Sunday, November 08, 2009

"Get Back In Line" / The Kinks

Oh, I'm NOT going to write about "Lola." I am grateful to that song for resurrecting the Kinks' US popularity in 1971; and yeah, I'll sing along lustily when Ray performs it in concert. But it's been overplayed and I'm tired of it. I hate the fact it's one of the few Kinks songs that most people know.

And there are so many better songs on Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One. (Crazy title, hunh?) One of the first Kinks albums I ever owned, its songs are deeply imprinted in my brain. I've already written about two of them, Strangers and Apeman. But for today's designated album, I had to write about "Get Back In Line."

A lot of Lola v Powerman's satire about the music business went right over my head as a kid -- I'd never been to "Denmark Street," had never read NME or Melody Maker or watched "Top of the Pops" on TV; I had no idea who those guys were in "The Moneygoround" (Robert? Larry? Grenville?). Not that that stopped me from loving those snappy comic gems. Nestled amidst them, however, "Get Back In Line" always stole my heart. I'd seen all those gritty black-and-white 1960s British working-class movies, like "This Sporting Life" and "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning"; just like their working-class protagonists, Ray's aspiring musician goes glumly to the labour exchange, hoping to get a job. (Okay, it's a recording gig as a session man, perhaps, not a backbreaking day in the mines, but STILL, it feels menial to him.) With its plodding melody, bucketing drums, and Salvation-Army-style organ, it's like a snapshot of workers hunched in shabby overcoats, shuffling along a sooty brick wall.

Ray Davies has never done a day's hard labor himself, but it was all around him growing up, especially in the austerity of 1950s Britain. Unemployment was on his mind five years earlier, when he wrote the jaunty but dark "Dead End Street"; on this song his empathy with the working man has become gentler, more tender. "Facing the world ain't easy / When there isn't anything going," he remarks wistfully in verse one; "Standing at the corner waiting / Watching time go by." Hopelessness, male pride, and mind-numbing boredom well up in his heart, as he wonders dully: "Will I go to work today or / Shall I bide my time?" The most touching line comes later, in verse two, when he says to his wife/sweetheart: "I don't ever want you to see me / Standing in that line." Poor emasculated guy! (Trust Ray to focus on wounded pride rather than the rumbling belly...)

With a momentous drum fill, our hero looks up and sees the ruler of his miserable little universe: The Union Man. "He's the man who decides if I live or I die, / If I starve or I eat," he declares, the line swelling with apprehension as it hangs on one anxious note. And then we get a cinematic little shot: "He walks up to me and the sun begins to shine" (cue up spangly guitars), only to dissolve into a series of sledgehammer beats as "he walks right past and I know that I've got to get / Back in the line." I love how the back-up harmonies chime in on alternate lines here; our hero's not the only person holding his breath as The Union Man struts past.

I love the slow wheezy twang of "Get Back In Line"; it's a taste of what we'd be getting on the Kinks' next album, Muswell Hillbillies. In a way, this song is the flip side of Muswell's "Uncle Son," another song about union politics; you could also match it up with Think Visual's "Working At the Factory," where Ray moans about the assembly-line drudgery of recording. (May I repeat: Ray Davies has never done a day's menial labor.) But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's just savor the sweet melancholy of "Get Back In Line." Funny how Lola v Powerman set out to be the Kinks' most satiric album -- and yet it contains some of the most wistful, affectionate songs Ray Davies ever wrote. Go figure.

TOMOTTOW: Percy and "The Way Love Used To Be"


wwolfe said...

I was hoping this song would be your choice from this album. (Man, what a bad album title! Only Sting's "The Dream of the Blue Turtles" rivals it for overstuffed meaninglessness.) I'd suggest that this song does make the connection mentioned in Mr. pleasant's post for "Victoria." That song, and the entire "Arthur" album, is very focused on the English class system. Victoria is the Queen, with a vast empire spanning the globe, while Arthur is the faceless working class lad who'll go to war defending that empire. There is a parallel, I think, with "Get Back in Line." If, as I've read, this was Ray's tribute to session musicians like Nicky Hopkins, then it's not too much of a stretch to see bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who as the globe-spanning monarchs of great empires - empires of music, finance, and fame itself. In terms of a class system, Hopkins was to John and Paul and Mick and Keith what Arthur was to Queen Victoria: the common foot soldier who helped expand rulers' empire. Now of course there's more than a small element of the ridiculous to this comparison: no one was shooting at Nicky Hopkins, and he surely was better paid than Arthur ever was. But if the coin of the realm in Swinging London was celebrity, Mick Jagger was Queen Victoria (an analogy I think he might enjoy), and Nicky Hopkins was Arthur. In that sense, I'd argue there is a connection from the previous album to this one.

Holly A Hughes said...

Absolutely. Even in the Kinks' themselves, John Dalton -- who'd been invited to fill in for Pete Quaife for awhile -- went back to his construction job when Pete changed his mind and decided to rejoin the Kinks.(Lucky for the Kinks Nobby was still available when Pete quit the second time.)

I love it that Ray was never specific about the job in this song. Could just as easily have been a pipe fitter or a coal miner as a session musician. "Session Man" sounds a bit condescending to Nicky and his kind, but this one is totally sympathetic.

My favorite Ray story about session musicians: After Shel Talmy finished mixing "Dead End Street" and went home, Ray went into the pub across the street and found a trombonist from a pit orchestra who'd just finished his show and was busy getting pissed as fast as possible before last call. Ray hauled him back to the studio and recorded that wonderful boozy ending to the song. I'm not sure how long it was before Shel actually listened to the track and discovered the kids had been messing around after hours.

Vivalabeat said...

Dave wrote in his book about this song. He says it's one of his most favorite songs Ray ever wrote. :)

I love this song as the album itself. Thanks for the post, Holly.

Betty C. said...

This is generally my favorite Kinks' album. (Of course these things can change depending on my mood.) And I don't even tire of Lola, although I agree that it's too bad so many people know only that song and maybe, say, "You Really Got Me" -- which I do tire of!

Holly A Hughes said...

You know what? I secretly am delighted too whenever I hear Lola. It's just the IDEA of Lola that I'm tired of!

Anonymous said...

"The Crying Game" was on IFC last night and as I awaited "The Decision" on the LeBron grotesquery, I couldn't help but think of how the bar scene's so richly evoked "Lola."

"Get Back In The Line" is poignant. My grandfather would tell stories about how he and his friends would go down to the pier at Todd's in Red Hook, Brooklyn, hoping for a job. There, they would "shape up," (that is, look sharp as the all powerful foreman looked everybody over) and just hope that they would be picked.
All he wanted to do was "make some money" and bring his wife "some wine."