Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Kinks – Face to Face / 1970s Double album compilations

      As time goes on I find myself enjoying the music of The Kinks more than many of their 60s contemporaries. The Davies brothers gifted the world with quite an amazing body of work for future generations to explore. Among the lesser-known gems in their extensive catalog is the 1966 LP “Face to Face”.
The first time I heard this entire album was when I borrowed an original mono LP from the local library (when they still had LPs in the stacks – I discovered a LOT of great music this way…). Apart from “Sunny Afternoon” the rest of the album was new to me. Really – it’s a terrific batch of songs, some of which have a deeply personal vibe – listen to Ray Davies’ vocal on “There’s Too Much on My Mind”. It’s quite a convincing delivery – he sounds like he really means the sentiments behind those lyrics! (I’ll swear that Paul McCartney nicked that swooping bassline for “Dear Prudence” two years later for the Beatles’ White Album as well!)

 But the liner notes on the reverse side of the sleeve hinted at some kind of hazy narrative the songs supposedly provided a soundtrack for. Thinking about that now I’m inclined to believe there was no intentional plot behind the songs, but those sleeve notes planted the idea in my head and my imagination filled in the gaps. It didn’t help matters that many of the songs featured various sound effects which added to the quasi-cinematic quality. Beyond just the sound-effects, The Kinks conjured up some real exotic textures here, in a decidedly low-fi manner –  the effect is the sonic equivalent to a grainy 8mm home movie. Decidedly impressionistic, in fact!

The impressionism extends to the subject matter of the lyrics. The characters in Ray Davies’ vignettes are by and large melancholy, frustrated, unfulfilled – the pleading mother’s voice in “Rosy Won’t You Please Come Home”, the “Session Man” – the empty frustration of the artist bogged down with hack-work, the disillusioned vacationer in “Holiday in Waikiki”, “Little Miss Queen of Darkness” herself unable to lose her blues in the swinging London nightclubs, even the character of “Sunny Afternoon” can’t enjoy the beautiful weather because he’s pre-occupied with the departure of his girlfriend and his money! Yet we never know the whole story behind these frustrations – the listener is left to fill in the gaps on his own. So in a strange way, Face to Face does hang together on a concept, though not in the obvious way.

Although “Face to Face” was released in the latter part of 1966, the album was not a reaction to the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”. Many other English acts, like the Beatles, took their cue from Brian Wilson to explore more sophisticated music and lyric content in their music. Not Ray Davies. The sessions for “Face to Face” ran CONCURRENTLY with the Beach Boys’ own sessions for “Pet Sounds”. The Kinks album was done by June 1966 and delayed due to business reasons mainly. In an industry where months can make a difference, it is interesting to wonder if The Kinks album had been released closer to completion, would there have been greater accolades?

As it happens, The Kinks were banned from performing in the United States for five years between 1965 and 1970. So there would be little opportunity to promote the record in the States. It even had the distinction of being out of print in the US for many years (though import copies were readily available if you knew where to look). “Sunny Afternoon” was the only major hit song featured (if you don’t count the Kinks own version of “Dandy” – Hermans Hermits had the hit with that one). It stands as one of the most ignored releases of The Kinks cannon, yet it remains one of their strongest LP efforts! It’s one of my “desert island discs”. Well worth tracking down a copy!

I think what I like so much about this album is how even the lesser songs have something special going on – maybe they’re not “top shelf” material, but clearly beyond filler status. And they help to move the imaginary plot-line along. Listening to this record is kind of like putting together a connect-the-dots coloring, story-book. Characters are elusive, situations are half-explained………it reminds me of a whole imaginary town where Eleanor Rigby lived and was just another typical resident. But, again – all of this music and composing was done long before Eleanor Rigby came out. How does Ray Davies do stuff like this?
 Like other albums I am obsessed with I have several copies – analog and digital. Let me count the ways…….two US mono LPs, one US stereo LP, one Spanish PRT stereo LP, one German PRT mono LP, the 1986 PRT compact disc and the 2011 2-disc deluxe CD set from Sanctuary (featuring the mono and stereo album mixes with bonus tracks as well). WHEW! The real oddball of the bunch is the 1986 compact disc. This was the only digital version of the album for many years – for some odd reason this record fell between the cracks of the early albums released by Rhino and the Reprise albums released by Warners (which started with the 1967 release “Something Else by The Kinks”). What makes the ’86 PRT CD problematic is how the two sides are reversed. The disc leads off with "Holiday in Waikiki” and the whole of side two precedes side one in the tracklisting. Ooops.
Otherwise the ’86 disc is pretty good sounding for an early digital transfer. What I don’t have is an original UK Pye LP since I reckon those are now quite scarce and costly (like most original UK pressings from most English bands). And, as I’m quite sure, the sonic benefit over the PRT LPs would be negligible at best. In fact, after I had to return the library copy, the Spanish PRT was what I found at a local shop when I went looking for a personal copy and it served me well for many years! Still sounds great, matter o’fact.

Truth is, in the early to mid 1980s, there was an upsurge in import vinyl in even the most provincial shops. It was not uncommon to have access to UK, German and even Latin American copies of classic albums in this era. This was the way I wound up with a stereo UK album of With the Beatles at a fairly young age. I remember finding that pressing at a department store though I don’t remember the rationale of why I bought it as opposed to a regular US copy of Meet the Beatles. Maybe the idea of more songs appealed to me. Another time I took home a copy of Sgt. Pepper pressed in Uruguay (featuring the UK stampers) on the blue Odeon label. The cover was essentially a plastic bag that had a color picture of the front cover sealed inside of it. I remember there being a glut of these in the stores being sold at a steep discount – probably why I bought one in the first place. Funny to think I don’t see these things popping up on ebay too frequently. Odd considering how many there were at one time.
Long before the import craze of the early 80s, there was a double LP compilation album obsession. I’m sure the roots of this must have been in the bootleg album market. Bootleg albums began appearing in the late 60s and early 70s – not only containing previously unreleased material, but also sometimes of records copied directly from legitimate sources and re-arranged in some kind of thematic order or another. One of the earliest examples of this trend was the bootleg Beatles set known as the Alpha and Omega.
Bootleggers gambled on the notion that although longtime Beatles fans might have gotten burned out from the constant playing of Beatles music from the original albums, creating a new combination of older tracks along some kind of thematic line could present the same songs in a new way to listeners. This hunch was proven by the bootleggers and co-opted by the legitimate companies. So, while the bootleggers released “Alpha and Omega” illegally, Apple / Capitol put out the two double album sets known to fans as the Red and Blue albums with tracks presented in chronological order. Even though the 1962 – 1966 and 1967 – 1970 sets contained no new material, they sold like hotcakes! The double album compilation became a viable vehicle for the recycling of old material.
Some of these double albums became surprising classics in their own right. While the Beatles doubles maintained a respectable presence in the marketplace (and in the hearts of 70s Beatles fans), other groups released truly iconic double LP compilations. Witness the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks series. Even though there is nothing new on the Hot Rocks collection – it is pretty much required listening for any music fan – period! Ditto for the Beach Boys with the “Endless Summer” double album. That collection helped to revitalize and re-define their career as a live act from the mid-70s to the present!

Even the Kinks got collected in the early 70s with the release of the Kinks Kronikles double album. This is such a brilliant collection of the mid-to-late 60s Reprise-era Kinks it really belongs in any music fan’s collection. The songs flow together so beautifully – whoever programmed this record was a genius. You don’t even need to read the effusive liner notes from John Mendelsohn on the inside cover to understand how this double LP makes one of the most compelling arguments for Ray Davies’ songwriting brilliance. The music speaks for itself.
So many bands had their material recycled into double album compilations at this point. Perhaps one of the best examples of how this seemingly pointless trend could yield surprisingly artistic results was the double album culled from the classic “7” albums from the Moody Blues titled simply: “This Is The Moody Blues”. There is not a single bit of unreleased music on this 2 LP set. However, the tracks are arranged and crossfaded into each other across the disc sides in such a way to give the illusion that the 7 albums the songs came from could easily be reconfigured since they’re all cut from the same cloth – artistically, sonically and aesthetically. It sounds insane to say it, but even if you already own the classic, core 7 Moody Blues albums, you still need This Is The Moody Blues – trust me.
Some artists would issue new material on double compilation albums. Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 2 is a prime example – plenty of classic tracks alongside some exclusive songs making the purchase a must-have for true fans.
Why am I going on about all this? Well, this past Record Store Day, there was a re-release of a classic double compilation album on vinyl – The Doors “Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine”. The initial copies were pressed on limited edition gold-colored vinyl and looked pretty attractive! Apparently it was a brisk seller since they tended to blow out of the shops quickly and wound up on ebay at inflated prices. So, a few months later I’m down at the Princeton Record Exchange and I get real excited to see new copies of this in the bins. Whooo! So without thinking too much I scooped one up and went about my business snapping up more LPs. When I got home was when I realized I’d made a mistake. I guess Rhino Records decided to press more of these on regular black vinyl and that’s what I bought – not the limited edition. Ooops. Well, I never did own this compilation before. Yet, I still have it sealed and I’ve been debating – should I open it and listen to it anyway? Maybe it could be on the level of This Is The Moody Blues. It does have a couple of unique tracks on it (from b-sides apparently). Ahh…..maybe another night. I’m in no hurry.
Instead I think I’m going to spin the Jefferson Airplane double LP “Flight Log”. This is interesting since it includes tracks from some of the later solo albums and runs the gamut from the first Airplane album to the Jefferson Starship era. It’s a weird collection of obvious unit-moving hits and bizarre deep cuts. Ah, back in a time before the ‘net where it is possible to hear every song ever written for free (seemingly). The whole notion of an extended “greatest hits” album would get a new lease on life in the 1990s with the proliferation of the compact disc box set craze. And just like the double compilation albums of the 70s, there would be some really excellent box sets and some clunkers. But that is a story for another time, dear reader. Until next time……keep those vibrations flowing!