By the time The Kinks released Muswell Hillbillies in November 1971, they were no longer as successful in Britain. Their last three albums had failed to chart. The last Kinks album to chart in Britain was 1967s Something Else By The Kinks. It had reached number thirty-five. After that, 1968s The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, 1969s Arthur (Or The Decline Of The British Empire) and Lola Versus Powerman and The Moneygoround, Part One had all failed to chart. At least their singles were much more successful. Fifteen of their singles had reached the top ten in Britain. Over the Atlantic, The Kinks were enjoying much more success in America.

Since their 1964 debut Kinks, only The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society had failed to chart. Every other Kinks album had charted. This made The Kinks one of the most commercially successful British bands. They enjoyed a longevity and commercial success that very few other British bands enjoyed. That’s not surprising. 

Unlike so many bands of The Kinks’ generation, The Kinks eschewed throwaway pop music. Instead, they created cerebral music. It was intelligent, thoughtful, satirical and thought-provoking music. Proof of this was their last three albums. Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur (Or The Decline Of The British Empire) and Lola Versus Powerman and The Moneygoround were all concept albums written by Ray Davies. Each album was released to critical acclaim. While music critics “got” these albums, they passed record British buyers by. In America, which had more of an album culture, The Kinks enjoyed both commercial success and critical acclaim. They were one of Britain’s most successful musical exports. While this must have pleased The Kinks, deep down, they must have hoped their music would be more successful back home in Britain. Would their luck change with the release of their ninth album Muswell Hillbillies? It was recently rerelease by Universal Marketing as a Deluxe Edition? That’s what I’ll tell you, once I’ve told you about the background to Muswell Hillbillies.

Muswell Hillbillies marked the start of a new era for The Kinks. It was their first album for their new record label RCA. Their previous albums had been released on Pye in Britain and Reprise in the US. However, with The Kinks no longer enjoying the success they used to, Pye didn’t offer them a new contract. So, having left Pye which had been their home for eight studio albums, Muswell Hillbillies marked the start of a new era. Would this mean a reinvention of The Kinks?

Given The Kinks had released a trio of albums that hadn’t been commercially successful in Britain, many people wondered if The Kinks would reinvent themselves. After all, the commercial success The Kinks enjoyed in America was limited. Only four of their first eight albums reached the top hundred in the US Billboard 200. So, maybe, signing to RCA would mark a new chapter in The Kinks’ career. Maybe their dalliance with concept albums would be at an end, and their music would evolve?

That wasn’t the case. Muswell Hillbillies was another concept album.  Ray Davies wrote the twelve songs. The themes that ran through Muswell Hillbillies were poverty and working class life. Ray commented on what he saw as the devastation and ruination of the old Victorian neighbourhoods of North London, where Ray and Dave Davies grew up. Back in the seventies, many of the large Victorian properties fell into the hands of property developers, who subdivided the houses. No longer were they home to the large, extended families of Ray’s youth. Essentially, he was lamenting the North London of his youth. This made Muswell Hillbillies a very personal album for the Davies brothers. 

Recording of Muswell Hillbillies took place in Morgan Studios between August and October 1970. The lineup of The Kinks featured a rhythm section of bassist John Dalton, drummer and percussionist Mike Avory, plus Dave Davies on lead guitar, slide guitar and banjo. John Gosling played piano and organ, while Ray Davies sang  lead vocals, played acoustic guitar, harmonica, trombone, tuba, trumpet and resonator guitar. Among the other musicians who played on Muswell Hillbillies were The Mike Cotton Sound. This included trumpeter Mike Cotton, John Beecham on trombone and tuba, while Alan Holmes played saxophone and clarinet. It was these musicians that spent three months recording The Kinks’ ninth album Muswell Hillbillies. Would their RCA debut rejuvenate their career in Britain.

The answer to that is a resounding no. Muswell Hillbillies was released in November 1971 to critical acclaim. However, yet again, Muswell Hillbillies never troubled the British chart. Neither did 20th Century Man, which was released as a single in December 1971.The commercial failure of Muswell Hillbillies in Britain was disappointing, but not unexpected. How did Muswell Hillbillies fare in the US?

Over the Atlantic, Muswell Hillbillies reached number 100 in the US Billboard 200 Charts. Considering The Kinks previous album, Lola Versus Powerman and The Moneygoround, Part One reached number thirty-five in the US Billboard 200 Charts, this was a disappointment. Worse was to come. 20th Century Man failed to chart, reaching just number 111 in the US Billboard 100. RCA must have been wondering why Muswell Hillbillies hadn’t been a bigger commercial success. After all, critics liked Muswell Hillbillies. They understood the album and its themes. These themes were just as relevant either side of the Atlantic. Yet the album failed commercially. Should Muswell Hillbillies have been a bigger commercial success.

Opening Muswell Hillbillies is Twentieth Century Man. From a thoughtful, wistful introduction The Kinks’ rhythm section provide a pounding heartbeat. Meanwhile, Ray’s vocal sounds as if he’s been born at the wrong time. Born in the “Twentieth Century Man” he’s: “disillusioned…doesn’t want to be here… gotta get out of here.” Fed up of poverty and being controlled by the state, he feels he’s lost control of his life. Behind his vocal, the arrangement veers between blues, R&B and rock. Driven along by the rhythm section, waves of Hammond organ and searing guitars. The result is a track where The Kinks sound like a cerebral and eloquent version of The Who.

Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues is a track that draws inspiration from everything from the music of New Orleans, vaudeville and the soundtrack to early black and white movies. All of these things have influenced Ray Davies. The song sounds as if it was recorded in New Orleans. The Mike Cotton Band add authentic New Orleans’ horns, while the piano and crystalline guitars provide the perfect accompaniment to Ray’s vocal. Full of pain, misery and despair, it’s as if he’s found himself trapped in a world he no longer understands, and that we’re witnessing his unravelling.

Holiday sounds like a song from another era. Maybe Ray uses his childhood for reference points. Again, there’s a vaudeville influence, while an accordion adds a French influence. As a result, the arrangement sounds as if it belongs midway between the Left Bank and Broadway. Ray’s vocal has a melodramatic, lived-in sound. Sometimes, he reminds me of Alex Harvey, who incorporated vaudeville into the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s music. Indeed, here The Kinks sound like the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Their playing veers between sloppy and tight. When this is combined with Ray’s vocal, it’s a delicious reminder of another musical era.

Not only does Skin And Bone have a really noticeable country influence, but it’s hook-laden. This is The Kinks at his best. They fuse Americana, blues, country and rock. While they fuse musical genres, they paint pictures with Ray Davies’ lyrics. As he sings of people suffering for hunger and poverty, you almost feel guilty. Especially when reveling in Dave Davies’ slide guitar playing. Just like Ray’s lyrics, it plays an important part in a track where hooks and social comment sit side-by-side.

After unleashing jagged guitars, Alcohol takes on a “New Orleans” sound. That’s thanks to the horns. They come courtesy of The Mike Cotton Band. As the arrangement meanders along, Ray draws inspiration from vaudeville, to tell the story of a man who becomes addicted to Alcohol. Quickly, his life spirals out of control, and he’s left a shadow of his former self. The way Ray delivers the lyrics, they seem very real. They take on a cinematic quality, helped no end by Ray’s melodramatic delivery.

Slide and acoustic guitars combine with a Hammond organ on Complicated Life. They join the rhythm section in providing the backdrop for Ray’s worldweary vocal. Delivered in a mid-Atlantic accent, Ray tells how he’s been advised by his doctor to cut out his “Complicated Life.” There’s a sense of resignation as he delivers the lyrics. Especially when he sings: “life’s overrated when it’s complicated.” He’s joined by harmonies. They add to the song’s memorable, singalong sound. Drawing inspiration from Americana, blues, country and rock, Ray’s created an irresistible, genre-melting melange of music and emotion.

Here Come The People In Grey write about his native North London. In the early seventies, compulsory purchase orders were being used to force people to sell their houses to the council. This tore the life out of the community and was the start of the decline of the sense of community. Ray rails against this. Like a seer, he realized what would happen. Anger, frustration and sadness fills his voice that the “people in grey” can do this. It’s all too sudden. With communities being broken up, his vocal is equal parts anger and sadness. He’s almost resigned to his fate, when he sings: “here come the people in grey, to take me away.” 

Have A Cuppa Tea sees Ray’s famous humor shine through. The British answer to any crisis, big or small is “Have A Cuppa Tea.” Drawing inspiration from vaudeville, Ray’s uses his caustic humor to introduce us to another cast of characters. Aunties and uncles, faced with a crisis in their life, their answer is “Have A Cuppa Tea.” So to pay homage to them, Ray puts his songwriting skills to good use.

On Holloway Jail, Ray laments that his girlfriend has been taken to prison. From an understated introduction, one of the finest songs on Muswell Hill unfolds. Sadly, it didn’t get the credit it deserved. If it had been written by Lennon and McCartney, it would’ve been hailed as a minor classic. Fusing everything from Americana, blues, country, gospel-tinged harmonies, pop, rock and soul, The Kinks have your attention. For four minutes, you’re spellbound. Best described as musical perfection, the interplay between Ray’s vocal and backing singers is crucial. So is Dave’s guitar playing. The success of Holloway Jail is definitely down to the Davies’ brothers.

There’s a melancholy sound to Oklahoma USA. Just a piano and tender vocal combine. Strings sweep in and envelop Ray’s vocal. His vocal paints pictures. They’ve a poetic quality and unfold before your eyes. Adding a poignancy is the accordion and piano. A purely acoustic, understated arrangement, this suits this quite beautiful track.

Uncle Son sounds as if The Kinks are just sitting round the studio jamming. It has a loose sound and feel. It’s as if The Band and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young have influenced The Kinks. They play with freedom, as if they’re really enjoying themselves. Dave unleashes his slide guitar, which an acoustic guitar and harmonies accompany Ray’s heartfelt, soulful vocal. With its almost ab-libbed, loose sound, it shows another side to The Kinks, who are proving a versatile band.

Closing Muswell Hillbillies is the title-track. Bursting into life, crystalline guitars and the rhythm section drive the arrangement along. Ray’s vocal sounds not unlike Bob Dylan. It has a gruff, throaty drawl. His vocal is fiery, defiant and full of emotion. The cause of his anger is watching his community be destroyed. Defiantly, he sings he won’t be driven out of Muswell Hill. He could see what would happen. People would be forced to live in shoddily built boxes, which were the result of a sociological experiment. Planned by grey people who didn’t have to live there, it’s no wonder Ray is angry. As The Kinks mix musical genres seamlessly, they create a poignant track to end Muswell Hillbillies.

Although Muswell Hillbillies was released in 1971, forty-two years later, the album is just as relevant. The themes of poverty is still as relevant. So too, is the way that working class people have been affected. Their communities continue to be devastated. People who have lived in these communities are displaced, forced to live in badly built houses. Meanwhile their old communities are gentrified and property developers prosper. This is seen as progress. It’s not. 

Still these people are suffering from alcoholism, poverty and mental illness. Many of these people still feel as if they don’t belong. Just like in Twentieth Century Man and Complicated Life, they feel as if they can’t cope with modern living. Ray Davies lyrics bring all these subjects and problems to life. He was like a seer, a visionary, who forecasted the breakdown of traditional communities. The cause of this was supposed progress. Sadly, as the last four decades have shown, that’s not always the case. Despite being full of cerebral, thoughtful, satirical and thought-provoking music, Muswell Hillbillies wasn’t a commercial success.

Critics realized that The Kinks’ latest concept album, Muswell Hillbillies saw The Kinks at their best. During the twelve tracks on Muswell Hillbillies, Ray Davies introduces us to a whole host of characters. Some of the are angry and frustrated, others are troubled, despairing or resigned to their fate. Heartbreak, hurt and joy feature on Muswell Hillbillies. Full of pathos and nuances, it’s a literate, cerebral album. While the songs are full of social comment,  sometimes, like on Have A Cuppa Tea, features Ray’s trademark humor. Sadly, record buyers didn’t “get” Muswell Hillbillies. it either passed them by, or they didn’t understand it. 

For RCA, who The Kinks had just signed to, Muswell Hillbillies wasn’t the best way to start this new era. Commercial success in Britain had eluded them. At least Muswell Hillbillies was successful in the US. That would be the case for the rest of The Kinks’ recording career. They never enjoyed another successful album in Britain, while each of their albums charted in the US. The Kinks were more successful in the US than Britain. Despite this, there’s been a resurgence in interest in The Kinks’ music.

Since the mid-nineties, a new generation of musicians have been influenced by The Kinks’ music. They’ve been flying the flag for The Kinks. Now somewhat belatedly, The Kinks are recognized as one of the most important groups in British musical history. They may not have enjoyed the commercial success of their contemporaries, but their music has stood the test of time. Much of The Kinks music has been hugely underrated, including Muswell Hillbillies, their ninth album. A concept album full of social comment and humor, Muswell Hillbillies is one of the hidden gems in The Kinks back-catalogue. Full of intelligent, thoughtful, satirical and thought-provoking music, Muswell Hillbillies is a timeless album, which forty-two years after its release, is just as relevant as the day it was released. Standout Tracks: Twentieth Century Man, Skin and Bone, Holloway Jail and Muswell Hillbillies.


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