“Dead End Street” & “Sunny Afternoon” / The Kinks
LET'S CELEBRATE KINKS WEEK!!!
This coming Thursday will be Ray Davies’ 63rd birthday -- a full week o’ Kinks is definitely called for. And where better to start than with these two 1966 singles, both classic Ray Davies portraits of modern English life?
They’ve got a lot in common, these two tracks. Their intros, to start with -- “Sunny Afternoon” has that insistent minor-key bass line, two beats per note, marching down a chromatic scale; in “Dead End Street” it’s the same rhythm but hung up on one note, backed by a Salvation-Army-style French horn. If “Sunny Afternoon” is a perfect summer song (“Lazin’ on a sunny afternoon / In the summertime,” says the refrain), then “Dead End Street” is its matching winter song – “On a cold and frosty morning / Wipe my eyes and stop me yawning / And my feet are nearly frozen / Boil the tea and put some toast on.”
But the characters who sing these two songs are at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. The bloke in “Dead End Street” is a down-on-his-luck working man -- “What are we living’ for / Two-room apartment on the second floor / No chance to emigrate / I’m deep in debt and it’s much too late.” Like the novelist-in-song he is, Ray deals out scene-setting details: “There’s a crack up in the ceiling / And the kitchen sink is leaking / Out of work and got no money / Sunday joint of bread and honey.” True, the oppressed working man is a typical character for a rock ’n’ roll song, but this one’s attitude is hardly standard-issue rocker rebellion -- “We are strictly second–class / And we don’t understand . . . We both want to work so hard / And we can’t get the chance”). Where’s the revolution in that?
“Sunny Afternoon”’s hero, though, is a totally unlikely rock protagonist: “The taxman’s taken all my dough / And left me in my stately home . . . And I can’t sail my yacht / He’s taken everything I’ve got.” Taken in by the catchy honky-tonk of the chorus (“Save me save me save me from this squeeze / I got a big fat mama tryin’ to break me / And I love to live so pleasantly / Live this life of luxury”) it took me a while to realize that this song stars an overtaxed millionaire. After all, Ray sings both tracks in the same plaintive voice. Ray Davies, champion of the common man – taking the side of a rich tax exile? What gives?
Well, on one level, Ray did probably empathize with the “Sunny Afternoon” guy – at that time he himself was embroiled in a lawsuit to recover royalties owed him. Whatever the background, Ray sounds worked up over the situation, what with the guy’s girlfriend ditching him, taking his car, and slandering him (“Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty,” Ray sings with extra self-pity – as his character obliviously downs an ice-cold beer).
Basically, the government’s screwing folks at both ends of the social ladder, and each of our heroes is baffled by the injustice of it. The music-hall strain running through both songs (dig the boozy trombone and sloppy piano at the end of “Dead End Street”) signals that there’s comedy afoot – that old ironical Ray Davies pose – but no matter how many times I listen, I STILL FEEL SORRY for these blokes. And yet . . . these droll, deadpan rock shuffles never fail to life my spirits. That's what a good tune'll do for you.
Sunny Afternoon and Dead End Street samples