Monday, September 7, 2015

The Kinks' Memory Castle.

In 1972, an album appeared with little acclaim or fanfare, let alone notice: A two-record set from Reprise Records titled The Kink Kronikles.

It was a strange release for what had become a rather strange band: Best known for their early overdriven, proto-punk stompers like "You Really Got Me" & "All Day & All Of The Night" in the mid-'60s, by 1966 The Kinks had begun to trade their fuzzy riffs in for a quieter (& weirder) brand of nostalgia.

As led by Ray Davies, who followed a romance for how things used to be (or, perhaps, how they never really were), the group helped him chase his muse through the English countryside: the twisted voice & stark visions of lead guitarist & eager kid brother Dave Davies, the restless hammering of drummer Mick Avory (who played like a cross between Ringo on uppers & Keith Moon on downers), & the tuneful basslines but increasingly resistant personality of Peter Quaife, who quit in 1969 & was replaced by the tuneful basslines but always gung-ho personality of John Dalton.

The result was a series of masterful LPs—Face To Face (1966), Something Else (1967), The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968), & Arthur (Or The Decline & Fall Of The British Empire) (1969)—that were largely overlooked, hitless affairs, both in their native UK as well as the US. Each was great in their own right, although none were a flat-out, front-to-back masterpiece like The Beatles' Revolver, Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde, or The Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed. They were each 3/4 of a great album with an additional quarter of filler; perhaps this more than anything else is what ultimately kept them underground in these years. (Ironically, the album that comes closest to greatness, Village Green, is the sole LP from this run that did not chart in the UK or US whatsoever.)

Regardless, it wasn't until the transatlantic hit of 1970's "Lola," from the underrated Lola Versus Powerman & The Moneygoround, Part One, that The Kinks began to restore themselves to their former glory; at the time, it must've seemed like a surprise fluke, but hindsight shows that The Kinks had spent those years honing their craft until it was simply too great to remain unnoticed.

The Kink Kronikles has become the seminal document of this period, completely forgoing the early hits like "You Really Got Me," "All Day & All Of The Night," "Tired Of Waiting For You," "Set Me Free," "A Well Respected Man" & the rest in favor of the village green golden years of 1966-1971. In the US, the hits were few (just 2 in the Top 40—"Sunny Afternoon" & "Lola"), while in the UK, it seemed for every great song that hit ("Waterloo Sunset" at #2) there was an equally great one that missed ("Victoria" at #33). & with the UK market still largely segregating album tracks & single tracks, there were a flood of great B-sides that got lost in the shuffle.

The Kink Kronikles, then, came along to address the problem. It was largely the passion project of one man, rock journalist John Mendelsohn, who essentially programed a mixtape of his favorite Kinks songs & released it as a two-disc set with a catchy name (& no input from the band).

In so doing, Mendelsohn is to The Kinks what Harry Smith is to American folk music: He saw a world within that music & set out to build his own version of it. It is said that the epic poets of ancient times remembered their tales by creating what became known as a "memory castle," a large mental estate that they would picture themselves walking through as they told their tales, to help remember the greater structure of their titanic story. Harry Smith's stream-of-conscious Anthology Of American Folk Music programming has been compared to this technique, as should Mendelsohn's Kronikles.

The Kink Kronikles is comprised of four 7-song sides, each of with has a different theme: Side A is places, Side B is ambition, Side C is character studies, & Side D is love songs.

That The Kink Kronikles succeeds overall is a credit both to The Kinks' music & Mendelsohn's vision. However, like the studio albums, to my ears it's only about 3/4 perfect, with a couple of bum tracks standing in the way of true greatness.

Side A [Places]

1. Victoria
2. The Village Green Preservation Society
3. Berkeley Mews
4. Holiday In Waikiki
5. Willesden Green
6. This Is Where I Belong
7. Waterloo Sunset

The Good: The album opens exactly where it should, with the epic "Victoria," a survey of where Ray Davies' romanticism intersects with the dream of a nostalgic reality. "The Village Green Preservation Society" makes a shockingly good second cut, taking the landscape of "Victoria" & crafting a more immediate vision. This is contrasted by the American superficiality of a "Holiday In Wakiki" (Key line: "& even all the grass skirts were PVC"), which makes songs like "Berkeley Mews" all the more poignant in their effortless scenery. Everything peaks with the cool nostalgic rush of "This Is Where I Belong" & "Waterloo Sunset," two of the most stunning songs The Kinks ever cut.

The Bad: "Willesden Green." Although I love this song & of itself, it is weird--really weird--& simply isn't up to par with everything that surrounds it. The song works as a curiosity from the neglected (& itself weird) Percy soundtrack, but doesn't deserve to be on this otherwise near-definitive sampler of the era; tellingly, it has not appeared on either of The Kinks' recent box sets, 2008's Picture Book & 2014's Anthology: 1964 - 1971.

The Solution: Replace "Willesden Green" with "Picture Book." While it is not about places per se, it fits into the same theme of nostalgia. It also fits neatly between the vacation of "Holiday In Wakiki" & the homecoming of "This Is Where I Belong" (giving the effect of sorting the photos from your trip as you return home) & gives the underrepresented masterpiece of Village Green another classic on the collection (Mendelsohn only had a single track off of this album on his original collection, whereas the inferior Face To Face received 3).

Side B [Ambition]

1. David Watts
2. Dead End Street
3. Shangri-La
4. Autumn Almanac
5. Sunny Afternoon
6. Get Back In Line
7. Did You See His Name?

The Good: This is the album's most nebulously-themed side, yet for the most part it makes perfect sense: The high school idolizing of "David Watts," the young adult poverty reality of "Dead End Street," the mansion-on-a-hill adulthood of "Shangri-La," the neighborhood pride of "Autumn Almanac," the rich man's sloth of "Sunny Afternoon." The juxtapositions of naive & jaded, poor & rich, & community & individualism all make for a virtual cross-section of the British class system—or at least, one weird rock band's version of it.

The Bad: The album side ends, then, with "Get Back In Line," which I've always found to be a listless track from Lola, & "Did You See His Name," a chipper stab at gallows humor that Mendelsohn calls the most obscure song on the album. It very well may be, but there are other tracks that would work better.

The Solution: Replace "Get Back In Line" & "Did You See His Name" with the superior vignettes "Two Sisters" & "Do You Remember Walter." Both continue the ambition theme far better than the original songs ("Two Sisters" in particular may be the most evocative portrait of ambition in the Kinks' canon, with the housewife in curlers up against her luxurious single sister) & pick up where the previous "Sunny Afternoon" leaves off.

Side C [Characters]

1. Fancy
2. Wonderboy
3. Apeman
4. King Kong
5. Mister Pleasant
6. God's Children
7. Death Of A Clown

The Good: I mistakenly thought of this as the "men" side, until I read Mendelsohn's liner notes, which expresses them as characters. In this regard, it works, especially with "Wonderboy" becoming the "Apeman," the cloying "Mister Pleasant" balanced by the lovely "God's Children," & the oddball "Death Of A Clown" as the finale.

The Bad: In a word, "Fancy." Until I read Mendelsohn's liner notes, I had wondered if "Fancy" was a mistake on the part of the record label as a substitute for "Dandy." The titles of the songs look alike & are from the same album, so it was possible, it seemed. However, after reading Mendelsohn's notes, it is clear this is no mistake at all. In "Fancy" is the thesis to the entire project for him: "No one can penetrate me / They only see what's in their own fancy." OK, a nice & telling line, but unfortunately, it's trapped inside a completely boring & dated Eastern-influenced song that makes "See My Friends" sound as sprightly as "You Really Got Me." The beauty of The Kinks' music in this period is how it served as a retreat from head-on psychedelic rock; here is a misbegotten relic that throws everything back into the sunshine daydream of a time that The Kinks seemed to be seeking shelter from. (He further admitted that he tipped the scale towards the Face To Face songs because at that point the album was about to go out of print. I respect his concern, but this should be no consideration on what songs belong on a definitive anthology as this.) Less pressing is "King Kong," which is certainly not horrible, but I've always found more annoying than enjoyable.

The Solution: Replace "Fancy" with "Dandy." "Dandy" is a vastly superior song & a quintessentially British song by the most quintessentially British rock group. Plus, I love the segue-way from the adolescent womanizing of "Dandy" into the dedicated fatherhood of "Wonderboy." As for "King Kong," I would replace it with Dave Davies' artfully melancholic B-side "This Man He Weeps Tonight." Sure, it doesn't pull the cute "Apeman"/"King Kong" trick of the back-to-back monkey songs, but it is a better song & seems to serve as a perfect transition between the primal, dedicated love of "Apeman" & the facade love of "Mister Pleasant." It is also simply a beautiful song.

Side D [Women/Love]

1. Lola
2. Mindless Child Of Motherhood
3. Polly
4. Big Black Smoke
5. Susannah's Still Alive
6. She's Got Everything
7. Days

The Good: The transition from "Lola" to "Mindless Child Of Motherhood" is so masterful that Freud could write an entire volume about it. Similarly, pairing "Polly" & "Big Black Smoke" call attention to Ray Davies' theme of the girl leaving the countryside for the city (although it makes me long for the third in the girl-leaves-home "trilogy," which would be the equally stunning "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home"); Ray writes the songs with a knowing eye for detail (the purple hearts & cigarettes) & with the hint that maybe, just maybe, the girl is led into prostitution (a half a million people can't be wrong...). &, of course, "Days" ends the album as perfectly as "Victoria" began it: In the wistful bosom of nostalgia.

The Bad: "She's Got Everything." This is a decent song (& B-side for "Days), but ultimately does not fit in here. It was recorded outside of the scope of the other songs in early 1966 & sounds like it. If the album had included other stark B-sides like "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" or "Sittin' On My Sofa," "She's Got Everything" would fit in fine. However, here it sticks out like a sore thumb almost as badly as "Fancy," only with a sound that is closer to "Till The End Of The Day" than anything else here. Granted, it's a great sound, it just doesn't fit with its surroundings. & it would've been nice to get "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home" in there to gather all of Ray's affecting girl-leaves-home trilogy in one place.

The Solution: Take out "Susannah's Still Alive," put "Rosie Won't You Please Come Home" after "Mindless Child Of Motherhood," followed by "Big Black Smoke" & "Polly" so that the girl-leaves-home trilogy is completed in chronological order. It's just such a lovely set of songs & anchors the center of the women/love theme. (For the record, "Susannah's Still Alive" is a GREAT song that is worthy of this set, but ultimately I find the girl-leaves-home trilogy so special that it merits inclusion over "Susannah." Plus, although that means where down a Dave Davies song, the fact that "This Man He Weeps Tonight" was included elsewhere keeps the score even. & it also gets another song from Face To Face on here, as Mendelsohn would've liked.) Finally, replace "She's Got Everything" with "Village Green." I love "Village Green" (you can read my appreciation of it here); for me, it is The Kinks' finest exercise in nostalgia. Also, it bridges the "girls" theme of this side & the memories-filled "Days," as it is a song about visiting a former love in a country home that has been left & missed, among many, many other things. (& throw in the fact that "Polly" ends with the line "I think that Pretty Polly should've gone back home" & "Village Green" is all about returning to the girl you left behind & you have a smooth thematic transition.) It also sets up a nice balance for the set: The second song is "The Village Green Preservation Society" & the second-to-last song is "Village Green." Done.

Here, then, is my own perfected running order for The Kink Kronikles, with apologies to John Mendelsohn & respect to The Kinks:

1. Victoria
2. The Village Green Preservation Society
3. Berkeley Mews
4. Holiday In Wakiki
5. Picture Book
6. This Is Where I Belong
7. Waterloo Sunset
8. David Watts
9. Dead End Street
10. Sangri-La
11. Autumn Almanac
12. Sunny Afternoon
13. Two Sisters
14. Do You Remember Walter?
15. Dandy
16. Wonderboy
17. Apeman
18. This Man He Weeps Tonight
19. Mister Pleasant
20. God's Children
21. Death Of A Clown
22. Lola
23. Mindless Child Of Motherhood
24. Rosie Won't You Please Come Home
25. Big Black Smoke
26. Polly
27. Village Green
28. Days

At least until I switch something around again.

(For John Mendelsohn's original running order & liner notes, you can check them out right here: