A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: 1977 LP by perennial quirky Anglo pop-rock favourites. Purchased by yours truly for $1 from a used-vinyl store on Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, more years ago than I care to admit.
And here’s why I like it:
1. “Stormy Sky.” In which the guys who used to slash their amplifier speakers with razor blades venture into the laid-back world of easy-like-Sunday-morning late-’70s rock.
At first I liked this song strictly for its mellow-gold patina, and for the comforting gentleness in its chorus (“I know that we’ll be all right.”)
It took a few more listens for the ambiguity in the words to come out. The “stormy sky” may be entirely metaphorical; the storm may be taking place within the four walls of a bedroom. And whether the storm is literal or figurative, it’s going to leave a mark: “There’s nowhere we can hide.”
Still, while the reassurance in this song may be only a facade, I’ve always found it soothing, so much so that I’ve been known to hear the chorus in my head during real-life storms.
(For those who find the mellowness of the studio version a little too much to take, there’s a marvelous U.K. TV performance of the song available on YouTube that puts more of the spotlight on Dave Davies’ lead guitar.)
2. Commercial success. According to Wiki, the album hit No. 21 in the United States — the band’s best chart performance in more than a decade. It was the first time since 1970 the Kinks had so much as sniffed the U.S. Top 40 album charts. And the single “Sleepwalker” fell just short of Casey Kasemland, peaking at No. 48 stateside.
I know the legend of the Kinks well enough to know that chart position does not equal artistic success. I’ve heard all the stories about how “Village Green Preservation Society” sold 25,000 copies in its first year, or whatever it was.
I don’t buy into the willful embrace of obscurity. As far as I’m concerned, a world in which more people listen to the Kinks is a better place to live.
And any album that pulls more ears to the Kinks, without totally abandoning the band’s misfit soul, is something worth celebrating.
3. “Juke Box Music.” The LP’s commercially unsuccessful second single treads much the same thematic ground as “A Rock n’ Roll Fantasy,” which would scrape into the U.S. Top 40 for the Kinks the following year. (Said thematic ground being: There are fans who live for our music, but they’re only losing themselves in a fantasy.)
As someone who cherishes the Kinks’ body of work, I enjoy the perversity of this most wonderful of bands trying to tell me not to get too attached to their music.
No, Ray; what you do isn’t only juke box music. I’ve heard plenty of that; and, like Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio, I know it when I hear it. I can go dial up some Leo Sayer if I want only juke box music.
What you do — when you want to do it well — is a thousand times deeper and more human and more fallible than juke box music. And the fact that you’re so thoroughly, self-denyingly wrong on this score only makes me love you more. I took your music to heart a long time ago, Ray, and there’s no going back now.
Oh, and listen to brother Dave’s harmony at about 3 minutes into the song. Maybe it’s a trick of the mix, but he has rarely sounded more impassioned. If the last voices I heard on Earth were Ray and Dave singing that harmony, I would die content.
4. No concept. The theatrical, thematically based albums the Kinks recorded in the first half of the Seventies had their high points. But by 1977, they were overdue to break out of that mold.
There are times over the course of “Sleepwalker” when Ray Davies’ relief feels almost palpable … you can imagine him thinking, “Oh, yeah! I don’t have to make all the songs link together any more. I don’t have to put a costume on. Or write linking dialogue. Or stick to a plot. I can just write songs. Like I used to.”
5. Real live radio. I’ve never intentionally sought out an album that bears the markings of a radio station.
But I used to think it was kind of cool when I’d turn up an album in a used bin that had once belonged to a radio station. Those records had a little extra patina of professionalism — kinda like holding a baseball bat that had been used in a big-league game.
Sure, the album looked like thousands of others just like it. But some Lester the Nightfly type had actually used it to entertain the third-shifters in Olean or Oswego or someplace. People had heard the grooves over the radio. It was different, and subtly cooler.
You’ll see, if you look closely, that my copy of “Sleepwalker” is labeled “WBHS #142.”
I’ve been unable to find out what station bore those call letters in the late ’70s. The presence of the letters “HS” suggests it may have been one of those ultra-low-power high school stations, rather than a professional jawn. Kinda less impressive, I suppose.
I still enjoy the idea that my copy of “Sleepwalker” actually served in harness at some point. It adds in some quiet way to my enjoyment of the album, like giving a comfortable retirement to a rescued greyhound.
(You just don’t get that kind of connection from an iTunes download.)