The Legends of Laurel Canyon
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best
Transfiguration of Vincent
Christmas in the Heart
Glitter and Doom Live
Let It Roll: The Best of George Harrison
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
Playing for Change
Some albums just never get old. Years can pass, decades even, but the music continues to sound fresh and inspired, no matter how many cultural shifts have taken place in the interim. The Kinks’ “Muswell Hillbillies” is that kind of an album. While the world moved from glitter to punk, synth-pop to rap, techno to Americana, and dozens of other permutations in-between, the songwriting and performances of “Muswell Hillbillies” never sounded tired or dated. There is irony at play here, because when the album was originally released in 1971, the general consensus was that the Kinks had lost their edge. The record sold poorly, and critics lamented that Ray Davies had abandoned the creative rebirth brought on by “Lola,” a great hit single that presaged the ambisexual ‘Glitter” movement with pathos and humor. In many ways, “Muswell Hillbillies” was to the Kinks what “John Wesley Harding” was to Dylan – an about-face taken at the height of their career, a stylistic suicide that flew in the faces of fan expectations.
Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, no band was more inclined to shoot themselves in the foot than the Kinks. Theirs was a star-crossed fate, even from the beginning, when they found themselves locked into one of the most confusing and multi-layered management deals of all time, distributing the band’s income to just about everybody except the band. At the height of the British Invasion, the Kinks were forced to curtail their American tour for visa violations, effectively cutting them off from the most lucrative music market in the world. In virtual isolation, Ray Davies penned nostalgic songs about rural England, while psychedelic bands ruled the airwaves. Later in their career, Davies compiled a series of ‘theme’ albums, musicals and rock operas that flew in the face of classic rock aspiration, and their popularity dwindled even further. Somewhere in the middle of these allegedly ruinous decisions to thwart popular convention, “Muswell Hillbillies” went unheralded and virtually unrecognized.
For an album that has been touted as the Kinks “Country” album, there is precious little on this record that could pass for country music. The most obvious influences are British music hall traditions, combined with elements of gut-bucket blues, cabaret and vaudeville showmanship. It’s a roughshod mix of disparate ideas, tenuously held together by Ray Davies’ world-weary distrust of modernization (“20th Century Man”, “Holiday”) and the pervading cultural tendency toward uniformity (“Here Come the People in Grey” “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues”). The songs are full of wry humor (“Alcohol,” “Complicated Life”) and wistful empathy (“Oklahoma U.S.A.”, “Uncle Son”), weaving a rich tapestry compiled of twelve distinctly different songs that somehow gel together seamlessly.
The Kinks are easily the most under-rated of the British Invasion bands, and Ray Davies is grossly neglected as one of the finest songwriters to emerge from Great Britain, easily worthy of comparison with the legendary and much lauded teams of Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richard. “Muswell Hillbillies” provides a messy but unified home for twelve of Ray Davies’ most fascinating compositions. Chances are very good that you missed this record when it first came out. Forty years later, it’s still out there, waiting to be discovered.
NYRMA – The New York Roots Music Association – will be presenting the “Muswell Hillbillies” album in its entirety on Saturday evening, April 17, at the American Legion Hall in Plainview, from 8- 12. Also performing that evening will be the Russ Seeger Band, the Hornets and the Blaggards. Admission $8. For more information, directions, etc., visit http://www.facebook.com/NYRootsMusic