Friday, November 13, 2009

"Cricket" / The Kinks

Nowadays when I review records, I have to email PR firms to request MP3 files (or just get temporary access to an audio stream); occasionally they might email me a PDF of the cover. It's not like when I was in college, reviewing record albums for the campus newspaper -- every week I'd automatically receive a fat carton of 33 1/3 vinyl LPs, gatefold covers and all, from the three or four record companies that had me on their lists. It was like Christmas all year long.

I still remember the day in November 1973 when I ripped open the weekly RCA shipment and found the Kinks' Preservation Act 1 inside. How I held the long-awaited new LP in my hands, puzzling over the cover! I knew the Kinks were a five-man band -- so who were all these other men (and women!) in the ragtag crew on the cover? And that ugly billboard they were posed in front of; was that a caricature of Josef Stalin, or of . . . Ray Davies? What was going on? Intrigued, I put the LP on my turntable to have a listen.

Now, plenty of Kinks fans were driven away by the two Preservation albums. Not me, baby. This was the record I'd been waiting for my whole life. Ray Davies had finally gone full-on theatrical, with a full pit orchestra and campy voices (in "There's a Change in the Weather" alone, he sings three different characters). The actual story of Preservation was hard to piece together from these dozen songs -- but man, they were such eccentric, fabulous numbers, I didn't care.

I've already written about three tracks from this album: Sweet Lady Genevieve, Where Are They Now, and Sitting in the Midday Sun. All of these are sung by a bemused narrator, The Tramp; any of them could stand alone as a single, outside of the concept album. But this is how hard-core a Preservation fan I am: My personal favorite song on the album is "Cricket," a song so eccentric that even die-hard Kinks fans often disown it.

"Cricket" isn't sung by the Ray-Davieslike Tramp; it's sung in a fey, campy voice by a smarmy character called the Vicar. Ostensibly it's about cricket, a game so esoterically British, I still can't follow how it's played (except that instead of a seventh-inning stretch, the players break for tea). The song is thickly larded with obscure cricket terminology -- phrases like "LBW" and "googlies and legbreaks and offspins." On first listen, I had no idea what he was talking about; I had to look up those phrases on the lyrics printed on the cover -- not that that made it any clearer. (Oh, if I'd only had Google in those days!)

But the Vicar isn't just singing about a sport -- having been raised a Methodist, I know a metaphor-packed sermon when I hear one. The Vicar admits it right up front in verse one: "Some people say that life's a game, / Well if this is so, I'd like to know / The rules on which the game of life is based. / I know of no game more fitting than the age-old game of cricket / It has honour, it has character, and it's British." The smug complacency of that last line is Ray's big wink to the audience -- we realize we can't take the Vicar, or his metaphors, seriously.

In verse two, the Vicar pulls out his central metaphor: "Now the Devil has a player and he's called the Demon Bowler, / He's shrewd, he's rude, he's wicked." (Love that internal rhyme!). Years later I would learn that Ray didn't make this guy up; since Victorian times the Demon Bowler has been a term to describe any wickedly fast bowler (or pitcher, to us Yanks). You'll find it in old Punch cartoons, or P.G. Wodehouse stories; it's a phrase so ingrained in upper-class British culture that it had almost lost its satanic overtones -- but Ray Davies put them back with a vengeance.

Ray's vocal quivers with cartoonish self-righteousness as he sings my favorite line in the song: "He'll baffle you with googlies / With leg breaks and offspin / But keep a level head and don't let that demon in." And the Vicar's advice for foiling the dread Demon Bowler? It's straight out of the stiff-upper-lip manual: "So keep a straight bat at all times, let the Bible be your guide / And you'll get by, yes you'll get by. " He gets even more histrionic in verse three; I can just imagine Ray waggling his finger in the air as he exhorts his congregation: "The Devil takes the weak in spirit, so we must always be courageous! / And remember that God is on your side."

We're way beyond music hall here; this is full-blown pantomime, mustache-twirling villains and all. "Cricket" is no prim Anglican hymn: it's all revival-meeting dramatics, and that horn section is absolutely crucial, adding its Salvation-Army style oom-pah (that bloopy, farting tuba!). The lumbering tempo, the fastidiously mincing melody -- you can't take it seriously. You aren't supposed to take it seriously.

And yet, it's not just a novelty song. Ray Davies never writes "just" novelty songs. The Vicar's hypocrisy and simplistic moral vision are part of what's rotten at the core of society, leaving the people of Preservation vulnerable to schemers like Mr. Black and Mr. Flash. On Preservation Act 1, the vision is still soft-focus and pastoral, but Ray was already laying the foundation for the evil to come in Act 2.I wouldn't receive Act 2 for another six months, though. In the meantime, I played Preservation Act 1 over and over, memorizing every vocal quirk, every odd phrase, every ironic instrumental flourish. It was like going down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland -- who knew what I would find at the other end?

COMING SOON: Preservation Act 2 and "Scum of the Earth"


Anonymous said...

have a cuppa tea is often in my head.

Anonymous said...

..."And you know that that's not cricket."

Of course not, it's

Anonymous said...


It is a wonderful conceptual play a great beauty but underestimated. It is the most ambitious project davies Ray, why is the Bible of The Kinks !!!
Melodies all beautiful, elegant, metal instruments, strings, female vocals and varied to be a great play. Worst of all is that the conceptual albumnes usually have very bad review. GREAT WORK