Even Unto Death (A Guest Post)
Sunday Night Journal, February 19, 2017

52 Albums, Week 7: Something Else (The Kinks)

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.


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First album review written by someone else that I actually own. I was listening just the other day, and it is a very good one, and also the two after that you mention. I think Davies (Ray, not Dave) has a new album coming out titled Americana. Wonder if that might be worth a listen? Like all of these guys from back then, he is a little long in the tooth these days. God bless The Kinks!

The Beatles by Janet is the only one I know so far.

I guess you're a little too young to have heard this when you were growing up. I don't know about others but I'm deliberately picking albums that I think are not as well known as they should be.

That's an amazing coincidence, Stu. The Kinks for me are one of those '60s bands that I lost interest in after the early '70s, so I haven't heard much of their stuff since then. I would love it if Ray Davies made a great album at age 72 or whatever he is now but I won't be holding my breath.

"Waterloo Sunset" is a classic, a standard. I must have heard it dozens of times, if not hundreds. The rest of the album was unknown to me.

Somewhere in the stuff I was reading on Wikipedia there was mention of "Waterloo Sunset" having been a hit in the UK but I didn't realize it was that big and had become a classic. If you like it, you'd probably enjoy this album, though like I said I think this is the best thing on it.

I heard all the Beatles and Rolling Stones and Otis Redding records as they came out in my mother's shop in Greenwich Village. But it looks like they never played The Kinks.

Of course I have heard Waterloo Sunset. But I have never heard of this album.

I’ve seen some comparisons of “Waterloo Sunset” and “Penny Lane” with the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”. The music, not the lyrics. I just listened to all three and I think I hear it, but I’m a musical illiterate and can’t say why that’s so.

So "Waterloo Sunset" is like the "Free Bird" of England? :-) :-) :-)

I think that's beyond me, too, Marianne.

Like, if you are playing your guitar before a big crowd they are sure to yell out, "Play Freebird!"

I know the hits (Waterloo Sunset, David Watts, Death of a Clown) but not the rest of the album. I listened to it at work today (to the extent I could) and enjoyed it quite a bit. I do prefer The Village Green Preservation Society, which was my gateway to the Kinks. I'm 48, and growing up I had always been aware of them and sort of liked them but never really paid attention. About 5 years ago I saw a link to "The Village Green Preservation Society" (I think it was on the Western Confucian blog). I loved the song bought the album. The a greatest hits. Then a few other albums - Give the People What They Want, Low Budget, Schoolboys in Disgrace, Muswell Hillbillies.

I think of the Kinks as one of my favorite bands based on what I know but they have a lot of music I don't know. Thanks for the nudge to listen to some more.

Having already said that there's a lot of their music I don't know, I doubt there can be any album better than Muswell Hillbillies. :)

I hesrd Kate Rusby sing The Village Green Preservation Society. I did not know its a Kinks song

I like the Kate Rusby cover, though I prefer the original. Maybe that's because I know that the original is the original.

If I had had to hazard a guess, I would have hazarded that 'Waterloo Sunset' was not by a group but by one of those early 70s singer-song writers like the chap who sang 'Streets of London'. Apparently this would have been an error.

For me to have noticed a record, the shopgirls would have had to play it, or my mother, or my brother, or by the time I was 14 or 15, it would have to be mentioned in NME (New Musical Express)

Yes, that would have been an error. The Kinks were one of the bigger names in the British Invasion, just below the Beatles and Stones, with more lasting appeal (and presumably talent) than those like the Dave Clark Five that faded pretty quickly.

If you were in the U.S. in 1971 or so you, surely you heard "Lola"? It was a big radio hit.

I heard Muswell Hillbillies a few times when it came out. I was working in a record store and we played it in the store some. I wasn't that taken with it. Probably should give it another try. Like so many things.

"Free Bird" btw for those who don't know is a Lynnrd Skynnrd song that's sort of a redneck anthem. It's almost a joke now to call for it whenever there's a band playing and people are drinking. There are probably a hundred copies of it on YouTube.

My family came here in 1963. By 1970 my parents had sent my brother and I back to England, to boarding schools. To Serve them (etc) was a nostalgia fest for me. In myboarding school we were aware of Top of the Pops (though we could not watch in the junior house) and some LPs

My brother and me. He was the musical one so it must be his dereliction if I lnow nothing of a record

Yep, he was falling down on the job if he failed to introduce you to the Kinks.

Thank you for noting "My brother and me". :-)

I've occasionally thought that this blog should be called the village green preservation society....

Lola was still a big deal when I was a kid in the 70s/80s. That's also a super fantastic album - Lola Versus Powerman something or other.

I wasn't very enthusiastic about it. I bought it when it came out, listened to it a few times, and I don't think I've listened to it since. If I gave it another chance it might be like a lot of albums of that time were for me--not as good as the artist's best, but pretty good if you can get over that expectation.

That would be a good name for a blog. In fact I bet there is one, or some kind of web site.

Yep. It's about...New Jersey?

Wasn't exactly sure where to post this, but here seemed as good a place as any.

I've been listening to a fair amount of 80s and 90s music, some of it new to me, prompted by my watching of the Ian Curtis biopic last month. One of the things I've been listening to is Ride's album Nowhere. For the longest time I thought I had heard this album back when it was released and didn't like it. Fact is, I'd never heard it -- what I had bought back in the early 90's was their album Smile, and I had inadvertently confused the two. For 25 years.

Gross error now corrected, I have to say "Holy cow!" Nowhere is fantastic. Now I understand why it's considered one of the best records of the early 90's. (I listened again to Smile as well. Apart from a couple songs I still don't like it much.)

There is a newish reissue of the album that includes a bonus DVD concert from 1992. I'll be ordering that soon, as the one I've been listening to for the past week is a library copy.

A similar thing happened to me about 20 years ago. I'd always liked the song "Bizarre Love Triangle" by New Order, but had it in my head that it was by Erasure, and I didn't know the song's title. So I sifted through album after album by Erasure attempting to track it down, with no luck.

One day I was talking with a girl at work who liked 80's music and I mentioned the song I was trying to find. I sang a bit of the chorus, and she said that it wasn't Erasure -- it was New Order. She didn't know the name of the song either, but at least I knew the band now. Got a copy of The Best of New Order out of the library, and presto!

Funny, I had a similar experience with Ride and Nowhere. I really like shoegaze a lot, a whole lot, and more than once I saw Nowhere listed as one of the best in that vein. I was mostly getting music from eMusic at the time (well, still am), and they didn't have Nowhere, but they had a live album. So I bought a few tracks from it and wasn't much taken with them, so I kind of forgot about them. Then somehow or other I heard Nowhere and really liked it, and agree that it's great.

It's interesting to compare the studio and live versions of "Seagull." There's nothing really wrong with the latter, and listening to it now I like it better than I did originally. But something's missing.

I don't know if I've heard that New Order song though the title sounds familiar.

"I don't know if I've heard that New Order song though the title sounds familiar."

I'm sure you have -- it's one of their biggies. The title really has nothing to do with the lyrics as far as I can tell.

I found it on YouTube but didn't recognize it. I see that was the mid-'80s. I didn't hear much music then that someone else didn't point out to me and my sources apparently weren't into them.

I see. They were the remaining members of Joy Division after Ian Curtis committed suicide -- they added a keyboard player and guitarist Bernard Sumner took over the vocals.

I knew they had been formed from Joy Division but they were described as "dance pop" and the like, so I didn't bother to check them out. Then much later I became acquainted with them by way of a slightly odd path: hearing a sort of trip-hop version of "Blue Monday" by Flunk, and reading that that was a New Order song. I have the album Power, Corruption, and Lies, which I like fairly well, some of it a lot.

Funny -- I have that Flunk album as well, and had forgotten 'Blue Monday' until I heard their re-do.

Re: Ride, I also have Going Blank Again, which I like about half of. I do think, however, that "Cool Your Boots" is one of the best songs to come out of that whole subgenre, and it's one of my favorite songs of the early 90's overall.

I'm surprised somebody else has heard Flunk. I like that album a lot (For Sleepyheads Only) but haven't heard anything else by them.

I haven't heard anything else by Ride except that live album, Live Light. I've gotten the impression elsewhere that Nowhere is far and away their best.

Their follow-up to 'Sleepyheads', 'Morning Star,' is very good. After that came 'Personal Stereo,' which was good, but not as good as the previous two. Haven't heard anything subsequent to that one.

I think I first heard of them via a track of theirs on some compilation album.

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