Friday, June 24, 2016

"Shangri-La" / The Kinks

In the wake of the Brexit vote...

I'm a Kinks fan, and will be until the day I die. So when the Davies brothers' country does something so weird, so inexplicable, I can't help but turn to their vast catalog of songs to figure it all out. 

And this gem, from September 1969, leapt into my mind this morning, as soon as I learned of the Brexit result. Because how else can we understand the middle-class-(or-aspiring) Englishman whose home is his castle? 



These late 1960s Kinks satires of English life -- these were the songs, much more than the power chord hits ("You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night") that made a Kinks fan of me. From the barbed comedy of "Well-Respected Man" (1965) to the ambivalently sympathetic "Autumn Almanac" (1967), singer/songwriter Ray Davies saw all too well how England's class system was playing out in real time. 

And if you look at the map of who voted to stay in the European Union, and who voted to leave -- well, it pretty much plays along class lines.

Granted, I'm not sure that "Shangri-La" -- from the enormously underrated concept album Arthur -- even qualifies as satire. The melancholy minor-key melody sets us up for something entirely different. That first verse is unbearably poignant: "Now that you've found your paradise / This is your kingdom to command / You can go outside and polish your car / Or sit by the fire in your Shangri-La." This isn't just some snide put-down of middle-class complacency -- though there's surely a strain of that in there -- it's also an epiphany about the moment when one's dreams ring hollow. "Here's your reward for working so hard / Gone are the lavatories in the back yard / Gone are the days when you dreamed of that car / You just want to sit in your Shangri-La." I love that detail about the lavatories -- talk about fixing a cultural reference in one sharp stroke.

And I think of young pop star Ray Davies, living with his wife and kids in a mansionette in North London, inextricably severed from his working-class roots and still not feeling ready to join the upper class that he'd been taught since childhood to abhor. (Never mind that his posho managers hadn't managed to get him his fair share of songwriting royalties -- forcing him to file a lawsuit that's apparently still a landmark case in British law.)

Oh, the satire comes stealing in in the later verses, as Ray describes the "little man" catching his commuter train and fretting over his mortgage; it's a pathetic trade-off, on a time-installment plan: "Got a TV set and a radio / For seven shillings a week." Then Ray pans out, almost cinematically, for the wide-angle view:  "And all the houses in the street have got a name / 'Cos all the houses in the street they look the same ' Same chimney pots, same little cars, same window panes" -- that's such a resonant observation, about the English penchant for giving their houses cutesy names, even in a cookie-cutter development. It's details like that that make Ray Davies one of our greatest living songwriters.

Eventually Ray does dismiss the character as "Too scared to think about how insecure you are / Life ain't so happy in your little Shangri-La." But I don't know -- I still think he's identifying with him, and more than a little bit. Because it's the poignancy of the first verses that stays with me, in the end.

And here's the Brexit paradox: People who aren't happy with their tiny slice of the pie honestly do think that by building a wall they can make their pie bigger. 


Which, alas -- those of us who have studied economics know -- is just not the case. 

1 comment:

NickS said...

Thanks for this. I've been reading too much about Brexit. I am very worried, and have no idea exactly what is going to happen. But I appreciate the reminder that popular music can be an interesting way to think about cultural events, and can gain additional weight from current events.

This got me to listen again to Christy Moore's "Continental Céilí". I'd always listened to it with an emphasis on the second word -- as a party song. But today I find myself thinking about the first word in the title; of the song as a description of Irish music finding an audience among an integrated Europe.

Wolfgang’s playing on the comb, someone shouts at him go home.
Klaus is playin’ a slow air on the bodhrán.
Quinn from Corofin his fiddle tucked beneath his chin
Ssh! He’s going to play the Bucks of Oranmore now.
And an old-fashioned lady begins to sing a song.