The Kinks were at the forefront of the mid-1960s British Invasion but, by the ’70s, were no longer considered to be on the cutting edge.
Lead vocalist Ray Davies was understood, of course, to be a great songwriter. He had chosen to focus his eye for detail on life in England and, for years, had been releasing music in what was described at the time as “theme albums” or “concept albums.” This didn’t translate into many sales in North America, and eventually they parted ways with their record company.
In that way it was no surprise when the Kinks released their 1977 album Sleepwalker on a new label. However, the fact that it wasn’t a concept album was the big news, and so began the Kinks’ second life as a solid hard rock band of the early 1980s.
But that’s not really accurate either. In fact, just look at the hint in the song titles: any album that starts with a title like “Life On the Road” to a closer called “Life Goes On” is making a point about something — life, perhaps (duh!). Furthermore, look at these other song pairings: “Sleepwalker” and “Sleepless Night,” “Stormy Sky” and “Full Moon,” and maybe even “Brother” and “Mr. Big Man” — the latter of which would have to be some kind of inside joke with Davies’ brother, Kinks’ lead guitarist Dave Davies.
This leaves “Juke Box Music,” probably the best song on the album, as the only song without a corresponding partner. Why? The answer actually lies on the follow up album. On the surface, 1978’s Misfits is another collection of mostly unrelated songs. However, stealing the last song, “A Rock and Roll Fantasy,” and making it the Side Two ender of Sleepwalker reveals what practically amounts to a hidden message encoded in the structure of the album itself — and that, in a very important way, changes the whole nature of the collection …
Life On the Road
Mr. Big Man
Juke Box Music
Life Goes On
A Rock and Roll Fantasy* (from Misfits)
It turns out that Davies’ isn’t just singing about rock and roll as an idea in the abstract: This album seems to expose his own ambivalence about the very nature of his art. If so, it’s a harsh revelation to himself as well as his audience.
“It’s only jukebox music,” he sings, “So you shouldn’t take it to heart.” But what can be done about it, when you’ve lived your life on the road? The missing piece from Misfits provides the final answer — as the singer/artist commits to a final decision: “Don’t wanna live my life, living in a rock and roll fantasy.”
Turns out that Sleepwalker was very much a concept album, but a well-disguised one.