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 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], 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.


Jay Rogers said...

The extra stanza in Sleepwalker can be heard in one of the live performances. I think it was shown on the Old Grey Whistle Test. I have the DVD at home and maybe I'll post them later.

marbelmo said...

If you are familiar with Facebook Zynga games, I paid homage to this album by naming my "Vampire Wars" character KinkSleepwalker.
Great review!
I apologize if I've made multiple posts but I'm having a problem figuring out if I'm registered or if any of my past comments made it through.
I won't post again so I hope this goes through. Please delete the previous ones.


gerard said...

There are times I don't play Sleepwalker and suddenly I start humming three songs of that album in a row. Which ofcourse makes me listen the same night to the album.

Thanks for posting Elevator Man and for doing justice with that elaborated review on a great album of my fav band of all times.


Doctorfingers said...

A splendid review of a splendid album!

I loved all the concept albums too, but this was a return to rock.

Dave Collins said...

I can remember buying this is the UK upon its release, vinyl....and cassette album! Used to play it at full volume in my old car, especially the title track.If only car amps and big speakers had been invented!
Great album, great shows at the Rainbow, Finsbury Park around that time too, my cassette broke, recently replaced by CD....can play it LOUD in the car again these days!, Thanks for the review!

tom the grocer boy said...

Before I get shot, allow me to state that I love Ray Davies and I love The Kinks.

That dispensed with, I've heard it said (with and without tongue-in-cheek) that 'Mr.Big Man' might be heard as the first draft of Ray's autobiography. What with him wearing a theatrical mask on the LP cover and then showing himself exposed on the back, I'd guess that he was being honest with himself and his fans. Which other (great)writer can you think of who would and has done the same? I think that 'Mr.Big Man' is one of Ray's great songs - and he's written a ton of them. John Lennon could only dream of being the songwriter Ray is.

"Ev'rybody's got the right to speak their mind ....."

Excellent piece, Alex.