Once upon a time there was a naughty little schoolboy. He and his gang were always playing tricks on the teachers and bullying other children in the school. One day he got himself into very serious trouble with a naughty schoolgirl and he was sent to the Headmaster who decided to disgrace the naughty boy and his gang in front of the whole school.
After this punishment the boy turned into a hard and bitter character. Perhaps it was not the punishment that changed him but the fact that he realised people in authority would always be there to kick him down and the Establishment would always put him in his place. He knew that he could not change the past but he vowed that in the future he would always get what he wanted. The naughty little boy grew up . . . into Mr Flash.
The liner notes quoted above set the stage for Schoolboys in Disgrace, the final chapter in The Kinks’ theatrical period. Pretty much devoid of the musical theatre flourishes that marked Soap Opera, it is probably the most accessible of the three theatrical works—a feature born of compromise. Ray Davies had given into bandmate demands for something closer to a real Kinks album while still holding on to his desire to produce one more themed extravaganza. Stephen Erlewine criticized his approach in his review on AllMusic.com, describing it as “pulling in two separate ways.” I can understand his point of view, for there are moments when Ray steps out of character and we’re not sure if we’re hearing Flash or Ray Davies, but Schoolboys in Disgrace does tell a coherent and linear story. While the liner notes would have you believe that humiliation by The Establishment is what turned Flash into a greed-driven, me-first leader, that aspect of the story is more surface than substance. What really gives birth to Flash and millions like him is a rotten educational system that teaches blind obedience instead of personal responsibility and ignores the real needs of the population it is supposed to be serving.
In Ringing True, that marvelous book by Robert Morrow, the philosophy at the core of the story tells us that we all have three basic responsibilities in life: responsibility to self, responsibility to others and a responsibility to the community. That model provides us with a powerful lens through which we can consider Flash. Any sense of responsibility in Flash’s soul was devoted to the preservation of self. He couldn’t have cared less about other people and had no sense of community whatsoever. This is the tragic flaw that leads to his downfall in Preservation: his complete inability to accept responsibility for the effects his actions have on other people and on the society at large. This is the real story of Schoolboys in Disgrace.
The play opens with Flash singing “Schooldays,” where the arpeggiated chords and harmonies harken back to the 1950’s, when Flash was entering puberty. The song is strongly nostalgic, despite the fact that most of his memories are decidedly unpleasant:
Schooldays were the happiest days
Though at the time they filled me with dismay
We only remember what we choose to remember
When I was a schoolboy I loathed regulations and rules
I hated my textbooks and my school uniform
‘Cos it made me conform
And teachers were always disobeyed
But I’d go back if I could only find a way.
Well, sure he’d go back—he’s probably writing this from a cell where he’s guarded by Mr. Black’s Shepherds of the Nation! The bizarre nostalgia he experiences feels even more bizarre when the first memory he recounts is the delightful experience of being cruel to a thick classmate, as described in “Jack the Idiot Dunce.” In two songs, Ray Davies has captured one key aspect of Flash’s personality: this is a man with no capacity for self-awareness.
Flash now begins to reflect on what he sees as one of the causes of his ruin: the British educational system. This is where the “pulling in two separate ways” is most obvious. The first half of the song doesn’t sound like Flash; it sounds like Ray Davies, social critic. Flash re-inhabits Ray’s body with the sneering lines that begin with “Thanks to all the mathematicians and the inventors with their high IQ’s.” Despite the confusion of character, the indictment of an educational system that relies a learning theory based on compliance and rote method seems to identify one of the contributing factors that spawned a defiant, self-absorbed character like Flash. I say “seems” because it’s only half the story. The other pattern that becomes clear here is that Flash will blame anyone but himself for what happened to him: “the system made me do it.” Ray Davies holds that both things are true: the educational system is corrupt and corrupting, but we all have a choice about how we deal with it.
The first three songs establish a pattern of denial that serves as Flash’s primary character trait. The next song introduces us to the subplot that describes how that trait will play out when faced with life’s painful choices. “The First Time We Fall in Love” opens with over-the-top doo-wop with an Elvis-imitator vocal in verse one and a classic falsetto in verse two. The opening nostalgia is total bullshit; it’s Flash again trying to repaint the picture of the past into something prettier than it really was. The more honest feelings arrive with a bitter explosion halfway through the song:
The first time I fell out of love, it knocked me through the floor.
My world came crashing down, it shook me to the core.
I was unprepared ‘cos I was only a kid
And I was much too young and I wasn’t equipped
For the emotional pressures and stresses of it.
Notice that he’s talking about falling out of love, because (as we will soon learn) his feelings of love were tragically ephemeral.
“The First Time We Fall in Love” is a set-up for a three-song suite that comprises one of the most powerful sequences on any Kinks album: “I’m in Disgrace,” “Headmaster” and “The Hard Way.” The music and arrangements on all three songs are exceptionally strong and clear, and emphatically demonstrate that The Kinks still knew where the power switch is located—in Dave Davies’ amazing fingers. Dave had been generally relegated to the background in Preservation and Soap Opera (though his solos on that album are first-rate), but here his unique and underrated guitar attack is on center stage. On “I’m in Disgrace,” his counterpoint and brief solo are remarkable, but his rhythmic touches are brilliant; somehow he manages to become the rhythmic focus and creates a situation where the notes he doesn’t play provide the most powerful moments, as if we’ve developed an addiction to his guitar. On “Headmaster” he takes over mid-stream with a complex solo that I’d love to see charted; the way he unexpectedly cuts and stretches the length of the notes in the most unexpected ways is mesmerizing. And on “Hard Way,” he just kicks fucking ass with his attack and fills.
But our focus here is Flash, and this is a boy in serious trouble. The opening piano runs of “I’m in Disgrace” provide a reflective backdrop that take us through Flash’s logic in building an answer to the question, “How could this happen to me?” “This” is getting a girl pregnant, and the most important word in the question I just posed is “me.” Flash’s version that he was another man in a long line of men who have fallen prey to those evil, seductive temptresses. Men have blamed the broad for everything since Adam and Eve, and Flash is not the kind of guy to turn down a gimme when it provides him with some cover. “You captured me in your embrace!” he cries, and we can imagine the snakelike arms of the whore slowly winding around his unsoiled body as she forces him to give her the only thing we whores really want.
“Headmaster” opens with a longer piano (in the meaning of “soft”) passage as Flash tries to convince the headmaster of what he’s already convinced himself:
I’ve been with those naughty little girls again,
Now those naughty little girls are going to put me to shame.
I wish that I’d been born with a little more sense,
This time it’s a serious offense.
The music builds beautifully into a forte (loud) explosion of pathetic frustration:
I feel like an innocent victim,
I feel that I just can’t win.
The rest of the confession is a lame attempt to avoid a caning. The girl raped him! Of course! He didn’t know what he was doing! He’s young! He’s innocent! Can’t ya cut a guy a break?
Flash will get what he allegedly deserves, but first the headmaster has some sadistic venom to spew in “The Hard Way.” The verbal abuse and debasement is just as sadistic and psychologically damaging as the expected caning. After listening to this rant, you have to wonder, “What on earth does this have to do with education?” I’m sure that’s exactly the question Ray Davies hoped we would ask:
I’m wastin’ my vocation teachin’ you to write neat
When you’re only fit to sweep the streets!
Your intellect is such that it requires a killer’s touch:
So I’m gonna play it your way:
You can take the hard way.
Ray’s leap into soprano on the word “killer” is a truly chilling moment and reveals all we need to know: the headmaster takes great delight in caning and in the senseless use of power; the soprano leap sounds like he’s had a sudden orgasm. British school officials had abused children long before Dickens’ Wackford Squeers entered into public consciousness; the practice did not disappear until it was banned in private schools in England and Wales in 1999. Corporal punishment in this context is a means of satisfying the sadistic urges of the headmaster; the punishment Flash receives bears no relation to the crime and makes no rational sense. If boys like Flash are “born to waste” and “much too dumb to educate,” why bother with the cane? What is he going to learn from that? Will that teach him to take personal responsibility for what he did? All of these questions would have fallen on deaf ears, for tradition trumps common sense and the passion for order trumps learning. The punishment is rendered even more ironic because the sadism expressed by the headmaster is no different from the sadism Flash reveals in his own character when he and his mates abuse The Idiot Dunce. The culture revels in the cruel aspects of sadism.
While the first two songs of the suite begin quietly, there’s no messing around in “The Hard Way.” It’s a kick-ass rock song from the get-go, proving that The Kinks were still a great rock ‘n’ roll band and that Ray Davies had fabulous command of the microphone:
The story stops briefly at “The Last Assembly,” where Flash fights back “tears in the back of my eyes” that are a combination of sadness to be leaving his mates and unspeakable resentment towards the educational system. The musical might have ended at that juncture, but Ray Davies has one more point to make, and he makes it brilliantly in “No More Looking Back,” which takes place some years after graduation while Flash is trying to make his way in the world. While walking along a crowded street, he sees her: his first love, the girl he impregnated. The effect on Flash is powerful and troubling:
But lately, I’ve been going to
All the places that we once knew
And just when I think that I am free of you
I keep seeing the things that remind me of you
And just when I think you’re out of my head
I hear a song that you sang or see a book that you read
Then you’re in every bar, you’re in every café
You’re driving every car, I see you everyday
But you’re not really there because you belong to yesterday.
The question the listener must consider is, “Why her?” If the real punch line to the story is Flash vs. The Establishment (as implied by the liner notes), why does his memory drift back to the woman he blamed for his early downfall? Go back to “The First Time We Fall in Love” and you’ll find the answer. Flash described the experience as one that “shook me to the core” and admits he was not prepared for the “emotional pressures and the stresses of it.” Why was that? Because the adults in his life wouldn’t help him deal with it. While there’s no reference to his parents in the story, we can assume that the overwhelming emotions attached to the discovery of sexual desire were not a topic for discussion at the dinner table. The response of the educational system to this natural stage in human development was to beat the hell out of him. The point Ray Davies makes with this trip down memory lane is that repression distorts the personality. It creates an unbearable tension that must be resolved, and if we fail to teach our children to accept sexual desire as part of what it is to be human, that tension will distort the desire into a very ugly thing. Flash has neither the capacity nor the self-awareness to try to deal with these feelings openly and honestly, so it’s “no more looking back” for him. Just as George Victor’s psychological analysis of Hitler revealed repressed sexuality as one of the causes for his distorted personality, Ray Davies is pointing to both sexual repression and the strange denial of nascent feelings of love as a cause for Flash’s descent into arrogance and destructive greed. “Got to be hard,” he reminds himself, echoing Hitler’s obsession with the necessity to “steel” the German spirit.
“No More Looking Back” is also one hell of a song from a musical perspective. Dave Davies’ complex counterpoint guitar and fills are again superb, and both the chord structure and melody are surprisingly rich. The groove of the song lies somewhere between soul, pop and light jazz, giving the song a sophisticated, urban feel. Ray’s vocal covers an impressive vertical range and his tone ranges from resignation to deeply held emotion. It’s a remarkable creation that grows on you the more you listen to it:
Our story ends with “Finale,” a reprise of the chorus in “Education.” Of course it does. We have learned in Schoolboys in Disgrace that education has become a system that is insensitive to the needs of the children it is supposed to serve. Parents have delegated the function of education to the state, which is ill-equipped to help adolescents deal with the process of becoming an adult. Sir Ken Robinson spoke eloquently and perceptively on this subject in a TED talk:
In the end, Flash is the victim he imagined himself to be, and the question Ray Davies leaves us with in Schoolboys in Disgrace is “Do we really want to live with a system that is designed to create victims with no capacity to accept personal responsibility for their lives?” If you look at the havoc that system has wrought, you have to answer that question emphatically in the negative.
Soap Opera is the most cohesive and unified of the three works from The Kinks’ theatrical period. While the day-in-the-life structure certainly helped Ray Davies avoid wandering off-topic, the strength of Soap Opera owes more to the depth of Ray Davies’ compassion for those condemned to lead lives of quiet desperation in the modern workplace and his acute perception of the effect of organizational life on the human soul. Soap Opera explores the meaning of identity in an increasingly anonymous world where only the few people we call stars seem to “be somebody,” while the un-rich and un-famous stuck in meaningless jobs are considered nobodies sentenced to a life of insecurity spiced with constant and largely frustrating attempts to justify their meaning in the world.
Critics have been fairly consistent in attacking Soap Opera for its “ludicrous production” and “hackneyed” lyrics. John Mendelsohn, the critic who hated those lyrics, called it “a lame and tepid rehash” of Arthur. It’s pretty obvious he hardly listened to the album, as he completely misrepresents the plot in his perfunctory review. Then again, what do you expect from Rolling Stone? As I stated in my review of Preservation, these criticisms are silly. Soap Opera is an operetta, which means it’s supposed to be theatrical, you meathead! People may legitimately prefer Ray Davies, songwriter extraordinaire, to Ray Davies, descendant of Gilbert and Sullivan, but that’s another debate entirely. The comparison to Arthur is also invalid, for while Arthur may have been a “plain simple man in a plain simple working class position,” Arthur is concerned with the common man’s place in the larger social structure, while Soap Opera specifically deals with the existential reality of daily working life and its deleterious effects on the human spirit. They share a common concern for the Everyman, but that is a theme you could apply to nearly all of Ray Davies’ work.
A more accurate criticism is that Soap Opera is really The Ray Davies Show and not a Kinks album. Okay, so we’ll ding Ray a few points for false advertising. Sometimes an artist is consumed with a vision, and realizing that vision may mean he or she has to break a few rules and offend a few colleagues in the process. Get over it! If you want, let’s just call it a Ray Davies album and move on! Sheesh!
The play opens with “Everybody’s a Star,” a musical monologue from a rock icon who calls himself The Starmaker, who is searching for “the most mundane little man” to turn him into a star. Depending on your interpretation, The Starmaker is either going to turn a chap named Norman into a star or actually become Norman (“He’s changing places with Norman/To get background for his songs.”) It really doesn’t matter: what matters is (as the liner notes on the vinyl album make abundantly clear) that Norman is in the habit of trying to compensate for what he perceives to be a meaningless life by fantasizing he is someone else. Whether The Starmaker makes that happen or Norman himself invents a new identity is irrelevant. As shown in the song, “Ordinary People,” Norman’s tendency towards fictionalization helps to temporarily raise his status as well as his testosterone level, because in his new identity he can indulge in naughty fantasy (“I’m immortalizing his life/And I’ll even sleep with his wife!”). That loving and incredibly patient wife plays along with his fantasies in part because she’s trying to make things work and in part because the “New Norman” is a sexual tiger (as the “You’ll never get up in the morning” interchange demonstrates.) Although the music for both songs is upbeat and playful, it is painfully obvious that the lives of these ordinary people feel so empty that they have to resort to illusion to keep their fragile psyches alive and their sex lives going. This is great satire: you can’t help but laugh at the story, but you feel the pain of the underlying message.
The identity switch is also very clever device for Ray Davies to explore the daily grind from the perspective of uninterested observer. He begins exploring that reality as the alarm clock awakens him to the song, “Rush Hour Blues.” A fun, rocking number with perfectly executed dialogue between temporary rock star Norman and his nagging wife, the lyrics eventually confront us with the dehumanization that many of us face every day as we join the crowds and head out for another draining day at the office:
In the rush hour queues no one gives a damn
No one knows where I’m going to, no one knows who I am
I’m sitting in my office, in the metropolis,
I’m just part of the scenery, I’m just part of the machinery
Chained to my desk on the 22nd floor,
I can’t break out through the automatic door,
I’d jump out the window but I can’t face the drop,
I’m sitting in a cage with an eye on the clock.
The dehumanization is reinforced by the repetition of “no one” and the caged animal imagery. Hackneyed lyrics, my ass! This is what work feels like to us plain folk, dude!
The dreary and absurd reality of the workplace is poignantly reproduced for us in “Nine to Five,” a far more effective exposé of the existential reality of the workplace than the silly Dolly Parton number of the same title. The angst one feels when “making decisions that affect no one” and “checking a list that’s been checked out before” is suppressed in a melody brilliantly designed to capture the ho-hum feel of the environment. When the alleged rock star states with faux objectivity, “He’s starting to lose his mind,” we feel a bit of Norman peeping through the façade as he faces the thing he is most terrified of admitting to himself . . . that his life and his work have no meaning.
And how does the average person cope with the existential wall? Booze! Lots of it! That’s why there are two numbers that deal with getting loaded: “When Work is Over” and “Have Another Drink.” While this may seem “obvious” to unperceptive critics, what Ray Davies is doing is holding up a mirror to us and asking us to think about the cause of our almost Pavlovian reaction to work: have another drink! He’s entirely empathetic with the ritual of dulling the pain of another dull day with a few glasses of scotch, but he is asking us to question the cause that makes us reach for that bottle. He wants us to stop and think, “Is this reality really worth it? Is a life that requires us to forget who we are the kind of life we want?”
When work is over he likes to hit the bars,
Go down the boozer and have another jar,
Because drinking can help ease the strain
Of his boring occupation, dull conversation
Living by the book and the rules and regulations.
Drinking helps us to forget what we are,
We leave the office and walk straight to the bar,
Don’t stop to think, have another drink!
That’s not being obvious: that’s accurately describing the painful truth that we often live lives that require us to cope instead of lives that are actually enriching and worthwhile.
Once he’s had his anesthetic, tipsy Norman stumbles out of the bar to make his way home through the concrete jungle in “Underneath the Neon Sign.” The purpose of the song is to demonstrate that the dehumanization in the workplace is only part of the larger movement towards dehumanization in all aspects of society, particularly the environments we create for ourselves. As is usually the case when Norman confronts reality, he cooks up another fantasy, in this case a secret romance! “Holiday Romance” is a musical hoot, with its classic 1930’s movie music and story that would have easily made it past the censors of that time. As is usual in Norman’s life, nothing really happens on his fantasy holiday, and he now finds himself facing the front door of his “suitably uninteresting house.”
His loving wife is waiting for him, with dialogue supported by lullaby-like, soap-operatic background music, ready to make him a nice cuppa tea to help him forget about his hard day. Making what she thinks is small talk, she asks Norman the one question he doesn’t want to face: “How’d you get on at the office?” The music abruptly shifts to two pounding intro chords that lead to a minor key segment with punctuated strings that mirror Norman’s deep, underlying fear of vanishing into nothingness . . . but also the dim realization that his wife is there for him (or that he feels obliged to make her feel appreciated; the ambiguity is deliberate):
I mustn’t stay in this job too long
I gotta get out before the hold is too strong
I gotta get out before my ambition is gone
Cause it’s breaking me up and bringing me down.
But when I get home you make it all worthwhile,
You make me laugh and you make me smile,
And after a hard day of sorting out the files,
You make it all worthwhile.
The soap operatic aspect of the story is strongest in this piece, with the perfect introduction of melodramatic organ as the two have a tiff over shepherd’s pie. While some may think the soap opera aspects of the work trivialize the issues, I think it enhances the theme. We believe our problems are trivial because we believe ourselves to be insignificant, even when “a boring occupation” is so toxic that “it can kill your spirit and destroy your mind.”
Tension must resolve itself, so here comes the inevitable explosion. I’ve met quite a few people who are completely turned off by the song “Ducks on the Wall,” but I would argue that taken in its proper context, it’s an incredibly perceptive piece and demonstrates Ray Davies’ intuitive understanding of human psychology. Sometimes the inner tension within us causes us to explode, and rather than confront our feelings honestly and directly, we find an object on which we can focus our self-hatred. The objects that best symbolize and serve as a constant reminder of Norman’s pathetic existence are those fucking ducks on the wall, a cheap compensatory substitute for decoration favored by those who can’t afford to hang a Matisse in the parlor. Either lacking the courage or still possessing some respect for her feelings, Norman attacks her in the third person in what appears to be an inner dialogue (“My lady’s got a sort of strange fascination/An obsessive fixation for cheap decorations”). Only later does he attack her directly, blaming her (and the ducks) for the impotence that he likely experiences when he’s not pretending to be someone else (“I love you baby, but I can’t ball/When I see those ducks on the wall”).
At this point, the wife has fucking had it with Norman and his fantasies. You can be whoever you want to be, but don’t you dare attack my ducks! This is where the dialogue (sadly only in the liner notes, not on the record) reveals that Norman has a habit of turning himself into other people to cope with his inability to see his life as meaningful and important. His wife has given him unconditional support up to now, but here she finally tells him that enough is enough.
This leads to a tragic hymn of modern humanity, “(A) Face in the Crowd.” Norman claims to agree with his wife (“I’ve gotta stop faking it, I’ve gotta start facing it”) but like the alcoholic not quite ready to follow the path of recovery, he has a hard time letting go of the desire to matter, to be someone, to count for something:
Am I just a face in the crowd?
Is that all I’ll ever be?
I don’t want to be anything that isn’t really me
Mister, can you tell me who I am?
Do you think I stand out?
Or am I just a face in the crowd?
The struggle for self will continue for Norman, as it will for all who believe that unless they can somehow prove their worth through celebrity, money or notoriety, their lives will never amount to a hill of beans. That is the tragic and powerful message of Soap Opera: modern man has created a reality that serves to reinforce individual insignificance.
“(A) Face in the Crowd” is the proper ending of the play, but Ray Davies can’t resist appending an epilogue. If people thought Ray was spewing his venom about the music industry on Lola vs. The Powerman and the Money-go-round (an interpretation with which I violently disagree), he really lets it rip in “You Can’t Stop the Music.”
I’ve been half a million places
I’ve seen half a million people who stare
I’ve been a star and down and out
I’ve been put on, sat on, punched and spat on
They’ve called me a faggot, a spiv and a fake
They can knock me down and tread on my face
But they can’t stop the music playing on.
When compared to Ian Anderson’s rather snarky attacks on the critics, Ray’s rant at least has the quality of emotional honesty. I think I’ll give him a pass on this one.
I know I’ve driven some fans batty with my deviations from the prevailing opinions about the quality of some of The Kinks’ albums, but I guess I’ll never learn. To me, Soap Opera is a masterpiece of modern musical theatre, a powerful and enduring message about the meaning of the life of the individual in modern society. It is an unforgiving attack on an economic system that creates a psychologically poisonous trap for millions of people by giving them endless piles of meaningless work from which they gamely try to cobble some feelings of self-worth. It makes me laugh, it makes me smile, it makes me cry. Ray Davies’ on-album performance is superb, and despite the squawking of some of the band members, the music is well-arranged and performed with gusto.
Soap Opera is one of my favorite Kinks albums, the critics be damned.
- Classic Music Review: Muswell Hillbillies by The Kinks (altrockchick.com)
- Classic Music Review: Preservation by The Kinks (Acts 1 and 2) (altrockchick.com)
- Classic Music Review: Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by The Kinks (altrockchick.com)
- Classic Music Review: Face to Face by The Kinks (altrockchick.com)
- Classic Music Review: Something Else by The Kinks (altrockchick.com)