Do we appreciate what we have while we have it? The recent release of a great new album, by one of this country’s greatest ever bands, has got me thinking. The album is Giants,and the band of course is The Stranglers. For 35 years they have been turning out unique recordings which include some of the greatest works produced in modern music. They’ve also produced, without fail, live performances of the highest standard.
It’s been pleasing to see a little more critical acclaim for the album than in recent years, but also fair to say that on a wider level the band receive nowhere near the credit they deserve. I hope Giants is not their swan-song and that the increased media attention continues so the band gets their due credit while still going. Does a band need to break up before we fully appreciate them? It’s fair to say the Stranglers deserve a place amongst the greatest of British rock bands alongside, among others, The Kinks.
No one would say the Kinks are under-rated or ignored by the popular media, far from it as many of today’s artists are only too happy to site them as influences. Often when their legacy is referenced, it zeroes in on their 1960’s sound, with The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society now seen as their masterpiece. As a ”Ëdedicated follower’, I would be the last to denigrate anything from this period. However, from the start of the 1970’s, whether intentionally or not, The Kinks managed to sabotage their own career. ”ËIf it ain’t broke, break it’ could have been their motto as The Guardian’s Alex Needham wrote in a review of the latest biography of the band. This led to them slipping largely off the radar in Britain throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, with the exception of the chart comeback in 1983 with ”ËCome Dancing’. This was not the case in America where they became a stadium band with serious record sales in the late ”Ë70’s and 80’s.
Fast forward then to1993 and the release of their final album, Phobia. With the country unknowingly on the brink of the phenomenon that would become ”ËBritpop’, the godfathers of this scene were ironically about to check out with possibly their most under-rated, or simply ignored, album of all. With their final line up of Ray and Dave Davies, plus Bob Henrit on drums and Jim Rodford on bass they were a powerful unit but still dogged by their usual demons. Two years of off and on recording at the legendary Konk studios finally gave birth to the 23rd and final original album from Fortis Green’s finest. After a disastrous period with the MCA label, The Kinks had high hopes of success with their new label Columbia. The album as usual did not trouble the British charts and made only number 166 in the US, an undeserved reflection on a fine offering from one of our all-time greats. Nineteen years later, it is ironic to imagine the media frenzy that would ensue if The Kinks were to succumb to the inevitable pressure to reform in 2012. This is highly unlikely to occur, despite the Davies brothers regular teasing and ”Ëjust maybe”Â¦’ sound bites followed by the inevitable barb from one sibling to another.
There are a number of striking features when listening to Phobia, not least of which is the relevance today of a number of the album’s songs. This is particularly true of the second and third tracks. After the 38 second first track, ‘Opening’, where a defiant guitar riff signals what we now know was the beginning of the end, we are launched straight into ”ËWall of Fire’ ”â ”ËStanding at the end of the horizon’ sings Ray Davies and you can’t help but ask yourself if this a reference to the imminent demise of The Kinks. Actually, the song is about the harm done to the environment with one of Ray’s favourite targets ”â ”Ëcity-slickers’ being the first to perish in the flames.
This is followed by one of a number of highlights on the album, ”ËDrift Away’. Davies again warns of horrors to come ”â ”ËThey say there’s gonna be rivers of blood/It’s apocalypse now so we’re waiting for the flood’. All very depressing and true of today as we’re told of global financial collapse but then we get the most striking mood, key and tempo change as Ray tells of his ability to drift away to an imaginary island in the sun, before the song returns to the harsh vocals and guitar work of ”Ëthe end of civilisation’. It’s a gem of a song with unexpected twists so typical of Ray Davies’s genius throughout his career.
The theme of isolation and a restless searching soul that runs throughout Davies’s work is continued in the next two songs ”â ”ËStill Searching’ and ”ËPhobia’ which features some extreme guitar work by Dave Davies before we come to one of my personal favourites, ”ËOnly a Dream’. This song contains so many Davies trademarks ”â humour, irony, mental anguish, loneliness and unrequited desire, all achieved by using a lift and a fantasy about a woman as metaphors. It is brilliant and no Kinks collection should be without it but, as it does not fall within their critically acceptable lifespan, it is relatively unknown.
We then have two melodic rockers ”â ”ËDon’t’ which is a story about a potential suicide on a window ledge with the lyrics imploring ”ËDon’t look down at the people below’, followed by a characteristically unique Davies perspective with ”ËBabies’. We hear the fears and confused voices of unborn babies as they question their mothers about their parentage and future. Three tracks follow about detachment from society and impact of the modern world on the individual, ”ËOver the Edge’ and ”ËSurviving’ by Ray, then ”ËIt’s Alright (don’t think about it)’ Dave Davies’s first of two tracks on the album. Next up is ”ËThe Informer’ a quieter song with a very dark twist at the end as we realise the narrator is about to perform an underworld execution on a past friend.
This merely paves the way for possibly the late-period Kinks highlight and certainly the one song that divides opinion amongst their fan base still, ”ËHatred (a duet)’.I’m not aware of any other song where two people who between them have created some of modern music’s finest moments, spit out their mutual contempt for each other with such obvious relish. When we remember these are two brothers, it adds an almost perverse twist to the song, ”ËHatred, is the only thing that keeps us together/Hatred, it’s the only thing that lasts forever’. It’s tempting to wonder what they could have achieved if they had actually liked each other.
The anger is continued into the frantic ”ËSomebody Stole My Car’ where Ray screams his frustration at the theft of his new wheels ”â ”ËNow I’m paying for a car that I no longer own’. This song is just waiting to be covered by someone in the contemporary punk scene.
Another Dave song, ”ËClose to the Wire’ is followed by the album closer ”ËScattered’, a final thought provoking song from Ray. Written from the perspective of a bereaved husband pondering his loss and mortality, it could well be that Ray knew this would be the Kinks final recording ”â ”ËAll the logical answers to a worrying mind/will be scattered in time’ and has produced this as an epitaph.
Phobia is not the Kinks greatest album and is possibly a couple of songs too long. However, it contains more than enough evidence that the band retained all their creative individuality and is certainly deserving of more credit than it has ever received. It’s a crying shame that the faceless ”Ëtaste police’ in the media are able to dictate whether bands are ”Ëfinished’ or the hottest ticket in town. With music, as with life, we should appreciate what we have while we have it.