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Vol. LXIV, No. 30
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
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Record Review

Everybody Needs an Education: School Days With the Kinks

Stuart Mitchner

“No more looking back,” the song goes. “No more living in the past, yesterday’s gone and that’s a fact.”

The song was written by Ray Davies for his group, the Kinks, who perform it on the classic album Schoolboys in Disgrace, a backward look at school days recorded 35 years ago this August. Ray Davies is on my mind because I saw him just now on YouTube, a week past his 66th birthday singing “Days” at this year’s Glastonbury festival. He choked up a bit at the start — ”Thank you for the days, those endless days, those sacred days you gave me” — because he’d dedicated the performance to the memory of his old bandmate, Pete Quaife, one of the original Kinks, who had died only a few days before on June 24. It’s an emotional song, all the more so when more than a hundred thousand people are singing along with Ray on the chorus, “Days I’ll remember all my life,” not to mention the big choir flanking him, male voices on one side, female voices on the other, all singing with passion and joy this anthem to the sanctity of old times and old friends.

Like many of Ray Davies’s most characteristic songs, “No More Looking Back” does what it seems to be denying. The singer may tell himself “yesterday’s gone,” but the heart of the song, that tipping point where the music and emotion chime and soar, comes with the lines where his memory is having its way with him, “And just when I think you’re out of my head/I hear a record you played or see a book that you read./Then you’re in every bar, you’re in every cafe,/You’re driving every car, I see you every day.”

In another song that confounds its own title even as it echoes the title of the album, Ray sings “I’m in Disgrace” as if it were the best of all possible places to be, not a slough of shame but a mountaintop. And his confession and plea for mercy in the headmaster’s office (“I’ve been with those naughty little girls again,/Now those naughty little girls are going to put me to shame”) makes you want to get down on your knees and sing along (“Headmaster, please spare me I beg you/Don’t make me take my trousers down”). Shame rocks! And like all the best songs on the album, it’s driven by the inspired guitar playing of Ray’s “kid brother” Dave, who spent many hours in the real-life headmaster’s office and in the liner notes to the CD admits, “Ray borrowed the story from my actual experiences, so I was very motivated to help with the music.”

But the best is yet to come. By all rights, “The Hard Way,” the hardest, heaviest rocker on the album and a Kinks concert favorite for 20 years, should be sung from the point of view of the punished hero. Instead, Ray, in effect, gives the song to the headmaster: “Boys like you were born to waste,/You never listen to a word I say.” Then, after being seared by possibly the greatest Dave Davies guitar lick this side of “You Really Got Me,” the headmaster begins to get the point that rock and roll and education can save the day. “Your intellect is such/That it requires a killer’s touch/So I’m going to play it your way/We’ll take the hard way/Going to take the hard way.” In the guts, heart and soul of this song is the essence of the Kinks, Ray’s vision and Dave’s fire.

Then there’s Ray’s masterpiece, “Education,” where in eight minutes he takes us from the Stone Age to the stars on the way to a simple message, “Teacher, teach me about nuclear physics/And teach me about the structure of man,/But all your endless calculations/Can’t tell me why I am.”

The news that Schoolboys in Disgrace is being made into a “high school musical” with Ray as executive producer is interesting mainly in that it may send people back to the source, one of the great unsung albums of the 1970s. Nothing else to say but the phrase that launched a thousand T-shirts (inspired by lines like “God save little shops, china cups, and virginity” and “God save Tudor houses, antique tables, and billiards” from the 1967 LP, The Village Green Preservation Society): God Save the Kinks.

Westbury Sing Along

Fifteen years ago this summer, my 19-year-old son and I drove into the depths of darkest Long Island to see the Kinks play what turned out to be their last American concert, possibly their last ever, August 1, 1995, at the Westbury Music Fair. I can’t remember which of us was wearing my moth-eaten 25-year-old God Save the Kinks T-shirt, which I’d purchased at a Paramus N.J. concert in the early 1970s. Other aging Kinks fanatics were there in more presentable versions of the same T-shirt, some, like me, with offspring who had inherited their parents’ obsessions.

The great thing about Westbury is that it’s a smallish arena where the stage revolves so that everyone has a view of the action and even if you aren’t close enough to actually shake the musicians by the hand, you feel as if you are. Alone on the stage, Ray Davies is seated on a stool wearing a plaid work shirt and playing an acoustic guitar. He’s begun the show ahead of the rest of the band and the first song is “Autumn Almanac.” Ray doesn’t have to ask twice before everyone’s singing along, even though the lyric with its references to buttered currant buns and Blackpool and roast beef on Sundays is not as familiar as “You Really Got Me” or “Lola.”

Singing along with a few thousand others is a special experience. You find yourself sharing the moment with all kinds of unlikely types, including a fair assortment of grey-ponytailed bikers. As much as I love the song, I don’t have all the words right, but my son does. He’s on his feet the whole time, singing, shouting, cheering, waving his arms, and doing some of the things that sometimes got him in trouble at school. Here it’s fine because everyone’s doing the same thing.

The Front Room

My son used to “hate” the Kinks until at some point he realized that the heavy metal sound he liked best had been born in the primal guitar riff played by Ray’s brother Dave in “You Really Got Me.” In his “unauthorized autobiography,” X-Ray (Overlook 1995), Ray describes the moment the song came to life in the front room of the Davies’ North London home: “I called Dave in from the kitchen where he was having dinner with the rest of the family, and he picked up his guitar and plugged into the green amp. He started playing along with the riff I was punching out with my left hand [on the old upright]. As the amp warmed up I heard that wonderful distorted sound.” As he and Dave played, “some of my sisters came in to listen. Peg sat on the settee next to her daughter Jackie, Mom hovered by the door, half afraid the neighbors would call the police again —. I had written ‘You Really Got Me,’ and it had happened in the front room because all important things happened there.”

A year later my son and I made a pilgrimage to the little house in Denmark Terrace. “Little” is the word. The famous front room looked to be barely large enough to hold a family of three, let alone one with mother, father, six sisters, two rock-crazed brothers and a green amp.

Better Things

Thanks to google and YouTube, I’ve found that Ray is doing an album of his songs in the form of duets with other stars. Earlier this year he recorded “Better Things” with Bruce Springsteen. Another duet was accomplished in a split-screen Christmas video with his onetime partner Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders singing “Postcards from London,” a song written by their 16-year-old daughter Natalie Ray Hynde.

Perhaps the most promising news of all is the possibility of the Kinks reforming. Ray says it’s in the works but that the decision rests with his brother Dave.

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