Thursday, November 26, 2009

"UK Jive" / The Kinks

It was all my fault, I'm sure. By 1989 I wasn't listening to the Kinks anymore; why should anyone else? And with their new record company, MCA, breathing down their necks, the Kinks -- amidst epic battles between the brothers Davies -- cranked out UK Jive on a minimum of inspiration. Not only did they rip off riffs from other artists (hear them go all Talking Heads in the middle of "Aggravation"), they recycled their own songs mercilessly. It probably deserved to be the flop it was.

But coming to it years later, I discover that this record isn't nearly as awful as it was rumored to be. In fact, there are more than a couple tracks I like quite a lot. Fr'instance. Take a little bit of "Come Dancing" nostalgia, blend it with the boppy danceability of "Jukebox Music," and you've got "UK Jive," the album's title track title. It should be a cynical bit of throwaway fluff, and maybe it is. But I don't know, I can't help liking it -- and feeling guilty that I wasn't around to stand up for the Kinks when it first came out.

That jitterbug beat, the jiving guitar licks, put us in a Fifties mood from the very start, and Ray's lyrics recreate a vintage scene from his old North London haunts: "Another Saturday night and everybody gets together / The pubs are turning out and all the streets are alive / But the people wanna party so they come back to our house / Everybody gonna do the U.K Jive." By all accounts Ray and Dave's father, Fred Davies, was quite a party animal, and this description is no exaggeration -- after last call, the regulars did reel across the road from the Clissold Arms to the Davies house on Denmark Terrace to keep the party going. "Dad's got a crate of beer and it's an open invitation / He's ever-so elated and so are his mates."

I can just imagine skinny little Ray Davies and his baby brother, jostled up against the wall in the front room, getting a taste of adult fun. It worked in "Come Dancing," that child's-eye view of adult thrills, and Ray Davies never throws away a useful concept. But I don't know, I fall for it all over again. I love the feeling of being in that front room with him, no matter how crowded and cacophonous it might be.

In verse two, we get another nugget of Davies family history: "Mum's all annoyed dad forgot the inflation / He blew all his wages by half past nine." (Remember in "Come Dancing," the boyfriend who "blew his wages for the week / All for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek"?) With Micawber-like improvidence, Mr. Davies has "bought a gramophone on the never never [Britspeak for 'installment plan'] / And the tally man's gotta have his money on time." Ah, considering how Americanized the Kinks had begun to seem by 1989, these Britticisms are welcome indeed.

There was a whole sub-genre of "dance songs" in the late 50s, early 60s, that contained dance instructions right in the song; Ray's calling them out here, his arch vocals trading off with swinging horn licks: "Swing your partner to the left, / Swing her back to the right. / Don't stand in the middle / And act cool all night." (Later on in the song he adds, "You've got to learn to swing both ways," with an extra suggestive wiggle in his voice -- a sly "Lola" reference.) Next he launches into a sort of fight song, perfect for a raucous post-pub singalong: "Do that U.K. Jive/ Do that U.K. Jive / U.K. O.K. U.K. O.K. gimme that U.K. Jive." Well, you'd have to be made of stone not to join in on that chorus.

Like most rock songs of this era, it goes on a bit too long, but as it peters out with extra solos, Ray does a sly dirty old man routine: "Blow in my ear, / I like the way you do that." I'm reminded of Ray Charles, and all those chuckling asides that made "What'd I Say" so much fun. ("Are you jiving me? / Oh, you bad pussy cat / You'll make papa mad.")

Is is worthy of the Kinks? Not really. On the other hand, if Aerosmith or Queen or Bruce Springsteen had turned out something this catchy, they'd have been media darlings for it. It just wasn't, apparently, what music fans wanted to hear from the Kinks in 1989. More's the pity.

AND ON WE GO: Phobia and "Drift Away"


wwolfe said...

What a nice surprise - I really like this one! The opening is pure doo wop, a genre I would have thought had absolutely zip to do with Ray Davies, but one I love dearly. The beat is snappy, the guitars sharp and biting, without succumbing to rote, dull "heaviness," and the lyrics have enough specific detail to give flavor to what could have been ordinary. Nice little "My generation" musical quote during the tempo change at the end, to boot. I'll have to download this one.

Glenn said...

This album is another one I think gets a bad rap! What's wrong with me? I genuinely LIKE Ray's later-period stuff, as derivative or "uninspired" as some people say it is.

I honestly believe that there is a degree of craft on The last 3 kinks studio albums that they could NEVER have acheived in the 60's. And while I love those 60's cuts, I am simply in awe of tracks like "Now and Then" "Loony Balloon" "War is Over" "How Are You" "Phobia" and many others from this period. They hit me in the gut like a sledgehammer.

I get tired of hearing critcs saying these albums were weak. WHAT??? Who was writing music as potent as "How Are You" or "Loony Balloon" 25 Years into their career? I'd put at least half of UK Jive on a par with ANY song by ANY band in the 80's.

The Stones were releasing duds like "Sparks Will Fly" and "Sad Sad Sad" in their later years and the critics still fawned over anything they did. (And they still do.)

I also can't understand why people always harp on Ray for borrowing riffs. First of all, alot of early rock was based on bands re-working other bands' riffs and playing around with them to create a new song.

Secondly, it's not like Ray takes a riff and that's the WHOLE song. He usually takes a riff, (probably not even intentionally) twists it around, and then writes a completely different song around it. To me, that's not a steal, that's creative borrowing. (Who was it who said, "Great writers don't borrow, they steal?")

Alot of great rock hooks are based on 2 or 3 notes and chords and it's inevitable that sometimes stuff is going to get recycled, sometimes completely unintentionally. And I don't know if that's totally a bad thing. I think I'd rather hear a great song that's slightly derivative than a 100 percent original BAD one! :)

I see Ray more as a writer and a songcrafter who is great at synthesizing the musical elements around him and imprinting his unique sensibility on them. I think that after 1984 or so Ray began focusing more and more on the EMOTIONAL hooks than on trailblazing new paths in rock.

Hell, it ain't easy to remain relevant in the music industry for decades without embarrassing yourself, and I think lots of bands (Beach Boys or the Stones anyone?) have failed on that front. Okay, so maybe he absorbed stuff from some of his contemporaries, but it's not like he was ever fully eclipsed by them.

I give Ray credit for not only keeping his head above water, but crafting some of his absolute finest songs from 1984 and beyond.

Critics be damned!!!! :)

Holly A Hughes said...

I won't go so far as to agree that these were some of his best songs, but you're absolutely right that they're better any other 60s artists have produced 25 years into their career.

As for the "borrowed" riffs, I think that Ray also uses them allusively, as sly references that you're supposed to pick up -- much in the same way that T.S. Eliot incorporated lines from Jacobean drama in The Waste Land. It's certainly not a question of musical laziness.