Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"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"


Vivalabeat said...

Thanks for this post, Holly. I hoped you'd write about this song. This is one of best songs Ray ever wrote (and we know he's written many great songs).
And again, you said almost everything I feel about this song.

wwolfe said...

I, too, was hoping this would be your choice from this album. "Schoolboys" holds a special place in my Kink-ly affections: believe it or not, it was the very first album of theirs that I bought. As I recall, I'd seen the band on one of the three late-night weekend rock concert shows of the 1970s (Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, In Concert, and The Midnight Special - and can you imagine a time when the Big Three offered live performances by major bands every weekend?). Although I don't remember what songs they played, I must have been sufficiently impressed to go out and buy whatever album I could find in my local record store - or, more likely, in Woolworth's or Grant's, where a little corner was allotted for records. "Schoolboys" was the current, and therefore available, album, so I bought it. Although in restrospect it doesn't measure up, to put it gently, to "Something Else" or "Face to Face," I liked it very much at the time, and began slowly buying the rest of the band's catalogue. (For some reason, I could never find my way into the two Preservation albums. I love the songs that were included on various anthologies, but the prospect of digesting such a mammoth storyline cowed a dedicated lazybones such as myself.) Anyway - "No More Looking Back" is the one song that stands independent of the album that produced it - that is actually made stronger and better by being excised from the story that surrounds it. As such, it's always sounded like Ray's announcement that he's going back to non-concept albums, after devoting many years and albums to a series of concepts, from "Arthur" to "Preservation Act 2." Given punk's imminent arrival, this was either prescience or lucky - and one of the benfits of luck is that it allows you to be seen as prescient.

Holly A Hughes said...

"Ray's announcement that he's going back to non-concept albums" -- you've hit the nail on the head, wwolfe. And that ambivalence is wonderful, typical Ray. He's never really given up concept albums, though, has he? Every single LP from here on has a sneaky sub-theme. I don't think he's capable of putting out a non-concept album!

Anonymous said...

Like Ray did in the video for "No More Looking Back," when I hear it I want to turn my waistcoat away from the wind and clutch my ascot (!)close to my throat. Yes, I agree that this song is the real thing, right up to Ray's plaintive wails that end it. Whine away, Ray, whine away, even to a calypso beat.

Yeah, Holly, "Schoolboys" methinks, got lumped into the wayward "Soap Opera" (whose one bona fide had us raise a glass to the rock stars of the past) by the critics of the day. I think it might even sound better Now then Then.

Also like you I loved the helium high background vocals of "The First Time We Fall In Love," and, of course, "Schooldays" (especially Dave's ass cracking background rememberance "Now they seem so far away".)

Good night, Rich