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The Kinks had hit after hit between 1964 and 1968, after which the law of diminishing returns set in. Front man and main songwriter Ray Davies, a man who was always determined to do what he wanted to do with little respect for prevailing fashion, made some of the most charmingly eccentric concept albums of the period, with little nods to New Orleans jazz, classic musicals and even old-style vaudeville as well as pop and rock. They made little sense to the group's successive record companies who saw them in terms of, er, groovy pop singles, and all but the most devoted fans, and sold poorly.
You might be forgiven for wondering what they did in the 1970s after the final UK Top 10 hits 'Lola' and 'Apeman'. In fact they released one album of fresh material every year that decade. Ray never had writer's block, though he did later say self-deprecatingly that there was one stage around that time when he should not have been allowed to put records out. Fortunately for us fans, he didn't listen to himself too hard at the time.
In 1976 The Kinks joined the relatively young record label Arista. Ray put his love of rock operas on the back burner (as the rest of the group said, it was only then that they stopped being an amateur dramatic society!), and they went back to making song-based albums. Greatest hits compilations aside, the days of Kinks' hit albums in Britain were over, but thanks to their new-found US popularity and regular touring there, this made No. 21 in America in 1977.
Although 'Sleepwalker' was not a rock opera, there was something of a theme running through the songs - sleepwalking, sleepless nights.
One of the strongest tracks opens proceedings. 'Life On The Road' is in some ways a statement - goodbye rock operas, as the group returned to touring. To start with, Ray sings softly about wandering through the bright city lights ever since he was a child, rambling around Piccadilly, Soho and Savile Row. After this wistful, introspective 60 seconds or so, guitars, bass, drums and some lovely silvery keyboard touches kick in to a more upbeat ditty, as he tells us - 'I'm livin' the life that I chose, livin' my life on the road.'
Then he starts to get angry, as he did so often on record. 'Mr Big Man' is evidently directed at a manager. Maybe a fictional one? - it's well-known that the group had several run-ins with some of those who ran them, not very well, in their early days. A slow burner of a grungy tune with some snarling lead guitar and organ plays behind a diatribe against the person who was their friend at first but got too big for his boots; 'You schemed and connived, you pushed and you lied, till you at last became a star.' Ouch.
The title track has an interesting lyric, although it's far from the strongest musical number. A dark mood, almost funky rhythm and vigorous guitar riff all accompany a song about how 'When the sun puts out the light, I join the creatures of the night.'
Big balladry follows, with the rather delightful 'Brother'. With its general 'I'm your brother, though I don't even know your name' mood, this is a kind of universal brotherhood anthem, the kind of let's all live in peace together song which may seem a bit idealistic to some but perfectly sincere to others. We can assume that Ray was probably not directing his thoughts to younger brother and lead guitarist Dave, with whom his rather stormy love-hate relationship was a constant factor of the group's long yet turbulent history.
Another of the most commercial numbers comes next. 'Juke Box Music' was crying out to be a hit single, a catchy, bouncy tune about a girl who lives in her own fantasy world as she plays her favourite records all day - 'but it's only jukebox music' At over 5½ minutes this is the longest track on the record, though it might be noted that five others also break the five-minute barrier, and none are shorter than three.
Returning to the darker themes, next comes 'Sleepless Night', a mid-tempo but lyrically rather bleak insomniac's lament, with colourful organ work. Lest you might find this a little too sombre, it's followed by 'Stormy Sky', an equally atmospheric but more comforting piece about finding shelter under dark clouds rolling by as light comes. Then it returns to the rather more chilling ' Full Moon', a slow, brooding song about madness, sleepwalking again, with gentle keyboards and almost spooky vocal harmonies enhancing the mood of the lyrics - -'You see before you a truly broken man, 'Cause when it gets to midnight, I don't know who I am.'
The last track which appeared on the original 1977 release, 'Life Goes On', restores a sense of optimism. A more jaunty tune tells us that 'Blizzards can blow, the waves hit the shore, but the people recover and come back for more.'
Two tracks originally released as B-sides to singles, and a couple of previously unreleased songs (one in two slightly different mixes), conclude proceedings. 'Artificial Light' has a bit of a similarity to Chuck Berry's 'Memphis Tennessee' - a country-flavoured rock'n'roll tune with sprightly guitar and bluesy harmonica, that almost threatens to break into 'This Ole House' at one stage.
If any track on this album will get you on your feet or make you wield an air guitar, 'Prince of The Punks' will. A 1977 B-side, this was rumoured to be a dig at Tom Robinson, who was briefly a protégé of the Davies brothers in his early, pre-'2-4-6-8 Motorway' days. Punk-rockish guitar and Ray's most raucous vocal pours scorn on someone who 'acts working class but it's all baloney, he's really middle class and he's just a phoney,' with a brass section punching out the basic riff from time to time. Another very good reason in itself for getting hold of this record.
What next, the 'Sunshine Of Your Love' riff and a reggae tune? Not quite, but 'The Poseur' gets quite close to that. Finally, two different mixes of the slower, more introspective 'On The Outside', complete the record.
Like the rest of the Kinks albums originally released on RCA and Arista between 1971 and 1984 and recently transferred to CD, this not only has bonus tracks but also a very comprehensive booklet including photos, lyrics and a commentary about the history and songs.
You thought The Kinks almost came to a full stop after the Top 10 hits stopped coming? Think again, and give this a try. There are enough nuggets on pretty well every album they ever made to prompt any fan to investigate further. While it's not quite up there with the classic 'Village Green Preservation Society', this 60 minutes of K'wality Kinks is still well worth your while.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted elsewhere]