Next week, Ray Davies of the Kinks, possibly the finest singer-songwriter Britain has ever produced (and that’s a fairly hotly contested field), is honoured at the Nordoff-Robbins Silver Clef music awards. He’s being given the Music Ambassador prize, which just means they know how astonishingly good he is, and how great his band were.
We don’t really need a lot of encouragement to salute the luminescence of the Kinks’ musical achievements, whether in the field of pallid, Anglocentric whimsy – is there a whiter, more British blues than “Sunny Afternoon”? – or proto-hard rock – “You Really Got Me” being the metal equivalent of the Big Bang.
So, let’s be ambassadors ourselves for the band’s slightly less well-trumpeted songs. Not the rarities, nor the commonly-accepted classics like “Waterloo Sunset” or “Days,” the songs that fill in the gaps, that act as the glue holding the Ray Davies / Dave Davies / Kinks songbook together.
After all, what use are the peaks without some foothills to take us there?
A tiny rock opera, made up of little bits of songs, all stitched together into a hugely cohesive and damning whole. More cohesive, in fact, than the Who’s bratty “A Quick One While He’s Away,” which came out the year before. Ray’s well-established mistrust of suburbia is given an operatic new lease of life, from the early, light sarcasm of the verses to the skittish doom-mongering of the descending bridge – “too scared to think about how insecure you are” – to the great big finish. And with one last wag of the finger, the Davies boy slopes off round the corner for a crafty fag.
Speaking of which…
It was quite the vogue in the ’60s to write jaunty music hall songs, of the sort that had been popular before the war – “When I’m 64″ being the most well-known example. This was partly as a knowing send-up of the pre-rock era, which seemed ancient and fusty at the time, but also because these were the musical forms that generation had grown up with, the bawdy pop music of their parents’ day. Some did this sort of thing better than others, but no one was quite as good at constructing grimy drama out of a medium designed for saucy fripperies as Ray. This is a song about wanting a cigarette. Harry rag is rhyming slang for fag, and fag, as well all know, is slang for a bifter. Bifter is slang for coffin nail. Coffin nail is slang for salmon, which is a shortened form of Salmon and trout. Salmon and trout is slang for snout. OK?
“Susannah’s Still Alive”
And it wasn’t just Ray that wrote withering social critiques about people further up the stepladder of social respect. Brother Dave had this stirring single, the follow-up to his wheezy knees-up “Death of a Clown.” It’s the tale of a lone spinster, drinking her loneliness away and pining for the old days. It manages to be both yearning and tender, and cold-eyed and brutal at the same time. And all wrapped up in that wondrously snaky riff.
Julien Temple’s adaptation of the Colin MacInnes novel Absolute Beginners was, it’s fair to say, less than critically adored. It seemed to use a shallow ’80s lens on a contentious ’50s subject matter – the emergence of youth culture and the effects of immigration in a post-war London – and make everything into a bit of a song and dance. Two things from that film stand immune from the carping. David Bowie’s stately title song, and this, one of Ray’s finest character studies, of a man who, when faced with a diem, refuses to carpe.
“The Video Shop”
“Come Dancing” was the peak of the Kinks’ early ’80s revival as a commercial concern, and rightly so: tender, romantic and nostalgic, and, as always, horrified at the vulgarities of the modern world. “The Video Shop” shares many of the same characteristics, being a grumpy man’s note of protest against the slow transformation of the workforce from manufacturers to grocers of entertainment. Of course, the nostalgia aspect is even more pronounced now, given that the video shops are nearly all gone too. What will become of us all?
“What? No ‘Autumn Alamanac’? Are you MAD?” Shout at us here: