Ray Davies wrote this when he was 21. His producer apparently said it was the kind of thing a 40-year-old would write.
Personally, I was about one year old when the original came out, at the end of 1965, but when I was discovering the Kinks in the late 1970s, this was on a live album.
It’s a somewhat rocked up, stadium version, it has more bounce than the original recording, but retains the same knowing, warily ironic lyrics. I fell in love with the Kinks around this time, even though they were well past their best. It was difficult to get hold of out-of-print albums in New Zealand then, but I managed, after a few years, to scour enough second-hand bins to put together a collection.
I loved them because they were so damn different to anything else going on – even though you could hear their influence in a lot of the music of the time.
Ray Davies visited Buck House last month and arose Sir Ray.
Davies sang like an old man, well before he was one. The run of recordings from roughly mid-1966 to mid-1969, although spread around several different albums, some nominally formed around “concepts”, plus a splattering of magnificent if often neglected singles, is like a unified body of work.
A body of work completely out of sync with its times: amid the spectacular multicolour of psychedelia and the self-conscious, self-dramatising youth revolution of the late 1960s, Ray Davies penned a series of monochrome songs about the world that was being lost.
“Dead End Street”, a single at the end of 1966, could probably began this body of work, although there were glimpses in some of the tracks on the ‘Face To Face’ album earlier in the year.
“Dead End Street” is more reminiscent of the 1930s than the 1960s: Davies’ vocal begins, pinched and cold, like an unemployed man huddling into a cold army surplus overcoat for warmth.
‘There’s a crack up in the ceiling
And the kitchen sink is leaking …’
The rhythm is a march: there are horns, like a northern brass band, and it calls to mind mental pictures of the Jarrow March of 1936 rather than the psychedelic “happenings” of 1966.
The video is silly, but one thing it has in common with the song is it is in black and white.
Davies’ songs from this era all sounded monochrome: they were like Ealing, or Boulton Brothers, films set to music.
‘Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing into the night?’
Including, of course, the masterpiece: Waterloo Sunset. A big part of the appeal of the song is the loneliness of its narrator (‘every day I look at the world from my window’) and the imagery of the detached, solitary observer viewing the bustling crowd and the dirty old river, rolling, flowing into the night, sticks in the mind.
There’s both a distance and a clarity and a detail in what Davies is singing about – again, the imagery is monochrome, and his brother Dave’s guitar matches the mood perfectly.
And if words, and playing is gritty and monochrome, the ethereal backing vocals float away, above the busy urban scene, like Philip Larkin gazing through his High Windows, nowhere and endless.
This body of work culminated in two albums, ‘The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society’ and ‘Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire’ – the latter from a tv play by Julian Temple which was, in the end, never made.
Davies has since redone it, with a choir – there’s a live version here. It works, pretty much.
Davies said once, somewhere, that Waterloo Sunset is him at his best, and he himself as not as good as Waterloo Sunset. I recently read Johnny Rogan’s recent biography of him, ‘Complicated Life’ and this is certainly a piece of that good old English understatement. While not exactly a hatchet job, Rogan – whose earlier book on the Kinks was subtitled ‘A Mental Institution’ – does not exactly go out of his way to hide his subject’s flaws.
But it’s always the way, isn’t it? Brilliant creativity – and Davies’ influence can be heard on musos as diverse as David Bowie, the Who, the Smiths, Ian Dury, and even our own Split Enz – often goes hand in hand with a certain personal rebarbativeness of character. “A miserable little bleeder” one of his uncles dubbed him when he was a child, and there’s no doubt Davies, from childhood, was suffering from some form of undiagnosed mental illness.
There’s a good recent interview with him in the New Statesman here, where he discusses hipsters and Pete Townshend, amongst other things.
He’s clearly an awkward bugger, somewhat at odds with life. But that kind of goes with the territory, it seems.
Song from the Dark Times.
‘ You come to him like Bill Grundy to Siouxsie Sioux and the Sex Pistols: “Say something outrageous”. Meades does his best, though, alas, what once seemed outrageous now sounds merely presidential.’
Ian Samson, reviewing Jonathan Meades’ latest book in the TLS.
Love the way he jabbed both tangental references in there.
I don’t think I’m the only person who, when this came out, thought they were singing about Janet Frame.
That, though, would have been a bit too direct for Don McGlashan.
Someone once defined the Muttonbirds as being like the a Kiwi version of the Kinks with a touch of Twin Peaks’ undefined menace to them.
That to me is almost right. The band – and Don McGlashan’s other work, with Front Lawn and Blam Blam Blam and elsewhere – certainly get, and convey, New Zealand culture in a way the Kinks, at their peak, were able to do for the English.
But Twin Peaks? Hmm. You can see it a bit in this video clip, I suppose. But really, you don’t need to go offshore to seek influcneces. The band is like a rock muso version of Maurice Gee’s novels, or of some of our infamous ‘Cinema of Unease’.
If peoeple still bothered to market music compilations, someone could do a very good ‘Music of Unease’ of Kiwi Music.
In fact, of course, you could probably make one of your own.
‘Of all the many turning points and crucial stages – from primitive ape-like creature through to the sophisticated and marginally less primitive ape-like creature that you see about you at zoos and football matches – the most curious development of all is that of the human brain.
‘The human brain has got man into a lot more trouble than has previously been supposed and unless we come up with some way of putting the brain out of commission or obviating some of the more ludicrous effects of the brain, then I don’t think life’s going to get any better.’
The late, great John Clarke/Fred Dagg on the meaning of life. An excerpt therefrom.
“Of course, in the 20th century, we have produced a fair array of theories about what life’s actually about and probably the existentialists take the buttered confection for getting closest to thinking they had it all worked out. They used to hang about in the Paris area, which is in what we used to call Gaul, and talk about how terrible life was and how they didn’t know if they’d really get to the weekend. They reckoned life was a pretty dreadful business and was filled with a thing called ennui.
“Now, ennui is a terrible thing, and seems to have roughly the same effect as terminal boredom. Ennui actually is a French word meaning Henry. And the story goes that once you get a touch of the Henry’s, it’s all downhill and the only way to relive the symptoms is to whip down the harbour and pull a wave over your bonce and call it a day.”
The full piece is here.
Rest in Peace. Reports through from Sydney this morning he’s died, aged 68.
Clarke was the closest New Zealand has come to a genuine comic genius. An original, one who, mostly, based his humour on the way New Zealanders talk rather than by just adapting a sketch from Monty Python or Stan Freberg or the Frost Report to local conditions.
He first appeared to a wider audience on Country Calendar in the mid-1970s, just as the country’s economic reliance on pastoral products and the Brits was being pulverised.
He was a breath of fresh air, in so many ways: mostly because of how he talked.
It was very buttoned down Kiwi, but with an ornate side to it: “It’s a wee bit horrendous, this towngoing,” a diffident Dagg mutters in a voice over as he is seen parking his Landrover in Wellington’s Harris Street.
He laughed at the way we talked, but it was a laughter without jeers.
Clarke had the true comic’s gift of being able to show what was funny about New Zealanders but in a way which, somehow, celebrated rather than sneered at it.
There was always a sense of heart, a generosity of spirit, as he laughed – or rather, as he showed us what was funny.
That old saying “write drunk, edit sober” is all wrong.
It should be: write listening to Mozart, edit listening to Miles Davis.
And do the accounts listening to the Smiths.