Like that lady who dreams of an Oklahoma where Shirley Jones and Gordon McCrea dwell, we can fantasize of an England where our neighbors lead rich and eccentric lives and invite us over for a friendly spot of tea.
The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies landed with a commercial thud when it was originally released in America back in 1971. Sure, some critics liked it, but during the height of British glam rock and after their Top 10 single “Lola”, this album did not meet sales expectations and disappointed recent Kinks fans. The album never broke the Top 100 Billboard rock chart (it stalled at number 100). During the past 25 years, the record has enjoyed a resurgence of attention and now routinely makes best of lists (i.e. Top 500 Rock Albums of All Time) and enjoys its status as a classic disc
In October 2013, RCA released a remastered stereo edition of Muswell Hillbillies with several extra tracks. The November 2014 America RCA / Legacy release is basically the same record, but it also includes a bonus DVD of the Kinks performing 13 songs on television in 1972: two on “The Old Gray Whistle Test” and the other “The Kinks at the Rainbow, BBC TV”. The videos do a great job of capturing the personalities of the group members, especially the somewhat dynamic interactions between brothers Ray and Dave Davies. But the real attraction here is the music, especially the 12 original album cuts now heard in full sonic splendor.
Muswell Hillbillies is not really a concept album much as it is a collection of songs on a common theme about working class families, like the Davies, who were victims of a government plan that moved them from their inner city dwellings to shoddy suburbs that lacked traditions and social networks. Ray Davies saw these urban dwellers as comparable to American hillbillies because of their insular lives and stubborn rebellions against interfering do-gooders, all of whom would be better off if they just left the folks alone.
Each of the first dozen songs are gems that operate in the same manner to create an individual portrait, much in the same way that Sherwood Anderson famously did in Winesburg, Ohio. The plain language used befits the unpretentious subjects who seek to find meaning in their drab lives. There are many great examples of this here, but perhaps the most poignant is the song about a working class lass who finds meaning and pleasure in her life through a Hollywood musical, “Oklahoma USA”. The track begins with the sound of solo piano, and what may be the clanging of a train crossing signal to set the mood. Ray quietly joins in, “All life we work, but work is a bore / If life's for livin', then what's livin' for?” We learn about the woman’s dreary routine existence. For those of us who don’t find meaning in work, only a paycheck, an escape into music and movies is a sound salvation. The arts enrich and color our lives in deep and profound ways—that’s what life is for.
The other eleven tracks are just as affecting and often tagged with a sense of humor, whether about the demon “Alcohol”, the enjoyment of simple joys of life in “Have a Cuppa Tea”, or even the reality of living in a new world on “20th Century Man” and “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues”. Yes, these can be serious topics, but one cannot help but laugh at the absurdity of modern existence.
The diverse old-fashioned instrumentation deserves special praise as the Kinks (Ray, Dave on vocals and guitars, Mick Avory on drums were joined by a new bass player, John Dalton and keyboardist, John Gosling) mixed antiquated British dancehall styles with American Dixieland jazz, old time country music, jug band tunes, and fifties rock and roll with the help of a horn section. The sound can best be described as rollicking on most songs, with a tuba thump thumping and the tempo shifting from measure to measure to fit the material. Happy may sound different than sad, but these feelings can all be part of the same song.
The eight extra tracks (and an old radio commercial for the album) have merit. “Lavender Lane”, “Kentucky Moon”, and “Mountain Man” with their nostalgic themes would fit on the original Muswell Hillbillies, but the songs are a bit thin musically and lyrically. The alternate versions of cuts on the album (“Have a Cuppa Tea”, “Uncle Son”, and “20th Century Man”) revealingly demonstrate the experimental aspect of the album’s creation, but are probably of little interest to most listeners.
It is the first dozen cuts that deserve the most attention. Sure the videos are fun and the extra tracks are nice, but the original 12 are truly wonderful and sadly just as appropriate in their protestations today as they were back in 1971. In our global village, governments still use the excuse of progress to displace people and create unnecessary havoc. Muswell Hillbillies puts the rebellious spirit of all who instinctually cringe to such happenings in a musical setting that we can sing along to and find community in. Like that lady who dreams of an Oklahoma where Shirley Jones and Gordon McCrea dwell, we can fantasize of an England where our neighbors lead rich and eccentric lives and invite us over for a friendly spot of tea.