Much like Neil Young, the Kinks were a band that I’d heard on the radio forever, but didn’t explore further until my friend Tony brought over a copy of one of their records. It was their 1980 live album One for the Road, and I should probably explain at this point why my friends were always bringing records over to my house: It’s because that’s where our pretend radio station was.
I don’t honestly remember where the idea of the pretend radio station came from, but given that we were kids prone to making up imaginary worlds (baseball teams, bionic superheroes, etc.) and it was the heyday of WKRP in Cincinnati, it wasn’t all that unexpected. The radio station, though, may have been our most fully-fledged pretend universe. We started out picking call letters by typing blindly on a keyboard, with the result being “W¢YU” — the cents sign, we decided, would be pronounced “nordic C.” We set up a boom box in close proximity to my stereo speakers, pressed record, played records, and made up whatever stories popped into our heads. (As I recall, a lot of them involved the station management pounding on the door outside, trying to fire us.) Tony was my original co-conspirator, but he soon lost interest and my other friend Chris soon stepped in, and for the next year or so we proceeded to fill TDK D-90 cassette after cassette with improvised madness, punctuated with songs from whatever music we had available. It was a big incentive to explore new (and new-to-us) music, and we eagerly pooled our collections to flesh out our imaginary playlist.
So, the Kinks. I knew probably one song off One for the Road before I heard the album, which was “Lola,” a staple of ’70s rock radio. Hearing the rest of the Kinks end-of-the-decade live oeuvre, there were a bunch more that caught my ear — “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” with its tale of the United States as a down-at-the-heels hero, “Low Budget” and its perspective on a life spent searching through the discount bins. The tales of losers and misfits were attractive to a 14-year-old sitting at home pretending to be a radio DJ, but neither Tony nor Chris had any more Kinks records that I can recall, and then a couple years later the band came out with the unappealing MTV hit “Come Dancing,” and I wandered away to other musical interests.
I wandered back, in large part, thanks to Yo La Tengo. On their 1990 Fakebook record, one of the many songs they pulled out of obscurity to cover was “Oklahoma, U.S.A.,” off the Kinks album Muswell Hillbillies. Well over a decade passed before I thought to actually obtain a copy of Muswell Hillbillies, but finally, having heard it was one of those records that slipped under radar at the time but later was revered as a classic (much like Neil Young’s On the Beach), I bought it.
If you’ve heard Muswell Hillbillies you already know this, but: Even by the somewhat insane standards of 1970s Kinks albums, it’s hard to believe that this album even exists. It’s a concept album, first of all, about urban renewal — in particular, the post-World War II planned redevelopment of London that pushed the future Kinks’ families out of their old neighborhoods and into new ones, in their case the old suburb of Muswell Hill. The songs are vignettes loosely arrayed around that theme, including songs about classic British obsessions (“Have a Cuppa Tea”), the modern pressure for extreme dieting (“Skin and Bone”), and quite likely the only rock song ever written about forced government seizure of property by eminent domain (“Here Come the People in Grey”). I’d always known that Ray Davies was witty — I mean, come on: “Lola” — but this was urban sociology, underdog narratives, and a terrific rock album all mixed into one. It may not quite be experimental enough to be the Kinks’ Sgt. Pepper’s, but it’s certainly their On the Beach.
Anyway, a big thank you to Tony, to Ira Kaplan, and to anyone else over the years who’s tried to tell me that the Kinks are something special, even if it took a while for it to sink in. I’m not sure why it took so long — it didn’t help that they’d mostly stopped touring by the time I started going to shows, or that American rock radio didn’t quite know what to do with them aside from a few hits. But we’re now listening to more Kinks around the house than ever — helped along by my son’s class singing “Better Things,” another terrific song that I’d never quite paid enough attention to at the time, in their 4th grade musical. Now all he needs is a fake radio station to play it on.