Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Nine To Five" / The Kinks

Theater was what the Kinks were all about in the mid-1970s -- or at least what Ray Davies was all about. Preservation was barely pressed before Ray was off writing a new musical, to be broadcast on Granada Television in September 1974, then reworked into a stage show and LP, released in April 1975. Where Preservation sprawled over 3 discs with a story line I couldn't always follow, The Kinks Present A Soap Opera was a pithy 1-disc fable with a clear-cut story about a rock star -- the Starmaker -- who takes over the life of an ordinary accountant. It may seem stagey and silly now, but not in the height of the 1970s, an era in which sequined spandex and lavender tinted hair were viable fashion choices. This production gave the Kinks their glam rock moment, and when I first got this record, it made TOTAL sense to me.

Now, I love the quirkiness of this album -- the novelty numbers like "Ducks on the Wall" and (my personal favorite) Holiday Romance. I love the snippets of melodramatic dialogue and the hokey radio-serial organ. But the song I keep coming back to -- the real heart of this album -- seems to me to be "Nine To Five," the number in which the Starmaker first steps into Norman's work shoes. This plaintive little waltz is only 1:44 long, just two verses and a bridge, but that's all the time Ray Davies needs to crystallize the mind-numbing qualities of a white-collar job. Even though he's never worked a desk job for a day in his life, Ray Davies just nails it. (How does he do it?)

Accompanied at first only by a metronome-like tinkling piano, Starmaker/Norman reels off a checklist of things to do: "Answering phones and dictating letters / Making decisions that affect no one"; "Deciphering data for mechanical minds"; and, my favorite, "He's checking a list that's been checked out before." (Raise your hand if this sounds like your job.) Our hero is "caught in a mass of computerised trivia" and "lost in the paperwork up to his eyes." And as the trivial tasks accumulate, the song drives home the tedium with its tick-tock tempo and repetitive three-note melodic phrases. Clever rhymes? There are hardly any rhymes at all, if you don't count words that simply rhyme with themselves. Our hero is just too stupefied to make rhymes.

Now, the singer of "Nine to Five" is still supposed to be the Starmaker, researching "ordinary" people; Ray goes for a diva-like delivery, with exaggerated pronunciation and drama-queen swells of volume -- "Whooahh-oh-oh, nine to five / Nine to five / Working from nine to five." But in the bridge, he already feels beaten down, and the song ping-pongs hypnotically between two plain vanilla chords: "And time / Goes by / The hours tick away / First seconds, / Then minutes, / Then hours into days." The unending perspective of days melting into weeks has a narcotic effect on him, and on us. One by one, other instruments are layered in -- drums, tinny back-up vocals, trombone, bass, guitar, accordion, trumpet -- but you barely notice it. At the end, mind you, it segues abruptly into the happy-hour singalong "When Work Is Over" (that's why the end of my music clip on the video breaks off so suddenly). That after-work at the bar is essential to Norman's survival.

Listening to Soap Opera now, it's as if Ray Davies predicted the American Idol mentality, 30 years ago. But he gives it surprising moral heft, trotting out all his trademark themes -- the hollowness of celebrity, the dull conformity of suburbia, and sympathy for (or at least curiosity about) the working man. The original idea might have been a stagey gimmick, but somehow Ray Davies turned it into an existential parable about dreams and identity.

In the end, what I love most about this song is how wistful it is. It would have been so easy for Ray Davies to savage the corporate routine, but that's not what he's up to. Ray doesn't sneer at Norman; he seems genuinely sorry for him. Here I am, stuck in my own life between the dreams of a Starmaker and the reality of Norman -- thank you, Ray, for making it okay to be both.

NEXT UP: Schoolboys in Disgrace and "No More Looking Back"

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