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Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Kinks: Face To Face

THE KINKS: FACE TO FACE (1966)

1) Party Line; 2) Rosie Won't You Please Come Home; 3) Dandy; 4) Too Much On My Mind; 5) Session Man; 6) Rainy Day In June; 7) A House In The Country; 8) Holiday In Waikiki; 9) Most Exclusive Residence For Sale; 10) Fancy; 11) Little Miss Queen Of Darkness; 12) You're Lookin' Fine; 13) Sunny Afternoon; 14) I'll Remember; 15*) I'm Not Like Everybody Else; 16*) Dead End Street; 17*) Big Black Smoke; 18*) Mr. Pleasant; 19*) This Is Where I Belong; 20*) Mr. Reporter; 21*) Little Women.

In 1966, Paul McCartney wrote two of the greatest ever songs about loneliness and alienation — ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ and ʽFor No Oneʼ. Both were subtle psychological masterpieces of humanistic art, opening up some awesome depths in pop music and breaking hearts all over the world. There was one catch about these sorrowful beauties, though: they were decidedly third-person, with Paul McCartney playing God's angel sending his empathy and forgiveness out to all the lonely people out there, as represented by the select cases of Eleanor Rigby and the nameless woman in ʽFor No Oneʼ. There wasn't too much of Paul himself in these songs, nor could there probably be; in fact, he was conducting himself quite honestly by playing astute and sympathetic observer rather than the principal bearer of the grief.

This is where Ray Davies had his day. Unlike the generally nonchalant McCartney, unlike the angry Lennon, unlike the philosophical Townshend, unlike the rebellious Jagger and Richards, Ray Davies was a genuinely shy, lonely, neurotic, melancholic type — actually, like way more of us than we'd probably like to admit. There was something about him that even when he sang "never met a girl like you before, girls like you are very hard to find", you'd get the feeling that he really, really, really meant it, because it must be pretty dang difficult for a guy like Ray Davies to meet a girl who would empathize not only with his gapped teeth, but also with his lonesome and deeply disturbed spirit.

But it wasn't until ʽSunny Afternoonʼ, I think, that we got the chance to see that spirit up close, with no conventional lyrical or musical veils to conceal anything. This, too, is a song about loneliness, but not the kind of loneliness that falls on you through some terrible chain of God-inflicted events where you can do nothing about it — rather, the kind of loneliness that falls upon us as we plunge into disillusionment, world-weariness, and dysfunctionality because, you know, we've just had it; something that, I'd venture to say, occasionally pursues every decent human with a half-working brain, and makes it possible for just about everybody to take the message of ʽSunny Afternoonʼ deeply personally. The strolling tempo of the song, suggesting a lazy strum of your instrument as you swing in your hammock or sit on the porch; the descending chords — all the way down, down, down, down, to the depths of personal despair, then back up only to go down, down, down again; and most importantly, those vocals. This is where Ray really arrives as one of the greatest singers of his generation. Sometimes he raises it to the heights of a soft, silky falsetto, similar to McCartney's silky tone on ʽHere, There And Everywhereʼ — only that one was a tender confession of orgasmic love for a girl, whereas here it is a tender confession of or­gasmic love for one's misery and apathy. Sometimes he sharpens it up, but with an odd, semi-drunk intonation ("save me, save me, save me from this squeeze..."), as if to let himself be aware of the imminent futility of such a request. Sometimes he shows a sense of sly humor, what with the little tone jumps on "and I love TO live SO pleaSAntly" — a tiny whiff of vaudeville clow­ning here, perfectly suitable for the song's message. This may be music hall in form, but it is confessional singer-songwriting in essence — the likes of which pop music had never seen prior to that song. Come to think of it, it might not have seen the likes of this ever since, too; at least, not this kind of perfect mix between pop form and personal-philosophical substance.

As odd as it may sound, I do not think that ʽSunny Afternoonʼ feels perfectly at home on Face To Face, the album recorded in the wake of its chart success. It is significantly better than any of the other songs on the album (and that does not imply that I am putting those songs down), simply because most of those other songs, like ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ and ʽFor No Oneʼ, are of an observa­tional nature — one by one, we see a number of brilliantly painted musical portraits, but only ʽSunny Afternoonʼ and, perhaps, the far inferior ballad ʽToo Much On My Mindʼ qualify as proper self-portraits (because the «fallen aristocrat» image of ʽAfternoonʼ is, of course, purely metaphorical). Perhaps, in a way, it is a matter of sequencing: if there was a place for ʽSunny Afternoonʼ on the album at all, it should rather have been at the very end, instead of the stylisti­cally and lyrically obsolete ʽI'll Rememberʼ (an okay pop song that they'd recorded way back in 1965 and, for some reason, decided to stick on the album so as not to let a good thing go to waste, thus almost ruining the conceptuality of the whole thing).

Nevertheless, this by no means disqualifies Face To Face as the beginning of the «Golden Age» for The Kinks, as one of the very first conceptual albums (the songs were to be linked together with special effects, but, unfortunately, the plan fell through for technical reasons), and as the very first proper Britpop album, one might say — provided we define Britpop as «pop rock that is influenced by traditional British pop and tells stories about British people» or something like that. Prior to Face To Face, audiences only got that stuff in small doses — from the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks themselves; with Face To Face, pop music finally got its equivalent of a Charles Dickens novel or a Thomas Gainsborough portrait gallery.

The most telling sign of the album's conceptuality is that the songs, much like the future pieces of the Abbey Road medley, do not work as good on their own as they do when they all hang to­gether. Face To Face is a series of character-describing vignettes, few of which make their way onto best-of compilations, but the collective effect of 'em all is stunning. You get to meet the local Don Juan, chasing after tail at a frantically strummed acoustic rate (ʽDandyʼ); the unfortu­nately overlooked and underpaid underdog of the musical world (ʽSession Manʼ, with quintes­sential session man Nicky Hopkins on harpsichord); the disgusting aristocratic brat with his symbolic property (ʽHouse In The Countryʼ, one of the few cases of seemingly direct influence on Ray's songwriting by the Rolling Stones — you can clearly hear echoes of ʽ19th Nervous Breakdownʼ here); the befuddled holiday goer who probably has trouble telling Hawai'i from the Azure Coast (ʽHoliday In Waikikiʼ, melodically owing quite a bit to Chuck Berry's ʽYou Never Can Tellʼ, but with a smug slide guitar riff thrown in for good measure); the bankrupt loser who probably has it even worse than the protagonist of ʽSunny Afternoonʼ, but, according to Ray, does not deserve our empathy (ʽMost Exclusive Residence For Saleʼ); the broken-hearted socialite, doomed to be forever dancing to acoustic vaudeville melodies (ʽLittle Miss Queen Of Darknessʼ). Frankly speaking, each of these tunes individually is not all that original or mind-blowing from a melodic point of view — Ray was still saving up his best ideas for singles; but together, they form an intriguing gallery, a snapshot of the various sides of English society with cool musical metaphors for each of the personalities.

I would argue that ʽRosie Won't You Please Come Homeʼ is the only one of these portraits that aspires to individual greatness — hardly surprising, since it is also the most personal of them all, explicitly referring to the Australian emigration of Ray and Dave's sister. For this tune, Ray saved up some particularly strange ideas, such as pinning the weepy lines of the chorus to a creepy, dark melody: "Oh my Rosie, how I miss you, you are all the world to me" may sound like a weepy complaint, but the accompanying bassline is a grim threat; perhaps Ray himself did not mean it to be like that, yet there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that each chorus introduces a note of disturbing aggression. Another psychological trick!

One other track that does not quite fit in and works well on its own is ʽRainy Day In Juneʼ, an early — and rare — attempt at apocalyptic writing on Ray's part. The track could very well have been the result of some special LSD trip, except Ray allegedly did not take any drugs at the time, so it is really more of an effort to write something suitably «epic», in a lyrical style that does not come easy to Ray ("a misty shadow spread its wings / and covered all the ground" — sounds a bit like proto-Uriah Heep, doesn't it?), but with a moody, almost haunting musical arrangement all the same. "The rain" becomes symbolic of the end of the world here, while the repetitive, mono­tonous chorus ("everybody felt the rain...") gives the illusion of a zombified row of people, slowly moving out to meet their final fate. It is no ʽGimme Shelterʼ, for sure, and even with the thunder and lightning effects, it is nowhere near as terrifying as ʽBlack Sabbathʼ, but who the heck else wrote about the end of the world in 1966? And who the heck would have had the idea to stick a song like that right in the middle of a series of Britpoppy vignettes? To continue the analogy, it is like going through a long gallery of Gainsborough portraits and suddenly falling upon a Last Judgement by Hieronimus Bosch. Just because, you know, all these people died and went to Hell anyway, so be sure to keep this in mind.

As I said, Face To Face is not perfect. If it were up to me to change history, I would probably exclude ʽI'll Rememberʼ (not because it's bad, but because it sticks out in an incoherent way) and maybe one other track (ʽYou're Lookin' Fineʼ, with brother Dave on vocals, is totally memorable because its riff would later be nicked and slightly reworked by Lennon into ʽHey Bulldogʼ — but the womanizing pop-rocker again sort of violates the conceptuality) and replace them with such epochal singles as ʽMr. Pleasantʼ and ʽDead End Streetʼ. Today, they are conveniently tacked on as bonus tracks, but goddammit, both of them belong right square in the center of the album itself: the former with its mix of sarcasm and pity at the film-noirish fate of its socially lifted protago­nist, the latter with what might be the most desperate working-class plea of the Sixties, enough to have The Clash lift its melody fifteen years later for ʽLondon Callingʼ. Both songs also represent brave and highly successful steps forward in terms of composition and arrangement for Ray — the use of the mournful trombone alone is worth a fortune, and the chord changes on ʽMr. Pleasantʼ, to me, produce an almost Mozartian effect: simple, logical, and covering the full emotional spec­trum from lightly cruel sneer ("...how is Mrs. Pleasant?") to heartfelt pity ("...and it's not so pleasant after all..."). This is as good as Sixties pop ever gets, period.

Actually, most of the bonus tracks this time around are stellar. There is no getting away from the genius of ʽI'm Not Like Everybody Elseʼ, a song originally written for The Animals but ultimate­ly handed over to brother Dave — not in the vein of Face To Face at all due to its pronounced garage-rock sound, but a sure classic of the «get-the-fuck-out-of-my-way» subgenre of the mid-Sixties. ʽBig Black Smokeʼ pales melodically in the face of ʽMr. Pleasantʼ, with which it shares some musical elements, but it is still another strong indictment of corrupt city life, with the big vocal hook of the chorus delivered in a suitably ominous way — hardly a tune to which the swinging youth of London would want to latch on, though, because it is one thing when your pop idol lambasts The Establishment in the guise of ʽMr. Pleasantʼ, but quite another one when he turns his sarcastic glare at the fates of young folks "sick and tired of country life". And while it may be understandable why ʽMr. Reporterʼ was not released at the time — way too long and too monotonous to work as a single — its Joker-ish guitar / brass riff, condemned with the longest diatribe these guys ever wrote against the popular press, is still highly memorable.

Anyway, in this age of ours when track sequencing becomes a deeply personal matter, I'm sure all of us could play the fascinating game of finding the perfect setlist and running order for an ideal Face To Face — and even a non-ideal Face To Face, as it slowly sinks in one's conscience, should be still considered among the top five albums of 1966 (along with Revolver, Aftermath, Blonde On Blonde, and Pet Sounds, in whatever order you prefer to arrange them). It does mark a decisive transformation in The Kinks' history, representing Ray Davies' solemn refusal to look directly in the eyes of The Universal in order to find his artistic inspiration — instead, preferring to find access to The Universal through the eyes, minds, and souls of the everyday people whom he regularly passes on the street. It was an approach that would ultimately ruin The Kinks' career in the short run and quash their hopes (if there ever were any hopes, that is) at gaining the same household name level as their top competitors. But it was also an honest and a bizarrely rebel­lious approach that would turn out to serve them very well in the long run; and something tells me that a few centuries (decades? years?) from now, when the last survivors of the nuclear apocalypse are shivering in their bunkers and caves, their very last Ipod charges will rather be spent on the humble humanism of Face To Face — and the several albums following it, all the way down to the end of the band's Golden Age around 1971 — than on the grand psychedelic / idealistic vision of Revolver or Pet Sounds. For now, though, as we still find ourselves relatively safe from total extinction, just another major thumbs up.

6 comments:

  1. Always thought '19th Nervous Breakdown' was an inspiration behind 'Holiday in Waikiki', not 'A House in the Country'. The latter still has a Rolling Stones feel to it, sure — after all, it was intended for The Pretty Things (and their version came out first, if I recall it correctly). Funny to learn Animals turned 'I'm Not Like Everybody Else' down — the tracklist of 1966's 'Animalisms' is very patchy.

    Oh, and thanks for spotting the hidden menace in 'Rosie', this is what really makes this song special and very true in emotional sense. Ray was frustrated AND angry when he heard about his sister moving to Australia. Being banned from US little did he know about his own future travellings and struggles to find a place he can call home.

    I also love that the songs not only paint the portraits, Ray inserts a lot of little social details like 'And even when I'm swimming, I have to pay', which complement the whole picture. Sure we had lots of American folk singers who could put such lines in their songs long before The Kinks, but seems to me it was Ray who first played this trick in otherwise jolly pop song.

    'Face to Face' is an observational masterpiece, which paved a way for me to appreciate Blur's 'The Great Escape' and Divine Comedy's 'Casanova' — and in this sense, yes, this is a Britpop album. Don't think I can add any other bands to this very special list and for me this makes 'Face to Face' truly unique.

    Oh, and the string of non-album singles running along is fascinating. How could one person cope with touring, rehearsals, family and writing a dozen of perfect songs in one year is beyond me.

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  2. Great review, George; thanks. Cheers.

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  3. Always great. I never caught the significance of Dunny Afternoon until you pointed it out. That's a big musical deal.

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  4. This was a great read from start to finish, I agree with almost everything you stated except I think that "Too much on my mind" is an absolute belter: the way the melody unfolds, the unique subject matter, etc. It may not fit the concept in any way but boy, how much do I adore this little gem of a song!

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  5. The Kinks. Right up there with the greatest. F2F one of my all timers (Depending on my mood of course) Something Else, VGPS, Arthur etc. I even enjoy the RCA years and the guilty pleasures of their 80s-90s output and the solo works that followed.

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  6. "This, too, is a song about loneliness, but not the kind of loneliness that falls on you through some terrible chain of God-inflicted events where you can do nothing about it — rather, the kind of loneliness that falls upon us as we plunge into disillusionment, world-weariness, and dysfunctionality because, you know, we've just had it; something that, I'd venture to say, occasionally pursues every decent human with a half-working brain, and makes it possible for just about everybody to take the message of ʽSunny Afternoonʼ deeply personally."

    Extraordinary songs deserve extraordinary sentences like this. Right on, George. Seriously.

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