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Volatile Kinks

Music | British group mourned the failure to preserve a lost England

Issue: "New breed of homeless," Feb. 28, 2009

In the 24 years since Bob Dylan's Biograph kicked off the boxed-set craze, every pop act of any significance has been enshrined in what has become the audio equivalent of the coffee-table book-every act, that is, except the Kinks.

Enter Picture Book (Sanctuary), a chronological, six-disc overview of the group's 30-year career, which was released in December, nearly 19 years after the original lineup's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and 12 years after the final lineup's breakup.

Has it been worth the wait? For the most part, yes. The 82 songs on Discs 1 through 3 chronicle the years 1964, when their garage-band classic "You Really Got Me" exploded on both sides of the Atlantic, through 1970, when their tongue-in-cheek gender-bender classic "Lola" did the same. It was a period during which the Kinks not only kept quantitative and qualitative stride with their British Invasion peers the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who but also sometimes outstrode them.

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That they remain less well-known than their peers can be attributed to several extra-musical factors. Their leader, Ray Davies, wrote from a viewpoint as distinctively British as the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson's was American. And, unlike Wilson, Davies eschewed creating utopian fantasies in favor of satirizing the details of a baby boomer Britain-its youth culture included-that he often found less than Great.

The group was also uncommonly volatile, a trait that Picture Book's lengthy booklet documents with abundant quotations from all involved. The band members frequently argued and fought, not only with each other but also with their record labels, managers, and promoters, usually to the detriment of their career.

And, as Disc 4's 19 songs demonstrate, the Kinks also confounded their fans, spending the first half of the 1970s releasing a series of concept albums, sometimes accompanied by complementarily conceptual stage shows, that, while not bereft of good songs ("Celluloid Heroes" remains a moving and prescient Hollywood eulogy), bore less and less resemblance to the catchier, more accessible music for which they'd become known. In short, one could hear the Kinks stop happening to the times and instead hear the times start happening to them.

By the time they returned to straight-ahead rock 'n' roll, they practically had to reestablish themselves from scratch. And while the albums Sleepwalker (1977) and Misfits (1978), which comprise over half of Disc 5, were well-enough received, and the U.S. radio success of "(Wish I Could Fly like) Superman" (inexplicably omitted from Picture Book) made 1979's Low Budget their best-selling album, they remained personae non grata in their native England, with only one of the 15 singles they released from 1977 to 1981 making the U.K. charts.

It took 1982's "Come Dancing" (included, again inexplicably, only in demo form on Picture Book) to make them U.S. and U.K. heroes simultaneously. It would also be their last big hit.

It comes therefore as a pleasant surprise to discover that Disc 6 holds up fairly well. One track in particular, 1984's Dave Davies' "Living on a Thin Line," although never a single, has become a kind of latter-day Kinks classic. A stoic farewell to the British Empire ("All the stories have been told," sings Dave, "of kings and days of old, / but there's no England now"), it has been used to dramatic effect in recent years on both The Sopranos and Michael Savage's The Savage Nation.

It also emphasizes what has always been the Kinks' most common theme: that the failure to preserve the best in tradition leads to an impoverishment from which no government can bail us out.

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