on 19 January 2005
I decided to write this review as a means of helping other people discover this wonderful album the same way that I did.
I'd bought "Village Green" and was just browsing through the site and I noticed all these rave reviews for "Muswell", I thought at the price it was worth a chance and am I glad I took it.
A bitter-sweet look at life in England at the time this is a far more entertaining way to learn about our more recent history than any book.
The song writing is that good (read the booklet that comes with the album) you are transported back in time.
The opening "20th century man" offers an immediate insight of life and thoughts at the time of writing and the album carries on with poignant reminders of life "Holiday", "Skin & bone", "Complicated life", "Here come the people in grey", "Muswell Hillbilly" all dealt with the subtle humour of Ray Davies. The track "Have a cuppa tea" immediately made me think of my Grandma (bless her) with a smile and a tear at the same time. I don't think a Robbie Williams track will ever move me that way.
In short you've got all variety of music on here from blues to rock to folk and back again, I love it, my kids (6 & 4 years old)
love it (a joy to hear them singing "halleluja rosie lea) and you'll love it.
Hope you've found this review helpful, thanks to the other reviewers that's how I found this album.
It's a bargain price aswell.
on 31 May 2003
I cannot believe I stumbled on this one by accident. Had never heard of the album but liked the Kinks early stuff so thought I'd buy it. This is an album where every few tracks or so I just cant help shaking my head in acknowledgement of the amazing song-writing ability of Ray Davies. This is an album I'll never get bored of listening to. Interesting mix of musical styles - r and b, jazz and country - works incredibly well - not a duff track on there. I used to think Pete Townshend was the most talented Rock songwriter that Britain had produced but after listening to this album and the preservation albums I think that mantle now belongs to Ray.
on 11 January 2008
After I discovered Ray Davies' two recent solo albums, I've done a lot of digging in the Kinks catalog. Muswell Hillbillies is by far the most consistently good Kinks album I've found. Most albums by the Kinks seem to have 2 or three strong tracks, this one has at least 8 or 9 truly excellent ones.
Muswell Hillbillies has a strong album feel to it, despite the variation in musical styles (rock, country, blues, jazz, theatrical vaudeville). The approach is melodic, yet powerful. The themes in the lyrics are a bit depressing, but treated with a lot of humour. Most of the lyrics stand out as very literate and original.
I can't believe I've missed out on this classic for so long!
on 2 June 2007
Muswell Hillbillies proved to be a dramatic departure for one of the sixties most prolific and successful British pop groups. From Lola in 1970 we were suddenly dropped into 40 minutes of what seemed like a collection of gloomy and depressing songs. There were no hit singles on this album. RCA must have had a pink fit! However, if you treat this album as a serious collection of honest songs about the world we were all growing up in at the time; it stands up as a truly remarkable album. The lyrics are finely written. The tunes are catchy and well played. 20th Century Man (the opening track) is a powerful statement of not wanting to be part of this world. Ray still plays this track live today and it still sounds outstanding 36 years on. Oklahoma USA is one of the most beautiful songs you will ever here. Tracks like Alcohol, Skin and Bone and Complicated Life have an air of sarcasm and wit about them that is very appealing. There are a lot of Kinks fans out there - me included - who feel that this album was a real one-off departure for the Kinks which sounds as fresh and gritty today as it did in 1971. We thank Ray and the band for this classic album because the band never released anything as honest and open again. A true classic but don't look for any hit singles here - there aren't any - just a collection of great observations that are still very relevant in the 21st century.
on 30 November 2008
Whilst this is not one of the Kinks' best known or best selling albums, it is easily one of their best. Moreover it has a raft of first class songs that most people will have never heard.
Released after the success of the hit single Lola (and its much inferior accompanying album), Muswell Hilbillies was a commercial failure. The unfashionable subject matter (lives of North London working class folk) and the muddy production quality were probably both factors. However, if you get past these issues, the quality of songs and many of the arrangements will hook you in. A previous reviewer says that the songs lack wit. I wouldn't agree at all. They are full of well observed humour, even if the subject matter is grim. e.g:
"The sea's an open sewer, but I really couldn't care. I'm breathing through my mouth so I don't have to sniff the air!" (Holiday)
The other theme running through the album is escape in various forms including alcohol, holidays and cups of tea. Towards the end, another approach to escape emerges - fantasising about life in rural USA, probably inspired by visits to the cinema. "I'm Muswell hillbilly boy, but my heart lies in old West Virginia". The twin themes of poor-quality city life and escape brings coherence to the whole album.
on 31 January 2014
Muswell Hillbillies came out in 1971, right after the massive international hit Lola and the somewhat less of a hit Apeman, so probably anything would have paled in comparison. RCA signed The Kinks as a singles band, and this was the first concept album they issued for the label. "20th Century Man" was the single from the album and explored once again songwriter Ray Davies' disaffection from modern times ("I'm a twentieth century man, but I don't want to be here.") The songs are mainly about the People in Grey who know what's best for everyone who were moving people out of their quaint houses into council houses, giving them what they "need." ("Here Come the People in Grey.") I remember Ray in an interview at the time talking about his Aunt Rose who was arthritic being moved out of her lovely old house and into a council flat where the sinks were at a height that she could hardly raise her arms high enough to reach. The concert favorites "Alcohol," "Acute Schoziphrenia Paranoia Blues," and "Skin and Bones" were part of The Kinks' repretoire for several years. "Have a Cuppa Tea" ("Granny's always ravin' and rantin', and she's always puffin' and pantin', and she's always screamin' and shoutin,' and she's always brewing up tea.") is a lugubrious riot of music which sounds like everyone is having a great time. The alternate version included on the second CD is much less enjoyable and more subdued. "Oklahoma USA" is a rumination about a girl walking to her drab job dreaming about the movies, a theme which Ray would return to far more effectively in "Celluloid Heroes" the next year. In "Holloway Jail," the narrator is visiting his beloved in that notorious London facility who was led into a life of crime by "a spiv named Frankie Shine." the girl chorus that would be so prominent in the "Preservation" albums of 1973-75 makes its first appearance here as does the Mike Cotton Sound, a sax, trumpet, trombone trio who would be featured on the next three albums as well. Like "Motorway," as song that would appear the next year complaining about life on the road, the enthusiastic delivery and beat of "Muswell Hillbillies" at the end says that after all that, Ray is perfectly happy to be where he is (Muswell Hill was where Ray and Dave grew up) (essentially a sequel to 1967's "This Is Where I Belong").
There are four songs on the extras CD that were routined for the album but not used. Personally, I don't think they add much to the story. Two of the albums songs, "20th Century Man" and "Muswell Hillbillies," are included there as remixed in 1976; those mixes were included on the LP verson of 1976's "The Kinks Greatest Hits," but are not included on the expanded CD version. Alternative versions of the album's songs are included as well.
The pictures are significant. The front cover picture was taken inside the Archway Tavern (which would be the scene of an IRA bombing in a few years), and the people in it other than the band are locals obviously looking askance at the long-haired freaky people. The gatefold picture inside was the band in front of a construction fence that was hiding a bombed out building left over from World War II (26 years fter the war there were still unrepaired places). The extra pics from that same shoot included in the package make it look like it was cold that day. Dave (especially) and John Gosling look like they were freezing.
The music is mostly basic rock. Sonically, most of the instruments are clustered in the center, which, for me, means the guitars tend to stumble over each other. Dave premiers his slide guitar here and uses it to great effect, but some of the parts are hard to hear. The two 1976 remixes have much better stereo, and the guitar parts are much easier to appreciate. while Dave does not contribute a song, his guitar work in all over this album and nicely carries Ray's vocals along. It's the lack of separation that keeps me from giving the album 5 Stars
This is one of the best of the Kinks' later albums. Ray gets a little heavy-handed in the social commentary and the sound is somewhat muddy, but it hangs together much better than his later concept albums. Dave's guitar and John Dalton's bass anchor the sound and create an overall very satifying listening experience. If you want to learn about the Davies' brothers growing up, this is the album to get.
As others have mentioned, the Kinks new record label - RCA - must've been rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a new Kinks album in 1971. They'd revitalised their chart status in 1970 with hit singles in the shape of 'Lola' and 'Apeman' (and how did Ray get away with using the F-Word in 'Apeman', a top ten UK singles chart hit, when he had to to change 'Coca Cola' to 'Cherry Cola' in 'Lola'?), and were finally allowed back in the USA to tour. However, 'Muswell Hillbillies' was a hit-free zone. Not that it isn't one of the finest albums released under The Kinks name, though. For a band whose 1960s status was based on the oft-used phrase 'Quintessentially English' lyrical themes, 'Muswell Hillbillies' saw Ray Davies re-cast the band's musical base by utilising a set of predominantly American styles - including Dixieland Jazz, Bluesy themes, and horror of horrors (for the time) - Country Music. However, the lyrics couldn't be more English, or, more pertinently, London-centric. Davies looks to his own experience - being moved out of King's Cross to leafy Muswell Hill as part of the post-war 'Urban Renewal', and then considers all sorts of social issues that arise - alcoholism, urban paranoia, depression, 'fallen women' (the wonderful 'Holloway Jail'), even excessive slimming, and the escapism that Hollywood provides ('Oklahoma USA' - "with Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae"). It's a frequently mordant collection, littered with sardonic and bittersweet humour, and some of Ray Davies' finest songs. He said that the album was partly informed by seeing Irish Country groups performing in the Archway Tavern pub (the band are depicted in the pub on the cover), and it was their failed, if noble attempt to replicate that sound and style that influenced the album. Or so he says! Anyway, 'Muswell Hillbillies' is a wonderful, wonderful record, with the band musicianship and Davies' lyrical excursions on tip-top form. You may have to give this album a little time to grow on you, but when it does, it reveals new things with each play. It's a fine record, and one of the most 'London' albums you'll ever hear. Highly recommended.
on 15 July 2009
One of the greatest albums ever made, no question. Roots rock and roll with a caustic depressive lyrical outlook unique to Sir Ray (and why not?!). Anyone who thinks becoming a rock star will make you happy should listen to this album.
All life we work but work is a bore,
If life's for livin' then what's livin' for?
on 9 August 2008
I agree with Jervis's comments about the musical influences. The music here was unfamiliar to me the first time I heard it, being very slightly country rock. However, it is a very English form of country, and, compared with American country and country rock, it is hardly country at all.
I know this album isn't everyone's favourite, but I do find it enjoyable. It takes the listener on a rollercoaster of emotions.
I find "Holloway Jail" too depressing to listen to, but other tracks have a bitter-sweetness. The drunkard bemoans his fate in "Alcohol", but this song is catchy and I can imagine drunks leaving the pub singing it. I love "Have a Cuppa Tea", a joyous knees-up salute to England's favourite drink (hallelujah rosie lee). "Uncle Son" is "an ordinary man", who is not interested in others' political ideals, especially those that have to be fought for. He just wants life to be comfortable.
"20th Century Man" makes me think of the poem "5 ways to kill a man" by Edwin Brock Touched with Fire: An Anthology of Poems. The 20th century is too complicated; people want simple, good lives, but they get mental illness, alcoholism and other addictions, eating disorders, pollution, governmental espionage on the populace, which causes paranoia, and officialdom taking away everything that folk hold dear. In short, this album is just as relevant in the 21st century.
We see the usual Davies nostalgia. Just as in "Celluloid Heroes" Everybody's in Show-Biz ,film always seems better than real life. For me, "Oklamhoma USA" sums up this attitude best. The movies portray the myth of the freedom of the Wild West, so familiar to small children of Ray's generation. Compared with that simple, free world that never really existed off screen, all modern life seems complicated and dictatorial, a view Davies would later take to extremes in Preservation Act 2 Preservation Act 2 +2 Preservation: Acts 1 & 2.
on 13 June 2011
If most people accept the Beatles and the Stones as the two greatest British bands of the 1960's then who should be 3rd? Many fine contenders exist - The Who, The Small Faces, The Moody Blues to name but three but I feel that accolade firmly rests with the Kinks. As they entered the 1970's they were riding high on the back of the massive hit 'Lola' and had just switched label to RCA. Surely another decade of uninterrupted success lay ahead.
We now know that was not to be, the endless stream of killer singles was to dry up and Ray Davies would take the band in a different direction towards music hall. However before that all happened the band produced one of their finest albums. There is no big hit single here but the songs are perfectly crafted pop/rock confections with a country tinge and a small nod to future music hall adventures to come. The thing is the album works as a whole, their most cohesive work since 'Preservation Green' and perhaps as such is greater than the sum of it's individual songs.