Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Quiet Life" / Ray Davies

I'm shocked to realize that I left one essential film out of our recent discussion of movie soundtracks: the Julian Temple film Absolute Beginners, a musical adaptation of Colin McInnes' novel (itself well worth reading) about 1950s London and the birth of British rock 'n' roll. If you haven't seen it, check it out -- it's one of my special little guilty pleasures. The story rambles more than a bit, but it's visually stunning, and it's appropriately packed with musical guest stars: David Bowie, Sade, Sandie Shaw, Zoot Money, Tenpole Tudor, and -- my primary reason for seeing the film in the first place -- the ever delicious Mr. Ray Davies.

I was reminded of this because, in my role as house historian for the Kinks Fan Club forum, I just posted that the Absolute Beginners soundtrack album was released 24 years ago today. Here's a clip of Ray's scene in the movie (hang in there, there's a minute or so of dialog before you get to the song itself).

Unfortunately this is only part of the movie in which Ray appears, but it's beyond wonderful. Playing the much-put-upon father of the main character, young photographer Colin, Ray doesn't exactly look glamorous in his undershirt and braces, his hair slicked back and grayed at the temples. (In contrast, Bowie is glam-tastic in his big scene). But Ray's bit is much more entertaining, and his dancing is simply to die for.

Anybody who was ever in doubt about Ray Davies' fondness for English music hall tunes only has to listen to "Quiet Life." Underlaid with Dixieland horns and jazzy percussion, it's a classic softshoe, tripping lightly along. Yet while the sound of the song is like Noel Coward champagne, the storyline is more Ealing comedy slapstick, with a Monty Python nudge-nudge wink-wink thrown in for good measure.

"Something's happening, but I'm just gonna turn a blind eye," Ray begins the patter, in his breathy, earnest innocent-bystander voice. "If I see no evil, I ask no questions and I hear no lies" -- his whole existence is a masterwork of self-protective denial. In low, confiding tones, Ray keeps suavely declaring that he's not such a fool as everyone thinks -- "Confidentially between these walls / I'm on top of it all." And indeed, he does see all the salacious shenanigans in his household -- it's like a saucy seaside postcard come to life. But he shows no intention of doing a bloody thing about it, so what's the point of knowing?

Listen to how Ray's voice trembles and squawks on the high-pitched refrain -- "All I need is a QUIET life!", like a blowsy trombone wail. Keeping his head in the sand takes every ounce of energy this hapless bloke has. It's a lovely little comic portrait, and Ray hits every mark. Oh, the rest of the soundtrack has some other gems -- I particularly love Bowie's rendition of the theme song, Style Council's "Have You Ever Had It Blue?", and Sade's "Killer Blow." But in the end, there's one reason I go back to this film again and again. Ray.


Vivalabeat said...

Holly, we seem to be on the same wavelength. :) I heard this song, then I watched the movie, then I read the book. And now I get bet to Absolute Beginners from time to time. I have the same reason as you do. As my friend says the song's just so Ray Davies, I agree. Even if I hadn't recognised his voice (is it possible at all?) I would have been 100% sure that there was only one person on this planet who could write such a gem.

Holly A Hughes said...

I agree -- even though the song has a certain place in the film itself, I think of it as a deep expression of Ray's slippery personality -- longing for escape, unable to deal with conflict, seeking refuge in lies and fantasy. So typical!