"Have A Cuppa Tea" / The Kinks
Of all the great songs on Muswell Hillbillies -- my personal favorite of all the Kinks' albums -- why pick "Have A Cuppa Tea"? Well, for one thing, I've already written about Complicated Life and Oklahoma USA, and tackled all the big "themes" of this very funny, and deeply serious, album. But also, I can't help loving this song. I've loved it since the day I first brought home this album in 1973. (I know, I know, it was released in 1971, but I was a bit late to the party.)
It may be gussied up with bluegrass and gospel and country-music twang, but Muswell Hillbillies is still really about North London. On Village Green Preservation Society, Ray mourned the passing of quaintly English things like church steeples and china cups and steam trains; on Muswell Hillbillies, he eulogizes something even dearer to his heart, the working-class urban districts that English Heritage preservationists paid no attention to. This was Ray Davies' village green; this is where he belongs. He can't stop the people in grey from knocking it down, but he can preserve its essence in song before it's wiped away forever. And for a kid like me -- raised in Indiana, but madly in love with London, right down the last sooty brick and grimy chimneypot -- Ray Davies' song were like a magic portal into what I saw as the "real" London.
"Have A Cuppa Tea" begins like a 1930s cakewalk, just acoustic guitar and piano, but if you're expecting some twee tea party -- the sort Paul McCartney might serve up -- think again. Starting in his lowest voice, Ray bounces up the scale like he's bounding up stairs, as Granny bursts onto the scene : "Granny's always ravin' and rantin', / And she's always puffin' and pantin', / And she's always screaming and shouting, / And she's always brewing up tea." Hardly your typical genteel little old lady, eh? I can just see this woman racketing around her narrow two-up-two-down row house, pinafore flapping, hair under a kerchief, sleeves rolled up above her red rough hands. (No dishwashers for her.) And then her husband bellies up to the table: "Grandpappy's never late for his dinner, / Cos he loves his leg of beef" -- reminds me of the bloke in "Autumn Alamanc," and how he loves his "roast beef on Sunday, all right!" But just so we don't idealize Grandpappy either, Ray tells us, "He washes it down with a brandy, / And a fresh made pot of tea."
On this album, the newest Kink -- keyboard player John Gosling -- really comes into his own, perfecting track after track with brilliant musical colorations. Listen to his baroque trills in the dainty minuet of the chorus -- ironic, of course -- as Granny invites us in: "Have a cuppa tee-ee-ee-ee-ea, have a cuppa tea." But there'll be no little fingers crooked here; the second half of the chorus is a thigh-slappin' gospel hoedown: "Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, Rosie Lea!" That Cockney touch at the end -- "Rosie Lea" being rhyming slang for "tea" -- perfectly seals the deal.
In verse two, Ray recites all the ills Granny claims a cuppa will cure, getting more and more ludicrous -- "It's a cure for hepatitis, it's a cure for chronic insomnia, / It's a cure for tonsillitis and for water on the knee." Another hearty round of the chorus, and then -- this never fails to crack me up -- for the bridge Ray spins into a parody of the old McGuire Sisters/Johnny Cash hit "Sugartime": "Tea in the morning, tea in the evening, tea at supper time, / You get tea when it's raining, tea when it's snowing, / Tea when the weather's fine." I can just imagine that song playing on the radio in the front room when Ray was a kid.
Remember how in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the family was always urging people to "put a little Windex on it"? Tea is the same deal for Ray's Granny, and you've got to love her for it. "You get tea as a mid-day stimulant / You get tea with your afternoon tea" -- sure, Ray sees how crazy this is. But he loves her for it, and we do too.
With a lot of writers, the last verse often slacks off, just trying to fill out the scheme. Not so with Ray. In fact, I think it's the third verse that turns this song from a novelty piece into a real statement: "Whatever the situation, whatever the race or creed, / Tea knows no segregation, no class nor pedigree / It knows no motivations, no sect or organisation, / It knows no one religion, nor political belief." For the Granny Davieses of this world, tea is a way to show love, and she let no one escape her crushing embrace. This is what happens when you grow up in a big family crowded into a tiny house, on a street full of other tiny houses; everybody is in and out of each other's lives, not isolated in carpeted bedrooms and set off by velvety lawns. That's what you lose when you knock down rowhouses and put up big modern anonymous towers.
Working on Muswell Hillbillies, as Ray Davies looked back on his North London childhood, I sense he fully realized at last how much he loved his family. (Yes, and brother Dave too.) As for the people in grey -- well, he's not done with them yet. To be continued...
NEXT STOP: Everybody's In Showbiz and "Sitting in My Hotel"