Let’s finish this deep dive on the Ray Davies catalog by giving the man some credit where credit is due, specifically in the arena of pop music known as Twee.
In short, Davies does not get enough credit (or blame) for perfecting this particular strain of pop.
These days most pop listeners consider Scotland’s Belle & Sebastian and their mix of reverby guitars, contemplative melodies, and symphonic washes as the high water mark of this gentle brand.
The parochial subject matter and jangly sound of Belle & Sebastian’s early catalog almost immediately linked the band with The Smiths and other indie acts of the C-86 movement. Their orchestral dabblings and child-like vocal delivery can be traced back to The Beach Boys or even the Mo Tucker led tracks of the Velvets, but it is almost criminal not to acknowledge Ray Davies’ influence on Belle & Sebastian’s particular phrasing, and not simply because he had a hit single called “Dandy.”
Davies’ brand of Twee eschewed the jangly guitars and common adolescent yearning in favor of chamber-pop sophistication and articulate introspection with a proper English patois.
“Be Rational” is an unreleased demo from a short lived musical called 80 Days that Davies composed based on Jules Verne’s Around The World in 80 Days. This song is straight My Fair Lady territory. The high society woes of a debonair Hot Air Balloonist, who’s balloon and heart are both off course. The unabashed white collared nature of this song is definitely part of the Twee fabric.
“Sitting In My Hotel” from 1972’s Everybody’s In Show-biz is a unique and gorgeous take on celebrity. While most bands of the time would be singing about the hardship of the road, or the bottle, here we find Davies lamenting about what his working class mates would think about the posh rock n’ roll lifestyle he is embodying.
“If my friends could see me now, driving round just like a film star, in a chauffeur driven jam jar they would laugh.”
The self-deprecating and insecurity riddled lyrics, the slightly effeminate vocal delivery with piano accompaniment. Davies has Stuart Murdoch beat by decades.
One of my favorite Saturday Night Live sketches is called The Gross Out Family. In it, Tom Hanks sits down to a family dinner and discovers that the milk has gone bad. Rather than just take his word for it, the rest of the family are compelled to taste the rancid milk to confirm just how awful it is. The sketch builds upon that premise, and we see Hanks and family (Jan Hooks, Mike Myers, Julia Sweeney and Chris Farley) go on to touch Chris Farley’s post work-out sweaty belly, sniff a very full litter box, and test out a loose step that sends them hurtling down the basement staircase. They just can’t help themselves.
In my second consecutive Kinks post that starts out with an ill advised analogy, I will now throw myself down the staircase of what most consider The Kink’s most difficult and overindulgent period. The RCA years. A phase so infamous, that there was allegedly a clause in their subsequent contract with Arista records that barred Ray Davies from turning in any concept records. I can’t help myself
The particular RCA window I’ve recently narrowed in on I will call Ray Davies’ “Starmaker” phase, which consists of Everybody’s In Show-Biz (1972), Star Maker, the 1974 Teleplay produced for English Television, and Soap Opera, the 1975 studio expansion of the teleplay.
Everybody’s In Show-Biz is widely known as a jumping off point for most casual Kinks fans, for it’s when Ray Davies started overtly shifting his songwriting styles to fit into the constructs of the more elaborate rock operas that would follow in the wake. While it might not put forth the cohesive narrative that would go on to inhabit Preservation Act I & II, Soap Opera, or even School Boys in Disgrace, Show-Biz sets into motion the main themes that would serve as the backbone Star Maker and Soap Opera: the allure of fame and the monotony of real life. In the case of Show Biz, the monotony of life as a touring musician.
Show-Biz is a double LP that set consists of one studio album, and one live album, and if you squint really hard, it kind of works as a concept album within itself: a band on the road, and a band on stage. Thematically the studio portion focuses on the excess of life on the road, the bad diets and road weariness of “Maximum Consumption,” “Motorway,” and “You Don’t Know My Name” to the sublime masterpieces “Sitting In My Hotel” and “Celluloid Heroes” which focus on the more fragile and isolated nature of fame.
Despite the many standout tracks on this record, it’s clear that the form is starting to outweigh the function here, and that Ray Davies’ is more interested in indulging himself in varying genre exercises (think Dance Hall, Tin Pan Alley, even Canned Heat style flute jams) then following any sort of 70’s rock handbook that his peers were reading. The preceding LP, Muswell Hillbillies, was a very well executed genre exercise in itself, but on Everybody’s In Showbiz you get the feeling that Ray’s self-editing skills are starting to deteriorate.
The live set, recorded at Carnegie Hall on the Hillbillies tour, acts as another reminder of where the Kinks were heading. Long gone are the garage rockers and posh poppers of the their early catalog, and in their place is a Ray Davies’ led Vaudeville Show, complete with sermons, parlor songs, and dance hall brass section.
Fast forward two years later, and it’s no surprise when Ray has crossed over to full camp mode for the 1974 Television Play Star Maker. He is in character, and full Elvis regalia, as a fictional rock star named Starmaker, who has taken it upon himself to try and turn an ordinary man into a celebrity.
The live musical, complete scene changes, backup dancers, and the remaining members of the Kinks demoted to anonymous backing band, was filmed live in front of a television audience, where a cheeky Davies regularly breaks the fourth wall to update the audience on his plans to live as an ordinary man in an effort to turn perils of a droll life into a hit song.
“I need a challenge to bring out my best work,” Starmaker tells the audience. One can’t help but wonder if this art imitating life for Davies. It’s almost a meta, as Davies now needs to build these elaborate storylines and characters in order to write his own pop songs. Which kind of makes sense, considering his existing resume.
In his somewhat short tenure as a rock star, Davies had already covered quite a bit of ground. “You Really Got Me,” is basically the title track of the British Invasion, “Waterloo Sunset” showcased his knack for tossing off the perfect pop song, and he practically perfected Twee music with “Sitting In My Hotel,” but if the RCA years show anything, it’s that Davies thought in big storylines, and outside of The Who’s Tommy, there wasn’t necessarily a blueprint for him to follow at that point in time.
Starmaker was Ray Davies’ Ziggy Stardust, but unlike Bowie, who could seamlessly cultivate and shed alter-egos with ease, Davies was a little more of a meat and potatoes guy. Maybe it was his working class upbringing, but Davies couldn’t assume these fictional roles with the savoir-faire that Bowie could, nor could he embody these characters as loose ideas or concepts as Bowie could. Davies needed the full constructs of characters, plot, and ultimately narration to beef up his concepts and stay interested in songwriting. This predicament becomes painfully to the surface on Soap Opera.
Outside of the opening track “Everybody’s A Star,” this album is a tough listen. Sure Pete Townshend’s rock operas also lament the dregs of British working class, but the difference is that Townshend and The Who are able to harness that contempt into something larger, bombastic, and ultimately carthartic. On Soap Opera the Starmaker character gets swallowed by the lowlights of his subject’s uninspired life, and the music itself reflects that. Mid-tempo showtunes and waltzes that ultimately suck the rock out of the rock opera.
If you are a casual and curious Kinks fan, I would recommend Everybody’s In Show-Biz. It’s not a perfect album, but has some gems. But do yourself a favor, outside of watching the posted clip above, beware of the Chris Farley belly sweat of Soap Opera.
When Nirvana released their b-side collection Incesticide in 1992, I clearly remember my reasons for not rushing out to buy it. One reason was that I had already acquired two-thirds of the songs from various import singles and EPs. The other reason was that I wanted to give myself some Nirvana music to look forward to in the future. A decision that came in handy when their short tenure abruptly ended in 1994.
My relationship with the music of Ray Davies and the Kinks runs in a similar vein. Throughout the course of my adult life I have intermittently fallen head over heels with some of their classics. LPs such as Something Else, Arthur…, Face To Face, Village Green Preservation Society, and more, yet I never immediately set out to feast upon their next masterpiece. Instead I have chosen to break off a little bit of their discography at a time, in part to always give me something to look forward to, and in part because I fear that the RCA & Arista years might be a bit dicey.
The latter sentiment is exactly what I assumed would hold true upon my first ever viewing of Return to Waterloo, the 1985 film that Ray Davies wrote, directed, and scored. At the time of it’s release, the 41 year-old Davies had spent the better part of his career channeling a middle-age man reminiscing about England’s good olde days. A healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek romanticism with a dash cynicism. The Stately Homes, Croquet Lawns, and the transcendent Waterloo Sunsets offset with the fat and married “Walter” who is in bed by half past eight, and the little man from “Shangri-La” who gets the train and has a mortgage over his head. Now that Davies was finally a middle-age man himself, one would only assume that Return to Waterloo would be a watered down attempt to get back to his roots, draw ink from a familiar well and spin his usual song-stories. As it turns out, Return To Waterloo is a pretty big departure from the usual Davies playbook, not so much in format or ambition, as Davies is no stranger to the concept album, but more so in overall tone.
The film stars character actor Kenneth “Admiral Piett” Colley as a typical business man who catches a train for what seems like an everyday commute. We catch a glimpse of his droll morning routine and his loveless marriage. We see him stroll over to Waterloo Train Station, and pick up a newspaper. We then catch a closer glimpse of the paper and see that the front page has a composite sketch of a suspected serial rapist that looks exactly like Colley.
Our man proceeds to board a train car that could be dubbed the Midlife Mystery Tour, the vessel in which Davies crafts his over the top satirical look at modern day society via musical numbers and early MTV production cues. Once seated, Colley essentially projects societal regrets and paranoia onto all of his cabin mates, and imagines them singing their life story to him ala his own personal musical.
The movie is a lopsided mix of noir, cynicism, satire, and camp, it after all, a rock musical. There is no waxing poetic about the Village Green here, though, Davies takes dead aim at the middle class, and virtually no stereotype or trope goes untouched in the film. The working class, the old guard, empty nesters, the modern woman, the punk rockers all get their say. We also learn from a series of flashbacks that Colley’s teenage daughter has gone missing, and that he has had a very unsavory relationship with her, and possibly has something to do with her death and disappearance.
Cutting through the abundance of ideas, however, is an extremely effective performance from Colley, and a surprisingly fresh set of songs from Davies. Colley doesn’t have a single word of dialogue in the entire movie, but through a series 100 yard stares, he sucks you into his melancholic and twisted world. Colley’s supporting cast go all in on Davies’ songs, especially a young Tim Roth who sells the shit out of his parts. The soundtrack is credited to Davies, who handles all the vocals on record, but in the movie, the actors take on a fair share of vocals, and I would love to see this out-of-print soundtrack reissued with the movie versions of the songs.
The biggest downside to Return to Waterloo is the dated 80’s production that riddles the project. It’s hard enough for some folks to get behind the rock musical genre in the first place, but when the songs are weighed down by outdated synth tracks and reverby drum machines, it doesn’t help the cause. If you couldn’t tell by now, I have a pretty high threshold for camp and novelty items, but this set of songs is worth picking over for most Kinks fans.
The Title track, Return To Waterloo, is vintage Davies (now with synthesizers!) weighing everyday monotony and universal and societal woes set to a damn catchy melody and slightly ominous pitch bender.
Not Far Away is a pretty great song, but any intended gnarl is immediately watered down by too much reverb and the Steve Nieve-lite keyboard part. Can I get some more Tim Roth in the monitors?