Finger Pointing Songs: part 2. The Kinks. Or, A Respecter Calls. Or, It’s A Shame About Ray.

“Pity is easy, but it’s difficult to care,”

Ray Davies.

Ray Davies: you don’t see faces like his anymore, do you?  Whoever first noted that he had a ‘sad clown face’ got it spot on.  It wasn’t me.

I like things to make sense and generally, to me at least, they don’t.  I look for logic and I look for rationality in everyday life and, when I can’t find much, I can get a bit maudlin.  So, what I’m doing here – realistically –  is finding some pop songs from the 1960s, imposing a theme on them and making out that, at least somewhere, some things make sense.  What I’m going to be writing about today is the idea that Ray Davies doesn’t really like anybody or anything and his songs reflect that moving, chronologically, from his initial swipes at individuals before he gradually progressed to expressing his disappointment with human beings in general.

I like The Kinks a lot although there are some things about them that put me off a bit: Ray Davies doesn’t do himself too many favours with his public persona, although his sad clown face helps dilute that.  He seems like a thoroughly miserable old contrarian; if he’s the equivalent of anyone, he’s the English Lou Reed.  He’s literate, he expresses joy at everyday simplicity, his songs are often observations of outcasts.  To reduce him to those things is tempting, certainly it was to Damon Albarn and any number of Britpop hangers-on.

Had Ray Davies been in a band with John Lennon, the Liverpudlian might not have even had to bother coming up with an original witticism to put him in his place.  This is John Lennon responding to a question about Lovely Rita, as late as 1980.

“That’s Paul writing a pop song. He makes ’em up like a novelist. You hear lots of McCartney-influenced songs on the radio now. These stories about boring people doing boring things— being postmen and secretaries and writing home. I’m not interested in writing third-party songs…”

Here’s Ray Davies being English about what he does.

“I’ve written so many songs about Englishmen, I have to go elsewhere.” (Presumably because people start being a bit guarded about what they do and say in front of you when you get famous for your character studies).

Ray Davies might have written about the same groups of ordinary people, in the same country as Paul McCartney, but nobody’s going to get confused over who wrote what with those two.  Paul’s viewpoint is generally that the ordinary Joe or Josephine is basically alright; a decent sort who deserves to be happy, even if they’re not especially.  Even those who are up to no good don’t so much have their heads blown off as have their hair ruffled and called scallywags.  Ray Davies’ worldview – or Englandview, really – is far more bleak and the characters are often in inescapably dreary situations and harbouring something sordid – or just a bit sad, in the traditional sense of the word – behind the twitching net curtains of suburbia.  If there’s one Ray Davies quotation that possibly cuts through the bullshit and opens the door on his angle, it’s the one at the top of this post: “Pity is easy, but it’s difficult to care,”  which, depending on the context, could seem quite difficulty to admit even if it’s true.  Especially if it’s true.  And it’s not that hard to spot the difference when you’re watching somebody else doing it.

It also means that all those Britpoppers’ songs – including Blur’s – might have been grown from the same soil.  The result being that the singer can seem unsympathetic and distant.  In the case of Britpop, the self congratulatory element of it, coupled with a prodigious appetite for twat powder wouldn’t have done anyone any favours.  The accusation that it was all a bit hollow and ephemeral (Britpop as a thing) hasn’t gone away yet.  Probably deservedly so.

In part 1 of this probably interminable series about finger pointing songs, I wrote about Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone and how virtually every note on the record has a pH of at least 2 and how it’s a character assassination in all but name.  The Kinks’ take on the finger pointing is far less, well, American than that.  If Like A Rolling Stone is a pistol shot to the head that followed a bout of enthusiastic swearing and spitting, The Kinks’ finger pointing songs are indelibly English in terms of what they don’t say being the important parts.  The closest thing that Ray Davies would get to shooting would be one of his eyebrows, ever so slightly upwards and, even then, barely perceptibly.  At least to start with.  His judgements started appearing later.  Bob and Ray could both be snide, but where you’d have to be dead not to notice that Bob Dylan was laying into someone, I suspect that anyone who wasn’t familiar with the peculiar nature of the English psyche might not ever be aware of Ray’s true feelings towards the subjects of some of his songs.

Also in part 1, I noted that Bob Dylan found himself more or less incapable of writing anything but finger pointing songs in 1965.  Ray wasn’t quite so single minded, but he wasn’t far off.  Ray Davies’ first foray into the world of character assassination by microscopic eyebrow raise was two months after Like A Rolling Stone, so maybe something was in the air.  A Well Respected Man was followed by Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, Sunny Afternoon, Dandy, and Mr. Pleasant in 1966.  Sunny Afternoon might sound like a ‘This is a nice/nasty place’ song, but it’s still pointing the finger at various perceived wrongdoers.   1967 passed by without a Kinks finger pointing single although they did include David Watts on their album of that year.  But in 1968, they were back again with Wonderboy and Plastic Man.  Later, Apeman is sort of a finger pointing song but I’ll get to that in due course.

There is a definite possibility that Ray continued writing finger pointers right through the 1970s to the present, but I wouldn’t know because I bail on The Kinks after 1970’s God’s Children.  Around that time, after Pete Quaife left – there’re slim pickings for someone like me.  Lola and Apeman, yeah, but very little else.

I’m only going to look at a few of those records, so her we go…

  1. A Well Respected Man.

You’d have thought that calling someone ‘well respected’ would be a compliment, but that would be to forget what it is to be English and well-versed in sarcasm.  Naturally, it’s not as straightforward as that.  Had Paul McCartney written a song about someone being well respected, I would expect the sentiment behind the words to be as genuine as any apple-pie-cheeked-American-who-lives-behind-a-white-picket-fence.  Irony is a big in England – or it certainly used to be.  It’s difficult to spot: young kids aren’t very keen on sarcasm because it relies on subtlety of phrasing and a keen ear which takes time to develop.  The stereotypical American sarcasm tends to be quite heavily signposted.  Of course Americans understand irony.  What they struggle with – and I don’t blame them – is the English version of it which is often played totally deadpan.  It’s almost a way of keeping strangers at arm’s length.  Of course, it’s a stereotype.  Like New York sarcasm is a stereotype which doesn’t necessarily seem all that far away from the English version.  Still, if English bands do well anywhere, it tends to be in New York, so perhaps that partly accounts for it.

Anyway, the song is typical of a lot of Kinks recordings of the time: a high in the mix acoustic guitar splashes around Davies’ slightly knowing, if hard to spot, smirk in his voice.  The bass plonks around none too adventurously, the drums skittle and Ray’s brother Dave embellishes tastefully and slightly admonishingly – a bit like Al Kooper’s Nelson Muntz Hammond organ on Like A Rolling Stone.  There’s not a lot of invention in The Kinks’ recordings at this point.  There are rarely any keyboards and the guitar sounds don’t vary apart from Dave’s is sometimes distorted, but usually retains some twanging quality about it.  Later, what Ray did get obsessed by was the descending bassline which defines their biggest hits of the sixties (especially 1966 which was a big year for them, starting with These Boots Were Made For Walking by Nancy Sinatra in January and ending with The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations by late autumn.  Every band worth their salt was plodding down a scale like an amnesiac scaffolder, in 1966) – Sunny Afternoon, Waterloo Sunset, Dead End Street and Big Black Smoke, weren’t keeping Pete Quaife overly busy that year in terms of having to move his left hand up as well as down.

Ray Davies can put a pretty tune together, but it’s his lyrics for which he’s acclaimed and rightly so.  A Well Respected Man starts off with, “‘Cause he gets up in the morning and he goes to work at nine,”  Starting off with the word ‘cause‘ implies that we’re joining in a conversation about somebody, the start of which we’ve missed because ‘cause‘ is the first word we hear, we’re given the idea that the singer has made a claim and is now proceeding to back it up with evidence.  As the title explicitly states that the person is well respected, we’re encouraged to believe that these are the reasons why he is.  And, to be fair, he is well respected.  By some.  Not that it makes any difference to this unnamed chap because he’s stifled by his parents, who turn out to be as bad as he is.  Maybe worse.

His father’s a prime candidate for the #metoo movement, sexually harassing the maid, and his mother sits on committees and knows what’s best for our well respected young man especially in terms of girls.  Our man fancies the girl next door and Davies’ rhyming of ‘regatta’ and ‘…dying to get at her,’ should stick out as clumsy and forced, but somehow doesn’t, probably because it mirrors the subjects of the song.  The word ‘regatta’ tells us that he moves in fancy circles, even if he doesn’t benefit from meeting posh girls in them.  The implication is that she’s a bit of a Sybil Birling from An Inspector Calls which is to say, a dreadfully sanctimonious old twat, born with a silver spoon in her mouth who’s under the impression that she’s somehow deserving of that which has fallen into her lap.

Sybil Birling.jpg
Sybil Birling: ‘well’ respected.

Having been brought up by this pair, it’s hardly surprising that our man might be well respected but beneath that thin veneer lies a money-minded man who views his father purely in terms of how much money he’ll inherit from him and who shares his mothers perspective that he knows what’s best for everyone and he’s secure in the knowledge that his opinions and choices are the right ones and anyone who disagrees with him is wrong.  Unless they happen to be his mother, in which case he’ll capitulate.  The well respected man is, to an extent, Sybil’s son Eric Birling without the inclination to redeem himself.

Eric Birling: not quite so well respected at first, slightly more later on.  Unlike Sybil. 

The closest that Davies gets to offering an opinion on anything is his summation that the subject of the song is ‘conservative’ in his ways.  Conservative, when you think about it, means keeping things the same as they always have been.  Which is something that some people have a lot of respect for.  Older people, mainly.  Grandpa Simpson once said, “I used to be with ‘it’, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’ anymore and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary. It’ll happen to you!”  And that’s one of the great truisms of, well, all times really.

Other than that, Davies doesn’t judge.  You can imagine what Dylan’s take on the same subject would be – he’d introduce himself in the chorus and start spraying vitriol at our well respected man’s freshly laundered morning suit for five or six minutes, never letting up on his judgement.  Davies just opens the door, describes the scene and lets us make our own minds up.

The result of which is that nobody in the song comes across as interested in anything but themselves and what they can get.  Of course, our man doesn’t actually get anything by the end of it.  He’s not inherited anything and he can’t ask the girl next door out because his mother knows best and she’s not good enough for her son.  He knows that probably before he even thinks about broaching the subject with anyone.

In the end, like Ray told us earlier, it’s quite easy to feel pity for this man but it’s difficult to care.

2.  Sunny Afternoon.

When I was a kid, I used to like The Pink Panther Show which was on telly on Saturday teatimes.  I was less taken with The Pink Panther films.  The same went for Batman and Tarzan: I preferred cartoons to live action.  Anyway, the format of The Pink Panther Show was three shortish animations, the middle one varied.  Most of the time it was an aardvark and an ant who were a sort of Wilee Coyote and Roadrunner but with more emphasis on Jewish humour.  That was bookended by two Pink Panther shorts, who was pretty much a mute Bugs Bunny to the unnamed little white moustachioed chap’s Elmer J Fudd but, this time, with the wise cracking taken out and replaced by a jazzy score.  The music, especially on the Ant & Aardvark segment was excellent.  I’d not heard Sunny Afternoon by the time I found myself sitting on the living room floor with my tea watching The Pink Panther Show, but when I did, the first thing it reminded me of was the Ant & Aardvark music.  Not the theme music specifically, but the continually playing soundtrack going on behind the Jackie Mason-esque drawled, self pitying and deprecating remarks from the blue aardvark.

The instrumentation is fairly similar to A Well Respected Man, although there is a honky tonk, tack piano playing along which adds to the everything’s-gone-to-shit-so-we-might-as-well-get-pissed feel.   It’s a big progression, musically.  AWRM isn’t exactly beat group by numbers, but it’s not far off.  This is far more sophisticated and the descending bassline emphasised the lyrical description that everything-that-can-go-wrong-has-already-gone-wrong.

The finger is pointing alright, but perhaps because of the slightly drunken feeling (‘sitting with my ice cool beer’) of the record, it doesn’t stay fixed on any one target in particular.  You!  You’re what’s wrong with my life.  And you.  You as well.  Bleurgh.  Who are these bastards?  Well, there’s the taxman, some big, fat mama, his girlfriend and her mother and father.  They all want a piece of him.  In fact, it sounds like they all will get a piece of him and Ray’s just waiting for the inevitable.  But hey!  At least it’s not raining, right?  Not that, that seems to provide any succour to the subject of the song.

In some ways, the chap in Sunny Afternoon could be the protagonist of A Well Respected Man once his parents have drunk themselves to death.  He’s inherited his father’s money, he’s got himself a girl now his mother isn’t there to stop him and yet it’s the same old story: wanting, getting and then losing.  Because of those people who won’t let him keep everything he thinks he deserves.  It’s not very conservative because he doesn’t get to conserve anything, even though he wishes he could.

Stately home: Castle Howard.  The girl who publicly accused me of giving her bum rabies when I was at university took me here in her mini on beautiful autumn day.  It was the closest thing approaching a ‘date’ that we had.  We didn’t actually get out of the car because the car parking charges were extortionate.  Still, it was a nice Sunday afternoon out in the country, and she was pretty great, so fair dos, eh?

Even then, the closest Davies gets to Dylan-esque bile is calling someone ‘fat’, which sounds rich coming from this man who has evidently hardly been denying himself the good things in life.  Yeah, they’re taking things off him, but he’s got his stately home, he had a car, but his girlfriends run off in it.  And let’s not forget he’s got a yacht he can’t sail, the poor baby.

Miss Lonely, who had it all and lost it, could have written this song.  How do we feel about the singer?  I don’t think there’s any sarcasm going on either.  The opening line about being left in his stately home implies not so much that the singer is winking at us and saying, “Ah well, can’t complain really,” because the entire song is a litany of complaints.  It’s not sarcasm, it’s irony.  The singer apparently wouldn’t know genuine hardship if it bit him.  The listener, being most likely an ordinary sort of person – in terms of social class at least – recognises that this sob story is unworthy of genuine sympathy.

Mr. Harold Wilson: taxman.  Ha Ha.

As it happens, this interpretation of the song bears no resemblance to Davies’.  He said, “The only way I could interpret how I felt was through a dusty, fallen aristocrat who had come from old money as opposed to the wealth I had created for myself.”  Which, in itself, is a bit of an Arthur Birling perspective on the situation.  I’ve already made it clear that I think that meritocracy’s a crock, but Ray obviously doesn’t agree with me.  In fairness to him, he also added, “I turned him into a scoundrel who fought with his girlfriend after a night of drunkenness and cruelty.” and it is a great line, the “…telling tales of drunkeness and cruelty…” even if it doesn’t help Davies’ justification because ‘telling tales‘ implies either that she’s lying about it or the protagonist feels she ought to keep her mouth shut about his dreadful behaviour.  Ray Davies didn’t like paying tax.  At that point, the upper tax bracket was 90% which seems a bit punitive.  On the other hand, if you own 90% of the wealth, why shouldn’t you pay 90% of the taxes?  On yet another hand, I very much doubt that Ray Davies was rolling in it due to his management at the time and his record contract was hardly lucrative, especially in comparison to, say, The Rolling Stones’.

Once again, we might feel pity – even if it’s only a tiny little amount this time – but it’s still hard to care very much.

3. Mr. Pleasant.

Same deal here – very much the same instrumental backing type as Sunny Afternoon, except with the added bonus of  a comedy trombone punctuating and parping its way throughout the song, as if it’s the musical personification of Mr. Pleasant, bumbling along and falling over, if not literally, then at least metaphorically.

If A Well Respected Man‘s sarcasm was quite well hidden and if Sunny Afternoon didn’t really have any, Mr. Pleasant is dripping with it.  Even discounting the undoubted sarcastic tone of most of the lyrics, those that aren’t sarky sound deranged.  Like someone on far too high a dose of happy pills babbling away, well, pleasantly.  Attempted pleasantness, at least.

It’s the story of a man who came out of poverty into a world of success.   Whereas once Mr Pleasant had nothing, now he has plenty.  Limousine, 24 inch television (What’s that 2018?  Woo-hoo!?) and, in general, success as a result of hard work and toil.  The meritocratic dream.  According to Ray, that’s better than inheriting it, so we ought to feel some sympathy for him…  It turns out that theres a downside to all those extra hours spent in the office amassing his fortune because his wife is having it off with some young fellow while he’s doing it.  Ah, tits.

And all the while, Mr Pleasant doesn’t have a scooby what’s going on and the trombone shows us this through its blah-blah-blah-ing and swaying.  It’s all very pleasant, but it gives the impression that it’s going about its business, here and there, to and fro, bowing and lifting its bowler hat up at people in the street, all the while oblivious to what everybody already knows about him: he’s wasting his time on consumerist ephemera when he should be concentrating on his family, who get their kicks elsewhere.  The trombone represents the droning voice of Mr. Pleasant, being pleasant, asking his neighbours about their families and boasting about the accoutrements of his nouveau riche lifestyle – all noise and comedy with little-to-nothing in the way of self-awareness.

In fairness to Davies, the musical backing – at long last – does have a more significant role to play here, and not just the trumpet.  At 1m47secs on the video above, on the word ‘flirting’, the piano’s mood shifts abruptly – from being a jovial accompaniment, it becomes a pastiche of the music on silent movies when the maiden is tied to the train tracks and the audience see the smoke of the steam train rapidly approaching her as she squirms helplessly –  to suggest a slight stiffening.  Of the person telling Mr Pleasant about his wife’s infidelities?  Of Mr Pleasant when he hears about it?  Take your pick, either will do.  It’s uncomfortable, but not enough to stop the person who’s telling tales.

Yet again, yet again – it’s easy to feel pity, but it’s difficult to care very much.  Even though Mr Pleasant earned his own money.

Let’s consider what we’ve learned so far about Ray Davies, because we’re not getting much consistency in these records, great as they all are in their own ways.

In A Well Respected Man, the protagonist goes to work, but hopes for a hefty inheritance.  In Sunny Afternoon, he’s not going to work because he’s getting pissed instead and the suggestion is he has inherited his money.  In Mr Pleasant, he’s a self-made man.  In terms of getting rich, there aren’t many other options, are there?  Is one better than another?  Davies tells us that making the protagonist of Sunny Afternoon someone born with a silver spoon makes him less sympathetic.  Still, in the other two, there’s either no inheritance yet, or none at all and, as he says, we might feel pity but we don’t really care, so what difference does it make where the money came from?

In terms of relationships with girls, the Well Respected Man doesn’t have one because his mother won’t let him; in Sunny Afternoon, she’s left him because he’s a cruel sot; in Mr Pleasant, he neglects her and she finds affection elsewhere.  Which one’s worst?  Take your pick.

What is Ray Davies’ Englandview?  What are you supposed to do in order to make somebody actually care?  He values hard work over inheritance, but even that doesn’t appear to make anybody happy in the end.  Perhaps he finds something suspicious in those who struggle to maintain a relationship, whether through overbearing parents, being pissed and cruel, or through neglect.  Davies’ own relationships with his women were never entirely smooth running due to, ironically, drink and drug problems and absence through work, so what exactly are we supposed to glean?

If you ask me, which nobody did, I’d say that Ray Davies’ worldview was, in terms of the Is the glass half-full or half-empty scenario? pretty similar to mine: it depends what’s in it.  Meaning, if it’s something horrible, the glass is half-full and if it’s something wonderful, it’s half-empty.  In short, whatever happens, it’s going to be shit, probably.

4. Apeman. 

“I think it’s because I’ve always sung in an English accent.”

Ray Davies, responding to a question about how The Kinks are viewed as “quintessentially English”. 2013.

A few years ago in Britain when a lot of ordinary people were encouraged to believe that the reason that they didn’t have much money was because people from other countries were coming over and doing shitty jobs that most people weren’t prepared to do, for much less money.  Not, you know, the people who own 90-odd percent of all the money and who won’t pay any tax on it.  Oh God no, the true villains were Johnny and Joanie Foreigner, living in squalor and earning next to no money.   The bastards.

At that point, UKIP started being a thing and, churning out the same old crap that’s always been parroted by the right wing and the elderly, which is that the most recent crop of immigrants are to blame for all of society’s ills.  Classic misinformation and it almost always works too.

After a couple of years of public school educated stockbroker Nigel Farage telling everybody that he’s the nation’s everyday everyman because he drinks pints of beer and is suspicious of people with foreign sounding names – although ones like “Farage”, are alright apparently – and he can remember a time when everything was great because everybody had bowler hats and ate fish and chips, or played cricket on village greens and there weren’t any of those awful brown people who wanted to inflict their vulgar cooking and culture onto traditional British values.

Mike Read and Nigel Farage: a dick and a half(wit).  Each.  A pair of divvies if ever there was.

Anyway, a lot of people bought it, including easily offended 1980s bankrupt ex-BBC Radio 1 DJ and Saturday Morning kids’ telly host, Mike Read.  Being a helpful sort of person, even though he’d probably gone bankrupt because some woman from the Philippines earned nearly one pound an hour cleaning Lord and Lady Muck’s toilets, Mike Read wrote and performed a song in support of the UKIP party and it went down very much as you’d expect, which is to say that people who agreed with Nigel Farage thought that it was great, biting satire and people who disagreed with Nigel Farage thought that it seemed a bit like Disney’s “hush-that-never-happened-did-it?” Song Of The South, on grounds that Mike Read’s a 57 year old white man from Lancashire who was singing a calypso in a West Indian accent about how, because of the EU, there were all these immigrants all over the country which was a bad thing and, if that wasn’t bad enough, the EU doesn’t let us English types make jam the way we want it and bananas have to be straight and that’s not even all because the EU has declared war on good old British lawnmowers.  And kettles.  And hairdryers.  Oh, let’s not forget smartphones and vacuum cleaners.

It was bollocks in a lot of ways.  No actually, it was bollocks in every way, but when people started pointing out that that the EU hadn’t said anything about jam and B&Q’s carparks weren’t full of protestors getting riled about not being able to buy specific, European unfriendly lawnmowers and all the rest of it, the UKIPpers just started mumbling at their shoes and saying things like, “What about all those coloureds, eh?”  Because it’s easier to do that than have a think about reality, isn’t it?  Waving flags is an uncomplicated activity, and that suits some people.  I hate flags.  What’s the point?  You see people in England, during football tournaments, hanging St George’s cross flags outside their windows, and you think, you’re in England – why do you need a flag?  Do you forget what country you’re living in every time you leave the house?  Maybe the UKIP answer to that might be, “Well, with all those brown people around, talking foreign and treating people kindly in hospitals, I sometimes wonder.”  I don’t know.  I dread to think.  Isn’t it more likely that the colour of your skin has a fairly limited effect on whether you’re an arsehole or not?  Is it not possible that all races or nationalities, or whatever it is, have arseholes in them?  Anyway, I’m not very likely to stop racism being a thing, writing whatever this is, about The Kinks’ finger pointing songs, am I?  More’s the pity.

Anyway, Mike Read’s rubbish calypso rant – it was, like UKIP, a crap idea.  Nobody with a brain could have thought, “Hey!  This is it!  This is going to get to number one and everybody’s going to want to vote for the UKIPs.”  Well, maybe that explains it… except it didn’t get to number one.  Or did it?  I don’t even know that.  I’ve had a look.  It reached number 44 in the proper charts and number 1 in the Indie chart, apparently.  So Mike Read and Morrissey have more than one thing in common, it turns out.

Anyway, the thing that went down particularly badly was Mike Read’s faux Caribbean accent and, again, nobody should have been surprised about that as it came out in 2014 and not 1970.  The fact that it was a song about fear of Johnny Foreigner didn’t help.  And it was crap.  That, too.  UKIP pulled out all the stops by putting black UKIP spokesman, Winston McKenzie on Newsnight to, presumably, represent the views of all black people everywhere by saying that he didn’t think it was racist, so therefore it couldn’t have been.  Or something.

I’m not convinced about cultural appropriation, myself.  I think that with travel, people enjoy bits and pieces of different cultures and I don’t really see the problem with most of it.  Curry’s been Britain’s favourite takeaway for decades now and I’m pretty sure that the curries we get from our takeaways don’t necessarily bear all that much resemblance to what you might find on the streets of Mumbai and I don’t think it matters.  On the other hand, The Black & White Minstrel Show was a load of bollocks and white actors blacking up doesn’t seem very reasonable – did it ever?

Naturally, it’s more complicated than that because do you apply the same rationale to straight actors playing roles of gay characters?  I don’t think that’s a very good idea because doesn’t that mean that gay actors could only play gay roles?  That’s not a very good idea.  And then you start getting to the point at which you start wondering about the concept of acting which is, basically, pretending to be someone you’re not.  I don’t know the answer.  I think we should probably think about things first and probably not do things that might be construed as taking the piss, but different people have different thresholds for what they think constitutes taking the piss.  Some people think the piss is being taken when it’s not and some wouldn’t recognise it when it is.  Life’s complicated.

Anyway, the reason I went into all that is because, in Apeman, Ray Davies sings a song with the chorus, “I’m an apeman, I’m an ape, apeman…” in a Caribbean accent.  Which I think might be viewed in a somewhat different light today than it was then.  The problem being, of course that he’s implying that, if an ape could sing, he’d sing with the accent of black people from Jamaica or somewhere.
Johnny Weismuller & Cheetah: One of them’s an apeman but I wouldn’t like to stick my neck out about which one’s which.  Why the fuck did they call the ape ‘Cheetah’?  What’s going on there?  No wonder I was confused.

The famous opening line of The Go Between, by L.P. Hartley is, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” and it’s been co-opted to suggest that we can’t really retrospectively criticise inhabitants of the past for having attitudes that were typical of the past.  And I think that’s generally about right: I’m not going to knock Ray Davies for having a fifty year old attitude, fifty years ago.

Anyway… this song is about man’s ecological destruction of the planet.  The finger points alright, but instead of pointing at an individual, or a social class’s attitude, he’s pointing it at humanity in general.   When he moved on from his loud sex songs (You Really Got Me, All Day & All Of The Night) and began writing his social comment songs he first set his sights on English social stereotypical individuals – cuckolds in A Well Respected Man, the landed gentry in Sunny Afternoon and self-made men in Mr Pleasant – by 1970, he was painting in rather broader strokes that pointed the finger at people in general.  Everybody.

And what’s everybody doing wrong, according to Ray?  Well, they’re breeding too much, causing inflation and a lack of food for everybody, and they’re starting nuclear wars.  Not that everything’s bad though, because the non-human (sometimes but not always) living organisms of planet Earth are alright as far as Ray’s concerned.  Animals – especially apes – are alright, as are flowers, birds, trees, The sun, clouds, bugs, spiders and flies.

Ray’s conclusion is that humanity has knackered the planet up and we’d all be better off if we were a bit more like the aforementioned things, just bumbling along, not building cars and roads and overcomplicating things, but just swinging around in the jungle, taking our clothes off and eating bananas.

I have a certain sympathy with that point of view.  There are times, especially when I’m thinking about evolution, and it comes to me that we’re just not ready for modern society.  It’s too complicated for us.  We’re adapted to the point of picking apples from trees and here’s a load of mobile phones, the internet, cars, bureaucratic lunacy and everything else, pretty much in modern society that, collectively, drive us all a bit spare.  Well, they do me, anyway.

And these things are, more or less, explicitly pointed out by Ray in terms of value judgements, like Dylan did in his finger pointing songs.  “That’s bad,”  “That’s good,” and there wasn’t too much that going on in Ray Davies’ finger pointing songs of the 1960s, as I’ve mentioned.  This one is different because of that.

And because everybody, pretty much, is included in the scope of Ray’s culturally appropriated Jamaican calypso as being part of the problem, how do we feel about it?

I suppose we might feel that he’s right and we’re not doing such a great job of looking after the only planet we’ve got as a result of greed and money-mindedness and therefore, we don’t include ourselves among those whom he’s pointing his finger at.  We might think he’s daft because things like houses, clean running water, electricity, central heating and double glazing have increased our life expectancy and improved the quality of our lives and not really think that they’re all terrible things.

Because everybody’s getting pointed at here for things they can’t do anything about – like being born – I think we don’t really accept that the charges are levelled at us, any more than the protagonist of Sunny Afternoon recognised that being left with booze in the gardens of his stately home on a nice day wasn’t all that bad.

What that means is that, as they say, for every finger that points at something, there’s an arm pointing right back at the pointer.  Which is what I do when I hear Apeman – I think about Ray Davies and how is he any better than I am?  How many cars does he have?  Ray’s got four children, from three marriages which doesn’t do him any favours when he appears to have a problem with over-population.  As he could surely have retired years ago, why does he persist in troubling the planet with his hefty carbon footprint when he could be taking off all his clothes and living in the jungle?

Ray Davies, Louise Davies and Rasa Davies: thoughts on population explosion unconfirmed at that point in time.

It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Ray Davies is a misanthropic hypocrite who sees the bad in everybody but himself – who believes that if he’d written Sunny Afternoon more accurately, about him being a self-made-man, then people would have had too much sympathy for him, so he had to paint himself blacker than he really was.  Having said that, he’s a person who’s struggled with depression for much of his life and has had the odd public meltdown when he felt he couldn’t cope anymore.  And, when you feel that way, you tend to retreat into yourself and view the problem as being other people.  Maybe that is the problem.  Or maybe it’s just self (village green?) -preservation kicking in.  Earlier this week, The Independent newspaper published an article that suggested that the secret to happiness is, basically, stoicism:


Which is another way of saying, “Yeah, a lot of things are bloody awful, but you also can’t do much about most of it.  You can’t control most things.  Noted stoic Epictetus said that it’s not the things that happen that are the problem, it’s the way that we think about them.  Things in themselves are neutral, but it’s our judgements about us that make us happy or sad.  Like most answers-to-everything, it doesn’t really stand up to the cold, harsh light of stupidity.  If a drunken driver runs your family over and kills them, is that a neutral act?  Maybe they didn’t go out of their way to kill your family, no.  On the other hand, it’s difficult to find much of a positive spin on events such as that.  Same as terminal illnesses, becoming homeless, tooth decay, dementia.   The list goes on.

Epictetus: bright lad, if a bit laid back about bad things.

But for a lot of stuff, yeah, maybe it is worth remembering that we’re not such a big deal, really.  200 years from now, who’s going to remember anything that you said or did?  For most people, anyway.  I couldn’t tell you much about my antecedents from 1818.  No, I couldn’t tell you anything about them, and I only exist because of them.  So maybe we all ought to stop worrying and just get on with it.  Ironically, given Davies’ distinct lack of judgements about the characters in his earlier songs suggests that he might have even been a bit stoic in his younger years but that’s long gone.

But when thoughts like, Ray Davies is a misanthrope who judges everybody else much more harshly than he judges himself enter my head and I consider them I, like Ray Davies, find it easy to pity him but difficult to care all that much.  About Ray’s holier-than-thou finger wagging, mind you, not about The Kinks though who I love despite them and myself.

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