Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Genius of the Kinks

Remember the 1980s TV show thirtysomething? It was one of the first and the most successful of those early “dramedies,” and a precursor to the many shows that would follow more in the 90s – comedies and dramedies both – that focused more on character and less on plot. From Friends to Ally McBeal to many others, thirtysomething played a role in spawning many popular TV shows that were more about the talk and less about the action.

This isn’t a post about thirtysomething. (For the record, the show could be incredibly whiny and infuriatingly tried too hard to be hip, though it did make for some great television when it was done right.) But this post is more based on one line that came from the show.

The “single” character, Melissa, wants a baby, yet she has no one at the moment to give her one. She complains about this for awhile and a friend suggests a sperm bank. “Even better,” one friend says, “there’s that one in Califorinia that produces all those genius babies!”

“Yeah, but my definition of genius might be different than theirs,” Melissa counters. “What if I wind up with Neil Diamond’s baby?”

(No, this post isn’t about Neil Diamond either. You think I’d do that to you?)

It’s about genius, and the pliable, mercurial definition that can be applied to it. Especially in music. I’ve heard people call Axl Rose a genius and I’ve had to bite my tongue. I have heard Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder and Prince labeled as such and I haven’t argued. I’ve heard Jonathan Richman called one, I’ve even heard Weird Al Yankovic called one. I’ve offered no response to such claims.

Many of my favorite artists, yes, I do believe have achieved a level of musical genius, at least at times. Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., The Who, certainly the Beatles, probably many others could have that argument made for at least portions of their careers.

But here’s one more, not usually brought up right away when talking about musical genius. The Kinks.

This was a brilliant band when at its best, and it had a brilliant and quirky and wholly unique individdle, Ray Davies, leading them. And Ray without question was someone indeed touched by madcap genius at least a few times in his life.

The Kinks burst onto the scene during the first British Invasion in the mid-60s with a sound all their own. Harder, crunchier, more dangerous than anything else coming from the U.K. – not even the Rolling Stones could get nastier in those early years than “You Really Got Me” or “All Day and All of the Night.” The writing was bare and deliberate, and the music was intoxicating. It could also be ridiculously sweet, evocative and funny – “Waterloo Sunset,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Death of a Clown” and “Til the End of the Day” were just a few examples of what they could do. By 1967 their two most recent albums, Face to Face and Something Else, showed the band firing on all cylinders.

But then they tried something new, and entered into a six-year period where there were few bands, if any, operating with as much consistent innovation and daring as they were. (The Beatles did, sure, until they broke up, and the Rolling Stones did until 1972. But that may be about it.) The Kinks went the way of the concept album.

The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society
Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) 
Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One
Muswell Hillbillies
Everybody’s In Show-Biz
Preservation Acts I and II.

Yes, those were actual album titles. And they all came in a row from 1968 to 1974. And yes, to varying degrees they all worked. And the ones that worked the best (the first four, which along with Face to Face and Something Else stand as the best the band ever did) created some of the era’s greatest music.

They were also all "concept albums," built around common themes that drove the music. Meaning there was a higher degree of difficulty and that the chance of failure—of the concept not working and therefore the project falling apart—was that much greater.

Now, the Kinks didn’t invent the concept album, or even do it the best. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is a decent candidate, as is The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But what the Kinks did more than anyone, even The Who (who became known for the concept album with their triple-shot offering of The Who Sell Out, Tommy, and Quadrophenia—and, ironically, Who's Next was the eventual result of an abandoned concept), was refine the idea. They viewed is as an actual means to producing music, rather than just a novel attempt to frame it in a different way. To wit, the Kinks did not simply create a concept and pop in songs that loosely fit it, but rather created great music and built a conceptual skin around it.

And yes, the concepts were at times loose in nature. Village Green is sort of about nostalgia for yesteryear England. Lola is sort of a nasty look at the industry. Muswell Hillbillies is sort of about technology and plasticity getting us away from who we really are. The best concept albums aren’t just, “Here’s 14 songs about why the Vietnam War was wrong.” Rather they have themes that hint at certain points, that drives the listening mind to certain edges and into certain neighborhoods to direct their focus.

(As a matter of fact, on their best-known album, The Who actually showed the danger of wrapping an entire album into one "concept." Tommy's theme boxed them into a corner on good-sized chunks of he music, because they found themselves having to advance a very specific plot about a deaf, dumb and blind boy rather than make the music come first. )

After all, it was the overall feel of the album that mattered the most. As Jon Landau wrote about Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding in 1967, there wasn’t one song there specifically about the Vietnam War, “but an awareness of the Vietnam War could be felt all through.”

That’s what the Kinks did on their series of concept albums, and that’s what they did on what I consider their greatest achievement, 1969’s Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire).

Arthur is an anti-war album in concept, though no, not every song is about the Vietnam War, which at the time was at its height. Nor is every song about post-World War II England, though that period plays a rol as well. In fact, none of them spefically are. What we have instead are tales of nationalistic reverence (“Victoria”), battlefield dreams (“Some Mother’s Son”), blind faith in our leaders (“Yes Sir No Sir,” “Brainwashed,” “Mr. Churchill Says,” and, yes, "Victoria" too) and longing for days of peace (“Young and Innocent Days,” “Shangri-La”). It all adds up to a meditation on the waste and disillusionment that war of any kind can cause.

Best yet, at least to me, is the closing and title track, “Arthur.”

The song was written for Ray and Dave Davies’ much-older brother-in-law, or at least with him in mind. A great rock-n-roll number with a slight country hint and some of Dave Davies’ finest guitar work, “Arthur” tells the story of a man who has seen a lifetime of war and struggle without the fruits of personal victory once promised, whose life got away from him just as the world he knew got away from him. And what’s worse, he saw this coming and yet could do nothing about it. (“Arthur, it seems you were right all along, don’t you know it?”)

Again, there is nothing in this song about any war specifically, or about anyone dying or being killed for a political or governmental cause. But the personal level of destruction one can feel from a war that won’t end, and from the idea that the world cannot promise you what you once thought it can promise, is everywhere. It’s embodied in a little man named Arthur, a “plain simple man in a plain simple working class position.” Who the world has now passed by. Who once had dreams, but for whom all “hope and glory” are now gone.

Arthur is the genius of Ray Davies and The Kinks operating full throttle, a dissertation on the very nature of destruction and the lessening of those who once believed. The album may fade out amidst rocking, celebratory whoops and hollers, but it’s the empty shell left behind that really tells the story.

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