Introduction: The Theatrical Period
The theatrical period of The Kinks, defined by concept albums designed for on stage performance, has been out of favor with the critics for some time. The albums sold poorly and, according to Wikipedia, “Many hardcore Kinks fans were alienated by Ray Davies’ melodramatic songwriting during the Preservation project era, resulting in albums that played more like the soundtracks to a piece of musical theatre than rock albums.” The period ends when The Kinks switched labels from RCA to Arista, where Clive Davis laid down the law and made the signing conditional on Ray Davies agreeing not to do any more fucking concept albums.
Where music industry executives lead, music reviewers generally follow. The general consensus that the albums had little value was enhanced by Ray Davies’ statement that he “shouldn’t have been allowed to make records” in the seventies.
I think Ray’s self-criticism has to be categorized as one of those typically hyperbolic statements that rock stars often make (John Lennon and David Bowie are the masters of this art). There are very few artists capable of objectively or subjectively evaluating their own work. In this review I’m going to ignore Ray Davies’ self-evaluation. I’m also going to ignore Clive Davis, as his concern was commercial appeal, a secondary consideration in my book. Needless to say, I will also ignore the opinions of other reviewers and take a fresh look at these three albums.
My belief is that the albums of this period have been unfairly evaluated by fans and critics alike. First of all, you can’t compare these works to the traditional albums in The Kinks’ catalog because they are operettas, not song collections. Operettas, like operas, involve the integration of music and theatre. I don’t think it’s fair to take the individual songs out of their theatrical context; you have to consider the whole and a bit of imagination to envision how they played on stage, especially if (like me) you weren’t even born when The Kinks performed them. The only information I have is second-hand, and my father, who saw two of the three, said he had never laughed so hard in his life as he did while watching Preservation.
Second, fans often don’t want their favorite artists to change and try new things. I’ve written about this in relation to Grand Duchy and White Rabbits—artists who tried to do something a little different and suffered the slings and arrows of a fan base in denial. We often form strong emotional attachments to music that has moved us, changed us or reminds us of a particularly special moment in our lives. People react to this in different ways: some want the artist to keep doing different things and some want them to sound like the artist they’ve known and loved. Both are attempts to relive the high. The problem is that both stances filter the listening experience, setting up expectations that may lead us to dismiss that latest release out of hand. I know I felt that way about Oasis’ Heathen Chemistry, and while I still don’t care much for the album as a whole, my initial reaction blocked my ability to appreciate the few good songs and some hints of better things to come. This is why I listen to every work I review a minimum of three times: I need to cleanse my system of expectations. Being human, it’s impossible to clear them all out, but the effort can help reduce some of the filters. I believe we owe it to the artist to at least make the attempt.
Expectations also become heavy burdens when fans lay them on the artists they allegedly love. I’m sure that many fans wanted Ray Davies to continue to do what he had done best: write great songs about the human experience in society. After all, no one has done that better than Ray Davies! If that was the mindset for some fans, I can see how it would be difficult to appreciate many of the tracks on these albums. There are a few you could rip from their theatrical moorings that would stand up as pretty good Kinks songs, like “Sweet Lady Genevieve,” “(A) Face in the Crowd” and “The Hard Way.” Then again, something like “Second-Hand Car Spiv” makes no sense when removed from the flow of the play, but has tremendous dramatic effect when heard in sequence.
The theatrical period represented yet another significant artistic risk for The Kinks, who seemed to make a career out of them. The point I want to stress is that in these works, Ray Davies has switched art forms, like moving from poems to plays. To expect a similar listening experience would be like demanding that one of Shakespeare’s sonnets give us the full range of theatrical power expressed in King Lear. Look at it this way: Ray went on a hiatus from songs after Everybody’s in Show-Biz, and returned to the craft with Sleepwalker. In between that time, he decided to do rock operettas (or rock musicals, if you prefer) and any evaluation of this period must take that into account.
One final note: Ray Davies originally intended that Preservation be presented in one double-album package. Once he decided to abandon his original approach to the work, he ran into pressure from the record company honchos to get something done, quick. The effect on Preservation is felt in Act 1 with a couple of songs that fail to move the story along and in Act 2 with a detour that throws the work out of balance. I will note those occurrences, but I do give Ray Davies some credit for managing to make the best of a bad situation, as some of the pieces do serve to strengthen secondary themes.
Preservation: The Themes
The primary theme in Preservation is, of course, preservation itself. The word has different meanings to the three main characters in the play (Flash, Mr. Black and The Tramp), each of whom represent different social forces.
For Flash, preservation is all about self-preservation in the form of destructive greed. Flash and his cronies are immoral capitalist-gangster politicians who enrich themselves at the expense of the people and their cherished traditions. Flash represents the mindless progress of unrestrained capitalism: making money for the sake of making money, without regard to environmental or human consequences. That stance is accompanied by a loose moral code that his opponent will skillfully exploit to his advantage.
For Mr. Black, preservation is simply a ruse he uses to manipulate the people. What he claims he wants to preserve and protect is the traditional moral code of the Old Testament, fixing his argument to religion while demonizing his opponents in the process (“I visualize a day when people will be free/From evils like perversion and pornography/We’ll cast out Satan and set the sinners free.”) His stated goal is to bring a puritanistic form of religion back into prominence, similar to the yearnings of the Christian Right in The United States. Ray’s exaggerated delivery of Mr. Black’s “Oh, God, how I love this land!” line in “Money & Corruption/I Am Your Man” says it all about this hypocrite who positions himself as the true patriot defending the values that people hold dear. Playing on the average person’s fears of promiscuity, of permissiveness and of change itself (the negative pole of preservation, if you will), he spices his argument with constant reminders that the people are not getting their fair share in a world of unfettered capitalism. His real goal is to control and “perfect” human behavior. He wants to put the evil genie back into the bottle, an evil personified by Flash and his gang. Designed with a communist slant (a paradox, given his announced religious commitment), he will eventually manifest those leanings once he takes power, with a preference for the Orwellian version of a communist utopia.
The third force is the Davies vision of preservation, as represented by The Tramp, who serves as the Everyman character and keen observer. The Davies vision is one of balance, expressed in the song “Village Green Preservation Society,” particularly in the lines “Preserving the old ways from being abused/Protecting the new ways for me and for you.” It is a vision of human interaction on a smaller, intimate scale that explicitly rejects the grand, impersonal visions of both Flash and Mr. Black. This third force is ignored and dismissed by Flash and exploited by Mr. Black. Similar to the eponymous character in Brecht’s Mother Courage, The Tramp is a bystander and a victim of the larger power struggle, powerless to stop the senseless battle for power and control.
The importance of the triad cannot be understated. Most human histories deal with the major players and relegate the people to the back pages. Ray Davies wanted to make absolutely certain that they were not forgotten in this story, and The Tramp appears with regularity throughout the play (even more regularly than Mr. Black).
Preservation Act 1 (Note: Subsequent releases have included an introductory track called “Preservation” that was designed to give listeners more back story. I consider it insulting, sort of like “Preservation for Dummies.” It also excludes half of the back story! I will instead stick to the tracks included on the original release.)
The notion that this is “something else” by The Kinks is quickly dispelled in the opening moments of the play. With its echoes of Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones delighting in the dawn of a new day, “Morning Song” seems more suited to a Broadway musical than an album from a rock group, but its pleasant and airy theme creates a space apart from the day-to-day that helps establish the milieu of Act 1. In this opening act, the traditional vision of preservation will dominate; the next two tracks, “Daylight” and “Sweet Lady Genevieve” describe human experiences on a human scale. Ray Davies clearly wants to emphasize the simple beauty of the things we stand to lose: a lovely day, the innocent comings-and-goings of the people, the sweet regrets of lost love.
The possibility that a threat to that way of life lurks in the background is introduced in “There’s a Change in the Weather,” where the three classes find themselves united in a general feeling of anxiety about the state of things. While I love the use of band instruments you would have heard played on the gazebo in the village green, it is here that one of the flaws in Preservation crops up: Ray Davies plays too many parts. The lines of the three men from the three different classes should have been sung by three different voices instead of by Ray himself. This was an odd choice, since we know his brother can sing and Preservation is full of guest appearances by other singers. Later, Ray will play the female role of Belle in “Mirror of Love,” then turn around and give Belle’s vocal on “Scrapheap City” to a female voice.
There is also a fair amount of filler in the play, more so in Act 2 more than Act 1. “Where Are They Now?” seems disconnected from the storyline and doesn’t do much to reinforce the traditional preservation theme. “One of the Survivors” works because it at least forges the link to Village Green with its depiction of an aging Johnny Thunder. I love the way Ray delivers that line, “Old Johnny Thunder looks a little overweight,” as if he’s poking him in the belly while he sings. I will argue that “Cricket” is not filler, though, as it demonstrates that you can attach religion to anything, something Mr. Black does with greater finesse in the next song.
“Money & Corruption/I Am Your Man” opens with the chorally-supported voices of the people bemoaning lying and corrupt politicians. The segue between the two parts identifies the tragic flaw of the masses when facing problems of a scale beyond their understanding: “Show us a man who’ll be our saviour and who will lead us.” That tragic flaw has created monsters like Napoleon and Hitler, and will achieve the same result in Preservation. Of course, that is far in the future; right now Mr. Black’s pitch to the gullible bourgeois crowd is all about the wonderful things they’ll get if they make him their man: “And every home will have a stereo and TV, a deep freeze, quadrasonic and a washing machine.” Hey, if you’re up against a master salesman, you’ve got to sell!
That salesman is introduced in the can-can number “Here Comes Flash.” Exhibit #1 in the case that absolute power corrupts absolutely, Flash is described a charming gangster who also happens to control the current government. The warning “hide your daughters, hide your wives” is symbolic of the assault on traditional morality that is often an outcome of an environment of corruption. Ray Davies’ imagery here is brilliant and vivid, as the extended metaphors of seduction and sexual assault illustrate multiple weaknesses in the masses: the desperation born of frustration; the intense discomfort they feel regarding loose sexual mores; and their fundamental gullibility. Mr. Black will capitalize on all of these opportunities in Act 2 (italics mine, to demonstrate the extent of the sexual-seductive metaphor):
Once we loved and trusted him
Now his thugs and bullies make us live in sin
They suppress us, oppress us, molest us, possess us.
You’d better run, you’d better fly,
Hide your daughters, hide your wives,
And lock your doors and stay inside
He will smile at you, be a friend to you
Then he’s gonna screw you just like that.
To avoid losing touch with the third force in our story, the next number is a rich and delightful song from The Tramp, “Sitting in the Midday Sun,” which echoes the wisdom of ancient Chinese philosophy: “The mark of a successful man is one who has spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it.” As our narrator relaxes by his river, deflecting criticism (“they all tell me, ‘Get a job, you slob'”) and cherishing the sight of “the ladies looking their best in their summer dresses,” he clearly sets himself apart from the two powers who will soon be locked in mortal battle by his complete lack of motive. On a fundamental level, Flash and Mr. Black not only have a motive, but they have the same motive: to acquire power. The Tramp rejects the concept of motive entirely, echoing Lao-Tzu’s admonition, “Do nothing and there is nothing that will not be done.”
Everybody thinks I’m crazy,
And everybody says I’m dumb,
But when I see the people shouting at each other,
I’d rather be an out of work bum.
So I’m just sitting in the midday sun,
Just soaking up that currant bun
With no particular purpose or reason,
I’m sitting in the midday sun.
We finally get to meet Flash himself in the final song of Act 1, “Demolition,” which first extends the eminent domain theme of Muswell Hillbillies by describing the misuse of government power to destroy traditions (“A little thatched cottage looking so neat/With compulsory purchase we can buy it up cheap.”). Of course, the process is ridden with corruption and appropriately supported through legal flim-flam (“The deeds are in my pocket/I’ve got a contract in my hand”). The mantra “nothing’s permanent, nothing lasts” reveals the emptiness of the philosophy underlying the growth ethic of capitalism, and also hints at the obliviousness of Flash and his gang to the anger they are generating in the masses. This is where we first hear the anthemic theme expressing the desire to “build a brand new world of our own.” Ray Davies’ decision to use the same theme and similar lyrics for the coda of Mr. Black’s anthem in Act 2 (“Salvation Road”) was not due to laziness, but an echo of the sentiment expressed by Pete Townshend: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”
But we’re getting ahead of the story. I would say that Ray Davies did a fine job in Preservation Act 1 of establishing the primary themes and dramatic conflicts that serve as the foundation for the play. While there are some weaknesses in execution, and while the operetta form and conventions take some getting used to, his ability to translate the underlying rifts in the social structure into an engaging and entertaining musical experience is to be applauded.
Preservation Act 2
Act 2 begins with one of the news bulletins that Mr. Erlewine of AllMusic.com considered part of an “impenetrable jungle” in his scathing review of Preservation Act 2. There are indeed problems with Act 2, but the bulletins are not one of them. They provide economical and essential way stations for the listener to follow the unfolding plot.
In fact, Act 2 begins in a very promising manner. “When a Solution Comes” is a brilliantly constructed exposé of Mr. Black’s true motives and essential weirdness; when the reverse-strummed minor chord shifts the intensity from mild introspection to frightening darkness, it feels like we’re accompanying him in his dark descent into madness. The contrasting piece, “Money Talks” is equally effective, with its loose, sleazy feel perfectly capturing Flash’s fundamental cynicism, his greed-obsessed raison d’être and his arrogant blindness to his impending doom. The battle intensifies in another contrasting pair of songs, “Shepherds of the Nation” and “Scum of the Earth.” The former reveals the extent to which Mr. Black has turned this battle for power into a religious crusade, creepily reminiscent of themes in the Republican presidential debates and a foreshadowing of the dystopia Margaret Atwood would describe in A Handmaid’s Tale. Of course, Flash has to respond to the attacks, and he does so with a marvelously delivered modern-day version of Nixon’s “Checkers Speech.” Flash’s strategy differs from Nixon’s only in terms of device: Nixon shared details of his modest finances to convince the American people that he was a regular guy, whereas Flash tries to remind them that “good and evil exist in all of us,” something that The New Centurions of “Shepherds of the Nation,” with their reborn belief in their essential purity, would vehemently deny.
Ironically, where Act 2 begins to unravel is with one of the best musical performances of the play, “Second-Hand Car Spiv.” Structured and performed very much like a Brecht-Weill piece, with exciting splashes of female supporting vocals and rhythmic shifts, it’s the track on the album that demonstrates how effectively The Kinks have begun to master the essentials of the operetta format. So, if it’s so good, why is it a sign that things are about to collapse?
The reason is that at this point, Ray Davies found himself faced the same problem Milton faced in Paradise Lost, another work that features contrasting visions of heaven and hell (in Milton’s case, literally). The problem with Paradise Lost is the paradox that William Blake noted in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
The exciting parts of that epic poem take place in hell; the heaven parts are as dull as Wonder Bread. That’s because Satan is a much more dynamic and fascinating character than a bunch of boring harp-playing angels. The Puritan Milton could not bring himself to red-pencil the boring parts, for to do so would have been an act of heresy. Ray Davies’ challenge was magnified because Preservation is, above all, a theatrical work. With a poem, a reader can just skip the dull parts; in a live play, you can’t have dull parts. Because Flash is far more colorful than the hopelessly colorless Mr. Black (note the costume Flash displays on the cover), Ray made the decision to tilt the rest of the play towards Flash. While that decision likely made for a more entertaining live performance (which the delightfully melodramatic “Flash’s Dream” clearly demonstrates), it also knocked the dramatic structure out of balance. The shift towards Flash also leads to an abundance of filler material that further weakens the forward movement of the story. “He’s Evil” repeats the message of “Here Comes Flash,” and the insertion of the character of Belle and the songs “Mirror of Love” and “Nothing Lasts Forever” amount to superfluous side tracks in terms of narrative development. By the time Mr. Black achieves his victory, we’ve almost forgotten about him; there are eleven tracks between his appearance in “Shepherds of the Nation” and his return in “Artificial Man” (where Dave Davies delivers the best vocal on the album, proof that he was quite capable of taking a more active role in the play). Because the tension in the plot has dissipated with the disappearance of a main character, Preservation Act 2 ends with a whimper instead of a bang.
Despite its structural difficulties, Preservation is certainly far more thematically coherent and richer in meaning than either of The Who’s rock operas. The themes of Preservation speak to us today, as we live in a time where the voices of the people are entirely lost in the noisy din of power struggles that consume the limited talents of our alleged leaders, and where the struggle between religious fundamentalism, capitalistic greed and free self-expression exists in many forms.
As imperfect as it is, there have been few artists in any genre as perceptive as Ray Davies regarding human society, and Preservation affirms those keen abilities.