I’m not the world’s most passionate guy

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I examine the long, strange career of one of the most British of Britain’s great rock bands:  The Kinks.

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A solid case can be made that the sub-genre of rock ‘n’ roll known as hard rock got its start in early 1964 from one impulsive act by a rebellious British teenager named Dave Davies.

Davies and his band, The Kinks, had twice failed to record a hit single and were in danger of losing their record contract if they didn’t come up with one on their third try.  He was frustrated that the sound he was getting from his electric guitar plugged into a standard amplifier-speaker wasn’t sufficiently coarse and scratchy.  So he took out a 41okw4osvilrazor blade and slashed a deep cut through the speaker cone, which caused a dirty, distorted howl when he played.

“That’s it!” he thought triumphantly, as the group launched into a fresh take of “You Really Got Me,” and the result was two minutes and 14 seconds of raw energy that paved the way for an entire genre of power chords and frenetic guitar solos in the five-plus decades since.

The Kinks released 24 albums between 1964 and 1994, have sold more than 50 million records worldwide, and were inducted early into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  And yet, they never achieved the kind of stratospheric success of their British Invasion peers nor their many imitators in the years since.

Ray Davies — Dave’s older brother and The Kinks’ frontman, singer and primary songwriter — thinks he knows why.

“We were fighters,” he said in a 1998 interview.  “We fought amongst each other, we fought with our managers, we fought with anybody who looked at us the wrong way.  We wrote and recorded some pretty great music, and we had a lot of fun, but all the fighting really cost us dearly, and we only have ourselves to blame.”

Specifically, Dave Davies and drummer Mick Avory had an infamous battle in front of a stunned audience at a concert in early 1965 in Wales that put Davies in the hospital and

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The Kinks (clockwise from top):  Ray Davies, Mick Avory, Dave Davies, Pete Quaife

sent Avory into hiding.  Davies soon healed and no charges were filed, but The Kinks had established a reputation for being difficult and a little dangerous.

During their first American tour a couple months later, a verbal flareup between the band and members of the union crew working the set of Dick Clark’s “Where the Action Is” caused The Kinks to be slapped with a four-year ban against further U.S. appearances when the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists recommended, and the feds agreed, to deny the necessary working permits.

“It’s all so silly, in retrospect,” said Ray Davies.  “Some guy who said he worked for the TV company walked up and accused us of being late.  Then he started making anti-British comments — things like, ‘Just because the Beatles did it, every mop-topped, spotty-faced limey juvenile thinks he can come over here and make a career for himself.’  A punch was thrown, and by the next day, we were on our way back home.”

As The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and other acts of the time knew, the American market was critical to their success, and The Kinks, by not being able to perform there during their initial creative period, were denied the exposure they needed to reach the heights they deserved.

In my view, another contributing reason for The Kinks’ second-class status was the decidedly inferior production values on their early recordings.  The group was signed kinks-proud-2709awith Pye Records, who lacked the financial and professional resources to turn the band’s rough demos into the kind of polished work The Beatles and others were releasing.

Thirdly, as much as I enjoy and respect the group’s entertaining repertoire, they needed a better lead singer.  Ray Davies had a distinctive voice, but not a great one (like, say, The Who’s Roger Daltrey), and I think adding a better lead vocalist would’ve helped them immeasurably.

Still, none of this stopped the band from enjoying some solid success in England, and a few of their ensuing singles made their way onto the US charts anyway.  Ray Davies began to experiment much more broadly in his songwriting, and for the remainder of the Sixties, he came up with an impressive palette of songs that tapped into his early influence from British music hall traditions.  The arrangements used more piano and harpsichord, and they utilized the efforts of the great British session keyboard man Nicky Hopkins to expand their sound.  There was still rock music in the mix, but The Kinks’ repertoire offered more alternatives, from blues to jazz, from baroque to folk.

Readers may be familiar with minor hits like “Tired of Waiting for You,” “Set Me Free,” “A Well Respected Man,” “Till the End of the Day,” “Who’ll Be the Next in Line,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and “Sunny Afternoon,” and their albums offered plenty of other hidden pop gems like “See My Friends,” “Session Man” and “This is Where I Belong.” mi0001901955Davies, still only 23 in 1967, came up with one of his most evocative songs, the highly praised “Waterloo Sunset,” which reached #2 in the UK and was described by AllMusic editor Stephen Thomas as “possibly the most beautiful song of the Sixties rock and roll era.”  In the States, it was inexplicably ignored, fizzling at #111.

Davies’ lyrics had begun to explore the simple aspirations and frustrations of common working-class people, with particular emphasis on the psychological effects of the British class system.   Sounds like heavy stuff, but Davies used the distinctive elements of glib narrative, astute observation and wry social commentary as he took aim at his subjects, which sometimes included the music business itself.

He helped pioneer the idea of the concept album, assembling such grand song cycles as “The Village Green Preservation Society” (1968) and “Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire)” (1969).  These preceded The Who’s celebrated rock opera “Tommy,” and it must have been a big frustration to Davies when Pete Townshend’s work got all the attention.  British critics praised these Kinks LPs, and diehard fans enjoyed them, but they sold poorly, despite including great songs like “Animal Farm,” “Days,” “Big Sky” and “Victoria.”

Davies was probably at his most endearing when he wrote about giving up worldly ambition for the simple rewards of love and domesticity.  Most Kinks albums include one or two of his tender, bittersweet odes to what he wistfully considered “a vanishing, romanticized world of village greens, pubs and schoolyards.”  Despite all the stories of Davies being an irascible grump who was unpleasant to be with, there is plenty of evidence (in his songs, anyway) to indicate he was at heart a nostalgic softie with an abiding passion for traditional English culture, pastoral countrysides and storybook relationships.

51tlcy6ympl._sx355_Then came “Lola,” which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.

Davies recalled how the song, like many of his creations, sprang from a real-life experience.  “We were in some strange London clubs at the time, and our manager was very attracted to one rather forceful woman, and danced with her all night.  He got pretty drunk, and didn’t realize until much later that the object of his attentions was actually a transvestite.  I thought it was hilarious, and decided to write a song about it.”  He kept the lyrics just cryptic enough for it to slide past the censors and become an international hit in the fall of 1970.

(Ironically, it was deemed controversial in England not for its sexual content but for the use of the brand name “Coca-Cola” in the first verse.  The BBC had a strict ban on any commercial product mentions, so Davies had to return to the studio to re-record the vocals to change the wording to “cherry cola.”)

While “Lola” gave the group a boost commercially, it did what many radio hits have done to many rock bands over the years:  It saddled them with a song they quickly tired of but nevertheless had to perform night after night.  As Dave Davies put it, “‘Lola’ was a lark, a fun little song, but good God, it wasn’t all that bloody good, was it?”

Perhaps in response to all that, Ray Davies dove deeper and deeper into more conceptual projects as the 1970s progressed.  First came a quirky turn toward bluegrass and country music, of all things, entitled “Muswell Hillbillies,” a reference to Davies’ childhood preservation-combined-revisedsuburban home in Muswell Hill, outside London.  It never even made the charts in England.

Five more concept albums — “Everybody’s in Show Biz,” “Preservation Act 1,” “Preservation Act 2,” “Soap Opera” and “Schoolboys in Disgrace” — followed in rapid succession in the 1972-1976 period, and a handful of stellar tracks can be found if you dig deep enough:  “Celluloid Heroes,” “Motorway,” “Sweet Lady Genevieve,” “Sitting in the Midday Sun” and “Education,” among others.

Something very curious was happening by then.  The Kinks’ British audience had effectively abandoned them, pushing them aside, and their albums from the mid-Seventies on have never michael-putland-getty-imagesmade a single ripple in the charts there.  But in the US, suddenly record buyers were paying attention.  Beginning with “Schoolboys in Disgrace,”  Kinks albums started reaching the Top 40 on Billboard’s album charts, and then the Top 20.  The more theatrical period that had included horn sections and multiple backup vocalists had given way to what pundits refer to as “stripped-down arena rock,” and the US rock audiences of the late ’70s and early ’80s ate it up.

The band had switched to Arista Records, and opted for slickly produced but defiantly performed hard rock:  “Sleepwalker” (1977), “Misfits” (1978) and particularly “Low Budget” (1979) reached as high as #11 on US charts, and just like that, The Kinks were a major concert draw.  The excitement of these shows was captured on the great 1980 live r-6334315-1416730436-8325.jpegLP “One for the Road,” and that momentum continued with the excellent “Give the People What They Want” (1981) and “State of Confusion” (1983).

In the height of the MTV music video era, the effervescent hit “Come Dancing” put The Kinks back into the Top Ten in the US, Canada and even England, followed by the lovely ballad “Don’t Forget to Dance,” which reached the Top 20 here.  A few more studio albums were to follow — 1984’s “Word of Mouth” (with Dave Davies’ best song, “Livin’ on a Thin Line”), 1986’s “Think Visual” and 1989’s “UK Jive,” but by the 1990s, they fell out of favor once again.  Their 1993 swan song, “Phobia,” charted at #166.

Funny thing is, Ray Davies, and occasionally brother Dave, wrote a lot of exceptional songs, more than 400 in total, and it’s a shame only a few dozen achieved anything close to proper recognition.  Their British roots have served them well, though, writing with humor and a satirical wit on many dozens of topics in many dozens of musical styles. As one critic put it, “If you’re a fan of The Kinks, it’s as if you’re a fan of a hundred different bands.”

Dave Davies offered this view:  “That’s the great thing about the Kinks, I think.  You got a chance to do heavy rock, and you got a chance to do lighter things, and period pieces kinkswith droll lyrics.  That’s what I always found stimulating about being a member of the Kinks, all those different styles.  When Ray and I grew up, we were in quite a big household with six older sisters, and they all sang and played piano, and my dad played banjo and stuff.  There were so many different kinds of music around, and I think we were very fortunate to have so many influences.”

And what about that moniker they chose for themselves?  Why Kinks?  Various explanations of the name’s genesis have been offered, such as this one from author Jon Savage: “They needed a gimmick, some edge to get them attention, and here it was: ‘Kinkiness.’  Something newsy, a bit naughty, but still on the borderline of acceptability.  In adopting the ‘Kinks’ as their name at that time, they were participating in a time-honoured pop ritual — fame through outrage.”

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Dave Davies, 2015

Robert Wace, their first manager, recalls it differently.  He said the group had “a rather kinky fashion sense, as did many Brit pop groups at the time, but Ray and Dave and the others were especially conscious of their look.  I told them they should call themselves The Kinks.”

 

Ray said recently, “We were horrified at that prospect.  We said, ‘We’re not going to be called kinky, for bloody sake!’  But even though we never really liked the name, it somehow stuck.  And now you can listen to 25 albums by The Kinks.”

Ray had hoped to rekindle The Kinks about ten years ago, but Dave wasn’t keen on the idea, so Ray put out a few solo albums instead.  “Other People’s Lives” (2006) and “Working Man’s Cafe” (2007) went by unnoticed, but 2017’s “Americana,” an impressive set of songs about US culture and history, turned a few heads as it reached #15 in the UK and #79 here.

raydavies-1600x720Now, in 2019, there’s news that both Ray and Dave Davies have at long last agreed to a long-hoped-for reunion for a new album and a tour.  Is this for real this time?  Is it just because they’re hurting for money?  At age 74 and 71 respectively, can these two produce anything worth rivaling their best days?  The odds are probably against them…but I’m among those who are very eager to find out.

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I hope you enjoy my subjective playlist of great songs from The Kinks’ catalog!

 

 

 

 

 

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Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

Now that Rami Malek has won a Golden Globe Award for his portrayal of legendary rock b8773b7e-d2f0-4a29-855d-c9b090a2283a_16x9_788x442vocalist Freddie Mercury in the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and the movie itself won for Best Drama, it’s high time I address this film and the mixed reaction to it among the press and the public.

First, though, I want to make a point about biopics and how they differ from documentaries.

A biopic, by definition, is a biographical movie.  It offers a director’s subjective retelling of a real person’s life story using actors and a screenplay to produce a finished work of cinematic entertainment.

In a documentary, on the other hand, the director uses actual film clips of the subject, interviews of those who knew the subject, and some sort of narration, assembling all these pieces to tell the person’s life story more like a news feature.

The most important difference between the two is that a biopic’s primary purpose is to entertain, while a documentary is meant to inform.  Biopics sometimes tell only a portion of the story, glossing over or even omitting certain elements in order to focus on what the director feels are the most dramatic or crowd-pleasing aspects of the subject’s life.  Because of this, biopics have sometimes been (fairly or unfairly) dismissed as Hollywood fabrications that fail to tell the “warts and all” characteristics that producers fear will alienate mainstream audiences.  If you want all the unpleasantness, they say, go 51b5jap34zl._sy445_find a dreary documentary on the subject.

But if you take a look at the history of biopics of popular music artists, you’ll find that many of the best films hold back nothing, giving us the good and the bad in an attempt to tell the whole story.  In recent years especially, there have been many fine examples of biopics that avoid sugarcoating the subject’s life in favor of a more truthful exploration:

Ray” (2004), starring Jamie Foxx as the troubled legend Ray Charles

Walk the Line” (2005), starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as the volatile Johnny Cash and June Carter

Straight Outta Compton” (2015), a brutally frank look at the story of hip hop pioneers N.W.A.

unknown-33Get On Up” (2014), with Chadwick Boseman’s riveting performance as The Godfather of Soul, James Brown

Love and Mercy” (2014), a unique biopic featuring Paul Dano and John Cusack each playing Beach Boys maestro Brian Wilson in two different chapters of his problematic life

Going back even further, consider 1980’s “The Coal Miner’s Daughter,” with Sissy Spacek as country star Tammy Wynette, 1979’s “The Buddy Holly Story,” with Gary Busey as the pioneering rockabilly star, and 1976’s “Bound for Glory,” starring David Carradine as hardscrabble folk hero Woody Guthrie.

All of these films offer unflinching views of their subjects’ difficult stories, and all of them were nominated for, or won, Oscars or Golden Globes.

So this brings us to director Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  It’s beautifully shot, it’s well acted by a top-notch cast, and it includes a dazzling in-concert sequence at film’s end.  Many people I know, including family members and music-loving friends, have raved about it, and they were consequently puzzled to learn a classic rock music fan like me had only a lukewarm response to it.

Indeed, at first I wrestled with this, trying to put my finger on what it was about the movie that didn’t quite sit right.  Then I took a look at some of the film critics’ reviews, and I happened upon an especially perceptive one in Variety, written by Owen Gleiberman.  It was like he was channeling me and putting into words exactly what I liked and didn’t like about the movie.

In a nutshell, it’s this:  Malek delivers a truly astonishing performance as Mercury, but freddie-mercurydirector Singer missed a golden opportunity to give us a truly authentic, penetrative look at what made Queen, and Mercury, tick.  As Glieberman put it:  “The movie, despite its electrifying subject, is a conventional, middle-of-the-road, cut-and-dried, play-it-safe, rather fuddy-duddy old-school biopic, a movie that skitters through events instead of sinking into them.”

Even more to the point is Glieberman’s view (and mine) that,  “It treats Freddie’s personal life — his sexual-romantic identity, his loneliness, his reckless adventures in gay leather clubs — with kid-glove reticence, so that even if the film isn’t telling major lies, you don’t feel you’re fully touching the real story either.”

It’s fairly remarkable that “Bohemian Rhapsody” took the Golden Globe for best drama, because it received the lowest score on the Rotten Tomatoes review-aggregate website (62% approval rating out of 335 reviews) of any film winner in nearly 40 years.  The majority of critics found Malek’s acting performance extraordinary but the film no better than average.  They described it as “sanitized,” “self-indulgent revisionist history,” and “a bit of a mess.”  The British film mag Empire said the flick was “a safe, competent, decidedly non-scandalous biopic.  It treats the life of Freddie Mercury with cautious affection, happy to play within the rules while depicting a man who did anything but.”

I’ve even read some comments from hard-core Queen fans who concede that, though they enjoyed the film, they felt it wasn’t entirely honest in the way it told us (or, more accurately, didn’t tell us) about Mercury’s conflicted sexual identity, which he kept hidden from the public and that ultimately led to his illness and premature death.

The movie takes artistic license by showing Mercury informing the band of his debilitating disease just prior to their monumental appearance at Live Aid, which makes his triumphant performance there seem more dramatic to the moviegoer.  In fact, Mercury wasn’t even officially diagnosed with AIDS until several years later, in 1988, and 17948373the audience learns nothing of Mercury’s slow, private demise in his final years because Singer chose to end the film following the Live Aid sequence.

That’s too bad, because Singer had an opportunity to show how incredibly heroic Mercury was as he soldiered on in the studio even while he was suffering mightily, producing some amazing vocal recordings on latter-day Queen tracks like “These Are the Days of Our Lives” and “The Show Must Go On.”

Brian May has said Mercury was increasingly ill and could barely walk during the 1990 sessions for the “Innuendo” LP.  “I was concerned whether he was physically capable of singing his parts, but he went in and killed it.  He completely lacerated the vocal.  He would come in for maybe an hour at a time, and he kept saying, ‘Write me more stuff.  I want to just sing this and do it, and when I’m gone, you can finish it off.’  He had no fear, really.”

Wow, what powerful, poignant scenes these would have been in the movie, but for reasons unknown, Singer neglected Mercury’s last chapter and how he withheld official announcement that he was suffering from AIDS until November 23, 1991.  He died the next day.

This is probably a good place to point out that there are at least a half-dozen documentaries about Queen and Mercury that delve far more deeply into the particulars of the singer’s quasi-mysterious private life and tragic end.  You might want to check out “Freddie Mercury:  The King of Queen” (2018), “Queen: Mercury Rising” (2011),  “Queen:  Days of Our Lives” (2011) or “Freddie Mercury:  The Great Pretender” (2012).

As a student of rock music and how great bands have made great recordings, I was disappointed that “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t spend more time showing us just how Mercury and Queen worked unknown-32together in the ’70s to create their unique heavy metal/pop echo chamber wall of sound.  Together with producer Roy Thomas Baker, they were sonic experimentalists when they came up with the vocal acrobatics in “Killer Queen,” their 1974 breakthrough hit, and then took it all to stratospheric heights the following year with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by all accounts a monumental, game-changing recording.

But no, this biopic offers almost nothing about any of that.  As Glieberman put it, “The merging of Mercury’s vaudeville jauntiness with Brian May’s guitar-god power, backed by the insane multi-tracking of the group’s voices into an infinitely mirrored chorus — that’s the invention of Queen’s singular sound, but it’s barely an afterthought in the movie.”

It rightly lavishes attention on the title track, but focuses more on the arguments with record executives regarding its length and suitability as a single than in how it came to be written and created in the first place.  The songwriting contributions from May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon are also given short shrift, an unforgivable omission given the key role their songs have played in Queen’s success (“You’re My Best Friend,” “’39,” “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Fat Bottomed Girls”).

“Bohemian Rhapsody” also fails to spend any time discussing Queen’s huge role as pioneers in the art and commerce of music videos.  Their “short film” released to coincide with the release of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” single in 1975 came out years before the birth of MTV or VH-1.  “It’s not an overstatement to say that video revolutionized the way music would be consumed in the 1980s and beyond,” said music journalist Paul Gambaccini.  “Every band suddenly started looking at how they could p06ppfsfmake a video of their new single.”

Quite frankly, I’m not sure “Bohemian Rhapsody” might even be worthy of an entry in my blog if it weren’t for Malek’s jaw-dropping depiction of Mercury.  Queen’s surviving members May and Taylor insisted on approving the selection of actors who would play the key roles, and they were enthusiastic in their green-lighting of Malek as Mercury. From the stage strutting to the prosthetic overbite to the very convincing singing, Malek does a superlative job of channeling Mercury’s flamboyant, rock-god bravura.  As Peter Travers in Rolling Stone put it, “Malek digs so deep into the role that we can’t believe we’re not watching the real thing.”

Speaking of the real thing, Queen was indeed a mega-popular band from roughly 1975 to 1990 or so, particularly in their native UK, where 15 of their 17 LPs reached #1 or #2.  In the US, their five albums in the 1975-1980 period went multi-platinum before their popularity waned somewhat in the Eighties.  Even after (and perhaps because of) queen1974_gruen_webuseonlyMercury’s death in 1991, Queen’s popularity surged, and seems to be stronger than ever today.  The use of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the hit 1992 comedy “Wayne’s World” certainly didn’t hurt.

But I must confess that I was never much of a fan during their heyday.  I thought individual songs were compelling (the hard rock of “Keep Yourself Alive,” the rock-guitar-meets-cabaret of “Killer Queen,” the haunting, lovely “You Take My Breath Away,” the way-cool collaboration with David Bowie on “Under Pressure”), and I was drawn in by the broad appeal of their best LP, 1975’s “A Night at the Opera.”  As the band’s popularity grew, though, I found their material grew more pretentious and annoying.

I would be a very happy man if I never again have to hear “We Will Rock You,” “Bicycle Race” or “Another One Bites the Dust.”  Singles as irritating as those kept me from exploring their albums any further, which, in retrospect, was perhaps foolish on my part, because I could have discovered bonafide jewels like “Spread Your Wings,” the blues shuffle “Sleeping On the Sidewalk,” “It’s Late,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Dragon Attack,” “Life is Real (Song for Lennon)” and “Man on the Prowl.”

I have come to respect the successful manner in which Queen dabbled in multiple genres, from progressive rock and glam rock to baroque pop and rockabilly.  It’s not every rock band that can pull off convincing forays into opera, gospel, ragtime and disco, and do so with professional theatricality.

The shy young man with bad teeth who was born in 1946 on the African island of freddie-mercury-ne1mkn0oz6w9duhlftslobtk7engdbh96w68jpl7uoZanzibar had ambitious dreams and a ton of musical talent.  He developed uncommon confidence that he might one day be a larger-than-life singer in a rock band, and he knew he wasn’t going to get there with a name like Farrokh Bulsara.  He adopted the name Freddie while still in high school, and then when he joined the group that would become Queen, he completed his personal re-invention by choosing the last name Mercury (“the messenger of the Gods”).  He took to wearing a red robe and crown, projecting a decidedly regal authority on stage.

So, actually, from the very beginning of Queen’s career, this wasn’t his real life.  It was just fantasy.