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Sunday Pages: "Sunny Afternoon"
A song by the Kinks
Beatles or Rolling Stones? For me, the answer is always the same: the Kinks. And no, I’m not kidding.
All three bands released their debut albums in the U.S. in 1964—an annus mirabilis for popular music. Introducing…The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Kinks came out in January, May, and November, respectively, of that banner year. And while I won’t argue that the Kinks are “better” than the other two bands—what does “better” mean, anyway?—I can say for certain that Ray Davies & Co. have meant more to me personally. (But if you insist on having the greatness debate, start here: “You Really Got Me” is far and away the best track on all six sides of those debut LPs.)
Davies doesn’t have the otherworldly musical prowess of Lennon and McCartney; his voice is distinctive but average. He lacks the matinee-idol looks and effortless cool of Jagger and Richards; he reminds me of Weird Al (who I also love). But Ray Davies is authentically Ray Davies. He’s real. He has flaws and isn’t afraid to let us see them. Heck, the band’s very name is a synonym for “flaws.” To me, growing up, this made him and his music more accessible.
I became aware of the Kinks in 1984, when their single “Do It Again” was a hit on the radio and on MTV. I had no idea they had been around for 20 years (I’d only been around for 12). The song made sense in the context of the mid-80s. It didn’t feel like some has-been trying in vain to fit in.
Some time later, in a long-since-closed record store in my hometown, I bought a greatest hits CD called Come Dancing with the Kinks. It was a double album on a single disc, and I remember arguing with the owner that it should be the same price as all the other single discs, because wasn’t it the second physical disc we were paying extra for? I lost the argument. I paid $19.99 for it. It was worth every penny.
In time, I acquired The Kink Kronikles, a true double-disc greatest hits compilation—which somehow included many songs I’d never heard before. The liner notes came with an essay on the genius of Ray Davies, which I read in a dentist’s office one day and somehow still remember in alarming detail, probably because it was such an unexpectedly challenging read. The author expounded on Davies’ brilliant social commentary (which is spot-on).
And that’s the thing about Ray Davies. As great as the music is, the lyrics are next-level stuff. He’s clever, he’s a shrewd observer of the world and its foibles, he doesn’t take himself too seriously, he allows himself to have enthusiasms, he’s not afraid to show his vulnerabilities (his kinks, if you will), and he positively detests the self-important, the pretentious, and the hypocritical.
In “A Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” he skewers the London dandy, just as he eviscerates the mindless, conservative drone in “Well-Respected Man” and the swingin’ London philanderer in “Dandy:”
Dandy, you know you’re moving much too fast,
And Dandy, you know you can’t escape the past.
Look around you and see the people settle down,
And when you’re old and grey, you will remember what they said:
That two girls are too many, three’s a crowd, and four, you’re dead.
“Apeman” is a song about how, basically, we’re all a bunch of animals, it’s ridiculous to pretend otherwise, and we should just lean into it:
I think I’m sophisticated ‘cause I’m living my life
Like a good homo sapiens,
But all around me, everybody’s multiplying,
And they’re walking round like flies, man.
So I’m no better than the animals sitting
In the cages in the zoo, man,
Because compared to the flowers and the birds and the trees,
I am an apeman.
I think I’m so educated and I’m so civilized
’Cause I'm a strict vegetarian,
But with the overpopulation and inflation and starvation
And the crazy politicians,
I don’t feel safe in this world no more.
I don’t want to die in a nuclear war.
I want to sail away to a distant shore,
And make like an apeman.
Davies has a soft spot for the nostalgic pleasures of yesteryear: “Come Dancing,” about a long-defunct dancehall once frequented by his older sister; “Celluloid Heroes,” a tribute to the forgotten movie stars of old Hollywood; and the sublime “Village Green Preservation Society,” in which he laments—and organizes to prevent!—too much modernization:
Preserving the old ways from being abused.
Protecting the new ways for me and for you.
What more can we do. . . .
We are the Custard Pie Appreciation Consortium.
God save the George Cross and all those who were awarded ‘em.
We are the Sherlock Holmes English Speaking Vernacular.
Help save Fu Manchu, Moriarty, and Dracula.
We are the Office Block Persecution Affinity.
God save little shops, china cups and virginity.
I simply can’t imagine any other rock star writing a song like that. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would come across as cringe, as the kids say. But Davies gets his point across without being mawkish. “Village Green Preservation Society” is a song about sentimentality that somehow manages to resist being too sentimental.
Two years after credibly lauding the prim and proper and traditional, Davies wrote a hit single about being in love with a trans woman. Fifty-three years after its release, “Lola” remains powerful stuff, and is no less heartfelt than “Come Dancing” or “Village Green Preservation Society,” because the passion for his eponymous paramour feels genuine. There’s no qualification. There’s no caveat. If anyone is presented as flawed, it is the narrator. Lola is above reproach. Unlike the bumbling fellow she hooks up with, she is sure of, and true to, herself:
Girls will be boys, and boys will be girls,
It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world,
Except for Lola.
Somehow, Ray Davies, the same individual who once wrote an anthem about the proper English virtues of Queen Victoria, managed to sing compellingly and sympathetically about gender fluidity—in 1970.
But the reason I chose to write about the Kinks this week is because I was listening to “Sunny Afternoon” the other day, and I realized that, in writing the parody of “With a Little Help from My Friends” last week, I purloined the rhyme of yacht and got from Davies. As I listened, I realized how odd the song is. The narrator here is an absolute garbage human, a rich tax cheat who abuses his girlfriend—a real Trump-like character:
The taxman’s taken all my dough,
And left me in my stately home,
Lazin’ on a sunny afternoon.
And I can’t sail my yacht.
He’s taken everything I got.
All I’ve got’s this sunny afternoon.
Save me, save me, save me from this squeeze.
I got a big fat mama trying to break me.
And I love to live so pleasantly,
Live this life of luxury,
Lazin’ on a sunny afternoon,
In the summertime.
In the summertime.
In the summertime.
My girlfriend’s run off with my car,
And gone back to her ma and pa,
Tellin’ tales of drunkenness and cruelty.
And now I’m sittin’ here,
Sippin’ at my ice cold beer,
Lazin’ on a sunny afternoon.
I mean, what an asshole, right?
Revolver came out in August of 1966. The Kinks’ Face to Face dropped two months later. Could “Sunny Afternoon” be a covert response to “Taxman?” The latter, written by George Harrison, is libertarian in its views on taxation, going so far as to call out the British prime ministers (Wilson, Heath) responsible for fiscal policy. The Davies song, in contrast, shows us exactly who the taxman is going after, and why that sort of reprobate is unworthy of sympathy—or being the implicit victim in the opening song on what is arguably the best Beatles album.
The last song on Come Dancing with the Kinks is a rousing live version of “Celluloid Heroes,” re-structured so that, unlike in the studio version, the title is not realized until the very end. It still gives me chills to listen to it:
I wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show—
A fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes.
Because celluloid heroes never feel any pain,
And celluloid heroes never really die.
Neither do rock stars.
Just me and Stephanie Koff on Friday’s The Five 8. We inverted the format: instead of five topics for eight minutes each, we did eight topics for five minutes each:
The episode included this satirical ad, with animation by Chunk:
Photo credit: Jean-Luc Ourlin. Ray Davies of the Kinks in Toronto, 1977.