The Kinks’s 1979 album Low Budget remains their highest-charting US non-compilation album, and a validation of sorts for the band. It continues the mainstream AOR vein that began with Sleepwalker and Misfits, their first two Arista albums — aka the band’s so-called “Arena Rock” period. The album was a big commercial success for the band, but it also saw the band’s sound feedbacking onto itself in an Oroborus cycle of influence. Here they were absorbing the New Wave and Punk sounds of the mid/late 70s, from bands that were in turn influenced by The Kinks’s musicality and often wry and/or caustic lyricism. Low Budget was the band at a zenith of pop-cultural ascension; they were never a “nostalgia” act by any definition. Love or hate their “theatrical” or “roots” period, here was a band that was always exploring what they could do with their admittedly limited musical toolbox (but virtually limited lyrical inventiveness). With Low Budget, The Kinks moved beyond the safer boundaries of their previous two studio albums. They were no longer sticking their toe in the waters and cautiously gauging the prevailing currents of the day. Now they were diving right in to the pool, making their own waves, acknowledging and integrating the sound of those that came after them while pushing their own brand forward and onward.
The album is also timely, deeply rooted in the sentiments of its era while avoiding the pitfalls that would make the work sound embarrassingly dated. Oh sure, there’s forays into punk, new wave, and disco, as well as the requisite hard rock and blues. Ray was turning his attention to the various crises of the late 1970s — America in turmoil, economic woe, oil supplies in chaos, terrorism, network variety shows, etc. — and, with the band, crafted an album reflective of international neuroses that resonated well with audiences. The hard rocker “Attitude” opens the album off with confidence. The band sounds re-energized and focused, as if taking the self-help admonishment of the subject matter rather personally. The brashness of Ray’s vocals combined with the staccato urgency of Dave’s fretwork lets you know they mean business with this album, and if the song itself isn’t much more than enjoyably acceptable, it succeeds at establishing the proper tone from the get-go.
“Catch Me Now I’m Falling” is an ode to Jimmy Carter-era national malaise, and it’s a quizzical beast. The song itself has everything it needs to elevate itself to the upper echelon of really good Kinks rockers, and it indeed could have been one — if it hadn’t shamelessly cribbed the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” riff and made extensive use of it. I mean honestly: no matter how good the song gets — and it often gets pretty great — it always return to that riff with an embarrassing facepalm. Did the band use it well? Surely. But to the listener it’s still a very self-consciously weird lift.
A Chuck Berry-esque intro brings us into “Pressure”, a thematic sibling to “Attitude”, or perhaps an angry response to it. Either works. The song is a fun uptempo rocker that sees Ray and gang aping some punk’ish conventions of the day but absorbing them into an easier-to-digest Kinks outer shell. Surprisingly the melange works. If it’s a bit of a 50s/70s mishmash, it’s one that serves the song well. The band takes a stylistic left into New Wave territory with “National Health”, which as far as I can tell is about as strong a pro-masturbation treatise as the world had seen up to that point, at least until Cyndi Lauper’s “She-Bop” erupted across airwaves in 1984. Perhaps I’m projecting. Ray is searching for means of escaping the national anxieties of the era; drugs, booze, taking matters into your own hands — whatever works to alleviate the pressure, I suppose.
“(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” continues that theme with less overt self-gratification and more generic wish-fulfillment, but this time with a most awesome disco beat. Disco. YES. Dave’s guitarwork gives the song muscle when it needs it, while Jim Rodford’s infectious bassline drives the song madly along. This song was recorded just as the 1978 Christopher Reeve “Superman” movie was a ginormous blockbuster in theaters, giving jaded and demoralized 70s audiences a larger-than-life messianiac figure right when they needed it. I’m not quite sure if Ray believed a man could fly, but if the song is any indication he was certainly agreeable to any and all communication from Avalon/Krypton and beyond.
Inflation woes, you say? Davies knows all about it on the album’s title track. This midtempo song is all thick crunchy guitars, snarling vocals, a fat low-end and distorted guitar flourishes throughout. “Low Budget” is probably the most AOR track thus far, and fits quite comfortably into that late-70s classic rock vibe. Less effective is the rather odd “In A Space”, a piece that seems a bit lyrically weak. Continuing the “World Going To Shit” motif is Ray’s take on madness and overpopulation or some such nonsense. Not a bad song, but definitely not one that stands out either.
The melodic acoustic opener that introduces us to “Little Bit Of Emotion” is a moment to catch our breath and refocus, and the song is an enjoyable ballad about digging below the surface to find the core of the displaced, the angry, the crazies, the racist, the whores, whomever, no matter how much it terrifies us. It’s all a bit creaky and treacle, but the delivery is so earnest and the melody so catchy that the song definitely works. I really dig the lovely sax work woven in and out of the verses and chorus.
Oil crisis blues rares its ugly head in the bluesy “A Gallon Of Gas”. Like many other British bands that erupted during the British Invasion, The Kinks cut their teeth on blues and R&B back in their youth. The band takes to honky-tonk piano conventions of the late 70s extremely naturally, as if they were just kicking their shoes off and enjoying the ease of it all. Ray’s vocals are assured and smooth, as are the confident vocal harmonies provided by Dave and Jim. Less pleasing is “Misery”, which feels like strictly placeholder material. This is the album’s first piece of abject mediocrity.
Finishing out the album is “Moving Pictures”, which echoes more than a bit of ELO to my ears, but with admittedly much less production overkill. The falsettoes and swirling synth work certainly tilt it into that direction, but it’s hardly a derivative work. It’s a decent and overall acceptable number, but coming after “Misery” it doesn’t give the album the proper ending it needs. “Low Budget” needs a bombastic closer the same way Thin Lizzy’s Black Rose (another classic and mostly overlooked 1979 hard rock album) closed with the massively epic “Roisin Dubh” — something to give what is otherwise a pretty strong rock album a proper send-off. Instead, it just sort of peters out.
Still, a comparatively weaker ending does not diminish what is otherwise a successful endeavor for The Kinks. Low Budget might lack the ambition and narrative whackadoo of the wildly-uneven RCA era, but it presents a strong, muscular set of tunes which finds the band in confidently fine form.