Kinks Kulture in the Early ’70s

A new box set commemorates a pair of classic albums from the legendary English band

The Kinks in the early ’70s (Image: Big Hassle)

The decade of the 1970s proved to be an “interesting” time for British Invasion favorites the Kinks.

Whereas they had scored five straight Top 40 albums in the U.K. circa 1964-67 (including three Top 10), they had enjoyed only modest commercial success in the U.S. due to an American Federation of Musicians’ ban on the band touring the states. After a pair of critically acclaimed but poorly selling albums (1968’s The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society and 1969’s Arthur), the band closed out the decade with the smash 1970 LP Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, touring the U.S. again for the first time in five years. The album’s controversial hit single, “Lola”, charted Top 10 in half a dozen countries and, 50 years later, is a staple of ‘Classic Rock’ radio. 

However, the Kinks found themselves without a record label after scoring one of the biggest hits of their career when their contracts lapsed with labels on both sides of the Atlantic. The band rebounded nicely, signing a five-album deal with RCA Records in 1971 and receiving a whopping (at the time) million-dollar advance, which they wisely invested into the construction of ‘Konk’, their own recording studio. The first two albums they delivered to RCA were 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies and the following year’s Everybody’s In Show Biz. The former LP found only modest success, hitting #100 on the Billboard album chart, whereas the latter performed slightly better, achieving a #70 chart peak. 

The insides of the new Kinks box (Image: BMG)

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of these oft-overlooked Kinks’ albums (more or less – Muswell Hillbillies was released in November 1971, Everybody’s In Show Biz in August ’72), both titles have been reissued in numerous formats by BMG Music (RCA’s parent company), remastered from the original master tapes recently unearthed by Kinks frontman Ray Davies. There are also new remixes of several songs added alongside the original tunes as bonus tracks. Muswell Hillbillies is arguably the stronger of the two albums, although with two LPs full o’ tunes, Everybody’s In Show Biz offers more bang for your buck.

Named for the north London suburb of Muswell Hill where Ray and Dave Davies grew up, Muswell Hillbillies features songs offering Ray’s lyrical observations on his childhood and the working class life in general. The album also marked the beginning of Davies’ fascination and, some would say, obsession with the “Music Hall” big band sounds of his youth. With Ray singing and playing guitar, and brother Dave providing lead guitar, banjo, and backing vocals, the Kinks line-up for the album featured longtime drummer Mick Avory, newish bassist John Dalton (who had replaced Pete Quaife), and new keyboardist John Gosling. The album also included the Mike Cotton Sound, a horn section that featured the group’s namesake on trumpet, along with trombonist John Beecham and saxophonist Alan Holmes. This same band line-up also recorded Everybody’s In Show Biz.

The album kicks off with a pair of Davies’ better songs – the Orwellian “20th Century Man” and the semi-autobiographical “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” – the first of which offers wry lyrical observations delivered vocally as low-key as possible (Davies’ voice often disappears altogether, creating an eerie vibe). Brother Dave’s accompanying guitar provides the song with a bluesy undercurrent, there are clashing acoustic axes, and the band’s rhythmic soundtrack veers towards prog-rock at times while Davies’ futuristic and, at times prescient lyrics paint a dystopian landscape. “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” is based on a jazzy, British Music Hall sound with greasy horns, slurred drunken vocals, and an overall unsettling ambiance that works well with the song’s introspective theme. “Holiday” covers similar lyrical territory in a similar style, albeit with less charm and vitality than its predecessor.

Much of what follows on Muswell Hillbillies is hit-or-miss depending on your tolerance for traditional English eccentricity and cultural musical tropes that were old news by the time that Ray Davies picked up on ‘em and started dancing. The syncopated rhythms and jaunty vocalization of “Skin and Bone” provides a bit of whimsy to the album while the jagged tones and satiric tongue-in-cheek moralizing of “Alcohol” sound like a cross between Reefer Madness and a Tim Burton movie. The country-flavored “Complicated Life” is lyrically brilliant and musically bold, with gorgeous guitars and a twangy sound that presaged the British pub-rock phenomena by a good couple of years. 

The Kinks Muswell Hillbillies, RCA 1971

The psychedelically-named “Here Come the People In Grey” is the second bona fide rocker on Muswell Hillbillies, with a bluesy, Rolling Stones-styled guitar riff joined by sleaze vocals, solid rhythms, big drumbeats, and just a bit of pub-rock Americana in the groove. The “People In Grey” in the lyrics are the faceless bureaucrats whose actions affect people’s lives, usually in a negative manner. The folk-rock styled “Holloway Jail” offers some fine electric guitarwork and passionate vocals in a tale of a woman falling in with a bad man and taking the rap for him. Musically, “Uncle Son” sounds a heck of a lot like the Grateful Dead, a clever country-rock amalgam with socially-conscious lyrics to match the comparison:

 

“Liberals dream of equal rights, conservatives lie in a world gone by;

Socialists preach of a promised land, but old Uncle Son was an ordinary man.”

 

The album closes with the raucous title track, Davies tongue once again firmly in cheek, twisting the western migration of British immigrants by dreaming of the homeland he never had:

 

“Cos I’m a Muswell Hillbilly boy, but my heart lies in old West Virginia;

Never seen New Orleans, Oklahoma, Tennessee;

Still I dream of the Black Hills that I ain’t ever seen…”

 

The song’s countrified soundtrack, while appropriate to the lyrics, seems to be based less on the Carter Family or Dock Boggs and more on what Davies thinks hillbilly music should sound like, without any firsthand experience or knowledge. It’s nevertheless a heck of a fun song, with Dave’s spry finger-picking and Ray’s enthusiastic vocals adding life and energy to the performance.

As mentioned above, Everybody’s In Show Biz was originally released as a two-album set, one disc comprised of new studio tracks, the other of live tracks from a March 1972 concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City. We music-greedy teen Kinks fans eagerly bought the album entirely on the strength of the wonderful “Celluloid Heroes” which, although it didn’t chart, nevertheless received heavy FM radio airplay at the time. Although the album has a handful of great moments, overall it was a disappointment for many fans, a somewhat alienating set from the band which wouldn’t redeem itself musically until 1977’s Sleepwalker album.

Much of Everybody’s In Show Biz is informed by the band’s stateside touring experience. “Here Comes Yet Another Day” is clearly concerned with the grind of roadwork, the band pursuing an Americana sound not dissimilar to Little Feat with R&B-charged horns and a country-tinged soundtrack. Davies’ brilliant chorus perfectly captures the mundane, repetitiveness of touring: “here comes a new day, here comes a new dawn, tune up start to play, just like any other day.” The bluesy, swaggering “Maximum Consumption” provides a sort of culinary travelogue while “Unreal Reality (The Real Thing)” swerves into oncoming traffic with a Music Hall styled backdrop peppered by brassy horns and busy, too dang busy lyrics with Ray trying to cram too many words into too few minutes of song.

“Hot Potatoes” is Davies’ second (of four, so far…) food-obsessed tunes here, his lady telling him that unless he gets a job and a “weekly workin’ wage” he’ll get no more of her “fancy cookin’,” the man responding that he’d be just as happy with “plain hot potatoes.” Sure … by the end, they’ve kissed and made up, but the song itself is a trifle that you’ll forget as soon as the needle moves on to (and beyond) “Sitting In My Hotel”, a wimpy Beatlesque ballad speaking of fame and its cost. The lively “Motorway” takes Ray’s newfound obsession with vittles to its limits, a hillbilly rave-up concluding that “you’ve never eaten food like you’ve eaten on the motorway, motorway food is the worst in the world…” 

The Kinks Everybody’s In Show Biz, RCA 1972

Dave Davies gets his moment here with “You Don’t Know My Name”, a smart observation on the anonymity of life on the road. Dave’s gritty vocals are perfectly suited to the song’s up-tempo arrangement, with fanciful guitarwork and an overall sound that crosses 1960s garage-rock with high lonesome, Canned Heat-styled blues-rock instrumentation. It’s easily the best second best song on Everybody’s In Show Biz, Dave vastly underrated as both a songwriter and guitarist. Although it barely charted in the states, the exotic, island-flavored “Supersonic Rocket Ship” returned the Kinks to the Top 10 in the U.K. It’s a fine song, with imaginative fretwork and jazzy horn-play. 

While the horn-fueled “Music Hall” leanings of “Look A Little On the Sunny Side” is a bit much for my American ears, the song’s lyrical condemnation of the British music press offers such delicious barbs as “they’ll give you mediocre reviews, and put you in the underground for a while” and “you sing ‘em the blues, and then they ask for a happy tune; and when you start to smile, they’ll say gimme dat rhythm and blues.” The hauntingly beautiful “Celluloid Heroes” is an understated slab of pure Ray Davies genius. Above a delicate, reverent soundtrack, Davies mourns the loss of the silver screen stars of yesteryear like Greta Garbo, Bela Lugosi, Bette Davis, and Rudolph Valentino, victims to the grinding gears of fame, an epitaph that he realizes will one day fall on his band and himself.

“Celluloid Heroes” is one of Davies’ most insightful and perfectly-delivered songs, one that redeems the uneven quality of what comes before it on the album. I wish the same could be said for the live disc which, by contrast, is too clever by half. With eleven songs – five of ‘em from Muswell Hillbillies – the track list certainly could have been more balanced, instead favoring Davies’ hysterical theatrics over pure rock ‘n’ roll. “Tops of the Pops”, from Lola, is a mid-tempo rocker, with keen guitar and a heavy rhythmic track while “Brainwashed”, from the Arthur album, is an up-tempo R&B raver complete with spectacular horns. It’s all downhill from here, the Muswell songs imbued with the sort of brassy, throwback sound that Davies heard on the radio as a youth. The band signs off with an obligatory performance of “Lola” which relies more on audience call-and-response than anything the band is playing (with Ray AWOL for the performance…). Considering its merits (or lack thereof), the live half of Everybody’s In Show Biz was too weak to have been released on vinyl on its own. 

The newly-remastered BMG reissues certainly benefit from the advances in recording technology over the past half-century. Davies does yeoman’s work in preserving the charm of the original tracks, enhancing them by bringing heretofore unheard aspects to the foreground. Muswell Hillbillies is brighter and more immediate as an album, songs like “Alcohol” and “Skin and Bone” taking on a new vitality now that you can hear the album’s fuller instrumentation. Ditto for Everybody’s In Show Biz, which is buoyant and livelier, the remastering revealing some tasty, once-hidden Dave Davies’ git licks. 

Show Biz was a notoriously fuzzy-sounding album, but the new jam enhances the emotion and poignancy of “Celluloid Heroes”. Even the live tracks sound better, fuller, more intimate with rockers like “Top of the Pops” and “Brainwashed” leaping out of your speakers, shaking their fists. As for Davies’ “2022 mixes” of several songs, they’re neither here nor there … the remastered versions sound perfectly fine. The addition of the previously-unreleased “Traveling With My Band” is pretty cool, though, the song a country-tilting jam with a guitar riff nicked from Pure Prairie League but with street-smart, ‘slice-of-life’ lyrics that are colorful and literary. It’s a good song and a real gem that should have been released as a single in 1971.      

The late John Kordosh reviewed the band’s career for Creem magazine in August 1980 with an article titled “Kinks Kulture Now and Then.” Of Muswell Hillbillies, he retrospectively wrote “this would be a good time to start a ‘Ray Davies is dead’ rumor. Not much on Muswell Hillbillies sounds like the last six LPs. Overbearing horn sections, soon to be a dominant feature in Kinks product, begin to make their insidious presence felt. Davies is starting to carp about his mental problems on tunes like “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” and “Holiday.” This will also become a cockroach in the spaghetti sauce over the next few years.” The legendary Creem scribe liked Everybody’s In Show Biz even less, stating that the album “is one of the most wretched examples of excess in a business of wretched excess,” concluding that “this album is stupid, humorless, gaudy, still available, sounds like shit, and made #70.”

Luckily, for the band, other rock critics lacked Kordosh’s insight and ninja sarcastic skills (or else they remained starstruck by the British Invasion band’s pedigree and accomplishments). In The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, either Billy Altman or John Swenson wrote of Muswell Hillbillies that “Davies’ songwriting talents helped produce an album that stands as his signature statement” but later pointed out that “Davies’ infatuation with theatricality, however, soon began to dominate the groups records” and that Everybody’s In Show Biz “was the first Kinks album in a long time with any truly weak tracks.” 

 

VIDEO: The Kinks perform “Muswell Hillbilly” on Beat Club 

Robert Christgau, in his Village Voice “Consumer Guide” column, gave both albums a grade of ‘B+’, writing of the former, “because the Kinks Klaque hyped this as a great album when a simple perusal of the lyrics revealed more of the same olde alienation, I overreacted violently, but in an unsentimental retrospect I can hear it, and I do mean hear. Most of its charms are in the casual-to-messy eclecticism with which it revives time-honored effects from the music hall and the mod era and even the mountains, and in the dotty good humor of Ray Davies’s singing…”

Regardless of the albums’ critical acclaim, both Muswell Hillbillies and Everybody’s In Show Biz were important, transitional works for the Kinks, a bridge between the shambolic ‘60s and the hard rock ’80s, when they would enjoy their greatest commercial success with albums like Low Budget (1979), Give the People What They Want (1981), and State of Confusion (1983). Muswell Hillbillies is the better of the two albums (deserving of Christgau’s ‘B+’), the songs delivered with vision and precision. Although “Celluloid Heroes” is one of my personal ‘Top Five’ Kinks tunes, Everybody’s In Show Biz is more inconsistent overall, but both albums have their charms and fans that appreciate each.

As is industry standard at this time, the 50th anniversary editions of Muswell Hillbillies and Everybody’s In Show Biz are available in multiple formats; your choice will depend on the depth of your pockets, the strength of your investment portfolio, and just exactly how much “dinero” you’re willing to spend on a pair of mid-tier albums by a legendary band. The “deluxe box set” includes both albums on six (6) vinyl LPs, four (3) CDs, a Blu-Ray disc with Ray’s 1971 “home movie,” a 52-page book, and other collectible goodies along with a score of remixes that will set you back a pair of C-notes. 

Both albums are also available individually on vinyl and compact disc, remastered from the newly-discovered original master tapes; for the more budget-minded among you, a two-disc set with both albums and bonus tracks in ‘hardback book’ packaging is available at a reasonable price. Pick your poison and experience a taste of “Kinks Kulture” from a bygone era…   

 

Apologies to J. Kordosh for the (mis)use of his excellent Creem magazine article title…

 

 

 

 

 

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Rev. Keith A. Gordon

RockandRollGlobe contributor Rev. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with 40+ years experience writing for publications like Blues Music magazine and Blurt. Follow him on Twitter @reverendgordon.

3 thoughts on “Kinks Kulture in the Early ’70s

  • September 16, 2022 at 3:42 pm
    Permalink

    Two things… Pretty sure the ‘live’ tracks from ‘Show Biz’ were recorded at Carnegie Hall.
    Also think the lyric to ‘’… Another Day” is “Here comes a new *dawn*
    Here comes a new day.”

    Reply
    • September 18, 2022 at 10:37 am
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      What a thoughtful consideration of these great, great records. And I agree with commenter Drew that it sounds like dawn/day not day/day. Great stuff.

      Reply
    • September 18, 2022 at 11:52 am
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      This has been fixed.

      Reply

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