Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Well Respected Man" / The Kinks

When Diablo Cody went to collect her Oscar last Sunday night for writing the film
Juno, what song did the orchestra play? Even though most of the soundtrack is by Kimya Dawson, maestro Bill Conti went instead for "Well-Respected Man" -- great choice, sir!

When this song was released in 1965 (on the
Kwyet Kinks EP in the UK, the Kinkdom LP in the States), it sure didn't fit the mold the Kinks had established for themselves with songs like "You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night," "Tired of Waiting for You," and "Set Me Free." I remember hearing this one on the radio and being baffled when my older brother said it was the Kinks. Where were the grinding guitar chords, the inarticulate longing, the undertones of hostility and aggression?

Instead, here was a song that was actually...
perky. And all those words! I hadn't a clue what British music hall sounded like, but I certainly hadn't heard it in rock & roll before. The earliest similar Beatles tune I can think of would be "Drive My Car," which Lennon & McCartney wrote in October '65, a month after the Kwyet Kinks EP came out. Coincidence? I think not.

Ray Davies knew what he was doing: The music hall style was perfect for social satire like this, and Ray gave it an extra spin with his slightly effete vocal and exaggerated pronunciation of the new polysyllabic lyrics. I love the eye-rolling emphasis of brother Dave backing up Ray on the repeated high notes of "OH SO good" and "OH SO fine" in the chorus. Between the bouncy rhythm and the flippant style, this send-up comes off as clever rather than vicious. There's always been a vein of sympathy in Ray's satire -- think of "Autumn Almanac," "Dead End Street," "Shangri-La," even "David Watts" (the one exception being "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" -- he doesn't cut that guy any slack.)

As the song develops, I feel more and more sorry for this well-respected man, boxed in by his job and his routine and his reputation and that awful controlling mother. I mean, what kind of joy is there, really, in a "world built 'round punctuality" and being "healthy in his body and his mind" and "doing the best thing / So conserva-tive-ly"? True, he is a self-satisfied prig, as Ray reminds us in verse three: "He likes his own back yard" (like in "Autumn Almanac," "This is my street / And I'm never gonna leave it"), he likes his cigarettes the best (were Jagger and Richards thinking of this song when they wrote "Satisfaction"?), and he even thinks "his own sweat smells the best." Notice how Ray gives up rhyming at this point, ending every line with the predictable "best," in perfectly clipped diction.

Ray explores the cracks in that polished facade in verse four: "And he goes to the Regatta, / And he adores the girl next door, / 'Cause he's dying to get at her." ("Regat-ta/ get at her" -- now there's a rhyme I would give anything to have written.) There is a bit of juice in the well respected man after all. But the manacles clamp down on him in the next line: "But his mother knows the best about / The mata-ri-mo-nial state." The guy hasn't got a chance.

Honestly, "You Really Got Me" disturbed me at age 10; I was way too young, and too much a girl, to become a Kinks fan based on those early singles. But this sort of stuff? It was
much more my cup of tea. Of course, just a few months later the Kinks would mysteriously disappear from the US airwaves, and I'd lose sight of them until 1971. But the seeds of my Kinks addiction were already sown.

A Well Respected Man sample


IƱaki said...

Ray says this song changed everything and was the beginning of their new era. I probably agree, and I see you do too!

Uncle E said...

That song and Waterloo Sunset represent the soul of the Kinks, in my opinion. Great character sketches. They could rock out with the best, but I've always been more partial to the cerebral stuff.

Mark said...

Ah, great song! Good work on catching this on the Oscars, I watched too, but I had no idea they played this as Diablo Cody won! The punctuality line does kind of make me feel sorry for this guy, I especially like the line about, "Gets the same train every time." It's depressing to think about how routine our lives can be at times, a theme that Ray explores in other songs like "Do It Again," and "Repetition."

Knnlly said...

Let me preface this with saying that I don't like Juno, or at least the 22 minutes of the downloaded copy I was able to bear out of morbid curiosity.

But I do love The Kinks, and when I found out that "A Well Respected Man" was on the movie's soundtrack, I suspected that the irony and satire of the song would be lost in the way it was used in the film. I feel that how "Juno" used it in the early scene I saw missed Ray's point (which was the only thing about the film I enjoyed), and wanted to see if anyone agreed.

Anonymous said...

Personally I felt that Ray was prostituted, by not Diablo, but by the director, Jason Reitman. Shortly after "Juno" was released (rather ESCAPED), Miss Diablo and Mr Reitman were interviewed on NPR in a publicity push. Gosh, he was so impressed with his self coolness...going so far as to put Mott The Hooples/Bowie's anthemic "All The Young Dudes" on the soundtrack for no apparent reason. Either.

"Juno," as most movies (I'm with you, Holly, on "Wild Heart) was overrated, and too precious by half. Too bad, cause Ellen Page is fun.

Yeah, it was a great surprise when WRM came out. I remember watching a local American Bandstand type show on NYC television the first time I heard it. It blew me away.

I guess it's just me, but I have always gotten a HUGE country vibe from the song, even in its own tweedyness.