Schoolboys in Disgrace

The story of the Kinks is one of missed opportunities. They first appeared as specialists in a highly stripped-down, tribal form of rhythm & blues; their early singles are sex itself: no other band at the time demonstrated such single-minded commitment to grit and groove. Royalties and chart-success rightly followed; for a minute it looked as though all of this could end in nothing short of Beatles-like world dominance. And then it fell apart.

In 1965, as the buzz was peaking, the Kinks went and got themselves banned from touring the United States. The AFM did not state its reasons; still, it is generally understood that repeated incidents of violence on stage were the cause. When the ban was finally lifted, four years later, the Kinks’ biggest potential audience had forgotten them, and they went back Stateside as anachronisms, an out-of-practice mid-sixties pop-group struggling to compete in the new world of guitar-rock sprawl. In the meantime, on record, they changed directions too, as chief Kink Ray Davies came into his own as a songwriter and bona fide cantankerous bastard. The Year of the Good Vibration – when all the pop universe was looking a little kooky around the edges from the LSD – was marked by the quiet, graceful Waterloo Sunset, a song about staying in. A year later, the Kinks distanced themselves still further from every prevailing musical trend: their most ambitious record yet dealt with scones, jam, and longing for childhood; a year later still, when psychedelia was finally giving way to stadium hard-rock, we were given two sides of lush, orchestrated music-hall pop built on concerns about the hollowness of middle-age and the class system.

Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire is the last truly great record by the Kinks. They would re-enter the world of star tours and stadium shows shortly afterwards (the transvestite love-story of Lola had a thumping run on the charts), but by then Ray Davies’ talents had nearly run their course. The Kinks in the seventies were peddlers of dry, long-winded concept records; in the eighties they re-invented themselves as a metallised greatest hits revue; this sorted out the finances, and once more brought the Kinks brand name into prominence. But none of these things are remotely interesting or relevant. When news of their disbanding came in 1996, most people were surprised they were still around.

The Kinks today are a group that almost everybody has heard of, but almost no one really knows. Unfashionable by choice at the height of their powers, and much too intelligent for their own good, the Kinks legacy now lies in lists of critics’ favourites, when it really belongs on record players. Great talent doesn’t always bring great rewards: every misfit kid with an ear for a tune ought to love these seven or eight albums; instead, nobody knows and nobody cares, and one of the finest bodies of pop music yet crafted lies gathering dust, as the world looks the other way and slowly runs itself down.

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