Muswell Hillbillies

21st Century Men: The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies at 50

The Kinks’ landmark album Muswell Hillbillies turns 50 and endures as a prophetic masterpiece that anticipates our messy political moment.

Muswell Hillbillies
The Kinks
RCA
24 November 1971

On the 50th anniversary of the Kinks’ classic album Muswell Hillbillies, the time has come to appreciate the unique genius of Ray Davies’ political vision.

The Kinks have always been an enigma. Though firmly part of the British Invasion that swept America in the mid-1960s, the band were also so idiosyncratically British that American audiences were often baffled by their music. And at the height of rock’s hippie moment, when music fans were rolling around in Woodstock’s mud under the haze of psychedelic drugs, Ray Davies and the Kinks were releasing a quaint ode to pastoral days gone by. The landmark 1968 album, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, was so out of step with the zeitgeist of its day that it took years to be recognized as one of the outstanding records of the rock ‘n’ roll era.

This enigmatic quality has served their legacy well. By ignoring fashions and trends, the Kinks forged a body of work that is an enduring paradox: so out-of-step with its time it’s timeless. The quirky, theatrical, and oh-so British Kinks albums of the late 1960s and early 1970s remain much more contemporary and interesting than much of the popular music from their contemporaries.

24 November 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of a remarkably prescient Kinks album, Muswell Hillbillies. Released in 1971, the record must have puzzled listeners at the time as it almost purposefully turns its back on the mainstream success of 1970’s Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. On the strength of hit singles like “Lola” and “Apeman”, that LP had been a commercial and critical success for the group, reasserting their positions on sales charts after the Village Green experiments. Muswell Hillbillies found the Kinks turning their backs on that career track to continue its extended critique of modernity.

Though generally appreciative of the record’s songs, Rolling Stone complained about its muddied, live sound, which often finds Ray Davies’ vocals buried in the mix. The overall impression is that the record was a missed opportunity. It is also entirely understandable that music listeners in the late 1960s couldn’t understand what Davies was doing, politically speaking, during this period either. Where seemingly everyone else was basking in the liberatory potential of the moment, Ray Davies was longing for a reset.

From Village Green through Muswell Hillbillies (and into the mid-1970s two-part Preservation concept albums), Davies acknowledged and celebrated some advancements in human rights. But he argued that progress was primarily achieved through powerful technocratic forces that squeezed life through machinery that paradoxically deprived individuals of liberty. Big government, policemen, and capitalism all collaborated in this process of corralling human beings into “computerized communities”, as the album’s title track puts it. Taken as a whole, this period of the Kinks’ output was dubious (at best) about the very idea of progress. Even Lola’s “Apeman” demonstrated an absolute rejection of modernity, preferring atavism to what passes as progress in the modern world.

Fifty years on, Davies’ view of the world is easier to understand. The promise of the Summer of Love began to crumble from the outset, and even before Charles Manson made a mockery of it, the seams had begun to rip. Eventually, the idealistic, utopian hippies grew fully into the Baby Boomers of Millennial memes. Who can blame Ray Davies for questioning what was passing for progress at the time. In hindsight, it appears he saw something everyone else was missing.

Listening to Muswell Hillbillies a half-century after its release, one is struck by just how current it feels. The record’s wildly comic disillusionment feels like a prophecy come to fulfillment here in the roaring 2020s. 

The Kinks’ Complicated Political Legacy

There have been recent attempts to re-frame the Kinks as a conservative rock band. On the one hand, the claim has some merit, looking at the group’s heavily nostalgic music during this period. In his article “The Whimsical Conservatism of the Kinks”, Roland Dodds makes such an argument. Emphasizing the lyrical fondness for old things and the simultaneous revulsion against “Big Government”, Dodds roughly equates the band’s principles with those of the GOP.

Indeed, these are not ideals the Kinks share with much of the Democratic Party, but concluding they are conservative is far too simplistic. To his credit, Dodds acknowledges ways in which the Kinks subvert modern Republican ideas (complaints about police brutality being one), but he doesn’t let this alter his premise. Arguments like this draft the Kinks into conservatism by defining conservatism simply as “old fashioned”, ignoring the economic ideology underpinning the politics and driving the erasure of Davies’ beloved Village Green.

Dave Davies (Ray’s younger brother) takes issue with such understandings of the band’s politics. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Davies rejects the label “conservative” (used by Pete Townshend in a reflection on Village Green). In response to the word “conservatism”, Davies says, “I think it was ‘values’ more than conservatism. My father was a socialist — very left — and I was brought up to be that way. You can still be far-left and have values.”

Concluding that records like Muswell Hillbillies are conservative because they map to some vague notion of Andy Griffith Show “family values” is reductive. Even a cursory glance at the Kinks’ discography dispels any serious ideological conservatism in the band. 1970’s “Lola”, one of the group’s biggest and most beloved singles is stunningly trans-positive for its time. 1983’s “Young Conservatives” openly lampoons its subject, referencing older Kinks songs along the way as if to make a statement about the bands’ historical positions on such matters.

Even the most seemingly conservative song in the catalogue, “The Village Green Preservation Society”, puts tradition in a dialectic with the new: “Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you.” At the heart of Davies’ critique of modern progress is not a simple desire to turn back the clock and unplug it, but an understanding that liberatory change must happen, but that the faceless bureaucratic forces of capital and the nanny state should not be in charge of those developments.

And as far as the past goes, even in Village Green, it’s not conceived of as a lost Eden of homogeneity. In the pastoral paradise of the village green are rebels like the non-conformist “Johnny Thunder” and the hauntingly witchy “Wicked Annabella”.  Dissenting individualists like these are celebrated along with the church and steeple. Davies’ politics in this period are far too inclusive for the likes of Ted Cruz.

The album resonates not because it easily fits into a political tribe but because it lays the blame for societal collapse at the feet of all, liberal and conservative alike. Mechanistic thinking that ignores the profound effects of change on actual people are the target of Davies’ political ire, not any single party.

Muswell Hillbillies in the 21st Century

The album opens with the nightmarish “20th Century Man”, which could just as easily be called “21st Century Man”. The opening lines set the tone for the rest of the album while also giving the record a unique timeliness: “This is the age of machinery / A mechanical nightmare.” Like Kafka did 50 years before him, Ray Davies locates the primary threat to liberty not in a particular political ideology but in the mechanization of life, transforming people into cogs for the machinery.

Fifty years later, the argument seems even more compelling as social media algorithms form our body politic, and we carry the surveillance state in our pockets everywhere we go. If I sound less than optimistic about technology and progress, so did Davies, who put it as such: “The wonderful world of technology / Napalm, hydrogen bombs, biological warfare.” Certainly, we have somewhat different concerns today, but our continued deference to technological solutions continues to lead to missteps.

One lesson the album has for us today is that it is a mistake to separate social, political, and economic ills from their origins in mechanical thinking. The technocracy Davies describes is “Controlled by civil servants / And people dressed in grey.” This maintenance of this Orwellian vision is enforced by a police state run amok: “Don’t wanna get myself shot down / By some trigger happy policeman.” This moment has direct relevance to a source of political strife today. Still, because the band’s politics are so slippery, so incoherent to contemporary definitions, the album might frustrate partisans of any stripe. Here the police brutality is faceless and not comprehensible through moral judgments of individuals. It’s the age of machinery, after all. The problem of police brutality in this album is an outcome of the dehumanizing effects of our mechanical nightmare.

Not all of the songs on Muswell Hillbillies are so bleak. Many are hilarious, in fact, such as “Have a Cuppa Tea”, which sends up the, yes, tradition of English reliance on the caffeinated beverage as a coping mechanism. But each song revolves around a central theme about the dehumanizing machinery of modernity.

In addition to this record’s thematic relevance on its 50th birthday, the album’s songs are uniformly excellent, featuring some of the finest songwriting of Sir Ray Davies’ storied career alongside the occasional silly theatricality that makes the Kinks, well, the Kinks. Yes, the Rolling Stone reviewer that complained about the sometimes muddy vocal recording makes a good observation. But the album’s rough, stripped-down production is part of its argument; an exquisitely produced album about the pitfalls of mechanizing life would seem to miss the point.

Think about the upheaval we’ve seen worldwide in the last five years. The phenomenon of two-time Obama voters casting ballots for Trump indicates a massive political re-alignment, which is the tip of an iceberg of chaos. In some ways, Muswell Hillbillies is more right for our time than that in which it was produced. Yes, its politics are non-conformist, and one listener might make the Kinks as reactionaries while another will dismiss them as radicals.

The album’s penultimate song, “Uncle Son”, captures the true political concern of the record: the unexceptional person just trying to live an authentic life amid political, economic, and social machinery. “Liberals dream of equal rights / Conservatives live in a world gone by / Socialists preach of a promised land / But old Uncle Son was an ordinary man.” Muswell Hillbillies laments the toll our struggle forward has on the liberty of individuals along the way.

Promoting his recent Americana project in an insightful interview with The Quietus, Ray Davies sums up his uncomfortable politics succinctly: “I haven’t found a political party that adequately expresses how I feel about the world. My dad was a working-class socialist, but as a person . . . I just don’t want people in shops to have to sell their businesses. I don’t know what that makes me.” In these lines, one hears clear echoes of the 1968 song “Village Green”, in which the singer laments, “I miss the village green / and all the simple people.” In the body politic, Davies was far more interested in the body than the politic.

Whatever politics drove the Kinks’ music in the transition between the 1960s and 1970s, they never lost sight of the people swept up by a swiftly changing world. Davies perhaps summed it up best in the chorus of “Uncle Son”, singing “Bless you Uncle Son / They won’t forget you when the revolution comes.”

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