By Dave Thompson
The Kinks, it should be said from the outset, are probably the single-most important British band of the 1960s. They may not have been as successful as some (although since when has success been a barometer of quality?) and they may not have been so instantly influential. But, in terms of making a statement that resonated at the time, but has continued to reverberate across the musical firmament, The Kinks weren’t simply uniquely talented. They were also uniquely placed.
Observers, outsiders — The Kinks may have been a part of what history now calls the Swinging London scene, but they were also apart from it, stubborn suburbanites in an increasingly urban musical landscape; devoutly provincial in an evermore international world; and so utterly divorced from what passed as the musical mainstream that the only times they seemed to fit in with what the rest of the pack was thinking were those occasions when it was The Kinks’ idea to begin with.
Heavy metal, for example. You can argue all night whether “You Really Got Me” was the true founding father of that benighted beast, and Ray Davies shudders when the topic is raised (and denies all responsibility). But he does concede to creating the notion of the Big Riff — and what is the principle ingredient in Metal? The Big Riff.
What about the western world’s mid-'70s infatuation with all things Sitar-shaped? “Norwegian Wood” and sundry Brian Jones strummings are usually regarded as the catalyst for that. But the Kinks’ “See My Friends” didn’t simply sound Indian, months before anybody else thought of tuning their guitars that way, it was Indian, written in Bombay on the band’s way to Australia, about a party of local fishermen whom Ray Davies saw one day.
There is more, and when Beatledom gets bored with the death threats (“how dare you impugn the fabness of the four?”), maybe we’ll talk about them. Right now, though, we should talk with Ray Davies, the man behind that catalog of cleverness, and, who, for a variety of reasons, has himself been rediscovering it in recent times.
First, there was the “Storytellers” experience ... hard to believe that it’s been years since Davies essentially introduced both a new word to the rock vocabulary and a new performance style for the VH-1 generation, but not so difficult to believe that his prototype remains the pinnacle of its achievement.
Then there was his curatorship of the band’s entire back catalog, lovingly revisited for the kind of reissue package that other — again, supposedly better-feted — groups would have done very well to emulate. Bonus stacked reissues and the Picture Book box set are essential additions to any self-respecting collection.
And then there was The Kinks Choral Collection, which was exactly what it says on the tin: a clutch of past Kinks classics reimagined for the kind of vocal and orchestral arrangements for which, maybe, they’d always cried out.
Or maybe they didn’t. Familiar songs reimagined with a pomp and circumstance that could never have been conceived of at the time they were written, The Kinks Choral Collection could as easily have descended into the kind of easy-listening hell to which all great songs eventually are consigned, although they usually have to wait for the Muzak makers to take them away. And the fact that it doesn’t go there is, once again, testament to the man who wrote the songs in the first place.
Ray Davies is just one more in that horrifyingly long line of former pop icons who are now collecting their old-age pensions, and, increasingly, looking to their half-century-old back catalogs to keep the winter’s chill from their bones. Between the Stones’ multiple boxed sets, the Beatles’ digital debut and Dylan’s rediscovery of his mono mojo, the last decade alone has allowed us to rediscover our musical heritage in ways that not only seemed impossible beforehand, but also seemed completely unnecessary.
This is the balance that The Kinks Choral Collection would go some way toward redressing, with its stylish snagging of 15 songs that could readily be described as one alternate vision of a dream compilation, and utterly reinventing them. Yet even at the time, Davies acknowledged that this was just one of several Kinks-related projects that he had on the go.
Sidestepping the eternally thorny question of whether a Kinks reunion is in the cards by reminding us of brother Dave’s heart problems in 2004, Davies suggested turning his attention towards his legacy as other people see it; not, as so many other artists choose, by engineering some kind of self-aggrandizing tribute to themselves, but by actually handing the song over to sundry other artists, and asking them to tell him how to perform it. And the results were released under the extraordinarily sensible title of See My Friends.
Ray Davies is no stranger to the redefining cover version. The Jam introduced a whole new range of snottiness to “David Watts” back at the height of punk; a few years later, Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders took an all-but-unknown track from The Kinks’ first album, Stop Your Sobbing, and transformed it in to one of Davies’ all-time best-loved compositions.
David Bowie reinvented “Where Have All The Good Times Gone” as a slice of wired sexual innuendo; Joan Jett poured her own childhood memories into “Celluloid Heroes;” and, of course, The Kinks themselves were never afraid to pick over the bones of one song or another and restyle it according to their latest whims. The reggae-fied “Till The End Of The Day” on 1980’s One For The Road live album is a delectable case in point; a mid-1990s British TV collaboration with Blur’s Damon Albarn, rebuilding “Waterloo Sunset” around the Britpop dawn was another.
“Waterloo Sunset” resurfaced on the choral album, and it resurfaces on See My Friends, as well. The difference is, this time the most quintessentially London-centric song in Davies’ entire repertoire has undergone more than minor surgery. It has been completely relocated, as a passing Jackson Browne dropped by the studio, pushed the song into a whole new key, and left even Davies scrambling up an unfamiliar wall.
“It wasn’t my idea,” Davies told Goldmine. “He wanted to do ‘Waterloo Sunset,’ and I really wasn’t sure how it would work, because he’s a singer from Southern California, and that’s such an evocatively London song. But he came in with his guitar, he sat down and played it, and the point of the collaborations was to let people slide into the way they wanted to do it, and he changed the key, which allowed me to find new expression with my voice. We just cobbled it together on the spot, and it was a great experience.”
Listening to Davies talk, of course, it feels as though the entire album could be summed up in that fashion ... cobbled together, in the nicest possible way, and a great experience all around. It would have been easy, after all, for Davies to have assembled the traditional fan club of Anglo admirers and Anglophile disciples and make an album from their determined obeisances alone. In fact, he admits that kind of concept “had crossed my mind on a couple of occasions, but only fleetingly.” It took a meeting with former Big Star frontman Alex Chilton to bring the concept to fruition. “Alex was the first one I put down, and it evolved from there. Prior to that, I’d dabbled, but never anything that could make a whole record.”
The finished lineup, he explained, “had a lot to do with scheduling, people coming along. It was people who were there;” and, while he can offer up sound reasons for why he invited almost everyone on the album, he only just stops short of admitting that an entirely different collection could have emerged, had he only made the call on a different day.
What cannot be disputed is the fact that, in stepping into the unknown, he offered his audience a taste of something new, too. And the fact that See My Friends runs the gamut of The Kinks’ career only amplifies what we learned at the beginning of this piece: That the Kinks are probably the single most important British band of the 1960s.