The Kinks: the concept years, 1970-76
by John Van der Kiste
edited: Saturday, May 25, 2002
Posted: Saturday, May 25, 2002
Become a Fan
The Kinks' foray into making theatrical concept albums during the early 70s. From Keep On Rockin No. 6, Autumn 1994
"I'll never make it as a songwriter. Well, I think if I make it I'll give up. The reason I keep going is that I haven't achieved what I set out to do" - Ray Davies, June 1975
During the 60s, the Kinks had been one of Britain's most consistent groups, only rivalled by Beatles, Stones, Move and Who. Ray Davies was recognized as one of the most articulate songwriters of all, and it was sad if hardly surprising that they failed to consolidate and build on their success in the 70s. Managerial problems, rebellion against the business side, Ray's artistic ambitions, and divided loyalties to the UK and US were part of their undoing. Because of this, and because of the label hung around them as 'classic 60s band', some excellent music passed by virtually unnoticed by all but the hard core of fans.
In January 1970, the Kinks were at a low ebb. Ray Davies had wilfully turned his back on penning hit singles for the British market in favour of concept albums like' Arthur' and 'The Village Green Preservation Society', brilliant, thoughtful albums - and commercial failures. The record market was fragmenting into singles and albums acts, but Pye Records were unable to handle them as one of the latter, and their continual budget-price compilations of the band's hits was counter-productive. In the US, after a disastrous early start when they had been banned for unprofessional behaviour onstage, they found audiences far more receptive to their quirky, olde-worlde British flavour and their thoughtful songs about steam-powered trains and vintage pubs.
1970 ultimately proved a year of mixed fortunes. A promising US tour was cancelled due to illness, keyboard player John Gosling was recruited, and a controversial single survived several hurdles to become one of their classics. Three years after homosexuality was legalized in the UK, 'Lola' was the first song to deal unashamedly with transvestitism. Having long professed disdain for hit singles, Ray was anxious for once to avoid a BBC ban (which had harmed the sales of 'Plastic Man' the year before, through one solitary use of the word 'bum'), not because of the subject matter, but because of trade name advertising - still a Radio 1 taboo. The single was due for release when Ray was advised to alter the words 'Coca-cola' to 'Cherry-cola', and had to fly back across the Atlantic to re-record the part. It proved worthwhile, for the song was an instant success, peaking at No.2 in July 1970, their biggest hit for three years.
Yet Ray's bitterness and disillusionment with the music industry had bitten deep. In November the Kinks released their first album of the decade, 'Kinks Part One - Lola Vs Powerman And The Moneygoround'. The vitriol was couched in humour, but it revealed Ray's most angry work yet. It was divided into songs satirizing the industry and documenting the effects of rock star life, or in his own words "the struggle of a band really deciding to fight back". 'Denmark Street', with music hall-inspired backing, was awry comment on the machinations of Tin Pan Alley, 'Top Of The Pops' a satirical look at chart success, and 'Moneygoround' an unmerciful comment on struggling musicians being ripped off. Ray's attacks were not only reserved for the business, but also the growing power of the trade unions in 'Get Back In Line', and the insecurities of life on the road in' A Long Way From Home'.
Apart from 'Lola' it contained one other hit single, ' Apeman', a No. 1 hit in January 1971. On one level it was almost a novelty number, sung by Ray in an affected West Indian vocal, but it was also a semi-serious comment on pollution, over-population and civilization, and the ideal state of primitive man. Ray also got his own back on the BBC. The lyric on the album sleeve referred to "air pollution fogging up my eye", but those who listened closely (excluding the top brass at Radio 1, evidently) heard a slightly different f- word. 'Kinks - Part Two' never materialized. Tours on both sides of the Atlantic to capitalize on success as a born-again singles band distracted them, as did Ray's sound track for the film 'Percy'.
In 1971, the Kinks' Pye contract came to an end, as did their stormy association with managers Robert Wace and Grenville Collins. Wace was perceptive about the Kinks' basic problems; "Ray once described the group as being like a football team that's always on the brink of relegation to the second division but somehow just does enough to avoid the drop by getting a hit record. They never wanted to be as big as the Beatles or the Stones. They could have been, but they ran away from it." The group signed to RCA, Ray saying that if they were going to be a worldwide act, they had to have a worldwide company, In a less serious moment, he said that the only reason for joining RCA was that he had always wanted to be on the same label as Chet Atkins.
Their next LP, 'Muswell Hillbillies', was based on the theme of the removal of working- class families from inner city areas by town planners, thrown into a different environment and coming to terms with an alien modern setting. Partly autobiographical, it reflected the Davies' own experiences. The sleeve showed the band drinking in the Archway Tavern, North London, a pub with "the worst C'n'W Irish band you could imagine, and I wanted to mimic that". Ray went to some effort to get away from a slick state-of-the-art studio sound on the album by using old-fashioned radio mikes which had been mothballed for some years. They were augmented by a three-man brass section, the Mike Cotton Sound. Brass brought out the vaudeville, trad jazz leanings in Ray's songs, and complimented their ironic, black humour. ' Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues' was inspired mainly by his father who used to throw family parties on Friday night and sing, and 'Have A Cup Of Tea' was written about his grandmother who lived to be 98, and whose solution all life's problems was to put the kettle on.
The Mike Cotton Sound became an integral part of the band's live performances at this time. John Gosling disliked their inclusion on the old hits. 'You Really Got Me' with brass, he thought, was travesty, and there were many jokes about them turning into 'the Billy Cotton Band Show'. In fact, in the early 70s the Kinks seemed totally out of step with the music business. Their publicist Marion Rainford thought they were going through "a very funny stage in relations to the music of that time". Heavy rock was fashionable, and audiences were expected to sit, listen and be cool, but the Kinks wanted punters to respond. "It was a bit like expecting a serious concert audience who were expecting Beethoven but were suddenly told they were going to get Gilbert and Sullivan."
Ray had always wanted to make the group's performances more theatrical, and the larger instrumental line-up gave him more freedom to develop the stagecraft element. Now he could take the guitar off, wiggle around the stage with hands on hips, pout at the crowd and urge them to sing along, or climb scaffolding on the front of the stage and spray the punters with beer. The introduction of old cabaret chestnuts like 'You Are My Sunshine' and 'Baby Face', and a mock-striptease to 'Lola' led to suggestions that he was trying to upstage the likes of Bowie and Sweet. In the US, audiences lapped it up, but in Britain the general view was that Ray had turned the group into ridiculous self-parody.
A firm hand on the management side was badly needed. But Ray had virtually taken over managing the group, in addition to writing and producing everything, barring the occasional song by brother and lead guitarist Dave. Without outside guidance, the group floundered, and in Britain, lack of promotion was reflected in declining record sales. Of their many RCA releases between 1971 and 1976, only one charted in the UK, the single 'Supersonic Rocket Ship', a No. 16 hit in July \972. Like 'Apeman' it was an Utopian escape-theme song, with vocals partly sung and partly declaimed in mock-calypso style, with brass and lightly-picked mandolin. It was their last Top 40 hit in the UK for over a decade, and led to a 'Top Of The Pops' appearance after which, it was rumoured, a backstage altercation resulted in Ray pouring beer over the members of Slade.
'Ship' was a taster for the second RCA album, 'Everybody's In Showbiz, Everybody's A Star' .It was a double, with one studio record, one live. Ray was ahead of his time, for the latter failed to stand up to listening without the accompanying visuals. Ten years later, as part of a video package, it would have made more sense; or even as a limited edition disc for hardcore Kinks fans, which it might have been five years later. But the studio cuts were well up to standard, the brass section adding a distinctive flavour to songs like 'Look On The Sunny Side', and 'Here Comes Yet Another Day'. The highlight was the poignant 'Celluloid Heroes', a tribute to Hollywood movie stars like Valentino and Marilyn Monroe. Despite its six-minute length, as a single it was played heavily and reviewed favourably, but failed to chart. Today it is still regarded as one of the best-ever Kinks songs.
1973 was a turbulent year for the group. Later, Ray said that there were two points at his life and career when he should not have been allowed to put records out - in the late 6Os, and from 1973 to 1975. During the latter period, in fact, he (or rather the Kinks) put out FOUR albums of new material, one a double. Compare that with the 80s/90s output of someone like Peter Gabriel.
The year began well with a sold-out gig at Drury Lane Theatre on \4 January, using the 1968 'Village Green Preservation Society' album as a framework for old and new material. Ray's ambition at the time was to mount the old album as a West End stage show, augmenting the eight-piece line-up with six extra horns, six extra singers, a light show and proper staging. He had barely started planning it before it began to go over-budget, and production problems intervened too, but he would not be deterred. He decided to record a three-album extravaganza, 'Preservation', which would take what was in effect a small West End musical on tour throughout the UK and US on the conventional rock circuit. The first album was completed in March but scrapped as he was dissatisfied with it, and put on hold while they toured the US, and then opened Konk Recording Studios, Hornsey. This was a converted Tottenham Lane warehouse which they had developed as their own 16-track studio. Ray now had his own publishing, management and studio under one roof. He also planned a record label Konk, to which Claire Hammill and Cafe Society (Tom Robinson's first band) were signed, but other group activities prevented it from getting off the ground.
Not surprisingly, Ray's workload was all too much for one person. .”I was cracking up then,” he would admit. .”I should have had a manager to tell me, 'Don't do anything, go away for six months. '”. His first wife Rasa agreed; in her words, the marriage just crumbled. In June she walked out with their two young daughters. A week later he was admitted to hospital after a drugs overdose, which mayor may not have been a suicide attempt. Another fortnight after that, before he had had time to recover from all the traumas, the Kinks played White City Stadium alongside acts like Sly & the Family Stone and Edgar Winter's White Trash. Although it was a vintage gig, with the audience clapping along and singing their hearts out, Ray suddenly stunned everyone -not least the rest of the group -by announcing onstage that he was fed up with the music business and intended to quit completely.
The group took an enforced break for several weeks, and in the autumn a refreshed Ray took up the reins again. A midsummer single, 'Sitting In the Midday Sun' and its excellent follow-up, 'Sweet Lady Genevieve', preceded 'Preservation - Part I', released just before Christmas. The reception, once again, was mixed; critics thought the brass section was too stagey, it made little sense outside the visual context, and was compared unfavourably to a surrogate' Jesus Christ Superstar'.
Ray shrugged off the bad reviews and persevered. 'Preservation - Part II', a double album, appeared in August 1974, standout being the infectious 'Mirror Of Love'. Two different versions were released on 45, three months apart; the first was a demo version with all vocals and instruments overdubbed by Ray and Dave Davies, the second a full band version with the brass section.
The basic plot of the three-album 'Preservation' set centred around a fantasy land threatened by the forces of capitalism, personified by Mr Flash. A much-travelled tramp returned to his village green, expecting to find everything as he knew it years ago, but instead discovered Flash and his band of spivs running a corrupt dictatorial regime. A military coup brought Flash down, he repented for his evil ways and was conditioned to take his place in the new society. The sleeve design of 'Part II' showed Ray dressed as music hall comedian Max Miller, surveying a post-holocaust landscape.
Several of the songs were very good, but yet again the music did not stand up completely outside the context of stage performance. Ray was proud of his achievements, but the others were frustrated at the departure from being a rock band. Drummer Mick Avory thought the project too unwieldy - too many singers, too many brass musicians - "We got a bit detached from the group itself". Much as they enjoyed dressing up as clowns and gangsters, John Gosling added, they were fed up with being members of an amateur dramatic society. As for Dave, he began work on his long-cherished solo album at Konk Studios. John said his sessions were far superior to the stuff the band did on 'Preservation'; "It would have done him a lot of good to see those tracks come out. " But after a while Dave lost heart, scrapped the project, and did not record and release his first solo set proper until 1980.
Ray's next project was 'Starmaker', a musical play for Granada TV, starring him and June Ritchie. The central character was Norman, an ordinary person who believed himself to be a rock star and set out to write a concept album on his mundane lifestyle. As the 30-minute play progressed, dream and reality became increasingly confused. It ended with Norman (Ray) wandering dazedly into the audience eating crisps, watching the Dave-led Kinks closing the show. The group were dissatisfied with the sound; only six hours were spent on recording and mixing it, but as John said, " I think Ray had to get the acting thing out of his system".
Critics hardly seemed to know what to make of the Kinks any more, but Pete Townshend came to its defence; "It's just shocking to realize that it happened and it did nothing. I remember seeing it and thinking, this is either going to be completely ignored or it's going to be huge. "
Huge it was not. But the songs ended up on the next album, 'Soap Opera', released in 1975. Three were issued as singles, 'Holiday Romance', 'Ducks On The Wall', and 'You Can't Stop The Music'. Reviewers agreed that Ray was regaining his old form, if only he would concentrate again on singles rather than overblown concepts - something he wilfully refused to do, claiming that hits no longer gave him any satisfaction.
It took one more concept album for Ray to get it out of his system. 'Schoolboys In Disgrace' was premiered on stage and released as an album in November 1975. Partly autobiographical, the stage show featured Ray successively in a mask as Mr Flash, then as a schoolboy, then later as a headmaster in gown and cane, while the rest of the group came on as schoolboys - plus two girls as backing vocalists in boaters, short skirts, stockings and suspenders. The songs mixed autobiography and social comment, from 'The Hard Way', based on friends' visits to the Youth Employment Officer and being pushed into jobs they did not want, and 'The Last Assembly', based on Ray's own last day at school when he had to turn up for assembly though he was ill. The brass section had been relegated to its former function of punching out the brass lines, while Ray's songs had shed the music hall style and veered between the chunky mid-60s sound and introspective ballads a la 'Waterloo Sunset' - back to the old sound. Even so, it was still a commercial failure. 'Schoolboys In Disgrace' was said to be their worst-selling album of the decade.
By 1976 the Kinks' RCA contract was up. The British arm of the company was relieved, having hoped for a hit singles band and found itself with a 20th-century Gilbert & Sullivan instead. None of the albums had charted in their home territory either.
On hearing that RCA planned to issue a 'Kinks Greatest Hits' compilation in Britain, Ray promptly informed them that they could be breaching the Trades Descriptions Act. They discreetly dropped the word 'Hits' from the title, and 'Celluloid Heroes -The Kinks Greatest' (inexplicably, excluding the sole British RCA hit 'Supersonic Rocket Ship'), was released in the summer of 1976.
Ray felt it was time for a new beginning, and the band were thankful. As far as they were concerned, they were going to drop the amateur dramatics and become a rock group again. As for Ray, he was disillusioned with Britain, and admitted that it was really their acclaim in the US that kept them going. Not only that, but "we'd decided to concentrate on America because we'd had that ban and we felt cheated. We thought we'd got to put that right because we're good. Besides, Britain in the 70s was piss-poor. Nothing was happening - absolutely nothing. That's why when the so-called 'new wave' came along in 1977 it released anew energy in me. " He rented a flat in New York and began negotiations with Clive Davis to sign with his new up-and-coming label Arista (biggest star on the roster so far, Barry Manilow). The Kinks' concept years were over.