For Doyle, Muswell Hillbillies is “the most complete statement of Davies’s artistic vision”, a collection of songs that are “the sounds of smoky dance halls and pub floors covered with sawdust and sour beer”, about characters that “fight back in the way that they always have: by gritting their teeth and smiling through the pain”. For those unfamiliar with the Kinks in all their “sloppy, joyous and occasionally maudlin” glory, Doyle’s Songs of the Semi- Detached is both an informed guide and sterling companion. And at a time when the very idea of England is changing, the Kinks’ music is both a bright remnant of the past and a dark portent of times to come.
The result is a book that distinguishes between the musical and lyrical conservatism of which Davies has been accused and the ambivalence and compassion which informs his best songs. I know these records inside out, but Doyle sent me back to them with fresh insights and enthusiasm. He frames The Village Green Preservation Society, for instance, as Pop Art rather than anthems of ‘Little England’; he presents Arthur as a song cycle, the roots of which lie in suburbia, the small pleasures, aspirations and frustrated dreams of its inhabitants.
By the book’s final section, the author has wandered further into undiluted social history. It’s academically sound, the scope is impressive but, paradoxically, the deeper Doyle delves, the greater distance we’re taken from the Kinks to a point where even the most insightful connections appear tantalisingly tenuous. It’s as if a completely new book is surfacing, overwhelming and threatening to displace the current one.
The Kinks is thoughtful and readable, though Doyle never really succeeds in making a case for the band’s elevation in the rock pantheon higher than the position it already holds. Listening again to some of the songs on albums like Face to Face (1966) made me think that the work in general was good enough for its time but not good enough to endure. The best, however, like ‘Lola’, Davies’s 1970 song about gender fluidity, is still screamingly up to date.