Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Scum of the Earth" / The Kinks

A dramatization of the battle between good and evil? Oh, no, my brothers and sisters. The Kinks' rock opera Preservation Act 2 (1974) presents a battle between evil and evil -- on the one hand, the pious hypocrite Mr. Black, on the other the greedy capitalist Mr. Flash, with all us little people crushed in between. And of the two, I gotta go with Mr. Flash. He may not be any kinder, gentler, or more noble than Mr. Black, but he sure has the best songs on the album.

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Ray Davies regards his character Mr. Flash much like John Milton regarded his Satan in Paradise Lost; he knows the guy is evil, but he can't help becoming fascinated by him. Even though in Act 1 Mr. Flash was knocking down slums -- the worst possible villainy, in the Davies mindset -- once Mr. Black has risen with his People's Army, Mr. Flash's slimy charms seem refreshingly human. Ray's fascination with the mid-century London mobsters the Kray Twins (you may know them as the Piranha Brothers in Monty Python) lends a wicked flair to Mr. Flash and his crew of wide boys, hoods, and spivs. In the middle of Act 2, Ray devotes most of side 2 of the first disc, no less than three songs in a row -- "Scum of the Earth," "Second-Hand Car Spiv," and "He's Evil" -- portraying Mr. Flash in all his glory. He was having too much fun to stop, although he didn't really need all three -- "Scum of the Earth" by itself nails the character brilliantly.

Adopting that same Salvation Army style arrangement he used on "Cricket," Flash takes center stage for a mesmerizing soliloquy, acting as his own character witness. Hanging his head, he begins dolorously: "They call me the scum of the earth / They say I'm the scab of the nation," a gloomy tuba underscoring his shame. But -- there's always a "but" -- "But deep inside I'm only human." I love how Ray wails on this line, wringing out the self-pity. "Just an ordinary man," he adds, with a winsome little lift on the end of the line, "with ordinary plans. . . ."

Of course we have already seen Flash's "ordinary plans" in the song "Demolition"; they're completely evil. But Flash knows he has grabbed our sympathy, and he presses his advantage, claiming in the second verse, "But if they could see / Deep inside me / They'd see a heart that once was pure / Before it touched the evils of this world." A-ha!! It's the old nature vs. nurture argument, so beloved of 1960s psychologists. It's not me, it's my slum upbringing. And the way Ray sings this, you can just imagine his eyes rolled heavenward and his eyelashes fluttering along with his stagey warble.

The first time I heard this song I completely cracked up on the bridge -- a spot-on parody of Shylock's speech from The Merchant of Venice: "For if I cut myself I bleed / And if I catch a cold I sneeze. / Have I not eyes to help me see? / Have I not lungs to help me breathe? / Have I not hands, organs, senses / And affections just like you?" Ray's voice gets more and more actorly, laying on a posh Olivier-like accent, then dramatically declares, "Stop the music! / Well ain't I human / Like everybody else?"

Flash has absorbed Mr Black's sermonizing techniques very well by now; in verse three he spins the microscope on his audience, reminding us that "good and evil / Exist in all of us." That parallel with Milton's Satan I mentioned earlier? Ray makes it himself, with a paraphrase of the famous quote from Paradise Lost: "And no man is a saint / And each creates his heaven and his hell." Then the chorus bursts in, won over by Flash's eloquence, repeating his glib arguments. Flash wraps it all up by saying -- hat over his heart, no doubt -- "So don't put me down because I've done well, / For even wide boys, hoods and spivs / Have got the right to live." Really, how can we resist?

NEXT: Soap Opera and "Nine to Five"

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