"Shangri-La" / The Kinks
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, RAY DAVIES
I wish I'd been at Hampton Court the other night when Ray Davies performed this song in concert, with the Crouch End Chorus joining in on the la's and ooh's. Ray hardly ever has performed it live. "Shangri-la" is one of those sleepers in the Kinks catalog; like the entire Arthur album, it's often overlooked even by Kinks fans, let alone people who barely know who the Kinks are. But the more I've listened to it over the years, the more I realize what a superb and profound song it is.
In the late 1960s, Ray Davies evolved from writing pop songs about love/sex to writing wonderful little three-minute satires of English life. He started out with barbed comedy in "Well-Respected Man" (September 1965) and "A House in the Country" (April 1966), but two years later, a tender note of sympathy has crept into a song like "Autumn Almanac" (October 1967), despite its snarky list of knee-jerk middle-class pleasures ("I like my football on a Saturday / Roast beef on Sunday / All right"). Even though its music-hall arrangement telegraphs parody, when the protagonist of "Autumn Almanac" declares "This is my street / And I'm never gonna leave it / And I'm always gonna stay here / If I live to be ninety-nine" -- well, I don't know about you, but I sense that part of Ray (the same claustrophobe who won't leave his room in "Waterloo Sunset") feels absolutely the same way. Why shouldn't we want to stay in a place where we feel we belong?
By the time Ray got to "Shangri-la" (September 1969), he had an even more complex attitude toward the middle-class Englishman whose home is his castle. The melancholy minor-key melody is your first clue, as well as the pensive ballad tempo -- this is a song that should be taken seriously. Now, the whole Arthur album was originally intended as the soundtrack for a TV film; these songs are sung by characters in the play, not in Ray's own persona. I've never seen the film (mostly because it was never made), but I have always assumed that "Shangri-la" is sung by an omniscient narrator to the main character (loosely based on Ray's brother-in-law), who has left England and family to relocate in a planned community in Australia.
That first verse is unbearably poignant: "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." This isn't just some snide put-down of middle-class complacency -- though there's surely a strain of that in there -- it's also an epiphany about the moment when one's dreams ring hollow. "Here is your reward for working so hard / Gone are the lavatories in the back yard / Gone are the days when you dreamed of that car / You just want to sit in your Shangri-la." I love that detail about the lavatories in the yard -- talk about fixing a cultural reference in one sharp stroke.
Oh, the satire comes stealing in in the later verses, as Ray describes the "little man" catching his commuter train and fretting over his mortgage; it's a pathetic tradeoff, on a time-installment plan: "Got a TV set and a radio / For seven shillings a week." Then Ray pans out, almost cinematically, for the wide-angle view -- "And all the houses in the street have got a name / 'Cos all the houses in the street they look the same / Same chimney pots, same little cars, same window panes" -- that's such a resonant little observation, about the English penchant for giving their houses cutesy names, even in a cookie-cutter development. It's details like that that make Ray Davies one of our greatest living songwriters.
Eventually Ray does dismiss the character as "Too scared to think about how insecure you are / Life ain't so happy in your little Shangri-la." But I don't know -- I still think he's identifying with him, and more than a little bit.
There's always been this tension in Ray Davies, between the restless misfit genius and the champion of the common man. Eventually he wrote a whole rock musical about it, Soap Opera, where he played both the Starmaker and the bland suburbanite Norman -- who turn out to be one and the same. That tension may make it hard to be Ray Davies, god knows, but it also happens to be the wellspring of some of his very greatest music.