As they went to work on "Muswell Hillbillies," the Kinks were riding high on 1970's career-reviving "Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One," a satirical concept album whose success was largely driven by a whimsical retelling of a night spent dancing with a cross-dresser in London's Soho district.
"Lola" was a worldwide phenomenon that topped the charts in several countries, inspiring massive singalongs for the remainder of the Kinks' career.
Here in the States, the single peaked at No. 9, their highest entry on the Billboard Hot 100 since "Tired of Waiting for You" hit No. 6 in 1965.
And this is all as they were busy reconnecting with their fervent U.S. fan base following the lifting of a touring ban that kept them from performing here from 1966 until a string of dates in 1969 in support of "Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)."
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'What a stroke of genius' Lola was
Dave Davies knows the conventional wisdom would've been that what they needed in that moment was to figure out a way to build on the momentum "Lola" had afforded them.
Which is exactly why he's laughing.
"It's funny," he says. "I laugh because from the outside, you'd think that would be the plan, wouldn't you? But as with a lot of Kinks stuff, so much seemed to come out of the blue when you least expect it.
"So there was no plan. You're lucky to get anything sometimes, let alone a chorus like 'Lola,' which everybody can sing."
More than 50 years later, the lead guitarist, who formed the Kinks in 1964 with his brother, Ray Davies, remains somewhat in awe of his brother's ability to deliver a song as iconic as "Lola."
"What a stroke of genius that was, just playing a few chords and coming up with a chorus like that," he says. "Anybody would have been pleased with that."
Following 'Lola' with 'Muswell Hillbillies'
There were no major hits on "Muswell Hillbillies" (which actually followed a bit of a detour through the soundtrack to a quirky British comedy called "Percy" about a man who undergoes the world's first penis transplant).
Their first release after signing to RCA Records, effectively freeing themselves from their previous label's insistence on hit singles, "Muswell Hillbillies" arrived the day before Thanksgiving in 1971, its title a winking reference to the comedy "Beverly Hillbillies."
A concept album filled with tales of working-class families leaving the war-torn inner city for a posh life in the suburbs before the developers swoop in to gentrify what's left of its identity, it barely charted anywhere, peaking at No. 100 in the States while becoming their fourth consecutive release that didn't hit the U.K. charts at all.
And yet, it's gone on to become one of the Kinks' most celebrated masterstrokes, named album of the year in Stereo Review and Ray's "signature statement" in a mid-'80s Rolling Stone album guide.
There's a timeless quality to both the music and the lyrics that finds the Davies brothers and their bandmates (Mick Avory on drums, John Dalton on bass, John Gosling on piano, organ and accordion) playing to the strengths that made the Kinks one of the most beloved cult bands of all time.
It doesn't hurt that it opens on one of the most impassioned rockers in their catalog, a fiery attack on "the age of machinery" titled "20th Century Man."
It's as though the narrator in "The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society" has gone from merely wishing things could be more like they were to standing in the window, bellowing "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore.”
The deluxe reissue box set it deserves
More than 50 years later, "Muswell Hillbillies" has finally been given the deluxe reissue treatment it deserves, combined in a box set with 1972's "Everybody's in Show-Biz."
The box includes six LPs, four CDs, a Blu-Ray video of previously unreleased home movies shot by Ray on tour, a 52-page hardback book, a map of London with Kinks-related points of interest, glossy photos, a badge and a seven-inch single of "Supersonic Rocket Ship" b/w "20th Century Man."
Davies seems quite taken with the contents of the box as he rifles through it in a recent Zoom call from London.
"The thing is you suddenly realize how much stuff there is," he says.
"We were touring quite heavily at that time, and Ray made these little home movies of us on the road and in hotels, so there's a bit of a backstory added to the package. It's about the music, really, but it's nice, though, with the little add-ons."
'Ray and I owe a lot to American music'
"Muswell Hillbillies" remains one of his favorite Kinks releases, in part because it revisits their roots in the kind of music he and Ray would play as kids in the Muswell Hill section of London and in part because it draws so heavily on members of their family.
"It's quite interesting that we decided to call ourselves Muswell Hillbillies because a lot of the music goes way back to when me and Ray were in the front room, playing Everly Brothers songs and Hank Williams," he says.
"Even Chuck Berry. Playing Chuck Berry on acoustic guitar saying 'What am I doing?! Why is he playing B-flat?!' Ray and I owe a lot to American music."
It felt good channeling those inspirations with his brother.
"We thought we were lucky that we were still doing it, because the Kinks could've broken up many times during those years," he says.
"But we always kind of felt ourselves to be a folky kind of country act. Everybody in the family played piano or sang at all the get-togethers when we were kids with the extended family."
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A lot of their lyrics are 'drawn from family experiences'
The influence of that extended family on their lyrics was by then a Kinks tradition.
The title character of "Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)" is based in part on Arthur Anning, their sister Rose's husband, who moved the family to Australia in 1964, inspiring an earlier Ray Davies classic, "Rosy Won't You Please Come Home."
"I think when you look back through a lot of Kinks albums, a lot of the stories are drawn from family experiences or people we knew," he says.
The Davies brothers were the youngest of eight children crammed inside a narrow home on 6 Denmark Terrace in Muswell Hill, with six older sisters.
"I was the baby of the family growing up," he says. "My sisters used to spoil me a lot. I was cute so they would dress me up and all that. Ray didn't get that so much. But it taught him how to hone his craft."
The Davies' mother was among the Londoners who left the inner city to start over in the suburbs.
"During the war years, they thought maybe they should move out," Davies says. I'm sure in those days, they thought Muswell Hill was a long way away."
With a hearty laugh, he adds, "And it's only five miles from the center of London."
Rosie Rooke, a character immortalized in "Muswell Hillbilly," was their mother's friend. "Uncle Son" was their actual uncle. "Oklahoma U.S.A." was inspired by their sisters playing "Oklahoma" in the living room, pretending they were in the movie.
Davies loves the slide-guitar-fueled pathos underpinning "Uncle Son."
"That's always been a heartstring puller because he was my mum's brother," Davies says.
"We never knew him. I don't know what he died of. Pneumonia or something. But the story of him is that he was always helpful and in for a fight. He was a great support to a lot of family members."
Davies starts to get a bit choked up.
"I may start crying in a minute with some of these people," he says.
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Introducing the Mike Cotton Sound
The American vibe of "Muswell Hillbillies," which somehow managed to retain a fair amount of their inherent Kinky Britishness, was further underscored by the brass of the Mike Cotton Sound, a British pub jazz band with Mike Cotton on trumpet, John Beecham on trombone and tuba, and Alan Holmes on clarinet.
"We'd always been big fans of what we'd call Dixieland or I guess New Orleans-type jazz," Davies says.
"And being on the road, experiencing New Orleans firsthand, it really does grab you. You say, 'What is this?! Who's that?!' It's a phenomenal learning experience."
The horns bring a wonderfully boozy sense of tipsiness to the darkly comic "Alcohol" and add a comic element to "Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues."
"It's like you're on the edge, but it's funny," Davies says. "You're gonna go mad, but as with all Kinks music, you end up laughing. I hope so, anyway. When brass instrument play badly, it's like vaudeville or comedy or theater."
If Davies had to pick a favorite song on "Muswell Hillbillies," "Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues," he says, "has gotta take the biscuit."
Growing up British, he says, he was taught the importance of keeping a stiff upper lip.
"So it's even funnier when it fails," he says, clearly taking great joy in the notion.
"But life goes on, you know? You make the best of it. Another thing that's always helped me as a person being in the Kinks is it's refreshing to have music that reminds you that we're all kind of a bit (expletive) up."
'Everybody's in Show-Biz'
The other album in the box set, 1972's "Everybody's in Show-Biz," was a two-record set. The first half featured studio recordings of songs primarily inspired by life on the road, including the masterful "Sitting in My Hotel."
The second half was live recordings taken from a two-night stand at Carnegie Hall in New York City as Ray Davies was in the early stages of becoming the brilliantly campy entertainer that made them such a must-see live band in the '70s, '80s and '90s.
Why combine the studio and live recordings on one album?
"I don't really know," Davies says. "The fact is that we had recordings and we thought 'Why not?' Ray would make a kind of home movie, which could've been a film, when we were touring America. So there were lots of ideas floating around at that time.
"That's a good thing about the Kinks. If we'd get an idea, we'd try it out and see what happens. And if it didn't happen, we could laugh."
The album spawned a U.K. hit in "Supersonic Rocket Ship," which went on to enjoy a second lease on life when it was prominently featured in "Avengers: Endgame."
Another highlight of the studio recording was Dave Davies' deeply introspective "You Don't Know My Name."
"I was going through a really hard time, emotionally and spiritually," he says. "I'd come off some really bad experiences. And I was really kind of trying to do some inner work because I felt I was crumbling."
"You Don't Know My Name" was his way of reflecting the work he was doing.
"It felt like I was in pieces," he says. "I'd look in the mirror like 'Who the (expletive) are you?' I'm sure you've had those feelings."
Channeling those feelings into music helped him through those hard times.
"Fortunately, the creative mind is just that," he says. "It's creative. It can take you out of the (expletive) place you're in and lift you."
'Celluloid Heroes' 'should be a film'
The album's most iconic track is "Celluloid Heroes," Ray's bittersweet tribute to the golden age of Hollywood, where "success walks hand in hand with failure" and even those whose names are "written in concrete" may wind up living sad and lonely lives.
"My initial thought was it should be a film," Davies says. "Ray's got such an incredible way of making small things big and big things small. I think we need to look at life like that sometimes."
To Davies, "All art is a means of trying to explain life's tragedy. It can be humorous and philosophical and meaningful but it's mostly pretty dark. And melancholy kind of covers the cracks a bit. You can't do without it, really. It's not a device to send us more into the abyss. It's a device to keep it buoyant."
In the box set's liner notes, Ray Davies talks about how hanging out in Hollywood inspired what remains one of his greatest and most poignant works of art.
"Everybody's connected to the film world and wants to be in it," he says. "I felt complete sadness for so many people."
Dave on his relationship with Ray Davies
Asked how he and his brother were getting along at that point in the history of their often-strained relationship, Davies laughs.
"God, the eternal question," he says.
"I don't even know how we got on from day to day. What you've gotta do is take a deep breath and jump in. It's always been like that. I don't know what mood he's gonna be in. Is he manic or is he fragile? Is he an (expletive). Or is he tender?
"Relationships are difficult. How people can get married and live their life together, it's a miracle. I applaud people that do that. Because it's hard work."
When asked if he and Ray are in a good place now, he laughs a little harder.
"Yeah," he says. "We're OK. We get on OK."
Will we ever hear new Kinks songs?
As for the music they've been saying they've been working on, potentially for a new Kinks release, for several years now?
"There's already stuff we've done on tape that might need playing around with," Davies says. "But I don't know if it'll ever come out."
Is that sad to him?
"No, not really," he says.
"I think we've shared some incredible moments in time that you can't repeat, these weird kind of zen moments we've shared through the years. And when you try and reconstruct it, it doesn't seem to work. All the best stuff, I think, came about by accident in a strange way. It's bizarre. I don't know. Maybe we'll come up with something."
Does he ever wish the two of them had found a way to just keep working through their differences and keep the band together in the '90s?
"I thought we had," he replies with a laugh.
"Oh man. It difficult because the bottom line with me is it's harder and harder. Or maybe you just go for it. Maybe it's easier than we think. We as a species tend to like things to be difficult, so we can say what clever little boys we are."
The writing of 'Living on a Thin Line'
Davies recently published a second autobiography, "Living on a Thin Line," whose title refers to a Kinks hit he wrote in the '80s. His previous autobiography, "Kink," came out in 1996, which as he notes, was "many years ago."
It took much longer than he'd hoped to write the second book.
"I'm my own worst enemy," he says.
"I think the older you get, the fussier you get with things. But I think it's OK. I tried to keep it interesting and as honest as possible in the hope of not hurting people. I hope people enjoy it, because my intent comes from a good place."
Then, he laughs and adds, "You have to take that for what it's worth."
Although the book's been published, he's not sure that means it's really done.
"It's like you write it, does that mean it's done?" he says.
"Things change. Your ideas change. Your moods. Your notions about life. Creativity is perpetual change in a way. You don't paint in one color. Art is ever-changing. And through it, you can make the world a more creative and humorous place."
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: The Kinks' Dave Davies shares tales behind Muswell Hillbillies box set