Ray Davies knows about being broke
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."