60 years ago, one of the most influential bands in popular music was formed at Muswell Hill. The Kinks, fronted by songwriter Ray Davies, with lead guitarist Dave Davies, drummer Mick Avory, and bassist Pete Quaiffe, were responsible for some of the most beloved tracks of the first British Invasion in the 1960s. ‘You Really Got Me’ (1964), ‘Sunny Afternoon’ (1966), and ‘Days’ (1968) are some songs that are permanent fixtures in the British pop cannon that served to pave the way for careers of acts such as XTC, The Jam, Blur, and The Libertines.
As a huge Kinks fan, I want to commemorate the band’s 60th birthday by reviewing one of their more obscure songs. During their peak, between 1966-1971, the group recorded a song that was considered to be a follow-up single from their glorious effort, the timeless ‘Waterloo Sunset’: ‘Lavender Hill’. This outtake particularly captivated me because it is one of the few times The Kinks succumbed to the trends of the day: psychedelic rock reached an apogee during 1967, and with ‘Lavender Hill’ The Kinks recorded an earnest foray into the genre. I love psychedelia, and hearing one of my favourite bands of all time producing music in its vein is almost dreamy. And indeed it is.
Despite being shelved in favour of the brilliant ‘Autumn Almanac’ (which reached number 3 in the UK charts in October 1967), ‘Lavender Hill’ is a more-than-worthwhile experiment conducted by a peculiar band at the peak of their powers.
Lyrically, Ray Davies hits a poetic and observational note (as per his MO in his prime) but in a vibrant fashion, depicting a land where the “sun saturates [him] with love”, birds “sing sweet melodies”, and it’s ultimately run on “sugar and milk”. If ‘Autumn Almanac’’s rustic, pastoral presentation of English culture is in line with Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth, then this track has Davies channelling a spirit of unreality akin to Wordsworth’s close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his preternatural poetry. His vocals are drenched in reverb and carry the same endearing vulnerability that blessed ‘Waterloo Sunset’; coupled with the hypnotic melody, Davies’ performance is a lysergic delight.
Though the song has a lot more going on that makes it such a rewarding listen. Structurally, the track is fascinating because there’s no discernable chorus but rather a refrain (“Lavender Hill for me”) that comes at the end of the verses, whilst there are two different bridges into the second verse and eventual outro to the song. There is a peak-and-trough quality that makes the outtake an involved listening experience, almost emulating the euphoria and come-down that comes with indulging in psychedelics. Only in this case, there’s no sign of existential dread.
Also, the song’s textures are layered. At this point in the band’s career, Avory’s drumming became more and more significant to the overall sound – a far cry from how session drummers would record the band’s hits in the early to mid-60s. Avory’s jazzy and imprecise delivery adds a rougher texture (along with the crisp strokes of the acoustic guitar) that nicely balances the celestial and soft tones of the songs that are provided by Davies’ vocals and the angelic backing vocals by Quaiffe, Dave Davies, and Rasa Davies (Ray’s wife would record vocals during this period).
The psychedelic aesthetic is perfectly rounded off with the use of the mellotron, which adds a trippy, ethereal edge to the song (if it needed anymore), and Dave Davies’ use of the wah-wah pedal at the second bridge is so Clapton-esque of Cream frame (at that point) that there’s sufficient tension in the soundscape, adding a dimension or two to it.
The Kinks were one of the most reliable hit-makers of the decade, maturing into one the most seminal acts of their generation by 1967; ‘Lavender Hill’, though an outtake, has all of the band’s whimsy packaged into a 3 minute, British, psychedelic expression of London, a dreamy part of London. Although Ray sings that Lavender Hill is for him, I reckon this song will make many more of us desire to walk into the land of make believe.
Words by Keith Mulopo
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