So their previous album The Kinks Present: A Soap Opera represented The Kinks at their absolute lousiest. Crappy album, crappy critical reception, crappy sales. If the previous two albums — the ambitious, sometimes entertaining but ultimately unsatisfactory Preservation Act I and Preservation Act II — didn’t drive away most of their 60s fans, Soap Opera sat in the corner of the party, crushing beer cans against its forehead and reciting horrific improvised poetry. Yeah.
So why not do yet another theatrical/concept album? Defying expectations, the band rebounded that very same year with The Kinks Present: Schoolboys In Disgrace. Easily the band’s best album since the studio side of 1972’s Everybody’s In Show-Biz, Schoolboys In Disgrace improves upon the horrible Soap Opera and terribly sub-par Preservation: Act II in every conceivable way: as music, as theatrics, as songwriting, as an album experience as a whole. It’s more consistent and entertaining than Preservation: Act I, and, much like that album, containsa song which I consider to be a “Lost Kinks Classic”.
The result is an album which I think holds up remarkably well and represents the best of the band’s “theatrical” albums (this, PA:I, PA:II, SOAP OPERA), by far.
The overall 50s feel of the album kicks off with Schooldays, a generally winning song with a great sound and vibe. If some of the lyrics are bit too obvious — and they are — you can chalk it up to the project’s theatrical underpinnings. I like the opener quite a bit, especially its “sock hop” feel. It works as a song, first and foremost, rather than as some dopey overture. Jack the Idiot Dunce is equal parts Jerry Lee Lewis and vintage Beach Boys, a quick-paced 50s/60s-styled rocker that works equally well as music as it does a piece of musical storytelling.
Education doesn’t really work for me. It’s a midtempo piece (that picks up pace in its midsection) during which Flash grapples with the existential quandary about the value of education in the first place. Something along those lines. Not a particularly memorable song, but not a bad one either. It’s average at best, filler at worst. On the other hand, try not to be totally taken in by the sock-hop slow-dance that is The First Time We Fall In Love, an infectious ode to teen heartache. Ray’s affected 50s crooner stylings and mid-song falsettos might put off some, but it totally works well. Dave’s crushing guitars also anchor the song with some solid rock underpinnings. The song is also quite theatrical in its presentation, but that only strengthens its overall quality.
I’m In Disgrace — recounting Flash’s experience getting caught nailing a chick behind the bleachers, or something — is pure theatrical power-pop, and has an enjoyable vibe, acting as something of a harbinger for their “arena rock” sound to develop over their next few albums. It’s also the first track on the album that feels like 70s AOR rather than 70s retro-50s rock.
The album’s centerpiece, and arguably a “Lost Kinks Classic” is Headmaster, a wonderfully produced, dark, evocative, extremely contemporary (for 1975), and VERY strong and memorable piece of songwriting and performance. It starts out driven by haunting minor-key piano lines and turns into a powerful rocker. Dave’s killer guitar solo is one of his shining moments with the band thus far. The epic harmonies and wall-of-rock midsection-through-ending is top-notch. This is a great song.
The next track is the Headmaster’s response, The Hard Way. Well produced and musically agreeable, it’s a decent rock number, all sneer and crunchy guitars, but after Headmaster it seems slight and inconsequential. The Last Assembly details Flash’s public discipline/whipping at the hands of the Headmaster, and is a slower piece reminiscent of Schooldays or The First Time We Fall In Love. It’s not quite as good as those two, but still a decent song.
The album ends with No More Looking Back and Finale. The former is the album’s final original work, and is a marked difference from the rest of the album. As the song takes place in the future, it eschews the 50s conventions for a more contemporary 70s sound. Flash is still haunted by the Headmaster and realizes he’s got to let go of the past, or something. Anyway, the song acts as a bridge between the previous 4 years of “theatrical” rock and the upcoming “arena” rock phase of the band. No More Looking Back would fit right in on the band’s upcoming Arista records. It’s an OK song. It doesn’t have the kind of hooks or lyricism that would make it entirely memorable. Finale is basically a curtain-call reprise of Education, running about a minute long and that’s about it.
The Kinks Present: Schoolboys In Disgrace isn’t an essential album, but it’s darn good one. At the final lap of their theatrical dalliances, I think Ray began to understand that theatrical music still, for the most part, has to work as music, first and foremost. The hooks are catchier here, the songwriting a bit sharper, and there’s a sense of entertainment and exuberance to this album that has been missing for awhile. If you’re a Kinks fan, this is well worth picking up one way or another. Schoolboys In Disgrace was a small triumph for the band, but a triumph nonetheless.