Friday, November 20, 2009

"Little Bit of Emotion" / The Kinks

We're getting awfully close to the Eighties now -- and you know how I feel about the Eighties. It was the Decade That Almost Killed Rock Music; it would be no surprise if even the Kinks had trouble finding their way.

And yet, although their 1979 album Low Budget tends to be a musical grab bag -- they're the Bee Gees one minute ("(Wish I Could Be Like) Superman"), next the Clash ("Pressure"), Blondie ("Moving Pictures"), even the Tattoo You-era Rollling Stones ("Misery") -- in the end, Ray Davies can't help being Ray Davies. Sure, I'd bet that "Little Bit of Emotion" owes something to Graham Parker and the Rumour, whose "You Can't Be Too Strong" was one of the highlights of Squeezing Out Sparks, released a few months earlier on the same Arista label as the Kinks. In my opinion, Squeezing out Sparks is one of the great New Wave albums; I wouldn't blame Ray for wanting to steal some ideas from it. But the way the Kinks' song came out is pure Ray Davies, and I just love it.

First off, where Graham Parker dug deep into personal heartbreak, "Little Bit Of Emotion" shows Ray in his classic Waterloo Sunset pose, ever the detached observer -- "See all the people / With hatred in their eyes / I can't help thinking that / It's only a disguise." Ray Davies has never been shy about imagining other people's mental states, but in the late 70s, when pop psychologizing was rampant, he really goes to town. "Maybe they're scared / To let the inside out," he muses; "So they put on a heavy front and hope that no one else / Can work them out." Dr. Ray sees through all that, and the chorus is his professional diagnosis: "They're scared to / Show a little bit of emotion / A little bit of real emotion / In case a little bit of emotion / Gives them away."

Next, Ray the Storyteller produces his first vignette, Exhibit A: "Look at that lady dancing around with no clothes." (Yes, look at her guys. I bet Ray spent a lot of time in the strip clubs -- purely for research, of course.) That image of the bored stripper, her face blank above her gyrating body, is just the sort of irony that Ray Davies would home in on. "She'll let you see most / Anything, but there's one thing / That she'll never show." Which is? You got it: "A little bit of real emotion." The way Ray delivers that chorus, it could be his old mincing campy voice, but here I just think he's being delicate, picking his way through the minefields of the heart.

His second vignette is even more Daviesian -- "Look at that looney / With a smile on his face." Ray has always been drawn to misfits and cripples, and I can just imagine him studying some neighborhood wacko, trying to get inside that guy's head. (I remember all too well how many homeless crazies were living on Manhattan's streets in 1979, as new state policies cleared out psychiatric institutions to "return the mentally ill to the community.") "He's got a look in his eyes / That makes it seem that he's from outer space," Ray observes. And then he turns it back on us: "He's uncoordinated so we shut him out / In case he shows a little bit of emotion . . . .We're afraid to see a bit of emotion / So we walk away." So who's the fool here?

The arrangement is fairly simple, an acoustic strum decorated with a few sparkling electric riffs, like glimmers of emotion breaking through the gentle steadiness of the ballad. Yes, there are back-up oohs, the urban wail of a sax, a jazzy guitar solo in the middle break. But on the whole, it's a tender, restrained interlude on one of the Kinks' most uptempo albums. And the bridge contains one of my favorite Kinks quotes of all time: "People learn their lines / And they act out their part / Then they talk on cue / But it's got no heart." That "life's a stage" metaphor has been around at least since the days of Shakespeare, but it obviously has a peculiar resonance for Ray Davies; he comes back to it time and again.

Ray Davies may have fled stiff-upper-lip England for let-it-all-hang-out America, but -- surprise! -- repression is a universal malady, a curse of modern times. And for Ray Davies the detached observer -- sitting in his tower, looking out his window -- it is a sad truth indeed.

ON DECK: Give the People What They Want and "Yo-Yo"


Alex said...

It may be sacrilegious to say this, but Low Budget has always been my favorite Kinks album.

There are definitely better Kinks songs than the ones on Low Budget, but to my mind there is no Kinks album that holds together better than this one.

This album was also all over FM radio in 1979 and 1980 when radio was better and you could still get a thrill from hearing four or five new and musically different songs from the same record.

Holly A Hughes said...

You know, that was my memory too -- Catch Me Now I'm Falling and Wish I Could Fly Like Superman got so much airplay, I'm surprised to find out that those singles never charted. So I guess the difference is we were hearing them on the kinds of stations that played album cuts. Remember that long-gone era?

Alex said...

Yeah... and I miss it like crazy.

Looking at the track listing, I'm pretty sure I heard at least 9 of these songs on the radio (all except "Misery" and "Moving Pictures") -- which is pretty amazing (especially compared to the airtight programming on radio today).