"No More Looking Back" / The Kinks
Yes, I'll say it -- Schoolboys In Disgrace is not my favorite Kinks album. Hey, the Kinks don't need mindless fans who think everything they do is perfect. I'm so open-minded, I'll admit that Schoolboys is uneven (just don't say a WORD against Muswell Hillbillies!). "Uneven" is the operative word, though. Not every track on the album is brilliant, but on the other hand there are gems like "The First Time We Fall In Love," "Headmaster," and the gleeful "Jack the Idiot Dunce." And I would go to the mat with anybody who doesn't think that "No More Looking Back" isn't one of the Kinks' best songs.
Ray let brother Dave have a little more room for guitar solos on this album, and Dave was more than up to the task. (Remember, it was 1975; instrumental bravado had not yet given way to the stripped-down aesthetic of punk.) So I should mention right away that my favorite thing about this track is the ringing guitar riff that Dave plays throughout. It's almost like the siren call of memory, carrying through the song's theme of love and loss.
Like a lot of Ray Davies' songs, from "See My Friends" to "One More Time," "No More Looking Back" keeps yearning backward and forward in time. It's set in the present -- as the last song in the suite, it has to wrap up the story -- with the narrator feeling the tug of emotion as he recalls his old sweetheart, his first love. The opening is almost cinematic: "Walking along a crowded street, / I see thousands of faces before me." Next we get a quick-cut close-up: "Then I see a face that I used to know / Long ago in my life story." Is it her? No, just some stranger's face that jogs his memory -- something that's not hard to do, for he admits "your image is still inside me. / The past is gone but in my head / You're still walking along beside me."
Come on, 'fess up: We've all had lovers like that, the One Who Got Away, or the Great Romantic Regret. (Who's yours?) But being an introspective kind of guy, Ray becomes haunted by her memory. "But lately I've been going to / All the places that we once knew, / And just when I think that I am free of you / I keep seeing the things that remind me of you."
It's not fun, actually, not a mellow walk down memory lane. Obsession is more like it: "And just when I think you're out of my head / I hear a song that you sang or see a book that you read./ Then you're in every bar, you're in every café, /You're driving every car, I see you every day." I love how those lines remorselessly repeat, like a melodic tic, the notes circling around. He can't escape this, even though he's well aware he won't find her, because "you belong to yesterday." (And oh, what a miserable wail he gives that last syllable.)
Now, a lesser songwriter might have written this as a slow, gentle song. Not Ray. The chorus actually rocks out, with a soft but relentless drumbeat and those stinging guitar riffs, laying down like whiplashes. "No more looking back," Ray berates himself, "No more living in the past." Over and over he tells himself, "Yesterday's gone and that's a fact, / Now there's no more looking back." Yeah? Good luck with that.
He's trying so hard to be a hard-headed realist, but the romantic in him keeps breaking through. "Perhaps someday I'll stop needing you," he sings wistfully in the second verse, "Then maybe one day I'll be free of you." But no, he's circling back to those bars and cafes, hearing Their Song on a jukebox -- he can't stop himself. There's real pain in Ray's voice as he sings this, an urgent edge to his vocals; he punches those repeated "every's" almost belligerently. I love his phrasing, how the syncopation on the chorus lags so far behind the beat, he's almost anticipating the next measure; I love the little trembles and hopeless slides of his voice, and how desperately he rattles through the crammed lyrics of the verse.
Sure, the title of the song claims he is moving on -- but this guy is nowhere near ready to move on. He may never be ready to "move on," in fact; that's how much he loved her -- or should we say, loves her.
No More Looking Back video clip
TOMORROW: Sleepwalker and "Stormy Sky"