While there have been dozens of tedious songs and full-length works about the rock star experience in the music business, we have also been treated to a few works that provide genuine insight to the broader human condition. Some have mirrored the experience that many law school graduates have encountered in their careers as attorneys: you start out with high ideals/artistic aspirations and find out you’ve wound up inside a system as filthy as a crumbling sewer. Others have taken another route, ascribing more mundane motives to their heroes (Ziggy Stardust, for example) and focusing on the self-destructive nature of self-absorption. For me, the one recording that best describes the experience of the typical naïve lower middle class rock-and-roll wannabe as he encounters the exploitative reality of the music business is The Kinks’ gem, Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part One.
I read many reviews about Lola (we’ll just call it that to keep things tidy) and the reviews remain mixed at best, largely because most reviewers interpret Lola as a Ray Davies bitch session. I find that response rather curious. When I listen to Lola, I don’t hear Ray and Dave Davies playing themselves: I hear them as actors playing roles in a cohesive story about a young man with talent and not a whole lot of connections . . . the everyman of the 1960’s who saw Elvis or The Beatles on TV and felt both the meaning and the magic of the music.
The main character is introduced in both “Introduction” and “The Contender,” where he clearly identifies himself as a member of the lower middle class with visions of freedom in the world outside: “I don’t want to be a deserter of highways, a sweeper of sidewalks—I gotta do it my way.” He doesn’t have the smarts or the resources to be a mathematician, a politician or a decision-maker . . . his only shot is the music that expresses his emotions and may fulfill his ambitions. This is a guy who fully understands both sides of The Beatles: the lower-to-middle-class Liverpudlians who wanted to get to the “toppermost of the poppermost” and sung about their greed in delightful fury on “Money”; and the talented blokes who wrote beautiful, meaningful songs that moved millions. I’ve known many a musician in my short life, and I’ve met people who are at various places on the spectrum: some want the money, some want the sex, and some want to make beautiful music.
The problem is that all of them want to be heard—and to get yourself heard in the 1960’s, you only had one narrow path available to you: the music establishment.
Our hero seems to be a seeker of beauty, so he writes what is of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard, Dave Davies’ “Strangers.” The song is a musical and lyrical masterpiece, with its simple chord structure and arrangement, punctuated by Mick Avory’s almost funereal drums, serving to strengthen the emotional impact of the words:
So you’ve been where I’ve just come
From the land that brings losers on
So we will share this road we walk
And mind our mouths and beware our talk
‘Till peace we find tell you what I’ll do
All the things I own I will share with you
If I feel tomorrow like I feel today
We’ll take what we want and give the rest away
Strangers on this road we are on
We are not two we are one
Having written this thing of beauty, he naturally wants the whole world to share the experience—but to accomplish this laudable goal, he has to shift from the sublime to the tawdry and follow his nose to a publisher on “Denmark Street” who might be willing to take a flyer on the kid:
You’ve got a tune it’s in your head you want to get it placed
So you take it down to a music man just to see what he will say
He says ‘I hate the tune, I hate the words but I’ll tell you what I’ll do
I’ll sign you up and take it round the street and see if it makes the grade
And you might even hear it played on the rock ‘n’ roll hit parade!’
Our hero leaves Denmark Street almost completely discouraged by the experience and appalled by both the commercialization of music and the rude dismissal of his creation. This leads us to “Get Back in the Line,” where we find our hero dismissing his dream as silly and unrealistic—while at the same time dreading the humiliating reality of the meaningless quest for meaningless work in the union hall:
Now I think of what my mama told me
She always said that it would never ever work out
But all I want to do is make some money
And bring you home some wine
But I don’t want you ever to see me
Standing in that line
‘Cause that union man
Got such a hold over me
He’s the man who decides
If I live or I die, if I starve or I eat
Then he walks up to me
And the sun begins to shine
Then he walks right past and I know
That I’ve got to get back in the line
Desperate to avoid a life of quiet desperation, he goes back to guitar or piano and creates the antithesis of “Strangers,” a catchy song with a strong hook loaded with sexual innuendo and more than a hint of gender identity issues. “Lola” is as perfect a hit single as one could imagine, and a major departure from the blatantly non-commercial songs that Ray Davies had been writing during this period. Some have observed—and I agree—that Ray Davies could have written hit after hit had he wanted to. After all, he knew all the formulas and certainly knew that sex always sells; he just chose to do something different and outside of the mainstream. Here he reconnects with that skill to place the perfect song to complement his narrative.
And how could there be any doubt that “Lola” would get to the “Top of the Pops?” That song is a hoot, as Ray takes us through the steady climb up the charts, verse by verse, blow by blow. Along the way, Ray provides us with satirical commentary about the inflated importance of rock stars and the transformation of normal person into music god:
Now my record’s number 11 on the BBC
But number seven on the N.M.E.
Now the Melody Maker want to interview me
And ask my view on politics and theories on religion
Now my record’s up to number 3
And a woman recognized me and started to scream
This all seems like a crazy dream
I’ve been invited to a dinner with a prominent queen
And now I’ve got friends that I never knew I had before
It’s strange how people want you when you record’s high
‘Cos when it drops down they just pass you by
Now my agent called me on the telephone
He said, “Son, your record’s just got to number 1.”
Any joy our hero might feel about his artistic success is dampened by his agent’s laser-like focus on commercial success:
And you know what this means?
This means you can earn some real money
Yeah, right. “The Moneygoround” quickly dispels that notion, as various shadowy facilitators of chart-topping success step in to get their piece of the action. The continuing naiveté of our hero, expressed in the line, “I thought they were my friends” tells us that the guy who wrote “Strangers” is still very much alive.
Success sends our hero on tour in “This Time Tomorrow,” describing the dull and disconnecting experience of modern flight in one of the loveliest songs The Kinks ever recorded. The melody is so strong it stays in your head for days, and the arrangement combines both subtlety and strength. The instrumental version on the Deluxe Edition is superb, highlighting the talents of John Dalton on bass and the amazing John Gosling on piano, a man who clearly had “the touch.”
All change involves loss, and “A Long Way from Home” gives our hero to self-reflect on all he has lost in his pursuit and achievement of success. The song could be a message given by a friend, but is more powerful—and consistent with the narrative—to imagine the hero looking into the mirror:
You’ve come a long way from the runny-nosed and scruffy kid I knew
You had such good ways . . .
You’ve come a long way, you’re self-assured and dressed in
Funny clothes, but you don’t know me.
I hope you find what you are looking for with your car and handmade overcoats
But your wealth will never make you stronger ‘cos you’re still a
Long way from home
His quiet reverie is interrupted by the harsh guitars of “Rats,” a journey through the metropolis through the perspective of one who’s absolutely fucking had it with the teeming masses who push and shove their way through life. This sets the stage for a compensating fantasy in the song “Apeman,” where he fantasizes about a life with his woman where “I’ll keep you warm and you’ll keep me sane/And we’ll sit in the trees and eat bananas all day.” Ray’s vocal is spot-on, as he adjusts his tone back-and-forth between faux-Caribbean and naïve idealist.
Refreshed by both the fantasy of escape and the realization that the desire to “bring you home some wine” is all that really matters, our hero is now willing to face reality square in the eye in “Powerman.” Matured by disappointment and free of illusion, he realizes the fix will always be in, but his love more than compensates for his financial losses:
Well, I’m not rich and I’m not free
But I’ve got my girl and she got me
He’s got my money and my publishing rights
But I’ve got my girl and I’m alright
The album ends with “Got to Be Free,” an upbeat, breezy number based on the melody of “Introduction.” Our hero has now come full-circle. He realizes that the classic lower middle class belief that riches can buy freedom is a seriously flawed idea. He is now philosophically and emotionally committed to an alternative, though he has no coherent idea how to realize his commitment or what exactly his alternative might be. The notion of freedom is something that people have struggled to define for centuries, but I think what Ray Davies is getting at here is closer to one of Camus’ definitions of freedom: the freedom to think and act how one chooses . . . though unlike Camus, Ray Davies would always place such freedom in the context of more traditional values.
Beyond the strong narrative, Lola features three of The Kinks’ most beautiful songs, two of their greatest hits and some of Ray Davies’ most effective satire. Unlike their later Arista recordings, Lola is not over-produced, so the playful energy that defines much of their best work still shines through. For all these reasons, Lola remains my favorite recording in their catalogue, a brilliant work of a band at the top of their game.
In the liner notes for Other People’s Lives, Ray Davies expressed his wish to break away from the back catalogue of songs that follows him wherever he goes. Since he has to feel proud of what he accomplished, I think what he’s really talking about is escape from the weight of fan expectations that follows every artist in any field, but is particularly heavy when it comes to musicians and actors. Some artists, like The Rolling Stones of the past few decades, play to those expectations and make a lot of money recycling the old stuff ad infinitum. Lennon and McCartney tried to leave The Beatles behind and, ironically, were largely successful in doing so. It’s hard to confuse their solo work with their Beatles work, not because they forged new paths in music, but because the quality of their solo work left much to be desired. I never wanted either of them to try to be Beatles again, but I wanted them to be good.
Sorry that didn’t work out.
I’m fairly immune to nostalgia, so my expectations are more limited. You may say that’s only because the music of my generation sucks in comparison to the music of my parents’ generation, but it’s really because I don’t have a need to be comforted by hearing the same shit I heard last year or when I was a kid. I like artists to keep creating new things, different things. Part of the reason I like Jethro Tull so much is that they kept changing things up, often radically. Even when some of Ian Anderson’s experiments fell flat, I appreciated his explorer’s spirit.
Notice I said “fairly immune.” My shield is penetrable, and I did have one semi-nostalgic reaction to Other People’s Lives: I missed Dave Davies. The sound of his brother’s voice must have triggered the expectation that I would hear Dave’s one-of-a-kind style of guitar picking. It took me a few spins to get used to the absence of both Dave and Mick Avory, but once I got over it, I was delighted to find Ray Davies, still the brilliant social critic who makes you think, feel and laugh about the human condition.
The music on Other People’s Lives remains firmly rooted in standard rock-pop structure for the most part, though there are some clever diversions and interesting instrumentation. A few times I had the strangely comforting feeling that many people get with Kinks’ songs: “Haven’t I heard this tune somewhere?” Borrowing or mirroring aside, the songs have a definite stickiness to them that guarantee you’ll hear echoes of them in your brain for days. Ray’s vocals are a definite strength, for while his voice may sound a teeny bit rough around the edges in spots, he sings with enthusiasm and surprising depth. I’d go even further and say when it comes to pure quality of his vocals, Other People’s Lives is one of his best efforts. Ray had just crossed the big divide into his sixties when Other People’s Lives was recorded, so it’s another bit of evidence that men don’t necessarily lose it when they move up in the age bracket. Guys, the stigma of age is all in your heads! I ought to know— a few months ago I fucked a guy in that vicinity who was one of the best pieces of ass I’ve ever had! We will therefore proceed with utter confidence that Ray Davies still had his wits (and who knows what else) eight or so years ago when this album was released.
The opening sequence is somewhat disorienting . . . I thought I’d fucked up and put on “It’s All Too Much” from Yellow Submarine. The wailing guitar feedback is very similar, but instead of the organ appearing at its close, the feedback resolves into a smashing full band sound. I love the decision to have the bass play the motif, and the strong bass turns out to be an exhilarating aspect of many of the tracks. The song you hear is “Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After),” an incredibly catchy piece of music indeed. The theme of the song is human perseverance, and what’s fabulous about the lyrics is how Ray universalizes the human experience of struggle-failure-success. At times you think he’s talking about someone recovering from a bender; elsewhere you’d swear the subject is a failed relationship; in still other places, it’s getting sacked. All are examples of a common human experience. Ray’s attitude is one of marveling at the pattern, how even when “you feel shite, the air bites,” you pick yourself off the canvas and it’s once more unto the breach. He refuses to take a side between optimism and pessimism, instead telling his listeners, “You will learn/The barrier we cross/Is somewhere between Heaven and Hell.” Welcome to life!
Much of Other People’s Lives is reflective in nature, as Ray repeatedly confronts the fact that he has fewer years ahead of him than he has behind him. “After the Fall” is thematically similar to “Things Are Gonna Change,” dealing with the fall from grace and recovery/retribution/rebirth that Ray identified as one of the album’s core themes. Here Ray warns us not to expect much help from the heavens and questions the need for living our lives under pretense (“You can learn your lines and fabricate a show/But the way we come in, yeah, that’s the way we’re gonna go.”) Again he points out our ability to recover from setbacks, hinting that rather than looking at them as debilitating embarrassments, we should rein in our egos and forgive both self and others in the process:
So I fell on my arse, now I’m feeling the pain
But the feeling will pass and so will the shame
The bigger the ego, the bigger the fall
When your reputation counts for nothing at all
Ah, but when the mist clears, the sun will shine again
“Next Door Neighbor” abandons the hard rock instrumentation for music that’s more in the realm of “parlor rock,” similar to the style of the songs on Something Else and Village Green Preservation Society. Ray’s ability to universalize experience is the highlight of the song, as he takes three fictional next-door neighbors who could have “been any of the kids I grew up with” and turns them into our next-door neighbors, complete with the façades that ornament the personality like lawn statues ornament the garden. After he relates how they all turned out (all had different experiences that all fail to measure up to society’s expectations), Ray suggests dropping the masks and relating empathetically instead: “We had our tiffs together/Our rows and our rifts together/But let’s learn to forgive together.” It’s a sweet song that points out one great advantage of aging: gradually you learn that all the bullshit you thought was vitally important simply fucking isn’t.
In the liner notes for “All She Wrote,” Ray comments, “I really didn’t know who I was when I started this record.” That’s a beautifully healthy attitude for an artist! It means that he’s throwing out the old filters through which he viewed experience and rethinking everything from the ground up. In this sexy little rocker he universalizes once again, patching together a summary of all the break-ups in his life and the accompanying drama and pathos. The trigger for the song is a letter received from an ex that is full of snarky, backhanded compliments and acid-soaked best wishes:
All she wrote is a goodbye letter
“It’s over for us, to tell you the truth
I’ve met this person in a disco
He’s really special, reminds me of you
“So don’t pretend to be a new man
Be chauvinistic, that’s your way
Now you’re free to make your play
For that big Australian barmaid.”
The implication here is, “Why can’t people just move on?” The answer lies in inexplicably strong bonds between certain couples who should never have been together in the first place. These strange connections are explored in the brilliant, “Creatures of Little Faith.” Ray wrote that this slow tempo song was probably sung by the guy who received the letter in “All She Wrote,” a character locked in one of those “Suspicious Minds” relationships where both parties spy on the other to check for signs of infidelity. I have never understood the need to “keep one on stand-by while you play the field” (if you can’t tell your partner that you’re going to fuck someone else, you either haven’t been honest with yourself or you’re with the wrong person). However, I do know that insecurity has a powerful distortive effect on the personality, triggering a greed of frightening power and perseverance. Ray describes the guy as a likable villain who comes through the song a better human being; I think the song leaves room for doubt. I’m really not sure the narrator means it when he sings of the virtues of mutual faith at the end of the song; my intuition tells me he’s trying to pull the wool over her eyes so he can start prowling again. Men! Ray’s vocal is a work of perfection, combining ambiguous head-shaking sadness at how awful the situation has become with a touch of tongue-in-cheek. The melody is marvelous, and the arrangement, integrating chorus-tinged guitar with saxophone and a laid-back rhythm, is exceptional.
Not so exceptional in comparison is “Run Away from Time,” where Ray borrows the concept of “time the avenger” from his former squeeze Chrissie Hynde and doesn’t even mention her in the liner notes. How gauche! The song opens with a motif similar to “Can’t Help Myself” by The Four Tops and doesn’t get any more interesting than that. Much better is his tragicomic take on tourism, “The Tourist.” This was the first song to come out of his trip to New Orleans in 200o to write songs “rooted in the American experience.” I suppose Latin Funk is as American today as apple pie, but more to the point, Ray used his temporary exile to shake off the rust and recover his talents as one of the great social critics of his age. Another song of universal experience, Ray bemoans mindless, programmed tourism and the mutual exploitation of tourist and native through a vocal that reflects the internal dialogue of the disinterested but disgusted observer of the human animal . . . and himself:
I’m just another tourist checking out the slums
With my plastic Visa drinking with my chums
I dance and swing while ABBA sing
And I flash my Platinum
To the sound of Livin’ La Vida Loca
Yes, Livin’ La Vida Loca
The repetition of the title of Ricky Martin’s dreadful anthem is a masterstroke. Its first mention is just the name of a song played to death; the second mention causes us to focus attention on the ironic meaning of the transition and think “What a crazy life!”
The narrator of “Things Are Gonna Change” reappears in the singalong “Is There Life After Breakfast?” Another sticks-in-your-head number, this “buck yourself up, mate” song features a combination theme of overcoming morning depression and facing the neuroses associated with the inconveniences of aging:
Just because all of the plumbing
Isn’t all it used to be
Turn the tap, see, a little bit’s coming
That must make you feel relieved
Don’t turn into a total embarrassment
To your friends and family
Get out of bed, the whole day’s ahead
So take the pills and drink your tea
There’s a repeated two-stroke guitar strum in the intro and fills that is so “Lola” that I begin to doubt Ray’s stated desire to escape from his back catalog. If you could imagine the song recorded with a simpler arrangement in relative lo-fi, you’d swear it could have qualified for a spot on The Great Lost Kinks Album.
Ray spends a lot of space in the liner notes explaining the background of “The Getaway (Lonesome Train),” which is a hint that the lyrics weren’t good enough to make the point he was trying to make. In the title track, however, he returns to form with a bitter attack on the sensationalist tabloid journalism that has established the right of the roving reporter to invade every inch of the lives of public figures in order to feed the sickening hunger of the masses to delight in the suffering of those they placed on pedestals:
Politicians dressed in drag
Careers stopped with quick back stab
While anonymous informer flees
And leaves us with our fantasy
And erotic visions
Who did what, when, to whom
In the dominatrix room?
Tabloids daily, titillate
Each sordid tale reverberates
All across the nation
Although I usually deplore the tendency of rock stars to bring their kids into the act, Beth Davies does a wonderful job on this song with background vocals, erotic vocalizations and passable Spanish.
I knew that Ray Davies couldn’t get through an entire album without a resurrection of the preservation theme, and “Stand Up Comic” fits the bill. In this case, he’s talking about the preservation of manners, decorum and style, a set of social constructs under serious attack by the trend we see in entertainers and mass media to play to the lowest common denominator. The direct attack is on yobs, one of several reasons I’ve found Jolly Old England a much less pleasant land of late. As defined by The Urban Dictionary, a yob is “The antithesis of what a good boy should be—rude, obnoxious, violent and stupid.” I’ve always found it curious that the Irish have been tarred with the “chronic drunk” label by the Brits when the Brits are a hundred times worse, something you can experience first-hand by strolling around Soho almost any night you choose. Only in Britain have I been physically accosted in a way that would be unthinkable in the allegedly barbaric USA. The last time I was in London, I was walking in the vicinity of Covent Garden with a male companion when a lout stumbled up to me, google-eyed and drooling, muttering something about, “Oh, you’re a diamond . . . a beautiful diamond,” and began grabbing my tits and ass.
With one well-positioned kick, I made absolutely certain that one lout would be unlikely to father children without major reconstructive surgery.
Ray didn’t need to limit his attack to the male gender, as British women are becoming truly appalling and a national embarrassment with their binge drinking habits. This is big back in the States, too, where I often heard male colleagues at work describe sexual encounters where the women were so drunk they threw up during the sexual act. My fucking god!
One of the things I love about living in France is that there is still a sense of propriety in the culture, a set of agreements that are not so much about keeping up appearances as having customs and structure that add to the beauty of an experience, such as dining or flirting. It’s not snobbery, it’s not repression, it’s not having a stick up the ass . . . it’s called class! Ray decries the regrettable tendency in the Angl0-Saxon cultures to violently and disgustingly rebel against such norms by taking rudeness to the extreme:
And a well-spoken hero from a yesteryear
Walks out onto a stage and they all shout “queer!”
And that’s that
Manners, I mean
Never was much, never has been
But the little bit that was was all that we had
And now the clown does a fart and we all fart back
And that’s that
Stand up, stand up
Can you hear me at the back?
All you wide boys standing in a row
And the comic shouts
And we all shout back
And the mob says “follow” so we go
“Stand Up Comic” is the most theatrical piece on the album, and I’m happy to report that Ray’s acting skills, as exhibited in disciplined and subtle changes in tone and pronunciation, remain intact.
The album proper ends with my favorite song from a musical perspective, “Over My Head.” Opening quietly with a gorgeous guitar mix, the song shifts to a rock-funk feel for the opening verse. What’s fascinating is the A-B-C structure of the song, with verse, bridge and chorus each in a different key involving a set of three chords that are entirely complementary. The verse is a simple Em-D-Bm (with an odd Bm7 here and there), the bridge a D (no third)-C-G (with a D7 transition) and the chorus G-C-D to resolve back to the Em. That is a very clever way to wring something new out of standard rock-pop chords, and the build created by the changes is terribly exciting. “Over My Head” is one of the strongest album closers I have heard in years . . . with an asterisk I will explain after we watch the video:
The asterisk has to do with the “hidden bonus track” on Other People’s Lives that I really wish they’d left for another day, another album. “Thanksgiving Day” isn’t a bad piece, but it doesn’t fit well with the theme of struggle and redemption and isn’t terribly insightful about the American social custom centered on food and family, in that order. “Over My Head” is such a powerful way to end the record that I resent the intrusion.
Other People’s Lives came out during a period when my life was in serious flux, so I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time. It’s been on my to-do list ever since I started the blog, but I wanted to get through The Kinks’ catalog before going there. This proved to be a stroke of good fortune, for when I started listening to it repeatedly in preparation for the review, it was like listening to a new release. As I’ve mentioned far too often recently, the cupboard is pretty bare when it comes to new music that’s worth a damn, and to hear something new of exceptional quality from one of the greatest songwriters of them all was a fantastic experience. Ray Davies proved he still had a lot in the tank after sixty years, breaking the mold of icon and showing us that he definitely qualified as alive, kicking and absolutely brilliant.