The Curmudgeon: 20th Century British Writing

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Question: Who was the best lyricist of the 1960s British Invasion: John Lennon, Mick Jagger or Pete Townshend?

Answer: Ray Davies.

I’m not saying that Davies was the movement’s best composer, nor that his band The Kinks was the best act. It’s hard to argue against the Beatles and Stones in those two categories. But when it came to the use of the English language in song, Davies has a much better catalog than his much praised rivals.

Once he discovered his verbal gift in the summer of 1965 (after The Kinks had been recording for 19 months and had already scored two No. 1 UK hits), Davies started pouring out compact mini-dramas of British life, each with vividly individual characters and specific settings, each poking at a tender spot in the tensions between men and women, between Victorian England and Swinging London, and between the working class and the elite. That those tensions are more often released in irreverent humor or wistful irony than in angry protest or tragic angst only added to their effectiveness.

Such reflections are prompted by the recent release of two major Kinks collections: the five-CD, 140-track The Kinks Anthology: 1964-1971 (Sanctuary) and the two-CD, 32-track Muswell Hillbillies Legacy Edition (RCA/Legacy). Both sets are full of forgotten non-hits whose verses are as well-written as the choruses.

It’s a genuine achievement to create a chorus around an unforgettable meme such as “eight days a week,” “I can’t get no satisfaction,” “I’m talking about my generation,” or “you really got me.” But it requires another kind of verbal craft to write verse lyrics as memorable as the chorus. But that’s just what Davies did with his breakthrough song “A Well Respected Man.”

It’s useful to compare this satire of the conventional British striver with John Lennon’s crack at the same topic, “Nowhere Man,” recorded just two months later. The Beatles’ single, though blessed with a brilliant minor-third to major-fourth chord change in the bridge, suffers in retrospect from its lyrics: a snide attack on a target so generic and vaporous (“sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody”) that it’s hard to picture.

By contrast, Davies’ targets are so well-defined that they snap into focus in a few, sharply etched lines: “He plays at stocks and shares, and he goes to the Regatta, and he adores the girl next door, ‘cause he’s dying to get at her, but his mother knows the best about the matrimonial stakes.” The verses are full of smart wordplay, such as “He hopes to grab his father’s loot, when Pater passes on” and “His mother goes to meetings, while his father pulls the maid.” And the chorus, in contrast to Lennon’s overkill, anticipates the Randy Newman/Stephen Colbert approach of pretending to sympathize with the person you’re subtly undermining.

There had been hints of Davies’ verbal gift before, especially the way “See My Friends” and “I Go to Sleep” dissolved the distinction between verse and chorus into indelible, minimalist images of loneliness. But “A Well Respected Man” gave Davies the confidence to fashion songs that relied as much on his words as on his music-hall melodies and his brother Dave’s guitar riffs. Ray wrote more sharp satires: “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” “Dandy,” “Mr. Pleasant” and “Mr. Reporter.” But he also came up with easily visualized images of his growing alienation as he sang of “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” “I’m on an Island” and “Sittin’ on My Sofa.”

This led to an increased suspicion that the new hipster culture wasn’t all it claimed to be on songs such as “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” This manifested itself in both skepticism about modern innovations but also a longing for the more genteel traditions being pushed aside. When you heard him arguing with someone on a telephone “Party Line” or sipping from a cup during an “Afternoon Tea,” the language was so precise that the listener could readily imagine sharing that line and that teapot.

This led to the miraculous album, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, which conjured up an entire British village with its own old codgers and young hoodlums. “Do you remember Walter,” Davies asks, “playing cricket in the thunder and the rain,...smoking cigarettes behind your garden gate?” With details like that, how could you not imagine him—or Johnny Thunders, Monica, Wicked Annabella, Tom the Grocer Boy, the last of the steam-powered trains or the Custard Pie Appreciation Consortium? Compared to the clarity of these descriptions, locations such as “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields,” seemed wrapped in a fog too thick to penetrate.

And out of that conflict between old and new came Davies’ crucial obsession with England’s class system. He wrote some of the best songs ever on the topic, because he was writing not about convenient caricatures but about recognizable people. His working-class characters weren’t a “Working Class Hero” nor a “Street Fighting Man” but an ordinary bloke who’s “out of work and got no money,” eating “a Sunday joint of bread and honey.”

This narrator of “Dead End Street” asks, “What are we living for? Two-roomed apartment on the second floor. No money coming in; the rent collector’s knocking, trying to get in.” An even sharper slash of working-class resentment is “Father Christmas,” the holiday song that falls outside the scope of either new reissue. On the other hand, Anthology’s liner notes do include a paragraph apiece from Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon on The Kinks’ profound influence on The Clash (and eight paragraphs from Townshend about The Kinks’ influence on The Who).

Unlike the Beatles and Stones, who first made an impression with their superb reworkings of songs by African-Americans Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the Coasters, The Kinks never sounded entirely comfortable recording songs by the same acts early in their career (examples stud the first disc of Anthology). But if blues were the father of rock ‘n’ roll, hillbilly music was the mother, and Davies felt an affinity for the storytelling of that Anglo-Appalachian music even before he released Muswell Hillbillies. You can hear it in the Hank-like yearning of “Village Green” and “Sunny Afternoon.”

Davies was not a poet; his verse was not that exciting laid out on a page. It only came alive when the words fit the accompanying music accent for accent—which they almost always did. Nor was Davies a lyricist like Bob Dylan, who was pushing at the song form with surrealism, extravagant language and anthemic visions. Davies was working with the jaunty tunes, vernacular speech and mocking humor of the British music hall tradition, sketching sharply defined characters and then affectionately poking fun at them in musical monologues. But he turned Noel Coward’s telescope around to look at British society from the bottom rather than from the top—and that made all the difference.

As The Beatles did with their movies and The Who did with Quadrophenia, Davies tried to create evening-long stage musicals out of his songs. Such projects as Arthur, Muswell Hillbillies and Celluloid Heroes were all planned as possible theatrical productions, but the ‘70s were not the right decade for rock ‘n’ roll shows on Broadway or the West End, and only Celluloid Heroes was actually staged—and that as part of a rock ‘n’ roll tour.

Davies’ plans were undermined by the fact that his three-minute songs were such perfect, self-contained dramas that it was difficult to subsume them within a 120-minute show. How do you create a two-hour story about the Muswell Hillbillies (named after an urban village near Davies’ own in North London) when songs such as “Skin and Bone” and “Alcohol” (and rarities as “Lavender Lane” on the new reissue) are such perfectly shaped tales than anything more would seem like padding?

So why isn’t Davies widely recognized as the top lyricist of the British Invasion? For one, he wasn’t as conspicuously artsy as Lennon, Jagger and Townshend; the Kink wasn’t writing about walruses, jumping jack flashes or pinball wizards—he was writing about tax dodgers, elderly codgers, middle-class boozers and working-class losers. To maintain his healthy skepticism of the establishment and youth movement alike, Davies never quite caught the spirit of his own age as well as his three rivals did. That cost him celebrity at the time but served him well in the long run, for his lyrics have aged much better than any others from England in the ‘60s.