Book Review

BookGod Save the Kinks-webGOD SAVE THE KINKS
A BIOGRAPHY by Rob Jovanovic Aurum Press 2013,
paperback, 330 pages.
A Review by Francis DiMenno

Rob Jovanovic has written other well-regarded books about musicians, notably Pavement, Nirvana, Big Star, and REM. Here, however, he is taking on territory which quite a few people have a fanatical interest in. After all, just about anyone can be a diehard fan of The Beatles or The Stones. However, it takes a special type of personality to be mesmerized by The Kinks. Sadly, as even the occasionally star-struck Jovanovic notes, their period of peak popularity took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when they were well past their prime—pursuing long-deferred mass popularity, particularly in the United States, by becoming sloppy and obvious and blunting the edges of their wit. I want to say, as an opinionated devotee, that the rot started in 1972 with their 11th studio album (going by UK releases and counting their soundtrack album, Percy), Everybody’s In Show Biz, with the maudlin “Celluloid Heroes” and a batch of other, regrettably sub-par songs rounded out with live renditions of some awful chestnuts (“The Banana Boat Song,” anybody?). This was succeeded by a series of albums which, we might charitably say, were more theatrical than strictly musical, with 1975’s A Soap Opera as quite possibly the nadir of this period.
That Ray Davies was well on his way to having a nervous breakdown probably should have been apparent by 1970 and the band’s ninth album, with the unwieldy title of Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One, in which Mr. Davies devotes several songs to the witty evisceration of the very music biz sargasso in which he had somehow managed to survive if not thrive, despite low sales following their excellent (and possibly untoppable) single, “Autumn Almanac.” Jovanovic is good (in a way that say, an agenda-pursuing critic like Mendelssohn is not) in giving a fairly objective viewpoint of the band’s accomplishments – particularly, their recordings. He notes, for instance, that their first album, Kinks, is crammed with the rafters with cover versions because at that stage The Kinks were, more or less, a blues-based cover band with a few originals—more like The Stones than The Beatles. He is not afraid to say that the version of “Dancing in the Streets” on 1965’s Kinda Kinks, was really quite dire. He doesn’t give enough emphasis, perhaps, to the great sea change which took place in the latter part of 1965. The Kink Kontroversy featured breakthrough tracks such as the high-life tinged “I’m On an Island” and more personal and heartfelt numbers such as “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?”
It is the string of albums they recorded from 1966 to 1969—sadly, at a time when their album sales had started to taper off, and they were unaccountably barred from touring in the United States—that The Kinks recorded some of their best work. It may be a consensus viewpoint, but albums such as Face to Face, Something Else, The Kinks Are the
Village Green Preservation Society, and Arthur are almost indisputably the high points of their discography, and Jovanovic accounts for these records in a way which will enlighten the neophyte and mollify even the most diehard fanatic.
Jovanovic is also good about noting the major bands who were obviously influenced by The Kinks: The Jam, XTC, Blur, Oasis, and quite a few others. But he also points out that The Kinks provided such innovations as deliberate distortion (“You Really Got Me”) and Indian influence “See My Friends”) to pop music. But what we really learn from this biography that we may not have learned from other books about The Kinks largely revolves around the oversized personality of the band’s egocentric leader, who is, perhaps, overly fond of acting like, as well as proclaiming himself as, a genius. For instance, we discover that Mick Jagger and John Lennon had, at best, a rivalrous relationship with Ray Davies; that The Who were inspired by “You Really Got Me” to write their own breakthrough single, “Can’t Explain”; that Ray’s brother Dave, although addicted to supernatural woo-woo and perhaps mildly schizophrenic, was an accomplished songwriter in his own right but was deliberately held back by his older brother Ray from contributing more songs to the band. (“Mindless Child of Motherhood,” “Death of a Clown,” “Susannah’s Still Alive,” “Lincoln County,” “This Man He Weeps Tonight,” and other songs would have made a fine Dave Davies solo album. But that album, Hidden Treasures, wasn’t to be released until 2011, a fact which Jovanovic fails to note in his otherwise comprehensive discography.) We are told quite enough and not too much about the band’s managers and early backers and their role; we are also told just enough and perhaps a little less than we might have liked about bassist Pete Quaife, drummer Mick Avory, keyboardist John Gosling, and producer Shel Talmy—all of whom were interviewed for this book. Davies’ affair with Chryssie Hynde is also given a fair amount of attention—but no more.
Although Ray Davies did not always cover himself with glory from 1973 to 1996, when the band ended, Javanovic’s account of the band in comparative decline is fair and even-handed rather than thoroughly dismissive. We are not spared a fairly graphic account of the personality conflicts within the band, and Ray’s bad behavior on numerous occasions is neither downplayed nor excused. In short, this is a compact, easily readable and entertaining history of the band. No truly startling revelations here, and no compelling insights into anybody’s character, but perhaps that is more the province of fiction than of a modest band biography. For indeed, one cannot call this a definitive biography of Ray Davies, to say nothing of Dave—the narrative imperative proceeds too briskly to allow for troublesome (and, some might say tedious) minutiae. But for those who are interested in a compact history of the band and its recordings, this book is going to be difficult to surpass.

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