Friday, September 30, 2016

K Is For Kinks

26 days, 26 artists from A to Z. Yeah, I know I dropped the ball for a few days, but I'm back and raring to go.

The Kinks / 
"Who'll Be the Next in Line" 

Well, who else did you expect I'd choose for K?

Okay, here are the bare facts: March 1965, B-side to "Everybody's Gonna Be Happy," but then some shit went down and in July 1965 it became the A-side when it was released in the U.S.  Not that it made that much of a splash, because by then the Kinks were banned from the U.S. for reasons still unclear. We U.S. fans knew "All Day and All of the Night" and "You Really Got Me," and maybe even "Tired of Waiting." But after the ban, finding a Kinks song on the radio was anything but easy.

Yet I know I heard this song on the radio in 1965, and it was definitely on the 1966 U.S.-only The Kinks' Greatest Hits, which I kept stealing from my big brother Holt. It wasn't like the Kinks' other early power-chord tracks -- "You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night," "Tired of Waiting" -- it was edgy, and jazzy. I believe this was my first inkling that these guys were going to be interesting enough to listen to for a long time. (Though I don't suppose even then I realized I'd still be listening to them 40 years later.)

Here are the underpinnings: an insistent 4-note bass motif; a speedy nervous tempo that's all fits and starts; a chromatic melody that hovers obsessively around the same few notes; and Ray Davies' whiniest, most fretful vocal to date. "Who'll be the next in line?" he agonizes. "Who'll be the next in line for heartache? / Who'll make the same mistakes I made over / You?" (I love how Ray's vocals dip in a swoop on "li-ine.") It ping-pongs back and forth between just two chords -- G to C -- and the verses are nothing but questions. This girl has really tied him up in knots, hasn't she?

In the bridge, the melody jumps briefly to a higher note, as if he's fighting through to a moment of clarity: "One day you'll find out when I'm gone, / I was the best one you had, / I was the one who gave you love." But even there, he's singing in a listless monotone. He says these things without really believing them, or without believing they'll make a difference.

That's where he is right now: numb, confused, queasy. He's not 100% out the door, but he can read the writing on the wall. And you know what? He's beginning to realize that she's just not worth it anymore.

Now, in 1965 every pop song was ostensibly about girls and boys, but the songwriters--guys like Ray Davies--had other things on their mind, which often secretly inspired those songs. So here's my alternate take on "Who'll Be the Next in Line?": What if it's really about Ray's anxiety about losing his grip on pop fame?

After all, there were dozens of talented young bands swarming around, hoping to dethrone the stars of the moment. (The Kinks themselves had been those hungry youngsters only a few months earlier.) With such a talent glut, the record companies were quick to boot any band the minute their records stopped selling. The formerly hot Kinks were on thin ice. Who could blame Ray Davies for wondering who the next "it" band was going to be?

Expressing adolescent anxiety, of course, was the key to the Kinks' success. In "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night," the raging hormones of love torments the song's singer. "Tired of Waiting" is one long groan of frustrated lust. And after this would come songs like "Dead End Street" (anxious about being broke), "Sunny Afternoon" (anxious about being rich and then losing it), "Shangri-La" (anxious about losing touch with his roots), "Lola" (anxious about his sexuality) . . . well, you get the picture.

But here's what made it work: It felt authentic. It never seemed that Ray Davies was cynically pandering to his teenage audience. No, he was tuned into their insecurities because he shared their insecurities. He was just lucky enough to be able to express it, to speak for the losers and misfits in a way the Beatles, the Stones, and The Who never could (though The Who sometimes came close).

And which of us doesn't still have a tiny whiny voice inside complaining, "But it hurts! It's not fair! You just don't understand! Someday you'll be sorry!"  

Which is probably why I'm still listening 40 years later.

No comments: