Tuesday, June 29, 2010

R.I.P. Peter Quaife (1943-2010)

I don't have good luck in being around to catch bad news. This past Thursday, Peter Quaife, the original bassist for The Kinks (1963-1969), passed away of kidney failure.

Even if I'm out and about all day, I always come home and check email and, as perverse as this may sound, I also check Wikipedia's page for recent deaths, sadly, as many of my musical heroes are approaching senescence. Funny enough, knowing Pete was ill and on dialysis was one of the reasons I always checked.

But where was I this past Thursday? En route to a mini-vacation upstate with my girlfriend and some of her friends, with no Internet, no TV, and no cell phone reception. I had a wonderful time - although my mom wanted to get a hold of me and when I couldn't, she made the casual and logical assumption that I'd been tortured to death at a crack den. But that's a different story.

Once I cleared all that up and we got back to the city, my girlfriend and I hung out at her place. Being as our relationship is still in a very early stage, we're still at the point of introducing our favorite bands and songs to one another.

I played her some Kinks. She had a few from a compilation, but I decided to skip the "classics," which are all phenomenal tunes, and go straight for playing my straight-up favorites.

The first song I introduced by saying, "Let me play you the one song I use as my example of the genius of Ray Davies as a lyricist." I went on to say how it is an accurate description of young romance, realistic rather than entirely smitten, with the key line in it all coming at the end of the bridge: "I wonder how long it will last."

The song? "Something Better Beginning," from 1965's Kinda Kinks:

Second was "This Is Where I Belong," the b-side of "Mr. Pleasant" from 1967:

Then I played "She's Got Everything," which I introduced as being "a love song with a delicate guitar solo."

I ended with what will, hands-down, hold a place in the five best songs I have ever heard in my life.

Now, make no bones about it, I love - LOVE - The Kinks throughout the years. For me, there's no better storyteller than Ray Davies, no better harmony vocalist than Dave Davies, and no better string of albums than what they had through the 1970's. But I realized that when it came down to introducing the Kinks songs that meant the most to me or that I found the most immediately accessible without simply running through the greatest hits, what songs did I pick? I didn't pick any of Ray's more cynical numbers like "Yes Sir, No Sir" or a preachy song like "Live Life." I didn't go for something too out there, but still amazing in its own way, like "Money And Corruption / I Am Your Man" or "Second-Hand Car Spiv." Didn't pull out anything from Sleepwalker or Give The People What They Want.

No. I chose songs from those truly sublime years in the band's history. Pete's last album with The Kinks was The Village Green Preservation Society. In my experience, the fans splinter from there. It's quite obvious in the contemporary reviews - John Mendelssohn goes from "God Save The Kinks? Nah, more like God Bless 'Em" in The Kink Kronikles in 1972 to taking a massive dump on the group and their present direction in the following year's The Great Lost Kinks Album, for example - and even today it seems that the only things the critics and fans can universally agree upon is that Face To Face, Something Else, The Village Green Preservation Society, and the singles from that time period are definitively essential, classic Kinks.

It might not be mere coincidence that with Pete's departure, Ray's creative control over the group increased dramatically. Arthur is a potent, at times grim, album, which is why I love it...but the same reason my father wasn't thrilled about it. Lola Versus Powerman & The Moneygoround is a scathing attack on the record industry - but some contend it's too bilious. Again, same reason I love it. With the band's tenure at RCA, each record seemed to be an artistic endeavor of one kind or another. I think it's great, but for others it's self-indulgent crap. Their sound continued to change, yes, and one more time for the world - that's what makes them as a band so damn great to me; it was their versatility, along with Ray being such a wonderful writer. But, as a band's sound changes, it will lose and gain followers. It happens.

The point I'm trying to make here is that when push came to shove, I went for introductory listening material from a time where one could safely call The Kinks a band. I don't want to disparage later line-ups of the group, but there was a greater deal of collaboration, and in Dave Davies' heartfelt message board post about Pete he suggests as much.

So, that said...and if you're a Kinks fan reading this, it's probably the 1,000th time you've encountered this touching video, especially if Dave links this to his fabulous Kinks site...this one's for you, Pete:

At the beginning of "Days," for a reason that I'm sure will be obvious, I choked up.

God Save The Kinks.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Beatles - A Hard Day's Night (1964)

"The Beatles well what can I say now there's a band." [sic]

So goes Glenn Gass' recollection of a student's paper from many years ago, when his class on The Beatles was small enough that he could assign papers in it. He even specified the lack of punctuation.

Anyway, he admitted he's such a pushover for Beatles love that all he could say in reaction to that opening line of an academic paper was, "Yes! Brilliant! That says it all!"

That's about how I feel regarding this album. What can I say?

First of all, A Hard Day's Night is a groundbreaking piece of cinema, and not just because The Beatles are in it. I don't want to get hung up on who the proper claimants should be for inventing music videos - musical shorts have existed since the dawn of talkies, so Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong are just as much of contenders for this coveted title as The Monkees or The Beatles - but Richard Lester's editing style was remarkably innovative.

What set it apart from conventional cinema is that his background was in television and commercials. He applied that rapid-paced aesthetic to a feature-length film, especially with the musical sequences, and along with the influences of French nouvelle vague and Italian Neorealist cinema created something truly unique.

Go see the movie if you haven't. You won't regret it. And don't let the fact that it's black and white steer you away. It's marvelous. Each member of the group has their own distinctive persona. John is the cheeky one, Paul is the long-suffering - but cute - straight man (due in no small part to his pain-in-the-ass grandfather stirring up trouble wherever he goes), George is the one with the deadpan and dry sense of humor, and Ringo is the lovable goof. These personae were played upon more in The Beatles cartoon series on ABC, although the lads themselves had nothing to do with it. I've seen a few episodes, and they're not so great.

Of course, there IS one Beatles cartoon that is positively sublime, but I'll leave Yellow Submarine for another day. It's one of my favorite movies ever, and watching it even as a little guy ranks among my earliest (and fondest) memories.

Frankly, Help! is even better, and not just because it's in glorious Technicolor. I think the humor is even sharper. Still, from a movie geek's perspective, it's A Hard Day's Night, hands-down.

Of course, the avant-garde film lover in me has a special place in my heart for the deliciously weird Magical Mystery Tour. That's 60 minutes of psychedelic heaven.

I'm getting off-topic, though a book about The Beatles' films would make for an interesting project.

The second point worth making, and I don't want to spend a year and a half on my opening statement before going to the tracks, is that this album was an early masterpiece for the band. Consisting entirely of Lennon/McCartney originals (which was a HUGE deal in 1964; The Stones and The Kinks wouldn't do that until 1966 with Aftermath and Face To Face, respectively, while The Who didn't have an all-originals album until 1971's Who's Next), this is the peak of the band's early pop sound. For me, everything they had done from "Love Me Do" onwards was building up to this. There's the distinct Beatles sound, yes, but they're able to incorporate the feel of those early rock and rollers and the various Motown tunes they covered on singles, With The Beatles, and the Long Tall Sally EP (included at the end of this review, along with a pair of singles).

I would say this album is just as important for The Beatles and the world of popular music as Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Its musical influence was felt in subsequent releases by bands both in the UK and the US, including a new batch of musicians who were just as into The Beatles as they were with Bob Dylan; the album's inception, a solid collection of pop songs with very little filler material - and again, this cannot be overstated, ALL-ORIGINAL SONGS - would also pave the way for the paradigm shift that bands who didn't write their own stuff wouldn't make it. At least for a period.

That line in the sand was definitely drawn by Rubber Soul, and when I inevitably get to that fine record I'll have more to say about what a game-changer it was, but it happened here first. It was a momentous occasion for John and Paul, that's for damn sure. Of course, having George on only one song (singing only, he didn't write it) and nothing from Ringo are things I will hold against it, but these are minor drawbacks.

01. A Hard Day's Night [10]
02. I Should Have Known Better [9]
03. If I Fell [10]
04. I'm Happy Just To Dance With You [9]
05. And I Love Her [10]
06. Tell Me Why [9.5]
07. Can't Buy Me Love [10]
08. Any Time At All [7.5]
09. I'll Cry Instead [9]
10. Things We Said Today [11]
11. When I Get Home [8]
12. You Can't Do That [10]
13. I'll Be Back [10]

01. I Want To Hold Your Hand [10]
02. This Boy [10]

01. Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand [N/A]
02. Sie Leibt Dich [N/A]

Long Tall Sally EP
01. Long Tall Sally [10]
02. I Call Your Name [8]
03. Slow Down [10]
04. Matchbox [10]

I'll go ahead and point out that, to my eternal annoyance, the DVD of the film features the songs at their original speed. Yes, they were slightly sped-up for the album. I don't know why they did this on the DVD, because as a result the songs don't completely synch up. Whatever.

01. A Hard Day's Night [10]
This, friends, is how you start a movie:

This song starts with an instantly recognizable bang, the musical equivalent of a gunshot at the beginning of a race. It's a song full of energy and movement. Listen closely for the bongos under the verses, adding a busy edge to the rhythm. Paul does a great job singing on the bridge, or as they called that section of their songs, the "middle eight."

During the solo, the instrumentation is George on 12-string guitar (more on that instrument later) and producer George Martin doubling the line on piano. It's a very unique sound.

Fantastic song, what can I say? It's a classic. It was also their first big hit in America after "I Want To Hold Your Hand," and a clear sign they wouldn't be going away anytime soon.

02. I Should Have Known Better [9]

Although there's a lot of early Beatles songs featuring the harmonica - "Love Me Do," "From Me To You," "Please Please Me," "Little Child," and so on - this is the first instance of John playing the harmonica in the style of Bob Dylan, whose 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan marked the beginning of his influence on The Beatles' approach to songwriting. The song itself isn't like anything Dylan was doing at the time. He was still very much rooted in the folk-protest movement, so the harmonica is, if anything, just a sly nod and wink.

This one's really catchy. I love when they sing this song in the movie and the schoolgirls watching them swoon. One of those girls, Patti Boyd - the blond with the gappy teeth - later became Mrs. George Harrison in 1966. Speaking of George, that solo features the 12-string guitar. I won't go into the mechanics of what gives it such a unique sound, all one needs to do is hear it to know what I mean by the 12-string guitar having a "jangly" quality. This particular instrument would be a trademark in the sound of The Byrds.

03. If I Fell [10]

During one of VH1's all-important countdowns of the greatest albums of all time, Billy Joe Armstrong from Green Day said about The White Album that every song on it seemed to inspire the entire careers of later groups. The same can be said about any Beatles album, it seems, and this is no exception. I don't have any quote or any sort of evidence to back this up, but this song had to be a major influence on Ray Davies from The Kinks.

I say this because it's a pretty frank description of venturing into a new love while still tending to a broken heart. (Not to get too personal, but quite honestly, I can easily relate to the sentiment behind this song.) Everything seems to begin with the word "If": "If I give my heart to you...", "If I trust in you...", "If I fell in love with you..."

There's a massive sense of insecurity in this song, asking, "You're not going to hurt me like she did, will you?" There's also a hint of bitterness: "And that she will cry / When she sees that we are two." One other influence this may have had on The Kinks extends beyond the lyrics, but in the music itself. The high/low harmonies shared by John and Paul wouldn't be out of place between Ray and Dave Davies.

It's a beautiful piece of music, a melody that sticks with you, and a genuinely heartfelt message. Amazing.

04. I'm Happy Just To Dance With You [9]

I'll just go ahead and get this out of the way before I say this on every single song, but this album features John and Paul's best melodies, hands-down. They aren't getting too experimental with harmonies (not in the vocals, anyway; musically, there's some downright bizarre stuff going down with the chord changes, but it works and it sounds marvelous), and each one of these songs can be easily whistled. Think of some of John's later stuff - don't get me wrong, he only got better as a songwriter - but whistling the melody to "I Am The Walrus" is like trying to whistle a rap song or something. He began to favor a minimalistic approach, saying a lot with a little, and it's great, but here he's firing on all cylinders.

Of course, the lyrics here are a bit simple, it's about sharing a dance with a girl and then realizing you love her. Basic pop stuff. George sings it, and he does a really good job. Apparently he was still self-conscious about his songwriting abilities (even though "Don't Bother Me" is one of their greatest early songs). Seeing as he had only written that one song (although there is a George tune called "You Know What To Do" on Anthology One, and it's nothing to write home about) by this point while John and Paul were able to write chart-topping hits in their sleep, and not just for The Beatles, but for other artists, too, it's easy to conclude George was probably somewhat intimidated.

Anyway, good song, nothing earth-shattering, but a memorable melody and well-played.

05. And I Love Her [10]

The lyrics are simply beautiful. I love the "Bright are the stars that shine / Dark is the sky" passage. This is pop balladry at its absolute best. There's a Latin flavor here, thanks to the percussion (Ringo on bongos and claves) as well as the mellow tones of George's acoustic solo. "And I Love Her" is another example of many early Beatles tunes where Paul brought a near-complete song to the table and John finished it off by writing the middle eight, or vice versa. Here, John wrote the "A love like ours / Could never die..." bridge, supposedly, although Paul claims this song is all his. I can't blame him, I wish I could write something this stunningly gorgeous.

This tune also stands out as being only one of three (out of thirteen songs overall on the album) where there's just solo vocals and no harmonies.

06. Tell Me Why [9.5]

John wrote this song to try and imitate the sound of a black female vocal group. And it shows, which is why I absolutely LOVE this song. It's got the earnest sincerity and sweetness of an early 60's pop record. The call-and-response vocals, with John singing a line and Paul and George singing a follow-up to it, sounds like something right off of a single by Diana Ross & The Supremes. This stands as one of my favorite overlooked early Beatles songs.

07. Can't Buy Me Love [10]

If that scene doesn't make you smile, then get out of you here, because you clearly don't have a heart. It's one of my favorite scenes of all time.

The song is bloody brilliant. It's a big kiss-off to materialism, no doubt written as a result of The Beatles' new-found fortune and fame: "I don't care too much for money / 'Cause money can't buy me love." It's true. Think of how many pop songs out there state that message again and again. I guess that's what makes love so great: it's free.

Anyway, this is just a fun song. Paul sings like his life depends on it, George's guitar solo is perfect, and the band stops and starts on a dime. I LOVE that scream before the solo. Yet another classic Beatles tune.

08. Any Time At All [7.5]

With side B of the original album, we get to the songs that weren't in the original film. I have a stronger case with the Help! album, but the same applies here: a lot of these songs have been lost in the shuffle of time, overlooked in favor of the certified classics on side A, which are made all the more iconic by being in the movies.

Of course, I'm not a huge fan of this song. I think it's just a little sloppy. It feels like John is exerting himself to get all the words in when he sings "Any time at all / All you gotta do is call", but the verses are good. Additionally, the middle eight was supposed to have lyrics, at the 1:30 mark. It clearly doesn't, resulting in what I always thought was a fairly awkward musical interlude.

It isn't awful. But I wouldn't be putting this on a "Best of Beatles" mix CD anytime soon. It's forgettable.

09. I'll Cry Instead [9]

This photo-montage was included on the 1982 home video release of "A Hard Day's Night," but is nowhere to be found on the DVD. Bit of a shame, because I grew up with this clip being almost like a teaser for the rest of the film.

In his early years, John had a bit of a nasty streak. He had some serious jealousy issues, and wasn't above mean-spirited comments or jokes at others' expenses. This song provides a glimpse into John's darker side. Here, he sings about having his heart broken - hence the crying in the song's title - before warning "You'd better hide all the girls / I'm gonna break their hearts all around the world / Yes, I'm gonna break 'em in two / And show you what your lovin' man can do." Yikes.

And yet, despite his dastardly scheme to inflict his wrath on other girls, he admits he doesn't like to cry in front of other people. This is a hint of things to come, with John's increasingly candid, personal, and brutally honest lyrics. My only complaint is that the song's too short.

10. Things We Said Today [11]

When I was much younger and I first heard this song, I didn't really bother to comprehend the lyrics. Besides, I misunderstood a lot of what they were singing because of their accents. Anyway, as a kid, I always this was a break-up song. It feels like it is, because most of the song is in a minor key, rather than a major key.

Now, as a grumpy old man at age 23, these lyrics are among the finest Paul McCartney ever wrote. That's saying a lot, considering how early in his career this is, and what other masterpieces he would go on to write. It's from such a unique point of view, with two young lovers looking ahead to the future:

"Someday when we're dreaming
Deep in love, not a lot to say
Then I will remember
Things we said today"

That's beautiful. Although there is some tight competition for being the best song on the album, I will staunchly defend this song as my choice.

11. When I Get Home [8]

This one's another misfire. It's catchy, but I don't like the intro. Otherwise, this is a song that catches Lennon in a Motown-ready mood. I just feel like it doesn't succeed on all fronts. It needs more, some layered handclaps, some double-tracking, percussion, maybe a piano? I don't know, it just seems to be missing several components. The vocals on the verses are a little thin, the chorus is slightly off, but that bridge! WOW. It's the song's saving grace, and wonderfully done.

12. You Can't Do That [10]

Another delicious 12-string guitar lick, with plenty of cowbell. It's another slightly mean-spirited song of John's, rooted almost certainly in his own jealousies, but in a general context it could just be about a guy with an untrustworthy lover. John plays the distinctive, noisy, choppy guitar solo in this song, a mark of his later simplistic take on rock and roll.

Great song...and it was supposed into the finished movie, during the big concert at the end:

13. I'll Be Back [10]

This almost got the 11 ranking as the best song on the album. It's a moody song, from one lover to another, about no matter how awfully they'll be treated, he'll be back. It is never specified why, but it's again a subtle hint at some sort of weakness. Simply beautiful. I love the harmonies, the bridge, the overall feel of the song.

And, just for fun, here are two early versions of the song. This first one is in a different time signature (6/8), and it actually works quite well during the verses before falling completely apart at the bridge. It isn't perfect.

Here's another early take of it, done in 4/4 time.

It's great to hear this AMAZING song as a work-in-progress. I think this song is quite overlooked and underrated. And yet, I would rank it among their best. It's kind of a surprising choice to end the album, but at the same time...I like it like that.

Subtotal: 94.62% A

Replayability Factor: 3
This is a fun album, and it can be played anywhere.

Consistency Factor: 2
After the big ones, the ones that all the critics (deservedly) worship - Rubber Soul, Revolver, Pepper, The White Album - get this one.

External Factors: 1
No Ringo, and only one George song. Poo-poo.

TOTAL: 100.6% A+

Now for the singles:

01. I Want To Hold Your Hand [10]

I always point to this as one of their most banal pop songs, but it's SO damn good! Love the shift to a minor key in the bridge. Fantastic, catchy, it's a quintessential pop song.

Oh, yeah, and this was their first American number one. This was a tremendous achievement for an English artist - let alone a rock and roll band - to top the charts in the States. So, in short, this song started Beatlemania in the US.

02. This Boy [10]

Beautiful three-part harmonies, with a memorable solo performance from John.

01. Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand [N/A]

It's "I Want To Hold Your Hand"...in German.

02. Sie Leibt Dich [N/A]

It's "She Loves You"...in German.

Now, the Long Tall Sally EP. This is the only Beatles EP that features songs not found elsewhere. The Kinks had two EP's like this. The Who had one or two...and The Rolling Stones had a few. It's like a single, but with an extra song on each side, so roughly a third of an album.

01. Long Tall Sally [10]

McCartney at his manic best, with the band playing like the building is on fire. Jaw-droppingly good. The original was done by Little Richard...you might also know him as God.

02. I Call Your Name [8]

This John song was given a new life when Mama Cass from The Mamas & The Papas had a hit with it. It's good, but not outstanding. I do like how the song shifts to a shuffle beat in the guitar solo, before going back to straight time. That's pretty cool.

03. Slow Down [10]

One of three songs by Larry Williams, a rather obscure 1950's rocker, covered by The Beatles. John's performance here rivals Paul's on "Long Tall Sally." Just phenomenally great.

04. Matchbox [10]

Ringo sings this song, originally done by Carl Perkins. Perkins, along with Larry Williams, is the most-covered artist on official Beatles releases. Ringo also sang "Honey Don't" on Beatles For Sale, with George (who idolized Carl Perkins) ending the same album with "Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby." A great little rockabilly number. I'm a sucker for great little rockabilly numbers.

Rock on.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Kinks - 'Sleepwalker' (1977)

This three-month sabbatical has been pretty wild. Not that my personal life is the focus of this blog (that would be the other one), but my fiance and I broke up. It was my call.

Between that and my semester ending, I've had a lot more time to just sit and listen to music. It's been a real renaissance for me.

But enough about me in 2010, let's go back to me in 2001, when I first heard this album. I picked it up in May, along with Misfits (1978), and I really feel like those two albums are brothers, in the same sense that George Harrison once said, "Rubber Soul and Revolver could be 'Volume 1' and 'Volume 2'." Granted, these two albums have different tones to them. Misfits is a little more playful lyrically, more whimsical. Sleepwalker is a darker album...in today's context, with death metal and everything, it's about as dark as Times Square at midnight, but the songs are largely unhappy.

What I love about The Kinks - besides everything, of course - is that you can't pin them down as having a particular sound. Since they were in such a constant state of flux creatively, there aren't any transitional albums, either. No Beatles For Sale-like album that shows where they've been and where they're headed. None of that. Instead, each album seems to catch Ray, Dave, and the boys in different musical settings. Hell, even Preservation Act One and Preservation Act Two are markedly different stylistically.

The one precursor I have for all this is a simple one:

Some albums just have connotations to them, and it all goes back to when it was that I first got into it in a big way. For me, Rubber Soul is a very autumnal album. Tonight's The Night is a winter album. This is a late-night summer drive, with a full moon out, maybe even some lightning, out in the middle of nowhere.

Putting this album in context within The Kinks' career, this was their first disc after all the rock operas and concept albums that began with Arthur back in 1969. Depending on who you ask, this is either a perplex, inaccessible period in the band's story or some of the greatest music the group ever did. I fall into the latter, but I don't wish to disparage Sleepwalker in any sense. They came off the whole rock opera thing with a tightly-packed album containing what I think Ray does best: character sketches.

I'm sure I'll repeat this several more times when I talk about the songs, but I'd love to sit down with him and find out what inspired the stories on this album. It's surprising to read that such fairly oblique jabs like "A Well-Respected Man" and "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion" stemmed from incidents where someone pissed Ray off, very specific events. At the same time, however, he truly is an expert storyteller, and some songs just come from the top of his head.

In a way, each song is like a little movie all on its own, a 3 to 5-minute summary of what could unfold as a great novella. Additionally, every song on the album is at least partially in the first person. Ray seemed to be returning to a more introverted literary persona, rather than the deliciously bawdy showman we encountered on Everybody's In Showbiz or his Mr. Flash get-up on Preservation Act Two.

This is a terrific album, and one I always point to as proof that, unlike what most publications would have you believe, The Kinks were still producing art worth a damn long after "Lola."

01. Life On The Road [9.5]
02. Mr. Big Man [9.5]
03. Sleepwalker [10]
04. Brother [8]
05. Juke Box Music [10]
06. Sleepless Night [9]
07. Stormy Sky [10]
08. Full Moon [11]
09. Life Goes On [9]

The songs hyperlinked above are from the band's appearance on 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' in April 1977. The user who posted the (extraordinarily high-quality) videos doesn't have them available for embedding.

01. Life On The Road [9.5]

It starts off nondescriptly enough, maybe even a little too quiet as far as the mix goes. Still, Ray daydreams of venturing to London over a delicate organ/piano arrangement. Right at the one-minute mark, it turns into an upbeat rock song. It's at the perfect tempo, capturing the excitement detailed by the narrator.

The strange thing is, this is a subject Ray has tackled before, on Lola Versus Powerman & The Moneygoround and on Everybody's In Showbiz; what makes it so strange is that it doesn't seem stale. He's approaching it from a different angle. On Lola it's a band rising to fame, on Showbiz it's about what happens once a band has achieved fame, but here it's about a kid hitting the streets and seeing the seedy underbelly of the world: "I didn't know then that the dives and the dens / Would be so vulgar and wicked and wild...", his failed encounters with "stuck-up city ladies" yields him nothing more than a cold, he naively gets seduced by a gay muscleman while "hanging out with the punks."

His quest for success gives him holes in his socks and bloodshot eyes. At the end of the song he yearns for home, hoping to "Say goodbye to a world that's too real / Goodbye to a world that's forgotten how to feel," confessing it's taking its toll on him, he sometimes hates it, but it's all he's ever known. When he sings the chorus - "But I'm livin' the life that I chose" - he has such a sense of resignation that it's like a reluctant sigh, something he tells himself in the mirror every morning, before launching back into the chorus at full-speed.

The song's musical energy is a nice displacement to what is a fairly downtrodden tale, one I'm sure Ray had witnessed after 15 years in "the business."

02. Mr. Big Man [9.5]

This one HAS to be based on someone in Ray's life. It isn't Tom Robinson, though we'll talk about him a little later.

In the YouTube comments, someone claims it's about John Lennon. While John did act like an ass towards The Kinks at the 1964 NME Poll Winners' concert, this is 13 years later, never mind smack in the middle of John's "house-husband" phase. I doubt it...but it could be about anyone who let fame get to their head.

Anyway, this is a pretty grim song, about a former friend whose lust for money and power has made him a crooked, intimidating figure in the business world, although in the final verse, Ray suggests a far more sinister path: "Your enemies and foes / Are all stacked-up in rows / Eliminated one by one."

There's a lot of passion in the music, and a palpable sense of hurt and anger in Ray's vocals. This album and Schoolboys In Disgrace have some of Ray's best performances as a singer. He's quite underrated in that regard.

03. Sleepwalker [10]

That is some damn funky drumming from Mick Avory on the intro. Good, catchy riff, too.

This was the big single from the album, and their first hit in some time. It almost reminds me of "Lola," in that both songs have a slightly twisted lyric wrapped up in a catchy-as-Hell rock song. The stuff about sleepwalking seems fairly harmless until he starts talking about "Better close your window tight / I might come in for a bite," or at the end, when he says "I'll even come to your home / If you're ever alone." I read somewhere that an extra verse was cut out of the song with an overt sexual reference. I can't find any record of what the extra lines were, but I'd love to know. Whatever it was, I have no doubt that it was removed with the idea of the song being the album's single in mind.

And how about Dave's dueling guitar solos? Listen to that with headphones for the full effect.

Because I like this song so damn much, here it is again, and in an entirely different mix:

04. Brother [8]

This could have been the single, but Ray resisted and held out for "Sleepwalker." I can see why. I used to dislike this song, I thought it was too schmaltzy. But, as is the case with a lot of Kinks songs, a close reading of the lyrics shows something much different than the music suggests.

"You're my brother / Though I didn't know you yesterday"

This isn't a celebration of Ray and Dave's relationship - which is an amusing, at times sweet, love/hate sibling affair - it's about how the world is going to Hell, with people "...breaking off relationships / And leavin' on sailin' ships / For far and distant shores." There is an odd sense of impending doom in this song, something we'll return to later on the album, as if everyone seems to be fleeing from some sort of cataclysmic event. While I'm glad this wasn't the single - it's too repetitive, I think - it is a good song.

05. Juke Box Music [10]

This is a masterpiece. Never mind the lyrics - for now - but musically, the way the song builds up to an intro, with a guitar solo that sounds like it was plucked from the clouds...and whatever sort of synthesizer John Gosling was playing sounds fantastic. Sounds like the Stringman synth Frank Sampedro plays on Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane." Those short bursts of guitar solos at the end of the choruses is a pretty, melodic bit of playing. And again, Ray sounds great; so does Dave on the last chorus.

Then there's the lyrics. It's a character study of a woman at a dance club who pumps quarters into the jukebox to simply listen to the music she loves, like an addiction. She doesn't dance, she doesn't interact with anyone else, just listens to the music. Ray assures us, the listener, that "It's only jukebox music!" After that stellar guitar break in the middle, the lyrics get personal, compounded by it being Ray and Dave singing these lyrics, seemingly to each other:

"It's all because of that music
That we're slowly drifting apart
But it's only there to dance to
So you shouldn't take it to heart"

Maybe it's because there's so much meaning in Ray's lyrics, maybe it's because Ray stands with George Harrison and Frank Zappa as one of the great idols of my youth, but there's such irony in Ray Davies telling us that his music is only there to dance to. Perhaps it's a comment on the direction they were taking, opting for a more commercial sound upon signing to Arista Records in 1976.

It's one of the best examples of Ray Davies the storyteller, and I love how he brings it full-circle to briefly reflect on his relationship with Dave. Classic Kinks.

06. Sleepless Night [9]

Looking through all these videos, I have to paraphrase something Glenn Gass said about The Beatles in 1966: The Kinks circa 1977 look so cool. When I was younger, I thought Dave was the shit. I still do.

Dave takes the lead vocals on this song (although Ray gets two lines in the bridge), and he sounds great. There's something about the timbre of his voice that I just love. When I first heard The White Stripes, I thought, "Wow, this guy sounds like Dave Davies!"

Anyway, the song is a great showcase for some backing vocal harmonies, organ, and Dave's guitar. I'm a big sucker of this, although other musicians I know think it's a cheap trick, but I love when a drummer switches to playing in double-time. That happens at the beginning of the song, it lumbers for a second, but then Mick kicks it into high gear and away it goes.

It's a funny story, although if it were a situation happening to me, I wouldn't be laughing. The song's hero is kept awake by his neighbors having loud sex. That's already a pretty bad situation, but then in the bridge comes the critical line:

"Once I was her lover
It was so good to be
Now she's got somebody else and I can't sleep
Nothing hurts people more than other people do
But what can you do?"

Good song.

07. Stormy Sky [10]


This is a tender love song, for the most part. There's two of those great Davies twists, little lines that throw the song's balance, if one is focusing on the lyrics: "Perhaps it's a sign of what we're headed for" and "There's nowhere we can hide," both suggesting apocalyptic doom, much like in "Brother."

The group is running on all cylinders, too: Ray goes from a sotto near-whisper at the beginning to a full-voiced bellow at the end. Fantastic. The band plays with a great deal of temperament, all building up to the 2:45 marker, where the song stops for just a second and Dave ushers in the song's coda with a great high riff. It ends perfectly, slowing down to a halt, almost like the end of a violent storm.

08. Full Moon [11]

But we're not out of the woods just yet. This is one of Ray's best songs, period, and the easy winner of best song from the album. It's almost like the spiritual invert of "Stormy Sky." Where the previous is a dark, stormy night shared by two lovers, this clear night with a bright full moon shining down is one of solitary torment.

Everything about this song is perfect, the way Ray asks, "Haven't you noticed a kind of madness in my eyes?", confessing to all these character flaws and quirky mannerisms as being the result of a full moon. The melody is simply beautiful, and the band does the song justice; like the last song, there's a sense of reserve until the coda. The piano break near the end brings in the big finale, where Ray is singing like his career depends on it. It's a beautiful point when the backing vocals hearken back to "Johnny Thunder" from The Village Green Preservation Society (at the 3:22 mark), it still floors me.

Songs like this are the only reason I need to defend my choice of The Kinks as my favorite band of all time.

09. Life Goes On [9]

I used to hate this song, and let's face it, "Full Moon" is an incredibly difficult act to follow. I also used to hate any song that openly acknowledged one's own mortality. Now, though, the line "And one day when you are gone / You know that life will still go on" sits fairly well with me.

Some great Ray one-liners here, "Life goes on / It happens every day," "Get that frown off your head / 'Cause you're a long time dead," and "No matter how hard I try / It seems I'm too young to die." I really like that bridge where he talks about his own suicide attempt, how he planned to gas himself to death, but hadn't paid his bills so his supply was cut off. As I've gotten older I've developed more of an appreciation for such bare-faced morbid humor.

And on that note, I have to say, where else could we go after a song like "Full Moon" but to a meditation on life and death?

Subtotal: 95.5% A

Replayability Factor: 3
I can listen to this album anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

Consistency Factor: 2
For a band with such a long career, it's easy to pick the immediate classics. I don't think too many people will disagree with me if I say your first Kinks album should be Village Green, Something Else, or Arthur. But as far as second-level Kinks listening goes, I put Sleepwalker very high up as a sign that they still had it.

External Factors: 2
It's a great example of Ray's songwriting reaching new heights as far as storytelling and painting pictures of people, whether sympathetic ("Juke Box Music") or less so ("Mr. Big Man"). There's a lot about sanity, things taking a toll on one's psyche, so it's lyrically one of the more harrowing Kinks releases. It just happens to be wrapped in a deceptively gorgeous musical package.

TOTAL: 102.5% A+

And now, since there is a single to cover plus some outtakes that I think are worth mentioning, let's go into the bonus round.

01. Father Christmas [11]

This is my favorite Christmas song of all-time. It's hilarious, and it gives a good glimpse into what the holiday is really about for the Western world: greed. It's also punk, through and through.

Also, does that video not look like the best party ever? I'd hang out with them.

02. Prince Of The Punks [10]

And speaking of punks, this is the best diss song since "Positively 4th Street," an almighty "fuck you" to Ray's former protege Tom Robinson, who apparently decided to go into punk music because it was the "thing" at the time. Even without any knowledge of what/who the song is really about, it's a pretty pointed barb about the guy we all know who tries too hard.

All I know is I would never want Ray Davies pissed off at me.

01. The Poseur [10]

This was originally going to be the title cut for the album. I don't quite know why it got trimmed, it's a really good song, a bit different in style from the rest of the disc, but in a good way. I mean, you can DANCE to this! Pretty unique song, nothing else quite like it in the canon.

02. On The Outside [9]

While I like this song, I can definitely see why it wasn't on the finished album. It might have been better-suited for Misfits or a Ray Davies solo release. It isn't bad at all, maybe a little too much on the side of easy-listening. Still, the song was dusted off in 1994, polished with some new tracks, and released on an EP featuring a newly-recorded version of "Waterloo Sunset," the aptly-named Waterloo Sunset '94. The version here is from 1977.

03. Elevator Man [10]

Oh, my God, this song.

I'm so proud that I have a copy of this tune. Assuming my friend Dave Emlen at the greatest Kinks site in the universe posts this review on the "News & Rumors" feed, this will hopefully mean a batch of Kinks fans are hearing this ditty for the first time. It's a funky little rocker, about an elevator operator who sees all sorts of people.

I like it.

On that note, if you bother to click through on the YouTube link for "Elevator Man," you'll notice it was posted by one Sleepwalker1977.

That's me. That's how much I love this album. My old email address is Sleepwalker_1977 [at] hotmail.com, so yeah...Sleepwalker is an album I enjoy very much. It's super-dorky, but what can I say? I'm a dork.

Good to be back. Hope to see you again soon.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Quick Addendum - The Village Green Preservation Society

Hi Kinks fans -
Previously, I mentioned not being too moved by "Animal Farm." Listening to the album in mono at this Endymion hour (it's 5AM here in NYC), let me just say I've engaged in some critical re-evaluating of the song.

In short, it's terrific. A majestic tune, with a lot more nuances than I'd previously given it credit for.

And if you are looking to get into The Kinks, look no further than this fantastic website for all the lyrics, album covers, chords, and a very engaged online community.

'Night! (Or should I say, Morning!)