Wednesday, November 04, 2009

"Too Much On My Mind" /
The Kinks

The Kinks' first three albums were pumped out one after another, in a little over a year; it took them nearly another year to produce their fourth, Face to Face, released in late 1966. In the meantime, lead singer and songwriter Ray Davies had suffered a nervous breakdown (the Kinks had to tour Belgium and France with a stand-in); even after he returned, sporting a tentative new moustache, many concerts were cancelled and endless obsessive hours were spent in the studio. The bassist, Pete Quaife, quit; a new manager, the infamous Allen Klein, was hired. It was a rough time.

But painful as it was, that transition was necessary, for the Kinks were refusing to stay in a box. Dave wasn't going keep on playing the same stale blues riffs, and Ray was done with writing generic love songs. And amid all the smart, snappy satires and character studies of Face to Face, Ray Davies gave us one introspective song to explain what was going on inside that messed-up head of his.

Introspective? That's an understatement. "Too Much On My Mind" is practically a textbook definition of introspection. "There's too much on my mind," Ray sings wistfully, over the simple acoustic guitar of the first verse; "there's too much on my mind," he repeats, "and I can't sleep at night thinking about it." (Ray Davies has wrung more fine songs out of insomnia than any other living songwriter.) Notice that last phrase -- if this were a love song, he'd have sung, "thinking about you." I have to admit, conditioned by pop love songs as I am, I still half hear "you" at the end of that line. But Ray is not singing about a girl, he's singing about his favorite subject -- himself.

Now a tentative harpsicord tiptoes in (thank you, Nicky Hopkins!) as Ray expands his complaint to the daytime hours. "I'm thinking all the time, / There's too much on my mind." How exhausting it is to be a neurotic! (Yes, Ray does indulge in self-pity here -- but he makes it seem so charming, doesn't he?) And next comes my favorite line in the song: "It seems there's more to life than just to live it." In that one line -- he sweeps away carefree youth and trudges into adulthood, still feeling stung that life has tricked him.

Drums and back-up harmonies join in on the chorus, lending muscle to the wispy ballad as he kicks back in protest: "There's too much on my mind, / And there is nothing I can say / There's too much on my mind, / And there is nothing I can do / About it, / About it." I love how those last two words slide briefly down to a dissonant chord, groaning miserably before resolving.

Ray Davies didn't need pop psychobabble to explain the mind-body connection -- in the second verse he tells us in concrete detail how his mental state has affected his physical state: "My thoughts just weigh me down, / And drag me to the ground, / And shake my head till there's no more life in me." (Dig how he adds the extra words, "life in me," as if giving himself an extra shake.) Woefully, he projects into the future: "It's ruining my brain, / I'll never be the same, / My poor demented mind is slowly going." The telegraph monotone of that last line is especially miserable. Sunk in the blackness of melancholy, he sees no way out.

But the tempo remains just upbeat enough; the bright harpsicord, the brisk high-hats, and the rising guitar riffs buoy the song -- as if the music itself rescues him from the depths of despair.

Perhaps that is exactly what happened to Ray Davies in 1966 -- being able to write the kind of songs he wanted to did pull him through. And on bleak days, when this song creeps into my mind -- as it always does when I'm blue -- this lovely little wistful melody saves me as well. Works like a charm.

TOMORROW: Something Else and "Waterloo Sunset"


Mister Pleasant said...

Wow Holly - you can decipher Mr. Davies' lyrics better than anyone. My Kinks bible is John Mendelssohn's Kinks Kronikles, but his cursory discussions of the lyrics are nowhere nearly as insightful as yours.

Such a great song for your post today! Face To Face is full of them, but this one really gets to me. I like to think of it as the beginning of the wonderful Kinks "harpsichord" years that came to an abrupt end with Arthur.

wwolfe said...

One of my favorite Kinks songs, essentially for the reasons you outline here. A lovely melody, somewhat reminiscent of the Indian-influenced "See My Friends" (from this same album, I believe). From 1966 through 1968, no writer produced more good songs than Ray Davies, with the possible exception of Holland/Dozier/Holland at Motown. Remarkably prolific, varied in style, and consistent in quality. And a voice like no other songwriter ever.

Holly A Hughes said...

Funny how this little "throwaway" song slips under your skin. I consider it one of the tests of true Kinks fandom.

The "harpsicord" years -- a great way to think of them! (Nicky Hopkins was so wonderful -- though John Gosling would also bring something special to the band.)

And wwolfe, I SO agree with you about Ray's voice....

laura said...

I've just found this, such a great song to post, thanks. This kind of songs are exactly the reason why I love this guys: they seem so simple, yet so deep. It makes me feel it was written about me... And I agree, it totally makes me feel better.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I love the album cover too. Bought the vinyl on a wet autumn day ("Do you remember those stormy Novembers, when we walked in the wind and the rain?")in a Caldor's in Catskill, New York. It was 1974 and I found it way "in the back of a record rack," a tad dusty, but brand new. It was already eight years old.

Love your writings, Holly,


Holly A Hughes said...

I remember the joy of finding a "new" album, during those catch-up years...the sense that that record had been waiting all that time for someone with special taste -- i.e., YOU -- to come give it a good home.