“Autumn Almanac” & “Shangri-la” / The Kinks
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Long before Ben Folds and Fountains of Wayne started writing their odes to suburban life, there was Ray Davies, peering out the windows of his East Finchley villa to chronicle the lives of his neighbors.
Take the narrator of his 1967 single “Autumn Almanac.”
It opens with such nostalgic pastoral charm: “From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar / When the dawn begins to crack / It’s all part of my autumn almanac / Breeze blows leaves of a musty-colored yellow / So I sweep them in my sack.” You can’t tell me that’s not lovely, despite the twinges in our hero’s rheumatic back. I’m warmed by the comforting image of his friends gathering for “tea and toasted buttered currant buns.” The sound is a music hall softshoe, with corny horns, plinky piano, and sugary backing ooh’s; good times, good times.
But once Ray has hooked us, he begins to layer on mundane details that spell out the guy’s complacency: “I like my football on a Saturday, / Roast beef on Sundays, all right. / I go to Blackpool for my holidays, / Sit in the open sunlight” (sung in a plumping rhythm in a wavery old-timey Victorola voice -- this is where the satire starts to really dig in). In the last verse -- if you can call them verses; the melody never repeats itself, just rambles in a senile wool-gathering way -- Ray lets his narrator hang himself: “This is my street / And I’m never gonna leave it,” he stoutly declares, “And I’m always gonna stay here / If I live to be 99 / ‘Cos all the people I meet / Seem to come from my street”). Well, yeah, if you never go anywhere else, that’s who you’re bound to meet, innit?
Just two years later, Ray Davies revisits this territory with “Shangri-La,” a single off their LP Arthur (the soundtrack for a never-completed teleplay that would have been the first rock opera – but that’s another story).
Ray isn’t playing a character this time, he’s addressing a man who’s finally “made it” to that detached villa. All the flip satire is gone; Ray sings with earnest poignance, “Now that you’ve found your paradise / This is your kingdom to command / You can go outside and polish your car / Or sit by the fire in your Shangri-la.” The rueful melody drifts down the scale, ending every line on a gruff low note. Even before Ray tells you about the hollowness of this dream fulfilled, the melody’s made you feel it.
Yes, “Gone are the lavatories in the back yard” (a vivid and totally English detail, baffling to us Americans) – but Ray counters that with the reminder that “You've reached your top and you just can't get any higher.” How depressing is that? Then the satire turns even more biting: “The little man who gets the train / Got a mortgage hanging over his head / But he's too scared to complain.” I don’t know, I think Ray sounds terrified by this prospect -- terrified because he’s tempted by it too. And here’s the capping image: “And all the houses in the street have got a name / 'Cos all the houses in the street they look the same.” That English penchant for cutesy house names – “Rose Cottage” or “Storm’s End” – we don’t do that in America, but we’re just as guilty of building cookie-cutter housing developments. Little boxes on a hillside – there’s a nightmare for you.
Ray actually seems fond of his “Autumn Almanac” geezer and his cozy neighbours, but the guy in “Shangri-la”? He’s a gloomy wreck, surrounded by vicious gossips and weighed down by debt payments. Comedy and tragedy – just two sides of the same coin, courtesy of Mr. Ray Davies.
Autumn Almanac and Shangri-la samples