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.
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.
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.
The Housemartins. At their geeky, catchy best.
Pogues, for St Patrick’s Day. As I may have written in the past, I don’t have a drop of Irish ancestry, but there’s sometthing which stirs the blood in this tune.
It’s a song shot through with emotion about the Irish diaspora, fleeing both poverty and a theocratic culture.
The mix of grief and rage is something the Irish do well, for good as well as bad reasons.
This is a live version – a bit rough (c’mon, its the Pogues), with Joe Strummer and Kirstie McColl.
…or rather, ‘Sweet Jane’.
Many, many bands have covered this song. it’s a great warm-up number and I have vague memories of seeing Hello Sailor use it as a set opener back sometimes during one of their mid-80s incarnations.
It’s got a chugging basicness, a riff which kind of pulls you in.
I’ve always loved the Mott the Hoople version. I think it’s my favourite one, although the Cowboy Junkies and Lone Justice run it close.
Not to mention, of course, the original, on Lou Reed’s final album with the Velvet Underground.
Mott the Hoople’s big hit, All the Young Dudes, was written by David Bowie, and he produced them in 1972.
This demo track seems to have been a warmup number in the studio, that year, and they are backing the man who actually wrote Sweet Jane, Lou Reed.
The recording quality is a bit fuzzy but you can hear the zest and verve in the playing.
An all time fave song. Love its daffy good-naturedness.
Good song for the summer break.
John Hiatt. One of his greatest. A mix of Christian and pagan imagery, and at its core a simple, unspectacular faith in redemption.
‘It’s a new place, but you’ve always been here- you’re just listening to old voices with a new ear’
Listening To Old Voices
They have come to haunt the children
They have come to walk the wind
I can hear them as they rustle through the trees
Looking for the love that killed them
So that they might live again
It’s a simple prayer that brings me to my knees
With drums and bells and rattles
They have caught us in our time
To watch the eagle rise up from the fire
Now is it true we are possessed
By all the ones we leave behind
Or is it by their lives we are inspired?
It’s a new light, new day
Listening for new meaning, learning how to say
It’s a new place, but you’ve always been here
You’re just listening to old voices with a new ear
It’s the livin’ and the dyin’
Well it scares the young ones so
They can hardly catch their breath before too long
They see the tears we’re crying
And they watch the river flow
And they follow on the banks until it’s gone
I surrender to the mountains
I surrender to the sea
I surrender to the one who calls my name
I surrender to my lover and to my enemy
I surrender to the face that holds no shame
There’s a spider at my window
And she spins a web of truth
More beautiful than all those memories
And she surely is God’s artist
As she’s caught the morning dew
It’s a simple prayer that brings me to my knees