The Kinks – Soap Opera – Classic Music Review

soap opera

Soap Opera is the most cohesive and unified of the three works from The Kinks’ theatrical period. While the day-in-the-life structure certainly helped Ray Davies avoid wandering off-topic, the strength of Soap Opera owes more to the depth of Ray Davies’ compassion for those condemned to lead lives of quiet desperation in the modern workplace and his acute perception of the effect of organizational life on the human soul. Soap Opera explores the meaning of identity in an increasingly anonymous world where only the few people we call stars seem to “be somebody,” while the un-rich and un-famous stuck in meaningless jobs are considered nobodies sentenced to a life of insecurity spiced with constant and largely frustrating attempts to justify their meaning in the world.

Critics have been fairly consistent in attacking Soap Opera for its “ludicrous production” and “hackneyed” lyrics. John Mendelsohn, the critic who hated those lyrics, called it “a lame and tepid rehash” of Arthur. It’s pretty obvious he hardly listened to the album, as he completely misrepresents the plot in his perfunctory review. Then again, what do you expect from Rolling Stone? As I stated in my review of Preservation, these criticisms are silly. Soap Opera is an operetta, which means it’s supposed to be theatrical, you meathead! People may legitimately prefer Ray Davies, songwriter extraordinaire, to Ray Davies, descendant of Gilbert and Sullivan, but that’s another debate entirely. The comparison to Arthur is also invalid, for while Arthur may have been a “plain simple man in a plain simple working-class position,” Arthur is concerned with the common man’s place in the larger social structure, while Soap Opera specifically deals with the existential reality of daily working life and its deleterious effects on the human spirit. They share a common concern for the Everyman, but that is a theme you could apply to nearly all of Ray Davies’ work.

A more accurate criticism is that Soap Opera is really The Ray Davies Show and not a Kinks album. Okay, so we’ll ding Ray a few points for false advertising. Sometimes an artist is consumed with a vision, and realizing that vision may mean he or she has to break a few rules and offend a few colleagues in the process. Get over it! If you want, let’s just call it a Ray Davies album and move on! Sheesh!

The play opens with “Everybody’s a Star,” a musical monologue from a rock icon who calls himself The Starmaker, who is searching for “the most mundane little man” to turn him into a star. Depending on your interpretation, The Starmaker is either going to turn a chap named Norman into a star or become Norman himself (“He’s changing places with Norman/To get background for his songs.”) It doesn’t matter: what matters is (as the liner notes on the vinyl album make abundantly clear) that Norman is in the habit of trying to compensate for what he perceives to be a meaningless life by fantasizing he is someone else. Whether The Starmaker makes that happen or Norman himself invents a new identity is irrelevant. As shown in the song, “Ordinary People,” Norman’s tendency towards fictionalization helps to temporarily raise his status as well as his testosterone level, because in his new identity he can indulge in naughty fantasy (“I’m immortalizing his life/And I’ll even sleep with his wife!”). That loving and incredibly patient wife plays along with his fantasies in part because she’s trying to make things work and in part because the “New Norman” is a sexual tiger (as the “You’ll never get up in the morning” interchange demonstrates.) Although the music for both songs is upbeat and playful, it is painfully obvious that the lives of these ordinary people feel so empty that they have to resort to illusion to keep their fragile psyches alive and their sex lives going. This is great satire: you can’t help but laugh at the story, but you feel the pain of the underlying message.

The identity switch is also a very clever device for Ray Davies to explore the daily grind from the perspective of an uninterested observer. He begins exploring that reality as the alarm clock awakens him to the song, “Rush Hour Blues.” A fun, rocking number with perfectly executed dialogue between temporary rock star Norman and his nagging wife, the lyrics eventually confront us with the dehumanization that many of us face every day as we join the crowds and head out for another draining day at the office:

In the rush hour queues no one gives a damn
No one knows where I’m going to, no one knows who I am
I’m sitting in my office, in the metropolis,
I’m just part of the scenery, I’m just part of the machinery
Chained to my desk on the 22nd floor,
I can’t break out through the automatic door,
I’d jump out the window but I can’t face the drop,
I’m sitting in a cage with an eye on the clock.

The dehumanization is reinforced by the repetition of “no one” and the caged animal imagery. Hackneyed lyrics, my ass! This is what work feels like to us plain folk, dude!

The dreary and absurd reality of the workplace is poignantly reproduced for us in “Nine to Five,” a far more effective exposé of the existential reality of the workplace than the silly Dolly Parton number of the same title. The angst one feels when “making decisions that affect no one” and “checking a list that’s been checked out before” is suppressed in a melody brilliantly designed to capture the ho-hum feel of the environment. When the alleged rock star states with faux objectivity, “He’s starting to lose his mind,” we feel a bit of Norman peeping through the façade as he faces the thing he is most terrified of admitting to himself . . . that his life and his work have no meaning.

And how does the average person cope with the existential wall? Booze! Lots of it! That’s why there are two numbers that deal with getting loaded: “When Work is Over” and “Have Another Drink.” While this may seem “obvious” to unperceptive critics, what Ray Davies is doing is holding up a mirror to us and asking us to think about the cause of our almost Pavlovian reaction to work: have another drink! He’s entirely empathetic with the ritual of dulling the pain of another dull day with a few glasses of scotch, but he is asking us to question the cause that makes us reach for that bottle. He wants us to stop and think, “Is this reality really worth the trouble? Is a life that requires us to forget who we are the kind of life we want?”

When work is over he likes to hit the bars,
Go down the boozer and have another jar,
Because drinking can help ease the strain
Of his boring occupation, dull conversation
Living by the book and the rules and regulations.

Drinking helps us to forget what we are,
We leave the office and walk straight to the bar,
Don’t stop to think, have another drink!

That’s not being obvious: that’s accurately describing the painful truth that we often live lives that require us to cope instead of lives that are enriching and worthwhile.

Once he’s had his anesthetic, tipsy Norman stumbles out of the bar to make his way home through the concrete jungle in “Underneath the Neon Sign.” The purpose of the song is to demonstrate that dehumanization in the workplace is only part of the larger movement toward dehumanization in all aspects of society, particularly in the physical environments we create for ourselves. As is usually the case when Norman confronts reality, he cooks up another fantasy—a secret romance! “Holiday Romance” is a musical hoot, with its classic 1930s movie music and story that would have easily made it past the censors of that time. As is usual in Norman’s life, nothing really happens on his fantasy holiday, and he now finds himself facing the front door of his “suitably uninteresting house.”

His loving wife is waiting for him, with dialogue supported by lullaby-like, soap-operatic background music, ready to make him a nice cuppa tea to help him forget about his hard day. Making what she thinks is small talk, she asks Norman the one question he doesn’t want to face: “How’d you get on at the office?” The music abruptly shifts to two pounding intro chords that lead to a minor key segment with punctuated strings that mirror Norman’s deep, underlying fear of vanishing into nothingness  . . . but also the dim realization that his wife is there for him (or that he feels obliged to make her feel appreciated; the ambiguity is deliberate):

I mustn’t stay in this job too long
I gotta get out before the hold is too strong
I gotta get out before my ambition is gone
Cause it’s breaking me up and bringing me down.

But when I get home you make it all worthwhile,
You make me laugh and you make me smile,
And after a hard day of sorting out the files,
You make it all worthwhile.

The soap operatic aspect of the story is strongest in this piece, with the perfect introduction of a melodramatic organ as the two have a tiff over shepherd’s pie. While some may think the soap opera aspects of the work trivialize the issues, I think it enhances the theme. We believe our problems are trivial because we believe ourselves to be insignificant, even when “a boring occupation” is so toxic that “it can kill your spirit and destroy your mind.”

Tension must resolve itself, so here comes the inevitable explosion. I’ve met quite a few people who are completely turned off by the song “Ducks on the Wall,” but I would argue that taken in its proper context, it’s an incredibly perceptive piece and demonstrates Ray Davies’ intuitive understanding of human psychology. Sometimes the inner tension within us causes us to explode, and rather than confront our feelings honestly and directly, we find an object on which we can focus our self-hatred. The objects that best symbolize and serve as a constant reminder of Norman’s pathetic existence are those fucking ducks on the wall, a cheap compensatory substitute for decoration favored by those who can’t afford to hang a Matisse in the parlor. Either lacking the courage or still possessing some respect for her feelings, Norman attacks her in the third person in what appears to be an inner dialogue (“My lady’s got a sort of strange fascination/An obsessive fixation for cheap decorations”). Only later does he attack her directly, blaming her (and the ducks) for the impotence that he likely experiences when he’s not pretending to be someone else (“I love you baby, but I can’t ball/When I see those ducks on the wall”).

At this point, the wife has fucking had it with Norman and his fantasies. You can be whoever you want to be, but don’t you dare attack my ducks! This is where the dialogue (sadly only in the liner notes, not on the record) reveals that Norman has a habit of turning himself into other people to cope with his inability to see his life as meaningful and important. His wife has given him unconditional support up to now, but here she finally tells him that enough is enough.

This leads to a tragic hymn of modern humanity, “(A) Face in the Crowd.” Norman claims to agree with his wife (“I’ve gotta stop faking it, I’ve gotta start facing it”) but like the alcoholic not quite ready to follow the path of recovery, he has a hard time letting go of the desire to matter, to be someone, to count for something:

Am I just a face in the crowd?
Is that all I’ll ever be?
I don’t want to be anything that isn’t really me
Mister, can you tell me who I am?
Do you think I stand out?
Or am I just a face in the crowd?

The struggle for self will continue for Norman, as it will for all who believe that unless they can somehow prove their worth through celebrity, money or notoriety, their lives will never amount to a hill of beans. That is the tragic and powerful message of Soap Opera: modern man has created a reality that serves to reinforce individual insignificance.

“(A) Face in the Crowd” is the proper ending of the play, but Ray Davies can’t resist appending an epilogue. If people thought Ray was spewing his venom about the music industry on Lola vs. The Powerman and the Money-go-round (an interpretation with which I violently disagree), he lets it rip in “You Can’t Stop the Music.”

I’ve been half a million places
I’ve seen half a million people who stare
I’ve been a star and down and out
I’ve been put on, sat on, punched and spat on
They’ve called me a faggot, a spiv and a fake
They can knock me down and tread on my face
But they can’t stop the music playing on.

When compared to Ian Anderson’s rather snarky attacks on the critics, Ray’s rant at least has the quality of emotional honesty. I think I’ll give him a pass on this one.

I know I’ve driven some fans batty with my deviations from the prevailing opinions about the quality of some of The Kinks’ albums, but I guess I’ll never learn. To me, Soap Opera is a masterpiece of modern musical theatre, a powerful and enduring message about the meaning of the life of the individual in modern society. It is an unforgiving attack on an economic system that creates a psychologically poisonous trap for millions of people by giving them endless piles of meaningless work from which they gamely try to cobble some feelings of self-worth. It makes me laugh, it makes me smile, it makes me cry. Ray Davies’ on-album performance is superb, and despite the squawking of some of the band members, the music is well-arranged and performed with gusto.

Soap Opera is one of my favorite Kinks albums, the critics be damned.


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29 responses

  1. I keep returning to your reviews as I work my way through the Kinks’ mid-70s concept albums. Again, couldn’t agree more with you here. Soap Opera is a masterpiece! I’m kicking myself that I waited so long to listen to it – lesson truly learned.

    1. Thank you again! I realize I’m kind of a voice in the wilderness, but if I start to doubt myself, all I have to do is play any of those albums to reignite my pride as a wilderness girl!

  2. Matthew C Stellato | Reply

    This has always been a favorite album of mine love ifelt it was brilliant Rolling Stone doesn’t know squat

  3. This is a great review. I bought this LP when it came out and thought it was a masterpiece. My friends agreed when I played it for them. We all went to a Kinks concert in Liverpool during which they played the whole album. Unforgettable show! At the Empire theatre I think. I couldn’t understand why Soap Opera wasn’t more successful. It’s my second favourite Kinks album after Muswell Hillbillies, the first Kinks LP I ever bought.

    1. Thank you! I wish I’d been around during their theatrical period; my dad saw all three (Preservation, Schoolboys, Soap Opera) and said they were an absolute hoot!

      1. There were certainly some laugh out loud moments during the Soap Opera show. That was something The Kinks had over most bands – they were funny. Think how earnest most prog rock was! But the rock critics lapped up all that stuff.

  4. Couldn’t agree more I’ve always loved this album!

  5. I bought it New in 1975 – it’s fantastic! Way under- rated.

  6. I got Soap Opera from a used record store circa 1983, while living with my mother in Santa Clara and attending San Jose State University. Really loved the lp myself and could identify with the concept of someone who finds his life so dissatisfying as to want to disappear into different identities, to be a “starman”. And to me, Ducks on the Wall is hilarious, one of my favorite Kinks’ songs.

    1. I fully agree, and remain puzzled that it isn’t considered more highly than it is.

  7. i love Soap Opera!!! | Reply

    In my opinion despite being a very good conceptual album (unconventional), it still makes it be more interesting and different. Still I think the album in the lowest point of the RCA and possibly say of the 70’s. Of the RCA both the “Muswell Hillbillies” and the wonderful Operetta “Preservation Act” are the delight of the 70’s. Everybody’s A Showiz I put to the same height to the last conceptual work of the RCA “Schoolboys’s In Disgrace”. And back to conventional rock (ARISTA) The Kinks brings out the trilogy of three great albums, more commercial to the previous “Sleepwalker” / “Misfits” and “Low Budget”. To conclude I want to comment that “Soap Opera” is a work quite advisable perhaps it is with “Preservation Act 2” the less conventional work of all the discography of the group for what makes it more original and more interesting than many others, but in my opinion “Soap Opera” is the point lower than those created by Ray Davies in the 1970s. regards

    1. Thank you for your thoughts—it’s as true in literature as it is in music, what’s considered “great” will change with the times.

  8. En mi opinión a pesar de ser un muy buen album conceptual (poco convencional), que aun lo hace ser ser mas interesante y diferente. Aún así me parece el album en el punto mas bajo de la RCA y posiblemente diría de los años 70’s. De la RCA tanto el Muswell Hillbillies y la maravilla Opereta Preservation son las decilicias de los años 70’s. Everybody’s A Showiz lo pongo a la misma altura a la ultima obra conceptual de la RCA Schoolboys’s In Disgrace. Y vuelta al rock convencional (ARISTA) los The Kinks saca la trilogía de tres buenísimos albumnes, mas comerciales a los anteriores Sleepwalker/Misfits y Low Budget. Para terminar quiero comentar que Soap Opera es una obra bastante aconsejable quizás sea con Preservation la obra menos convencional de toda la discogrfía del grupo por lo que hace que sea mas original y mas interesantes que muchos otros, pero en mi opinión Soap Opera sea el punto mas bajo de los creados por Ray Davies en los años setenta. Saludos

  9. OK. This is as fitting a place as any to say good-bye. I think this was your best review – at least it was my favorite.

    I read with some excitement but also with some trepidation that you lost your job. I know you have a nice parachute to help you land and it sounds like you have a fine outlook and much support to fall back on, but I also know it’s unnerving to be adrift, even with all of the possibilities it opens up for you. I mentioned in my comments above that I lost my job about two years ago and stumbled upon your blog while I was out of work. In a weird way, it helped me to stay connected to the greater world, so I thank you for that.

    I had worked as a non-profit Administrator for 30 years – first for a famous museum/research facility, then for a major Archdiocese (!), then for a big Performing Arts complex. I got to do many great things, but it never felt like what I was meant to do. In an act of sheer will, which I am still enacting today, I have gone to work for a family-run Italian Market because I working with and being surrounded by things Italian and I was determined to help the struggling market keep going because there aren’t many places like it left.

    I taught myself to import goods from Italy, build a website, and reorganize the store while staying in sync with the owner. It finally feels like what I was meant to do, but I never would have tried to do it – never – if I hadn’t lost my job. Take your time, be patient, and do something you really want to do. What were you meant to do? My idea for you is to start a political movement in the US that promotes women candidates for all offices. I’ve become convinced that once we have over 50% women in Congress and a female president, a lot of our stupid, violent, self-inflicted problems will go away. You have a lot of skills to get such a movement started. What clarified things for me earlier this year is that there are now enough women in the Republican House majority to keep them from doing their typical misogynist shit. Just a thought.

    In a weird way, I was Norman playing the Rock Star when I was the high-powered administrator and I’m finally facing up to who I really am and much happier for it. Your last job wasn’t you either, as you wrote many, many times. I know I am older and had more to fall back on, but you have so many years ahead of you – you literally could do anything you set your mind to. Having had the pleasure of reading your blogs, I know it (like you knew Papi would rip Benoit).

    Last comment – your blogs helped me realize the reason I love the Kinks is that, lyrically, Ray Davies is a talent above most others. I’m so gratified to have read this year, after your declaration of Kinks supremacy, that David Bowie, Pete Townsend, and Noel Gallagher all pretty much have come to the conclusion that the Kinks are a little better than everyone else. I hope you are right about the rest of the world discovering this like you are right about everything else. I’m going to get the chance to see the musical, “Sunny Afternoon” in London the first week of May, which I’m really excited about! I hear it is a great show that is carried by the lyrics of Ray’s songs (the show-stopper on the Soundtrack is “Sitting in My Hotel,” which underlines how ridiculously deep the Kinks’ catalog is – not even their best song about looking out a window…)

    The two lyricists that come the closest to Ray for me are Randy Newman and Chris Difford of Squeeze. Newman I’m sure you’re familiar with, but if you haven’t listened to Squeeze, you’re in for a real treat:

    I hope I’ve returned to you just a little bit what you’ve given to me. Laughs, hope, insight, and a love of life. Grazie mille…

    1. That’s a beautiful story of personal transformation. I love the small family market that used to be ubiquitous in San Francisco before the boom, and I think helping to keep the store going is a noble calling. I think I’ve learned from my experience that I don’t want to piss my life away doing something I neither care about nor believe in, and though I haven’t figured it out quite yet, I am committed to independence. I realize that I’ll have to compromise somewhat with the system to make some money, but I want to do it on my terms. My partner and I have been talking about forming our own consulting practice; with my contacts and her contacts we may be able to work six months in a year and take the rest off for sex, music and baseball.

      I don’t think the United States is ready for women having too much power, and I doubt very much that they would elect a bisexual, BDSM-oriented woman who believes in polyamory, is pro-smoking and worst of all, a committed socialist. I could probably get elected city supervisor in one of San Francisco’s more open-minded districts, but that would be another black mark against me in the pursuit of a national position.

      I’ve only barely explored Squeeze, so now I have something to look forward to in my retirement! Thank you for all your support, and most of all, your willingness to deeply reflect on the meaning of things and allow yourself to be vulnerable.

      1. Last note – I think you misunderstood my career move suggestion. I imagined you the power behind an organized political movement to elect women, not out in front as a candidate (though I must admit that thought has its compelling features, as well!). Clearly, you have the marketing skills and passion to help guide such a movement. I think you are dead wrong about the US not being ready for women in power – we desperately need it! At any rate, good luck finding something beyond 9 to 5. You are a good 20 years ahead of my trajectory. And I hope you do enjoy Squeeze. They are one of the few groups who have done noteworthy work over 3 decades. One final clip to take you home…

      2. I completely agree that the U. S. needs it; I simply don’t believe that the majority of Americans would be comfortable with too many women in power positions. And as for the “power behind the scenes,” isn’t that what NOW is supposed to do? They haven’t been too successful, though that may be due to the fact that they’re boring, dull and dogmatic.

      3. You’re making my suggestion sound more right by the second!

  10. Matthew C. Stellato | Reply

    I’m so glad I found this Post, and fans have the same views as myself

  11. Matthew C. Stellato | Reply

    I felt this was an Excellent Album one of my all times Favorites, My older brother had it and he would play it, I started listening to it in my teens, now I’m 54 and it still hasn’t got old, I feel it is a brilliant masterpiece One of the best all time albums, Phenomenal I have never got sick of listening to it, This is What Ray meant to do, however it may be above what the Masses can grasp, Way before his time.


    1. I can’t believe the negative reviews about this album—it is a masterpiece of great power, humor and insight.

  12. I was lucky enough to see The Kimks perform this in Atlanta in the mid 70s. The record and the live show have lived with me since. I love this record.

    1. I’ll say you were lucky! That’s what I get for being born too late!

  13. […] Soap Opera […]

  14. […] Classic Music Review: The Kinks Present a Soap Opera ( […]

  15. Wow. I’ve been listening to this album since it came out about 38 years ago and I’ve always really liked it. I think, though, that I’d fallen somewhat for the negative reviews and sort of dismissed it as part of the RCA years rather than considering it on its own merits.

    Hmm. How should I put this? I lost my job about 6 months ago because I rebelled at work. It was nothing honorable – far from it. But I’ve been coming to terms these past 6 months with what I was becoming and who I really want to be; I want to do something fulfilling with the rest of my life! Soap Opera is my fucking story (right down to the supportive, loving, worried wife). Thanks for pointing this out to me. I am really touched by how much you get from this album; I’ve always loved the Kinks and now I love them even more. Really, thanks.

    On a lighter note, I think it’s worth a mention that in the first and last songs on Soap Opera, Dave tears into two of his best solos in about ten years and sets himself up for a great performance in Schoolboys in Disgrace. If this was unhappiness, give me more!

    1. Sorry for the belated reply—intense weekend! Thank you for the validation, but I’m sorry that you’re living Soap Opera right now! Also thank you for the Dave comments—he does get some more attention in the upcoming Schoolboys review.

      1. Can’t wait. Dave’s best solos are what I’ve come to think of as asymmetrical. There is no balance or arc and you get the distinct feeling that even he doesn’t know where they are going. The solo on Everybody’s a Star is a perfect example. When Dave’s on his game, which he often was in the studio, there really was or is no one similar to him and he is an incredibly exciting guitarist. That is why it drives me crazy when people write or say that Dave didn’t play the solos on You Really Got me or All Day and All of the Night. Well who the hell played them, then (and kept playing them for over 30 years!!)? Jimmy F-ing Page?? He wishes! It’s like denying someone’s fingerprint.

  16. Hat dies auf Random Thoughts rebloggt und kommentierte:
    Oops she did it again! Great weird review.

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