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Ray Davies knows about being broke

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Ever au courant, Pop & Hiss recently proposed a list of the top-15 songs about being broke.             

I’d like to put my own 10 cents in while I still can spare the dime, pending the results of our next round of newsroom layoffs here at the L.A. Times.

For me, any discussion of music-about-money-or-lack-thereof has to begin with rock’s uncontested Nobel Laureate in Economics, Ray Davies of the Kinks. No prominent rocker has sung so much or so cogently about life in an economic rut, and the forces that put people there.

Scan the Kinks catalog and the song-list from Davies’ two recent solo albums, and you’ll find track upon track -- even entire albums -- about being mired in that rut, or scarred by it even after one has escaped. However, you won’t find dirges a la Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.”

Ultimately, Davies is an artist of hope and empathy; his songs of money-trouble aren’t baggage to weigh on the spirit, but a trampoline to lift it, or at least a leaning-post on which to steady ourselves. His message, almost always, has been about getting on in spite of it all.

Consider the catchy, down-to-earth treatise in global economics offered in “Working Man’s Café.”

The title track of the current Davies solo album that for me ranks with Johnny Cash’s late work as proof that a great musical life can be regenerated past 60. The album was released here in February, a few months before the international financial meltdown, and it plays now like a perceptively jaundiced look at the last days of money-on-the-march.

In the title song, Davies thinks back on a favorite greasy spoon from his scuffling days in 1960s North London, and the blue-collar blokes who once gathered there. Now the human-scaled, face-to-face working class life the singer remembers has been swept away under a surge of free-flowing global capital and the triumph of franchised branding.

The luckier blokes may have grown more affluent, but their hometown’s special flavor and sense of place are gone. All Davies can do is save his memories in a gently elegiac protest song, his voice a mixture of pride in what used to be and sadness at its demise, with a touch of comfort  taken from the act of remembering.

A sampling of the lyrics: "It’s really good to see us come so far / But haven’t we forgotten who we are? / Taking out a larger loan, equity relief and mortgages / We all seem to pass the time of day online at the Internet café."

If you'd prefer an angrier take on what it means to have and have not, Davies’ oeuvre doesn’t lack for songs of embattled defiance, born of the class warfare Brits live with in their bones – and which Americans are beginning to realize has been going on here as well, in our own style and with our own results.

In 1960s songs such as “A Well Respected Man,” “House in the Country,” “Most Exclusive Residence for Sale” and “Sunny Afternoon,” Davies made a point of satirizing the heedless and hedonistic rich, but also of getting inside their heads to find the human fragility behind their vanity. With “Dead End Street,” one of their greatest songs, the Kinks put all their humor, anger and ferocity into a definitive take on what it’s like to cling tenuously to a sense of dignity and self-worth in the face of a bare cupboard and overdue rent.

If an entrance exam were required to embark on a career in music or the music business, it would need to contain an essay question on the Kinks’ 1970 album, “Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround, Pt. 1.” It’s a disquisition on the economic forces that distort creativity. A hero, dubbed “The Contender,” sets out with ambition and creative drive -- and winds up struggling to maintain both, along with his sanity, as the joy of making music turns into a career consumed with exploiting and being exploited.

There never was a “Lola, Pt. 2,” but there was “Preservation,” which to my knowledge is rock’s only triple-LP-length opus about the politics of real estate development. Kinks enthusiasts generally don’t rank it very high in the canon, but those lucky enough to have seen the brilliant, ingenious, shoestring-budget theatrical production the band toured briefly in 1974 will likely tell you that there never has been -- or could be -- a more entertaining and invigorating live rock experience.

“Preservation,” which for all its musical exuberance and humor is probably Davies’ darkest statement, speaks loudly to the dangers in our present economic predicament. It’s about a former “slum kid” named Flash who builds a business and political empire by demolishing quaint neighborhoods and throwing up mass-produced, high-margin housing.

But the tables turn on this colorful hooligan, and he’s deposed by a puritanical, self-righteous, new-breed politico named Mr. Black. An Orwellian future beckons as Mr. Black sets about using technology to re-engineer the populace in a more pliant and right-thinking mold; no more messy humanity, which  tends to produce the likes of Flash.

The message from Davies: in a crisis, when society grows desperate for a solution, it should beware of getting more transformation than it bargained for. Kinks cognoscenti also will point to songs such as the hurtling late-70s rocker, “Father Christmas,” a funny and poignant tale of impoverished kids who mug a department store Santa, and to the album “Low Budget” (1979). 

Davies’ performance at the Wiltern this year showed that the title song remains a fine vehicle for his unrivaled rocker-as-comic-actor talents. “Low Budget,” released at the height of stagflation (if you’re too young to know what that is, pray that you never have to find out), also includes several sympathetic songs about an America-on-the-ropes during the Jimmy Carter years -- songs that apply directly to our sinking state at the butt-end of the Bush administration.

The Kinks song of economic pain that truly rips my heart is “Killing Time.” This mid-1980s anthem for the unemployed probably was a response to the toll of deindustrialization in Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain. But by characteristically refraining from topical-political boilerplate, Davies avoided dating his eloquent, stately lament.

He tries to smile and dip into his trusty well of hopefulness, but this time even sunny Ray  can’t pull out a big enough bucketful to slake his anguish at a social and business machinery lubricated with the juice of discarded workers.  Sorry to say it, but “Killing Time” remains all-too-relevant to the crumbling news business I’ve toiled and delighted in these 30 years. And maybe to whatever line of work you’ve been toiling in, too.

The lyrics: "Tell me brother, what’s the plan? Will I be a working man? And occupy my idle mind, or kill the time I knew so well? Killing time, giving me hell ... Still I can smile at what I see / Soap operas full of vanity, So much wealth and property / Side by side with petty crime / Is that all life’s meant to be?"

Art that won’t reckon with life’s economic dimension is a sham (I’m thinking especially of all those movies and TV shows about people with no apparent work responsibilities who live glamorous lives of ease and self-indulgence). Here in the real world, it’s good to have a Ray Davies who pays attention to how life’s lived, and who can help sing us through it when we have to bite the bullet.

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: The Kinks on their 1964 album cover for "You Really Got Me."

 
Comments () | Archives (20)

Mike:

What a great, insightful, smart review! And for you to cite 'Killing Time" floored me. That comes off an album (Think Visual) that is held in rather low esteem by most critics and fans, but one which always appealed to me.
You really covered the economic topic extremely well from the 60's up until the present. Thanks! God Save Ray Davies (and the Kinks)

The fact that Ray didn't go psychedelic when all others rushed to provide the soundtrack to the era of 'peace and love' should tell us much about his artistic integrity. Rock and roll's original rebel, ("You Really Got Me" 1964) became its first reactionary, using narrative to depict the often dreary lives of everyday people who inhabited his decidedly English microcosm of the world. He was a man deliberately behind the times and yet, instinctively ahead of them. I've seen him perform three times in the past two years (Detroit 2004, Chicago, Toronto 2008) and I look forward to the next opportunity. He still brings much vigour to the stage at age 64, and retains the endearing voice which animates so many of the songs which match in spirit the wry gap-toothed smile. Things so often went the wrong way for the fortunes of the Kinks, I'm very pleased that perhaps, finally, North Americans have a chance to appreciate this musical luminary. Then again, if many of his brighter moments lie ahead, it would simply be Ray remaining faithfully in character.

Ray has always been the greatest songwriter in rock history because he has always had a pulse on what the common man endures in daily lives...some day the Kinks, with their 400 plus songs, will finally get their due recognition among the general public, but at least the critics and insiders in the music industry know Ray and Dave Davies' brilliance...try listening to Live Life from Misfits also (it's on You Tube, along with many other classics).

He forgot one of the saddest and greatest of all Ray's "economic" tunes. Let's not forget Back in the Line, off of the previously mentioned Lola album. What a tune!

Great article, and I love Ray, but he is filthy rich albeit notoriously cheap. His songs while they are rich in relevancy and poignancy are more about his observations of other people not himself except perhaps when he was just starting out.

Back in 1964 I was a Beatles fan first...man those guys were awesome...then the kinks got my fancy toward the beginning of 1965...their album Kink kontroversy sealed the deal for me....as now I had become a kinks fan first Beatle fan second.
Now Im lying on my couch after all these years, thinking back to all the songs Ray has written (over 500 that we know of, there could be thousands) and all the memories and the songs that should of been hits and albums that were passed over (Village Green Pres Society-Something Else-Muswell Hill, etc_...still Ray keeps on a truckin...Hit songs that were not hits: TO THE BONE....PICTURE BOOK....YOU CANT STOP THE MUSIC....CELLULOID HEROES.....ALCOHOL LIVE.....BIG SKY....etc..
Just incredible music that the general public has missed...such a shame...GOD SAVE THE KINKS ....A fan till death

Lovely piece of journalism. Mike, sorry if you end up on the dole, but I can see by your writing here you are an insightful, intelligent person. That, and $3.25 will get you a cup of coffee. You are writing about the most wonderful band and songwriter bar none. Certainly the selections are large, but you missed two of my favorite economics numbers. I LOVE Preservation, and my girlfriend and I would duet like Ray and Dave on "Demolition" over and over and over. "Two up, two down hasn't got a garden but it's got a lovely patio...how I love to hear the sound of concrete crashing to the ground". My other mention is "Gallon of Gas" relevant in a new way (it was shortages in the 70's) "there's no more gas to buy and sell, there's no more oil left in the well". If anyone needs to search any song lyrics for the Kinks/Ray Davies/Dave Davies songs, here is a great link: http://www.kinks.it.rit.edu/
Cheers

It's pretty safe to say that whatever it is, there's a Kinks song about it.

Nearly 30 years on, "Gallon of Gas" (though not directly about being broke) still strikes a chord. "In a Foreign Land" touches on tax exile. "Catch Me Now I'm Falling" reminds us of anther time when the US as a whole felt broke, "Sold Me Out" sounds a lot like the recent disappearance of trillions of dollars in wealth. "Bernadette" took off with a load of "Property". "Massive Reductions" is all about layoffs. "Powerman" and "Moneygoround" go into who made you broke in the first place.

On a related note, no album better captures the desperation of the working week than "Soap Opera"... "Nine to Five" and "Rush Hour Blues" perfectly convey the cubicle mindset, while "When Work is Over" and "Have Another Drink" are two of the finest drinking songs of our age.

Mike, you have produced an excellent article on the relevance of Ray and Dave Davies's muscial creations to reflect the human state of being impoverished - financially, emotionally, musically or spiritually (being broke isn't necessarily a financial infliction).

Like you, I found a high degree of prophecy to the current financial global crises when recently listening to Working Man's Cafe which I think demonstrates how incisive 'Kinks' music can be and often completely missed by the main protagonists in the music and media industries, apart from the wise few.

Ray and Dave has never shrunk from their desire to reflect or record the working man's (or woman's) struggles and desires in life. Usually, as you quite rightly state, using empathy, pathos and hope in their portrayal.

I do not wish to detract from your own personal selection of songs that fit the 'being broke' scenario but I would like to offer another album to consider and that is "Muswell Hillbillies". Why? Well, it contains a number of songs that reflect the impoverished nature of mankind - e.g. 20th Century Man, Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues, Alcohol, Complicated Life, Here Come The People In Grey, Uncle Son and Muswell Hillbillies. However, one song, perhaps not widely known and disussed, that I find very moving is Oklahoma USA. Ray has performed this, in recent years, as an acoustic solo and it brings a lump to my throat each time I hear it.

I am an Englishman old enough to know that in the post-WWII years, the ordinary person didn't have a great deal of comfort and luxury items could only be desired. Dreams of better times were prevalent and one way of adding substance to these dreams was to look towards the USA and its 'promises'. Ordinary people would 'escape' into American movies or listen to records from US jazz, trad., blues and rock 'n' roll artists - fuelling a hope of possibilities.

In Ray's song you have a woman who is impoverished, dreaming of a better life in the USA, viewed through concepts of films and musicals she has seen. These are antidote to the 'poison' of a laborious and hard life. What is magical about the song is the possibility of success or failure.The melody and harmonies help to promote the idea that she may succeed and gain a better life but then the lyrics convey the possibillity that she may fail and have to continue in the hard pattern of her existence - it ends "All life we work but work is a bore, If life's for livin' then what's livin' for." Is this a statement from a desparate person? Or, is it a question from a person who is not prepared to accept the status quo?

So, I ask you, in the USA, have you delivered on the dream yet?

I will finish off by wishing you, Mike, a happy and contented future, irrespective of career path.

Allan Whitaker, Manchester, UK

Wonderful!! After so many years, the preservation albums get the applause they really deserve. This music - I mainly refer to Preservation Act 2 - is perhaps not typically "Kinks" or Rock&Roll, but it will stand the test of time as will Puccini's Tosca or Mahler's Sixth. Thanks very much for this extremely professional article, and... thank you, Ray!

Nice job. Ray Davies has always been way ahead of his time and like a lot of great artist will not be truely appreciated until he gone.

The Kinks rock-I've seen Ray Davies on several occasions and he always puts his his soul into the performance. Chicago has a special place in his heart and the feeling is mutual. The Kinks/Ray Davies-no rock group, songwriter or performer has been more under-rated.

I also wanted to thank you for this brilliant and original post about the quintessential British songwriter, and perhaps the best, Ray Davies.

I too wanted to chime in on one of my favorite Kinks' songs that is rather obscure but also relevant to your theme -- "Oklahoma USA" -- but Allan above did so quite eloquently.

One of the finest, most perceptive articles I've read about the greatest 'pop' songwriter of all time.

Is there Life After Breakfeast?
Of course.

Thank you.

Really enjoyed your article and all the other comments. i first saw the kinks in 1964 by accident. i went to a dave clark five concert and came away with the kinks firmly in my brain and have been a follower ever since. ray davies and the kinks have been a big part of my life and always will. bob wooler england.

Very good comments, but don't forget about his brother Dave's very spot on comments about the world ecomony in songs like Is This the Only Way, Nothin More to Lose and especially Close to the Wire from the album Phobia...

This is probably one of the best articles I've read about rock music as a treatise on 20th century materialism.

Ray Davies has been writing since the 1960s -- almost exclusively at times -- about the danger of suburban real estate redevelopment at the expense of "Village Green" historic communities and the Orwellian soullessness it produces.

The most recent album released in February 2008 has several songs about the global economy and an impending collapse. I used to think that Ray Davies was the most paranoid rock musician in the world (barring perhaps Pete Townshend) but it turns out he might be right after all.

There was a three album rock opera concept in the 1970s called Preservation which pitted two villains, Mr. Flash and Mr. Black against each other. The warning is that the exploitation and greed of one party can give way to a fascistic tendency in the replacement.

Anyway, this article says what I've been thinking a lot about in the past few weeks in that it is amazing how some of these songs predicted and commented on the recession years of the 1970s and now sound like they were written for today as well -- except with much more of a vengeance.

- JCR

Great Mike. Thanks.
Yes, Ray is "not like everybody else". He is not like ANYbody else in fact.'
And in case you missed it like I almost did, check out "On The Outside". One of the greatest, in my opinion, Kinks songs.

Saw Ray Sat. Night on his current tour. He was great. I've seen the Kinks many times as far back as 65 and Ray was in great form. Great song selction from the old days as well as stuff off of his last 2 cds. My special fav was "See my Friends" Great ending with Openning band backing Ray for 2 songs.

Absolutely God Save the Kinks and Ray.

The article and comments were great reading. Just wanted to add to the long list of songs Ray has written on hard financial times: Princess Marinas. Fabulous song with that theme. He really gets me, fan for life. History will be so kind to him as opposed to Dumbya!

Thanks Ray, Dave and all the memebers of the Kinks for all the great tunes and times. It surely would be fine, to see you tour in 09.


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