If 1980's One for the Road had been the first Kinks record you ever heard, you could be forgiven for thinking they were just a dumb-ass arena rock band, complete with sing-alongs, handclaps, and protracted instrumental solos.

By the time this live album was released, the grace notes and rough edges of the band's historic career had been mercilessly pruned in favor of least-common-denominator crowd-pleasing tactics, witless banter, and big dumb rawk tones for a big dumb rawk crowd.

But if One for the Road is a minor disgrace, it's also the climax of the most bizarre period in one of rock 'n' roll history's most bizarre careers.

By 1968, the Kinks were basically finished. After a great run as leader of a massively successful UK singles band, Ray Davies faced the same post-Sgt. Pepper's challenge that threatened to ruin his peers the Who and the Stones: How does a seven-inch auteur suddenly learn how to make full-length albums for an increasingly sophisticated audience?

Davies's response was unsurprisingly ambitiousThe Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, a thematically linked collection of anti-psychedelic pastoralia more concerned with observing the old way of life than with joining any kind of revolution. And though Sanctuary's recent three-disc reissue reminds us just how towering a work Village Green is, the rock world of 1968 appears not to have noticed; like the Zombies' similarly brilliant Odessey and Oracle (released six months earlier), it didn't even chart.

(Please pause to consider the madness of such a world.)

The album's commercial failure sent Davies and the band into a tailspin. Two years later, however, they reemerged with a worldwide hit called "Lola" and set about to take full advantage of their second chance at world domination. They changed labels, toured endlessly (especially in America, where they had been banned for most of the '60s due to a musician's union dispute) and, more to the point for this discussion, made a series of mind-blowingly weird concept records designed to make the most of the LP format—and Davies' growing obsession with the marriage of rock and theater. (Most of these albums were reissued on CD this year, in a pristine series of remastered releases from Koch Records.)

The first '70s-era Kinks LP was the best. Muswell Hillbillies (1971) is a gentle giant that brings together the very best of Davies' urban pastoral sensibilities with a discernible country-western influence that reinforces, rather than contradicts, the utter Britishness of the whole record. Though only loosely conceptual (songs for and about working-class London dreamers), the album's thematic consistency nonetheless set the stage for the releases that followed.

Preservation Act 1 (1973) was the first sign that the little birdies were beginning to fly from Mr. Davies' tree. A musical based on the ...Are the Village Green LP, Preservation is a fantastic pop album in the sheep's clothing of a concept record. A folk-rock gem like "Sweet Lady Genevieve" and then-voguish early-rock-revivalism like "One of the Survivors" would be perfectly at home on any Kinks LP.

If you were super hardcore, you might notice that the Johnny Thunder who got his own song on the 1968 album also gets a mention in "One of the Survivors" and maybe written a letter to the NME about it. But generally, were it not for the stage directions on the sleeve (and the increasingly elaborate stage show the band was mounting at the time), you might not have guessed at the songs' connection to one another.

Preservation passes the crucial concept album test: You can listen to the whole thing and not know you're being told a story. The same, alas, cannot be said for its sequel, Preservation Act 2 (1974), a double-album of songs, none of which would have made the cut for Act 1.

Though neither Preservation did very well, they were nonetheless followed by two further concept albums, Soap Opera (1974) and Schoolboys in Disgrace (1975), both of which were more concise than their sprawling predecessors, but which still shared their author's perverse fascination with theater rock role-play. Also notable is the fact that all four of these records had characters in common—specifically the villainous Mr. Flash, whose "origin" is told on the retro-rocking Schoolboys—again lending the unshakeable sense that Davies was either operating from deep within some weird obsession, or insistent upon telling the same joke again and again until someone laughed.

Either way, by mid-decade, the Kinks had again been abandoned by the dedicated followers of their hit singles, as well as by the label that had believed it was signing the guys who did "Lola," only to discover they had a musical theater troupe that used to be a commercial rock'n'roll band.

In the face of a dwindling audience, Davies signed a new deal with Clive Davis's then three-year-old Arista Records, and proceeded to lead his band back into the light with the easily digested, decidedly non-conceptual (unless the concept was to be only occasionally inspired) releases Sleepwalker (1977) and Misfits (1978), each of which performed better than the last, and both of which sold more than had all the concept albums combined.

These albums wore their narrow sonic and musical scope proudly, and sounded very much like a lot of other major label rock of the late-'70s. Also intentional. Davies seemed to be demonstrating that he no longer cared to be an eccentric genius on the fringes of pop, making music that was too interesting to be widely loved. If ordinary bands were now regularly playing arenas and stadiums, he could see no reason why the Kinks should be relegated to theaters and sheds.

In a way, it was almost as though he decided to stop making elaborate rock operas about characters like Mr. Flash, and just become one a character himself. The character of Ray Davies, crowd pleasing mainstream rockstar (as heard on One for the Road). And it worked.

Later in 1978 came Low Budget, which was a big hit in America thanks to the radio hit "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman," and abetted by Van Halen's (massively inferior) cover of "You Really Got Me." Two years later, the conceptual period was barely a memory. The Kinks were headlining sold-out arenas, discovering a new mass audience thanks to MTV, and—if the lyrics on '80s albums like Give the People What They Want (1981) and State of Confusion (1983) are any indication—wondering once again where all the good times had gone.

sean@thestranger.com

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