Recording of December 2022: Muswell Hillbillies/Everybody's in Show-Biz

The Kinks: Muswell Hillbillies/Everybody's in Show-Biz
BMG BMGCAT720DBOX (6 LP, 4 CD, Blu-ray). 2022. Ray Davies, Andrew Sandoval, prods.; Mike Bobak, Matt Jaggar, Kevin Gray, others, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ***½

Despite world-class songwriting and great singing from Ray Davies, solid guitar work from brother Dave, a run of six classic albums from Face to Face (1966) to Muswell Hillbillies (1971), multiple hit singles and albums in the US and the UK, the Kinks are rarely mentioned, on either side of the Atlantic, in the same breath as contemporaries the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Why is that?

Was the music of the Davies brothers too esoteric? Too fusty and British for American audiences? Surely the band's trademark unpredictability—obstreperousness might be a better word—and their 1965 ban from US touring were factors. That obstreperousness was never on clearer display than on their most neglected album, Muswell Hillbillies.

In 1970, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One—long titles were an annoying Kinks quirk—spawned the hit single "Lola," which gave the band leverage as they sought a new record label. Their first recording contracts, with Pye (UK) and Reprise (US), had just expired. Signing with RCA, the band disappointed the label by, instead of making a "Lola"-like follow-up, adding a brass section and making an album filled with twangy, down-home Americana. It has since become a foundational document of today's flourishing Americana scene, but it flopped commercially. The band followed that album with the half-live/half-studio double album Everybody's in Show-Biz, often considered the beginning of a career descent only briefly arrested by their re-emergence as an arena rock band in the late 1970s.

Both albums have been reissued by BMG in a single, hefty box that includes six 180gm colored-vinyl LPs, four CDs, a Blu-ray of a Ray Davies home movie from 1971 (narrated by Ray), a 52-page hardcover book, a Kinks pin, printed memorabilia, and a map of north London with "key historical Kinks-related locations, chosen by the band."

The original albums were cut by Kevin Gray from high-rez digital transfers of the original analog tapes. The sound of Muswell has not changed much, compared to an original pressing and to the most recent remastering, from 2014. Its sonic profile may be a touch brighter and a bit cleaner in the highs. The original albums are supplemented by an extra LP per album of extra songs and alternate takes. All LPs were pressed at CZ in the Czech Republic on 180gm colored vinyl (blue and gold). The pressing quality is good, not great.

Usually, the main attraction in a remastered album is the original album made better. But the most interesting part of this package is 12 tracks from the two albums remixed for this release by Ray Davies and Matt Jaggar from newly discovered multitrack tapes. The sixth LP and the third CD contain 11 of these remixed tracks; the twelfth—of "Celluloid Heroes," the sole hit from Show-Biz, is found only on CD4, which also holds a "Travel Montage" and an extra live track from the Carnegie Hall concert documented on the second LP of Show-Biz but not found on the original album.

I received assurances from BMG UK that these new Ray Davies mixes were made from newly discovered tapes: "actual multitrack session takes that he created entirely new mixes from." In any case, the remixes tend to be longer and louder than the originals, with an emphasis (though selective) on enhanced clarity. Studio patter before and after "20th Century Man" is a welcome addition. Ray has brought up his voice, for better or worse. There's more separation between instruments, and Dave's Resonator guitar and the twingling guitars behind the penultimate bridge have crisper edges and more downbeat pop. Drums, though, remain fuzzy and too forward.

The remixes are not radical departures, but they do result in a change in character: They shout when, in the original version, an indoor speaking voice sufficed.

It's Ray Davies's songwriting that makes or breaks any Kinks album, including this one. Here, the songs are remarkable: First-class melodies and beautifully crafted lyrics mix influences from vaudeville, music hall, and country with tales of working-class life. Drenched in Davies's usual world-weary yearning for a more pastoral time, these songs sway between disillusion ("20th Century Man") and sweet sympathy ("Oklahoma U.S.A.").

Is this the final word on Muswell and Everybody? It should be, but I can't help wondering why previously issued bonus tracks weren't included and why the LPs weren't cut at 45rpm. Overall, though, this lavish entry makes it easier to understand how Muswell Hillbillies could be so influential and beloved 50 years after it was first released and ignored.—Robert Baird

scottsol's picture

Muswell Hillbillies certainly didn’t get the respect or sales it deserved when it was first released, but in the US it outperformed all of the six Kinks albums that preceded it except for Lola.

Celluloid Heroes is an absolutely outstanding track, but it not only wasn’t the sole hit from Show-Biz, it wasn’t a hit at all, failing to chart in any of the major markets. Super Sonic Rocket Ship was the “hit”, kind of. It made it to #16 in the UK and Germany while eking out a #111 in the US.

Stevens's picture

.. how near you live to Muswell Hill (about 10 minutes). Alan, who runs the local record store round these parts, has 1,000+ Kinks memorabilia. The pub next to Ray Davies' old home, The Clissold Arms, where they first played, has a Kinks Room, a regular party venue. Even the guy at BMG lives locally. Not forgotten.