“The thing about The Kinks is that I’m a really big fan,” Ray Davies, the leader of the rock legends and its principal songwriter, told me when I caught up with him last fall.
“The Kinks always defied genre. We were our own genre. We were unpredictable and our music was really varied.”
That unpredictability, and the varied nature of the band’s catalog, is on full display in a clutch of recent releases. There’s the 5-CD The Anthology: 1964-1971, as well as the first of what should be a long line of exciting releases under a deal with Sony, The Essential Kinks and high resolution digital releases of The Kinks’ catalog from the early-1970s onwards, as well as an expanded version of 1971s Muswell Hilbillies.
“Muswell Hillbillies was a complete reinvention,” Davies told me of the album that reintroduced The Kinks to America in a big way, after being banned from performing in the U.S. stemming from a dispute with the musician’s union here. “It was the first real record that we made after our ban from performing in America was lifted.”
“The ban came about in the mid 60s, as I like to say, from a a mixture of bad management, bad luck and bad behavior. We couldn’t work in America for nearly four years. But with that album I went back to my roots, in a place called Holloway in England, where my family came from. It was like we discovered a new identity in the suburbs of North London. It was a chance to retrace our origins. That’s why we called it Muswell Hillbillies. It’s based on very factual people. There were tracks called Uncle Son and Holloway Jail. It’s like a rock documentary in many respects.”
The recent expanded CD/DVD deluxe edition of Muswell Hillbillies, The Kinks’ 1971 masterpiece of working class social observation, remains a unique musical statement, remarkably relevant in today’s world. Newly remastered from the original analog tapes, it includes the original album in its entirety as well as nine bonus tracks (seven of them previously unavailable), alongside a DVD of rare 1972 television appearances.
And fittingly for a writer whose work has certainly stood the test of time, Davies is unabashed in his fondness for the work.
“20th Century Man is one of my favorite performance pieces when I perform my music even now,” he admits. “It’s about urban renewal. They knocked down the area where my parents grew up and rehoused people. I had this imaginary character sitting in the last house with dynamite strapped to his body saying, ‘You can’t come near me’ while he’s fighting off property developers. I put myself into character in that song. It’s a character I still feel strongly aligned to in many respects. It’s an angry record, a poetic record.”
“Muswell Hillbillies is to me one of our key albums,” Ray’s brother, and The Kinks’ lead guitarist, Dave Davies told me when we sat down for several hours in New York City a few months ago.
“It uses a lot of different blends of genres of music. I liked the mix of genre. I couldn’t play it, but I grew up listening to and loved Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt. My dad had a G banjo, and I loved to play around on that. My brother-in-law made a Hawaiian-like guitar for me, too. It was amazing. It made me play things a bit more ‘country,’ and it added a different emotional dimension to the songs.”
“Those old Hank Williams records, when the slide guitar or pedal comes in, have amazing tones and sounds. There’s a lot of emotion.”
Dave Davies also had keen ears for what was going on around him at the time, drawing inspiration from The Band in formulating his guitar parts and approach during the making of Muswell Hillbillies.
“I loved The Band,” he admits. “I loved them even more when I found out The Band was inspired by The Kinks. When you think just on the surface the two bands are so dissonant. But the more you listen, it’s like this undercurrent.”
Fittingly, like The Band’s music, the songs on Muswell Hillbillies hold up remarkably well, and began a long line of songs by Ray Davies that were inspired by American roots music.
“There’s a track called Oklahoma U.S.A. that I was just rehearsing to play the other day,” Ray Davies tells me. “It’s a great homage to the great American landscape movies. As (Ray’s 2013 book) Americana points out, my first impressions of America were through movies, the great heroes in the old black and white movies.”
Ray says that, like his brother, he was impacted by the rise of The Band, and that he took those cues while developing the songs and feel of the record.
“‘Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues is pure Dixieland,” Davies says. “I engaged a Dixieland horn section to play on that record. Holloway Jail is country blues. It’s definitely rock influenced by Dixieland. In New Orleans I became friends with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and they said in an interview that a lot of my songs have been played as jazz songs. One of their horn players said that he couldn’t believe it.”
“One day they were on the street, and there was a busking band on the street playing Alcohol, from Muswell Hillbillies. There’s a complete acknowledgement of American popular music, folk and blues… Complicated Life was covered by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. They did a great version of it.”
As for the bonus tracks included on the new release, they’re hardly throwaways. In fact, Ray seems quite fond of some of them.
“There was a track called Kentucky Moon,” he tells me. “It’s not like the old rock song. I really love the first lyric: “Never been anywhere south of the Delaware.” I don’t know what that means geographically or whatever, but it sounds good.”