Sunday, March 18, 2007


30 years ago: March, 1977

Sleepwalker was the first Kinks' album I bought when it was released. Though not a remarkable album for Ray Davies and company, it was distinctive to me because on it The Kinks finally sounded good. All the previous albums -- and there were some great albums and even more great songs -- used to appall me with their production. Granted, not everyone can have at their disposal the equipment and engineering savvy that The Beatles and The Stones could command, but why did the Kinks' albums of the '60s always sound muddier than the likes of The Who or Pink Floyd, or even early Bowie? The Kinks Kronikles, a double album of stand-out tracks released in '72, was my reference point for the early Kinks ('66-'70 -- which was not the earliest Kinks, because their landmark song "You Really Got Me" dates from August of '64) and it took awhile to warm to it because of those wimpy drums and arrangements that, for all their panache, sound as if all instruments were recorded on one track with the vocals on the other. Possibly so.

The RCA albums of '71-'76 were better, production-value wise, but after Muswell Hillbillies (their best -- and first -- for RCA, just as Arthur was their best, and last, on Reprise), Davies went off into his vaudevillian mode. I got an earful of this in the late '70s because my older brother was one of the few people, it seems, enamoured of Preservation Act II (1974). I'm still partial to it, but it's like Jesus Christ Superstar or Tommy: you're listening to songs that comprise a musical and so, unless you like your songs coming to you in character, it's a bit off to the side of the usual rock album experience.

Sleepwalker ended all the concept stuff and just delivered a batch of songs with, on Arista, recordings that sounded like they belonged in the late '70s. In fact I don't think Dave Davies' guitar ever sounded better: so fucking muscular! "Mr. Big Man", for instance. And brother Ray's vocals are strong and solid. "Stormy Sky" and "Full Moon" are some of his best singing. The latter is my favorite song on the album -- it manages to be kinda creepy and also funny and, well, "if the face in the mirror isn't you at all..."

It was on their tour for this album that I first saw The Kinks play live, at The Tower Theater in Philadelphia -- a reconstituted movie theater, fairly intimate. Indicative, in the sense that the other '60s bands I'd seen perform -- Tull, Floyd, Zappa -- were in larger venues. The Kinks were never big in America, being I think "too British" in some not quite definable way (oh well, maybe somewhat definable -- if you hear a song that hails village greens, billiards, "the St. George Cross and all those who were awarded them," it's pretty clear it's not aimed at the average American six-pack or bong-head Joe). In any case, it was so very good to see rock legends in spitting distance and to have a great time with Davies' hammy stage presence. Songs by The Kinks have been covered by the likes of The Jam, The Pretenders, Yo La Tengo, Elvis Costello, Big Star, Van Halen (!), and their sound is audible to me in some of Blur and in the latest album by The Shins -- so it's clear that Davies' legacy is healthy. He put out his first solo album in 2005 and it's refreshing to hear again his sardonic take on the world we're all stuck with.

We used to always say that Davies could write a song about anything. Check out "Sleepless Nights," about the guy who has to live underneath his ex-girlfriend and hear her get it on with his replacement. If there is "a theme" to the album, it seems to be the things that keep you up at night.

Haven't you noticed a kind of madness in my eyes
It's only me, dear, in my midnight disguise

--Ray Davies, "Full Moon" (1977)

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