35 Years Ago: The Kinks Enter the ’80s With ‘Give the People What They Want’
The recordings the Kinks made in their first decade rank alongside anything made by the band's British Invasion contemporaries. The string of singles and albums the released made them stars, and as the '70s rolled on, chief songwriter Ray Davies continued to explore the conceptual themes he began on 1969's Arthur. By the middle of the decade, those LP-length concepts had overtaken songs, so Davies started to focus on traditional presentations for his compositions.
On albums like Sleepwalker and Misfits, Davies came armed with some of his best songs in years but without the conceptual baggage. In the process, the Kinks found a larger audience in the U.S., something that had always been out of reach, and by 1979's Low Budget, they were headlining arenas. This all started to affect Davies' writing as well as the Kinks’ performances, with bigger gestures and bigger guitars now taking center stage.
Give the People What They Want, which was released in August 1981, was the fully formed representation of the Kinks at this point in their career. The record is filled with rough-edged, arena-ready and radio-friendly rockers.
The album kicks off with "Around the Dial," on which Dave Davies unleashes one of his big guitar attacks, not too far removed from other mainstream arena rockers of the era. But brother Ray's knack for melody is here too. The title cut is another big guitar song with arenas in mind, and Davies' insight into the television culture of the early '80s turned out to be prophetic.
"The real inspiration for the title came from working in America when I was writing Low Budget, and being exposed to the media and watching TV 24 hours a day," Davies told Creem in a 1981 interview. "Watching all those shows like That's Incredible, where they use ordinary people. What happens is the consumer is being used to entertain, to get high ratings, to sell products to consumers. It was going around in a circle. That's a real con."
Davies went on to compare pop culture to barbaric times in his analysis. "The Roman promoters ran out of ideas bringing in audiences, so they thought it was a good idea to throw Christians to the lions," he noted. "It's kind of my anti-music business thing, my in-joke about certain promoters because promoters are always moaning about their expenses and advertising. Its anti-media, in a sense: the lengths people will go to — see riots, see murder, snuff movies on television — to get higher ratings. That's really what it's all about."
Listen to the Kinks' 'Better Things'
"Killer's Eyes" was also inspired by real life, in this case the shooting of the Pope, while "Predictable" takes another jab at 1981's pop culture and features Chrissie Hynde on backing vocals.
The two singles released from the album showed the two sides of the band at the time: "Destroyer" is the hard rocker with its roots blatantly reaching back to "All Day and All of the Night," with a variation on that 1965 classic's guitar riff. "Better Things" shows off more the Kinks' pop side, with distinct ties to Dvaies' more melodic cuts. Neither made Billboard's Top 100, but "Destroyer" was an FM radio favorite. But "Art Lover" is the album's most vintage-styled throwback, complete with a Davies character portrayal (even though "art" here refers to girls).
Give the People What They Want kept the Kinks on solid ground following Low Budget's success. In a way, it's the band's most definitive album of the period. It sold well and set up their comeback that was right around the corner with "Come Dancing," which became one of their biggest hits in the States.
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