Classic Music Review: Everybody’s in Show Biz by The Kinks

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Despite the general weakness of the studio album, the live LP is worth the investment and any album with “Celluloid Heroes” belongs in everyone’s collection. Click to buy.

I’m still on a hiatus, but I’ve been holding this one in the vault for quite a while and decided that now is as good at time as any to release it.

*****

Everybody’s in Show-Biz is a transition album between the The Kinks’ golden period and their theatrical period, featuring a studio LP and a live one.

At least we can all agree on that!

The live album is a hoot! The Kinks sound loose, playful and like they’re having fun with the crowd. The live versions of the songs from Muswell Hillbillies sound much better than the originals, which were diminished on that recording by Ray’s insistence on using dated equipment. “Alcohol,” “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” and “Holiday” are all show-stopping performances. “Top of the Pops” and “Brainwashed” are equally exciting. The snippets like “Mr. Wonderful,” “Baby Face” and “Banana Boat Song” were probably just as much fun for the boys in the band as they were the listening audience, adding some variation to the classic set list. The live disc may not make too many greatest live album lists, but it’s still a lot of fun.

The reason why the live performances don’t salvage the whole package is because the studio album is frigging awful. Most of the songs deal with the allegedly dreary life of rock stars, a topic most of the planet’s inhabitants can’t relate to and only wish they had it so bad. When asked about the album and specifically the subject of touring, Dave Davies remarked, “It doesn’t matter how luxurious your surroundings are, you go back to your hotel room and it is like a prison. We used to do 11, 12, 13 month tours of America and leave our families at home because we couldn’t afford to bring them over. It was hell.” Unfortunately, the songs on the studio album only hint at that hell and the existential pain of isolation and separation. Instead we learn that rock stars don’t change their underwear and eat vast quantities of food in strange combinations. “Look a Little on the Sunny Side,” where Ray expresses his frustration about rarely being able to give the people what they want, is itself a song that no one would want. There are a couple of songs that explore other subject matter: “Supersonic Rocket Ship” is a rehash of “Apeman” and not nearly as effective; “Hot Potatoes” attempts to deal with a nagging wife and her layabout husband with little success.

So, Kinks fans, I am sorry to say that I only liked 30% of the studio album. That actually makes this a relatively positively review compared to those written by most mainstream critics, who only liked one or two songs. The songs I like are, in ascending order, “You Don’t Know My Name,” “Sitting in My Hotel,”  and “Celluloid Heroes,” a song which in this context is like finding a 10-karat diamond in a garbage dump.

Dave Davies’ “You Don’t Know My Name” features a sprightly guitar, an enthusiastic vocal and a toe-tapping beat to go along with the description of the mad whirl of constant travel. It’s one of the best-arranged and tighter performances on the studio disc, and one of Dave’s better efforts. Dave always brings a certain kind of energy to his songs that I find refreshingly compelling.

“Sitting in My Hotel” was obviously written in a moment when Ray was feeling fragile and uncertain about his artistic direction. There are hints of self-doubt as he imagines what his friends would say (“They would tell me that I’m just being used/They would ask me what I’m trying to prove”) and signs of depression (“Trying to hide the gloom/Sitting in my hotel room”). The device of using his friends to express the internal storm may have been an attempt to provide some aesthetic distance from the problem he was trying to deal with, but it plays out more like an avoidance mechanism. It also trivializes the fragility by confusing it with the cheap need to live up to the expectations of others. As in “Look a Little on the Sunny Side,” Ray expresses disappointment, frustration and hurt by critical and popular reactions to his work, but he never gets to the core issue. Am I here to please my friends, the critics and the fans, or am I here to write and sing about the things that truly matter to me? I wouldn’t go so far as John Mendelsohn and accuse Ray of indulging in self-pity, but I do think he missed the opportunity to confront the meaning of his life as an artist and/or entertainer. He poses the question but avoids the answer. Flaws aside, it’s a very pretty melody, and John Gosling is splendid on the piano.

All is forgiven with “Celluloid Heroes,” one of the greatest songs ever written, the long-form equal of “Waterloo Sunset.” Here Ray does confront the deeper issues hinted at in “Sitting in My Hotel” and then some. He also shifts his perspective from “me” to “we,” speaking to us as one human being to another, sharing a common and curious experience:

Everybody’s a dreamer
And everybody’s a star
And everybody’s in movies
It doesn’t matter who you are

At one time or another, many of us have fantasized about stardom, and that’s part of the meaning here. More importantly, “everybody’s in movies” because we project our hopes and dreams onto the screen, attaching ourselves to stars who have become archetypal symbols of human experience. Sometimes we relate to the stars on a more intimate basis than we relate to the people in our daily lives: we root for them, feel for them, empathize with them:

Don’t step on Greta Garbo
As you walk down the Boulevard
She looks so weak and fragile
That’s why she tried to be so hard

But they turned her into a princess
And they sat her on a throne
But she turned her back on stardom
Because she wanted to be alone

The reaction to Garbo’s exit from the scene is expressed in the tone of one friend standing up for another, justifying her decision through empathy and rationalization (“that’s why she tried to be so hard.”) This in itself is not “weird.” When a great actor touches our deepest emotions through performance, a connection is created that is as deep as any direct human experience. We can also relate to the evil of the invisible “they” who make our lives difficult through poorly-understood but very real powers. In the end, we love Garbo for having the courage to make the choice to leave it all behind, to defy “them” and all the expectations that “they” heaped upon a weak, fragile creature who was one of us.

Ray takes us through a series of archetypal heroes, all of whom represent different aspects of the human personality. Valentino is our deliciously guilty lust; Bela Lugosi our fear of what lurks under the bed; Bette Davis is our defiant heroine who pays for her brash independence with isolation. It is absolutely true that “if you covered him with garbage, George Sanders would still have style,” and “if you stamped on Mickey Rooney, he would still turn ’round and smile.” The former evokes our yearnings for unruffled dignity in the face of disaster and the latter our eternal optimism. Ray shifts his tone to somber affection when he sings of “dearest Marilyn,” the modern archetype of beauty and glamour—and a woman who desperately wanted to escape the archetype and achieve recognition as an intelligent, sensitive actress. She simply did not have Garbo’s strength to sever the ties to “them.”

But please don’t tread on dearest Marilyn
‘Cos she’s not very tough
She should have been made of iron or steel
But she was only made of flesh and blood

Up to this point, the music has built gradually to a peak in the second repetition of the chorus, a set of lines that would have you believe that the song is both a tribute and an elegy to the great stars of Hollywood past and those who wound up in B-movies or worse:

You can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard
Some that you recognize, some that you’ve hardly even heard of
People who worked and suffered and struggled for fame
Some who succeeded and some who suffered in vain

The music then softens as Ray delivers a variation of the opening verse where he slowly approaches the issue that was gnawing at his soul in “Sitting in My Hotel.” Success and failure are the yin and yang of the choice to become an artist:

Everybody’s a dreamer
And everybody’s a star
And everybody’s in show biz
It doesn’t matter who you are

And those who are successful
Be always on your guard
Success walks hand in hand with failure
Along Hollywood Boulevard

Once he opens the door to his fears, he makes the exceptionally courageous decision to go even further. It’s not simply musical success or failure that is troubling him; it’s something deeper and more elemental. In achingly beautiful lines, he comes face to face with the most basic human fear of all. I can never read or hear these lines without crying; in truth, I’m crying right now as I write.

I wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show
A fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes
Because celluloid heroes never feel any pain
And celluloid heroes never really die

Though steeped in the existentialism of Camus, I find it very difficult to accept that I will die sometime in the future. On a factual basis, I understand that death is inevitable and that no one gets a pass. On an emotional basis, I love life and never want to leave it, even when it’s painful. This is why “everybody’s a dreamer, and everybody’s a star.” We are the stars of our life stories and we all want to avoid the final curtain. Whether it’s the fear of what lies beyond or the simple love of life, only the twisted or terminally ill lose that intense and illogical hope that somehow life will go on forever. I am usually an extremely logical person, but a part of me can’t help but “wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show,” and I wish that for my parents, for my lovers, for my friends, for all of us. The thought of a final goodbye appalls me, frightens me and makes me want to scream “No!” with such power that death wouldn’t dare come near.

For the artist, the verse has even greater significance. “Celluloid Heroes” answers the song-ending question of “Sitting in My Hotel”: “What’s it all leading to?” As an artist, Ray Davies would have had to permit himself to hope that his work would outlive him, just as the work of the great Hollywood stars has outlived them. It is said that an artist attempts to achieve a form of immortality through his or her work, and while that may be a pale substitute for the real thing, it’s the only option open to beings limited by mortality.

I don’t believe that Ray Davies has anything to worry about on that score. His songs will be played and admired for generations to come; they will continue to move people a hundred years from now. His work will endure because few artists in any field have written more insightfully about the human condition and this mysterious experience we know as life.

10 responses

  1. Great review, and I only disagree in that I like “Supersonic Rocket Ship”. BTW, this was the Kinks’ only hit during their RCA tenure, but only a self-destructive act like them kould be able to omit it from their “Greatest” kompilation upon moving to another label…

    I remember a komment by John Kordosh for Creem magazine (I kwote from memory): “OK, everybody’s in showbiz, everybody’s a star, but not everybody gets to appear on Kinsk album covers unless everybody is Ray Davies.” Indeed, the Kinks were becoming more and more Ray’s band; the presence of a Dave song on the album is akin to a mirakle. (BTW again, at least to my ears the flute solo on “You Don’t Know My Name” just a litte reminiscing of Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country” – which, in turn, was nicked from Henry Thomas’ s “Bull Doze Blues”…)

    Other tidbits of trivia: the US and UK original kovers of this album have slight differences in the movie stars included; there is a CD reissue with a few live bonus tracks which, methinks, would make the live half of the vinyl edition even better; Mickey Rooney, the last surviving movie star mentioned on “Celluloid Heroes”, passed away a few days ago; and, at least until the 1980s, when Ray sings this song live, he, for some reason, omits the verses about dearest Marilyn…

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    1. It was a complete accident I released the review the week Mickey Rooney went to meet his maker. I wrote it months ago but couldn’t find a slot with all the series I had planned. It is surprising to see a Dave song after he’d been cut out of Muswell Hillbillies, but that lack of a consistent unifying concept might have left the door open to him.

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  2. Uncut magazine reports a remastered reissue of Everybody’s In Showbiz will be released in the near future, and Ray says it will include a lot more from the live Carnegie Hall show.

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    1. Exciting news! I’d love to hear more.

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  3. Great review of Celluloid Heroes. It’s a song that I’ve often found a somewhat disorienting listen, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on why. Your breaking down its structure led me back to listening to it again more closely. I think what always threw me about the song is that the chorus completely changes just after what should be the song’s climax. The “success walks hand in hand with failure” line would normally lead to the end of the song with a final singing of the “Hollywood Boulevard” chorus and fade out; most composers would be thrilled to have written that version of the song. What happens instead, as you so rightly point out, is that Ray ups the ante of the song and immediately repeats the chorus melody more quietly and with completely different words, taking the song from being about everybody and Hollywood movie stars to being about his own melancholy reflection on life as a celebrity and a human being. I’m not sure how I could have missed all of this, so thanks for opening my ears. It is an intensely personal lyric that sneaks in at the end of the song. I had somehow never realized that the title of the song is never mentioned until this new chorus. I can’t think of another song with this structure. It really is a tremendous work of art when looked at this way. Thanks!

    You’re a little harder on the album than I am. I find the second side of the studio album a pretty good listen (Motorway is the best of the album’s food songs and I think you’re being a little grumpy not liking it). Not their best album, for sure, though. I find it interesting that after the ban was lifted on the Kinks touring in the US in 1969, 3 of their next 5 albums (if you count Preservation as one album) were about being rock stars; Lola, Showbiz, and Soap Opera. It seems pretty obvious that a good part of the Kinks “Golden Age” could not have happened if they were touring America from 1966-68. On the other hand, I like the directions they took after 1969 and I’m satisfied to have both the Pye/Reprise and RCA years. I think all of this reflection on the music biz, touring, and being a star led to some bad music by Kinks standards, but also to some great music by anyone’s standards. Thanks for adding this to your fine collection of Kinks reviews, and never say never about reviewing Kinks Kontroversy. You’re going to need another Kinks fix sooner or later…

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    1. That’s a good point about the connection between the golden period and the inability to tour in the States. Not touring certainly helped The Beatles for about a year before they went to India and returned as a dysfunctional unit. I might be a little grumpy about “Motorway,” but food songs are not exactly my favorite sub-genre. I just looked at a list of food songs and the only one I like is “Savoy Truffle,” more for the horn arrangement than anything else.

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      1. Ayrton Mugnaini Jr. | Reply

        > food songs are not exactly my favorite sub-genre. I just looked at a list of food songs and the only one I like is “Savoy Truffle,” more for the horn arrangement than anything else.<

        "The Beet Song" is hors concours, bien sûr, heh heh.

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        1. Bien sûr! La grandeur de la chanson est largement inconnu du grand public en ce moment et ne peut être trouvé sur les listes de chansons alimentaire.

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  4. […] Everybody’s in Show-Biz […]

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  5. Just thought I’d add a couple of updates a couple years on.

    Sitting in My Hotel is, surprisingly, the show-stopping tune in the Kinks Musical, “Sunny Afternoon.” Kind of hard to believe, since it’s only the second-best song in the show about a man looking out a window! I was lucky enough to see the original cast in London last year, and Olivier Award winner, John Dagliesh, surpassed Ray Davies’ vocal on this one number. It really is a song for a great voice and it was a stunning moment during a very pleasing show.

    The recent deluxe reissue of “Everybody’s in Showbiz” is worth purchasing for two reasons. One is the previously unissued song, “History,” which has the singer wandering around the National Museum as it comes to life around him. It doesn’t really sound much like any other song on the album; it maybe could have fit on Preservation Act I. By far the biggest surprise, though, involves Dave Davies (as the best surprises on these reissues usually do). The live version of “You’re Looking Fine” on this album is a complete revelation. I’ve never been a big fan of the studio version of the song on “Face to Face,” and “Live at Kelvin Hall” included a slightly better live version, but nothing to write home about. This new live version begins with a sped up bass line that sounds like the theme from “Peter Gunn.” Dave then enters with thunderous guitar work that goes on for about four minutes, with he and Ray swapping over the vocal. I swear, this sounds nothing like the band that plays on every other song on the live disc. Why this was left unreleased until now is beyond me. All things considered, I think it is one of the finest live cuts ever recorded by the Kinks. Still springing surprises after all of these years…

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