Sunday, 12 September 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 7 (Bowie and the Kinks)

I've belatedly realised this series about early influences on Bowie can't end without mention of Ray Davies and the Kinks.

Bowie has paid explicit homage to Davies on at least a couple of occasions, with covers of Where Have All the GoodTimes Gone? and Waterloo Sunset; he has even duetted with Davies on the latter at a Free Tibet concert.

 And, following on from the last entry, if anyone did fuse aspects of music hall and rock successfully you'd have to say it was Ray Davies: Dedicated Follower of Fashion, which he still employs as a breezy singalong in concert, could just as easily have been strummed on a uke.

Incidentally, could that song have been, in part, a riposte to the huge commercial success of Herman's Hermits' recording of the old music hall number I'm Henry the Eighth? Targetted at America the previous year (it wasn't released  in the UK), it peddled a comforting and familiar idea of Englishness (Peter "Herman" Noone, above, even exaggerated his Manchester accent), rewarding the group with what wikipedia says was  "the fastest-selling song in history to that point."

Davies, on the other hand, utilised the form for an up-to-the-minute social commentary. Not, perhaps, his most accomplished song - too much upfront mockery - but there's no doubt it has endured because it freezes a moment in time. (And you can sing along to the chorus.)

But although Davies' work often alludes, musically, to an earlier time it generally doesn't do so at a campy remove - or not without something more profound going on underneath. He's singing about something more real than Rubber Bands, in other words, using nostalgiac elements in order to smuggle in something darker, more disturbing in the lyric.

 Where Have All the Good Times Gone? is the final track on Bowie's 1973 album of tributes to musical heroes, Pin Ups. Cannily chosen, too: it's not overfamiliar as it wasn't a Kinks A side, even though looking back to the past was to become a characteristic Davies theme, and this is perhaps the most striking early example of his doing so.

I'll talk about the song and its possible effect on Bowie in more detail later. First I want to try to nail that theme: "the past," in Davies' case, goes beyond the cod Victoriana of much of Bowie's first album to a genuine sense of lament for lands of lost content (Walter, Village Green), or social Utopias which never quite came to pass (Shangri La, Million Pound Semi-Detached).

I had thought it was going to be easy to draw direct comparisons between specific Deram-era Bowie songs and Kinks songs for this post. Looking at the discography on the kindakinks website here, however, I see that most of the songs I intended todiscuss were actually released after Bowie's album: the last Kinks LP to come out before Bowie's debut would have been Face to Face in October 1966; Something Else was September 1967, two months after Bowie, while Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur appeared towards the end of 1968 and 1969 respectively.

So perhaps it's best to forget about exact correspondences and simply celebrate Ray Davies and the Kinks and what they may or may not have given to Bowie's writing ... which seems a convenient place for a review I wrote earlier of a book about Village Green Preservation Society:

This book is short but well worth reading simply because Andy Miller treats Ray Davies' songs for this Kinks album with the seriousness they deserve.

Loss is Davies' big subject; a song like People Take Pictures of Each Other could not have been written by anyone else and the essence of the song is captured in a few paragraphs by Miller.

Village Green Preservation Society has just reissued on CD with some of the recordings dating from the same time which were briefly issued on record then withdrawn - Davies saw them as demos, but some are as touching as anything else he recorded: Rosemary Rose, Lavender Hill, and the painfully funny Pictures in the Sand - if you don't know Ray Davies' songs beyond the big hits then try this conclusion to Miller's piece on People Take Pictures of Each Other:

"There is something neurotic about the wordless vocal tics that punctuate the song, and something desperate about the singsong round the piano as the track fades. The summer has passed by, childhood and freedom have vanished, love has been stolen away. You used to matter to someone, but now you don't. You might as well sing. It's all you've got - that, and your photographs."

Pictures in the Sand was pulled from the tracklisting of the deluxe CD reissue at some late stage but, slight as it is, it remains one of my favourite Kinks tracks.

A music hall - or a more decorous end of the pier - atmosphere is there in the song in brightly coloured plastic spades, but for all the chirpiness - Ray and chums coming across like a Pierrot troupe - it seems to be a song about a hopeless love:
Every single day
I waste my time away
Drawing pictures in the sand
Writing messages to you
At the end the vocal seems to break down into a kind of discreet blubbering - or perhaps an imitation of the trumpet notes which tend to signal defeat in a cartoon or film comedy - but that is the only hint of the mask slipping.

The tempo of Pictures in the Sand may be sprightly (an old-fashioned word which seems to fit), but People Take Pictures ... is married throughout to an infernal, Tiggerish bounciness. Miller is spot-on, I think, about the desperation at the recording's end. It, too, is about a hopeless, or a lost, love, among other things:

You can't picture love that you took from me
When we were young and the world was free
Pictures of things as they used to be
Don't show me no more, please


People take pictures of each other
And a moment can last them forever
Of a time when they mattered to someone

Picture of me when I was just three
Sat with my ma by the old oak tree
How I love things as they used to be
Don't show me no more, please
There is even a Cossack dance-style interlude in the song which may suggest that the only way to cope is to avoid reflection by continuous whirling and bouncing: the hunger to relive the past is better resisted ("Don't show me no more, please").

Autumn Almanac is another song which sounds at odds with itself. Is he making fun of the limited aspirations of the little man, with that hint of Formby gormlessness in the vocal?

I like my football on a Saturday
Roast beef on Sunday's alright
I go to Blackpool for my holiday
Sit in the open sunlight
Not, it seems, by the next section, which is sung straight, suggesting the pull of the past ("Come on home...") can't be escaped, only submitted to, perhaps for Davies as much as those he is singing about: if he is indeed mocking them, then perhaps he's mocking something in himself too.

There is a singalong fadeout here, too, less frantic than People Take Pictures ... but with a contrapuntal, insistent "Yes" and what sounds like the rhythmic battering of a hammer which may suggest that the jolly chorus are unwittingly celebrating their own stasis (as with People Take Pictures ..., a cheery singalong is a distraction, not a solution).

Perhaps what Bowie got, more than anything, from Ray Davies's example, is a sense of playfulness in his writing. When I started thinking about Kinks songs for this entry I intended to say that the best of his work was acutely personal.

Well, it is - and it isn't. Thinking about the examples above, and End of the Season (on Something Else By the Kinks), you are never totally sure what's going  on. End of the Season begins with what sounds like a heartfelt, agonised verse -

Winter time is coming
All the sky is grey
Summer birds aren't singing
Since you went away

- before slipping into what seems like a Hooray Henry's lament for times past. But the memory of that opening undercuts the subsequent mockery of this man, wrongfooted by the social revolution of the sixties -
I just can't mix in all the clubs I know
Now Labour's in, I have no place to go
But even if we are meant to laugh at this aristocratic type (and Ray's delivery of  the above lines in particular would seem to suggest so), there is a kind of poetry in the way he describes his sense of desertion, whatever the upper class trappings:
 Back in the scrum on a wet afternoon
Down in the mud, dreaming of flowers in June
Too long ago to recall the source - probably a seventies music paper - but I do have a vague recollection of Ray Davies expressing concern about Sunny Afternoon (1966, so it comes well before the Bowie album). That, he said, was the first time he'd invented a character to inhabit - singing as him, not describing him from the outside - and my impression remains that however many years later this interview was taking place, he still wondered whether he had taken a wrong turning, diluted his songwriting.

I can't remember the journalist's response, though I suspect the correct one would be that in fact he'd liberated himself to explore contradictory viewpoints in the same song. Those occasions when Davies is less successful, or less interesting as a writer, seem to be when contempt for his subjects isn't tempered by the hint of some other attitude - as with Plastic Man, say, or Mr Pleasant.

And his donning of various personae in the same song - Village Green, for example - certainly makes for a richer experience for the listener: There is, for example, a yokelish aspect to the initial vocal in Village Green, then Davies appears to morph into a more knowing narrator, mocking the American tourists attracted to the place's quaintness. But when he then sings:
I miss the village green,
And all the simple people.
I miss the village green,
The church, the clock, the steeple.
I miss the morning dew, fresh air and Sunday school.
you instantly get that on some level he's experiencing a real hankering for lost innocence, even if all the things mentioned above are mere symbols - especially as the yokel figure has earlier talked about leaving in search of fame.

Big Black Smoke is the tale of a girl who runs away from a village green-type existence - not in search of fame but to escape boredom:
Her little country home,
Her little country folk,
Made her blood run cold.
At times Davies' vocal tone veers towards a kind of Victorian judgemental relish, as when he describes the sinful attractions of the big city:

Well, she slept in caffs and coffee bars
and bowling alleys

before slipping back into a more sympathetic register for the specifics of her decline:
And every penny she had
Was spent on purple hearts and cigarettes.
But even though this and other details (such as the mother who "pines her heart away") suggest a basic sympathy for the girl's plight, the framing device of a  bellringing town crier ("Oyez ... oyez") serves to put the tale at a distance, giving it the air of a cautionary Victorian ballad of a "ruined" maid.

On the other hand, maybe Davies's point is that nothing has changed, even if a modern day culprit might not be a village squire but simply a more exciting boyfriend option who, in a possible reference to pimping, "took her money for the rent and tried to drag her down."

The vocal delivery in Dead End Street, by contrast, is what you'd have to call robust - especially the shouted chorus - but it's the arrangement which provides the extra layer of meaning in this case.

Apart from the black humour of the reference to the couple's "Sunday joint of bread and honey" this seems a fairly straightforward account of living on the breadline, albeit with nice homely touches ("and me feet are nearly frozen") reinforced by the ominous brass at the beginning - a possible suggestion of Northern-style ssociations with scrimping and saving?

That gives way, however, to what at first seems an incongruously celebratory, jazzy tone, courtesy of trombonist Chris Barber. Why such an uplifting fadeout when things seem to be reaching crisis point ("rent collector knocking"), and no possibility of escape or redemption has been offered by the lyric?

No chance to emigrate,
I'm deep in debt and now it's much too late.

Barber was - indeed still is - an enthusiastic exponent of New Orleans jazz and that city's tradition of an
upbeat number to follow the solemnity and sadness of a funeral.

So, rather than serving to make a bleak tale more palatable, the arrangement - like the song's macabre promo (above) reinforces the lyric's assertion that there will be no way out this side of the grave:
(Dead end!)
People are dying on dead end street.
(Dead end!)
Gonna die on dead end street.
 Which may be a good point to bring in Alan Klein. Even though the couple in Dead End Street are unemployed ("We both want to work so hard"), this doesn't seem a million miles away from the financial struggle of the slum-dwelling family in Klein's musical What a Crazy World, especially as reflected in Things We Never Had (the parents' duet) and the title song (discussed more fully in the earlier entry here).

But it could be argued that whereas the New Orleans-style climax makes Dead End Street more troubling, difficult to read, the perky music hall backing of Klein's title song might work against the lyric, the music's subliminal message being something like: Who cares about inter-generational conflict when you're having a good old knees-up?

Unfair? Probably. Alan Klein's musical (a 1962 stage production, above, then a film) may  well have been an inspiration to Davies' writing generally. Certainly what Klein's songs in What a Crazy World and the best of Davies' work both have is something which I think is lacking in Bowie's Deram album: a sense of being rooted in a specific place and time, even if at a cartoonlike remove.

Bowie's songs are well-crafted little vignettes, and the losers and outcasts may well have some connection with his later work, but for all their surface polish and wordplay many of the songs simply don't feel - well, heartfelt.

And yes, I know it's a rather odd word to use for Bowie's work, but I can't think of another way of putting it. By "heartfelt" I don't necessarily mean searingly autobiographical, but somehow conveying the sense that the writer is doing more than idly snapping up unconsidered cultural trifles.

Of the songs around this period, The London Boys stands head and shoulders above the rest. Whatever the truth of it, the song convinces as lived experience or experience observed at close quarters: something, at any rate, which the writer imaginatively understands. Perhaps the essential thing here which is also to be found in Davies' songs (whatever their degreee of playfulness) is sympathy.

And it's not simply about location. Maid of Bond is self-evidently a London song, and not set a century before or whatever, but it doesn't feel like a comparably mature piece: the clever phrases don't, in the end, seem to add up to that much: the bathetic "Maids of Bond Street ... shouldn't have love affairs." (What? Why? He's been hurt in love and it's not fair? Do me a favour.)

The London Boys (clip in earlier entry here) tells an entire story in condensed form by the use of skilfully chosen details which take us directly into the boy's feelings, and the essence of why he succumbs:
Things seem good again
Someone cares about you
This suggest that Bowie has learnt from Davies' gift for economy by this stage. The following is not exactly what you'd call clever wit, but it has precisely the punch and directness needed for a rock song:
You think you've had a lot of fun
But you ain't got nothing, you're on the run
And it recalls, for me, Where Have All the Good Times Gone?, released about a year before The London Boys, so undoubtedly familiar to Bowie by that time. A random quote:
Guess you need some bringing down
And get your feet back on the ground
I know London Boys was released before Bowie's first album (and relegated, incredible as it now seems, to the B side of an early version of Rubber Band), so there may not be a neat arc of maturing songwriting skill.

But the difference, lyrically, between The London Boys and many of the songs on the subsequent album
is essentially that between rock (direct, functional, with an accidental poetry) and - well, not-rock (striving for verbal effect): Visconti vs Pitt, if you take those two as symbols, whether or not Bowie had actually met his future producer (and sometime bass player) by this point.

Listening again to the Kinks' original of Where Have All the Good Times Gone? just now I'm struck by several things. First of all, while Ray may be half-hiding behind a sort of Dylanesque sneer in the vocal (Like a Rolling Stone had been released a few months before) there's no getting away from the sense of a
confessional directness and openness in that first verse:
Well, lived my life and never stopped to worry 'bout a thing
Opened up and shouted out and never tried to sing
Wondering if I'd done wrong
Will this depression last for long?
And it has to be admitted in any case that the Dylanesque style - that sense of the verses simply pouring out of the singer - seems to fit this particular song. So perhaps he's simply using whatever works, just as he  
once proudly talked of his newly discovered "Georgie Fame voice" for the Arthur album.

Secondly, although the playing may be more measured and practised after a year, it's not too far away from the trashy garage rock of the Kinks' self-titled first album; it's the subject matter which is the big leap forward.

But maybe the most important thing is that Ray's gift for condensing ideas means that the subject matter fits. The lyrics don't feel like precious pseudo-poetry imposed on a rock song: Where Have All the Good Times Gone? is a rock song, a perfect marriage of form and content, carrying its meaning as much in the sound of that plaintive, harmonised question in the chorus as in the specifics of the verses.

It's a record which still sounds as fresh and vital as anything by Bowie's later faves the Velvet Underground, and just as they famously inspired a generation to pick up guitars, it's not difficult to imagine the excitement of the early Kinks' recordings for fledgling musos like Bowie, and this song in particular. The music must already have seemed within reach technically, then suddenly here is an additional explosion of possibilities about what could be explored within the pop framework.

As with See My Friends a few months before, and his  masterpiece, Waterloo Sunset, to come, Ray Davies was showing pop didn't have to be all love songs or exhortations to dance ...

... Though of course the latter too have their place.

A post about Waterloo Sunset in Gnome Thoughts ... 8 here. For more discussion about London Boys and some of the songs on Bowie's first album, see the first entry in this series, here. For more on What a Crazy World and Alan Klein, see posts 2 here and 4 here.

1 comment:

  1. If you want to find more about the Kinks check out
    There is also information about a Kinks mailing list at