If the year '67 in serious rock music had to do with direct confrontations with a nascent counterculture, the year '66 was more involved with writerly innovations. Suddenly, young artists writing rock songs could write about just about anything. What was stunning is that most of the major ones (Lennon, McCartney, Davies, Townshend, Dylan, Jagger) chose to employ this new freedom to address issues which would've been unthinkable to address in '64 or '65. The Beatles had a #1 hit single with "Paperback Writer," a song narrated from the point of view of a literary hack looking for an in to sell and publish cheap books. Revolver, the Beatles major '66 achievement, took the Beatles down some dark paths; "Eleanor Rigby" (also a #1 hit in the UK), a song about an aging spinster, "Tomorrow Never Knows," one of the first rock treatises on metaphysics (which used the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a reference point), and "Doctor Robert," a song about a New York physician who gave paying patients amphetamine injections. The Stones '66 opus, Aftermath, was equally dark; "Under My Thumb" assayed sexual politics in a ruthlessly disciplined way, "Mother's Little Helper" poked fun at pill-popping housewives, and "Lady Jane" used medieval royal courts as a metaphor for the courting techniques of a modern gigolo. Dylan's Blonde on Blonde hid behind an inscrutable wall of innuendos, Surrealistic imagery, and swirling carnivalesque music; and the Who were involved in upping the ante, where auto-destructive performances were concerned. It was a year of excitement and ferment, when (providentially) the mainstream media did not yet quite realize what was happening, so that the major rock songwriters were free to work unimpeded by circumstances which would later chain them to a sense of writing "for a generation." The Beatles, especially, became "spokesmen for a generation" after Sgt. Pepper, once the ferment was over and entropy sank in. If Dylan was already there, '66 marked the end of his forward momentum forever, and the inscrutability of Blonde on Blonde sank in as his last statement while on the crest of a media wave.
Into this mix came the Kinks' Face to Face. The Kinks, because they had been banned from the United States and had ceased to have hit records there, were even more free than the Beatles and Stones to do artistically as they pleased. In England, at least, they were still competitive; and Ray Davies clearly had competition in mind when he composed the best Face to Face tracks. What's worth noting instantly about Face to Face is that not all of the tracks fall into the trough of what I call the Kinks' "daffodil" style; lazy, rolling tempos, gentle marches (which even hint at oompah-band corniness), and a certain dandified decadence of which Oscar Wilde himself might've approved. Because Face to Face is musically varied, and because Ray Davies dares to tackle more serious issues than any of his contemporaries, I rate the Kinks' Face to Face as the most major rock achievement of '66. Interestingly, Face to Face went out of print in the US a long time ago. If you want to obtain a copy, you have to hustle. This gives Face to Face the aura of a hidden gem, which it very much deserves. It is the single strongest collection of Davies material. A song like "A House in the Country" brings many worlds together; musically, it's straightforward, pounding rock. What the lyrics satire is a British businessman of some kind, whose ferocious approach to his workaday life is rationalized because he has "a house in the country and a big sports car." Davies sings, "why should he care if he is hated in his home?" It's not just that this subject matter is outre for popular music; the absolute mundanity of the situation makes it unlikely that the song could even work. The song does work because the psychology of the businessman is nuanced, and bizarre. Why does having a house in the country make up for being hated? Why is it so necessary to construct a ferocious exterior?
To extrapolate something larger from this, Ray Davies was the first British songwriter to write extensively about class. This businessman's ferocity is middle-class, materialistic ferocity. It could even be upper-middle class ferocity. Oddly enough, between "A House in the Country," "Most Exclusive Residence for Sale," and the hit single "Sunny Afternoon," the theme of "houses" and class recurs on Face to Face. Houses are a representation of class status; in "Most Exclusive.." and "Sunny Afternoon," two aristocrats lose their houses and thus their status. Interestingly, "Sunny Afternoon" knocked the Beatles' "Paperback Writer" off the top of the charts. It was a shining moment for Ray Davies and the Kinks, because the Beatles in Sixties pop were hegemonic. "Sunny Afternoon" is performed in full "daffodil" grandeur, and if it works better than the Kinks' other daffodil pieces it's because when it was released it was a new musical style for them, and has a freshness to it which "Dead End Street," from later that year, does not. Crucially, the ruined aristocrat in "Sunny Afternoon" is "lazing," rather than working, the protagonist of "A House in the Country" robbed of his ferocity and put out to pasture. He has, in fact, been taxed to death. He's a misogynistic abuser of women divested of sexiness (Mick Jagger's protagonists manage to make sexual politics sound sexy), and a drunkard. Davies' big Face to Face mode is, in fact, satire, and the sense that he's "taking the piss" of British societal mores in what for '66 was a surprisingly sophisticated way.
Other Face to Face satires are gentler. "Dandy" works to spoof Swinging London bachelors, who "swing" from woman to woman without settling anywhere. Davies, as always, thinks about the aging process, and the fact that these hapless rogues will be left with nothing in the end. "Session Man" is a dig at musicians who don't express anything but what they're told to play, and play for money alone. It is widely thought that the song refers to Nicky Hopkins, a keyboardist who was ubiquitously present on rock sessions in England in the Sixties. "Little Miss Queen of Darkness" is the creepiest, and walks a fine line between being satire and sympathetic portraiture. The young woman in the song hangs around clubs, gets fixated on a single man who spurns her and never recovers. Because the protagonist of the song also spurns her, we learn that she's unpleasant to deal with socially; is, in fact, repellant. But "Swinging" culture meant that figures like this, "lurkers," were commonplace, and if no one noticed them it wasn't particularly unusual. Davies' artist's eyes saw that a figure like this was the dark side of Sixties London personified, and so he painted her portrait faithfully. "Holiday in Waikiki," on the other hand, is a jovial study of consumer culture taken to the nth; a tropical paradise become a commercial hell, with everything priced above its proper value. Since the dominant note of Face to Face is satire, and because the satirical value of each track is unique, there's no other album in the rock canon quite like Face to Face. Aging had not yet become a central Davies preoccupation; nor had the "daffodil" style become predominent. What converges is the feel and sharpness of a rock masterpiece. For the songs' poignance, you could even reasonably say that Face to Face is Sister Lovers-as-satire. The '66 explosion included one comet which has been partly lost; when it returns, it should return at the top.