Nearly a century’s worth of teeth, blood, and beer has been spilt in debate of the age-old Beatles versus Stones quandary.
As a youth, I was beckoned into the ring, lost some hair, and dropped a few rhetorical chops in a style akin to the nature boy Ric Flair. While I still admire a golden Flair coiffure, I’m less inclined to enter a foolish argument, when I’d rather just talk about the Kinks.
I purchased The Kink Kronikles early in my college career. As a budding English major, I immediately bonded with the songs of Ray Davies because the fundamentals of narrative are so readily discernable in them: setting/scene, character, and conflict.
In their Classical era, from 1966 to 1972, the Kinks released 7 records inhabited by Davies’ unique characters ranging from the everyman and the soldier to the conservative and the insane.
Davies sets them into action, and narrates the struggle to navigate a fallen Eden soiled by the industrial revolution, ineffective governments, war, drugs, and new anxieties.
Having arrived on the scene with a punk garage classic, the Kinks were the masters of such misanthropic anthems as “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” but they also traded in subtlety, producing unique character studies akin to the Kitchen Sink realist dramas of British filmmakers in the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, Davies’ narratives are filled with angry young men searching for a share in a world that seems to have no use for them.
The strength of these songs is rooted in Davies’ understanding that we need characters to be human and thus imperfect. Despite their best intentions, such characters need to make poor choices and suffer because of them.
Johnny in “Situation Vacant”, for example, trades his job for another to please his mother-in-law and loses nearly everything in vain pursuit of acceptance.
Another is “Two Sisters,” which reads like a Grace Paley short story. In it, one sister has traded the single life for a family, and, faced with the grueling task of cooking, cleaning, and tending the children, wishes “to be free again.”
When she sees her children, she thinks she is better off than her sister, “the wayward lass,” but it is hard to tell if the author believes her. And then there’s “Back In the Line,” one of the most poignant songs about unemployment that I’ve ever heard. The protagonist must line up every day in hopes that he’ll gain work, and earn a living. Davies sings, “But all I want to do is make some money, and bring you home some wine, for I don’t ever want you to see me standing in that line.”
Among the iconic modernist artists of the 20th century, Davies returns time and time again to questions of memory, how we are shaped by the past, how we struggle to make sense of life through reflection. Despite the baffling realities of the present, however, he makes it clear that the past will fail us, demonstrating that stubborn insistence on living in the past will lead to certain ruin. Take the harrowing account of war and loss in “Some Mother’s Son”: “some mother’s son lies in a field, but in his mother’s eyes he looks the same as the day he went away. They put his picture on the wall [...] some mother’s memory remains.”
For all his vitriol, Davies can also throw out a stunner, such as the hymn-like, “Days,” a sad but triumphant reflection on the preciousness of our time together. He sings, “days when you can’t see wrong from right, you took my life but then I knew that very soon you’d leave me, but it’s alright, now I’m not frightened of this world believe me.”
Of course, for Davies, any comfort found in the frightening world is temporary. And, you know, I take comfort in that, too.
Ray Davies plays the Vogue Theater July 13
By Daniel Presnell