two sisters..lost gems- overlooked albums revisited - The Kinks 'Phobia'
two sisters..lost gems- overlooked albums revisited - The Kinks 'Phobia'

two sisters..lost gems- overlooked albums revisited - The Kinks 'Phobia'
two sisters..lost gems- overlooked albums revisited - The Kinks 'Phobia'

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 ”˜dedicated 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. ”˜If 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 ”˜Come Dancing’. This was not the case in America where they became a stadium band with serious record sales in the late ”˜70’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 ”˜Britpop’, 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 ”˜just maybe”¦’ 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 ”˜Wall of Fire’ ”“ ”˜Standing 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 ”“ ”˜city-slickers’ being the first to perish in the flames.

This is followed by one of a number of highlights on the album, ”˜Drift Away’. Davies again warns of horrors to come ”“ ”˜They 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 ”˜the 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 ”“ ”˜Still Searching’ and ”˜Phobia’ which features some extreme guitar work by Dave Davies before we come to one of my personal favourites, ”˜Only a Dream’. This song contains so many Davies trademarks ”“ 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 ”“ ”˜Don’t’ which is a story about a potential suicide on a window ledge with the lyrics imploring ”˜Don’t look down at the people below’, followed by a characteristically unique Davies perspective with ”˜Babies’. 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, ”˜Over the Edge’ and ”˜Surviving’ by Ray, then ”˜It’s Alright (don’t think about it)’ Dave Davies’s first of two tracks on the album. Next up is ”˜The 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, ”˜Hatred (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, ”˜Hatred, 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 ”˜Somebody Stole My Car’ where Ray screams his frustration at the theft of his new wheels ”“ ”˜Now 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, ”˜Close to the Wire’ is followed by the album closer ”˜Scattered’, 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 ”“ ”˜All 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 ”˜taste police’ in the media are able to dictate whether bands are ”˜finished’ or the hottest ticket in town. With music, as with life, we should appreciate what we have while we have it.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Only a dream should of been a hit song, I love it, and Still Searching is also awesome…dave’s new song flowers in the rain is another hit not going to be a hit…God save the kinks

  2. Hi,i am a huge fan and regret that the later years music is so overlooked by so many fans.One of the great things about ray is how different we can interpret his lyrics,The informer never struck me as a mob hit song but it can be,so why not.On Phobia,Scattered has been my standout track,such a wise look at life from a now mature writer,maybe thats why some fans dont embrace the later work as much.ray wrote in the 1960’s with the wit of a mature man and the passion and rage of a young man.Now as he ages his words have a greater sense of compassion and balance,possibly we like the black and white of youth more than the grey areas of middle age..God save The Kinks,mark trafford.

  3. I too think “Phobia” is a vastly underrated album. I actually think it’s one of the best they ever did, PERIOD. It’s not surprising they broke up afterwards considering the public’s indifference. The album is made up of a series of expertly crafted rock songs that careen from poignant to vicious to whimsical and back again all within the span of 10 seconds. The problem was the workman-like rockers didn’t quite gel with the grunge movement that was popular in the U.S. at the time, and it wasn’t “Waterloo Sunset II” for the U.K. crowd.

    Once in a while, the songs lean toward a generic rock sound (Surviving, Over the Edge) but Ray more than makes up for that with air-tight arrangements, lovely melodies, superb chord changes and odd-ball observations (like the existential angst of “Babies”).

    Compare any song on this album to some of the embarrassing fluff the Stones were putting out – and selling tons of records with – around the same time (“Sparks Will Fly” for example). The Kinks stuff kicks ass all over it. There is no justice in the world!

    I still listen to this album and it still holds up. “Somebody Stole My Car” still makes me laugh, and “Scattered” still makes me cry. “Phobia” (the song) is a helter-sketler-ish descent into madness. The album was a triumph, and it got the shaft. I don’t think the world will EVER really appreciate its genius.

    Glenn

  4. This is a great album. All Kinks albums do have great songs on it.

    My fav are Still Searching and Duet. Hope they come back before one of them dies.

  5. I always thought Scattered was dedicated to their recently deceased mother, on the cd sleeve it says it is dedicated to Anne Florence Davies…anyway, it was the last truly great Kinks song, deserves to be up their with any of their acknowledged classics, fantastic melodies and lyrics

  6. Great review, but funny thing, taste, hey. Although Phobia is enjoyable, I find UK Jive is my favourite Kinks album, with Aggravation a stand out, but that would not get too much support. Anyway, generally just a shame the Kinks later music is so under rated.

    • After State Of Confusion I thought they were done with the exception of a song here or there.Scattered without a doubt was their last great song.Phobia does contain much better songs than U.K.Jive and Think Visual.

  7. Nice article. I fully agree. I was thrilled when that album came out and really liked it. But by then so much was going wrong for the group that it was no surprise it bombed….

  8. I couldn’t agree more. I never understood the lack of appreciation for Phobia by both the critics and the public. Yes, maybe a bit too long and certainly not a perfect record. Nonetheless, it easily contains a handful of Ray’s best songs ever and at least 10 songs worthy of repeat listenings.

  9. It’s interesting to read the different opinions on this “platter”. I myself agree with those who find it patchy though. On one hand, musically there are far too many generic sounding mid-tempo rock plodders which do not offer any surprises or genuine excitement. This is mirrored in the fairly MOR rock arrangements. And the lyrical content is often generic as well, with well-practiced phrases and imagery about the perceived decline of society, however these mostly don’t connect in a unique way. I don’t know if the rivers of blood / apocalypse / end of the horizon stuff is really that powerful or well-observed. Maybe more reflective of R.D.’s inner paranoia and disconnection from other human beings as he was getting older?

    But even for me there are at least a good half a dozen great tracks on this, mostly on the second half (as well as “Only A Dream”), where things get changed up either musically, lyrically, or both. These leave you with more focused, personal observations than the generalised ones in the majority of the songs. I think songs like “The Informer”, “Hatred”, “Scattered”, Dave’s “Don’t Think About It”, “Somebody Stole My Car” and “Did Ya” rise above much of the rest of the “feeling generally paranoid” tracks. Of course, it is other songs that resonate with other listeners, so there you go (how profound of me).

  10. A bit of personal history with this album, which I now find quite amusing, although not at the time! I Love the band and all thier records, and have enough admiration to forgive the weakest of Kinks tracks. However..
    I purchased this album just around a very low point when I had a minor nervous breakdown and depression. Listening to songs such as wall of fire (we were going through it, Phobia (!), over the edge (he’s gone barmy!), hatred, Don’t, Surviving, Close to the edge – I really needn’t have gone on here – really did not help very much at all at the time, seemed to chime uncannily well with my overall mood and state, and the whole feel of the album felt incredibly downbeat…Brings back some very bad memories – have never been able to listen to it since!

  11. I’m a very longtime Kinks fan, and bought every album as soon as it was released, from VGPS onwards, and it’s always puzzled me as to why the later albums didn’t have much success. Every album had some great songs on it, and I would say better, much better than most of the stuff in the charts at the time. And Phobia is a brilliant album, on the whole, thank God I was lucky enough to see them live many times, and when they were touring promoting Phobia, some really memorable live shows, and the later songs sounded fantastic live!!! Stood up well with the hits too……GSTK!!!

  12. Been a huge KInks fan for well over forty years-as a teenager in the mid-seventies when I went out with my parents one evening, my Mom told me, “That outfit looks ratty (I was getting into punk). Don’t you have a Kinks T-shirt you could put on?”!
    I have to agree that much of the Kinks’ ’80’s/’90’s output was spotty at best, and just downright awful at worst. Towards the end it seemed like Ray was getting very formulaic, and following trends rather than setting them. Even Dave’s attempts to inject some spark and excitement often came off as bombastic, self-reverential Heavy Metal riffing, not the catchy, inventive guitar hooks and riffs he was so justly famous for.
    That being said, “Phobia” does contain a few semi-precious gems, and at least one bona-fide Kinks classic, the last of their illustrious career..
    The album itself is all over the place, perhaps expected in a record that was recorded over the space of two years. “Still Searching” and “Only a Dream”, are the standouts on the first side, while “Don’t” almost succeeds, but is just a little too precious.
    “Over the Edge”,and “The Informer”, are very solid latter day Kinks tunes, while “Hatred (A Duet)” is another in a long line of brotherly love/sibling rivalry songs, e.g., “Strangers”, “You Don’t Know My Name”, “Brother”, etc., that runs a little too long. The defining moment is of course the album’s closing track, “Scattered”, which is just about as good as anything Ray ever wrote. It’s a pithy, bittersweet, yet hopeful farewell to the Davies boys recently deceased mother, to whom it is dedicated. If you’ve ever lost someone close you’ll have a hard time not choking up every time you hear it. Try to find the Ray and Dave live duet performance from the BBC-required listening for every hardcore Kinks fan.
    Overall, while Phobia is far from the Kinks best effort, it does bear repeated listening to dig out the nuggets scattered through its grooves.

  13. I loved it when it came out and still do, though tend to program out the 3-4 weak tracks, still leaving a long album to enjoy. This, State of Confusion, Sleepwalker, Misfits I play far more than the 60s stuff which is of course great. It is so annoying they toured and sold out places all over Britain but never had a chart album after the mod-60s…VERY odd indeed. Phobia was even promoted by them appearing on Jools Holland which I would have thought would have put the album in the chart. Some great songs on here and on all their late 70s and 80s albums. Even when the played the Christmas Eve concert ‘live’ on the BBC, supporting Sleepwalker, they didn’t make the charts. Aarrhhgg – so annoying people!

  14. Even the Kinks’ albums that people like to bash contain gems of all sorts. PHOBIA is certainly a bit on the long side, but has many rewarding tracks. Although I love the classic Kinks of 1964 – 1971ish, their later albums are constantly being played. I think MISFITS and SLEEPWALKER are positively brilliant. They didn’t sell out during this time — they reinvented themselves, or at the very least, revisited themselves with different production techniques that resulted in some glorious music.

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