God Save the Kinks

Flipping through channels last night, I came across a commercial for the new Wes Anderson flick, "The Darjeerling Limited." This movie will get a lot of press for the wrong reason. Sure, it seems to foreshadow Owen Wilson's suicide attempt; but more important, it features two wonderfully obscure songs by The Kinks: "Strangers" and "This Time Tomorrow."

A quickly written blog post is no way to honor my favorite band. Yet, I must try.

The Kinks are not the greatest band of all time. Truth be told, they're probably not even that close. I don't know if it's even fair to say that they're "underrated." To be mentioned as part of the British invasion in the same breath as The Beatles is an honor they (and no other band, frankly) deserves. But The Kinks are my favorite band, and that's a different measure. They're my favorite band precisely because they're so frustrating, so hard to measure, so hard to figure out, so impossible to label as either geniuses or pretenders.

Move beyond any controversy about whether The Kinks invented distortion or gave birth to hard rock through Dave Davies' unique amp saturation in "You Really Got Me." What has always attracted me to this band is the fact that no songwriter has better expressed two feelings close to my heart than Ray Davies--feelings that I can only describe as "intimate removal" and "lonely contentment." (By the way, no director has expressed these two feelings better than Wes Anderson, and never better than in "Rushmore," so it's no surprise that The Kinks tend to be his preferred soundtrack.)

My attraction to The Kinks started when they appeared on Saturday Night Live in the early 80s and cranked out the two most disparate tunes ever played on that stage: the frenetic, self-referential "Destroyer" followed by the soft and pastoral "Art Lover." One song about the destructive force of paranoia; the other about a guy sitting in a park who loves watching kids and is terrified of being perceived as a pervert.

But my true love of The Kinks started when I popped in my brother's vinyl copy of "Celluloid Heroes" in the 7th Grade. As I eased into the blue beanbag chair and strapped on the 20-pound Pioneer headphones, two songs hit my ears in a way that none ever had: "Holiday" and "Sitting in my Hotel."

"Holiday" is a humid, melancholy jazz tune that transports you to the beach.

Holiday, oh what a lovely day today. I'm oh so glad they sent me away to have a little holiday.

The whole time you listen, you wonder if the singer is simply talking about a vacation; if he's truly mad and has been "sent away" without realizing it; if he's mad but knows it and is enjoying his solitude anyway; or if he's imagining the whole thing. When the song concludes:

Lying on the beach, my back burned rare. Salt gets in my blisters and sand gets in my hair. The sea's an open sewer, but I really couldn't care. I'm breathing through my mouth so I don't have to sniff the air.

I don't really care if the singer is crazy or not. I just like him.

"Sitting in my Hotel" clued me into one of the frustrations with the Kinks: It sounds like the Beatles, just not as good. The engineer even drowned Ray Davies' voice in a reverb designed to conjure John Lennon. The song is sung from the perspective of a person gazing out a hotel window and thinking, "If my friends could see me now" in a way that makes you wonder if he's talking about success, isolation or both. It's a great song, but it ain't The Beatles.

And so it goes as a Kinks fan. You find gems like "This Time Tomorrow" and "She's Got Everything" only after sifting through much of the mediocre. You search for The Kinks' definitive album, and you can't find one that blows your mind from beginning to end. "The Village Green Preservation Society"? It's great, it inspired Pete Townsend to write "Tommy," but it's still uneven. "Arthur"? Cool concept, but not quite. "Sleepwalker"? A sleeper (fittingly), but no.

Stop looking. It doesn't exist. The Beatles will always take you where you want to be. The Kinks are there to remind you who you really are: uneven, imperfect, occasionally touching greatness, or at least getting close enough to smell it, but always falling firmly back down to earth--sitting on a beach or staring through a window. Lonely but content, intimately removed.


Mike said…
Talk about synchronicity! I was walking in this morning listening to "Superman" and laughing at: "I looked in the mirror at my pigeon chest/
I had to put on my clothes because it made me depressed..."

Is there anything more beautiful than "Waterloo Sunset"?
michaelf said…
I have to agree. The Kinks are great, and their place in the rockosphere is not as prominent as it should be.
This is going to sound a bit like I'm trying to jump on your blog bandwagon (blogwagon?), but the first time I tuned my adolescent consciousness to the Kinks also was after hearing the tune "Destroyer." It was late night radio in L.A., when AOR stations like KLOS and/or KMET played more obscure stuff from bands of the day (obscure or perhaps known for other things). The song disturbed me to the core while I listed in my room. Not so much for the lyrics, which are silly and schizophrenic--Ray Davies arguing with himself over drug abuse and the demons under his bed--but mostly for the sheer addled angst created by the interplay between the lilty verses and singsongy base line and the hard driving, almost punky choruses.
Anyway, I think what's truly remarkable about the band is the range of the song writing and the duration of their relevance. BTW, have you heard Ray Davies latest solo album--from a year or two ago? It's not great, but also not half bad.
Marc Conklin said…
I do have the Ray album, and I saw him perform at First Ave (which was really, really good). It's perfect Ray, pretty damn good, a few clunkers, but then "Over My Head," the last song, is f***ing great... except for the very beginning... but the chorus is great. (And so on.)
michael f said…
Damn. I missed that show. That must've been great. What a noniconic icon.
michael f said…
BTW, (I hesitate to say this, as I've no technical training whatsoever in music) I've always had this pet theory that the early Kinks are the illegitimate children of the Stones early music (I hear more of the Stones than the Beatles in "You Really Got Me," etc), while the Who are the illegitimate children of the Beatles early music ("She Loves You" begat "The Kids Are All Right," etc). I have nothing else to go on other than untrained aural impressions and my reaction to each band's vibe, but, hey, since I've never shared this idea until now I've never had to justify the theory. I'll shut up and go back to listening to my iPod now.

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