The Kinks - Something Else By The Kinks - Review
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critics' view

Ray Davies had just begun exploring this rich vein of character-driven songwriting when the band’s fifth official LP Something Else came out in 1967. The liner notes of the U.S.-only Kinkdom (1965) imagined the Kinks as “national heroes” of a land of mods, where there are no “waltzes, acne, grinds, anemia, eggplant, curfews, alarm clocks, violins, loneliness, diets, make-up exams, squares, callouses, [or] losers,” but within a year, Ray had begun building a lyrical world that encompassed all those things. The band’s previous album, 1966’s Face to Face, was the turning point, when Ray decided to make music entirely in his own image rather than for an imagined audience of mods.

The story is that Ray began writing the songs when he was coming out from under a nervous breakdown, presumably brought on by too much high life. On Face to Face, they include songs in the voice of a toff (“Dandy”), and more significantly, a ruined toff (the trio of “House in the Country,” “Most Exclusive Residence for Sale,” and “Sunny Afternoon”). The theme of failure shades the record, from the downmarket protests “Party Line” to the oceanically sad “Too Much on My Mind” to the elegiac “I’ll Remember.” Musically, Face to Face still hews very much to rock’n’roll, although the old sounds of music hall are beginning to creep in. Something Else, by contrast, is deeply and thoroughly colored by the musical past.

In 1960s Britain, music hall was the sound of the grandparents’ generation, but it was still a living thing. Your mods would have seen relics of the scene sharing stages with the forebears of beat music Cliff Richard and the Shadows. Music hall is not a style or a genre as much as it is an enormous circus tent, which takes in the demonically earworming sing-songs of the 1890s, the ragtime that started coming in around 1910, the various jazz forms that arrived after the Great War, children’s songs, saloon-bar ballads, patriotic anthems, and the often dark and even noir lounge-crooner styles that prevailed during the 1930s. Most significant beat combos had their stab at the form at some point, including the Who (parts of “A Quick One, While He’s Away”), the Stones (“Something Happened to Me Yesterday”), and the Beatles (“Yellow Submarine,” at least half of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and much, much more). Music hall was not only redolent of grandparents, and memories of stacked bills seen at the Kursaal in the late ’40s; it also suited the thrift-shop look that mods started sporting when they remade themselves as hippies, from top hats to ballgowns to brass-band uniforms.

Although Something Else is colored by music hall and its historical coevals, its explicit musical references are few: the galloping, Cossack-dance “David Watts”; the closing-time singalong “Harry Rag”; the oleaginous “End of the Season,” on which Ray sometimes sounds as if he’s singing through a megaphone. Nothing on the record is as proudly and emphatically nostalgic as the next single the band produced, “Autumn Almanac,” let alone the next album, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. And even though this was a time when the musical vocabulary was expanding dramatically and rock’n’roll had receded to become merely one of a vast selection of stylistic possibilities, the word that popped up in almost every contemporaneous review of Something Else was “nostalgia.”

What is nostalgic about Something Else is something that runs far deeper than mere style. As much as Face to Face was concerned with ruin and failure, this album is about loss; the passage of time hovers over every cut. The loss is personal, historical, societal, existential, even anticipatory. While the momentum of change was sweeping across Western society, gathering the steam that would result in a wave of abortive revolutions the following year, four guys in their early 20s were meditating on the transience of all things. They don’t seem especially reactionary about it—they do remain hippie mods, after all. And they are not protesting change, at least not yet; their attitude toward the historical past is rather more nuanced. The so-called Little Englanders that are evoked tend toward the pathetic: the easily-mocked conformist (“Tin Soldier Man”), the man whose life is systematically destroyed by his mother-in-law (“Situation Vacant”), the degenerate smokers in “Harry Rag” (which is rhyming slang for “fag,” as in cigarette).

Even the paragon David Watts, the schoolboy hero character, does not quite exemplify the Edwardian Boy’s Own verities. He spurns the girls’ advances ostensibly because he is “of pure and noble breed,” but really because he is “gay and fancy-free.” There’s “Afternoon Tea,” a hard-sell promotion for that ritual, as if it were endangered. But it is “Death of a Clown,” a rare collaboration by Ray and his brother Dave, that truly tolls the bell for the demoted ex-empire. The lions and tigers have given up, the fleas have deserted, no one bothers to get their fortunes read anymore, so we might as well break up the crown.

An even deeper loss is inscribed in “Two Sisters,” a memorial to the sacrifice of autonomy. The single sister looks into her mirror on a rising note, the married sister into the washing machine on a falling one; among triumphal chords, the married sister imagines her sibling’s liberty, then muted resolution arrives as she regards her children. An analogue to the carefree party-going single sister (who turns up in various guises in the Kinks’ repertoire, e.g. “Polly” and “Big Black Smoke”) can perhaps be glimpsed in Dave’s “Funny Face,” her “pill-shaped eyes” now blurred behind frosted hospital glass, access to her forbidden by doctors, and although Dave is insistent that she’s “all right,” we don’t entirely believe him.

At this point, Ray is still tinkering with the Tin Pan Alley dictum that every song be required to accommodate romance, but he is doing increasingly odd things with the assignment. “No Return” is a bossa nova, the last word in middle-class drinks music, evocative of sandy beaches bestrode by young women in colorful wraps, but it casts its heartbreak in the subjunctive (it begins with the word “if”). It only broaches the declarative in its non-bossa nova bridge with few quintessentially Ray bars that appear like a parenthesis. “End of the Season” superficially pretends to concern itself with lost love, but it’s really a portrait of a rich twat who has been cast into the cold by time, too old for the “chicks” and too right-wing for clubland. Ray affixes an audible pencil mustache, pushes his larynx upward to achieve a croon, and lets fall the crocodile tears. “Lazy Old Sun” romantically teases the listener with its gliding notes, double-tracked answering lines, and fervent chorus, but, like Mayakovsky and Frank O’Hara, Ray is literally addressing the sun. As he once said, it’s a joke, but it’s also not.

But true love does appear, resoundingly, on the record’s concluding number and hit single, “Waterloo Sunset.” American listeners perhaps did not appreciate that Waterloo is a large and not terribly picturesque train station, but they instinctively understood how the song binds together the ordinary and the transcendent. For all the talk about how Terry and Julie were Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in Far From the Madding Crowd, they were fill-ins (“I wanted to use the names Bernard and Dorothy,” Ray claimed to Jonathan Cott in 1970). “Waterloo Sunset” is a hymn to the kind of workaday beauty that lies beneath notice but can hold its own in the cosmos. It makes the heart swell, and unlike most such pop songs does not turn out to consist mostly of corn syrup. Coming at the end of this album of romantically buoyant mourning, “Waterloo Sunset” is both immediate and far removed, forever contemplating its loss even as it celebrates its actuality.

Luc Sante
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