Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Kinks Kountry

I wanted to write about the new Kinks record, so I called up Warner Bros. for press stuff. I was given one of those standard duped-up handouts with the big heading "BIO from Reprise records" and glanced down the first page. "Take four art students dressed like characters from Dickens . . . Granville Collins realized they had great potential as professionals . . . The Kinks became another of those legendary groups, such as The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five . . . " What? I examined it more closely. The bio was four-and-a-half years old. Nostalgia time again.

The same bio, edited a little, is available on the back of the Kinks' first album, but it is not such a dislocation to encounter it there. That album had its place in time, things change, and so forth. In late 1964, Reprise was the Rat Pack label with Trini Lopez for the kids and Warner Brothers was making do with Peter, Paul, and Mary. The Kinks were Reprise's big English pick-up. M-G-M had the Animals, Mercury had Manfred Mann, Epic had Dave Clark, and it seemed pretty much the same. Myself, I preferred the sprung rhythms and understated dissonance of the early Kinks hits to anything but Stones and Beatles. But I didn't like their early albums much--still don't--and so, as usual, I heard them mostly on the radio. They kept right on coming until the summer of 1966 and their last big hit, "Sunny Afternoon."

Since then, Warner Brothers-Reprise has suddenly become one of the three best labels in the business--the best, really, as it bought one of the other two, Atlantic, about a year ago. Warner's has signed a lot of relatively non-commercial talent--Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, the Grateful Dead, the Pentangle--and some non-commercial talent that has become very commercial indeed--Jimi Hendrix, Arlo Guthrie. The Kinks have got lost somewhere. About once a year Ray Davies takes them into a London studio for an album, the album sells 15,000 or so (as a comparison, The Kinks' Greatest Hits is a million-seller, which means retail sales over 200,000) and that's that. The 1964 bio reminded me not only of the Kinks' own past, a subject which is on their minds as well, but of the limbo they have fallen into at Reprise.

Now, this is not Reprise's fault. The Kinks' sole American tour, in 1966, was a disaster, partly because it was badly booked and partly because they simply do not get along on tour. Ray Davies tends to fight with people. Since Davies is the group genius, he is permitted some temperament ("he has very definite ideas of his own about almost everything," the bio says, "and enjoys an occasional sulk"), but unless you are the Beatles or the Stones--and perhaps even then, as the Stones are finding out--touring is the only way for an English pop group to keep it going in the States. Even so, the Kinks have a remarkable longevity record. Only three other English groups--the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who--survives with original personnel. That is excellent company.

The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society has been out since early February. It is packaged double-fold, a Kinks first, but the promotional value of such extravagance has apparently dissipated: the only press mention I've seen was Johanna Schier's damn-with-faint-praise review in the February 27 Voice. I think the record is the best of the year, so far (other candidates: the Flying Burrito Brothers, the latest Wilson Pickett, Cream's Goodbye, and MC-5) and I'd like to rebut the Schier review specifically. She seems to have three objections. One, the album is musically eclectic to no purpose. Two, Davies' songs are too impersonal. Three, the Kinks are best at raunch, and this is anything but a raunchy record. All of which is really to say, although she never quite does: "'You Really Got Me' was so great. Why can't you just keep doing that?"

I agree. "You Really Got Me" is the best song the Kinks ever recorded. But I would also argue, if pressed, that "She Loves You" is the best song the Beatles ever recorded. After the usual period of self-disgust, the Beatles reportedly are coming to a similar conclusion. But they obviously will not go back to the same place. The Beach Boys are trying that--Brian's "Do It Again" and Jeff Barry's "I Can Hear Music," both fine songs, are nevertheless a long way from Van Dyke Parks. But it isn't working, commercially or otherwise. It can't. Even if the pop audience weren't conditioned to demand automatic "artistic advancement," a compulsion that does seem to be losing a little of its unwonted power, a comparable need is felt by the kind of performer who does good rock. When such a performer stops feeling it--which is what seems to have happened to almost all of the '50s jazz people, for instance--some magic goes out of the music. Anyway, that's what we tell ourselves. Maybe we just get bored.

In 1964, we were all excited about the same music, but for different reasons. We liked rock and roll because it was simple and straightforward, or because it was sexual, or because it was happy, or because it was passionate. Since each of these qualities had something in common with most of the others, few of us bothered to distinguish between them. But as rock developed, performers did, and by the time of "Well Respected Man" it was obvious that Ray Davies dug simplicity and honesty, not raunchiness. (Except for the first two hits, none of the most "sweaty and coarse" Kinks songs were written by him.) In addition--always the crucial problem--he began to find that rock alone didn't satisfy him. "Well Respected Man" was an attempt to express the rest of Ray Davies. It failed because it was pietistic and abstract. By the time of "Sunny Afternoon," however, Davies was creating the "patently fictional stories" that Johanna Schier finds so unsatisfactory, and they worked. They are the real Kinks--or anyway, the real Ray Davies.

For some reason, English groups frequently deal in such fiction--think of the current LPs by the Zombies and even the Stones, not to mention the Who's forthcoming opera. American groups, on the other hand, tend to the lyric and personal--the only blatant exception I can think of offhand is Jefferson Airplane's "Lather." It is as if Dylan had been split down the middle, the English taking the technique and the Americans the language. This means the English do have to worry about the kind of impersonal artsiness that flaws both the Zombies' album and last year's Kinks, Something Else. But except for "Wicked Annabella" and "Phenomenal Cat," both of which might have been turned out by some Drury Lane whimsy specialist, this is not a problem with Village Green, which seems to have been written in response to real people--"Monica," "Starstruck" or events--"All of My Friends Were There," a wry comipathedy about public embarrassment which demonstrates the weird control, similar in its not-quite surreal tone to that of Randy Newman, that Davies has at his best--or emotions--"Big Sky," an acrimonious anti-religious song which exemplifies fictional song technique. It would be difficult to write a song that came out and said: "God is horrible because he lets people suffer." But how about this stanza? "Big Sky looks down at all the people that think they got problems. / They get depressed and they hold their heads in their hands and they cry. / People lift up their hands and they look up at the Big Sky. / But the Big Sky's too big to sympathize."

I feel uncomfortable with such aesthetic truisms. Everyone knows that fiction can mediate between the personal and the world of the audience, and extolling such mediation classes me with the jazz fan who can't understand how I can dig Al Jackson and Keith Moon when Kenny Clarke and Elvin Jones are there to be listened to. Just as there is aesthetic justification for a beat that isn't complex, that hits you over the head the way Keith Moon does, so there is aesthetic justification for direct and raunchy songs. Such music is still being made--listen to "Gimme Gimme Good Lovin'" by the Crazy Elephant or the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing" but only rarely by the classic groups. They can't. Many of the remaining songs on The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society can be seen, though they certainly don't have to be, as Davies' comment on why.

The album's most memorable song--it would be the single were there enough demand--is probably "Last of the Steam Powered Trains." Like the title song and about half the others, it is a song about the past--or rather, about how to deal with the past. It is possible to see the country-western thing here in the same perspective. Overwhelmed or bemused by the psychedelic juggernaut, musicians tried to figure out how to get back to the values that had attracted them in the music without being corny or repetitive. They found that country music had the same simplicity, the same broad-based appeal. It wasn't youth music, of course, but the musicians were also discovering that they weren't so young any more. They also found other country-western values, especially its pastoralism, strangely soothing. Some of them, like Gram Parsons and Roger McGuinn, even began to extrapolate the country form the way the English groups extrapolated on rock forms three or four years ago--listen to Parsons' "Sin City," a familiar c&w tract with surrealist overtones.

Similarly, Davies can be said to reinterpret the tradition of the English eccentric. The Village Green Preservation Society is dedicated to good memories, be they "Fu Manchu, Moriarty, and Dracula" or "little shops, china cups, and virginity." Does Davies really want to preserve virginity? Presumably not. But the fictional form allows him to remain ambivalent, for "preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you" is a chancy enterprise. "The Last of the Steam-Powered Trains" survives only in a museum, vowing to huff and puff forever but getting nowhere. Walter, who once planned to run off to sea with Davies, is probably fat and married now. Oh well: "People often change, but memories of people stay the same." And in one of the two songs about taking photographs, Davies comments: "People take pictures of the summer, just in case someone thought they had missed it."

There is always that chance, you see, of looking very foolish. Raunch rock is just a memory for the Kinks, and even "experimental" musical techniques have become commonplace, as their negligent use on this album shows. How do you preserve the old ways? Like the country rockers, Davies finds himself becoming pastoral merely because he is nostalgic. He doesn't want to survive in a museum, like a steam-powered train or a Beach Boy. BBC wants a long work from him, and he's going to do it. You have to live. And this is a record of a life that is--anyway--memorable.

Village Voice, Apr. 10, 1969