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?
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.