In the very first paragraph of his liner notes to The Kink Kronikles (Reprise 2XS-6454), John Mendelsohn emphasizes the Kinks' position as an underdog band. Perhaps even more than the exceptional individuality of their musical catalogue, this is one of the main factors that has made them so unique. Indeed, it is a factor that the group has at times seemed to welcome. More about that later.
The Kinks started out by being raunchier than any group in history. "You Really Got Me," "All Day And All Of The Night," "I Need You," and "Till The End Of The Day" were truly the Kingsmen unleashed, and for my money more thrillingly raucous records have never been recorded.
Ray Davies has bluffed his way through this matter a dozen times, and John Mendelsohn continues it in the liners here, but the truth is this: Jimmy Page played guitar on those early records, and it is some of the finest rock & roll guitar work ever laid down — almost as definitive an expression of the classic rock & roll attitude as those records themselves were.
After such successful rock and roll albums as You Really Got Me, Kinda Kinks, and particularly The Kink Kontroversy, not to mention Well Respected Kinks, Ray Davies decided it was time to explore some different alleys. This is precisely what the Kinks' work since Kink Kontroversy has been — a probe down one alley of expression, and once the genre has been satisfactorily mined, a move on to something else. Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur, Lola Vs. Powerman, and Muswell Hillbillies are all markedly different albums both in music and theme.
Ray's effete, melodic side had been apparent all along, especially on the records Page played little on — Kinda Kinks in particular. So it is no surprise that the Kinks went into an extended introspective soft-rock period, recording Face To Face, Something Else, Village Green, Arthur, and Lola Vs. Powerman. It is this period that is the focus of The Kink Kronikles.
In between, the Kinks released The Live Kinks in 1967, an evocation of everything the Kinks have ever meant at their best: effeteness (what vocals!) coupled with raucousness, sensitivity combined with the inebriated attitude that is still a large component of Kinks performances. It took me four years to finally understand The Live Kinks, and I had to be totally drunk to do it, but it's now one of my favorite albums of all time.
The Kink Kronikles opens with "Victoria," the same song that had opened Arthur with the most overt rock and roll the Kinks had recorded in several years. Arthur was a culmination of all the themes from the three previous Kinks LPs: nostalgia, the little people in life, village greens, situations vacant, steam-powered trains, and Ray's intense dislike of photography. Tied together by the character of Arthur Morgan and the Kinks' bubbling, lopsidedly off-center wit, it all came together perfectly. One lyric on the album almost summed up by itself so much of what the Kinks had been saying: "I wish my eyes could only see/Everything, exactly as it used to be."
No less important, Arthur also marked a culmination of Ray Davies' songwriting style. Some of the songs on Arthur are among the most intricate ever written to remain essentially rock and roll. What makes the difference between "Victoria" 's being not just a good record but a classic one is the "Land of hope and Gloria" bridge; it expands the song in such a way that when the Kinks come back into the original verse and chorus, their effect is overwhelmingly enhanced. "Yes Sir, No Sir" and "Nothing To Say" on Arthur are also similar in their structural makeup, and "Shangri-La" may stand forever as a masterpiece of rock songwriting.
From "Victoria" until the end of the second side, The Kink Kronikles doesn't let up for a minute. Previously unreleased, "This Is Where I Belong" serves as a magnificent theme song for Side One, which ends with "Waterloo Sunset," the Kinks' all-time ballad and previous closing cut of both Something Else and their Then Now And Inbetween promo album.
"David Watts," previously the opening cut of Something Else and side two of Then Now And Inbetween, opens side two. What perfect planning! In addition to "Shangri-La" and the all-time-bourgeois -decadence -beer -drinking-and-singalong-anthem "Sunny Afternoon," the side includes "Dead End Street" and "Autumn Almanac," integral members of the Kinks' fantastic seven-single string of 1966-68: "Sunny Afternoon," "Dead End Street," "Mr. Pleasant," "Waterloo Sunset," "Autumn Almanac," "Wonder-boy," and "Days." You could take a complete course in rock melody — Ray Davies' knack throughout is superlative — just by listening to these seven singles, and they're all here on Kink Kronikles.
Ray Davies is probably every bit as complicated a person as he seems to be sometimes: Nicky Hopkins has claimed to have done 70 percent of the keyboard work, but Davies is credited on the album. And Davies has claimed that his brother played "all the solos on all our records" — that he only used Jimmy Page for tambourine, on "Long Tall Sally"!
The Kink Kronikles, for that matter, is more complicated an album than it might at first appear to be. Things start breaking down starting with side three, partly from incohesive programming (which is strange, because the structuring of the first two sides is superb), and partly because nothing ever catches fire.
The inclusion of previously unreleased tracks such as "King Kong" and "Polly," to be sure, is alone justification for the existence of this last half of Kink Kronikles — an unbelievable 16 of the total 28 cuts on the double album have never before been issued on legitimate American LP — but that doesn't change the fact that these last two sides don't work. I miss the absence of some good rock and roll — "Johnny Thunder" or "Big Sky," say — that would shake things up a little. On the last two sides of Kink Kronikles the soft-rock Kinks simply sound too much like just another effete non-rocking English group, which is not at all what they were.
The Kink Kronikles is really not in any way representative of the Kinks' entire aura. An album without the Kinks' loud, chunky rock and roll is akin to an analysis of Van Morrison without any mention of Them (indeed, considered by some souls as one of the five greatest rock groups of all time ...). What makes "Waterloo Sunset" so great is that these are the same guys who did "You Really Got Me." And they still play both of these songs on stage. Unlike the Beach Boys, Beatles, and numerous others, the Kinks have never renounced one bit of their musical past.
The first two sides of Kink Kronikles do, however, capture perfectly the Kinks' period when they were creating their own highly individual music, totally uninfluenced by current trends. Ultimately, the Kinks are one of the most underdog groups of all time. As Ray Davies put it, "Sometimes it seems as if it's us against the rest of the world." That they've made some extraordinary music all along hardly hurts the case, and Ray Davies' sensibility as expressed in the Kinks' recordings is almost inseparable from the music in the final analysis. Whether or not the Kinks are one of the greatest groups of all time is subjective nitpicking; arguing about it is better suited for beer bars (which is how the Kinks'd have it, I'm sure) than newsprint.
I do know this for sure, though: the Kinks are a lot of people's favorite group, and those people compose as passionate a group of fans as you will ever find. God save them all.
The title, of course, rates an unqualified 100 points.