How “comedy songs” represented a maturing in the songwriting of The Kinks’ Ray Davies

There is no doubting that The Kinks were one of the defining groups of London’s swinging sixties era. With their innovative use of guitar distortion and array of defiant mod rock anthems, the band firmly established themselves as one of Britain’s greatest musical exports. Clearly, a huge aspect of that enduring popularity and acclaim arose from the utter genius of frontman Ray Davies’ songwriting, whose talents stretched far beyond the pop rock of the 1960s.

Like many other prominent rock groups of the era, The Kinks recognised a need to adapt their sound and ethos as the decade came to a close. So, while they might have favoured the amphetamine-fuelled rebellion of tracks like ‘You Really Got Me’ or ‘All Day and All of the Night’ during their early years, Davies’ songwriting quickly matured into something much more complex and profound. As the bad moved into the 1970s, tracks like ‘Lola’ completely reinvented the prevailing image of The Kinks from adolescent rebels to established rock stars.

Seemingly, this change in direction was entirely deliberate by Davies. The songwriter had always felt a desire to elevate The Kinks above the rest of the increasingly saturated rock scene of London. During a 1971 interview with Chris Charlesworth, he reflected upon his initial songwriting efforts, saying, “I started to write songs for the Kinks because the standard of the stuff the recording company was bringing us to record was very bad. They brought us songs that everybody else was doing”.

Around the same time as that interview, The Kinks had just released their tenth studio album, Muswell Hillbillies. Although the record was a commercial flop, especially in comparison to their earlier work, it certainly represented a maturing in the band’s sound. Based around the area of Muswell, north London, where Davies had grown up, the album is awash with working-class pride, social commentary, and complex songwriting. The record suggested a move for the band, from creating singles to thinking about the construction of entire albums.

“I really feel that the stuff I am writing at the moment is album material,” shared Davies, “It’s not material for a single. I just don’t like all the problems involved with singles, promoting them and things because people think that’s all you are doing, just the single”. Reflecting upon the band’s latest album, at the time, he continued, “I don’t think there are any singles on [MuswellHillbillies. It’s a comedy album. ‘Complicated Life’, ‘Alcohol’ and ‘Acute Schizophrenia’ are comedy songs”.

While these tracks might not fit within the canon of comedy records, alongside the likes of George Formby or Tom Lehrer, Davies explains, “They are not serious social comment, but I think I have made a more definite statement on this LP than ever before. That life is complicated, is what I am really trying to say”.

Part of The Kinks’ appeal has always been their quintessentially English wit and humour, but it seemed the public was unwilling to accept these “comedy songs”, with Muswell Hippies failing to chart in the UK. Nevertheless, the record is certainly worth a reappraisal, as it contains some prime examples of Ray Davies as a songwriter working at his absolute peak.

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