Did the Kinks Invent the Third Way?

I almost never devote a whole post to a musical selection. But partly to justify elevating Dave Davies’ birthday over The Day the Music Died (the February 3, 1959 plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper), and partly because a lot of readers seem to share my affection for the Kinks, I’ll make an exception today.

From relatively early in their career as a hard-rocking British Invasion band, the Kinks dabbled in cultural (“Dedicated Follower of Fashion”) and even quasi-political (“Sunny Afternoon,” a lampooning of the idle rich lamenting their tax burden: “I’ve got a big fat mama trying to break me”) themes. And they were difficult to typecast. They produced one of the only anti-union rock-and-roll songs I can recall (“Get Back in Line”), and once proclaimed themselves the “Village Green Preservation Society,” hostile to capitalist development and modern culture alike. “Autumn Almanac” is a bathetic tribute to the drab limitations of post-World-War-II British working-class “prosperity.” And they condemned modernity in its entirety in “Twentieth Century Man,” the first of several attacks on bureaucrats as the ever-threatening “people in grey” (this was on the Muswell Hillbillies album–named after the Davies’ native suburban neighborhood–which hilariously mocked the British country music enthusiasts who sang of “those Black Hills that I ain’t ever seen.”). They even drifted near self-parody with “Ape Man”–expressing a desire to return to the jungle–and Arthur, a sort of musical history of twentieth-century Britain, topped by the beer-soaked jingoistic hit “Victoria.”

Interestingly, the Kinks’ greatest critical and commercial failure, the Preservation series of semi-rock operas, was a sprawling two-album epic in which capitalists and socialists were basically treated as the reincarnation of the English Civil War’s Cavaliers and Puritans, with a character called The Tramp standing in for Ray Davies as someone searching for reason and compromise. I once puzzled a young New Labour emissary from the UK by proposing to him that the Kinks had invented the Third Way (the political tendency, not the organization of the same name).

After Preservation and the not-very-conceptual concept album Soap Opera, the Kinks engineered a comeback by deciding to, as the title of a subsequent album sardonically put it, Give the People What They Want with more straightforward rock-and-roll. And I gradually lost interest in, and track of, their contemporary work as the 80s bled into the 90s.

And that was sad, since whatever else they were, the Kinks in their heyday were always interesting. As the writer of liner copy in a Kinks compilation wrote decades ago, in words I never forgot: “The Kinks never recorded a flower power number or performed a drum solo or balled Maryanne Faithful.” They remained the exceptional British Invasion band, and a boon to thinking rock fans everywhere.

As a commenter said this morning, it’s a shame the Davies brothers ultimately could not get along (Dave said pretty recently he was open to a reunion but it would have to be a short one because he couldn’t stand being in the same room as Ray for more than an hour), because the Kinks are pretty unimaginable without both of them. But their place in the rock-and-roll firmament is solid.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.