Muswell Hillbillies


Alongside The Beatles, the Stones and The Who, The Kinks defined the Sixties musical landscape. Then, as popular culture embraced drugs and psychedelic sounds, the commercial success of the north London four-piece suddenly waned – The Kinks went their own way. After the top ten hits of ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and ‘Autumn Almanac’, in 1967, The Kinks would not chart again as highly for a further three years. The Summer of Love dissolved in a cold breeze and a darker decade loomed. Ironically, the songwriting of Ray Davies blossomed and his group issued a remarkable set of innovative works. Artistic progression was in abundance and The Kinks went from Black & White to Technicolor: The Village Green Preservation Society in 1968, Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) in 1969, and in November 1970 Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround • Part One. Each record captured an evolving and broadening musicianship. The three long players were constructed around individual thematic links and stand firm amongst The Kinks finest works. Yet despite over half a dozen associated singles, including ‘Days’, ‘Shangri-La’ and ‘Lola’, the albums failed to make any impression on the single buying public. There followed a film soundtrack Percy and then after an eight year relationship The Kinks left their record label, Pye. Released on R.C.A. Records in November 1971 Muswell Hillbillies was a startling presentation. It was The Kinks as never heard before. Viewed more than forty years on, it is a fascinating oddity and simultaneously one of their greatest records. The twelve track disc was an appropriation of American musical forms, wallpapered and embedded with an indigenous English quality. It was a melting pot of stateside genres encompassing Delta blues, New Orleans jazz and Sun Records country. Julien Temple: “The Kinks had in one stroke made US music their own, reinventing it as north London blues.” At the heart of the record lay a troubled dialogue; the inherent contradiction between tradition and modernity.

Muswell Hillbillies opens with ‘20th Century Man’ casting the polemic of past, present and future. The writer recognises the age of machinery and the wonderful world of technology but in the next breath sings I don’t wanna be here. Ray Davies: “I’m singing as if it’s down to my chest. I don’t really want the listener in on everything I’m saying – it almost needs sub-titles.” The tight, closeted sound is very much a production feature of the album. The atmosphere is dry, direct and largely unrestricted by studio effects. The strength of The Kinks was allowing the storytelling to dictate the aural experience. “I wrote a little fictional script which I worked out before I wrote the song. ‘20th Century Man’ was a person that was holed up. He attached dynamite to all the doors and windows and threatened to blow himself up if they demolished his house; the last house standing in the street.” Dave Davies: “People want to destroy small things of beauty. Is it because we’ve become more technologically minded or is it just a path that leads up your own arse?”


Here Come The People in Grey’, originally positioned as the first track on side two, is central to the album concept of ‘us’ and ‘them’. It describes Her Majesty’s Government’s faceless communication with a council tenant. Musically, the echoes of Chuck Berry resound as the protagonist declares I’m gonna fight me a one man revolution. Late Sixties London was still a playground of history scarred by the Luftwaffe’s wartime air raids, but now remaining bomb sites were being cleared to allow local council planning housing renewals. Ray Davies’ lyricism focused attention to the lives of everyday people affected by government policies. Beyond simple reportage, his songsimaginatively and poetically recast local personalities. “I used characters that I heard my parents talk about like Frankie Simes. Rosie Rooke really existed. She was my mother’s best friend.” Old Rosie Rooke appears in ‘Lavender Lane’ a hitherto unreleased gem from the album sessions. From Ray’s opening four bar count double tracked guitars and the verse melody revisit the famous descant of ‘Waterloo Sunset’. Dave harmonises behind an occasional Marc Bolan styled voice and Ray sings instead of ‘off’ they said ‘orf’ instead of ‘yeah’ they said ‘ya’.  It is wonderful and full sounding recording complete with brass accompaniment and uplifting musical changes. The song ‘Rosie Rooke’ has been the subject of much folklore amongst Kinks fans. Yet despite extensive searches in the depths of the Konk archive the mythical mastertape has remained undiscovered.

Dave: “These songs are all characters in our family; aunts and uncles, people that have suffered oppression. We were reflecting back…how socially people’s families were being dismantled.” He loved with his heart / He worked with his hands. John Gosling: “‘Uncle Son’ was a very personal song about Ray and Dave’s uncle.”The lyrical edge was party political, but Davies reminds the listener that the ordinary man just needs simple rules and simple plans. The faces of his youth provided an entry point for Ray’s writing but significantly symbolised the ending of an era. By drawing upon his immediate surroundings and taking commonplace images fermented within the neighbouring environment, the record celebrated a knowing authenticity.

Oklahoma lyrics

Where many of the songs on Muswell Hillbillies largely depicted a distressed daily existence ‘Oklahoma U.S.A’ presented a beautifully understated ode to silver screen escapism. She walks to work but she’s still in a daze / She’s Rita Hayworth or Doris Day / And Errol Flynn’s gonna take her away. It was an emotive fantasy, and poignantly a fitting tribute to the passing of Ray and Dave’s sister. “Rene died whilst she was dancing to ‘Surrey With The Fringe On Top’ at the Lyceum Ballroom on my thirteenth birthday.” Ray wrote she’s walkin’ on the surrey with the fringe on top, “Sometimes love songs are so tender and personal you don’t want people to hear them. That’s certainly the case with ‘Oklahoma USA’. It was written on a battered Spanish nylon string guitar. I barre the A chord then do quick movements keeping the root pedal. John did a beautiful piano part.”: “That was just Ray, Dave and me. I overdubbed a harmonium, pumped by two foot pedals. It made so much noise wheezing and creaking that we nearly abandoned the idea.”The touching ballad was a formidable achievement heading the following year’s ‘Celluloid Heroes’ All life we work but work is a bore / If life’s for livin’ then what’s livin’ for. Dave: “Me and Ray were brought up with an awful lot of genres and styles of music. It’s the foundation of whatever The Kinks became. You draw on all those ideas and funny licks. Even Doris Day records are in their somewhere.”

Recording sessions for Muswell Hillbillies began in late summer 1971 at Morgan Studios.  John ‘Nobby’ Dalton: “Before going into the studio we’d go round Ray’s house. He’d sit at the piano and run through the song and we’d just jot down the chords, or Dave might suggest playing something together.” John: “As the writer Ray pretty much had the tracks finished in his head however hard we tried to interpret the ideas. He asked Mike Bobak, the engineer, to source some ancient BBC radio-announcer type microphones. They were the size of bricks. The sessions got longer and longer and Ray remixed and remixed until one morning we even found Mike slumped over the desk exhausted.” With simple song structures and a paucityof middle eights, songs flourished with sprinkled extras. “On ‘Complicated Life’I tried to blend the organ with Dave’s lovely slide guitar parts.” Mick Avory: “We had Joe Brown’s wife on ‘Holloway Jail’ she was part of the singing group The Vernon Girls.”Ray: “We’d gone through a phase of expanding through the Sixties. Muswell Hillbillies was a return to what we thought we were as people.”

Have A Cuppa tea lyrics

Much of the album utilises an easy twelve-bar blues turnaround. By contrast ‘Holiday’ benefits from asmoking ragtime approach. John: “It was a musical postcard of the Great British holidaymaker on some rancid beach, determined to enjoy it. Ray had been on a much-needed holiday in Cornwall and sang it with a huge cigar in his mouth. I wrestled with an accordion but couldn’t keep the air going in so Ken Jones, our loyal road manager, pumped the bellows while I concentrated on the chord sequence. It’s end-of the-Pier Kinks.”Similarly, a song about Ray and Dave’s granny, ‘Have a Cuppa Tea’completewith genteel piano fills, is evocative of British Music Hall with the unbeatably joyous refrain Hallelujah, Rosie Lea. Paul McCartney’s ‘English Tea’ aside, and written some thirty-five years later, there has never been a greater song about the wonders of brewing up. The Kinks freely indulged in unfashionable genres and freed from the constraint of high profile pop existence the band explored music without reservation. Dixieland jazz charms ‘Alcohol’ with images of prohibition and Thirties America in a melancholic cocktail. The songs tale of a sinner tainted by demon booze and floosies is authentically enriched by the Mike Cotton Sound. Trumpet, trombone, clarinet and tuba canvas the musical terrain with traditional New Orleans pizzazz. Dave: “I liked it on the record, but going over in the stage thing…I wasn’t quite sure.” Despite initial misgivings, the guitarist came to appreciate the expanded arrangements and the Mike Cotton Sound trio would become a defining feature of The Kinks live and recorded appeal. During 1971 the band performed publicly in the UK for the first time in three years. They toured America for the fifth time in eighteen months and managed two trips to Australia. Mick: “During ‘Alcohol’ Ray would balance a bottle of beer on his head. It was entertaining, part of the loose atmosphere.” Nobby:How he did that I don’t know – just had a knack. He must have a flat head or something.” John: ‘Alcohol’ became our theme song. The Americans even dubbed us The Juicers.”On tour ever new avenues of amusement were presented to the audience and soon the front row would be filled by the likes of Andy Warhol and his Factory entourage. The dramatic increasingly became a fundamental part of any Kinks live outing.

Alcohol lyrics

Humour is ever present throughout Muswell Hillbillies disavowing any heavier content. Fat Flabby Annie was incredibly big / She weighed just about sixteen stone / And then a fake dietician went and put her on a diet / Now she looks like skin and bone. John: “‘Skin and Bone’ was a great chance to boogie. Bit of Fats Domino in there. We rehearsed that at Ray’s house and even tried with me playing bass alongside Nobby. Thankfully I reverted to the piano to double the riff. We recorded the Mike Cotton Sound in the studio lavvies; the echo in there was ideal.” The bop-trio further featured on ‘Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues’which tipped a hat to Eddie Cochrane’s ain’t no cure for the summertime blues whilst paying ragtime homage to Champion Jack Dupree and Eddie Boyd.Tension is industriously heightened between the tragic too terrified to walk out of my own front door and the comic the milkman’s a spy and the grocer keeps on following me. Recalling the formative years of The Kinks, original bass player Pete Quaife informed Johnny Black, “We were trying to do Big Bill Broonzy style blues…not the upbeat pop of Eddie Cochrane.” The Kinks had come full circle.

Across Muswell Hillbillies the spectrum of American musical tradition is re-invented with a spirited Englishness: it was ad-hoc and playful and centred by a home-baked narrative. Dave: “There’s a lot of information and musical ideas in this record. Ray was good at orchestrating and piecing all the elements together.” ‘Muswell Hillbillies’ is a fitting close to the album’s multilateral musical engagement. “I like way that it’s in two places; picking country and back-beat in that rock ’n’ roll way. It’s trying to marry the style of the great American players. We were big fans.” The guitarist’s interplay revives memories of Fifties greats like Scotty Moore and Cliff Gallup as the song cantors from one key to a dynamic mid-song tone change. The verse responds accordingly They’re gonna try and make me change my way of living  / But they’ll never make me something that I’m not. “Ray was a genius with the lyrics,” John Gosling observed, “Brilliantly drawn comparisons.” Julien Temple: “His documentary approach to lyrics might seem to be a distancing device, exploring other people’s lives rather than his own – but it’s therapy. The characters function almost as friends, providing ways of analysing aspects of himself.” Ray: “Something of me did end up in the songs. It’s inevitable: Less than you would imagine; more than you would think.”

Over 45 minutes Muswell Hillbillies presents the listener with the paradoxes of contemporary living: smart modern writers and painters over Shakespeare and Di Vinci; people driven to alcohol; diet fads; schizophrenia; cinematic idols; and the mortality of the working man. The rewards in the song cycle are manifold and understandably there was a reluctance to dismantle its overall impact with individual releases. Ray had made the decision to not write songs for the Top Forty and it goes some way to explaining the records absence from the UK charts. It scrapped to a lowly #100 on the US Billboard whilst the only single ‘20th Century Man’ backed with ‘Skin And Bone’ failed to chart at all. Ray “The songs didn’t belong to anyone except our fans. We were a success despite ourselves. I wanted to write songs that are not as light as they sound; subjects that were close to me that had an element of danger but also an element of love.”

Disco Two of this Deluxe Edition offers some rare delights. Amongst the BBC Sessions and alternate takes of tracks from the album are four songs withheld from the original release. Together with the aforementioned ‘Lavender Lane’ is a second track ‘Nobody’s Fool’. The song was publicly first heard in April 1972 as the opening theme to the second series of the London Weekend Television programme Budgie, starring Adam Faith. When the track was issued as a single it was credited to Cold Turkey and much rumoured to feature Ray and Dave on vocals, yet this is not true. The demo is built around an understated acoustic guitar and a piano riff reminiscent of The Kinks own ‘Animal Farm’. ‘Nobody’s Fool’s’ plaintive melody and lyrical theme of loneliness and isolation would have been pertinent content for Dave who was hospitalised in Los Angeles with depression in the year of the song’s writing. In the early part of 1971 Ray openly discussed plans to record a solo album variously titled The Ray Davies Songbook and, Songs I Sang For Auntie. If concluded it would have collected together compositions from past BBC commissions amongst newer recordings. The project never materialised, but alongside the two previously unreleased recordings on this edition there is the opportunity to embrace ‘Mountain Woman’, driven by Dave’s distinctive and warm two chord electric guitar riff, and a demo version of the delicately delivered ‘Kentucky Moon’. 

Muswell Hillbillies was a bold statement; thematic, focused and musically authentic. It addressed the forcible removable of the working-class from inner city London to the suburbs. Mick: “Urban regeneration sums it up. Knocking down old buildings and putting up boxes.Every other band was doing something completely different. We never followed a trend. It was guided by Ray’s songs.”Ray: “My parents came from inner Holloway, Islington. My mother was born in Barnsbury when it was a slum. People say, ‘How upper class’ now it’s become elevated to that level because Tony Blair lived there. Muswell Hill was more affluent and harder to fit in. It was a change of identity. We felt like we were reverting back to our origins. It’s a play on the Beverley Hillbillies.” Ray’s identification with the Sixties comedy was an inspired analogy of Rural Southerners who strike oil, pack their new found wealth on the back of a truck, and settle alongside Hollywood’s elite. The record was an educating engagement with a proud display of roots in the face of aspirational social mobility. Dave: “Whatever family you live in, we’re all trying to pretend we can cope. As kids, Ray and I witnessed the gaps and cracks in people’s lives; relationships going wrong; people just being depressed. We had our own language…like we did as kids. Ray was a withdrawn boy and I was out there amongst it all. Our humour connected us very profoundly and galvanised a lot of the emotions that we found more difficult. We connected as family, closer than we’d been since before The Kinks. What was important about this record was that Nobby and Baptist were starting to integrate well in the band. Mick had been there and knew the signs and messages. It’s not like an actor for a film. It takes time to get to know people. They were more with our ideas.” John Dalton had re-joined the band in 1969 after brief employment three years earlier and a jolting down to earth reality check, “After Face To Face I’d gone from a Kink to a coalman.” John: “Fitting in wasn’t that difficult. Nobby invited me over to his local. I went clubbing a lot with Mick. Dave and I enjoyed the same tastes in music: Dylan, The Byrds, and Neil Young.”

“Archway Tavern is on an island – like being in England,” Ray explains, “Muswell Hillbillies was inspired by that pub. My family used to go there. It was an Irish pub. I went there with a writer friend of mine in the midst of all the Troubles and they burned the English flag. It was a sign that there was an undercurrent.” The location was chosen for the front cover of the record with the band seen propping up the bar. A couple of locals look towards the camera, one or two in the direction of the band, whilst other regulars are seen reading papers or relaxed with their pints. There are no women. Dave: “You don’t see people like that in Hornsey or north London anymore. They were all locals apart from our road manager.” The sleeve was presented as a gatefold with an inside image depiction of backstreet homes surrounded by corrugated iron fencing. The Kinks all have shoulder length hair and are indifferently dressed in jeans and Seventies casual wear. John Gosling: “Itwas just the five of us having a beer together on our way to a demolition site up towards Highgate Hill. I got hold of an old broom and uncovered the body of a dead cat outside a shop called Cats on Holiday. It’s such a striking contrast to the sartorial elegance of those ‘Carnabetian’ shots of The Kinks in the Sixties.” Nobby: “That was my old white Rover 2000 in the background. We’d all driven there, except Ray, who didn’t drive in those days.”

Muswell Hillbillies marked a new beginning for The Kinks. It was a search for individualism enabled by a group uniting the roots of American music to contemporary English life. Dave: “In all great music whether it’s Beethoven, The Kinks or The Beatles there’s moments where you can tell they are so locked-in with each other emotionally. Ray and I worked in odd ways, even from when we were at school playing football. It’s a good analogy for music. When you know the players, you know intuitively what to do.”

Daniel Rachel, London, summer 2013