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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I say a little prayer for you

Let us all hail Jerry Wexler.

102521-jerry_wexler_617_409Who?

He is the savvy producer and executive at Atlantic Records who, in 1966, recognized how the phenomenal gospel-based talent of Aretha Franklin had been used so ineffectively by Columbia Records during their five-year contract.  The minute she was free to sign elsewhere, Wexler brought her into the fold at Atlantic, a hotbed of rhythm and blues artists since the 1940s, and paired her with the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, studio veterans, helped produce game-changing tracks like “Respect” and “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” and turned her into the iconic artist we all revere, and now mourn.

Aretha Franklin, “The Queen of Soul,” has died, a victim of pancreatic cancer at age 76.

Can you even imagine what our musical landscape would be like if Aretha had called it quits after her lackluster career singing dreary pop standards on Columbia?  Thankfully, we need not do so.  The wonderful chemistry between Franklin, Wexler and the Muscle Shoals crew (and, later, in Atlantic’s New York studios with some of the Muscle Shoals personnel) is well documented in the extraordinary musical works they produced:   ct-aretha-franklin-photos-20180813“Baby I Love You,” Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Think,” “The House That Jack Built” and “I Say a Little Prayer for You.”

All of these Top Ten hits came in the space of only two short years, and established her as the undisputed star of female soul singers, and among the best in American popular music in general.  Critic Ritchie Unterberger of AllMusic recently wrote, “Aretha is one of the true giants of soul music and, indeed, of American pop as a whole.  More than any other performer, she epitomized soul at its most gospel-charged.”

Franklin’s story, sadly, is riddled with early trauma.  She was born in 1942 to a Baptist preacher father and a pianist/vocalist mother, and they both influenced her love of gospel music.  But their marriage was tempestuous and ultimately doomed by infidelity on both sides, and Aretha stayed with her father when her mother moved out.  Aretha was only 10 years old

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The Reverend C.L. Franklin and Aretha

when her mother died of a heart attack.

 

As her father became a renowned traveling preacher on the Southern circuit, Aretha tagged along, singing solos on numerous hymns, sharing her amazing vocal range and impressive piano skills, which she had picked up on her own.  Her father helped her secure her first recording contract at age 14, covering gospel favorites on the little-known “Songs of Faith” LP.

By the time she reached 18, possessed of a powerful four-octave voice packed with emotional intensity, Franklin moved to New York City, hoping to follow the path of Sam Cooke, another spectacular vocal talent who had evolved from gospel to secular music and become a chart-topper (“You Send Me” and others).

The legendary John Hammond signed her to Columbia in 1960.  But he made the tactical error of envisioning her as a jazz singer tinged with blues and gospel, and he steered her toward middle-of-the-road fare like “Over the Rainbow,” “Ol’ Man River,” “Skylark,” “People” and “You Are My Sunshine.”  Franklin’s then-husband, Ted White, became her manager, who wanted her to try a little of everything, from Dinah Washington standards to remakes of recent pop hits, which consequently left radio stations and audiences confused.

The passion and spirit in Aretha’s voice finally surfaced at Atlantic once Wexler found the right CS324702-01A-BIGenvironment and accompaniment.  “I basically took her to church, sat her down at the piano, and let her be herself,” as Wexler put it in Craig Werner’s book Higher Ground, an illuminating exploration of how Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield launched the soul music revolution of the 1960s.

Her defining moment, then and ever since, was when she took Otis Redding’s great 1966 song “Respect,” changed the arrangement and a few of the lyrics, and made it something else altogether.  If you listen to Redding’s original version now, it sounds positively lame without Franklin’s signature chorus “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, take care of T-C-B,” which helped turn it into a feminist and civil rights anthem just as those movements were coalescing in 1967.

When The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” ruled the album charts in the summer of ’67, it was “Respect” that was the Number One song in the country, her second of six consecutive Top Ten hit singles in 1967-68.  What’s more, her first four albums on Atlantic (“I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You,” “Aretha Arrives,” “Lady Soul” and “Aretha Now”) all 89ff36-20130219-aretha-franklin-time-magazinereached the Top Ten, an unprecedented feat at a time when urban audiences weren’t buying LPs yet.  Clearly, there was no stopping her over the next three years.

As Time wrote in its cover story on Franklin in June 1968, “Aretha’s vocal technique is simple enough:  a direct, natural style of delivery that ranges over a full four octaves, and the breath control to spin out long phrases that curl sinuously around the beat.  But what really accounts for her impact is her fierce, gritty conviction.  She flexes her rich, cutting voice like a whip.”

Aretha herself said at that time that she chose songs she could sing with sincerity because they frame her own perspective on life.  “If a song is about something I’ve experienced, or that could have happened to me, then it’s good.  But if it’s alien to me, then I can’t lend anything to it.  That’s what soul music is — just living and having to get along.”

_103066216_1968_bbc_3While her career was on fire, her marriage was in ashes, as White publicly berated her and physically abused her.  By 1970, she was on her own again, and another set of hits kept her all over the airwaves.  The great Paul Simon has said he wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with Aretha in mind, and he got his wish when her version followed his into the Top Ten in 1971, followed by the major pop hits “Spanish Harlem” (#2), “Rock Steady” (#9) and “Day Dreaming” (#5).

Even as her “Amazing Grace” album (1972) sold two million copies and became the best-selling gospel album ever, the disco era was on the rise, and curiously, Franklin’s light began dimming somewhat.  She still had the occasional minor hit, and she scored big on the more limited R&B charts, but her albums stiffed, and she found herself out of favor for a spell.

Aretha endured more heartbreak in 1979 when her father was shot during a home invasion and remained in a coma for five long years until his death in 1984.  As the dutiful daughter, she flew back and forth from L.A. to Detroit numerous times during

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The diner scene from “The Blues Brothers” (1980)

that period, and one particularly turbulent flight in 1983 affected her so traumatically that she refused to ever fly again.

 

Things had started improving again for Aretha when she did an incredible turn as a diner waitress singing and dancing to a frantic version of “Think” in the 1980 blockbuster film “The Blues Brothers.”  When she signed with Arista Records, she eventually re-emerged on the charts in 1985 with a huge album, the “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” LP and the #3 hit single, “Freeway of Love.”   This also began a string of hugely popular duets with the likes of The Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox (“Sisters Are Doing images-28It For Themselves” was #18 in 1985), George Michael (“I Knew Your Were Waiting For Me” was #1 in 1987), plus lesser numbers with Elton John, Whitney Houston, James Brown and Michael McDonald.

Another fallow period came in the 1990s, but she rallied again in 1998 with a noteworthy appearance at the 1998 Grammy Awards, substituting at the last minute for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti by singing a Puccini aria that met with mixed reviews (opera folks were appalled).  On a VH1 special called “Divas Live,” she made mincemeat of newer-generation stars in duets, among them Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.

Aretha battled weight problems much of her life, which led to other medical issues, but she was always very private about them.  Even today in the wake of her death, little is known about the specific ailments that made her life difficult in the 1990s and beyond.

merlin_127020776_a4590586-9b4b-4eb5-b6bf-46eb7e918a06-superJumboStill, she was able to overcome them well enough to make several seismic public showings in more recent years.  She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, by George W. Bush in 2005.  When Barack Obama stood before America for his inauguration in January 2009, he made history, but it was Aretha Franklin who pretty much stole the show.  Obama may have been sworn in as America’s first black president, but when Aretha stood to sing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” she was, without a shadow of a doubt, its first Queen.

Rolling Stone ranked her #1 on its 2010 list of “The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time,” and Mary J. Blige had this to say about that:  “Aretha is a gift from God.  When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there’s no one who can touch her.  She is the reason why women want to sing.”

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At Obama’s inauguration in 2009

Music journalists didn’t care for how Franklin tended to maintain a very strict discipline over her career message, but I think it’s likely she insisted on that control because she didn’t want her life story to follow the weary stereotype of strong black women.  You know what I mean:  the tale of a lifelong struggle against demons within and without, culminating in an exhilarating victory over hard times.

 

In my mind, Aretha’s story is more one of incalculable influence, spine-tingling recordings, a voice unmatched by anyone anywhere.  As someone once said, “That woman could sing the phone book, and I’d buy it.”

Here’s what her contemporaries said in the wake of her passing a week ago:

“Aretha was a rare treasure whose unmatched musical genius helped craft the soundtrack to the lives of so many.”  — Patti LaBelle

“I was fortunate enough to witness her last performance — a benefit for the AIDS Foundation.  She sang and played magnificently, and we all wept.  We were witnessing the greatest soul artist of all time.”  — Elton John

“Let us give thanks for the beautiful life of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of our souls, who inspired us for many, many years.  The memory of her greatness as a musician and fine human being will live with us forever.”  — Paul McCartney

“A salute to the Queen.  The greatest vocalist I’ve ever known.”  — John Legend

hbz-aretha-franklin-670443922-1534168488“Aretha, the power of your voice in music and in civil rights blew open the door for me and so many others.  You were my inspiration, my mentor and my friend.”  — Mariah Carey

“The greatest voice in popular music has been stilled.  For me, she was a musical lighthouse, guiding and inspiring with every note.” — Bette Midler

We will miss her majestic voice and her reassuring presence.  And we can all be grateful there are so many of her recordings available for us to crank up when we need a little pick-me-up.  Below is my Spotify playlist of “Essential Aretha.”  Turn it up!