Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Phenomenal Cat" / The Kinks

On the Kinks Preservation Society on-line digest, this obscure track -- track 11 of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society -- recently provoked a flurry of discussion; it's been on my mind ever since. Granted, "Phenomenal Cat" is the sort of song only Kinks Kultists would pay much attention to. To most other listeners, it's just a fey nursery-rhyme tune, the sort of thing Donovan was turning out by the bushel back in 1968, rife with gauzy flower-child sentimentality.

But we Kultists know that Ray Davies never cashed in mindlessly on a fad. Even if this song is on one level a parody of those hippie fairy tales, it's not just a cynical send-up. By the time Ray Davies was done with it, he'd created a marvelous sly bit of satire.

It doesn't sound at all like a rock song -- that jazz flute intro reminds me of a 50s TV theme, maybe for an afternoon cartoon show. It's followed by a slightly creepy mellotron, each wheezy note sounding like a stealthy paw-tread, accompanied by offbeat tambourine whacks, like a rattlesnake. The prancing melody of the verse is dead simple, like something a kindergartner would play at his first piano recital; the opening lines are pure Brothers Grimm: "A long, long time ago, / In the land of idiot boys, / There lived a cat, a phenomenal cat." I picture Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat, as Ray no doubt expected us to.

Carroll's cat is a perverse character, and so is the Kinks' -- the first descriptive detail we get tells us that he "loved to wallow all day." (As Ray sings it, the vowel play of "wallow all day" is enchanting.) This cat sits contentedly in his tree, placidly gorging himself: "He just lived to eat 'cause it kept him fat, / And that's how he wanted to stay." Oh -- so this is a Fat Cat, lording it over those idiot boys. If you're paying attention -- if you haven't been mesmerized by that sing-song rhythm and the insinuating mellotron -- you should impose a new face on that Cheshire Cat, like maybe Rupert Murdoch, or Warren Buffet, or Donald Trump.

Which makes the rest of the song's seeming nonsense fall into line. As the bridge morphs into a sinister minor key, we learn "Though he was big and fat, /All the world was good to him." The world IS good to these Masters of the Universe, without a doubt. Then we get a gazetteer of his far-flung travels, to "Cowes, Sardinia, Kathmandu, / The Scilly Isles and Sahara, too." As people on the KPS Digest so cleverly parsed these lines, Cowes is there because cows produce milk, which cats love -- but Cowes is also a yachters' haven, as are the Scilly (silly?) Isles. Sardinia (sardines, kitty?) is another posh getaway spot, while Kathmandu (pun with cat) and Sahara are just expensively exotic. Add to that the assonance and alliteration of all those hard c's and s's and short a's and you've got sheer brilliance.

At last -- voila! -- the cat himself deigns to speak, though all he says, in a weird strained chant (did I read somewhere that that's Mick Avory singing, on a speeded-up tape?), is an inscrutable "Fum, fum, diddle-um di." The wavery tones of the mellotron, that echoing voice, give the song a surreal edge in this section, though it never blooms into to full-scale psychedelia; that was never the Kinks' bag.

In the second bridge, Ray reveals the source of the cat's power: Long ago -- "Once when he was thin" -- he learned the secret of life in Hong Kong. That mysterious Far East connection makes our fat cat even more suspect, as if there was some smuggling or opium trafficking along the way. And whatever the secret of life is, the selfish cat's keeping it to himself; all he'll say is another round of "la-la-la's" and "Fum, fum, diddle-um di."

For all I know, Ray wrote this song about someone in particular that he wanted to skewer (some record executive? the Beatles? At this rocky junction in his career, Ray must have had a mile-long list of people he had it in for). Whatever or whoever the inspiration was, what we're left with is a peculiarly charming little oddity, tucked in among all the other eccentric portraits on VGPS. Minor song? Well, there are plenty of other artists who would have made a whole career out of a song this beguiling. Overshadowed it may be by the Kinks' greater songs, but it's the little-known gems like this -- and you'll find them on all their albums -- that make me a Kinks fan.

Phenomenal Cat video


Iñaki said...

Holly, the "cat voice" is Ray, not Dave or Mick as sometime has been said. Chris has a clip in which he reduced the speed and you can hear it very clearly. I'll try to find the link.

At first I considered Phenomenal Cat the weakest song on VGPS but with time I've learned to appreciate it. :)

iñaki said...

Holly A Hughes said...

From reading the 33 1/3 book on the recording of this album, I'm not surprised -- it seems that Ray never let the rest of the band in on anything he was doing in the studio. :D Thanks for the background!