By Kenny McMurtrie
October 24, 2013
A number of years ago all of The Kinks’ albums were reissued on CD with extra tracks and, as these things go, were all worth picking up (with the exception of Live At The Kelvin Hall as the only additional material was the same gig but in stereo. That one I left out of my collection). Muswell Hillbillies, due to being the band’s first release on RCA rather than on Pye didn’t come out again at that time (although a 14 track remastered version from 1998 does seem to be available on amazon) but it too has now been through the expansion & sprucing up experience.
Packaging-wise the gatefold sleeve does justice to the original photographic cover and the accompanying booklet has a good amount of information about the recording of the work, along with all the trainspottery details about studios etc. (it doesn’t though detail when or why the band increased in size from four to five members & a number of typos have got past its editor). What then of the music?
Prior to taking delivery of my copy I heard the track ‘Have A Cuppa Tea’ one evening on 6 Music. It’s become a bit of an earworm as a result, being in the mould of classic Kinks tunes such as ‘Party Line’, ‘Australia’ etc. – acute social observation wrapped up in a catchy tune. It is not though, as it turns out, indicative of the album as a whole.
Whereas the early, British Invasion era Kinks material did pretty much what their contemporaries at the time were doing (speeding up the blues and selling it back to the USA), albeit many more times with the added edge of that social observation, their Pye albums of the latter part of the Sixties were more what could be regarded as conceptual ones with a basic uniting theme linking the bulk of the songs on each of them. A lack of successful singles from these was one of the reasons that they parted company with the label.
Americana, rather than the blues, was the (maybe less so in the current age) surprising seam of music the band were to mine in 1971 on Muswell Hillbillies. Combined with their love of Victorian music hall and other elements of British whimsicality this was a project that could easily have gone off the rails but instead managed to extend the band’s range and produce an album that easily holds its own with any release from the end of the previous decade. ‘Have A Cuppa Tea’ in fact is a bit of a curate’s egg amongst the other 11 tracks on the original album, being rather less infused with the scent of the open prairie than the likes of ‘Muswell Hillbilly’, ‘Oklahoma U.S.A.’ or ‘Complicated Life’.
As for the bonus material on disc two of the release six of the 14 tracks are described as previously unreleased, although ‘Mountain Woman’ & ‘Kentucky Moon’ appear on the 1998 disc mentioned above. Personally I can’t see that much difference between the album versions of ‘Have A Cuppa Tea’ and ‘Uncle Son’ & the alternate versions offered up here or what the 1976 remixes of ‘Muswell Hillbilly’ and ‘20th Century Man’ bring to the table but having BBC session tracks right at the end along with a demo version of ‘Nobody’s Fool’ means there is a reasonable amount of value here (the inclusion of John Peel’s chat either side of the BBC songs would though have further improved things).
As with the album’s immediate three predecessors Muswell Hillbillies didn’t spawn a charting single (Ray Davies had though taken the decision to stop writing those) and the album also failed to get into the UK charts. The band remained prolific through the 1970s, sticking more solidly with the concept album format that they’d loosely engaged with for the last few years, until the end of the decade. Unless you were a hardcore fan though you’d likely not have been aware they were still functioning until ‘Come Dancing’ made it into the singles chart in 1983. Whether this reissue will encourage a re-evaluation of the latter part of the band’s career is debatable but, as possibly their last wholly worthwhile album release, in its own right it deserves your attention.