Give the People What They Want. The Kinks.
1981, Arista Records. Producer: Ray Davies.
Purchased cassette, 1982.
IN A NUTSHELL: Give the People What They Want, by The Kinks, is the band’s thumping, guitar-driven version of new-wave rock music. Singer/songwriter Ray Davies is a master of deep, witty lyrics set to catchy melodies, and brother Dave plays a terrific guitar throughout. The songs are angry and funny and full of emotion. I don’t think it was meant to be a rock-opera, concept album, but since I first heard it almost 40 years ago, it’s always sounded like one to me.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
You probably know we are living in The Information Age, but did you know that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary1, the term was first coined by Robert Leghorn in 1960? I first recall hearing the term in 1983, in 10th grade history, when my favorite high school teacher, Mrs. Meyers, asked if we knew what age we were living in. Some of us guessed the Nuclear Age or the Space Age. She said no, those were generally considered to be just a little earlier, and then she told us, “You are living in the Information Age!”
I was unimpressed. Most of the other ages – Bronze, Iron, Stone, Industrial, Nuclear, Space – conjured images of strong people working hard, or smart people creating new things. Men and women from these past ages seemed heroic2. And even those less-heroic Middle Ages at least included some mysterious, bizarre people and activities that were interesting. But THE INFORMATION AGE? How boring. It sounded like a world of encyclopedia salesmen.
This era is also known as “The Digital Age,” or “The Computer Age,” and these terms provide an image that, while definitely not as cool as a dude in a tunic smelting some copper, would have at least provided more context than “Information Age.” “Information” is a term so inclusive that it loses any meaning. But what I’ve come to understand from living through the transition to the information age, is just how information-starved I really was back in 10th grade. Specifically, a little more information certainly would’ve been helpful in my pursuit of good music.
Billy Joel summed up the problem of pre-Information-Age music fans quite succinctly, and in rhyme, in the song “It’s Still Rock n Roll to Me.”
It doesn’t matter what they say in the papers/ ‘Cause it’s always been the same old scene/ There’s a new band in town/ But you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine/ Aimed at your average teen-Billy Joel
In those days, the two easiest means of finding out about bands and music were a) the radio, and b) siblings and friends. One problem3 with (a) was that if your family listened to boring 70s AM radio, and you lived in the middle of nowhere, far from big cities and college towns and the diversity of radio formats they offered, you weren’t exactly hearing the cutting-edge new stuff. The problem with (b) was that it all depended on what your sibling liked. You could borrow friends’ music and listen, but again, you only found out what your friends liked.4
But I had a different way to find out about new music. Beginning in about 1979 or 1980, my family was a member of the Columbia House Record Club. Click that link, or do a little web-searching on your own, and you’ll find out all about the club. Basically, it was a mail service. You bought 12 records for a buck5, then agreed to buy 6 more records over the next year. It was one of those deals, like adjustable-rate mortgages, that if you stayed on top of things, you could maybe make work, but if you didn’t pay attention to, you’d get screwed big-time. The deal you agreed to with Columbia House was that whatever crappy record they sent you each month, you would buy – UNLESS you sent them a postcard to say you didn’t want it. I spent my high school years terrified of running out of postcard stamps, diligently rejecting every Olivia Newton-John, Debarge, Alabama, Night Ranger, etc., album they tried to send me.
Each month they also sent a little booklet6 containing a list of hundreds of albums available for purchase. At 12 years old, I had a back door into this exclusive Club (I’ll just call it “The Club”) because my older sisters were members. (I don’t mean to brag.) I pored through that booklet regularly, figuring it was how the savvy music-enthusiast performed research. What I didn’t recognize as a 12-year-old was that the booklet provided the absolute least amount of information possible about a record to still qualify as “information.” The Club had to cram as many album descriptions as possible into a flimsy, 4″ x 6″, 6-page booklet, which included sections for Country and Western, Jazz, Easy Listening, and Soul, in addition to “Rock and Roll,” the genre of listener my sisters had self-identified as in their first purchase. So, the Music Guide editors ruthlessly enforced a character limit per album description7.
Only a few of the listings would include a picture of the album cover. Most just were represented by a bulleted blurb. In either case, the artist and album name would be listed in bold-face, and sometimes truncated. For example, the Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers album You’re Gonna Get It! might be listed as “T. Petty/Heartbreakers, ‘You’re … Get It’“
Next would follow entirely unhelpful bits of reviews from music magazines, literally single words that meant nothing to a music fan. “Exciting!” – Crawdaddy. “Rollicking!” – Cashbox. If no positive words could be culled from any reviews written about the album in any recognizable magazines, then The Club staff would add a few empty, pseudo-tantalizing phrases to the description: “Hitmaker Petty at it again.” “‘American Girl’ rocker impresses.”
Finally, a few song titles would be listed – but only the shortened titles of singles, and then some other few-lettered songs. For example, “Listen…Heart,” “Need … Know,” “Hurt.” These words meant the singles “Listen to Her Heart” and “I Need to Know,” and the song “Hurt,” because it’s only four letters long.
I don’t know if nepotism played a role, but by 1982, the spring of my freshman year of high school, I was allowed entree to The Club. I found a 12-for-a-penny offer sheet – probably inside the Sunday Parade magazine, next to a classically unfunny Howard Huge cartoon – and scoured my sisters’ Music Guide for the details that would guide my initial selections.
I quickly realized it was a waste of time. Instead, I just chose 12 cassettes containing songs I’d heard on the radio, or that I knew my friends already liked. I still remember the titles of most of those first 12 selections. And I still remember the date they arrived: Friday, March 5, 1982. I was at a school event that evening, telling my friend Bruce about my new cassettes, when he told me that John Belushi had died that day.
One cent bought me some Greatest Hits cassettes: The Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, Yes. I also chose Crimes of Passion, by Pat Benatar; Business as Usual, by Men at Work; Permanent Waves, by Rush, and Get Lucky, by Loverboy. And I picked two albums that have appeared on my 100 Favorite Albums: Zenyatta Mondatta, by The Police; and Give the People What They Want, by The Kinks, the album that sent me down the path of love for hooky, guitar-driven, fast-paced rock..
The Kinks are surely one of the most well-known and important bands of The First British Invasion in the ’60s, not to mention in the entire history of rock music. Guitarist Dave Davies is sometimes credited with “inventing” heavy metal on the song “You Really Got Me.” His brother, bandleader/songwriter Ray Davies, was McCartney-esque in his ability to write songs in most any style, including mod pop, British music hall, even disco. His lyrics could be funny, biting, insightful and moving.
By the early 1980s, the aging British bands of the 60s and 70s were trying to stay modern and MTV-ready in any way possible. The Stones tried disco. The Who cut their hair. David Bowie went full-on Top 40. Paul McCartney, well … I don’t know exactly what that was. But The Kinks, who’d always sort of done whatever they wanted, musically, continued to just be The Kinks.
From the first time I heard Give the People What They Want in full, until this very day, I’ve thought of it as a concept album, as a story of a man’s descent into madness over the pressures placed on his artistic soul by the heavy weight of corporate and economic realities. I’ve never heard Ray Davies speak of it in those terms, but when he writes a blog, he can dispute my take on it. The lead track, “Around the Dial,” begins the tale with a story of a missing DJ.
It’s difficult, in 2019, to express how important radio DJs were in 1950s-80s American culture, but they really were influencers, taste-makers, and local celebrities. The song opens with a radio being tuned8 followed by crashing power chords. I love the sound of Mick Avory’s drums on this record – it’s a live, Albini-esque, In Utero sound. The song’s a driving number, and Dave’s lead guitar nicely answers the vocals throughout the verses. I like Jim Rodford’s bass line, too. The song is basically a punk song, and at 2:00 Dave actually hits some of those ringing, Ramones-style chords. There’s a nice bridge at 3:06, then that radio tuning sound comes back (3:38) and we head to the end. Ray’s voice is excellent, his ability to enunciate and shout in tune is pretty terrific. The character singing the song doesn’t know what’s happened (“Was it something that you said to the corporation guys upstairs?”) but the second song provides a pretty big clue.
The title track indicates that those corporation guys wanted the DJ to play some whack, bullshit, popular crap.
Ray Davies is clearly dubious of entertainment for the masses. “Blow out your brains, and do it right /Make sure it’s prime time and on a Saturday night.” The song has a great guitar riff, and nice dueling guitar parts leading up to the first verse. The guitars sound like they’re in a Replacements song, a band that was just getting off the ground in 19819. It’s a raucous, lovely mess of a song, with great vocals and thumping bass.
The next song, “Killer’s Eyes,” opens softly, and in the Give the People What They Want Rock Opera I’ve built in my head, the DJ is considering his own dark thoughts, and his companions’ are concerned that his leaving his job is an ominous sign. (It’s actually about Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981.) It’s got a great chord progression, and more great, subtle lead guitar from Dave, and I love Ray’s last run through the chorus, at 3:30.
Of course there’s biting wit in all the songs, but it wouldn’t seem like The Kinks if there wasn’t at least a bit of light humor in the proceedings as well, and “Predictable” provides it.
Dave’s cool-sounding guitar opens the song, which turns out to be a sort of reggae song with a rock beat. It’s about a man who’s life has gotten, well, predictable. (In my concept album, the DJ is questioning his home life, pressure mounting.) I like how the guitar and bass transition to the chorus (0:30), and the double guitars throughout. Ray’s girlfriend at the time, Kinks-enthusiast and superstar Chrissie Hynde, provides backing vocals. I also think it’s not unintentional that a song called “Predictable” is rather repetitive.
In my story for Give the People What They Want, the DJ is not only feeling “Predictable,” he’s also angry that his wife is too materialistic. (This will be important later!) It’s summed up in the terrific “Add It Up,” one of my favorite tracks on the record.
It’s an aggressive song, with Dave’s alternating chiming guitar and power chords driving it. Rodford’s bass sound is rich, especially on the little runs (0:42) he fills in. Ray’s voice is awesome in this song, ranging across a difficult melody, at times with delicacy and others with rage. Hynde coos the “Cartier! Gucci!” backing vocals, and Dave harmonizes on the “Add it Up” choruses. It’s a pounding song that always prepares me for the next one, the album hit, and the Sound of Freshman Year, Fall 1981, “Destroyer.”
This song was everywhere that fall. It had everything teenage boys of the era loved: loud guitars, shouting lyrics, and a singalong hook. As a fan of The Kinks, it’s cool to hear the band reference both “Lola,” the band’s 1970 hit about a surprising date, and “All Day and All of the Night,” the band’s 1964 hit, from which the guitar riff is borrowed. Dave’s guitar really shines on “Destroyer.” The tone is great on all the little fills he plays throughout. There’s cool piano in the background, and the band’s backing shouts add to the power. Lyrically, the song’s about mental health, and in my story the DJ finally cracks. On the rest of side 210 we will find out what happened to him!
In “Yo-Yo,” the DJ’s wife is realizing something’s wrong with him. Dave’s guitar arpeggiates behind Ray’s voice on what starts as a soft number. But at 1:24 it’s back to power chords as we get the DJ’s crazy take on things. It’s a cool guitar song, particularly through Verse 3 (beginning 2:28). The song transitions into “Back to Front,” a rave-up with excellent guitar. Dave Davies isn’t often mentioned among the Guitar Greats, though Rolling Stone ranked him at #91 all-time, but he’s a furious, inventive talent. In this song, the DJ’s friends have had enough of his bullshit. Everyone has left him.
Even, we find out, his young daughter.
“Art Lover” is one of those songs that, if one doesn’t listen closely to the lyrics, sounds really creepy, if not downright horrifying, as a grown man eyes little girls. By the end we realize he’s a parent separated from his child, trying to get a glimpse of what he’s lost. It’s a sad song. And as someone who finds himself missing the days of parenting toddlers – long days at the playground, relaxing with a coffee while making sure nobody breaks an arm – I do find myself looking at active little kids with a sense of loss, and I try not to look creepy about it.
But maybe The DJ lost the kids for a good reason? “A Little Bit of Abuse” suggests he took out his frustrations on his wife. (At least, in my very specific reading of the album as a story of one DJ’s descent into madness.) It’s a bluesy, gritty guitar song, with great harmony vocals throughout. The lyrics actually offer a very 70s/80s view of spousal abuse, in which the battered partner shares blame because they stay. This idea can come from a place of encouragement (“You DO have the power to leave!”), but it also misses the complexities of the issue.
In any case, “Art Lover” and “A Little Bit of Abuse” are a one-two punch of desperate sadness. What could follow? Well, how about the song that may be my favorite (non-Beatles) song of all time: “Better Things.”
It’s got a cool sound, cool guitars, great melody, and lyrics that offer nothing more than simple kindness and a blessing: “I hope tomorrow you find better things.” Everything’s gone down the shitter for our DJ, but everyone – even he – can hope for improvements. I love how the guitar answers the melody throughout, and the ringing sounds Dave pulls from it. To this point in The Kinks’ career, many had grown accustomed to Ray’s cynical lyrics. It may have been shocking to hear him earnestly wish, “hoping all the verses rhyme/ and the very best of choruses, too.” It’s a song that, when I’m feeling down, can bring me deep, deep joy.
So, I don’t know. It’s true, we’re in the Information Age, but was all of this stuff I just wrote here TOO MUCH information? Does anyone care about my Columbia House memories? Did anyone need to read about a story I invented for an album I really, really love? Maybe not. But this is, after all, the Information Age. I’m here doing my part, the equivalent of an ancient Pict, grooving in a forest, making bronze tools. I’m providing information, and the information is this: Give the People What They Want is a record I love!
“Around the Dial”
“Give the People What They Want”
“Add It Up”
“Back to Front”
“A Little Bit of Abuse”
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