The famously clichéd answer to the question "Beatles or Stones?" is "The Kinks," right? It's one of those clichés that's really kinda true. The Kinks had both the songwriting chops of the Beatles and the ragged edge of the Stones, and created a body of work that stood on its own, transcending the limitations of those other two groups. I started listening to the Kinks when my pal Mr. Mike played their entire Singles A+B collection on the newfangled CD jukebox at a tiki bar in San Francisco once, on a west coast road trip. Of course I'd heard "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night" on oldies radio, but hearing all their early 45's, in order, was an ear-opening experience. Brilliant slashes of melodic, smart rock and roll.
Sometime later I heard the Kinks Kronikles record and was stunned by the breadth and depth of the songwriting on display. Not just the songwriting, but the shambling attitude they took with their music, and the brilliant, sometimes viciously applied humor. This was something that the Beatles and Stones lacked. Ray Davies wasn't joking around in his music, but used sarcasm and wit to lash out at a world gone evil and stupid, and I could relate.
There's another thing the Beatles and Stones lacked -- a real sense of social justice. The Beatles were rich from the time they were young and never really dived into political, class-conscious critique; The Stones were too jaded to care, and songs like "Street Fighting Man," no matter how menacing, felt a bit phony. The Kinks, on the other hand, took pains to side with the working class, even going so far as to break with party lines in criticism of union bosses who lorded over the workers below them that they'd ostensibly sworn to serve. Songs like "Get Back in Line" broke through political gamesmanship to focus on the actual, living, breathing workers who were exploited on all sides from birth to death.
Somehow, I'd never heard the Kinks' Muswell Hillbillies album until a few months ago. Even Lola, its underappreciated predecessor, had the hit title track to guide listeners through its tales of hope and resignation. Muswell Hillbillies, though, never seemed to gain much traction, especially in the States, where its weird mix of British music hall tunes and American country must have sent a lot of people head scratching.
What Muswell is though, is the Kinks most distinctive and perfect record of their long career. On it, Ray Davies' disgust with the modern world, and its mistreatment of the "ordinary man" is grim, funny, dark, and powerful, and the nuance and misdirection is beautiful. In "Have a Cuppa Tea," a rollicking ode to the English Pastime, he cuts suddenly to the bone with the refrain, "For Christ's sake, have a cuppa tea." In that one line there lies all the hidden suffering and latent anger of the working class.
In "Uncle Son," he paints a portrait of a working man who's faced exploitation on all sides from day one-- Unionists, socialists, conservatives, and preachers have all had their way with him, using him for the symbolic power his authentic life stands for. When Davies sings "Bless you, Uncle Son-- They won't forget you when the revolution comes" you know damn well that this ordinary working stiff, who just strove to get by, will simply be dumped on the pile of those who came before him, who were used, abused, misled and wrung dry, for one selfish purpose or another.
The other songs on Muswell are equally fine. From start to finish it’s the Kinks' greatest accomplishment. Give it a listen, for old Uncle Son's sake, if nothing else.