"A Gallon of Gas" 45 RPM single
This blog has been overdue for a Kinks entry for awhile now, so I might as well do one today. As anyone who has followed the Kinks’ storied history knows, The Kinks have gone through several distinct phases, both commercially and artistically. First, there was the Era Of Initial Success (1964-66): The Kinks, starting with “You Really Got Me”, (and ending with “Sunny Afternoon”) had several hits in the U.S. Then there was what I call the Era Of Limited Commercial Success (1967-69): The Kinks failed to score a U.S. Top 40 hit, but they release a series of critically acclaimed concept albums. There was a brief “revival” period in the early 1970’s, when The Kinks, buoyed by the commercial success of “Lola” (peak U.S. chart position: #9) and “Celluloid Heroes” (U.K. Top 20), saw their commercial fortunes restored, but once they signed with RCA Records in 1973, they seemed to be doomed to once again releasing low-selling concept albums.
The band’s move to Arista Records in 1976 seemed to be a turning point. “Low Budget” (1979) was their third album for Arista and eventually became their best-selling album in the U.S. By now, the band lineup had changed somewhat from what it had been in the 1960’s. Ray Davies (lead vocals, guitars), Dave Davies (vocals, lead guitar), and Mick Avory (drums) remained from the original lineup (together, they constituted three-fourths of the original lineup), but in addition, Jim Rodford (bass guitar) and Ian Gibbons (keyboards) joined the band; both would remain until 1984, when the departure of Mick Avory helped signal the end of The Kinks’ salad days. It was not a concept album in the sense of being a rock opera, but most of the songs seem to be thematically linked, and the theme is that hard times have befallen us. Both sides of today’s featured single, “A Gallon of Gas” b/w “Low Budget” are related to this theme.
“A Gallon of Gas”, along with “Catch Me Now I’m Falling”, are the two tracks from the album that deal with the album’s subplot: hard times for America in the global economy, and the nation’s corresponding loss of prestige. The song is a simple blues melody; the keyboards are muted for this track, with the song driven primarily by the Davies brothers guitars, complemented well by Rodford and Avory. The lyrics – about a man who has bought a brand new Cadillac, but who can’t afford gas for it – puts a humorous spin on the gas crisis of the late 1970’s: “I went to my local dealer to see if he could set me straight/He said there’s a little gas going but I’d have to wait/But he offered some red hot speed and some really high grade hash/But a gallon of gas can’t be purchased anywhere for any amount of cash”. The song sounds a bit dated, but from a lyrical standpoint, it sounds as if it could have been written more recently. And here’s an extra verse, from the long version: “I love your body work, but you’re really no use/How can I drive you when I got no juice?/Because it’s stuck in neutral and my engine’s got no speed/And the highways are deserted and the air smells unnaturally clean”. As the liner notes for the CD point out, given the fact that Ray Davies dissected the carcass of British imperialism and class structure so viciously on such albums as “Arthur” and the “Preservation” albums, this is a surprisingly lighthearted (and perhaps even sympathetic) look at the Carter era United States.
The B-side, “Low Budget”, is such a good song that when I started researching this entry, I thought that “Low Budget” was the A-side and “A Gallon of Gas” was the B-side. Only when I checked a Kinks discography did I discover that it was the other way around. “Low Budget” starts with with a simple, mid-tempo Dave Davies melody; although some of the tracks on the album feature keyboards more prominently, that is not the case with this song. According to Dave Davies (in the liner notes of the “Low Budget” CD), the title track was recorded on the second take, with live drums and live guitars, and the song does have a “live in studio” feel to it, in keeping with the back-to-basics attitude of the album. The rhythm section of Rodford and Avory makes a difference here, giving the song a solid, punchy rock beat. And as Ray Davies noted, “I really got it to be a good dance record on the re-mix”; he felt it passed the test when he heard it in a Stockholm disco and “it knocked the balls off everything else.” Although the lyrics are about someone who has fallen on hard times, the plight of this man is described humorously: “Even my trousers are giving me pain/They were reduced in a sale so I shouldn’t complain/They squeeze so tight so I can’t take no more/They’re size 28 but I take 34”. And check out this extra lyric, cut from the final version of the song: “Quality costs, but quality wastes/So I’m giving up all of my expensive tastes/Caviar and champagne are definite no’s/I’m acquiring a taste for brown ale and cod roes”. This single did not chart in the U.S., but “Low Budget” became a staple of AOR stations for many years, and the song would become a staple of The Kinks’ live show. Unlike many of The Kinks’ singles from this era (which included picture sleeves), “A Gallon of Gas” was issued with a standard paper sleeve and the label has the standard Arista logo from the late 1970’s.
"Monkey Suit" picture sleeve and record. Note the colored vinyl. Released September 5, 1980.
The Plasmatics were the brainchild of Rod Swenson, who received his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from Yale in 1969 where he specialized in conceptual, performance, and neo-Dadist art. By the mid-1970s, he had begun a series of counterculture projects which found him in the middle of Times Square producing experimental counterculture theater. It was there that he met the former porn actress Wendy O. Williams after Wendy had happened upon a copy of Show Business Weekly that someone had discarded on a bus station floor. The issue lay open to a page containing an ad for Rod’s casting call for his theater show, “Captain Kink’s Sex Fantasy Theater”. She answered the ad and applied for a job. Soon, Wendy and Rob were auditioning potential members of The Plasmatics. Richie Stotts (guitar) joined the band, as did Michael David (bass) and Stuart Deutsch (drums). The band made their first public performance at CBGB’s in New York City. Michael David soon left the band to focus on his burgeoning painting career, and was replaced by Chosei Funahara. The band continued as a quartet for a time, but soon realized they needed another guitarist to hold them together musically. Guitarist Wes Beech joined the band; he would become, along with Wendy O. Williams, a mainstay of the band for the next decade.
The band quickly rose in the New York City punk underground scene, eventually playing two sold-out shows a night at CBGB’s four days a week. Swenson booked the Irving Plaza, then run by the Polish War Veterans, and repeatedly sold out the establishment, helping establish it as a rock venue. They also headlined – and sold out – a concert at the Palladium Theater. The Plasmatics were soon selling out concerts across the Northeast, but were still an unsigned band. That would change in March 1980, when Stiff Records sent A&R representatives to New York City to see the band live. A deal was inked with Stiff within the month, and the band’s debut single, “Butcher Baby” was issued by the label, reaching #55 on the U.K. singles chart. An album was released later that year, “New Hope for the Wretched”. The band’s second single, “Monkey Suit” b/w “Squirm” was taken from the album. This is today’s featured single.
“Monkey Suit” starts off with Wendy O. Williams proclaiming that “[i]n a monkey suit/You look just like a monkey”. The rest of the song delivers a blistering guitar assault punctuated by Williams’ unique vocal delivery (at times, she seems almost constipated): “You got money/You got money/You got money/But it ain’t buyin’ you nothin'”. Is it an anti-corporate screed, or just run-of-the-mill punk nihilism? While The Plasmatics were not as tight a musical ensemble as they would later become, and their lyrics weren’t as heady and ambitious at this early stage either, “Monkey Suit” is still an impressive slab of punk rock, and an assault on the senses that leaves a strong impression. The real strength of The Plasmatics at this point was in their stage show, and studio recordings didn’t really do them justice (after all, you can’t put a chain-sawed television or an exploding car onto a record), but listening to “Monkey Suit” does give you a glimmer of what all the fuss what about at the time.
The B-side, “Squirm”, is a live track, song built around a simple but catchy minor-key riff with lyrics that are as minimalist as “Monkey Suit”: “Make you squirm/Watch you squirm/You know how to make me/I know how to make you/Make you squirm”. The musicianship isn’t particularly inspired (Beech and Stotts were not yet tight enough to pull of the metal-influenced twin-guitar leads they were straining for, and Deustch is merely a competent drummer, not adding much to the mix), although William’s spirited vocal performance makes the track worthwhile. Although the song isn’t as memorable as the A-side of the single, it’s still a worthwhile track.
This single (catalog #: BUY 91) was issued by Stiff Records on September 5, 1980. The single was issued with a picture sleeve and was pressed on colored vinyl (as shown in the accompanying picture). The band would release one more album on Stiff Records, “Beyond the Valley of 1984” (1981), with Chris Romanelli replacing Chosei Funahara on bass, and Neil Smith (ex-Alice Cooper) replacing Stuart Deutsch on drums. The album was followed by the “Metal Priestess” EP later that year. Capitol Records was impressed enough to ink the band to a worldwide contract in 1982. Although their Capitol debut, “Coup d’Etat” (1982), garnered critical acclaim, Capitol soon decided that the band’s spotty records sales combined with the political liability and fallout associated with The Plasmatics made the band an unattractive property. The label decided not to exercise their option for a second album, and thus The Plasmatics found themselves without a recording contract. Swenson and O. Williams moved forward, avoiding the possibility of a legal dispute with Capitol by recording a Wendy O. Williams solo record, with only Wes Beech and drummer T.C. Tolliver remaining from the previous incarnation of the band. Chris Romanelli returned to the fold, along with O. Williams and Beech, for “Maggots: The Record” (1987), a futuristic thrash metal opera issued by Profile Records. Ray Callahan rounded out this lineup on drums. An ambitious tour was launched in support of the album, with rear screen projectors depicting images of various human horrors in the background as the band performed songs from “Maggots”. After the tour, The Plasmatics became inactive, as Wendy O. Williams began to focus on her acting career and otherwise maintained a low profile. The suicide of O. Williams on April 6, 1998 ended any realistic possibility of a Plasmatics reunion.