There was a moment in the mid-1960s when the irreverent new sensibility of English pop music met traditional culture on friendly terms: detached and maybe a little critical, but affectionate. You can hear it in some of the Beatles’ work—“Penny Lane,” for instance. In some of The Who’s songs. In Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. And others, I’m sure, that are not coming to my mind at the moment. But as far as I know The Kinks did it more and better than anyone else.
Something Else was released in late 1967 when all the attention was on psychedelic music: the Beatles, in Sgt. Pepper’s and the soon-to-follow Magical Mystery Tour, Jimi Hendrix and others inaugurating what would soon be called hard rock. Something Else was not at all fashionable and I don’t think it got the attention it deserved. Musically it’s very down-to-earth. There are no obscure cosmic—or just druggy—lyrics, and no striking semi-abstract musical experimentation, no noise and crunch and feedback: just 2-to-3 minute songs, with catchy melodies and down-to-earth lyrics, most of them exhibiting a nostalgic and sentimental eye for things English.
It opens with “David Watts,” the “abominable golden schoolboy,” as the witty liner notes describe him, and as he is seen by the song’s envious narrator:
I am a dull and simple lad
Cannot tell water from champagne
And I have never met the Queen
And I wish I could have all he has got
I wish I could be like David Watts
Next is the poignant “Death of a Clown,” which you may have heard even if you don’t know the album, as it was a minor hit. Then the portrait of “Two Sisters,” one a glamorous playgirl, the other a housewife: one looks into the mirror, one looks into the washing machine. And the song comes out on the right side of that conflict. “No Return” is a sad bossa-nova.
“Harry Rag” seems to be some kind of slang for “cigarette,” and the song is about that, but more:
And I curse myself for the life I’ve led
And roll myself a Harry Rag and put myself to bed
“Tin Soldier Man” is lyrically maybe the weakest song on the album, a bit in the vein of their hit “Well-Respected Man,” but not as well-developed. Still, it’s catchy. “Situation Vacant” is another domestic drama, about a young man driven by his mother-in-law to seek upward mobility. “Love Me Till the Sun Shines” is a bit out of place, a little noisier and closer to an ordinary rock-and-roll song than anything else here. And “Lazy Old Sun” is musically adventurous, with a very Beatles-like arrangement.
The speaker in “Afternoon Tea” misses the girl with whom he used to take it. I’m not sure what to make of “Funny Face”--it seems to be about a girl confined to an asylum, and musically is an odd mix of upbeat rock and heart-tugging refrain:
The doctors won't let me see her
But I can catch a glimpse through the doorway
Of the girl that I love and care for
I see you peering through frosted windows
Eyes don't smile, all they do is cry
“End of the Season” is a nod to the 1930s, a toff lamenting that his lover’s departure marks a premature end to the social season. As with another Kinks hit, “Sunny Afternoon,” there’s irony in it, but genuine feeling as well.
And the best comes last, with “Waterloo Sunset,” in my opinion one of the very best songs to come out of the great mid-’60s surge of English pop, a sweet and wistful vignette of London life, featuring Terry and Julie, small people in a big city, comforted by each other and the sunset.
I’ve described these songs mainly in terms of subject matter, because it’s the lyrics that really elevate the album. But that doesn’t mean it’s negligible musically. Instrumentally it’s mostly your basic straightforward guitar, bass, and drums, sometimes keyboards and a bit extra--"Lazy Old Sun" seems to have strings. There's nothing spectacular or attention-grabbing, just solid unobtrusive vessels for great songs, every one of which has a memorable tune. And Ray Davies’s wry, un-rock-and-roll-like voice is perfectly suited to the material.
I don’t think the album was all that successful in its time, at least not as successful as it deserved to be, though according to Wikipedia it did better in the UK than here. I think it’s pretty generally recognized as a classic now. It was followed by two albums in a somewhat similar vein, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur. They’re both excellent, and I wouldn’t give you a big argument if you prefer one or the other of them, but this is my favorite. I think its predecessor, Face to Face, may also deserve to be ranked with these three, but I don’t think I’ve heard it since the early ‘70s. I’ll have to dig it out of the closet and give it a listen.
--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.