Help, I'm Multiplying! Rememberance of Kinks Past 
Or Ray Davies, once and future impresario of Rock Opera
By David Dalton

From Gadfly March 1999


Take a look at that face, the face of Ray Davies, it's the classic Dickensian mug, the face of a silent movie comedian, a vaudevillian, a vagabond philosopher. Everything's a little bit off-kilter here. That ragged, quizzical smile—the very incarnation of wryness, slyness and wistful melancholy. You know what kind of songs it would write, a face like that? Whimsical songs, would you say? Drenched-in-irony songs about gardening, ceramic ducks, Alice-in-Wonderland cats, playing cricket in the rain. And, you might add, great bushels of rock operas about suburban English life.

As for Ray, just one of the lads, right? A feckless, foppish fellow, a cockney dandy, the artful dodger of Brit rock. But the charming, whimsical fellow of countless interviews and stage pratfalls can't be the whole story. He's well-known as a tyrant in the studio, for one thing. And what about all those nutty operas, one after the other, in the early '70s, conceived, written, produced and performed by Raymond Douglas Davies (and all the characters in 'em pretty much Ray, too)? You can just picture him up there in his semi-detached row house in Muswell Hill, raging on, with sublime disregard for the exasperation of his bandmates, the outrage of his record label or the howling of critics. It's exactly this sort of perverse behavior that has always endeared him to us.

The Kinks being yer kwintessential kult band (the k-effect is mandatory) it should come as no surprise that a number of their fans should hold in high esteem some of the group's least commercially successful records: the late '60s concept albums, Arthur, Village Green Preservation Society and the critically reviled Preservation Act 1 & 2, A Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace.  Arthur and Village Green are acknowledged masterpieces, but no one, outside of the dedicated followers' brigade, would deny that the Kinks' rock operas of the early '70s are seriously flawed. Still, the Kinks' imperfections—on-stage infighting, whimsicality and willfulness—are an essential part of their appeal, and, because they have all recently been re-released you are offered, unenlightened reader, a chance to appreciate these long-neglected works of Kinks past.

A Kinky Kronickle
Since Brit Invasion rock is not yet taught in schools (won't be long, lads, mark my words!), I will fill you in on the peregrinations of the pre-operatic Kinks. The Kinks became the Kinks in 1963, when the nineteen-year-old Ray Davies and his half-brother (sixteen-year-old Dave Davies) thought up this saucy new name for their group, the Ravens (Peter Quaife, bass; Mick Avery, drums).

Having single-handedly invented heavy metal rock with their 1964 hit "You Really Got Me" (and its follow-up, "All Day and All of the Night"), the next year the Kinks did one of their periodic 180-degree mood swings. Newly devoted fans were alternately bemused, irritated and delighted when, in late 1965, the group released the first in a series of social documentaries; "A Well Respected Man" was delivered in a vocal style as dry as a glass of sherry. (The stop-and-go vocals of "You Really Got Me" were devised by Kinks producer Shel Talmy, to compensate for Ray's quavering delivery.) Ray Davies once described his elusive, wispy vocal quality thus: "I once made a drawing of my voice on 'Sunny Afternoon.' It was a leaf with a very thick black outline—a big blob in the background—the leaf just cutting through it."

It was with their late '60s songs that the Kinks' lead singer and songwriter, Ray Davies, found his voice and brought the Kinks to their second and most critically acclaimed style, as the vaudevillian historians of rock. "A Well Respected Man" made it into the top twenty, as did its sequel, "A Dedicated Follower of Fashion" (a little bit of mod mockery at the expense of London's trendies). Their reflective and resigned river reverie "Sunny Afternoon" got them their third number-one single in England. For some reason, many of their other extraordinary songs from this period, "Dead End Street," "Waterloo Sunset" (inspired by Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in the 1967 film Far From the Madding Crowd) and "Days," made little impression on the charts.

Davies had perfected a new type of pop song—the poignant, mocking vignette—and on the Kinks' 1966 albums Face to Face and Something Else, Ray began painting tonal watercolors of suburban British life that are masterpieces of concision and atmosphere.

In their sensitive, sensual déjá vu vignettes, the Kinks seemed as interested in preserving the absurd delusions they sang about as in mocking them. Their lyrics, lucidly flickering in the declining rays of the British Empire, have an edgy autumnal iridescence. They were also the prototypes of Kinks to come.

Landscape with Plaid Slippers
Ray had for some time been a subtle director of three-minute movies ("I think of myself like an independent filmmaker"), and with Arthur and Village Green, he began creating full-blown documentaries of North London suburban life and all things English and on the edge of extinction. Ray once remarked that the decline of the British Empire could adequately be dealt with in one fifteen-minute song. In a slightly less presumptuous manner, he preserved its waning days in one 45-minute album, Arthur. Here, with an entomologist's zeal, he recorded the habits and mores of the mothlike denizens of his beloved Muswell Hill. It is a poignant, evocative study of these exotically drab specimens dreaming their magnificently dull dreams. "Greyness," Ray once said, "is beauty in boredom."

Arthur, the soundtrack for an abandoned Granada TV drama, is the saga of a carpet-layer, Arthur Morgan, and his family, who live out their comfy, cozy life in a house called "Shangrila"—all the houses have names because they all look the same—with the telly, slippers, gooseberry tart picnics and chintzy Cinderella snobbery ("She Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina"). Although Arthur is a biting satire of bourgeois pretensions and smug self-satisfaction, Ray Davies remains a compassionate chronicler, as in the heart-wrenching "Every Mother's Son" where he sings, "Some mother's son lies in a field/ But in his mother's eyes, he looks the same/ As the day he went away." In a curious blend of tenderness and irony, he identifies with his creatures, as if slipping secretly inside them to discover their "small quiet radiance."

The Kinks might have been credited with creating the first rock opera had not fate (and the craven cowardice of Granada TV) intervened. Although it exists only on record, Arthur is still a wonderfully evocative portrait of waning, genteel British life. Arthur came out one month after Tommy. They're very different kettles of fish; Arthur acts as counterpoint to the Who blockbuster. It's as if the humdrum, molelike lives of the characters in Arthur provoked the violent, autistic or double-schizoid adolescents of the Who's Tommy and Quadraphenia.

Once he had dumped Shel Talmy, Ray could indulge himself in wry reverie to his heart's content. Village Green came out in 1968, smack in the middle of the psychedelic anschluss, making the originality of his eccentric focus all the more astonishing. Of Ray's unfashionable wistfulness, one critic wrote that he was, "A genuine and brilliant neurotic in a landscape of sham psychotics."

Village Green is saturated with nostalgia for a vanishing world. Understated, bittersweet songs embrace lost values as Ray's quavering voice hovers over the simple pleasures and tribal customs of North London middle-class life and the fading glory of the British Empire. The mundane life of a small English town had never been so exquisitely captured or so celebrated—in slices of life ("People Take Pictures of Each Other") and yearning for lost innocence ("Do You Remember Walter") and days gone by ("Last of the Steam-Powered Trains").

Village Green is (very) loosely based on Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood and in this sense it's a sort of children's storybook set to music, complete with cartoon characters like Johnny Thunder, the funny "Wicked Annabella" and the Alice-in-Wonderland kinktoon, "Phenomenal Cat."

Having painted his touching sketches of post-war British society with irony, elegiac affection and muted rage, Ray, in his late twenties, got political. "My ongoing theme is about the control of the masses by the dictatorship of the media," said Red Ray. (His aversion to tyranny apparently didn't apply to Ray's growing despotic rule over the Kinks, however.) His blossoming paranoia about the government, bureaucracy, the media and real-estate developers led him away from the sly ironies and compassionate taxonomy of English middle-class life to a flaming agit-prop opera, a full-fledged musical sprawling over three albums and one of rock's magnificent follies.

What's Opera, Doc?
The rock opera is the product of the Brit art school bands of the '60s. The term "rock opera" has just the right ring of mock grandiosity to it. What are really rock musicals are called rock operas to distinguish them from rock musicals like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, written by professional songwriters to cash in on the youth market.

At some point, the ambitious little rock auteur grows impatient with creating silly pop songs. He yearns to create something monumental. Or at least longer. The first stage of rock megalomania is the concept album. Initially, LPs were just a bunch of tracks thrown together to cash in on a hit single. With the coming of FM radio, groups began thinking in terms of theme albums: Rubber Soul and Pet Sounds (Sgt. Pepper being the big daddy of them all). But it's still just a bloody record, innit? Richard Wagner being the secret ideal of overweening rock stars, our ambitious little maestros set their sights on begetting a Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art. Hence rock opera.

The form was natural, considering the immense influence of the music hall (vaudeville, essentially) on Brit rock. The manic, tongue-in-cheek flash of the music hall allows the expression of feelings through fictional characters in a light-hearted manner, implying you don't really care at all about subjects that actually obsess you.

There are two ways to go about writing a rock opera: (1) Write a bunch of catchy rock songs and then (try and) construct some sort of storyline that hooks them all together (Tommy). Any old story will do—it doesn't really matter that the plot makes no sense (Tommy, but more especially the Who's ur-rock opera, A Quick One While He's Away). The important thing is that the audience leave the theater thrashing air guitars (and of course go out and buy the double album) (2) Construct a well-thought out plot and then (try and) write songs to fit into it. The second option sounds the better idea but it really isn't. Rock is intuitive stuff, and too much cogitation is its ruination (I feel a song coming on). What Ray did was to take the second option one step too far (especially in Preservation Act 2). But back to your seats, the curtain is rising.

The Kinks Go Kountry
"After 1973 I became a different person really," Ray says, with classic Brit understatement. He had, in fact, turned into a perfect maniac. Photographs of him in his long overcoat and baleful gaze suggest a brooding Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. Overnight he'd turned into a raving rock Rossini. Operamania, mate! The seeds of this fixation could be said to have begun with the concept album Muswell Hillbillies (1971), an exuberant synthesis of English middle-class themes to a Memphis blues, New Orleans jazz and country soundtrack. It was a great good-time rant on themes sociological and political: bureaucracy, progress, disintegration of the family, urban renewal, working-class life (as in Arthur, but much bleaker), jail, alcoholism and "Acute Paranoid Schizophrenia Blues."

About the time the Kinks moved into opera, Ray, with theocratic conviction, proclaimed, "Most artists are happy just to make another album; I wanted to create another world." He already had. What he seems to have had in mind was a storyline into which he could place the teeming characters who lived inside his head. And in Preservation Act 1, out poured a cast of wonderful, sharply drawn characters—all aspects of Ray, more or less.

You can listen to Preservation Act 1 without following the plot at all (don't worry, we'll get around to it in Act 2). All you need to know is that it's a 1984-ish manipulated-proles drama in the Kinks' high satirical mode, in which the incumbent dictator, Mr. Flash, a corrupt but endearing crook, is pitted against the emotionless, repressive Mr. Black.

"I've always enjoyed writing to a different character. It allows me to say what is true." A specialty of cockney logic, this. The Tramp is an unambiguously romantic version of himself, but so is Flash (played on stage with fiendish panache by Ray Davies in a flashy art deco coat-of-many-colors). There's a spot of the chiding, puritanical Mr. Black in Ray, too, not to mention Belle. And let's not forget the Vicar and the Mad Scientist.

Preservation Act 1 is just the first phase of Ray's opera follies, and on the surface it's still pretty much a typical Kinks album: great songs sung from the viewpoints of different characters. The Tramp sings both the poignant "Sweet Lady Genevieve" and the lay-about reverie "Sitting in the Midday Sun"; the retro rocker Johnny Thunder belts out "One of the Survivors"; the Vicar delivers a silly-mid-on sermon "Cricket"; Flash and his cronies sing the Whoish "Demolition"; and the Tramp nostalgically ponders "Where Are They Now?" (a list of missing-in-action post-war Brit working class heroes: Mary Quant, Christine Keeler, Charlie Bubbles, John Osborne, Teds, Mods and Rockers). The fact that the best songs have little or nothing to do with the plot should have told Ray something but....

Preservation Act 2 (1974) resolves the bitter rivalry between the corrupt politician Flash and the socialist reformer Mr. Black, with dire consequences. Contrary to the carping of the critics, there are some pretty good songs on Act 2: the Stonesish rocker "Money Talks," the caroling mocker "Shepherds of the Nation," the '20s jazz quaverer "Mirror of Love," the character-assassinating "He's Evil," the Kurt Weilish "Scum of the Earth," the nostalgic "Nothing Lasts Forever" and the Andrews Sistersish "Scrap Heap City." But on the whole the narrative drive is too unnuanced, and punctuation of the songs with BBC-like news bulletins filling you in on the plot doesn't help.

You could be kind and say that Preservation Act 2 is a prophetically paranoid tale that toys with our concepts of good and evil (true), but the effect of listening to the two-CD set is somewhat like getting on a train driven by a speed-freak engineer who won't let you get off until he's good and ready—and insists on singing you his entire story. The central problem with Preservation Act 2 is not that it is so single-mindedly plotted, it's that the whole plot is sunk into every song. You don't need a libretto to follow the story, it's all s-p-e-l-l-e-d out.

Here's the Preservation storyline in a nutshell: The Tramp, a wandering Everyman (i.e., Ray) returns to the Village. Mr. Flash, a ruthless, corrupt real-estate baron—along with his spivs and floozies—has seized control of the government. The villagers (you know, from Village Green) are dissatisfied and foolishly seek a new savior in Mr. Black, a repressive conservative ("Down with nudity, breasts that are bare, and pubic hair"). He has a monstrous vision of a society "improved" by a fiendish form of mind control (the Cleansing Ceremony) devised by the eugenics-obsessed Mad Scientist that involves a brainwashing helmet. Flash, too late, finds his soul, and he and his cronies are eventually turned into robots, the ideal citizens in Mr. Black's new society. The Tramp is forced to undergo the treatment, too, and thus his loss of individuality is complete. (Some might see in this the kleansing of the Kinks, a band, by this time, little more than puppets carrying out Ray's ever-more-grandiose schemes).

It's not a bad plot, as rock operas go, the best part being that it doesn't compromise itself with some contrived, morally uplifting resolution (like some rock operas we could name). Things just get worse and worse (innit the truth, though?—especially as regards them bloody politicians), and a wonderfully bang-up Kurt-Weillian black humor conclusion it is. It ends spectacularly badly for all concerned. The uncompromising satirist in Davies won't give even his hero a happy ending. Still, it's hard to understand how a subtle caricaturist like Ray could have lost his sense of touch. Where is that poetic eye that was cast on everyday lives in Village Green? We miss the idiosyncratic loopiness, the quirkiness and plaintive reflections. It's as if Ray made a plan and followed it—how un-Kinklike! The only thing I can think of is that our hero must have been on drugs. (There are scenes in emergency rooms in X-Ray with nurses requesting autographs that might suggest it was perhaps all due to self-medication.)

Preservation's relentless explication drove critics into towering rages—they still haven't forgiven Davies for it. "Ray hasn't figured out the best way to write a musical is to write good songs," one of the kinder critics suggested, "not songs that just move the plot along." The more merciless said that there wasn't one good song on the whole damn double album. My suggestion is to listen to this double album (now on one CD) as you would Peter and the Wolf. As a story, as a rock audio book set to music. Just don't expect any rock anthems.

Ray, it turned out, was pretty good at constructing plots. Too good. The plots became a nutty sort of monorail—once he hopped on that train, he forgot what he was really good at. Still, you don't want to be too hard on Ray. Maybe, as he says, it's a work in progress.

"Yes, I'll sit back and listen and get the feeling it isn't quite finished yet." To my mind, it's already a little too finished. One expects more shagginess from Ray, more shaggy-dogness, even.

On completion of Preservation 2 in 1974, the Kinks toured with an elaborately mounted ninety-minute stage show in which Ray and the bandmates, plus some sidemen and female backup singers (who took on various identities to portray the characters) performed the opera from start to finish. This was really a sight to see, and it's a shame it was never filmed.

Because of its complex narrative and obvious lack of pop singles, Act 2 didn't do that well. But did the mixed reception deter maestro Ray one iota from his chosen path? Of course not! The following year he created two more rock operas. Take that!

From Solipsism to Infantile Regression
With A Soap Opera (1975), we are back in Kinkdom. This is a cute idea, with all the mockery and send-ups we expect from the Kinks. It's more of a concept album than an opera—a collection of individual songs with introductory (and hilarious) dialogue. The plot, such as it is, is rudimentary; a Bowie-esque superstar descends on a suburban household and changes places with an average bloke by the name of Norman. It's cute and funny, a rock fairy tale of switched identities and a satirical barb aimed at the inflated rock wankers of the early '70s—Messrs. Elton John, Rod Stewart, Bowie, Jagger, et al., who pompously strutted about arena stages with inflatable penises and such. The satire evidently doesn't involve Ray's condescending conceit—an Olympian rock god living the average fan's life in a little house on a corner, the moral being that no amount of rock-star prancing can equal the dramas in an average bloke's life. Nice of you, Dave, a rock star, to make this ever-so-subtle point. Ray's runaway solipsism—the notion that everything and everybody is in your own mind—is now consummate. He's star and fan.

"I thought it was an exercise in Ray's disappearing up his own arse," said the typically direct Dave Davies.

It's rock theater at its most eccentric, personal and autobiographical, loaded with great songs from the opening "Starmaker" riff (based on the Kinks-inspired Who song, "I Can't Explain") to the commuter's nightmare of "Rush Hour Blues," the melodrama about a shepherd's pie ("You Make It All Worth While") and on to various absurdist period pieces like the thumping "Nutty Ducks on the Wall": "My baby's got the most deplorable taste. Woo, woo, woo. I can sit through gossip and soap opera shows, but those ducks on the wall have got to go!"

Soap Opera is rock seen as theatrical inanity in the context of suburban life—its foibles affectionately viewed with transcendent surrealism reminiscent of the paintings of René Magritte. "The romantic become cynical side of Ray," says Dave.

Schoolboys in Disgrace (1975) serves rather as a theme on which to hang songs that are in themselves more Kinkslike than arias in an actual grand rock opera: more rock-oriented, gutsier, with a guitar-based melancholy. It's billed as a prequel to Preservation Act 1 (Mr. Flash appears in it as a randy school outcast), but it's just as much a disguised autobiography of Dave Davies, the Kinks' wild man and guitar wizard, and as such it released energies long missing in the band. If anything, it is a prequel to the Kinks' return to arena rock on their 1977 album, Sleepwalker. There are even some catchy rockers here—"I'm In Disgrace," the Whoish "The Hard Way," the Bandlike "Last Assembly" and the almost sincere "No More Looking Back."

Schoolboys, on the face of it, would seem a perfect theme for two cases of arrested development like Ray and Dave Davies, and it was, according to Ray, "a meditation on the loss of youthful innocence." But there's a bit too much nostalgia for their early educational experiences. A little Matt-Groening-School-Is-Hell cynicism might have helped.

Ray is a fiendish social satirist, and there are a lot of wickedly Dickensian caricatures and great ideas in these operas (and even some good songs). Still, you didn't want to see the Kinks pursue this indefinitely. The band that had virtually invented heavy metal had somehow turned into a socio-philosophical jazz/theatre ensemble. By 1975, Ray had been consumed by his troupe of characters. The Kinks as a band were slowly becoming invisible, disappearing into Ray's multiplying alter egos, reduced to homunculi who carried out King Ray's grandiose ideas.

And in Konklusion
After Schoolboys, the Kinks supposedly renounced concept albums and rock operas forever (and if you believe that...). On to hard rock city and then the stripped-down post-punk quartet of their late '70s comeback album, Low Budget, and the reflective mood of Think Visual (1986).

But visions of the old paint and the motley began to come back when Ray started writing his autobiography, X-Ray (An Unauthorized Autobiography) in the early '90s. Schizobiography might be more to the point. In X-Ray, an Orwellian corporation in the future sends a reporter back to North London to seek out the aging Ray Davies and get him to set the record straight. Good luck!

X-Ray led to the utterly charming touring musical autobiography, 20th Century Man/Storyteller, in which Ray mixes remembrance of Kinks past with acoustic versions of the band's classics (with Pete Matison on guitar.)

It wasn't long before thoughts of things theatrical began to arise again in Ray's head, prompted perhaps by the Boston performance of Preservation Act 2 in October of 1998 (they'd done Part I in 1993). There was (the perennial) talk of a movie version, but then has Ray actually finished fiddling with it? Of course, he hasn't.

"It's kind of my lost lifelong project, the thing that I constantly find myself going back to," he explains. "Just like Rembrandt kept painting his self-portrait. It's about lost innocence and lost friendship, and things that can never be recaptured, which are subjects that have always interested me. When we were originally doing it, somebody came up to me and said, 'It's a mess,' and I said, 'Yeah, isn't it great?' It's a real work-in-progress."

I wouldn't count on seeing Preservation Act in your video store anytime soon. Still, this isn't the end of maestro Raymond Douglas Davies, operamaniac. I forgot to mention that Ray wrote and directed Return to Waterloo for the BBC in 1983. I will, however, pass lightly over his 1971 soundtrack for Percy, a movie about a penis implant.

Will we see the Kinks on Broadway? The Who have been muckin' about on stage long enough. There're rumors of a Broadway show called Come Dancing (after their 1983 hit of the same name from State of Confusion), an intimate and cinematic memoir of Ray's older sister going out on dates to dancehall in the mode of Arthur and Village Green.

From Arthur to Schoolboys, Kinks rock operas can be seen as all part of a Muswell Hill ring cycle. Whatever the charts, critics or disenchanted fans thought of them at the time, it's an amazing body of work that deserves a serious re-listen—Because their quirky falling-apartness, garage-band approach to life and all-told dog's leg journey have been an inspiration to us all these years, and because, as Dave says, "Nobody else in rock in the early '70s was doing anything as daring, or as silly."