The British Invasion Soldier That Didn’t Make It: The 1960s EP (Part 3)

Click here for PART 1

Click here for PART 2

All right, wake up, I’m almost finished…

The Kinks — Kwyet Kinks. (Tracks: 1. “Wait Till The Summer Comes Along.” 2. “Such A Shame.” 3. “A Well-Respected Man.” 4. “Don’t You Fret.” Released: September 17, 1965).

In the late summer of 1965, Kinks lead singer and primary songwriter Ray Davies was heading for a nervous breakdown. Nursing an extremely tender psyche pretty much since the day he was born, he was just not cut out for dealing with pop stardom, early 1960s-style. In addition to the eternal cycle of live appearances, TV and radio spots, interviews with clueless journalists asking the same inane questions about hair length and how long the “rock & roll fad” would last, the bands had to squeeze in recording sessions when they could, and if they wrote their own material, the pressure was even greater. Not only did they have to keep up with a brutal release schedule (their record labels expected at least two full albums and three  hopefully smash-hit standalone singles per year — imagine!), they were pushed by their management to provide songs for lesser-known artists who were not songwriters. (See Part 1 and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas.)

After a string of early hits such as “You Really Got Me,” “All Day And All Of The Night,” “Tired Of Waiting For You,” and several others, the Kinks kracked. Led by Davies (and aided and abetted by his rowdy kid brother/worst enemy, 17-year-old lead guitarist Dave Davies), the group attempted to sabotage themselves with an epic string of boorish and unprofessional behavior. Cancelling concerts for no good reason, often storming off stage mid-set when they did deign to show up, telling powerful musician’s union reps to “fuck off,” and becoming the very first band to make a habit of trashing hotel rooms, The Kinks were punks a dozen years before there was any social or musical cachet associated with the term. It all culminated with a disastrous American tour, where their antics resulted in a blacklisting from American venues for the next four years.

Due to Davies’ disappointment and suspicion towards all things American, the Kinks gradually turned away from American-influenced R&B. He soon came up with his first satirical character sketch, and harbinger of the “new” Kinks sound, “A Well-Respected Man.” Poking vicious fun the conservative upper middle-class, the acoustic-textured song was a throwback to old British music hall and traditional pub sing-alongs. These older, very English pre-rock institutions began dominating the Kinks’ sonic palette, giving the band a fey, campy, whimsical style totally unique in the British music scene. The punks became dandies.

“A Well-Respected Man” is the centerpiece of Kwyet Kinks, but the other songs also featured the toned-down, folksy atmosphere, inspiring the EP’s title and making this one of the first thematically-unified EPs ever released. These three supporting tracks are relentlessly dour and downbeat, written during the stress and upheavals of that fateful summer. Even Dave is in a somber mood. His composition, the country-ish “Wait Till Summer Comes Along,” tries to find optimism in a sunnier season, but feels its probably “too much to ask.” The more electric but still depressingly muted “Such A Shame” features lines like “It’s a shame, ’cause I didn’t intend to do you wrong/I’d come back but it wouldn’t last for long/I would, if I could, but I can’t…All the good times have all been in vain.” “Don’t You Fret” flirts with gospel, and finds the singer counseling his companion through some tragedy, the nature of which goes unmentioned, but by the sound of it, it must have been awful. Taken altogether, its one hellacious downer of an EP, but a quiet (kwyet?) triumph in its own tear-stained way.

The strength of “A Well-Respected Man” caused Kwyet Kinks to sell like a regular hit single, but this did not halt Ray Davies’ downward slide. The long-anticipated nervous breakdown finally occurred in the spring of 1966, culminating in Davies’ running, in his pajamas, six miles from his suburban home to the downtown London office of his publicist for the sole purpose of punching said publicist in the face. (The publicist, understandably, resigned the following day.) The melodic and quirky songs that made up the Kinks’ first truly great album, Face To Face, soon followed, and from this point through 1971 Ray Davies would keep his demons in check and go on a hot streak, penning some the prettiest and wittiest songs of rock’s golden age.

The Who — Ready Steady Who. (Tracks: 1. “Disguises.” 2. “Circles.” 3. “Batman.” 4. “Bucket T.” 5. “Barbara Ann.” Released November 11, 1966.)

Ready, Steady, Go! was the hottest show on British TV at the height of their music boom. (Its shorter-lived American equivalent was Shindig!) It aired early Friday evenings, lending the show its irresistible tag line “The weekend starts here.” It was truly appointment television for U.K. teens, and featured numerous appearances by all the top British acts (and and any big-name American acts who happened to be in town.) But by the end of 1966, RSG! was on its last legs, a victim of the maturing of rock music. Due largely to the work of the artists discussed here, rock music was increasingly sophisticated and “adult” and didn’t lend itself to the juvenile format of RSG!. (MTV’s Total Request Live became its spiritual heir a couple of generations later.)

On October 21, 1966, one of the last episodes of RSG! turned the entire broadcast over to the Who. The special episode, entitled “Ready Steady Who!” featured the band indulging in a gleefully whimsical set, a last gasp of the innocent “pop” ’60s, and indeed the last gasp of the British Invasion (the “San Francisco” sound was waiting in the wings.) The rather bizarre running order of the episode: The theme song to Batman, the brass band instrumental “Cobwebs And Strange” from their most recent album, the Jan & Dean hot-rod number “Bucket T,” their most recent single “I’m A Boy,” a powerful new original called “Disguises,” and the big closer, a medley of “My Generation and “Rule Britannia.” The show climaxed with their very first televised instrument-smashing (which they had been doing, off and on, in their concerts for two years), causing shock and controversy among the staid British viewing public. Sadly, the episode no longer exists in the archives…but the songs that made up its special “souvenir” EP are still available. It was not quite a soundtrack to the episode, as was originally intended, but its own peculiar thing.

The opener, “Disguises,” is one of Who songwriter Pete Townshend’s minor classics. A very “1966” recording, it has a heavy, off-kilter rhythm, dissonant whooshes and buzzes (a predecessor of “noise rock”?) and surreal psychedelic lyrics. A total product of its time, but great nonetheless. And, oh jeez, “Circles.” What a tortured history. Originally intended as the follow-up single to “My Generation,” it got caught in the tug-of-war between two different labels as the Who attempted to jump from one to the other. It appeared on the B-side of two  singles put out by the two labels almost simultaneously, then got tagged on to the end of the first American album The Who Sing My Generation. This version usually masquerades under the erroneous title “Instant Party.” The Who then re-recorded a shorter, tighter version not long after the original, and it’s that version that appears here.

Side Two was given over to eccentric (to put it politely) drummer Keith Moon, who was allowed to fulfill his long-time fantasy of turning the Who into a surf-rock band. Moon adored groups like the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, and in fact played in a group called the Beachcombers just before joining the Who. Unfortunately, he was “the worst vocalist to ever draw breath,” according to Townshend, and the Beachcombers never let him near a microphone. Now, on this weird little EP, he gets the spotlight. The TV show Batman was a huge trans-Atlantic phenomenon in 1966 (it took over the cancelled Shindig!‘s time slot), and its distinctive theme song — you know it’s in your head right now — was a hit for the surf group the Markettes. The Who “Who’d” it up, slathering it in Townshend’s stinging power chords, John “Thunderfingers” Entwistle’s distinctive, nimble bass runs, and Moon’s cacophonous drumming (and leading the way in chanting “Batman!”). Still, at only 1:37, it’s a little too long. The Jan & Dean number “Bucket T” is the first time we hear Moon’s painful falsetto truly unleashed. Entwistle, in addition to being perhaps the best bassist in rock, was also an accomplished brass player, and he rescues the number with some nice coloring from his trumpet. Just this side of embarrassing, the song was released as single in Sweden, where it went to #1, proving beyond a doubt that there is something seriously wrong with those people. Finally, there’s “Barbara Ann,” originally recorded by the Bronx doo-wop group The Regents in 1961, and turned into a hit single by the Beach Boys earlier in 1966. Surf by association, it was a great favorite of Moon’s, and the Who’s version of it is actually pretty fun, Moon’s horrible lead vocal aside. (In the 1978 Who documentary The Kids Are Alright, the band is seen rehearsing the number shortly before Moon’s drug & alcohol-related death. If you thought his voice was bad in ’66…) The Who were always a little more out-there than their contemporaries, and even though the songs may be a little silly, the EP is permeated with the sense of fun and experimentation that was typical of their approach before the self-serious ’70s.

Even the quirky British, who kept the oddball EP format alive for a precious few years, were powerless in the face of the “Album Age” ushered in in 1966. (By mid-1967, most U.K. artists had enough clout to insist that their American labels refrain from tampering with their albums’ track list and running order.) EP sales sales dwindled and died out. But there may have been one last moment of glory…

Modern listeners consider the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour to be the album that fits between Sgt. Pepper and the 1968 double-album epic The Beatles (The White Album). The songs on Side One were featured in their self-made, 50-minute psychedelic Christmas 1967 BBC TV “movie” of the same name, and all their 1967 singles (“Strawberry Fields Forever,” “All You Need Is Love,” etc.) make up Side Two. However, this was the case only in the U.S. In Britain, keeping with their stubborn resistance to having previously-issued singles on albums, the six songs on the TV movie soundtrack were only issued as a unique, unprecedented double-EP. Sales were strong, initially (it was the Beatles after all, even if no one liked the bizarre, vaguely stupid movie — mostly a product of McCartney’s pot-addled ego, and generally unseen in the U.S. until the home video ’80s), but it was clearly a dying format. Imported copies of the full-length U.S. album did a booming business in British music stores, and finally EMI Records caved to public demand and released it Britain in 1976, where it took its proper place in the canon of official Beatles albums.

Many DIY punk bands of the ’70s and ’80s used the EP format to keep budgets down, but these did not have the same popular impact of their forerunners. There was almost another chance for EPs in the CD era, as time between an artist’s “proper” albums became longer and longer. By that time, the term “extended play” had ceased to mean anything literal, and “EP” was just shorthand for a mini-album of four to six songs, often meant to tide over a band’s fans as they waited for a full-length release. This time period did see a handful of well-known new-definition EPs, such as the Breeders’ Safari (featuring a cover of the Who’s 1966 “So Sad About Us” in a nod to EP history), Alice In Chains’ grunge classic Jar Of Flies (which went to #1 on the album chart), and Veruca Salt’s wonderfully-titled Blow It Out Your Ass It’s Veruca Salt (unfortunately, its contents came nowhere near the awesomeness of that title.) Post-modern indie acts such as Arcade Fire, the Black Keys, Fleet Foxes, Spoon, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs have issued what they consider “EP”‘s in recent years, but those are just music nerds affectionately reaching out to their own, rather than a real attempt to make an impact. The British EP of the 1960s, intended for mass consumption, was a brief flare of oddity in the strictly regimented music business.

Are the old EPs we discussed still available?

The old-school EP may have gone the way of the dodo, but the songs remain (the same). The songs on Long Tall Sally all appear on the Past Masters compilation (both in stores and on iTunes.) Unfortunately, the 1960s Kinks material is, as yet, not on iTunes, but the songs on Kwyet Kinks appear as bonus tracks on the CD version of the Kinks’ second album, Kinda Kinks, still widely available. Three of the Ready Steady Who songs appear as bonus tracks on the CD and iTunes download of their album A Quick One (Happy Jack), and the fourth, “Circles,” can be found as a bonus track on My Generation (Deluxe Edition).

But get this: Five By Five is actually available in its original EP format on iTunes for $4.99! Maybe it’s not too late…

OK, I’m done with you. Rise and shine. Who’s going to settle up for these drinks?

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