Someone should do a longitudinal study on the applicability of the phrase “third time’s the charm” to rock albums, starting with the hypothesis that it takes three albums for rockers to truly come into their own.
The third time was certainly the charm for The Rolling Stones (Out of Our Heads), The Who (The Who Sell Out), The Clash (London Calling), Blur (Parklife) and Radiohead (OK Computer). You could certainly make a credible argument that A Hard Day’s Night represented the artistic and energetic height of Beatlemania and add the Fab Four to the list. It’s debatable if the formula applies to David Bowie or Jethro Tull, but it certainly doesn’t apply to Oasis (whose third album was the definition of “disaster”). Top-of-the-head calculations like these won’t do the trick, though—we need someone who can design a large and complex database that connects albums to record sales and critical consensus while developing a sensible algorithm that gives appropriate weight to subjective and objective data.
In other words, someone with no life and no prospects of ever having one.
While we wait for that one person out of 7.3 billion willing to take on the task, we’ll consider whether or not The Jam’s third album fits the theory. As 80% of my reading audience hail from the United States, where The Jam and Paul Weller are virtual unknowns, permit me a few moments for a brief introduction.
The Jam first entered the public eye in 1977 as the media-designated leaders of something called the “Mod Revival.” They dressed in the tailored suits of the British Invasion while producing music reminiscent of a high wattage punk version of The Who Sings My Generation. The frontman of this three-piece ensemble was a young gent by the name of Paul Weller, who handled guitar, most of the lead vocals and nearly all of the songwriting duties; Bruce Foxton supplied the unusually powerful bass and supporting vocals while a fellow named Rick Buckler pounded the skins. The first album (In the City) showed promise, more than a little spunk and definitive proof the band could kick serious ass while handling the high velocities demanded by punk. This Is the Modern World (also released in 1977) was In the City redux and really didn’t add much to their legacy.
The problem they faced at this juncture was one of identity. Though The Jam had proved themselves more than capable of handling the back-to-basics aspect of punk rock—and while Paul Weller could certainly do the angry young man bit when the situation called for it—it simply wasn’t in them to fully embrace either the inherent nihilism (Sex Pistols) or the socio-political emphasis (The Clash) of early punk. The band’s temperament and talents fit better with the more diverse ethos of the Mod Revival, but to survive in that mode, they needed to figure out a way to distinguish themselves from the original mod rockers (The Who, The Kinks, Small Faces) and place their own stamp on the genre. Independent of artistic objectives, the pressure needle hovered in the red zone—the label had rejected their initial offerings for the third album, largely because Paul Weller was curiously detached and suffering from what amounted to writer’s block.
Only one way to get past that, mate: get off your bloody arse!
Modem World was a low point. You make your first album – basically, it’s your live set. It took about 10 days to record. All of a sudden, we’d used our 10 songs and you’ve been out on the road and you’ve got to sit down and write another album. Which we did, the same year – and it shows. But it didn’t happen. It was . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? ‘Shit! It was shit.’ I thought, ‘Am I going to let this slide or fight against it?’ My back was against the wall. It was a matter of self-pride. I had to prove my worth, sort of, ‘This is it.’
—Paul Weller, Interview with Uncut.
The result was All Mod Cons (a British idiom for “all modern conveniences”), one more piece of solid evidence supporting the third-time’s-the-charm theory. The seeds for success were planted a year before during a less-than-successful tour of the USA where Paul Weller managed to pick up several Kinks albums from the Golden Period, albums then unavailable in the UK (!). That bit of serendipity would not only result in one of the best Kinks’ cover songs ever but a way past his writer’s block. While Weller had dabbled in the socio-political arena on songs like “Bricks and Mortar” and “Time for Truth,” the approach was more meat cleaver than scalpel, little more than us-against-them. At his best, Ray Davies is the master of translating major socio-political issues into the real-life everyday experiences of living, breathing human beings. It’s one thing to talk about “urban renewal” or “displacement,” but when you hear someone sing, “They’ll move me up to Muswell Hill tomorrow/Photographs and souvenirs are all I’ve got/They’re gonna try and make me change my way of living/But they’ll never make me something that I’m not,” you begin to fully appreciate the human impact and the knock-on problems spawned by the people in grey and their inconsiderate policies. Weller’s work on All Mod Cons reflects this crucial shift in perspective, but it also helped that Ray Davies didn’t limit himself to socio-political themes and that the two songwriters shared a deep love for their country, its traditions and its culture. If nothing else, rescuing those old Kinks albums from the bargain bins likely helped Paul Weller realize that his potential playing field was much larger than either the punk or Mod Revival movements.
The title track kicks things off with a quick burst of exuberance and a reminder that Ray Davies wasn’t the only 60’s rocker to influence The Jam’s sound. Though the speed is decidedly within punk parameters, the melodies and harmonies reflect Pete Townshend’s compositional style. Townshend’s guitar attack clearly influenced the sound of their early works, but at this point The Jam has moved on from My Generation to The Who Sell Out, minus the whimsy of that masterwork. What is equally apparent is the band’s stunning tightness as they move through this stutter-stop piece with due precision. Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler form an exciting rhythmic duo, with Foxton also providing crucial thematic support and a brief bass solo. The lyrics deal directly with the troubles they were having with their once-adoring label masters and the pressure to produce profits or get tossed out on their bums:
And all the time we’re getting rich
You hang around to help me out
But when we’re skint, oh God forbid!
You drop us like hot bricks
Artistic freedom, do what you want
But just make sure that the money ain’t gone
I love that word . . . skint. It calls up images of a sallow-faced bloke in a worn tweed cap politely asking someone to stand him a pint. So much more evocative than the American “broke.”
Further indications of The Who’s influence appear in “To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have a Nice Time),” where at certain points I could swear that Roger Daltrey has dropped in for a cameo. A delightful mix of melody, harmony and pure rock power with varying rhythms and dynamics, the story plays out in a first-person dramatic monologue with an unusual but meaningfully imbalanced structure, “To Be Someone” continues the theme of “If you ain’t got the money, you ain’t shit,” expanding the discussion to how our sick modern cultures demand you show evidence of success before you are granted an identity:
To be someone must be a wonderful thing
A famous footballer a rock singer
Or a big film star, yes I think I would like that
To be rich and have lots of fans
Have lots of girls to prove that I’m a man
And be No. 1, and liked by everyone
We can now officially change the lyrics of “You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You” to “You’re Nobody If You’re Not on the Screen, And That Means You—Teachers, Carpenters, Plumbers and Nurses.” An extended instrumental passage featuring a fabulous arpeggiated guitar and bass duet follows these opening verses, as if Weller decided we needed a few moments to fully digest the magnitude of our hero’s insecurity.
The break also allows Weller to fast-forward the film, where lo and behold, our hero has earned the identity of his dreams: “Getting drugged up with my trendy friends/They really dig me, man, and I dig them.” Hooray—-no, hold that hooray and get your accountant on the phone, pronto:
And the bread I spend, is like my fame, it’s quickly diminished
And there’s no more swimming in a guitar shaped pool
No more reporters at my beck and cool
No more cocaine it’s only ground chalk
No more taxis now we’ll have to walk
While it’s odd that our hero would follow in Webb Pierce’s footsteps with a guitar-shaped pool, what’s truly odd is that his first reaction is to make-believe that the roller coaster ride was worth it:
But didn’t we have a nice time,
Didn’t we have a nice time
Oh wasn’t it such a fine time
The first two lines are sung in unison with loud bravado, but on the third line Paul Weller drops off and allows Bruce Foxton to take it, a clear sign of second thoughts. The following passage is quite Who-like, the sweet but sad sound of a boy lost in the big, bad world:
I realize I should have stuck to my guns
Instead shit out to be one of the bastard sons
He gives the “didn’t we have a nice time” masquerade one more shot before ending the song right where he started: “To be someone must be a wonderful thing.” I hope “To Be Somebody” was the moment when first-time listeners back in the fall of 1978 realized, “Hey, these guys have really upped their game.” It’s a musical gas and a brilliant lyrical composition that clocks in at just under two-and-a-half minutes, economic rock poetry at its best.
“Mr. Clean” is an even more complex composition, featuring two key changes that also reflect changes in the narrator’s mood. The dominant opening passages dominated by an eerily quiet and dark Dm/Am combination reflect the have-not narrator’s rancid bitterness towards one of the haves, suddenly and explosively expressed in the lines, “‘Cause I hate you and your wife/And if I get the chance I’ll fuck up your life.” This passage is reminiscent of Jarvis Cocker’s revenge fantasy in “I Spy,” though Cocker’s plans for revenge are much more elaborate and sophisticated. The second passage opens with Em7 but resolves to the C chord root of the third passage. These passages describe British class dynamics—a curious mix of resentment, acceptance of one’s lot in life and a sense of latent systemic danger:
Surround yourself with dreams
Of pretty young girls, and anyone you want, but
Please don’t forget me or any of my kind
‘Cause I’ll make you think again
When I stick your face in the grind
Rather than call for revolution, though, the lower classes find comfort in poking fun at the loathsome habits of the uppers, just as the uppers find solace in their disdain for the lowers:
Getting pissed at the annual office do
Smart blue suit and you went to Cambridge too
You miss Page 3, but the Times is right for you
And mum and dad are very proud of you
The snob may or may not take a peep at the tits on Page 3 of The Sun, but such things are not spoken of in polite company. “Mr. Clean” should have been served as a warning bell that classism in the U. K. was metastasizing into a cancer, but the British do cherish their traditions and decided to let Maggie Thatcher run the show the following year.
The Jam’s version of “David Watts” takes that Davies classic and imbues it with greater rock sensibility by giving the guitar the lead position in the opening passage and balancing the piano in the verses with a stronger and more assertive bass. Performed to a slightly higher tempo than the original, the Jam’s decision to give Foxton the lead vocals on the verses and Weller the lead vocal on the bridges adds to the obvious excitement the band brought to this number. While The Jam add a few embellishments, this is a faithful and (dare I say) loving tribute to the original—and one of the strongest rockers on the album.
You could make a good argument that the most important song on the album is “English Rose,” an acoustic ballad that was not listed on the album cover. Some sources say Paul Weller had it whacked from the cover because he was embarrassed by its emotional honesty; others claim he left it off because the words didn’t make sense without the music. An interview with Mojo in 2010 pretty much settled that debate:
It was me emotionally naked, speaking openly about being in love. I was aware it was something that blokes from my background didn’t do. They didn’t reveal their feelings, their sensitive side.
What puzzles me is that he had to have known that people would hear the song when listening to the album . . . so . . . what was the point?
Guys are so complicated.
The song lends itself to both patriotic and romantic interpretations, and though the quote above argues strongly for the latter, the latent sentiment for Jolly Olde England certainly didn’t hurt the song’s acceptance in the home country. As a seafaring empire, long separations between man and love interest were common occurrences over the centuries, so the longings of a rock musician for his girl while on tour in the USA likely evoked sentiments deeply embedded in cultural history.
Paul Weller certainly did not betray his origins by writing the song in a rustic style, a lyrical choice most vividly demonstrated by the use of the female subject pronoun where proper grammar demands the object: “I will return to my English rose/For no bonds can ever keep me from she.” Whether it was his intent to elevate woman from object to subject is unknown, but as a human being who has spent most of her life living under the stigma of objectification, I deeply appreciate his choice.
Girls are so sensitive.
However you choose to interpret “English Rose,” it is a tender and touching song expressing emotional humility and human fragility. While there are a billion songs with the line “I need you,” I’ve rarely heard a song that expresses the need for another as sincerely as this one. Although he seemed loth to accept it, writing the song allowed Paul Weller to access his sensitive side, further expanding his songwriting possibilities.
“In the Crowd” starts as a breezy little number filled with echoes of both The Kinks and The Who. The melody and chord structure of the transitional verses (the first is marked by a shift to G and begins with the line “And everyone seems just like me”) bears more than a striking resemblance to the transitional passages in “Johnny Thunder,” and the power chords in the extended jam at the end of the song are pure Townshend. The lyrics are in the form of a semi-conscious meditation on the automation of routine life occasioned by Paul Weller taking a spin through the supermarket. Feeling alienated by the regimentation of the modern shopping experience, he imagines a common bond with his fellow shoppers:
And everyone seems just like me,
They struggle hard to set themselves free
And they’re waiting for the change
Remember that double entendre—yes, they’re standing in line waiting for the clerk to give them their change, but Weller also opines that they’re longing for comprehensive social change as well. As he proceeds blindly past the “walls of ice cream,” still lost in meditation about social conditions, he realizes that the challenge is far greater than he imagined:
And everyone seems that they’re acting a dream
Cause they’re just not thinking about each other
And they’re taking orders, which are media-spawned
And they should know better, now you have been warned
And don’t forget you saw it here first
The tragic impact of this massive brainwashing effort is communicated through the change of a single consonant as Weller realizes that his fellow shoppers have no stomach for shaking up the routine:
And life just simply moves along
In simple houses, simple jobs
And no one’s wanting for the change
Though more than a little derivative, the very pleasant music fits nicely with the theme of induced happiness, and the melody is one of the catchiest on the album. Kudos to the band for this full version with the extended fade, which exceeds the arbitrary three-minute barrier of early punk dogma by a solid two-and-a-half. It sounds fucking great.
Paul Weller argued that “Billy Hunt” would make a great single; Polydor disagreed; hooray for Polydor. While I appreciate the exposure of the “nobody messes with me” chip-on-the-shoulder that many young men in subordinate positions carry with them on their journey through life–and the clever integration of the “superhero-wish” manifested in Billy claiming the power of Steve Austin of The Six Million Dollar Man—-the repetitive onslaught of “Billy Hunt, Billy Hunt, Billy Billy Billy” drives me fucking insane. I find suitable relief in the classic mod number “It’s Too Bad,” a mid-60’s boy-has-problem-with-girl tune that might have hit the Top 30 back in ’64 or ’65 (though Bruce Foxton’s marvelously powerful bass runs would have blown out the speakers on the transistor radios of the era).
“Fly” is a more complex expression of love for a woman, though the soft-LOUD dynamic weakens the intimacy of the piece. I’m somewhat befuddled by the couplet “Let’s disappear love, let’s fly away/Into the demi-monde, into the twilight zone.” Whoa, wait a minute there, sonny! The demi-monde “refers to a group of people who live hedonistic lifestyles, usually in a flagrant and conspicuous manner,” while the twilight zone is one weird place with Martians running diners and hiding their third eye under a chevron cap. As a hedonist, I am seriously wounded and deeply offended by this juxtaposition! If they’d dropped that couplet and stuck to an acoustic arrangement, I would have given the song a thumbs-up.
“The Place I Love” could have been subtitled “The Refuge of the Introvert” or “My World and Stay the Hell Out of It,” as the song deals with the search for a private world separate from the competitive, back-stabbing universe of modern existence. Holding onto one’s identity in a world that constantly attempts to shape it into standard issue is a challenge for introverts and extraverts alike; here the refuge isn’t the loving relationship sought in many a rock song, nor is it a return to nature, strictly speaking. The safe house where the narrator makes “a stand against the world” is instead one where nature encroaches on the trappings of civilization, a place where people aren’t so manic about imposing order but instead seek to peacefully integrate human presence with the natural environment:
The place I love is overgrown now
With beautiful moss and colorful flowers
And goldfish that swim in a pool, there’s a small brick wall
With neon lighting controlled by lightning
The introductory riff seems to have been borrowed and modified by Blur (albeit with more notes and greater speed) in the song “Bank Holiday,” and I hope they acknowledged the influence as honestly as The Jam acknowledged theirs.
“‘A’ Bomb on Wardour Street” may have taken its cue from the discovery of a WWII bomb on the day when The Jam were to sign their contract with Polydor, but if so, it’s merely a starting point for a full-frontal assault on British hooliganism. Since discovering a buried Nazi A-bomb is an historical impossibility, it follows that Weller used the term “A-Bomb” to identify a destructive force that spreads beyond the initial point of detonation, i. e., hooliganism. While Wardour Street was the home to the British film industry and a few recording companies, it also hosted the punk venue The Vortex Club during the punk heyday, where violence was part of the show:
I’m stranded on the Vortex floor
My head’s been kicked in and blood’s started to pour
Through the haze I can see my girl
Fifteen geezers got her pinned to the door
I try to reach her but fall back to the floor
‘A’ bomb in Wardour Street
It’s blown up the West End, now it’s spreading throughout the city
Waller sings this piece in an early Joe Strummer sneering growl over a straightforward rock riff integrating distorted guitar, thumping bass and steady drums (though they do throw in some Townshend-esque power chords and mod riffs). The anger comes through as righteous rather than frothing, balancing outrage with reason. The passage that rang most true for me involves the linking of violence to a loss of freedom—something the gun nuts in the States are too stupid to comprehend. What the fuck good is freedom if you’re dead?
Law and order takes a turn for the worst
In the shape of a size ten boot
Rape and murder throughout the land
And they tell you that you’re still a free man
If this is freedom I don’t understand
‘Cause it seems like madness to me
To seal the deal, Waller closes the circle by linking the thirst for violence to football hooliganism with the reference to “Dr. Martens’ A-P-O-C-A-L-Y-P-S-E,” the favorite shoes of sodden football fanatics. Dismissed by Stuart Mason of AllMusic as “the sound of a band saying goodbye to an ill-fitting suit of clothes,” I would suggest that the listener look beyond the punk trappings and view the song as a timeless protest about a recurring human problem that remains unresolved.
Any doubt that Paul Weller had taken his songwriting to a higher level is completely obliterated by the experience of “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight.” The power of this horrifying story of a man of a different color brutally attacked in the Underground by a pack of skinheads lies in the choice to present the tale as a first-person narrative from the victim’s point of view. This device serves to give the poet some distance from the subject matter, reducing the possibility that the poet will be tempted to shape the story or introduce their own emotional baggage. It also humanizes the experience to the nth degree.
The story begins with the man headed for the subway around midnight, probably a guy who has just finished the late shift at a restaurant or similar service establishment. On his way down to the tube he notices the day’s refuse, in particular a stale morning paper filled with “Headlines of death and sorrow, they tell of tomorrow/Madmen on the rampage.” When he recites the closing line of the verse, “And I’m down in the tube station at midnight,” we automatically connect his situation to the headlines and share his sense of foreboding. Still, he proceeds through the turnstile, probably telling himself that he’s made the trip hundreds of times before without incident.
I fumble for change, and pull out the Queen
I put in the money and pull out a plum
Whispers in the shadows, gruff blazing voices
“Hey boy” they shout, “have you got any money?”
And I said, “I’ve a little money and a takeaway curry
I’m on my way home to my wife
She’ll be lining up the cutlery, you know she’s expecting me
Polishing the glasses and pulling out the cork”
His innocent response seems to be an attempt to find common ground with his likely attackers by sharing a common human experience, thereby presenting himself as harmless. It doesn’t work; it was never going to work.
I first felt a fist, and then a kick
I could now smell their breath
They smelt of pubs and wormwood scrubs
And too many right-wing meetings
My life swam around me
It took a look and drowned me in its own existence
Once they’ve had their fun, he struggles to maintain awareness of his surroundings, storing memories that will later seem absurdly trivial before realizing that these thugs may go after the person he loves most and there is nothing he can do to protect her:
The last thing that I saw as I lay there on the floor
Was “Jesus saves” painted by an atheist nutter
And a British rail poster read, “Have an away day, a cheap holiday Do it today.”
I glanced back on my life, and thought about my wife
‘Cause they took the keys, and she’ll think it’s me
The music has an ironically breezy urban feel to it, a soundtrack that seems weirdly dissonant and weirdly appropriate at the same time–as if to remind us that life goes on, lah-dee-dah, another gruesome tale for the headlines, now get back to the daily grind. Since right-wing thugs have made a comeback in Europe and the USA, “Down in the Tube at Midnight” has tragically earned status as a timeless piece of art, but I’m absolutely positive that Paul Weller would have traded that honor in exchange for an end to such brutality.
p. s. Fuck the BBC for banning this song and fuck Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn for complaining that, “It’s disgusting the way punks sing about violence. Why can’t they sing about trees and flowers?” It’s that kind of idiotic denial that allows the twin cancers of racism and hate to flourish.
With a hot songwriter leading the way, The Jam would go on to produce a series of successful albums before Paul Weller decided to move in a different direction with a new band called The Style Council. Eventually he would embark on a solo career that further cemented his status as one of Britain’s leading songwriters. While I think Weller would have found a way to the forefront even if The Jam had collapsed before the recording of All Mod Cons, his moment of truth paved the way for one of the most engaging listening experiences of the era. The third time was definitely the charm for The Jam.
Man, I just can’t seem to get away from The Kinks.
After spending months in their company reviewing nearly everything from Face to Face to Schoolboys in Disgrace, I began suffering from Kinks Withdrawal Syndrome (KWS). The cause of this debilitating condition can easily be traced to listening to dozens of albums by other artists, past and present, who simply don’t measure up. While listening to often muddled music in my search for albums to review, I found my mind wandering to fragments of “Waterloo Sunset” and “Celluloid Heroes” and longing for sparkling wit, exceptional insight into human and social conditions, engaging music and artistic commitment.
You can’t begin to appreciate how rare those qualities are in today’s music until you spend every week for almost two years listening to new releases. It’s like looking for a 1/16 carat diamond in a 20,000-foot mountain of shit. When I find one, it’s an orgasmic experience, but I’m fully aware that next week I’ll be back digging into the shitpile, which diminishes both the impact and duration of the climax.
I had several Kinky choices available to me. I could have decided to review the albums from the Arista period and beyond. There were also the possibilities of taking a leap into Ray Davies’ solo career or covering Dave Davies’ recent release. Last but not least, there was Come Dancing with The Kinks, their Arista-period hits collection.
I chose the latter because frankly, I don’t care much for the Arista period and find all the albums from that period lacking in one way or another. First, the production is too slick and too commercial. Second, although he did not descend to the depths that McCartney did with his Wings and solo efforts, the lyrics are generally not Ray Davies-level quality. Finally, the style The Kinks adopted is called “arena rock,” which to me means “rock for the masses.” In addition to the dumbing down of the lyrics, the greatest loss suffered during the Arista period is the feeling of intimacy between artist and listener. The Kinks never felt distant or inaccessible before this period; their music felt and sounded very human, and we often experienced it in very personal ways. The music from the Arista period is full of distance—The Kinks became tiny dots on the stage enhanced by televised images on Jumbotrons rather than the guys hanging out at the pub on the cover of Muswell Hillbillies.
So, reviewing this collection allows me to cover the Arista period without spending too much time there. Fortunately, Clive Davis did not have The Kinks’ bodies snatched and replaced with the souls of K. C. and the Sunshine Band. There is enough evidence on this record to confirm that the band is in fact The Kinks. Maybe not The Kinks at their best, but still The Kinks. The track order is an annoyance, for rather than take the chronological route, the powers that be decided to open with their top-charting single, “Come Dancing,” followed by tracks from Low Budget, their best-selling album. I’m reviewing the 2005 CD release that with begins with . . .
“Come Dancing”: Ray Davies created a beautiful and touching tribute to the sister who gave him his first guitar but died before the age when she could worry about the dating habits of daughters. The preservation theme gains a new lease on life through the dramatization of the impact of demolition on a real, human life. The intimate meanings people attach to places are juxtaposed against the ironic indifference in Ray’s reverse-order description of the sequence of destruction that finally brings us to the palais that held his sister’s fondest memories. The joyous Wurlitzer-driven music takes a sharp turn into the harsh shock of distorted guitar after Ray delivers the core lines of the song:
The day they knocked down the palais
My sister stood and cried
The day they knocked down the palais
Part of my childhood died, just died
“Low Budget”: The best thing about the Arista period was that Dave Davies finally got to really play some gee-tar! I love this underplayed opening riff that just sucks you right into the groove and the way they left that right channel wide open for guitar fills throughout the song. Ray’s vocal is satirically playful and the feel of the song is best described as “modern reverse gospel rock.” It moves, makes you laugh and reminds you that The Kinks hadn’t entirely lost the common touch. The video opens with an extended lead guitar intro that’s to die for—so much so that I’m thinking of starting a Kickstarter project to cryogenically freeze Dave Davies’ fingers like they did with Ted Williams’ brain.
“Catch Me Now I’m Falling”: When I said I didn’t care much for the Arista period, I’m talking about songs like this one: social commentary with no meat on the bones. America’s in deep doo-doo, Europe gives America the cold shoulder. The lesson is . . .? The “Jumping Jack Flash” riff rip-off falls flat on its face, as does this overly repetitive, boring song.
“A Gallon of Gas”: Another yawner and a complete waste of the blues idiom. Hard to empathize with the sentiment here, for it feels like Ray is pandering to the moronic masses who thought that being unable to drive was the end of civilization.
“(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman [Disco Edit]”: The second hot rocker on Low Budget features some intense bass picking from Jim Rodford, more great licks from Dave Davies and the ever-steady drumming of Mick Avory. Ray’s first-verse delivery is suitably defeatist and reflects the wimpy Walter Mitty dreams of the lead character. The theme is the classic Kinks theme of the choice between escaping or withdrawing from our crazy world, and while the narrator claims “I’d really like to change the world/And save it from the mess it’s in,” we know (and he knows) it’s not a serious option. This song brilliantly encapsulates the nature of the paradox that underlies this theme: the world we created is a world we can no longer control. Trying to become Superman is as sensible an idea as any in a world gone mad.
“Sleepwalker”: Oh, Lord, how I detest this song. I find the character irritating and the choppy rhythms even more distracting. The song never really finds a groove. It’s too bad, because I really love Dave Davies’ guitar work here.
“Full Moon”: Detest isn’t a strong enough word for how I feel about this silly characterization. Fortunately the Ray Davies Creepy Period ends here.
“Misfits”: Too slick with little in the way of substance. I’m not sure if Ray is arguing for conformity (“Why don’t you join the crowd and come inside?”), condemning a society that creates misfits, or if he’s expressing doubts about his sellout to Arista. Maybe all three, maybe none. In any case, the repetition of the cliché “every dog has its day” sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it.
“A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy”: Misfits was an excessively overproduced album, and this second drama queen number is way over the top. Like “Stairway to Heaven,” the content simply doesn’t justify the dramatic production designed to communicate that you’re listening to something of major significance. You’re not. The message contradicts itself several times over so you don’t know if Ray is trying to convince the person he’s having a conversation with that he should stick with it or knock off the childish fantasy crap. As readers know, I love ambiguity, but this is just a garbled mess. This should be my least favorite track, but they saved that for later.
“Do It Again”: Is that the chord from the opening of “A Hard Day’s Night?” Pretty close. Dave Davies is fabulous once again (is there a pattern here?), but this song is superficial arena rock that leaves me cold.
“Better Things”: A Hallmark card.
“Lola [Live]”: “Lola” is the classic crowd-pleaser but I’ve never heard a live version that compares with the original, this one included. The only possible reason for including it in a set is to allow fans to go home and tell their friends “And they did ‘Lola!’” Mission accomplished.
“You Really Got Me [Live]”: This one’s much better because of Dave Davies’ too-short opening solo. Are you noticing the pattern here?
“Good Day”: A neurotic Hallmark card.
“Living on a Thin Line”: My favorite song from the Arista period comes not from brother Ray but (I think there’s a pattern here) but from brother Dave. Overall a cleaner, sparser arrangement than the period norm, the clarity helps highlight the way Dave integrates the melodic line and the dominant guitar riff on the chorus—a moment of pure genius. The lyrics (dare I say it?) are the strongest on the entire record. The line “Now I see change/But inside we’re the same as we ever were” is played out every day in those tragic communications that pass for the news. Even better and more disgustingly relevant in our times is the verse that paints us as victimized by weak-minded leaders stuck in historical patterns who are always ready to repress the working folk and call on youth to make another meaningless sacrifice for the permanent war economy.
Now another leader says
Break their hearts and break some heads.
Is there nothing we can say or do?
Blame the future on the past,
Always lost in blood and guts.
And when they’re gone, it’s me and you.
And just like seagulls, those leaders crap on us and move on.
“Destroyer”: By way of contrast, no song on the album demonstrates the decline in Ray Davies’ lyrical ability better than this one. He drags Lola into this pale imitation of “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” for no ostensible reason other than her marketing value. He rips off Mick Jagger’s vocal riff from “Shattered” and throws in the main riff from “All Day and All of the Night” for good measure. Simply embarrassing on every level.
“Don’t Forget to Dance”: At last we arrive at my least favorite track, dominated by an excessively melodramatic vocal and lyrics clearly targeting the middle-aged-divorcee market segment that Rod Stewart exploited to great personal advantage. I’m recommending that the next update to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary include a link to this song in their definition of the word “overproduced.” This is as manufactured and lifeless as a record can get.
“Father Christmas”: I hate ending reviews on a sour note, so I am very happy that “Father Christmas” ends this album, even if it is way out of sequence. This story of a guy who plays Santa Claus only to get mugged by some young thugs is a brilliant piece of music-making. The melody and harmonies make for a pleasant listening experience, and the lyrics are real Ray Davies-quality. At his best, Ray always looked for the underlying cause, so while other fake Santa Clauses might have gone after these punks with an AK-47, this Santa Claus listens and learns:
But give my daddy a job ‘cause he needs one
He’s got lots of mouths to feed
But if you’ve got one, I’ll have a machine gun
So I can scare all the kids down the street
Poverty and unemployment create more than a drop in consumer spending—they undermine the social fabric by creating the anger and powerlessness that leads too many to turn to violence. The “seasonal message” delivered here has a real and personal meaning once you understand the context:
Have yourself a Merry, Merry Christmas
Have yourself a good time
But remember the kids who got nothin’
While you’re drinkin’ down your wine
Save them if only to save yourselves! I read today that back in my homeland the gap between rich and poor has increased to all-time levels. So much for Obama the Socialist! History (a topic about which Americans are completely ignorant) tells us that such disparity eventually leads to the bloodiest revolutions; in a society like America, though, the marketing power of the American dream manages to keep people in their place by encouraging the naïve belief that anyone can make it to the top. The problem is that “The kids who got nothin’” don’t believe in that dream and they’re seriously pissed off about it. As we know that nearly all assassins and mass murderers are social outcasts, a society that ignores those kinds of imbalances will inevitably create more Sandy Hooks, more Columbines, more and more people going postal after they lose their jobs and get sick of living with the shame of unemployment. Americans believe that’s the price of freedom; Ray Davies says here that it’s an unnecessary sacrifice that could be avoided if we accepted the fact that we are all part of the same community and what affects one affects us all.
My apologies for spending so much time on one song, but “Father Christmas” is exactly the kind of song I’ve been missing in my Kink-less period. I wish there had been more of these in the Arista years. I’m delighted that the boys in the band finally earned some decent money during this period, but I regret the loss of poetically economical songs characterized by beauty, substance and unusually perceptive social and human insight.