Monday, May 13, 2013

"Sunny Afternoon" / The Kinks

By chance it IS a sunny day today, although a little chilly for May. Still, that's not why this song popped into my head and will not be budged.

It began a few days when, someone asked me to list my top ten favorite Kinks songs. I realized that "Sunny Afternoon" is perhaps their only genuinely big hit (#2 in the UK, #14 in the US) that still makes the list for me, no matter how much it's overplayed. Then today, posting This Day In Kinks History on the Kinks fan forum, I discovered that today is the anniversary of the day, 47 years ago, when the Kinks went into Pye Records Studio #2 to record this song.

Or rather, re-record it -- in 1966 Ray Davies was just beginning to become the studio perfectionist who would later hold up their classic album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society for months, eventually releasing it by chance on the same day as the Beatles' White Album. Ah, the history of the Kinks is full of such disastrous decisions.

But in the case of "Sunny Afternoon," Ray knew what he was doing. He brought in session keyboard whiz Nicky Hopkins to add some plinky good-time sounds, played on a Hohner Melodica. Those iconic pub-sing-along backing vocals were dubbed in by Ray, Dave, and Ray's wife Rasa. "'Sunny Afternoon' was made very quickly, in the morning," Ray recalled in a Rolling Stone interview. "It was one of our most atmospheric sessions. . . . Pete [Quaife] went off and started playing funny little classical things on the bass, more like a lead guitar, and Nicky Hopkins was playing 'Liza'. . . .Little things like that helped us get in the feeling of the song."
   
At the time, Ray recalled, he was listening almost obsessively to two other artists -- Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan (now there's an odd couple for you).  I can hear Sinatra's impact in the campy croon Ray puts on; Dylan probably accounts for the sly satire on Britain's Wilson-era tax policies.  (George Harrison's "Taxman" was written the same year.) But as always, the whole is so much more than the sum of all these parts. And the minute that great bass line begins -- two notes plopped wearily on each step of a descending minor scale -- I'm hooked.


Just watch the Kinks cavorting in the snow. But, wait -- I thought this was supposed to be a sunny afternoon? Well, the song was a summer hit, but the Kinks didn't make this video until the following February, for a Belgian TV show. The contrast just underlines the delightful irony of this song.

"The tax man's taken all my dough / And left me in my stately home..." Beneath the satire, of course, Ray Davies was as always working out his personal issues. In 1966, Ray was up to his eyeballs in lawsuits to recover withheld royalties from music publishers and former managers; no wonder he felt a stab of sympathy for the property-rich, cash-poor singer of "Sunny Afternoon." And if that felt like a betrayal of his working-class roots, even more need to work out his anxieties in satire.

No wonder Ray had suffered a nervous breakdown only two months earlier, which explains the wail of "Save me save me save me from this squeeee--eeze" in the bridge. Nothing like turning your own  existential despair into comedy. And in the second bridge, he changes it to "Help me help me help me sail awaa-aay" -- the trademark Kinksian longing for escape. When conflicts and pressures pile up, introvert geniuses like Ray Davies often long just to run away.

I suspect there's another autobiographical hint in verse two: "My girlfriend's run off with my car / And gone back to her ma and pa / Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty"?  It would be seven more years before Rasa Davies would finally move out, taking their two daughters, but there's already probably a sting of truth to this detail. I picture Rasa in the studio, listening to Ray deliver those lines with a mocking flutter in his voice, and wince on her behalf.

So here we've got a song about lazing on a sunny afternoon, living a life of luxury -- it should be a mellow blissed-out song. Instead, it's built on a minor-key bass riff, with jerky rhythms and ping-ponging melodic intervals. This guy is at the end of his rope, moaning and miserable. In a way, this is the comic bookend of "Shangri-La" -- now that he's found his paradise, his reward for working so hard, why the hell is he unhappier than ever?   

And then here's the genius part. Ray Davies managed to pack all of that psychological complexity in this song -- and STILL made it one of the most delicious singalongs ever. The tongue-in-cheek humor, the bouncy arrangement, and the cheery harmonies turn it all into tailor-made for hoisting a pint. The Kinks may be dancing in the snow, the tax exile weeping in his beer, but all I want to do is croon along with a grin on my face.  Give Ray Davies life's lemons, and he'll turn them into the most delicious lemonade ever.

7 comments:

NickS said...

I read this and realized that I thought you'd written about the song before and, indeed, you have. I don't mention that as a criticism -- it is both entertaining and interesting to read the two, similar, descriptions side by side and notice the differences in emphasis.

For example the shift from foregrounding Ray to

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.

To imagining Rasa in the studio.

I suspect there's another autobiographical hint in verse two: "My girlfriend's run off with my car / And gone back to her ma and pa / Telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty"? It would be seven more years before Rasa Davies would finally move out, taking their two daughters, but there's already probably a sting of truth to this detail. I picture Rasa in the studio, listening to Ray deliver those lines with a mocking flutter in his voice, and wince on her behalf.

A song well worth a second visit.

Uncle E said...

I do love this one. Although I consider myself a big fan I am not nearly as knowledgeable as you (or Nick S., or a host of others) on the details. My love affair with the kinks is much less visceral. However, just because you didn't ask, here's my current top 10, which changes almost daily:
Death Of A Clown
Better Things
Waterloo Sunset
Sunny Afternoon
Art Lover
Muswell Hillbillies
Mr. Churchill Says
Do You Remember Walter?
Lola
Rock and Roll Fantasy

E

Uncle E said...

OOPS! I meant more visceral...

Holly A Hughes said...

You caught me, Nick! Although, as I had already written most of this post before I realized it was a re-visit, I decided not to post the link to the earlier account, which didn't mention the anniversary.

Love your list, Unc. Though I'd never have Lola on mine -- way overplayed in my opinion -- you remind me what a great and original it was.

Brian said...

Talk about a small world, but a wonderful coincidence. I plugged this song (but a live version) about 8 hours earlier on my blog, and I didn't have any idea it was the anniversary of the recording. It was merely a random pick on my part. You have some wonderful backstory here. Nicely done. One of my favorites too.

Vintage Spins said...

Holly,
I can't help repeating myself - I love it when you revisit these '60s masterpieces. They were hugely important to me at the time, and it's always interesting to read your insightful take on them.

Marie

pplist said...

The first part of this song by Seattle band The Pharmacy reminds me of Ray's voice.