Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Kinks

  • Arthur [Reprise, 1969] A-
  • Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround [Reprise, 1970] B-
  • Muswell Hillbillies [RCA Victor, 1971] B+
  • The Kink Kronikles [Reprise, 1972] A
  • Everybody's in Showbiz [RCA Victor, 1972] B+
  • The Great Lost Kinks Album [Reprise, 1973] A-
  • Preservation Act I [RCA Victor, 1973] C+
  • Preservation Act II [RCA Victor, 1974] B-
  • Soap Opera [RCA Victor, 1975] C+
  • The Kinks Present Schoolboys in Disgrace [RCA Victor, 1975] C+
  • Celluloid Heroes [RCA Victor, 1976] B+
  • Sleepwalker [Arista, 1977] B-
  • Misfits [Arista, 1978] B
  • Low Budget [Arista, 1979] B-
  • Give the People What They Want [Arista, 1981] C+
  • Come Dancing With the Kinks/The Best of the Kinks 1977-1986 [Arista, 1986] B-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Arthur [Reprise, 1969]
Their live tour was an immense disappointment, and this is not the best English record of the year. It's about fifth. Excellent music and production, but Ray Davies' lyrics get petulant and preachy at times. A-

Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround [Reprise, 1970]
Although "Lola" was an astounding single, the only astounding thing about this album is its relentless self-pity. The evolution of Ray Davies's singing from raunch to whine is now complete; the melodies are still there, but in this context they sound corny rather than plaintive. It's one thing to indulge your nostalgia re village greens, another to succumb to it all over a concept album about modern media. N.b.: bookkeepers, song publishers, union reps, and musimoguls aren't all like rats. Key line, from "Got To Be Free": "We've got to get out of this world somehow." B-

Muswell Hillbillies [RCA Victor, 1971]
Because the Kinks Klaque hyped this as a great album when a simple perusal of the lyrics revealed more of the same olde alienation, I overreacted violently, but in an unsentimental retrospect I can hear it, and I do mean hear. Most of its charms are in the casual-to-messy eclecticism with which it revives time-honored effects from the music hall and the mod era and even the mountains, and in the dotty good humor of Ray Davies's singing, which makes you think that maybe--just maybe--he doesn't take the "Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues" of the "20th Century Man" at face value. But combine those two titles circa 2001 and you're in the court of the Crimson King. B+

The Kink Kronikles [Reprise, 1972]
Self-konfessed kultist John Mendelsohn has kreated an inkomparable kompilation. Great hits are few--the Kinks have made U.S. top forty only twice since their first best-of, with "Lola" and "Sunny Afternoon." But great songs abound, assembled with a konnoisseur's kraft (all right, I'll stop) from available (and deleted) LPs, uncollected singles (told you I'd stop), and the vaults. Mendelsohn has little use for Ray Davies the would-be satirist ("Well-Respected Man," etc.), apologizing even for such marginally "boorish" efforts as "King Kong" and "Mr. Pleasant." So we get twenty-eight tracks that concentrate on Davies the lyric realist, the poet of pathos and aspiration, at his tuneful, readymade best. Definitely the world's most charming (and untidy) ripoff artist. And he wrote "Waterloo Sunset," the most beautiful song in the English language. A

Everybody's in Showbiz [RCA Victor, 1972]
A few of the new songs here are as strident as anything Ray Davies has done since before he started playing the recluse in London in the late '60s. They're tight; they have a firm beat; they're, you know, rock and roll. Unfortunately, they're still self-pitying--the reformed recluse doth reflect overmuch these days on the travails of the touring superstar. But for only an extra dollar you get a live album worth at least that, featuring the antics of a reborn showman who has turned stage fright into a way of life and thus rendered his self-pity somewhat more palatable. B+

The Great Lost Kinks Album [Reprise, 1973]
It says something about the limitations of the Kinks' professional renaissance that this belated compilation of B sides and outtakes, most of them recorded pre-renaissance, at around the time of Village Green Preservation Society, stands as the group's best album of the decade. Fragile, unkempt, whimsical, sometimes thrown away, with brother Dave left room for a cinematic fantasy of his own, it sticks close to the harmless eccentrics who comprise the only socially significant subculture about which Ray has ever had anything interesting to say. A-

Preservation Act I [RCA Victor, 1973]
Ray Davies is a sensitive artist, but he's never had an idea worth reducing to prose in his life. When he tosses off music toward no grand purpose his satire takes on a charity that justifies its shallowness. But when he gets serious he always skirts the edge of small-mindedness. This time he falls in. C+

Preservation Act II [RCA Victor, 1974]
Many are impressed by the fact that Davies's characters (yes, folks, another dramatic work here) have taken on an extra dimension, but I say that only makes two. He's finally figured out a way to integrate the horns and the girlies--sloppy Weill and sloppy madrigal on top of the sloppy rock and roll, all very lovable--but that's not enough. B-

Soap Opera [RCA Victor, 1975]
Maybe because it works so perfectly in the theater, this doesn't seem to work too well anywhere else. If you want a memento of the show, so be it. Otherwise avoid. C+

The Kinks Present Schoolboys in Disgrace [RCA Victor, 1975]
Yet another original cast recording--in the big production number, Ray Davies indicts "Education" for its failure to teach. Ultimate Cause. Go get 'em, Ray. C+

Celluloid Heroes [RCA Victor, 1976]
Them as wants an overview of Ray Davies's RCA period are referred to this upstanding compilation, with eight cuts from the first two RCA albums and four from the four others. Although such unlikely gems as "Have a Cuppa Tea" and "Look a Little on the Sunny Side" are overlooked for more obvious staples of the Kinks' road-band phase, none of the selections is bad. But they're all, well, obvious--devoid of Davies's saving grace, which is subtlety, eccentricity, some combination in there. Overview: the knack remains and the craft may actually have increased, but the gift has flown. B+

Sleepwalker [Arista, 1977]
Ray Davies's temporary abandonment of theatrical concepts may have ruined his show, but it's freed him to write individually inspired songs again. It's also freed his band to play up to its capacity, which unfortunately falls midway between professional virtuosity and amateur fun. Doubly unfortunate, at least half the songs are in a similar range. Recommended: "Jukebox Music" and "Full Moon." B-

Misfits [Arista, 1978]
Ray Davies hasn't put so many hummable melodies in one place since Everybody's in Showbiz (just to make sure, he's put a couple of them both places), and the lyrics evince renewed thought and craft. All of which makes his congenital parochialism and ressentiment seem surprisingly fresh and vivid. Dismaying: "Black Messiah"--Enoch Powell would be proud. B

Low Budget [Arista, 1979]
Ray Davies hasn't rocked so hard since his power-chord days in the mid-'60s, and often he shores up sloppy burlesques like the title cut just by trying harder. But I don't find his poor-mouthing crassness--the fusion of syndrum and macho-flash guitar on "Superman" or the schlock hooks from "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Jesus Christ Superstar"--at all charming, and anyone who detects irony in "Catch Me Now I'm Falling," his threnody for "Captain America," is too worried about the ayatollah or the Russkies to think straight. With his ceaseless whining about strikes and shortages, the plight of millionaires and the cruelty of prostitutes, Davies has turned into the voice of the middle-class ressentiment he's always been a sucker for. No, Ray, you don't have to be a superman just to "survive." Especially if you've got a song catalogue. B-

Give the People What They Want [Arista, 1981]
Hook-laden and hard-rocking, this is the best-crafted Kinks album in over a decade, which means that for someone who's found Ray Davies's world-view increasingly mean-spirited and mush-brained, it's also the biggest turnoff. Back when he was chairing the Village Green Preservation Society, Ray's dotty lyricism put his nostalgia in appealing and appropriate musical perspective; his current clean-cut arena style makes him sound smug and strident, as well it should. Opening with a piece of radio pimpery in which a deejay becomes not just a benefactor (lie enough these days) but a hero of modern mythos, it moves on to songs about paranoids, battered wives, murderers, and dirty old men that reveal minimal charity for either side of the interactions they put down. Giveaways the self-fulfilling "Predictable" and the misanthropic title tune. C+

Come Dancing With the Kinks/The Best of the Kinks 1977-1986 [Arista, 1986]
I didn't attend the seven-album output reduced here to two discs with the care due a legendary songwriter--the "survivor" in him swallowed the songwriter years ago. His anomalously autumnal U.S. ascendancy was a disaster--attitudes forgivably eccentric in one of the great dotty Englishmen turned ugly and mean, and tunecraft so delicate it threatened to waft away on the next zephyr assumed an unbecoming swagger. The title tune was his biggest hit since 1964 because it's a perfect pop sentiment. Second-best is by Dave Davies, not Ray: "There's no England now," he opines, which explains a lot. B-

Further Notes:

Subjects for Further Research [1980s]: At around the time Steve Van Zandt was organizing Artists United Against Apartheid for "Sun City," the Kinks were playing there, not exactly a surprising move from cultural reactionaries long past their prime. The "survivor" in Ray Davies having swallowed the songwriter years before, his anomalously autumnal U.S. ascendancy was a disaster--attitudes forgivable in one of the great dotty Englishmen turned ugly and mean, and tunecraft so delicate it threatened to waft away on the next zephyr assumed an unbecoming swagger. The title tune on his depressing 1986 best-of Come Dancing was his biggest hit since 1964 because it expressed a perfect pop sentiment. Second-best is by Dave Davies, not Ray: "There's no England now," he opines, which explains a lot. Ray Davies--not the other Kinks--remains on the entertainers register of the U.N. Centre Against Apartheid. He's such a contrary chappy that he probably likes it there.

Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies [1990s]

See Also