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The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

The Kinks: Songs of the Semi-Detached
Mark Doyle

Reaktion Books

March 2020


With a certain word of this book's clever subtitle finding a lot more shelter-in-place lately, a reconsideration of the reflective lyrics and inventive tunes of Ray Davies and the Kinks turns even more timely. Professor Mark Doyle's "exercise in historically informed rock criticism" measures "the odd angle from which [Ray] Davies viewed his world." Doyle uses the record—factual, visual, cultural, audio, and political—to aid "musical appreciation" of post-war, working-class North London. He interprets the rise of the Kinks within not only the expected framework of British pop but also with the framing works of William Hogarth, Edmund Burke, John Clare, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, and John Betjeman to situate Kinks songs within English art and thought, so as "to bring their originality into sharper relief." As a scholar of the British Empire, Doyle is well qualified for this.

Ambiguities and contradictions abound. Guitarist Dave Davies asks his brother about the song "She Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina". Doyle quotes: "I don't know if you like these people or hate them." The album on which this track appeared, Arthur (1969), took part of its inspiration from the Davies' relatives who'd emigrated to Australia. Ray delved into his family's roots in the downmarket districts of inner-city London, which, often demolished after the Second World War, found their residents relocating to more distant, less dense suburbs. While the Davies boys grew up in more sylvan circumstances than their parents, Ray inherited an unresolved tension.

Removed from urban identity, he aspired to art school and intellectual pursuits, as did so many of his peers who entered the creative swirl of the past six or so decades of British entertainment. Yet Ray remained aloof. Observant of the changes leading up to the counterculture, he stayed sardonic. He failed to fall for the expectation that those in charge would give up power to his ilk.

Flamboyant Dave Davies, famous at 17, preferred the mini-skirted carnality on Carnaby Street. Drummer Mick Avory and bassist Pete Quaife immersed themselves into the Soho club scene. This left Ray conflicted, a product of the star-making machinery he'd mock. In Doyle's estimation, the Kinks represent the shifting fortunes of (at least a lucky few) children of the welfare state. Manual laborer Mick, fashion-magazine assistant and future male model Pete, and stockroom clerk Dave joined Ray, who worked on layouts for a trade magazine himself. They started with late-1950s skiffle, soaked up the blues, saw the performers in from Chicago, and added their fierce distortion to "You Really Got Me", the first of many classics all about girls.

[page 6] The author's Ray Davies doll: Cuban heels, red hunting jacket and a characteristic smirk. Author's collection. (courtesy of University of Chicago Press)

What separated them from the worthy competition? "Scruffier than the Beatles, angrier than the Stones, hornier than the besuited celibates grinning out from countless record jackets", by their calculated name, the Kinks aimed to provoke. They scuffled on stage, they jeered at their fans, they shot sloppy, gritty sonic booms, until, suddenly, from mid-1965 on, they stopped. As with better bands at the decade's pivot, the Kinks turned artsy, in what Doyle deems a "Dickensian phase". Ray and band peered at modest drama behind facades of stolid flats. On Face to Face (1966) and Something Else (1967), the Kinks looked inward, to imagine how another half lived.

Banned four years from touring in America, Ray reverted to "deliberately artistic music" in a "technicolor scramble of sounds and ideas shooting free from the earthbound blues that had nourished" Beatles, Stones, the Who, Yardbirds, then Cream and Pink Floyd. According to Doyle, only Ray Davies noticed: "The Sixties was a lie. A total lie." Ray stepped aside from the swingers. Their Britannia didn't topple its sinister system. Tawdry profit cheapened heritage. As one Kinks LP cover documents, a pub charmingly called "Cats on Holiday" has been fenced by steel, where the band stands in front, locked out, on a Victorian block slated for condemnation.

Those fleeing grim cities for greenbelt estates brought with them their own seeds of eco-destruction. Conformity dominated the supposedly defiant sartorial and sexually liberated non-conformists. Those liberated gleefully became complicit in their own exploitation. Equality receded into fantasy. Of course, a newly affluent Ray included himself and band in self-parody.

Next, Doyle maps out the "romantic" path Ray chose, if only for 15 months. He tried the leafy retreat outside the metropolitan chaos. Soon, this move fostered Village Green Preservation Society, considered the classic evocation of the Kinks' pastoral vision. However, as Doyle digs deep into its intricate, half-hidden foundation, this 1968 album reveals complication and conflict.

Ray Davies rounded out characters, took on different vocal styles, and acted out his many sides. He preferred less grotesque, more rounded protagonists, populating three-minute narratives dense with ambiguous suggestion. The remainder of this compact, readable study elaborates the ideas advanced by thinkers such as those mentioned earlier in this review. Doyle applies their insights well to how media, dramatizing and marketing the rural and the (sub)urban lifestyles of the poor and obscure, found an eager British market throughout the last century.

Tying in, for instance, Village Green and Arthur, and then Lola (1970) and Muswell Hillbillies (1971) to Ray's "ambivalent nostalgia" as filtered through the 1954 radio play Under Milk Wood from his wry predecessor, Dylan Thomas, Mark Doyle also stretches the connection to none other than Disney's Donald Duck, among many other contenders from countless cultural icons.

While Doyle reads Ray Davies as humbler in approach, akin to his father's job at the Smithfield slaughterhouse in central London, Doyle pegs Ray as a counterpart to Betjeman. They deploy "light verse for serious purpose". They rally around "this demotic and anti-authoritarian preservationism of the little man".

All the same, Ray's loneliness persists, despite success. The last two albums surveyed not only pay a rueful nod to rosy passing fancies of an Aquarian Age's dawn, but portend, in Doyle's accurate estimation, difficulties for both the Kinks and their Kingdom in the '70s and beyond.

Wisely, Doyle ends his book before the arrival of madcap theatrical concept albums and then arena rock of the '80s overshadow the Kinks' elegant curios from this rich period in their evolution. Perhaps in a serendipity of a curriculum, this text might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

The book closes "as the candy-colored dreams of the Sixties sputtered into a dusty haze." Recommended for fans seeking education along with immersion into this band's melody and wit, Doyle conveys the Kinks' vision of a familiar, if elusive, bit of English decency.

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