Saturday, 3 May 2014

50 albums to take to my grave #5: Muswell Hillbillies

Ray Davies is one of my musical heroes, responsible for some of pop music's finest moments. The Kinks as a unit, while revered in broad musical circles, remain grossly overlooked in the wider world, other than their well-known hits. The truth is, the Kinks were a great albums band, and I don't use the term 'great' lightly here. For 10 years - from 1966's Face To Face through to Schoolboys In Disgrace a decade later - the Kinks made a succession of really good records, even though most of them did next to nothing commercially.

Of course, the one Kinks album that does get continually raved about is ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ (1968), and there's no denying what an utterly brilliant (and hugely influential) record that is, but the one I keep coming back to came out the year of my birth.

‘Muswell Hillbillies’ followed a troubled period for the Kinks. The hits had started to dry up until Lola offered brief respite. They parted company with Pye records, their label since the beginning, a soundtrack for the British comedy movie ‘Percy’ being their swan song. Signing to RCA in 1971, it was clear Ray Davies had a new broom and intended to sweep clean. Intriguingly, he seemed to display more of an interest in the music of the US, a country the group had been banned from touring during the late 60s. When the ban was lifted in 1969, the Kinks' return to the States was unsuccessful with many dates being cancelled.

Lyrically, the songs on ‘Muswell Hillbillies’ are typical of Davies. His characters express disillusionment and frustration at the pressures of modern life in the UK and show a defiant resistance to change. Davies himself put a lot of himself into his protagonists which no doubt fuelled his creativity. The music however marked a significant shift in the band's sound. The addition of a horn section allowed them to explore new horizons such as British music hall and trad jazz. In fact, several styles and genres were weaved into ‘Muswell Hillbillies’ yet it sounds amazingly cohesive, a proper album rather than a collection of songs with a few hits thrown in.

But the American influence was strongest. The Deep South runs through Uncle Son and Holloway Jail while the opening pairing of 20th Century Man and Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues, along with closer Muswell Hillbilly, have a distinct Americana feel, fusing blues, country and rock to wonderful effect.

Country and blues lie at the roots of American music. Love, sorrow and despair are at the heart of much of their subject matter. The Kinks transplanted that into modern day London and told the stories of people living lives steeped in tradition, fighting against a tide of change and yearning for the days when things were so much simpler. You can't help but love all of Davies' characters in this context, and just hope they'll overcome their problems to fight another day. I'm still rooting for them now, 43 years on.

For me, ‘Muswell Hillbillies’ eclipses ‘Village Green’ for its bravery and stubborn refusal to pander to the trends of the day. It was, to all intents and purposes, a statement of intent; the Kinks' future lay across the Atlantic and for the next couple of decades that's certainly where the remaining success they enjoyed was had.


Soundtrack:

5 comments:

  1. Man, love this one! To me it's the Kinks Sticky Fingers, and that ain't no bad thang...
    If you can, pick up the deluxe edition of this that just came out, some great bonus tracks and the sound is far better than any edition I've ever heard. Great blog, by the way. Keep it up!

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  2. Talking of American influence on Ray's songwriting, I'm off to see him this weekend - not at a gig but at a book-reading/Q&A to promote his new book, Americana. Tickets unbelievably still available here for anyone that lives within a reasonable commute of the fine city...

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  3. I have always loved the Kinks, but I could never connect to this record. After your post - I gave it a fresh listen (last was probably 10 yrs ago) and damn this is a great one. Thanks for making me listen again. I am enjoying the blog- down here in New Orleans...keep up the good work!

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  4. Great post. I will have to have another listen. 'Arthur' is usually my default choice of 'classic Kinks album'. Have tweeted a link to this from my @KinksKronikle account. Are you on any such social media?

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    1. I don't tweet, facebook or anything like that. I prefer to write in 'longform' rather than abbreviations and codes. Guess I'm just old fashioned. But thanks for the support, always appreciated.

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