For God’s sake…Wanna have a cuppa tea with The Kinks…?! It’s the dead of winter and what better way to warm up these days then to spend some quality time with Ray Davies and company’s take on Americana, glam rock, and a touch of vaudeville on their 1971 classic album, Muswell Hillbillies? Taking its name from The Kinks’ cosmopolitan hometown section of London, Muswell Hill, Hillbillies has been reissued regardless of the fact that its initial critical reception and commercial success remain at odds: it failed to chart in the United Kingdom and reached only #48 stateside, but has been recognized for the most part as a critic’s darling. Legacy Recordings should be applauded in revisiting this essential album; the time for Muswell Hillbillies IS now!
Muswell Hillbillies was preceded in the U.K. by The Kinks’ soundtrack to the film Percy and in the U.S. by Lola Versus Powerman And the Moneygoround, Part One. The latter satirically confronted The Kinks’ waning relationship with their then-record label (Pye in the United Kingdom and Reprise in the United States). Lola not only concluded with the declaration, “Got to be free to do what I want!” but its final song (“Got To Be Free”) was played with an Americana styling, a true indication of things to come. After all, for a band who had sung of the “Decline and Fall of the British Empire” and had a fascination with the workings of war (just listen to a great deal of 1969’s Arthur or “Tin Soldier Man” from 1967’s Something Else) the Kinks were using their own kind of 20th Century “revolutionary” warlike tactics in leaving their old British and American record labels and agreeing to a five album contract with American label RCA. Muswell Hillbillies inaugurated the RCA era.
Breaking from the band’s penchant for concept albums, Hillbillies as an LP is more like a family photo album made up of little stories and snapshots that feature real people from the Davies’ lives such as Uncle Son and Rosie Rook. Although it feels like it is loosely constructed, it is actually held together with a whole lot of heart – not one overarching story. As for the cover, it features The Kinks in The Archway Tavern, which is situated on a small traffic island near Muswell Hill. Metaphorically speaking, it is on an island that one, more often than not, finds true paradise. With Hillbillies, The Kinks happened to create a humble paradise in the celebration of the common folk on an album that may not necessarily lead its listeners off into the sunset, but out of the sunset with the pub-crawl bravado of a Black 47.
Muswell Hillbillies was released at a time when the Americana sound seemed to be the prevalent soundscape. Artists like Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Grateful Dead, The Band, Fairport Convention (followed then by a solo Richard Thompson and Iain Matthews), CSN(Y), Nick Drake, and Elton John were some of the musicians of the late 60s/early 70s to explore Americana sensibilities in their music. Where The Kinks fit into this scene back then is an interesting question to ponder. Listening to Hillbillies today, it sounds like Damon Albarn jamming with T-Rex and The Grateful Dead in the nocturnal shadings of Swordfishtrombones – that’s some genre-blurring for a one-time mod band who arguably founded a genre of its own, hard rock. Credit to the restless songwriter/creative force Ray Davies as well as Dave Davies, Mick Avory, John Dalton and John Gosling – plus the brass of The Mike Cotton Sound adding that “vaudeville” touch!
Hillbillies manages to sound both of its time and timeless. As to what makes it “of its time,” just listen to these select Hillbillies songs that clearly showcase the band’s ever-expanding sound. Begin with “Holiday”, their (intentional?) ode to Bob Dylan’s “Peggy Day” followed by the T-Rex homage (intentional again?) “Skin and Bones” and concluding with the album’s final track, the title song that could have served as a perfect jam piece back then for Mick Jagger or even Levon Helm.
As for what makes the album “timeless,” it is certainly the combination of strong melodies, an ageless country sound, and most specifically, universal content. In today’s society – one in which country-pop dominates the charts and TV (see The Voice), or a NY Times bestselling book title like Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up sells over two million copies, or The Paleo Diet reinforces the proper benefits of a protein centered constituency – how could an album like Muswell Hillbillies not be a suitable score for times such as these? Consider how Ray Davies’ lyrics pine to get away from “The Complicated Life” and in doing so it wants to return to simpler time, one removed from the then-20th century (“20th Century Man”), a century that introduced the “computerized societies” that continue to threaten to one day make a “zombie” out of each of us (“Muswell Hillbilly”), one in which you stay away from carbohydrates to look like “Skin and Bones,” and one in which it’s okay for ignorance to not only be bliss, but innocence as well? After all, “granny’s stand-by potion,” tea in “Have a Cuppa Tea” can just about cure anything, discriminates against no one and can be taken at any old time even with a cuppa tea itself – now that’s keeping it simple! But is simplicity itself the answer? The Kinks attempt to distill a puzzling irony of life in the song “Oklahoma U.S.A.” with the line: “All life we work but work is a bore, if life’s for livin’ then what’s livin’ for?” “Oklahoma” serves as a bleak yet tender counterpoint to an album that predominantly yearns for a simpler, celebratory time. What it reminds the listener is that perhaps it’s not necessarily a simpler time that society needs; it’s the ability to keep things simple in the face of complications. While life tends to get complicated, facing and overcoming complications is what makes things interesting. It’s what makes life worth living for.
Reasons could vary as to why a critically lauded album like Hillbillies didn’t live up to its commercial promise: The LA Times called it “a cinch for the year’s top ten!’ Fusion went onto name Muswell Hillbillies “album of the year,” while Rolling Stone, whose editors in the 1980s eventually referred to Hillbillies as Davies “signature statement” as a songwriter, initially referred to it as a “weird tangent” from “the greatest rock and roll band of all time.” Now doesn’t that sound like a familiar and popular outcry – cue Radiohead circa 2000 upon the release Kid A – often considered in subsequent years the most important album of the 21st Century to date. Perhaps Hillbillies is that misunderstood project like Kid A or Dylan “gone electric.” Perhaps it somehow got lost in that wealth of riches that was the Americana sound in the late 60s/early 70s.
Released this past November, Legacy’s exceptional new reissue (part of the label’s ongoing Legacy Edition series) is a two-disc set featuring a CD and DVD. Disc One features a new Vic Anesini remastering of the original album along with nine outtakes predominantly from 2013’s Universal U.K. Deluxe Edition. (The U.K. edition had been remastered by producer Andrew Sandoval, who repeats his production duties here, and Dan Hersch.) Disc Two wends together TV studio appearances (The Old Grey Whistle Test – BBC TV 4 January 1972), a TV concert (The Kinks At The Rainbow – BBC TV 21 July 1972), and interview footage in which Ray Davies reveals that it was in his once being called a Muswell Hillbilly while in America that eventually led to the album title. The DVD alone makes this reissue a worthwhile investment, especially with Davies channeling a Joel Grey affectation circa Cabaret (which was a then-recent theatrical hit and soon to be a multiple Academy Award winner) with Dean Martin panache as he “croons” his way through his woozy romp of a song, “Alcohol” or an exquisitely gentle rendition of a personal favorite, “Waterloo Sunset.” As for the added CD content, bonus tracks like “Lavendar Lane” (a cousin to “Waterloo Sunset”), “Mountain Woman” (which further contextualizes the Americana atmosphere of Muswell and could have easily been an album cut), and even a concluding radio spot are all stellar additions to the original album sequence. The digipak also features a 28-page full-color booklet with Ira Robbins’ notes and full lyrics.
Over the past few years, rumors have swirled regarding a 50-year reunion of The Kinks. Speculation had flitted about that there might be an all-out world tour, a few shows, and/or possible new material. What is certain though is that The Kinks currently have a West End hit with their new jukebox musical Sunny Afternoon (though the brothers Davies can hopefully soon reconcile their differing opinions on this one). Ray and Dave Davies have recently both mentioned (on the record!) interest in a reunion, and Dave Davies even sat in with The Roots on The Tonight Show to nicely coincide with the reissue of Muswell Hillbillies. 2014 was also an opportune time to reconsider the somewhat unearthed gem that is Hillbillies. The year contained a number of noteworthy Americana-styled reissues such as Uncle Tupelo’s superb debut No Depression, Mike Cooper’s Trout Steel, and Ian Matthews’ Stealin’ Home. In addition, stellar new albums from The Rails, The Thompson Family, and Hiss Golden Messenger all had a rootsy feeling. The Americana sound is back in the air and like an old wine, Muswell Hillbillies has not only matured, it is ready to be savored. An essential, indelible and underappreciated classic, it gets my highest recommendation!