Music Features

Waxing Lyrical #2: Ray Davies

Rock ‘n’ roll’s multi-layered impact relies on music, lyrics, performance, and visual image. Focusing on the lyrics poses a problem because most times they don’t stand on their own. Just a listen to the current charts would make an English teacher cringe: pop banalities, nonsense ramblings, crude boasts, naïve attempts at poetry, and airhead musings. This is no recent trend; trite lyrics have plagued popular music since its inception, and people like Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, and Jerry Lieber are as rare as red diamonds. Ray Davies stands alone with his brand of social satire.

There was some evidence of Davies’ talent for words throughout The Kinks’ first two albums. Yet the release of Kwyet Kinks (EP) in September 1965 took people by surprise. Pop groups sang about love, lust, and the latest fads. Anything beyond that was unconceivable. Now here were these upstarts breaking convention with four brainy songs. A Well Respected Man, with its savage dissection of upper-class privilege, was only the first salvo.

By that time, The Kinks’ music had already affected the course of modern music with the release of You Really Got Me and All Day And All Of The Night. Davies could have dedicated the rest of his career to churn out cookie-cutter versions of those songs, but he refused to repeat himself. R&B music was still a major influence, but there were other musical roots yet to explore.

For Davies, musical education began in the front room of his modest Muswell Hill home, where his family sang around an upright piano. Their tastes were eclectic: country, show tunes, ribald music hall ditties, pop standards, jazz, and R&B records bought by his elder sisters. Besides music, there were other sensibilities at play in his formation. Like other famous malcontents, he went to art school, but his love of film soon took over as a creative option. No less important was the ongoing sea change in literature, which was turning away from the genteel tradition towards honest portrayals of working-class life. The movement made a deep impression on Davies, who mourned its passing on Where Are They Now?, a Preservation Act I (1973) track: “Where are all the angry young men now?/Barstow and Osborne, Waterhouse and Sillitoe/Where on earth did they all go?”

By the time Dedicated Follower Of Fashion was released, Davies had carved a niche for himself as a mordant observer, reserving his sharpest barbs for his own generation: “He flits from shop to shop just like a butterfly”. Polly tells the story of a wayward child who severs his family bonds to join the swinging city scene, only to return home in disgrace back to the old chains.

The Beatles and Stones were always ready to stroke the listener’s ego with their us-against-them stance, which certainly made them richer. Davies saw through the Swinging Sixties fog and found only tinsel and catchphrases. He knew that human nature stays the same after hypes and trends run their course. The generation gap is acknowledged on Brainwashed, but the perspective is wider, and sympathy lies not with the radical son but with the unwitting father.

There’s an underlying theme that runs through The Kinks’ catalog that comes to fruition on Arthur (1969), with its portrait of a family in transition. Two world wars are survived, but shifting society values and economic realities take their toll on family bonds.

The key to Davies’ songwriting is empathy. It’s remarkable how many songs are written in the first person. One can never confuse the singer with the song in Davies’ universe. He can be a cheerful old man (Autumn Almanac), a bankrupt toff (Sunny Afternoon), a mistreated floozy (Mirror Of Love), or a stern teacher (The Hard Way), each with a story to tell. His keen attention to detail paints powerful images. Some Mother’s Son, about a soldier dying in the field, is made all the more poignant with the lines: “They put his picture on the wall/ They put flowers in the picture frame/ Some mother’s memory remains”.

Dreamers populate Davies’ landscape; freedom is yearned for but never attained. The housewife of Two Sisters envies her unmarried sibling, but knows she is better off; the working girl of Oklahoma U.S.A is stuck in a dead-end job, which only spurs her romantic Hollywood fantasies. On Waterloo Sunset, the singer is quite content to live vicariously through others, feeling less lonely as he looks at the world from his window.

Davies’ characters seldom get comfort from friends; rather, they get ridicule and scorn. Shunned by an uncaring world, they often take refuge in daydreaming and nostalgia. This appeal of nostalgia is explored on The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968), Davies’ most accomplished collection of songs. Do You Remember Walter? sums up the album with the line: “People often change, but memories of people can remain”. The seventies marked a shift in tone as the Village Green dreamland turned to decay and corruption.

On Muswell Hillbillies (1971) he reports what he’s witnessed around him: a community torn asunder by well-meaning government projects, its characters besieged by civil servants (Here Come The People In Grey) or by the din of modern life (20th Century Man). You could, however, still get a proper cup of tea.

Davies’ lyrics never sound out of date. The world presented on albums like Muswell Hillbillies and Low Budget (1979) is still the world we live in. If anything, our anxieties have increased, and Davies rises to the challenge in recent songs such as Vietnam Cowboys, with its jabs at global capitalism. He still takes time to look back, but now with a desire to set the record straight. To young musicians he offers no insight, except not to take his advice.

One could call Davies the last angry young man, but he’s much more: a great wit and storyteller, a poet of the commonplace. On Fancy, he declares that, “No one can penetrate me/They only see what’s in their own fancy”. Me? I’ve barely scratched the surface.