Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sunny Afternoon / The Kinks

All right, I'll admit it, my nose was a little out of joint.  Here I was, acting carefree, blogging about all sorts of other music, when in fact I was perfectly aware that last week was one of the Kinkiest weeks in recent memory.  Ray Davies curated the Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre in London this past fortnight, and in a stroke of brilliance, he turned it into a celebration of the 1960s British pop music revolution.  Oh, I should have been there; I wanted to go in the worst way, but . . . circumstances conspired to keep me home.

For the past few days -- to rub salt in the wound -- glowing reviews have been pouring in, all of them promptly posted on Facebook where I couldn't ignore them.  As promised, Ray opened and closed the festival himself, joined by all sorts of special guest stars, and, this past Sunday,  he capped it all off with a full-album performance of the Kinks' great 1968 album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.  And as if that wasn't enough, on the evenings in between the festival featured (get this) Alan Price, Nick Lowe, Ron Sexsmith, Yo La Tengo, Monty Python's Michael Palin and Terry Jones, and a special tribute to the British music TV show Ready, Steady, Go! (When the still-beautiful long-legged Sandy Shaw stepped barefoot onto the stage, I'd have lost it, I know). There was even a set with the Kast Off Kinks, that rowdy crowd-pleasing combo composed of various ex-Kinks members like Mick Avory, Ian Gibbons, and Jim Rodford.  Ray couldn't have designed a festival I'd love more. In my secret hearts of hearts, I like to think that he planned it just for me.  And I missed it.

I was so jealous of those who got to be there (yes, even you, Michelle!) that I pretended to forget that it was Ray Davies' 67th birthday on Monday.   I know, I know, I'm usually able to rise above such a snit.  Even I am surprised how this one affected me.

Well, I'm over it now.  (Not really over it, but I'm moving on.)  So sorry I missed your party, Ray -- I still love you.  And to prove it, here's one of my favoritest Kinks vids ever . . .

I'm amazed to find that I hadn't written about "Sunny Afternoon" before, even given my tendency to avoid the most iconic, and therefore obvious, tracks. This one's so charming -- and so distinctly Kinksian in its English satire -- I should have covered it long ago.

I'll admit I have no distinct memory of listening to this song 35 years ago, in the summer of 1966, but I read that it rose to #14 on the US charts (#2 in the U.K.), so the DJs must have been playing it alongside the Lovin' Spoonful, Herman's Hermits, the Beatles' Revolver, "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys, and "Red Rubber Ball" by the Cyrkle. (Man, what an era!)  And my response to it is primal:  The minute that great bass line begins -- two notes plopped wearily on each step of a descending minor scale -- I'm hooked.

Satire?  Sure, on one level Ray's mocking the self-pitying plaint of a rich Establishment type, bemoaning  Wilson-era tax policies -- "The tax man's taken all my dough / And left me in my stately home..."  (Cue up George Harrison's less subtle "Taxman," written the same year.) But as usual with Ray Davies, autobiography creeps in too.  Despite his working-class upbringing -- just think of all those political songs that will soon crop up on Lola V. Powerman and The Moneygoround Part 1 and  Muswell Hillbillies -- in 1966 Ray Davies must have also felt some sneaking secret sympathy with the property-rich, cash-poor protagonist of this song, as he waged a lawsuit against his publishers and former managers to recover withheld royalties. Put this together with two other songs from Face to Face, "House in the Country" and "Most Exclusive Residence for Sale," and you've got an intriguing suite of songs, showing Ray Davies grappling with his new social status. That emotional conflict runs just beneath the surface, charging this song with ambivalence.

Meanwhile, that supremely enervated tone -- Ray's vocals sliding into campiness -- betrays the nervous breakdown Ray had suffered in March of 1966.  While the Kinks went on tour in Europe with a temporary replacement (did they think the French and Belgians wouldn't notice?), Ray's erratic behavior back home in London made some skeptics wonder if the Kinks were washed up for good. "Save me save me save me from this squeeee--eeze," he wails in the bridge -- and funny as it is, I can imagine that Ray's also exorcising some demons, taking his recent existential despair and turning it into comedy.  

And what are we to make of this memorable line: "My girlfriend's run off with my car / And gone back to her ma and pa / Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty"?  I love the melodramatic spin Ray gives that last line, though notice he never clarifies whether the "tales" are truth or fiction.  Seven years later, Ray's wife Rasa would finally move out, taking their two daughters -- leaving him on his birthday -- but this song has always suggested to me that the troubles between them had been going on for years.

"Help me help me help me sail awaa-aay," Ray begs in the second bridge.  ""Well give me two good reasons why I oughta stay." Ah yes, there's the trademark Kinksian longing for escape. That dream of unruffled paradise is just out of his grasp, so close he can taste it:  "'Cause I love to live so pleasantly / Live this life of luxury."  What should be a sybaritic declaration become a cry of woe, with jerky rhythms and yo-yoing intervals. "Lazing on a sunny af-ter-noooon" -- it's practically a howl of misery, not a blissed-out mantra. Put these same lyrics to the Young Rascals' "Groovin" and it would be a different song completely.

In the video, watch how Ray forgets to look doleful and starts to grin; brother Dave and Pete Quaife have a hard time keeping a straight face too.  And if this is such a summer song, why are they playing on Hampstead Heath in the snow? (Love how Mick Avory reaches up to knock snow off the overhanging branch with his drumstick.)  Since this song was recorded in May and released in June, I guess this video was an afterthought, filmed in the winter to promote the December 1966 release of Face to Face.  Doesn't matter; it's still charming to the max.  (Those dogs spilling out of the limousine -- priceless.)

By some miracle, all of this campy moaning and misery translates into one of the most delicious singalongs ever. Really, how did Ray pull this off?   The tongue-in-cheek humor cancels out the minor key, and that plinky goodtime piano (bravo Nicky Hopkins!) turns a mopey shuffling rhythm into something tailor-made for hoisting a pint. How hard it is to listen to those high harmonies (bravo Dave!) and NOT join in on the "Save me's" and "Help me's," to croon along with that drawn-out "afternoon," or to chant those repeated "in the summertime's."  Personally I think that the Beatles -- always eyeing the competition -- heard crowds in the pubs or in the football standings sing along to this song (it became the unofficial anthem of England's 1966 World Cup victory) and determined to outdo Ray, with John soon writing "All You Need Is Love" and Paul "Hey Jude" a year later. It's all connected.

Today wasn't particularly sunny -- more like "A Rainy Day In June," yet another Face to Face track.  (Honestly, you don't have this album yet?  Shame on you.)  But somehow, as soon as that bass riff starts, I'm in another place -- a place where the beer flows and my mates are close at hand.  So what if I had to let the butler go?        


Uncle E said...

Love this song. Next to Waterloo Sunset, and Better Things (sentimental favorite from later day Kinks), this has to rank #3 as my fave Kinks song. I'm shocked....SHOCKED!...that you've never written about it 'till now, as well. Better late than never, though.

Anonymous said...

I love the moment when Ray blows on his hands, trying to warm them up. Filming this in black and white makes it work - color would have been distracting and taken us out of the special imaginary little world that is always crucial to the success of any Ray Davies song. This video and the one for "Dead End Street" make it clear, as if they were ever any doubt, that the original Kinks were far and away the most Dickensian rock and roll band ever - not just in subject matter, but in the the way they seem to have stepped live out of some forgotten Dickens novel.

wwolfe said...

Anonymous is me.

Holly A Hughes said...

I should mention -- as I left it out of the above -- that somehow even Robyn Hitchcock got included in that SouthBank Kinks fest, singing Fancy and Waterloo Sunset along with the Kast Off Kinks. And you're telling me that Ray didn't consult my blog before programming that festival? (Wishful thinking there....)