The Kinks were my favorite Rock & Roll band while I grew up during the 60's. They ended up outlasting all the British Invasion bands except the Stones. And many would agree they ended up equalling even the Beatles as songwriters & rock icons, although without quite their celebrity status.
This page is specifically about their 1965 album The Kink Kontroversy. It goes into the album in some depth, and raises my contention that it was a unique, and even landmark album. But first, I should probably get everyone up-to-speed on some basic R&R history. That is, just who were The Kinks?
For those who didn't follow the early band closely, or only heard 'em later in their career, here's some early background from Nik Cohn's '69 book Rock... from the Beginning. It gives some good insight into Ray Davies and the early Kinks, so I'll defer to it here:
"The Kinks started out like they'd be the worst of all, but wound up being easily the best.
They came out in ridiculous red hunting coats, and they had long ratty hair like everyone else, and live, they only sounded bad. Their first records were predictable dogs. But then Ray Davies, the singer, started writing their singles for them, and he was good.
Davies has never been fashionable; he has always been greatly scorned by hipsters and hippies everywhere, but almost everything he's done has been a hit, and I'd rate him very high indeed.
Whatever else, he's been an original: he has his own areas, his own private progressions, and nothing intrudes, nothing deflects him. At all times, he is entirely separate from the rest of pop; he does his walkabouts by himself. And, as pop in general has gotten more complex, so he's gotten simpler, always more childlike, until his songs have become pared as nursery rhymes.
His lyrics are all understatements, small simplistic slogans, and he use bass line like trombones, trundling along like so many elephants, and fast falsetto hooks over the top. His own voice is flat and awkward, quavering along like some pop George Formby. The whole thing is lopsided, crablike, one step from chaos, but somehow it balances out, it makes sense.
He writes about nothing much: streets and houses and pubs, days at the seaside, little bits of love, drabness and thing that don't change -- stuff like that. Mostly he writes about small lives, small pleasures, and he's an open romantic but there's always a slyness in it, some self-mockery ("As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise").
With his gappy teeth and his grin all twisted, he looks clownish, and he seems more doubtful, unsure of himself, so that you expect him to split his pants or trip over his feet at any time. He even wears white socks. And he's childlike (not childish); he has the most intense butterfly concentration; he'll get all wrapped up in something one moment and be equally obsessed by something new the next.
With the Kinks being my all-time favorite band, you might think I'd put up a page full of album reviews. Nope! There are many such reviews online. And although they can be helpful, I tend to see them as diffuse and repetitious. My general advice for both new fans and those further investigating the Kinks early (60's) material is to simply... just listen... to any of their first dozen albums. They're all worthwhile, and have stood the test of time quite well.
Instead, I'd rather share an (original?) insight I had of their early work here. It came to me many years ago. Having never read anything similar elsewhere, I offer it for your consideration. Whether valid, or totally off-the-wall -- you be the judge. And you needn't be an "old" fan to play along.
My thesis is that The Kink Kontroversy is not simply a transitional Kink's album, but is the first Rock album with a theme, and thus a precursor to future "concept albums". While not conceptually written as such, it none-the-less has enough traits to qualify (IMHO). It's also quite a landmark album for the lyrical influence it brought to Rock's evolution.
Ye Olde Art School Boys Get Busy
Like many of their fellow rockers from the original British Invasion of '63-64, the Kinks came out of art schools. In those earliest days they played old blues, (Mersey)beat and R&B before experimenting with new sounds & styles, and forever changing Rock music. Today, many of those experimentations may seem like minor developments, but they were quite radical at the time.
In fact, looking back, the paramount aspect of Rock & Roll music during the mid-to-late 60's was it's evolution and growth. There were a myriad of contributions that moved music to new places, eventually leading to the Progressive movement where there were new instrumentations, deeper lyrical content, and infusions of folk, classical, and jazz styles. Some R&R fans welcomed such developments. Other's didn't, seeing it as moving away from rock's roots and into artificiality.
Among the many such early progressive experimentations & developments also came the "theme" & "concept" album, and the "Rock Opera." It's something we now take for granted (music albums with central themes). But, boys and girls, there actually was a time when... they didn't exist! So, just where did they come from?
A Little Help From My Friends... I'm a Rock
Many credit Frank Zappa's first album, Freak Out (66), as the first Rock album that didn't just throw a bunch of varied songs together. And although it's true that Freak Out has an overall sensibility of something larger, there's no direct story or cohesive concept expressed there, per se. It's certainly not even close to what Frank did with his next few albums in thematic breadth & complexity... all highly original, if not truly revolutionary.
But Freak Out did influence many others in the rock world, not least being the Beatles, who produced Sgt Pepper the following (67) year. (confirmed by Paul in his recent book). Sgt Pepper certainly was a landmark album, although it's thematic sense was not totally inclusive. But it did influence Rock as much as anything up till then, helping move Rock towards even fiercer experimentation, new sounds, and new styles. And among such styles emerged Concept Albums, and the more "proper" Rock Opera.
Fiddling About with Burning Balloons
Most Rock musicologists generally agree that The Pretty Thing's SF Sorrow (68) was the first "Rock Opera" -- using Rock & Roll to tell a story via songs on a complete album. The Who's Tommy (69) remains the best known of this genre today. And in the realm of such "concept" albums, The Kinks themselves are likewise identified with Arthur, their great '69 album about the British Empire (which was named album of the decade by Fusion magazine in 1970).
Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (74) was probably the most sophisticated and fully-realized work from this new rock sub-genre. By then Rock had evolved to where such albums were seen under the umbrella of "Progressive Rock" rather than in the "classic" R&R camp. And many (most?) bands... from Jethro Tull to Pink Floyd dabbled in the genre. Some just for long suite-like songs, and others for full albums.
But what album really started it all? Ah ...back to our Kontroversy.
The Kink Kontroversy
The Kink Kontroversy was the Kinks 3'rd British album... their 5'th American one. The reason for that difference is the British practice of not always duplicating singles & EPs onto LP's. The album is under 30 minutes long... short by today's standards, but quite normal for pop records in the 60's. The dozen songs on it were written in the summer & fall of '65, and the album was released in Dec '65.
The Kink Kontroversy was a kinda end of the early Kinks R&B influenced sound. It encompassed their upbeat Rhythm & Blues with more reflective ballad styles. Following it would come a more refined sound... often quieter, but also never far from their hard rocking roots. But it's also important for the lyrical content -- a change to a wholly new, more pensive and reflective style. Often sly & sardonic, it helped change pop and rock music, and would raise Ray Davies to one of the top songwriters of his generation.
Well Respected Men
It should be noted that the Kinks' hit single "A Well Respected Man" was released in Sept '65, yet is not on this album. One could easily envision this album being named that. In fact, that title would (sarcastically) echo the underlying theme of this album (that is, if you buy into my premise).
But "A Well Respected Man" was not initially welcomed by Ray's publishing company. It was neither a pop-rocker, nor a pop-love song (that is, commercial). There are other such tunes on Kontroversy, and one could even say it's why it wascontroversial. In fact, it's such lyrical development that's part of this album's historical importance. More on this shortly.
Ray would litter the next year (66) with many such (non-love song) singles, all with the same slight sarcasm and cynicism -- Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, Sunny Afternoon, I'm Not Like Everybody Else, Dead End Street. As solid a streak of tunes as any in the Kinkdom. Proof that Ray Davies was a true musical talent and genius, and an early indication of how special the Kinks' future would be. All of their subsequent LP's would be klassics.
A Klassic... or Something Else?
The Kink Kontroversy is not fully such a Kinks classic, although many of it's tunes are. But perhaps it possesses something as important. Is this '65 album an unheralded initial foray into a whole new style of Rock? Understand, even Ray may not have intended it as such (?)... but it's there IMHO.
By mid-65 the Kinks were already recognized as top songwriters, with a solid string of hits. But few realized just how prolific and unparalleled they would become, remaining at the top for well into the 70's and beyond. They would equal, if not surpass every pop-rock band of their day; and that includes the Beatles, for both the amount and quality of original songs. By comparison, The Beatles in '65 were still working in more poppy forms of rock. Their albums Help (8/65) and Rubber Soul (12/65) were primarily all love songs, with the glaring exception of Nowhere Man. And not to be mistaken here... quite wonderful love songs (for instance, In My Life).
Although Kontroversy is also laden with love songs, it has many others more in the vein of their single A Well Respected Man, which was a new area, one of social commentary. Certainly Bob Dylan was the prime early force when it comes to moving pop lyrics into such new directions, but the Beatles and Kinks are prime early leaders as well. It's worth remembering here that all the major pop artists listened to each other, so there was a definite cross-pollination when it came to musical styles, sounds & song themes. Ray Davies often gets less credit than he deserves (with the fog of time), but this album is proof that he was ahead of most all his peers, including John & Paul.
But beyond the relative hipness & maturity of the songs, the album itself is different from others of it's day. If you listen closely, The Kink Kontroversy is an album of songs that are arranged in an interesting order. How interesting? Well, they form a coherent story, and although there are no overt characters (aside from the singer), the album does have as much a theme & concept as many subsequent albums by others. Heck, one could even call it an OPERA of sorts. It has an emotional beginning, conflict (of sorts), and a resolution. And like a traditional opera, it's about love-won, and more importantly... love-lost.
For those not familiar with all the songs, I'll go through them in their original order with brief commentary. You can then... judge for yourself.
The album opens with a great version of the John Estes R&B song Milk Cow Blues. This cut was reportedly recorded in a single take, an indication the Kinks had already grown into very proficient musicians. Ray had always included songs in the Kinks' earlier albums that were written by others... primarily R&B, old blues, & Chuck Berry tunes. This was to be the last such album, with this song. And although it's not a Davies tune, it's a unique and brilliant version. In fact it's one of the Kink's best cuts... of all time!
It wasn't just groups like the Yardbirds and Animals that had their Blues-influenced style propel R&R toward the "hard-rock" of future years -- what would evolve into the various "heavy" blues, boogie, and metal rock forms that would shortly became mainstream. The Kinks were as influential as any band during this early ('64-65) Rock period. Anyone who thinks You Really Got Me was an isolated early influence, should listen to the energy and attitude here.
The song starts with a "typical blues" message: "I'm leaving you 'cause I found somebody new... & you're gonna be sorry... " and sets the stage for our story. But musically, it's way beyond your typical slow & whiney blues fare (of it's day). The song's underlying emotion is of sexual tension, and that's what carries the day here... in spades. The fundamental message that opens this story is: here's a young guy, falling out of love & feeling sexually frustrated, and looking for satisfaction elsewhere. This song starts his saga as we follow his psyche and emotional rollercoaster through the songs that follow.
Ring The Bells is sung in a slow style that sounds somber, although the lyrics are of dizzyingly dreamy bliss. Indeed, the words are of elation. The singer has blissfully fallen in love, an inevitable occurrence following the emotional breakup of the previous song. He's indeed left the old for the new, and now all is well with the world.
Shout out, tell the world I'm in love .... This girl said she's mine So let the bells ring loud and clear
The next song Gotta Get The First Plane Home, is a pretty typical (early Stones-like) R&B song, but it continues the mood of the prior song. Here the singer's fully in love with his girl.
There's a little girl who's waiting there for me Love her till my dying day And when I die you'll hear me say I love that girl for eternity
When I See That Girl Of Mine has a melody that's pretty much second rate fair for Ray, sounding more like some of his earliest Mersey-sounding songs. What saves it is the bridge, something that Ray has consistently written better than any songwriter. The lyrics express the same mood as the previous one... uplifting feelings of being in love.
Can't you see she's the only girl for me? And when people look at me they can see They can see... they can see... they can see!
The next 2 songs encompass the main "crisis point" in the storyline.
I Am Free's lyrics foreshadow a whole new revolutionary change for R&R in general. It's an early entree into lyrical subjects beyond the simple love song. We're now (The Kinks) moving R&R (progressing) into issues of society, freedom, and philosophy. It wasn't just Dylan & the Beatles that spearheaded this new characteristic of Rock's evolution, but the Kinks helped lead it as well. In fact, the rest of the album continues further down this new road. And it's partly why the album is historically more important than many may realize.
Thematically, the dirge-like bluesy rhythm is the first thing that alerts us to a change of emotion. The lyrics then reinforce it. The song provides a stark contrast from what's come before. The protagonist is now speaking from his weary soul, which is now without the love that was so impassionately expressed in the previous songs. He's now free, or at least is feeling lost and perhaps not wanting to admit it's over. He's not emotionally back to the "frustrated" world of cut one (yet?) -- he's more in a bleak, bluesy funk... more wistfully sad, than angry and frustrated.
Doors are open wide, no credits to be seen Sail with me my friend I need someone, it's dark and it could get lonely I am free
Till The End of the Day is (arguably) the best song of the Kinks' career (to date). It combines the Kinks' now classic harmony with a hard-rocking rhythm to propel the song along. Compositionally, it's a great mix of minor-key, blues-like chords with strong major-key harmony. But it's the lyrics that make this special.
It's a sad song... a reflection on better days. But at the same time it's an uplifting one... full of vitality. The early lyrics (below) express a happy glow, while the later lyrics show a reflective pathos. Combining those conflicting emotions (happy... but sad), is a level in songwriting quite beyond the simpler overt love songs of earlier days. It shows Ray becoming an equal to Lennon/McCartney as a songwriter.
Within the storyline of the album, this is another transitional song that sets up the thematic change for the rest of the album. It moves us away from the earlier moods (joy), to the emotion of the previous song (lost-love), and toward the regret, acceptance & reflection of the subsequent songs on the album.
I get up, and I see the sun up And I feel good, yeah Cause my life has begun .... You and me were free We'd do as we please, yeah From morning, till the end of the day
The World Keeps Going Round is the first song on side two. The song is the start of a decent into a deeper mournful "lost love" theme set up at the end of side one. It's more of an overall fatalistic mood on this side compared to side one. The singer speaks of living in a world that "keeps right on going round" with no regard to the singer's sad state.
The song uses rhythm guitar and background vocals in an almost Spector-like soundstage here... quite different for the Kinks and fairly sophisticated for it's day. The drums of Mick Avory also lend a new hipness beyond the typical R&R rhythm. This is no longer the older-sounding Kinks' R&B sound. It's changing into a new style... one that will became a Ray Davies trademark, and one that's been called neurotic and fatalistic. It has the older blues-like sentiments and emotions, but uses a ballad format with a tight disciplined counter-structure, echoing what will soon appear (most fully with keyboards) on Face To Face. Ray was to dip into this pool again very soon with classics like Sunny Afternoon and Dead End Street.
You worry 'bout the rain The rain keeps falling just the same
You worry when the one you need has found somebody new What's the use of worrying 'cause you'll die alone
Times will be hard, and rain will fall, and you'll feel mighty low But the world keeps going round
Despite I'm On An Island's sad first impression (from it's lyrics), it's a more uptempo & upbeat tune (nice piano too). This dichotomy again reinforces Ray's improved songwriting. In fact Ray says of it: "there's quite an ironical humor coming up there, for the first time. The message is, 'never take anything at face value'." Still, the "downer" emotion of this side continues, but the attitude is more one of acceptance (re: the "ironical humor"). It's heading (still further) toward one of reflection... in the next song.
Oh what a mood I am in Since my girl left me behind She said that I'm not her kind I'm on an island
I'm on an island And I've got no where to run Because I'm the only one Who's on the island
Where Have All the Good Times Gone? remains one of Ray's best songs to this day. Although it was the flip-side of the hit Till The End of the Day, it's far less known than it should be. Perhaps that lack of airplay was a result of just being too "heavy" for it's day. Introspective and lyrically "cutting edge"... dare I say progressively so?
Many music fans were to hear this song for the first time many years later when David Bowie did a cover rendition of it on his Pin Ups album ('73), a tribute of sorts to some of Bowie's fave songs growing up. It should not be lost on the reader, that just such shrewd lyrical stuff would indeed appeal to someone like a smart & hip young Bowie. There simply weren't many other songs like this in '65, period.
Lyrically this song is more evidence of Ray Davies becoming one of the better songwriters of that era. The lyrics are more far-reaching than his early work, although this is still only '65. It has a rhythm and cadence, nevermind the lyricism (& cynicism) of Dylan, and shows the direction Ray was heading as a songwriter. As Ray himself said of it: "it's a world weary song." And although it's about being disillusioned, it also implies a growth from retrospection.
This and the previous songs are some of the earliest Rock tunes that harken in a whole new era of deeper lyricism. It's a transformation that that will soon become commonplace in Rock. And it's a sea change that will ultimately help evolve rock music into the progressive sphere.
The song continues the protagonist's downer and bluesy mood on the album, and his growing philosophical view of life & love, now from a slightly older and wiser position. The singer's sadness from the previous song has moved from acceptance to reflection. We have the singer's reflective thinking back to better times, yet with a good dose of cynicism, perhaps bitterness, but certainly a more enlightened and mature viewpoint. The lyrics not only apply to the singer's personal story of lost love, but they admonish the general listener as well.
Well, once we had an easy ride and always felt the same Time was on my side and I had everything to gain Let it be like yesterday Please let me have happy days .... Well, yesterday was such an easy game for you to play But let's face it things are so much easier today Guess you need some bringing down And get your feet back on the ground
It's Too Late is more a filler tune, using the Kinks R&B sound of earlier years. Without it's underlying rhythm (& piano fill) it wouldn't be much (the lyrics are second rate), but it meshes in with the overall mood of this side OK. It's sung in a whiney bluesy style, and reiterates the singer's emotional descent of the past few songs.
It's too late now for you to sympathize, dear The wheel of time is grinding 'gainst your dreams I really wouldn't want to cause no pain now You said those words, you said them much too late
What's in Store For Me? has a melody that's more upbeat. Personally I always liked how that melody meshed with it's funky rhythm. Lyrically, the song returns back to the reflective mood of Where Have All The Good Times Gone. This is another soul-searching tune, yet the message is slightly cynical and fatalistic. But it also links the lyrical message of the song... with that of the entire theme of the album (I've suffered and learned lessons... will I make use of that... can I change my fate... or is it all for nothing?)
I wish I had a crystal ball... To see my rise and see my fall I'm waiting for my fate... 'Cause I know I've done wrong I wanna know just what's in store for me
The final cut You Can't Win, answers the question of the previous song. It's an underplayed but simmering blues song, and it's rave-up guitar places it among the album's better cuts. It's as good as any guitar work of it's day, and that includes the Yardbirds. In fact it's that great underplayed yet flashy guitar which puts the accent to the end of the story and an exclamation point to the end of the album. That guitar sound here represents the ripped-up broken heart and damaged soul of our protagonist.
Lyrically, this concludes the story of the entire album... and brings us back full circle to the first cut (sexual frustration). The difference is, we now have a defeated, love-needy guy... who's cynical. The young guy who falls into new love, loses love, & descends into bluesy depression... has become introspective. And that "contemplating his lot & life" has led him to the realization (and acceptance), that he exists... in a world of losers.
You'll try and you'll try again But you know you can't win You say you don't understand But you know, you can't win
Pretty bleak stuff for the heyday of cute hit Pop tunes in 1965 eh? Ray would continue to build and flesh-out many of these same lyrical sentiments & themes during his next half-dozen albums, reaching a pinnacle on Muswell Hillbillies with People in Grey & 20'th Century Man.
But here in '65, such songs and themes were new-fangled. Ray was melding some of the same sad sentiments of the early Blues music he dug with new social themes, and into new original Pop and R&R works. Both lyrically and melodically, his well-conceived songs were not simply engaging, thoughtful, upbeat & popular, but changed the Rock landscape & influenced many to come. And ultimately, it's why he's considered an icon today.
REKAP: Without getting into a semantic debate on the definitions of concept, theme, opera, etc, (hey, it's only R&R!), I do think this album tells a story, and lays it out in a chronological way using the mood and lyrics of the individual songs. And I do think it's the first time just such a thematic thing (story concept) was done in the genre of R&R... intentionally, or not. If you think me totally out to lunch, or merely misguided... that's quite OK. I hope you've at least had some fun with it, and perhaps gotten some additional insight into the album.
As to the issue of the Kinks and the general emergence of the "theme" type album in R&R, the skeptical reader should note that all of the Kinks' subsequent albums were centered around general themes... Face to Face, Something Else, Village Green Preservation Society, Lola, Muswell Hillbillies, let alone... Arthur. It's not such a leap to include The Kink Kontroversy onto the earliest start of that list, even if one doesn't fully agree it goes beyond having a general theme to the telling of an emotional story á la an Opera.
But even if you don't fully agree with that theory, you might appreciate my other belief here -- that The Kink Kontroversy helps herald in a brand new era in rock music. One that starts putting reflective, introspective & philosophical lyrics ahead of the traditional, simplistic, pop-love song. Indeed, it's even equal to the new socially-conscious lyrics that Dylan brought to the table from his folk heritage. A quick look back at the pop charts of '65 shows the overwhelming reliance on (simplistic) love songs... It's Not Unusual... I Got You Babe... Help... All I Really Want To Do... A World Of Our Own... Crying In The Chapel. Surely the Kinks weren't the only artists to lift the artistic bar above such mundane poppy fare. But they were among the first, and definitely among the most influential.
So get out your old Kontroversy album and give it a re-listen. Although the Kinks are solidly a Rock band, this album is a "progressive" one -- at least it can seen that way retrospectively by how it helped change the musical landscape in '65. Anyway, I hope you'll at least agree The Kink Kontroversy is not an inferior album but is an important, perhaps even radical one. It's surely underrated, and often neglected, even by Kinks Kultists... ironically overshadowed by the many greater albums that came after it. In that way it's similar to the Beatles early For Sale or Rubber Soul... also overlooked today by their later works, but still quite seminal in their day.
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