Where Have All the Good times Gone?

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.

 

Good old fashioned steam powered trains

Happened to come across this item about a place close to the origins.

The railway station featured, the main one for the Glenbrook Vintage Railway, is about 10kms from where I grew up. It’s just down the hill from my grandfather’s farm, and across the road from another relative’s farm.

The branch line closed in the mid-1960s: I have a very vague memory of watching a small engine, without any train, chugging under the bridge by the old electricity board building on Waiuku’s Kitchener Road, probably around the time the line shut. I would have been, though, only about three or so.

Bit of a story with how the railway line came to be built in the first place: in the late 19th century, the locals agitated for a branch line to be put in.

Such decisions were made by cabinet ministers in those days, and the Prime Minister, Richard Seddon, tended to award such infrastructure projects to electorates which had been farsighted enough to elect an MP which supported his government.

As the area was, at the time, part of the electorate held by the then leader of the opposition, William Massey, the locals were told to go whistle.

The government changed in 1912, Massey was PM, and he got them their railway, though not right away – World War One intervened.

I gather it never made a profit and had to be constantly subsidised by the government. According to that story linked to above, the line now manages without any such government support.

When I was a kid, after the line closed, the station premises were used by Karaka Bulk Spreaders as a fertiliser depot.

The vintage railway went in, gradually, from the early 1980s. The bit that extends into my home town, Waiuku, runs through another relative’s farm, where we used to do hay every year.

It was kind of neat – we’d be part of the show, it seemed, as the train came through.

The vintage railway is recommended, for any of you Aucklanders – or anyone in holidaying in Auckland and wanting a day trip out to the country .

I’m biased, of course, but its a great place to visit.

There was even a song about it, albeit written and recorded, oddly in 1977 – during the period between the railway being closed circa 1968; and the vintage railway opening sometime in the mid-1980s.

Warning: contains yodeling. Catchy, though.

As a bonus, here’s the Kinks, singing about trains. It’s off their masterpiece, the low-key, out-of-its-own-time, Village Green Preservation Society album, which, by a coincidence, was being recorded around the time the Waiuku branch line closed.

 

So gloriously different: Do Not Adjust Your Set

Scene: A field. An unmistakable historic figure from 200 years ago stands, alone and glowering, in his French uniform, his arm tucked in characteristic pose. 

A stentorian voiceover demands, rhetorically: ‘Why did Napoleon keep his hand inside his waistcoat?’

Napoleon pulls his hand out. His trousers fall down. 

This was one of the earliest things I can remember laughing like a drain at for several hours afterwards.  It is stuck in my mind for that reason and also because it was the first time I realised how you pronounced ‘Napoleon’. 

 I had read the word – probably in Look and Learn magazines –  but had no idea how to pronounce it.

Napoleon was, I think, played by either David Jason or Terry Jones.  The sketch  was from  Do Not Adjust Your Set, a tv series made in Britain in the late 1960s by several people who went on to form of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

It is best described as a kind of children’s version of Monty Python, although it pre-dates that series.

It was shown in New Zealand in the early 1970s –  I think 1972.

And I loved it.  The combination of eccentricity,  humour,  and historical references like the one above was just magical.

It was just so gloriously different. 

It’s been on my mind at the moment because I threw together an iTunes music playlist for a road trip last month labelled “Brits” which included the obvious ones such as the Kinks and Madness and Ian Dury and the Jam and the Smiths…and then, for light relief, the Bonzos.

Vivian Stanshall was…well, an alcoholic nutter, and probably rather awkward to be around. A brilliant eccentric, though.

The Bonzos only had one hit – I’m the Urban Spaceman – and the B side was this lovely piece.

I first heard this on a jukebox in an Auckland cafe, sometime in the mid-eighties, and lay on the floor under the table laughing uncontrollably.

 

 

‘Pay no attention if I crawl across the room/It’s just another full moon…’

The full moon’s still up there,
Like a great white balloon.
The owls are a-callin’,
And they’re singin’ my tune..

 

Ray Davies wrote a lot of songs either about, or referring to, Insomnia (and yes, I capitalize the word).

There is a reference to it in the Kinks’  first  big hit,  the famous You Really Got Me  (“you got me so I can’t sleep at night…”).

That song came out about  the time I was keeping my own parents awake by screaming a lot in the cot  (it was a hit about a month after I was born – yes kids, it was that long ago).

Over the Kinks career  there were plenty of other songs referring to sleep and sleeplessness ( even a demo,  I Go to Sleep,  resurfaced years later when Davies’ then-partner, Chrissie Hynde, recorded with her band The Pretenders).

Anyway at one point the Kinks did an entire album on the theme, Sleepwalker . It’s not one of their better known ones, and certainly a long way from their best, but it has some good numbers and this is one of ’em. 

 

 

 

For the English Rugby Team…. #RWC2015

 

I think there’s only one appropriate song for the English Rugby team after the 33-13 loss to the Aussies and its this.

So far as I know its the only rock song to mention rugby** specifically, and the lines

 Back in the scrum

On a wet afternoon

Down in the mud

Dreaming of flowers in June…

…seem very right for today.

From the Kinks, mid-1960s. A fairly obscure, if rather lovely, album track. Apparently Ray Davies wrote this the same time he wrote the hit ‘Sunny Afternoon’ – after a complete mental crack up when he’d shoved his money in his sock, run down Denmark Street in London  and tried to assault his manager, which strikes me as a marvellously Goon-ish way to behave.

 

**UPDATE: Keir Leslie has pointed out to me, on Twitter, there’s also the Jam’s ‘Eton Rifles’. Can’t believe I’d forgotten that one – much more my era than this one, and besides, I’ve only recently bought the remastered ‘Setting Sons’.

‘Breeze blows leaves of a musty coloured yellow….’

OK, this is a *real* autumn song. Yes, its very English, and not very Kiwi at all. But Ray Davies has a great way with a tune and with the language, and parts of this song verge on the poetic.

The song itself also deftly shifts in mood: it starts elegaic, becomes self-consiously homely, and then ends in a joyous, stomping singalong.