Tommy Womack: My Three Favorite Kinks Songs
By Tommy Womack
Bill Lloyd and I (with the trusty rhythm section from my band The Rush to Judgment – Dan Seymour and Justin Amaral) will grace you (if you deign to come) with a night of the Kinks at the Family Wash (Corner of Greenwood & Porter in East Nashvillw) on December 2nd. In honor of that noble undertaking, I’ve jotted thoughts on my three favorite Kinks tunes (at the moment) in the hope that, if you haven’t ever heard them, you’ll seek them out.
I find my three faves eschew the usual suspects: “You Really Got Me” (yawn), “Waterloo Sunset” (yawn) and “Lola” (triple yawn with a cherry on top). While I love those tunes, they routinely get their moments in the sun. Here are three that may or may not have drifted over your transom before.
“I Need You” (1965) – “YRGM” and “All Day & All of the Night” leave me cold sometimes now. Overexposure does that. “I Need You”, from the “Kinkdom” LP, has all their elements in spades, and 400 years later, it still sounds fresh.
What first drew me to the Kinks was not the charming tales of English life. That came later. It was those insanely catchy rocking riffs of the early days. After their first two hits, mentioned above, “I Need You” is third on the list of their early power chord masterpieces. First you have Dave Davies’ deliriously obnoxious Guild electric guitar through his El Pico amp with razor slits cut into the speaker cone and knitting needles stuck into a tube socket. Then you have that propulsive, infectious two-chord riff, tight as a tick with Pete Quaife on bass and Mick Avory punching the air with serious power.
The real star, however, is Ray Davies. Before being a lyricist with a poet’s touch, before writing those beautiful sophisticated melodies of years to come, Ray was already the preeminent massive talent in one facet that never gets mentioned: his profound grasp of laying down his voice in perfect rhythm with the track. His lyrics lay right with the drums. He’s the best rhythm singer in the world and I’ll stand on Elvis’s grave and say that. He’s better than Mick Jagger, better than John Lennon, better than Little Richard, better than even Chuck Berry. Before he was any of the things he later became, he was the best rhythm singer in the world. He still is. You can dance to his voice.
“Shangri-La” (1969) – At 5 ½ minutes, way longer than the average Kinks tune, with four different choral motifs, Ray skewered with a surgical lack of mercy the bland emptiness of a British middle class existence in houses that all look the same. If the Kinks had anything like a “Stairway to Heaven”, this one, epic in scope, building from quiet to Armageddon, is it. It’s even in the same key of A minor. Starting hauntingly in that second-saddest of all keys, as Ray begins by intoning “Now that you’ve found your paradise, here is your kingdom to command. You can go outside and polish your car, or sit by the fire in your Shangri-La”.
Enter the mournful horn section. Several minutes and three vignettes later, Dave kicks off a mean, Who-like slash-and-burn chordal onslaught and Ray lays it on the line, “All the houses on the street have got a name, ‘cause all the houses on the street they look the look the same…the gas bills and the water mains, payments on the car. Too scared to think how insecure you are. Life ain’t so happy in your little Shangri-La!”
Appearing on their “comeback” album, Arthur or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, “Shangri-La” inspired a flurry of protest letters to the BBC by thin-skinned middle-class Brits offended by this lyrical challenge to the staid and colorless English existence. The album, commissioned for a television drama, benefited from a production sheen probably germinated from a healthier budget than the Kinks had enjoyed on the records immediately prior to. It also sounds like their first 8-track recording, through a more modern mixing board that rounded the edges of their sound, producing a sonic leap not unlike the difference from The “White Album” and “Abbey Road” in the same time period. By the way, if it even needs to be said, “Shangri-La” more than holds its own against anything the fabs were doing. You might even say it packs the whole second side of “Abbey Road” boiled down to a tighter rocking package.
“All of My Friends Were There” (1968) – With hokey music hall oom-pah verses and a gorgeous, delicate, soaring chorus, this might be the funniest song Ray has ever penned. It is a tale of him drinking too much before a prestigious gig. “My big day, it was the biggest day of my life. It was the summit of my long career, but I felt so down and I drank too much beer. The management said that I shouldn’t appear.” Mortified in retrospect, Ray then dons a disguise and sings “I wore a moustache and I parted my hair, and gave the impression that I did not care, but oh, the embarrassment, oh, the despair!” Offered a shot at redemption the next week, “I nervously mounted the stage once again, got through my performance and no one complained. Thank God I can go back to normal again.”
This gem appears on the second side of “The Village Green Preservation Society”, which Creem magazine once cited as “arguably the best album anyone’s ever made.” I tend to agree with that. In my freshman year of college, that record was my best friend. I love it so much I’m going to buy it something to eat.
So there are my three Kinks favorites – at the moment. I hope you can fit it into your schedule to come see me and Bill Lloyd celebrate the music of the Kinks at the Family Wash in East Nashville at 9 PM on December 2nd.
God Save The Kinks.
(Tommy Womack’s new album “Now What!” is due in February 2012. His Kinks history includes a recording of “Picture Book” with Bill Lloyd on the Ray Davies tribute album This is Where I Belong.
(This post originally appeared on Nov. 18, 2011 on Sun209.com – The Americana Music Journal.)