slapping the steering wheel when it comes on.  If you like your hard rock occasionally stoopid, then, believe it or not, final act Kinks music is right up your alley.  I used to get mixes from a friend called "Songs I'm Ashamed To Admit I Love."  I wouldn't say I'm ashamed, but I'm aware my cred is on the line here.  Those hipsters who have been waiting for me to slip up and slip up hard, the floor is yours.

Finally, I won't spoil the ending of the song for you, but let's just say... wow.  Yes, I will have some extra cheese with that burger.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Had to correct a typo (sigh) ... I freaking love the 80s Kinks. "Do It Again" came on Sirius 80s the other day and my head exploded. What did you think of Ray's (excellent) solo record from a couple years back? Still writing about English breakfasts and melancholy lives.

    BTW, you know I love that stupid Undercover record as much as you love Tattoo You. KEEP THAT 80s CHEESE COMING MICK!

  3. I like that you chose Undercover instead of Tattoo You and Some Girls as your comparison points for this era of music from the Kinks and the Stones. I've never been much of a Kinks guy, although I bought and liked this record in 1982. The problem I have with the late-60s stuff is that it all sounds like the Thamesmen's "Cups and Cakes."

  4. PS The cover of Schoolboys in Disgrace is so good that I thought you were making it up. That may be the funniest album cover of all time.

  5. The Kinks @ the USNA was my first concert. I experienced a moment of genuine panic when Ray stopped during the intro of "Lola" and said they weren't going to play it. Even though by this point, I had listened to "One For the Road" over and over and over again.

    I loved this record when it came out, and I think Jeff has articulated the reasons why really well. I still know all the words to the non-singles (like this one), even though I haven't listened to Give the People for (oog) twenty years or so.

    Back when I worked for pop culture magazines, there were tables full of swag that no one else wanted. One day I snagged "This is Where I Belong: Songs of the Kinks," which is a terrific reminder of how good the songs really are. I still throw it into the CD player in the car every so often.

    I also love that any time Jeff even mentions the British Invasion, he and Ben use it as an opportunity to rehash an argument that they've been having for, oh, I don't know, 20 years or so.