"Big Sky" / The Kinks
R.I.P. Pete Quaife 1943--2010
I'm well and truly gutted. For several years now, the Kinks were the last of the great British Invasion whose original members were all still alive, which was probably why that reunion rumor kept rearing its head. But the clock was ticking, and we all knew that bassist Pete Quaife -- the first to quit the band, back in 1969 -- had been in failing health for quite a while. Still, when news leaked out yesterday that Quaife had finally passed away, it truly felt like the end of an era.
Going through the Kinks' catalog, there were any number of songs with great bass parts I could showcase. "Waterloo Sunset," "Sunny Afternoon," "Picture Book" -- none of these iconic tracks would have been the same without Pete Quaife's commanding bass lines.
And how tempted I was to feature the elegaic song "Days" -- a song which, an apocryphal story claims, Quaife rechristened "Daze" as he sat for endless hours in the recording studio, his own part already recorded, while Ray Davies made the entire band wait until the song was tweaked to his obsessive satisfaction. Trouble is, there's very little emphasis on the bass in that song (which must have made Quaife's enforced captivity even more frustrating).
In the end, I felt I had to choose a track from The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society -- not just because it was Quaife's last outing with the band, but because his playing was never stronger or more melodic. On this album as no other, track after track allowed the bassline to come to the fore, adding depth to the songs. Just think of the slouchy underpinning of "Last of the Steam Powered Trains," the tuba-like bloops of "All of My Friends Were There," the brooding menace of "Wicked Annabella," the steel-band skipping rhythms of "Monica." It's all done with the bass.
So how could I resist writing about "Big Sky"?
(Dig that photo of Pete tuning his bass!)
Theologically, it's a perplexing song, depicting a distant, uninvolved supreme being -- the Big Sky of the title -- calmly looking down on all the insignificant humans scurrying around, looking like frenzied ants. Ray Davies adopts an odd half-sung voice, almost like a BBC newscaster, as he describes Big Sky looking down on all the people. It's hardly a comforting worldview. People are pushing each other, children are screaming, adults sit depressed with their heads in their hands -- it's practically a scene out of Hieronymous Bosch.
And in the chorus, in a syncopated sort of fanfare, Ray declares, "Big Sky too big to cry." This deity barely sees what's going on, and though he feels some vague sorrow and sympathy, he's unable to do anything about it. Gloomy, eh? That melodic leitmotif is the riff that Pete repeats over and over, cutting through the rest of the song like the trumpets of heaven (or of hell -- it's not clear which).
And yet, and yet, and yet . . . against all odds, the bridge somehow lifts the spirits, as Ray sings, "One day we'll be free, / We won't care, just you see / 'Til that day can be, / Don't let it get you down." The melody floats over the drumbeats, the vocals go high and sweet -- and somehow everything feels better. That theme of freedom, of a longed-for escape, runs throughout Ray Davies' songwriting, but rarely does it feel so liberating, so consoling, as it does here.
I have to say, I'm a little baffled by the next part of the bridge, as Ray adds wistfully, "When I feel that the world is too much for me, / I think of the Big Sky, and nothing matters much to me." Hunh? How can he feel better because God doesn't care? But I have to say, the song truly feels lighter and happier there. And when I think about it, it IS better to believe in a detached God than in a malicious, eye-for-an-eye type.
If this were the Beatles -- whose White Album was released the same week as VGPS, thereby knocking it cleanly out of the charts -- they'd be offering "I'd love to turn you on." But in "Big Sky" Ray Davies accomplishes his own kind of Nirvana, without drugs. If the petty toils of this life don't matter to Big Sky, then why should they matter to us? Detach, detach, detach -- that's the sort of philosophy that made sense in 1968. (Who says VGPS wasn't an album of its era?)
For a minute, as the vocals float high and vague, we can be like Big Sky ourselves, gazing down serenely on the rat race. (It's just like Ray's character watching the people swarm into Waterloo Underground, while he gazes on the Waterloo sunset -- and he is in paradise.) I like to imagine Pete Quaife up there in the Big Sky now, looking down on us with a genial, wry smile.