Culturespill » Ray Davies

Best Albums of 2011 Series: “One Thousand Pictures,” Pete & The Pirates

20th December

You might think you’ve got this Reading, UK quintet figured out from the start when “Can’t Fish,” the opening track on Pete & The Pirates’ sophomore LP One Thousand Pictures, showers you in its theatrical and soaring gush of guitar and percussion. Perhaps you think you hear Band of Horses or even The National somewhere off in the distance of the song, and maybe you do. But when the alternately menacing and supine second track “Cold Black Kitty” mingles the roaring chops of Bloc Party or Interpol with the tender-hearted pop balladry of Ray Davies, the record comes off as a distinctly schizophrenic experience, and the band as one wholly uninterested in settling into any particular mode.

It is only fitting that “Cold Black Kitty” thunders with its driving guitars and pulsing adrenaline. After all, front man Tommy Sanders has just gotten done singing of light bulbs exploding in the streets and people leaping out of their windows on the opening track. Elsewhere, as on standout track “United,” the houses on his block are ugly and “hold meetings in the night time” as they stare him down and laugh. Yes, the houses are laughing. Just go with it.

For a record so replete with hard-bitten themes like violence, suicide and heartbreak, you’d think these tracks are the work of a band that takes themselves entirely too seriously. But then Sanders cracks a joke like “You’re in my heart / you’re in my car as well”  or explores such existential quandaries as “Who needs a train when you’ve got a train track and a motorbike with a girl and the back,” and you find enough emotional wiggle room to laugh off the tough stuff and be glad you withstood it in the meantime.

The video for “Winter 1,” which sports the album’s most memorable beat, exudes the kind of low-budget, geeky greatness of those early-’80s new wave videos we took so seriously at the time but giggle at diffidently today. (Be on the look-out for the wholly ridiculous, glow-in-the-dark-orange ski cap around the 1:20 mark. Glorious.) Check it out above.

Gianmarc Manzione
gmanzione@culturespill.com

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Flashback: The Kinks’ “State of Confusion”

30th June

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When Malcom McLaren’s term “New Wave” landed in the lap of Seymour Stein at Sire Records, where the phrase was promptly used to soften the image of the punk songs that would never have found their way to radio otherwise, it’s a safe bet that the last band either man had in mind at the time were The Kinks, a group in their third decade who, by 1983, had already danced themselves into the sunset of their creative peak. Unwilling to be typecast by the dead era they helped define–an era when all you had to do to make it big was grow some bushy hair, sing about holding some girl’s hand, and package the whole thing as “The British Invasion”–The Kinks happily spent the early 80s graffitying its tombstone instead by cranking up the amps and thrashing their way around the globe from one arena to the next, chasing the glories of younger bands that they themselves made possible twenty years prior–Duran Duran, The Smiths, The Jam–and producing that great document of the arena rock era in the process, 1980’s One for the Road.

But even as they thrived amid one of the most unlikely resurgences rock ‘n roll had ever seen, few anticipated that the band would also find themselves on the crest of that “Wave” so many rode into the 1980s, storming MTV with their video for “Come Dancing,” one of a handful of powerful singles to emerge from 1983’s State of Confusion, and marking the last time they would ever crack the top ten (“Come Dancing” shot to #6 in the US while, once again, the album and single bafflingly failed to make a dent in their native UK.) And as more contemporary artists went to such desperate lengths to cash in on the latest momentary fad–streaking their spiked hair with every hue in the rainbow and discovering fashion in the torn and pinned-together clothes that the pioneers of punk wore, not to make a statement but because it was all they could afford–the Kinks stuck to their guns, strapping on the same guitars they’d wailed on for decades and invoking the nostalgia of memories paved for parking lots and bowling allies built where dance halls were. That the recipe worked as well in 1983 as it did in 1963 confirms a certain timeless chord in rock ‘n roll that anyone with the talent and authenticity can strike.


The Kinks: “Come Dancing,” State of Confusion (1983)

Yet someone writes in the Rough Guide to Rock that songs such as “Come Dancing” were “outposts on lackluster albums.” This has to be the opinion of someone who either didn’t listen to the record or wasn’t there to begin with. To be fair, some of the album’s best cuts were either condemned to cassette-only versions (the peculiarly Dylan-esque “Long Distance”) or tardy reissues (“Noise,” “Once A Thief”), but a “lackluster” record it is not. It’s as though the longer The Kinks defied widespread predictions that they wouldn’t even make it into the 70s as a commercially viable act, the more critics insisted on fulfilling their own prophecy with dismissive reviews. For a band that wasn’t supposed to survive the 70s, it sure is no small accomplishment that they cranked out five instant classics in 1983.

What is even more of a wonder is that the most harrowing among them, the divine “Property,” slumped into obscurity amid the album’s other hits. Along with “Better Things,” “Property” is one of the strongest ballads Ray put to paper since “A Long Way From Home” in 1970. The furiously performed title track speaks for itself, and mammoth hits “Come Dancing” and the prom-closing “Don’t Forget to Dance” are the stuff of rock ‘n roll immortality now. State of Confusion did serve up a couple of clunkers in the merely noisy “Young Conservatives” and “Labour of Love,” but what album DIDN’T include filler in those days? In that context, State of Confusion plays like the masterpiece that it is, closing with Dave’s delightfully blistering “Bernadette” and marking the end of Mick Avory’s tenure as the Kinks’ drummer. State of Confusion is every bit a classic now as it was in the 80s, and hardly warrants the dismissal and neglect it increasingly endures.

State of Confusion Outtakes:

Long Distance

Once A Thief

Noise

Culturespill Flashback: The Kinks’ “Low Budget”

1st May

Kinks

As Rod Stewart poured himself into a pair of leather pants and asked us if we thought he was sexy, The Kinks strapped on the same old guitars and once again spoke to the daily anxieties of the common man. It was 1979, and the average Joe’s heartburn raged for reasons that sound painfully familiar. “Gas bills, rent bills, tax bills, phone bills,” Ray Davies sings on the tenacious “Superman,” one of the many highlights of his songwriting career, “there’s got to be something better than this.” Indeed there was, and it was this album: an engaging brew of the opposing musical poles that contended with one another at the time (disco and punk–back when “disco” and “punk” actually meant “disco” and “punk”.)

Critics too frequently mischaracterize Low Budget as some kind of “come back” for The Kinks who, by 1979, had come a long way from the days of Apemen and Preservation Societies. Released on the heels of phenomenal rock albums like Misfits and the especially brilliant Sleepwalker, gems that reintroduced the Kinks to the top 20 charts with singles like “Juke Box Music” or “Rock ‘n Roll Fantasy” after Clive Davis rescued them from the anonymity of their concept album haze and whipped them back into craftsmen of the great rock single. The Kinks hardly had anything to “come back” from by the time they released Low Budget. They were already there, and no informed fan of classic rock can suggest otherwise. Yes, the album landed them their first headlining gig at Madison Square Garden, and they did become early gods of MTV with the video for State of Confusion’s “Come Dancing” shortly thereafter. But these were the inevitable glories they’d been building toward for decades, not some sudden and baffling resurgence.

Feet

Low Budget marked an obvious yet tactful attempt to connect with the cultural context in which it was recorded: oil embargoes, disco, terrorism, punk rock, inflation (“gas strike, oil strike, lorry strike, bread strike”). It all sounds terribly familiar, only now we have wicked Reverens and daily tracking polls to anesthetize our anxieties at every turn. It is a real testament to this band’s integrity that they managed to make music as timely in sound as it is in message without sacrificing their songwriting or rock ‘n roll roots. The Kinks, perhaps the most underrated rock band in history, never get quite the credit for their music’s working class message that others like Bruce Springsteen do. Part of the problem is that they never turned it into some cheap marketing shtick, posing in T-Shirts and soiled jeans in front of an enormous American flag with red bandanas danging from a back pocket. Their music isn’t a Halloween costume; it’s art. Getting banned from touring the U.S. in the late ’60s due to a union dispute that got them delisted by American promoters for four years surely didn’t help either.

The immediately catchy “Superman” nods to disco while never straying so far from the things that connected The Kinks to such a vast audience: the vividness and compassion of Ray’s lullabies to the ordinary world, the guttural peels of Dave’s guitar, the way they captured all the urgency and spirit of rock ‘n roll within a song of just two or three minutes in length. “Superman” would be the album’s only overt nod to prevailing tastes of the time (though not nearly as “overt” as the embarrassing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” or, for that matter, “Miss You”, the Puerto Rican Girls notwithstanding.) The title track, “Attitude,” “Misery” and “Pressure” all echo that distinctive crunch and clamor The Kinks pioneered 15 years prior, while “A Gallon of Gas” serves up a stripped-down tribute to the blues: both the blues of their roots and the blues of the time–then and, increasingly, now.

Records this honest were not exactly made in abundance in the days of Leif Garret and “Midnight Cowboy,” and in an industry that continues to pass off bubble gum as rock ‘n roll and mistake some plastic whore’s cleavage for a news headline as we cough up more for a gallon of gas than we paid for the cars we fill with it, Low Budget’s relevance endures.