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.
Muswell Hillbillies is an irresolvable contradiction. It contains several of my favorite Ray Davies songs, but the album itself is not one of their strongest efforts.
The cause of this paradox is easy to identify: Ray Davies became obsessed with an idea. That idea was to give this album an “antiquated sound.” To accomplish that goal, he and the recording engineer used ten-year old mikes for most of the recording. The only song that doesn’t follow that dogma is the strongest track on the album, “20th Century Man,” which was recorded on (then) modern equipment. Most of the tracks sound dull and boxy; several would have to wait to realize their potential in the live performance recordings featured on the otherwise weak follow-up, Everybody’s in Show-Biz.
What Muswell Hillbillies does have going for it is that it expresses the themes of modern alienation and rising cultural paranoia with great power and insight. Ray Davies had not spent any time or energy on flower power, and by 1971, the mood of the time had shifted from love and peace to fear and loathing. The songs on Muswell Hillbillies reflect the rampant feelings of anxiety that would come to dominate the 1970’s and explode in the frustration of Never Mind the Bollocks. Unfortunately for The Kinks, either the dull sound of the recording or the public desire for escapist music caused listeners to run away from Muswell Hillbillies. The album didn’t even chart in the U. K.
Why people have such a hard time facing reality is beyond me, so I will be forever surprised and dismayed that “20th Century Man” did not turn out to be one of The Kinks’ major hits. Beginning with a tentative acoustic strum on extreme low volume that reflects the hesitation to deal with a difficult subject, the guitar finally communicates intent with a driving beat that’s picked up and reinforced by the thumping drums of Mick Avory. Ray’s phrasing of the opening verse is clipped and muted, as if the narrator is uncertain or still unwilling to engage with either reality or his underlying frustration. Gradually, the vocal picks up confidence, and after some lingering hesitation, comes to a boil:
My mama says she can’t understand me,
She can’t see my motivation
Ain’t got no security
I’m a 20th Century Man but I don’t want to die here.
This is the 20th Century,
Too much aggravation
This is the age of insanity
I’m a 20th Century Man but I don’t want to be here.
Bleak though the message may be, this song really rocks, and Ray gets the chance to belt it out towards the end. “20th Century Man” is a great opening track.
One of the earlier lines in “20th Century Man” is “I’m a paranoid schizoid product of the 20th Century.” We now get to see that aspect of the modern psyche in full bloom through the song, “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues.” The muffled recording on Muswell Hillbillies falls short in a very significant way: it doesn’t encourage the average listener to sing along. Some of Ray’s best “Everyman” songs often encourage the average person to join in and use music to release the anger, frustration and angst associated with modern living. When you’ve had a shitty day at work in a highly political organization where you never know what the fuck the truth is, who you can trust or whether or not you’re the one who’s insane, the experience of belting out, “I got acute schizophrenia paranoia blues!” is a healing moment. The Kinks eventually got this one right in the live performance disc on Everybody’s in Show-Biz.
The same is true of “Holiday,” “Skin and Bone” and “Alcohol,” all great songs that benefit from the looser feel and high-energy style of the performances on Everybody’s in Show-Biz. “Holiday” is the photographic negative of “Apeman,” demonstrating that in the modern world there is no escape from environmental abuse, and a vacation is likely to bring little in the way of relaxation:
Lying on the beach with my back burned rare,
The salt gets in my blisters and the sand in my hair,
And the sea’s an open sewer, but I really couldn’t care:
I’m breathing through my mouth so I don’t have to sniff the air.
Continuing to demonstrate unusual foresight, Ray Davies’s sharp eye and pen focused on the growing societal problem of dietary dysfunction long before Karen Carpenter’s death brought anorexic behavior into mass consciousness. “Skin and Bone,” another great live number, makes you long for the pre-television era when the pressure from the modeling industry to look “perfect” was not so ubiquitous:
Living on the edge of starvation
And she says she’s got no appetite,
And her father and her mother and her sisters and her brothers
Couldn’t see her when she walked by.
“Alcohol” is almost meek on Muswell Hillbillies, but the live performance allows Ray to wring out all the irony out from the noir clichés associated with alcohol abuse. The subject may be tragic, but the song (and Ray’s delivery on the live version) gives me the giggles.:
One song that absolutely does work with the primitive recording technique is “Complicated Life,” one of Ray Davies’ wittiest efforts. This is a story about a man who has succumbed to health-related paranoia, so the closed-in sound of the album beautifully reflects a closed-off life. The guy takes his doctor’s advice to reduce his stress and winds up putting himself in a state of self-induced paralysis, sealing himself inside a virtual vacuum:
Well I cut down women, I cut out booze
I stopped ironing my shirts, cleaning my shoes
I stopped going to work, I stopped reading the news
I sit and twiddle my thumbs ‘cos I got nothing to do.
I can’t imagine how a person like this would react to life in the Internet age, but the sheer amount of paranoia published on the Internet and in the halls of Congress would indicate that his kind still manage to cling to a meager existence.
“Here Come the People in Grey” introduces another main theme of the album, something that we know in America as eminent domain, the right of the state to take away your property and destroy the life in your neighborhood if they feel it’s in the public interest to do something else with the land. Given his passion for preservation, the destruction of Victorians in his old stomping grounds was bound to trigger Ray’s sense of outrage (a theme he would recall when designing the character of Flash in Preservation). Although you can tell that The Kinks are playing this song with enthusiasm and righteous indignation, the impact is dampened by the arbitrarily-imposed technical limitations. The line, “I’m going to fight me a one man revolution” should have had a much stronger effect than you get from the recording. The same is true for the rather pedestrian “Have a Cuppa Tea,” with its “Hallelujah Chorus” deadened by weak microphones. “Holloway Jail” suffers the same fate, aggravated by a weird mix that adds too much gain to the right channel guitar.
The most poignant song on the album for me is “Oklahoma U. S. A.” With an arrangement that foreshadows the masterpiece “Celluloid Heroes,” this is another superb “little people” song from Ray Davies. Here the subject escapes from her daily drudgery by dreaming of the world depicted the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical (an idealized world as far away from the real Oklahoma as you can get). The power of the song is magnified by the stark, haunting lines that end the song, words that workaholic Americans should seriously take to heart:
All life we work and work is a bore,
If life’s for living, what’s living for?
“Uncle Son” comes next, introducing a theme that Ray would take much further on Preservation: how the little man and his values are exploited and used by institutions playing power games. Although the ending line, “We won’t forget you when the revolution comes” seems out of character and over the top, the stark truth of Uncle Son’s position in the world is laid bare with brutal simplicity:
Unionists tell you when to strike,
Generals tell you when to fight,
Preachers tell you wrong from right,
They’ll feed you when you’re born,
And use you all your life.
The album closes with the title track, another song that improved by the energy infusion of a live audience on Everybody’s in Show-Biz. This version is too slow and Ray’s phrasing is too mechanical, hitting each note with unnecessary precision as if he’s reciting a poem in grade school. “Muswell Hillbillies” calls up another weakness in the album as a whole. Many of the songs have a country-western flavor with slide guitar and tinges of drawl in the vocals. To put it mildly, The Kinks didn’t do country as well as The Stones did. The Stones seemed to really love and respect the genre; it sounds like the Kinks are just screwing around and making fun of it.
So, there you have it: on one hand, not the best example of the recording arts; on the other, a songwriting tour-de-force. I don’t know about you, but part of the reason I love The Kinks is in part because they are as flawed as the rest of us. Although I think the artificially-induced sub-par recording quality of this album was an error in judgment, I do prefer the less-than-stellar recordings of the “golden era” to the sterile sound of most of the music produced during the Arista period. Focus on the excellence of the songwriting on Muswell Hillbillies and you will not be disappointed.