The photograph on the cover of The Kinks’ country-rock masterpiece Muswell Hillbillies was shot at the Archway Tavern in London, a couple of miles away from Muswell Hill in North London where band leader Ray Davies and guitarist Dave Davies grew up.
Lyrically, Muswell Hillbillies is an album steeped in London imagery set to ironically upbeat American country and blues, however is anything but a tender tribute to the north London suburb that Ray and Dave Davies called home. A traditionalist who distrusts big government, Ray’s sophisticated prose is filled with references to people and places he knew growing up, circling themes of poverty and working-class life, and telling the tale of how the beautiful red-brick Edwardian avenues were becoming more and more gentrified with the destruction and subdivision of old neighbourhoods.
They have come to stand for some of the most enduring and heart-clutching pop of all time, and the band’s ninth studio album is no different. The Kinks smile their way through the despair and allow influences from pre-war American popular music to infiltrate their famously English sound. As they lived their lives in Muswell Hill, these Londoners’ dreams kept drifting to America. The music is warm, inviting, and happy and jaunty throughout, and is coloured with an old-time Dixieland horn section (not many bands were doing that in 1971), rockabilly, blues and tin pan alley evoking the trad jazz era.
“Got no privacy, got no liberty, ‘Cause the twentieth century people took it all away from me”
The song cycle is about a community of people in a particular place, all trying to keep a grip on their lives in the shadow of the era’s enormous faceless institutions. Tracks such as galloping opener 20th Century Man is about a man in the last house in the street to be demolished who tapes explosives to his body, so that if they come to knock the house down, he’ll blow the place up, including himself. He is a disillusioned anti-hero, alienated by every current trend and unhappy about the erosion of his civil liberties. So too the mad, semi-psychotic imagery of Here Come The People In Grey is all about social upheaval, while Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues sums up what someone feels like when they’re not in control of their own life anymore. Elsewhere, the ominous undercurrents of Uncle Son is about people who never had a voice, never had a politician willing to speak for them, who are finding themselves slipping through the cracks of society.
The front cover picture of Ray, Dave and the band in all their bell-bottom wearing, long hair and bearded 1970s glory, standing at the bar of an old-fashioned English pub, having a pint, surrounded by ‘regulars’ old and young, was taken in The Archway Tavern, about 2 miles away from Muswell Hill. There’s some besuited businessmen in the background, an old man in the foreground, and a casually dressed man staring disdainfully to his right sporting a moustache and an red pullover. When compared to how it looks today, to say the interior has been gentrified beyond recognition is an understatement.
The back inset picture, showing the band below a signpost giving direction to Muswell Hill, was taken on the small traffic island at the intersection of Castle Yard and Southwood Lane in Highgate, which remains largely unchanged.
The inner gatefold of the album showed the band in Muswell Hill by an iron fence surrounding a leftover wartime bomb site. Sadly, these are long-vanished Victorian streets, and this is what now stands at the corner of Lulot Street (now Lulot Gardens) and Retcar Street in Highgate. These streets were demolished to make way for modern flats in the 1970s.
“They’re putting us in identical little boxes. No character, just uniformity…”