Reflecting on the UK greats’ late ’70s classic
Misfits is sort of The Kinks’ comeback album, ending a seven-year stretch of increasing commercial irrelevance and baroque musical exploration that led them away from their rock sweet spot and the hook-bearing melodies of their initial success.
As a songwriter, Ray Davies always had a talent for character studies that explored the tightly interwoven outcomes of human nature and society with satiric wit and empathy, best exemplified by their 1970 hit “Lola.” As a band, The Kinks also had a gift for effortlessly infectious rock ‘n’ roll melodies (“You Really Got Me,” “Til the End of the Day”) and elegant beauty (“Sunny Afternoon,” “Waterloo Sunset”).
They were there with The Who and The Beatles with their own mid-60s concept albums (1966’s Face to Face, 1968’s Village Green Preservation Society, and 1969’s Arthur (Or the Rise and Fall of the British Empire)), but as the ’60s faded into the ’70s, Davies kept on churning out song cycles. Their overall quality is for others to debate, but it undoubtedly put The Kinks on the outs with the buying public and hence their corporate masters.
The critical disagreement on these albums centers on how well they came together musically and conceptually from Everybody’s in Showbiz, Preservation Acts I & II, Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace. But certainly as they wandered freely stylistically and arrangements grew more ambitious, the band lost a grip on their rock ‘n’ roll raison-d’etre and its immediacy. There’s cleverness and some great songs, but the lyrical/sonic excess short-changed melody and cohesiveness.
Continuing the return to rock inaugurated on 1977’s Sleepwalker, Misfits also in a small way picked up the sort of midlife-crisis/identity themes of that album, as expressed on “Juke Box Music,” “Life on the Road” and “Life Goes On.” Note each of those songs cross the five-minute mark. Even if it’s a rock-oriented, some bombast remains. The editing was better by Misfits, with not a single track crossing five minutes and four clocking under four.
(They’d get even tighter on Low Budget, with as many songs under three minutes as over four (three), as Davies fashioned a series of songs about financial struggles. It sold even better, presumably partly on the strength of Misfits’ rave reviews because the songs aren’t as strong.)
It helps that Misfits‘ conceptual conceit is so readily expressed. Each of the ten tracks deals with some form of social dislocation or ostracism whether imposed by “Hay Fever,” their own iniquity (the tax exile of “In A Foreign Land”), or the feared arrival of a “Black Messiah” by “the only honky on an all black street,” all Side 1 tracks.
The hit, “A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy,” which reached #30 on the charts (their best showing since “Lola”), feels like the justification to the questions of Sleepwalker, identifying the odd yet powerful community offered by music: “When he feels the world is closing in, he turns his stereo way up high.” Davies counters this idea of music as an escapist fantasy with the suggestion it’s just the opposite, “I don’t know, I feel free and I won’t let go,” though there’s clearly a level of ambivalence on Davies’ part about music’s role in people’s lives.
Yet across the second side of the album, Ray Davies (with help from brother Dave’s contribution, “Trust Your Heart”) begins to fashion a case for just being yourself. Indeed in the spirit of straight-talk that prevails after the metaphor-stuffed concept albums, he sings in the chorus of “Live Life” that “You gotta live life and be yourself, you can’t live life for anyone else… Carry on, it’s all you can do.” If only every bit of useful life advice were yoked to a punchy rhythm and power chords!
In keeping with Davies’ talent for LGBT themes, the album’s great unsung hit is the delightful “Out of the Wardrobe,” beating Paul Westerberg by five years (“Androgynous”) to rhyming a cross-dressing Dick with chick (“Anybody here seen a chick called Dick / He looks really girly but he’s really hip”).
Unlike the early tracks whose characters greet their fish-out-of-water status with fear and dismay, Dick’s mastered this life on life’s outskirts and in doing so offers example to us all: “He’s only being what he wants to be / Now his life is rearranged and he’s grateful for the change / He’s out of the wardrobe and he’s got no regrets.” Even his wife’s cool with it. “She says it helps their relationship, she says a change is as good as a rest.”
It’s followed by the only Dave Davies track, the beautiful, slow unfolding (but still rock) ballad, “Trust Your Heart,” which affirms the present with its avocation, “be as the flower that unfolds with each day.”
The album concludes with fist-in-the-air, jangly guitar throbber “Get Up,” with an argument that feels every bit as relevant today: “Get out of your easy chairs, we’ve got a lot to do out there, well ain’t we?” Like any resistance song, it’s got soul in its bones with a rumbling Big Easy rhythm that arrives near the end.
While Davies and The Kinks would release eight more albums before calling it quits in 1996, they would never release another album as fun, catchy and intelligent from front-to-back as Misfits. (Low Budget is close.) There’s plenty of variety and no filler, every track worthy and distinct.
While it didn’t receive a lot of airplay, you could still hear the title track on AOR stations for years afterwards. It’s really a pretty song in a succulent wash of synthesizers, with a hummable melody and a winning message – “This is your chance, this is your time / So don’t throw it away, you can have your day” – because “take a good look around, the misfits are everywhere.”