Oh can’t you see, love is the drug for me

It’s amazing how much we are influenced for the rest of our lives by the things we were exposed to at an early age.

For 10-year-old Bryan Ferry, a product of the remote towns of 1950s northeast England, he found himself irresistibly drawn to American music, particularly the improvisational style-blogs-the-gq-eye-Bryan-Ferryjazz sax of Charlie Parker, vocal acts like The Inkspots, crooners like Nat King Cole, and the songs of Cole Porter as interpreted by the voice of Billie Holiday.

As a paperboy delivering newspapers and weekly music magazines, he read about some of the new musical genres coming from the U.S.  “I was fortunate that there was a music store in Newcastle where you could go into a booth and listen to all kinds of stuff,” Ferry recalled.  “I lived in there.”

He enjoyed early rockers like Little Richard and Fats Domino, “but when I heard Charlie Parker for the first time, this was something I really loved, and nobody else who I knew knew anything about him.  It’s good to have your private obsessions.”

So, when Ferry first moved to London in 1968 and entertained the idea of forming a rock band, these were the musicians and genres that had inspired him, along with the vibrant American R&B sounds of Motown and the Stax/Volt artists.

The other young British musicians who came to join forces with Ferry brought their own spheres of influence:  Guitarist Phil Manzanera had South American roots and Latin heroes; saxophone/oboe master Andy Mackay was trained on traditional classical music; and the enigmatic Brian Eno was immersed in ambient music and soundscapes that emerged from manipulating the new VCS3 synthesizer.

These were strange bedfellows, but the resulting mix was Roxy Music, a band of pioneers that itself proved hugely influential among the coming New Wave artists who roxy_3dominated the charts in England and America in the late 1970s, 1980s and beyond.

From its strangely thrilling 1972 debut album to its sophisticated swan song “Avalon” in 1982, Roxy Music continually broke new ground, erasing boundaries between edgy and pop, bringing experimental and traditional influences into the same room.

And now, this March, Roxy Music will at last be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Their belated inclusion puts an official stamp on a worthy legacy that has been too often overlooked and underappreciated.  For crying out loud, the band has been eligible for induction since 1997, and yet this was the first year they were even nominated!

Let’s put aside the puzzling criteria and biases that the Hall of Fame nominating and selection committees evidently bring to their mission.  Instead, let’s just look at the remarkable body of original work that Roxy Music laid down on its eight studio albums, and their altogether unique amalgam of fashion, style and presentation.

As the fledgling group assembled to make their eponymous debut (“Roxy Music”) in early 1972, the music scene in Britain was keen on experimentation.  Says Ferry, “We were very inexperienced, but so full of enthusiasm and ideas, and exploring different musical styles.  That first album turned out to be very different from any of the others we did. 220px-Roxy_Music-Roxy_MusicWe were still dabbling in the various possibilities, and considering the futures we could have as a band.  It’s interesting how it ended up being a very influential record for a lot of different bands who picked up on a lot of different aspects of the sound.”

“A lot of the first album is first or second take,” Ferry remembers. “Some of them, like ‘Bob (The Medley)’ or ‘Sea Breezes,’ are collage-like, with different sounds and moods within them – they’ll change abruptly into something else.  For instance, ‘Sea Breezes’ is a slow song, and suddenly moves into this angular, quite opposite mood.  I found that interesting, and this band was perfect for that; they were game for anything.  We were constantly fiddling around, changing things, and I was still trying to find my voice.”

s-l300-4From my own point of view, I have to say it was Ferry’s weirdly affected voice that initially turned me off from Roxy Music.  The fluttering, often atonal vocals were an acquired taste, to say the least, and I simply couldn’t get past them to discover the fascinating sounds coming from Mackay, Eno and Manzanera.

But Kid Leo, the visionary DJ on Cleveland’s WMMS, was a big devotee, and I generally 220px-Roxy_Music-Strandedtrusted his taste in music.  Throughout the mid-1970s, he would air liberal helpings of great songs from Roxy’s first several albums — tracks like “Street Life,” “Editions of You,” “Out of the Blue,” “Both Ends Burning.”  Slowly, by osmosis, I absorbed the creepy beauty and exhilarating energy that Roxy Music had to offer.

As it turned out, Eno was more of a sonic engineer than a musician, and he and the band parted ways after the second LP (1973’s “For Your Pleasure”).  Ferry recalls that Eno would sometimes be working the soundboard from the audience at Roxy concerts rather than join the band on stage. “That’s where he felt most comfortable, I think,” said Ferry, “and as everyone knows, he went on to become one of the most respected record producers of our time.”  Artists like David Bowie, Devo, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, U2 and even Paul Simon have allowed Eno to put his mark on their recordings over the years since.

cover_152181432017_rHis replacement, if you can call it that, was Eddie Jobson, who did exemplary work on “Stranded,” “Country Life” and “Siren,” all solid LPs in the Roxy tradition.  His warm, textural synthesizer and violin passages recalled the sounds Eno had come up with while moving the band forward into a more accessible, listenable oeuvre.

Another important facet of Roxy Music was their look.  Just as Bowie and others were pioneering the glam-rock movement with the Ziggy Stardust-type attire, the members of Roxy also pushed the envelope with spacey, other-worldly clothes and makeup.  Ferry, on the other hand, was partial to sartorial splendor, wearing white dinner jackets and adopting an ultra-cool persona.  “It was very much an art-school crowd who were coming to our early shows,” recalls Ferry, “and some of those wildly talented art students and fashion students helped us sort of put together the first few Roxy-Music-Band-Shot-Featured-Image-web-optimised-1000album covers, and the stage look of the band in general.”

Throughout the band’s 10-year run, British music fans were far more receptive to Roxy Music than their Yankee counterparts, perhaps because they were just a little too extreme for mainstream American tastes.  Every Roxy LP reached Top Ten on the UK album charts, including three #1 postings, and the band scored more than a dozen high-charting singles as well.  In the US, the best they could manage was a #23 ranking for the 1979 album “Manifesto,” and only one Top 40 single, 1975’s “Love is the Drug” (#30).

Retrospectively, it’s interesting to note how the band’s sound evolved as Ferry matured and encouraged a less dissident, more cosmopolitan and melodic sense to their music. Roxy-Music-Manifesto---Seale-522483Roxy had taken a brief sabbatical in 1977 while Ferry continued a concurrent solo recording career.  When they resumed working together, beginning with the “Manifesto” LP and its two excellent singles, “Angel Eyes” and “Dance Away,” Roxy Music were making tracks that folks in the dance clubs found more engaging.  As Rolling Stone put it, “It seems as if the rest did the regrouped Roxy a world of good:  deftly blending fresh rhythms into its signature sound, shortening the musical passages and concentrating more on song craft.”

When they released the equally radio-friendly “Flesh + Blood” the following year, Roxy 5180e83b3e9942f7c20c325f77717f7awas faced with reviews like this one by the respected David Hepworth:  “Original followers will likely find this album low on character and surprise, while those who love the mighty ‘Over You’ single will no doubt be suckers for the album’s mature, silky charms.”  To which Ferry replied, “Older fans want us to stay stuck in time, but that’s not reasonable.”

Due mostly to Ferry’s influence, the band began including spirited covers of great oldies like The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.”  That trend reached its commercial zenith when they covered John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” on a single released in the wake of Lennon’s 1980 death.

Ferry had shown a fondness for interpreting older material as far back as his 1973 solo debut, attempting chestnuts like “It’s My Party” and “Baby I Don’t Care.”  In 1978, his “The Bride Stripped Bare” LP includes covers of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” and “Hold On I’m Comin’.”

“Avalon,” which turned out to be Roxy Music’s final LP, is also their most reachable, as 220px-Avalon_album_coverFerry’s voice, songs and keyboard playing adopt a softer, dreamier approach.  Critic Kurt Loder raved about it:  “The album takes a long time to kick in, but when it finally does, it shows a band at its peak.  Ferry’s familiar vocal mannerisms are subsumed in a rich, benevolent self-assurance, and reed man Andy Mackay shines in a series of impressive solos.  Roxy Music may be less dramatic now, but the songs have seldom seemed stronger.”

Ferry has continued to write and record plenty of amazing music in the 30-plus years since the band’s dissolving.  His 1985 LP “Boys and Girls,” which features virtuosos like David Gilmour, Mark Knopfler and Nile Rodgers, ranks right up there with “Avalon,” in my opinion.  Tracks like “Slave to Love” and “Don’t Stop the Dance” are positively hypnotic.  So, too, is his riveting version of “I Put a Spell on You,” which appears on his 1993 collection “Taxi.”

Roxy Music Perform in LondonThe band attempted a reunion in 2007 when Ferry, Mackay, Manzanera and even Eno reassembled in the studio to cut a few tracks, but they ultimately didn’t feel it was up to standards and shelved it.  Some of that material was reworked and rearranged for Ferry’s 2010 “Olympia” LP.

Roxy (without Eno) has made a few concert appearances in less traveled cities of Europe in the past decade, but there has never been any talk of US shows.  We may see the core members on stage together at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in New York next month…but will they perform?  “Doubtful,” says Mackay, “but you never know.”

Ferry continues to woo American audiences with his solo band, and I’m personally looking forward to seeing him at the Hollywood Bowl in August.

ac9152-20141110-bryan-ferryWhen asked to discuss his long-ago days with Roxy Music, he sighs and reflects matter-of-factly, “I really love what I do, and I’ve been fortunate.  The only part I don’t like is all this overanalyzing.  Art and music are here to be enjoyed and absorbed.  I’m not sure they need to be talked about so much.  I do sometimes envy the people who never have to describe what they’re doing.”

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I hope you enjoy the Spotify playlist below of my essential Roxy Music tracks, which also includes a few of Ferry’s best solo moments.

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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!