by Jacob Wingate-Bishop
Muswell Hillbillies didn’t sell particularly well upon release – failing to capture the public’s collective unconscious like the Kinks’ previous effort, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One – but it did receive near unanimous acclaim from critics. Years later, it’s finally been given the comprehensive, deluxe reissue, along with an entire remastering. It’s also, fifty years on from release, one of the iconic rock act’s best efforts.
It’s not difficult to see why 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies, the Kinks’ tenth studio album, wasn’t the commercial success it should have been. On first listen, it’s a group of captivating pop rock tracks which all pay homage to the weary and grey side of 20th century Britain; from its woes, ubiquitous unease, paranoia and vices. Many of the tracks, though quintessentially Davies-esque in humour, are on the darker side of life. And for a band like the Kinks – who wrote tracks about love, autumn and doing the do – it was maybe a bit too close to home.
But the critics had it right. The record is one of the group’s best, and still sounds fresh all these decades on; home to a reliquary of pop masterpieces lost to time and commercial mediocrity. Muswell Hillbillies opens with ‘20th Century Man’, a deliciously Bolan-studded trip down the austerity and aggression of the 1960s. It’s a fitting opener to an album rife with paranoia and concern for the future.
It’s only right, then, that Ray Davies follows this up with ‘Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues’, the album’s darkest comedic track, with our narrator convinced that the milkman and the tax collector are part of some global conspiracy. It reflects a growing sense of anxiety in early 1970s Britain – a country that had seen war, scandals, the hippie movement and scientific advancement on an unprecedented scale – whilst keeping defiantly upbeat when it needs to be.
‘Holiday’ brings out the quaint-villaged, dance hall honky-tonk of the group’s roots, remaining one of their haziest tracks, hungover with the state of working-class living. It’s a standout track, followed by the delectably wry ‘Skin and Bone’; concerned with the endless strive for the ‘perfect’ body in society. All condensed into an addictive, three-and-a-half minute track.
Davies performs a faithful ode to the music hall days with ‘Alcohol’, telling the story of the desolation the bottle brings. It’s a mystical number; Seine-soaked accordions and brass giving the melody some hidden depth, just as frontman Davies wails of the so-called ‘demon alcohol’ all the while.
Then, in the very next song, ‘Complicated Life’, he puts on his best Jagger impression and laments the hole teetotalling leaves behind. It’s lovably wry, a perfect slice of early-70s Britain set to blues. ‘Here Comes the People In Grey’, meanwhile, is a classic Kinks rock track for the longtime fans, with some of the most sublime guitar on the whole record, echoing the Who.
‘Have A Cuppa Tea’ is steeped in bathos, a characteristic that overshadows the actual strength of the track. All the same, it’s a playful escape from the pockmarked drudgery of the album’s subject matter. But just when you think the classics are gone, it’s a band like the Kinks that effortlessly keep you on your toes. ‘Holloway Jail’ is one of the most overlooked pieces in the band’s canon; a lowdown, dirty number which owes as much to reggae as it does to rock.
Muswell Hillbillies closes on the infectious, country high of its title track; a jaunty end to an incredibly solid piece of work. It’s a rhapsody to the imperfect beauty of an industrial London, and sounds straight out of the Stones’ Let It Bleed.
The Kinks are the quintessential English band, having perfected the reserved, almost modest nature of our nation’s pop decades ago. There’s an unbridled quaintness to their sound, and in Muswell Hillbillies, the group get to turn that fact on its head; showcasing the grim reality of life in Britain for the working class at that time. With every catchy melody and bobbing beat, they leave no stone unturned, exploiting every fissure, every human-borne imperfection to the nth degree. Over the sea may lie another land, America, which proves a tempting apple in the garden of Eden, a star-studded utopia for the popstars and the film legends. But here, in this record, the Kinks are as they’ve always been – singers for the troubled souls.