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Friday, 9 September 2011
The Kinks "A Soap Opera" (1975) (News, Views and Music 111)
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The Kinks “A Soap Opera” (1975)
Everybody’s A Star/Ordinary People/Rush Hour Blues/Nine To Five/When Work Is Over/Have Another Drink//Underneath The Neon Sign/Holiday Romance/You Make It All Worthwhile/(A) Face In The Crowd/You Can’t Stop The Music
Welcome! I am the image maker! I am the magic maker! I’m the interior decorator! And I can turn the most ordinary album in the world into a star! You may remember me – I used to be the Starmaker in the 1970s but, well, times got hard and ‘celebrity culture’ (yuk!) meant everybody turned themselves into stars without me! Hmm, this looks like a suitably unloved album to review and – ooh look – that’s me on the cover. Ah, I remember this one now. Most Kinks fans thought their beloved leader Ray Davies had lost the plot at the time this album came out – actually come to think of it, so did most of the band – and its the peak of their mid-70s attempt to become travelling prog rock concept album musical troubadours, a time most Kinks fans treat with derision. But, like its ‘Preservation’ predecessors, this album hasaged much better than most of it’s contemporaries and is in desperate need of re-appraisal, full of some of Ray Davies’ wittiest moments.
As those of you who’ve come to this review from our other Kinks Konversations will know, one of Ray’s favourite themes has always been the lives of ordinary people and how they use fantasy to escape their mundane lives. ‘A Soap Opera’ is the logical extension of that lifelong discussion, an extended metaphor about what would happen if a ‘starmaker’ full of celebrity swapped places for the day with someone ‘normal’ (and our character ‘Norman’ is about as ‘normal’ as things get). As ever, the worlds of fantasy celebrity and mundane reality sit uncomfortably side by side and soon start breaking through, with (look away now if you don’t want to spoil the ending) the final revelation that this album is the whole work of Norman all the time, suffering a schizophrenic breakdown from all the trials of his narrow little world. Many fans have disliked this album because the songs keep being broken up for the narration and many more dismiss it as a boring album about how boring life can be – but treat it a s a musical rather than the unwanted offspring of ‘You Really Got Me’ and ‘Lola’ and you won’t go wrong.
Not for the first or last time with a Kinks album, ‘A Soap Opera’ should have been seen on screen, not heard on record. Actually for once it was – albeit very briefly, late at night, when the world was in bed, never to be seen again (except on YouTube of course!) In it you see the rest of the Kinks reduced to the orchestra pit whilst Ray plays the part of both me, the Starmaker, and Norman. I urge all of you who love this album as I do to see it, as there’s an awful lot of speech that was added to the record to fill out the hour slot which adds a great deal of depth to the characters, especially Norman and his un-named wife, not to mention a great ending where Ray as Norman returns to the audience to watch the show, no longer one of the ‘adored’ celebrities. Ray sings his lines rather better live in the TV studio, too (it came a few months after the record when he knows what he’s doing more), even if the speed of the recording session means he messes up his words to the song ‘Have Another Drink’.
Interestingly, despite having nothing in common with either the egotistical Starmaker (who is a less politically conniving version of ‘Mr Flash’ from ‘Preservation’) or the ‘ordinary’ Norman, I would also stake a claim for ‘A Soap Opera’ being the most revealing album that Ray Davies ever made. We wrote in our review for ‘Preservation’ that Ray’s first marriage to Rasa after nine years (the backing singer on many of the Kinks’ biggest 60s hits) was in trouble, ending with her leaving him by note on his birthday (Ray’s response was the glorious song of apology ‘Sweet Lady Genevieve’). ‘A Soap Opera’, especially in its TV soundtrack version, is a fascinating glimpse into Ray’s psyche over this turbulent time in his life, as the songwriter tries to come to terms with what went wrong and looking at things from both sides of view (Norman’s wife’s complaints that all he’s interested in is ‘his work’ and Ray-as-Starmaker’s hysterical attempts to justify the brilliance of his creations seems far more ‘real’ and from the heart than any Kinks song since ‘Lola Vs Powerman’ five years before). After all, it had been less than a year since Ray’s infamous ‘I Quit’ announcement (drowned out by the Kinks’ concert announcer) and subsequent overdose (downplayed for years, until Dave’s book unrevealed just how low his brother really had been that night in 1974).
But, I’m pleased to say, this is not an unhappy album, even if it confused at times, and in many ways its the funniest Kinks album. Ray and June Ritchie (as Norman’s wife) really spar off each other in the dialogue (which, happily, fits far more comfortably with the songs than the ‘announcememnts’ that kept interrupting ‘Preservation’) which is often spot-on in the way it makes a mountain out of a molehill, with Norman feeling trapped and frustrated in his little world ‘making decisions that affect no one’. There’s also some of the most overt comedy Ray Davies ever piut on record: sure ‘Ducks On The Wall’, a song about ornaments (!) is probably a step too far and the Noel Coward spoof ‘Holiday Romance’ must rank as one of the unfunniest coimedy songs ever, but there’s some really clever subtle lines such as the melodrama over Shepherd’s Pie that is ‘You Make It All Worthwhile’ to enjoy. This album also ends with one of the greatest they-can’t-keep-me-down songs in the AAA archives, with Ray determined to fight on in the face of critics, fans, family, even his band. Is this a Soap Opera? No, it’s more like virtual reality TV this is, with Ray revealing so much about himself even as he ‘acts’ the part of two people (or are they really one and the same?...) But, I hear you cry, with Ray taking the best or in fact the only parts for himself, where are the other Kinks?
Ah yes, the band. You might have been forgiven for thinking this is a Ray Davies solo record, so few opportunities are there for the other band members to contribute. As we’ve said before, drummer Mick Avory is at his best on Ray’s most eccentric material, revelling in the opportunity to do things most rock drummers never get to do (he sounds far more comfortable on the set-pieces than he does on closing rocker ‘You Can’t Stop The Music’ for instance. But the rest: Dave gets fewer guitar passages than normal, John Dalton’s bass is barely audible except on the opening track and pianist John Gosling is all but drowned out by the – gulp – three backing singers and horn section. All of the band get more to do in the TV special and live on stage, incidentally (Dave even gets to sing ‘You Can’t Stop The Music’ on the former and a whole new verse on ‘Ordinary People’ on the latter), but this is Ray Davies’ show, with Ray’s name firmly in the credits as producer, as well as sole writer and lead singer. It may well be significant, too, that both this album and next LP ‘Schoolboys In Disgrace’ are ‘presented’ by The Kinks, as opposed to made by The Kinks. No wonder Dave made the comment, years later, that in 1975 Ray was in trouble of ‘increasing up his own ass’, with less band meetings and interaction that any point during their 30 odd years together.
You can look at ‘A Soap Opera’ two ways. One is that the plot, centred as it is around the ‘Starmaker’ leading a boring, humdrum life, is boring and humdrum too, inspiring boring and humdrum songs. Certainly, the piece does dip towards the end of the first side and it’s all a long way from the Kinks’ beginnings as pioneers of R and B. In fact, to those of you coming to The Kinks from covers by new wave bands like The Pretenders and The Jam there couldn’t be a worse album: ‘A Soap Opera’ is the ultimate prog rock folly, an album its hard to relate to, full of symbolism rather than plot and with no real ending. But you have to applaud the scale of Ray’s vision here and ‘A Soap Opera’ is far more consistent with the themes on past Kinks records about the struggle to lead boring, ordinary lives in subservience to richer, more glamorous individuals when people are all, by their very nature, extraordinary. The subtle twists in the libretto (its hard to refer to the lyrics on this album as anything else) are fantastic, turning the Starmaker from some distant, egotistical prima donna into a truly sympathetic and believable individual, living out a life in fantasy he can’t have in reality. Not everything on this album works – and there’s very little you’d want to play in isolation from the other tracks – but when it works, as on ‘(A) Face In The Crowd’ (possibly Ray’s career best song on the subject of fame and fantasy), ‘A Soap Opera’ is as good as music ever gets.
As the album’s second song tells us, with tongue firmly in cheek, ‘no sacrifice is too great for art’. In stark contrast to albums like ‘Lola Vs Powerman’ and ‘Think Visual’,two records that damn the way the entertainment ‘business’ is run, for profit rather than art, ‘A Soap Opera’ is Ray’s most ambitious project, taking the concept album further than it normally goes and subverting our idea of ‘art’ on its head. After all, why do we appreciate the Starmaker’s credentials at the beginning, based just on what he tells us and the bright zingy sound effects that accompany him? And why do we accept that Norman is an ‘ordinary’ mortal, simply because he lives in an uninteresting house paid for by an uninteresting job and an interesting but deeply joyless wife. Watch out for how the arrangements on this record slowly lose their pomposity as the plot progresses, with the jaunty air of ‘Everybody’s A Star’ and ‘Ordinary People’ giving way to a much more likable and honest ‘feel’ on tracks like ‘(A) Face In The Crowd’ (a song so timid it can’t even decide whether it deserves it’s first word or not) and ‘You Can’t Stop The Music’. We can all escape into glitz and glamour, this record seems to be saying, but it can’t disguise our real selves, out inner ‘Normans’ who have to do the things that everybody else does. Just as ‘Celluloid Heroes’ asks us to spare a thought for the stars who either never made it or faded from public view, so this record asks us to see behind the veneer and image of those the media tells us to worship. In short, this record is a damning indictment of our modern celebrity-obsessed times, 30 years ahead of it’s time.
There’s an interesting point to make here, though. Ray Davies isn’t one of those AAA stars who had to scrimp and save for fame before it came. He became an art student, with The Ravens/The Ray Davies Quartet (early names for The Kinks) taking off at the same time and he’d had a #1 hit record at the age of 20.(In contrast, Mark Knopfler, a teacher, only broke through with Dire Straits at the age of 29; Simon and Garfunkel had 10 years of experience before ‘Sounds Of Silence’ became a hit without their knowledge and long after their split). However, like Paul Simon on ‘One Trick Pony’, many of Ray’s best albums are ‘what ifs’, detailing what might have happened had the band’s last record of a three-single deal (‘You Really Got Me’) flopped as badly as the other two (record label Pye had even got the band to record a lesser, slowed down version of the single for fear it wasn’t commercial enough). ‘A Sopa Opera’ is Ray’s fear of what his own life might have been like in some parallel universe, sung with a verve and sympathy that shows real concern for the plight of others. Having seen most of his family end up in the unemployment queue at Muswell Hill (see our review for ‘Lola vs Powerman’ for how much effect this had on Ray), stardom isn’t a right or the result of skill and hard work, it’s the result of hope, faith, belief and luck. Himself a burgeoning alcoholic at the time, following the business shenanigans with Pye at the end of the 60s, ‘A Soap Opera’ offers a bleak future for the characters, with drink their only outlet for their problems and hard days ‘sorting out the files’ that nobody reads or needs. In other words, Norman is so desperate for success that he has to dream it up because it can never happen any other way –a pretty bleak thought for a record of the mid-70s.
The album starts with an old Kinks phrase (and the subtitle to 1972 album ‘Everybody’s In Showbiz’) ‘Everybody’s A Star’. Despite the trappings of the horns and backing singers, this song is clearly closer in style to The Kinks sound of old, as if Ray’s message as the Starmaker telling us everyone can be stars applies equally to The Kinks in 1964 (plus a few embellishments). Thematically this is the Starmaker’s theme song, designed to tell us who he is with no possible clue yet that the egotistical rock star poser is anything other than what he says he is. In this song the starmaker is one part annoying know-all Simon Cowell (‘I can make you a star!’) and one part earnest Brian Epstein. To some extent this is Ray the songwriter here too (‘I observe the people’ is a very typical Ray davies line and its true he was busy hiring musicians to the band’s ill-fated Konk label, such as a pre-fame Tom Robinson and Claire Hammill, although there’s some clever lyrics here that suggest Ray isn’t taking his character too seriously here (‘I’m the magic maker! I’m the interior decorator!’) The melody for this song is tougher than you’d suppose from the flimsiness of the lyrics, though, suggesting at the hidden depths of the album to come, with one of the most Kinks-like performances on the record, especially Dave’s guitar solo. Still, good as this opening song is, it’s not the sort of thing you’d want to listen to individually (it sounded rather peculiar out of context as this album’s sole representative on the ‘Celluloid Heroes’ best of).
The album’s first bit of speech comes next, with the Starmaker allegedly turning up at Norman’s house to the accompaniment of a wind sound effect (for no explainable reason). The sound of the world’s dullest doorbell makes for a good segue into a song about the haplessness of the ordinary mixed up with a glittering star whose out of his depth. Similarly this song is a chugging bar blues, as heard several times across the band’s catalogue, most notably on the ‘Percy’ film soundtrack, but here dressed up with horns, backing singers and a mock group chorus that make it sound all glittery and bright. The result is one of the funnier songs on the album, with Ray adopting a fake deep crooning style and June Ritchie excels as the epitome of the humdrum surburban housewife a million miles away from the Starmaker. However, even this early on in the album there’s a feeling that this album isn’t quite taking off, with a backing track ultimately as ordinary and simple as the people portrayed in the songs. Only the spoken word ‘he’s changing places with Norman’..., spoken by multiple Rays in a Monty Pythonesque manner, catches the ear. Ray’s having fun, though, and excels with his vocal, making us giggle when he moaning about Norman’s pyjamas but all too believable in his sighs of what he does in the name of art. This song took on a whole new life of its own in concert where Dave took the lead vocal on a slow down, bluesy rendition – included on the 1998 CD as a bonus track – which actually works better than it does on album. It’s interesting, too, that Ray should have resorted to the 1950s rock and roll of his childhood for the Starmaker’s role in this song.
‘Rush Hour Blues’ is the first in a series of songs dealing with the flamboyant Starmaker taking over Norman’s role at work. The version on record isn’t up to the TV soundtrack (which has Ray Davies as the Starmaker reacting in overdone mock horror at the routine of Norman) but it’s enjoyable enough, with another retro rocker dressed up to sound big and important. Ray Davies clearly sympathised with commuters despite never being one himself for any length of time – like ‘waterloo Sunset’ this is the plight of individual people everywhere, though here it’s sung with a paranoia and dread. The theme is of a man tied to a clock even before he makes it to work, suffering a nervous breakdown at the thought that ‘some people do this every day of their lives’ and that soon this might include him too. The interplay between the humorous chorus and the genuinely scary middle eight, where the narrator contemplates suicide rather than spend another day doing pointless things for low pay in his office is one of the highlights of the record: funny but fair. The laid back Starmaker, unused to being at the beck and call of other people and Norman’s wife, paranoid that he’ll be late and lose his job and the little money they have coming in, make for great sparring partners with a backing caught somewhere between Grease and a kitchen sink drama. Best verse: the one that has the lowly office worker not only ‘part of the machinery’ of the company but ‘part of the scenery’, someone the other workers are so used to seeing no one even regards him as a human being any more. The best of the ‘ordinary people’ songs on the album, this works as both a believable song about frustration and as one of the album’s comedy moments, as inventive lyrically as it borrows heavily musically.
‘Nine To Five’ carries on the theme, referencing the Dolly Parton film of the same name but even more sarcastically. The song starts off at a crawl and goes downhill from there, slowing down to the point where time seems to stand still, just as it does for the workers trapped in Norman’s office. Mick Avory’s drums try their best to break down the barriers and restrictions, hammering away at the ‘breaks’ between each verse-chorus link but, however loudly he plays, the song just carries on its momentum, sleep-walking its way through the chord changes as if they’ve been heard hundreds of times before.As on the last track, Norman is stuck doing a job he hates and one that isn’t of any use to anybody, ‘caught up in a mass of computerised trivia’, checking work that’s already been checked before by someone else. While certainly not the worst Kinks song ever made, it is true to say that this song does drag awfully (I know that’s the whole point, but it doesn’t make listening to it any easier) and repeats too many ideas from the last track for comfort. Ray can’t even work out how to finish his song so instead we get a segue into...
‘When Work Is Over’ the first of two songs about alcohol on this album. Another rough and ready retro rocker (with Dave’s counterpart overwhelmed in the mix and sharing little in common with the other instruments around it), there really is no point to this song except to say that ending up in the pub is the only release these people ever get. As a belligerent teetotaller myself, I fully get the message behind this song: that even when you think you’re being ‘free’ at the end of the day, you’re simply setting yourself up for the cycle all over again. Ray sounds like one of those grumpy drunks who get morose when they’ve had too much here, realising (as the Starmaker) that his life is a sham and that when sober he has a ‘boring occupation, dull conversation, living by the books and the rules and regulations’ in one of this album’s better chorus lines. Importantly, it’s not just ‘Norman’ in this situation but all his work colleagues as well, letting down their hair after keeping their emotions under wraps between 9 and 5. Musically, this is another of the less arresting songs on the album, but the sentiments do help to underline the frustration Norman feels and why he should want to imagine a whole new life for himself by the end of this album...
However, do we really need a second drinking song, with very little difference from the last, to emphasise the theme? I think not, even though ‘Have Another Drink’ has a better tune and slightly more sympathetic lyrics – Ray was even described as a ‘pub bore’ by one reviewer of this album, unable to let one of his favourite subjects go. The repetitiveness of this track is again deliberate, with a chorus that starts off enthusiastically but soon ends up repeating itself into boredom and yet another melody that refuses to move off its spot until an all too brief middle eight. Again, Ray preaches his latest manifesto about ‘having another drink’ to cure all to a bunch of fellow alcoholics, all of which agree with everything he says. There’s a nice piece of nylon guitar work in the fade but, that aside, this is another of those stylistic gauche works, common to many musicals, with the performers too aware of their ‘characters’ to work (Preservation had its fair share of those too). Listening to this song and its list of reasons why people are escaping their lives does more to explain binge drinking that any number of Government essays...
‘Underneath The Neon Sky’, however, kicks off the start of what will be a much stronger side of the record, with a typically Ray Daviesy song about mankind’s fascination with technology getting in the way of his development as a species. At this point in the record the inebriated Starmaker is staggering home, finding himself caught up in the traffic of the busy city on his way back to the country, his drunken brain struggling to take in all the fake advertising assaulting his senses. Who needs such romantic things as moonlight, sings Ray, when neon light can out-shine it anyway, using this as a metaphor for how mankind has got in the way of nature. Of course, we the listener know that the traffic lights and advertising signs aren’t really replacements for stars and moonlight at all, but something much more artificial and temporary, mimicking the way the poor put-upon worker’s mind has been filled with triviality and human matters, instead of dreams of other worlds and planets and the incredibleness of life. Mankind no longer cares about nature, thinking he has outgrown it – just as in Kinks Klassik ‘God’s Children’ – but he’s wrong, filling that empty hole with pointless time-filling. The song’s sensitive lyrics are accompanied by one of the best melodies on the record, a lovely sweeping rounded tune that might well have been a hit with a different subject matter. Ray turns in one of his better vocals on the song, too, with a far softer and more natural voice than he’s used on the album up till now and indeed, this is one of the few songs on the record that actually make sense as a stand-alone song (this piece could have easily ended up on ‘Preservation’ for instance, perhaps sung by The Tramp). Listen out for Dave’s attacking guitar being drowned out by the Kinks’ horn section in the solo – I wouldn’t have liked to have been in the room the first time the younger Davies brother heard this recording being played back!
Next up, Norman (notice the subtle difference between which character is being discussed on this record) has a holiday to escape his work. Most Kinks fans consider the Noel Cowardesque ‘Holiday Romance’ the one classic on the record but I’m not one of them – in fact, I’d nominate this irritating song as one of the worst tracks The Kinks ever did. Ray’s coward impressions are worth a quick chuckle (as is his falsetto voice depping for the female love interest in the song) and there are some clever quick-firing rhymes. But, really, what is such a great songwriter doing wasting his talent on a pastiche of a song most of his rock and roll audience will never have heard and a song so annoyingly simple and obvious anyone could write it? Even the ending is obvious – we all know the romance will last only as long as the holiday does, so why is it such a heartbreak to Norman when he finds out his love is only in it for a bit of fun (although the news she has a husband must have comes as a shock!) For the second song in a row, there’s also hardly any link to the album’s overall plot, although there is a thematic link with the way the shy, demure Lavinia acts so completely differently on holiday – where she’s being herself – than she does working for people.So ends one of the most unremarkable and insufferable songs in the whole of the Kinks back Katalogue. Luckily, much better is to come...
‘You Make It All Worthwhile’ is the album’s big final selling point – three songs too early! In typical Ray Davies style we get the twist here that the Starmaker isn’t really pretending to be Norman after all – he’s Norman, pretending to be the Starmaker. Irritating as the speech gets on repeated playiongs, this is actually one of the more admirable songs on the album, managing to act as a fitting end to the saga and as the song that gives this album it’s ‘Soap Opera’ title. In true soap spirit, its the simple saga of a man and woman clashing over their ideals, all played up to the hilt with a throbbing organ sound that really does make it sound like a melodrama. Somehow this song manages to be both hilariously funny and sensitive, complete with a sweet mournful chorus along the lines that all of the hardships Norman goes through is worth it to come to his wife. In true Kinks epic style (they stand just short of The Who when it comes to rock epics), this is a medley of lots of bits and pieces stuck together.
First up is Norman’s wife, cooing over the cooking she’s been doing for her beloved husband, with Juner Ricthie coming across as a mix of The Good Life and Eastenders. The seemingly happy marriage is only surface thin, though, with a grumpy Norman adding another of this album’s terrifying verses over how badly he hates his work and would do anything to escape from it. After a row about shepherd’s pie (allegedly the Starmaker hates Norman’s favourite food – although you sense that this is actually the poorly Norman rebelling against the food he always gets given to pacify him after one of his tempers) things get put right with the wonderful dialogue ‘would you like steam pudding nand custard for afters?’ ‘Darling that would be marvellous!’ Ray cheekily spoofs not only the way soap operas make such a song and dance about small problems but also this entire album, with the record seemingly going out on a happy note. The end result is a song that manages to be both heartfelt and hilarious, with the song never quite settling between the two. If you gte the chance, have a look out for the TV special on YouTube where this song is preceded by possibly the most revealing bit of script that Ray has ever written, with a long rambling dialogue between Norman and his wife that switches frrom doe-eyed romance to open hate in a matter of seconds, presumably linked in part with his recent break up with Rasa (ther only other bit of domestic dialogue Ray ever gives us comes in the early 1980s, after his break-up with Pretender Chrissie Hynde).
However, Norman’s neurotic side comes back into the spotlight for ‘Ducks On The Wall’, another song about Norman being trapped by his surroundings which always sounded out of place to me – this should have been on the album when Norman first comes home somewhere after ‘Neon Sign’. For those of you who aren’t either over 40 or are foreign to the weird ways of the United Kingdom, the ducks refer to a wall hanging ornament that was so common to working class living roomsw that they becasme something of a cliche in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s (in fact, they fell from favour about the time this album came out – perhaps Ray Davies started a trend?!) Ray really didn’t want to play to a universal audience in this period did he?! For reasons best known to themselves record label RCA decided to issue this, the unfuniiest comedy track on the record, as a single where it bombed. Many commentators have called this track ‘10cc like’, but even they never got quite this wacky: there’s a chorus of duck quacking (not the greatest impression I’ve heard either, so much so that I had to get up to check the needle on my record player hadn’t broken back when I owned this album on vinyl!), another generic retro rocker chorus and one of the most chaotic and out of tune backing tracks The Kinks ever put together. However, the song is better than certain tracks like ‘Holiday Romance’ for a couple of reasons: firstly, at least the idea for this song is original (as far as I know its the only song about duck deccorations ever made!) and there’s a decent love story going on underneath all the comedy lyrics, where Norman says that he really does love his wife. Not the best song Ray Davies wrote by any means, but hats off to him – who else could come up with 10 verses on such a narrow subject!
Next up comes ‘(A) Face In The Crowd’, the most humble and understated song on the whole album which somehow manages to outshine every one of its louder and more ebuillent cousins. Norman is no longer trying to pretebnd to himself that he’s The Starmaker – he knows now that he’s just a plain ordinary person that nobody notices or cares for very much, although in true Kinks style he finds absolution in this realisation and comes to term with just how amazing individuals can be. This gorgeous song about stepping away from the spotlight to better sewrve over people is one of the best songs Ray ever wrote and makes me emotional every time I hear it, with Norman’s neuroticism undermining his confidence, even if it is heard on the album after comedy tracks about shepherd’s pie and ducks on the wall. Listen out too for how much the backinbg tracks have calmed down since the first few tracks that were very much the voice of the ‘Starmaker’; here Norman is speaking with his true voice for the first time and uses a humble backing of piano, bass, drums and more subdued guitar work as his only accompnaiment. Could it be, too, that this is Ray’s wider voice talking to us, using the most humble moment on a Kinks record since ‘Muswell Hillbillies’ back in 1971 to tell us that he’s ready to give up the concept game and go back to being himself? (In the event there’s just one more album/concept album hybrid ‘Schooldboys In Disgrace’ to go). Typically Ray, this – the most important song on the album by some margin, wioth larger repurcussions than any other song here – hasthe second shortest running time of just 2:12. The emotion of the moment is really underlined in the TV special, where Ray quietly leaves the stage and goes to sit in the middle of the audience, joining in on the audience applause and clapping for the next track (featuring Dave on TV but Ray on the record)...
‘You Can’t Stop The Music’ is a tricky song to review. Just as ‘Preservation Act Two’ ended with ‘Salvation Road’ – a song that both celebrated and derided what came before it, equal parts optimism and sarcasm that the whol;e awful story will start again once someone new comes to power – so ‘A Soap Opera’ ends with this track. But is it celebrating music and past musicians as genuinely as Kinks classic ‘Celluloid Heroes’ did film stars, or is it in fact an angry rant about The Kinks and other 60s bands’ fall from grace. While no rock star is truly immune to criticism, it’s probably fair to say that Ray took it to heart more than most and 1975 was in many ways The Kinks’ lowest point with critics (other than me!), with even the band’s old label Pye damning the mid-70s look band on the back of a compilation of their old singles and outtakes in this period. Just listen to that extended middle eight where, like The Beach Boys on ‘Sail On Sailor’, Ray lists item after item that life has thrown at him, continuing this part of the song far longer than you’d expect and sounding almost rap-like in the conversational-and-angry tone Ray adopts. Even the rest of this fascinating song is not what you expect – unlike ‘Celluloid Heroes’ where everybody had potential to be a star and it was only bad luck and circumstances that got in their way, here singers ‘fade away’ or ‘vanish in the haze and are never seen again’. In 1975 it must have seemed as if the whole world was against Ray and that The Kinks would never again find the crowds they’d sung to a decade before. It’s almost as if you can hear the cogs whirring over the direction The Kinks will be taking over the next few years (the band’s late 1970s and especially the early 1980s albums were much more traditional if contemporary sounding collections of songs and were made for a much more ‘universal’ ie American market, where the band had never really been big since a ban on them touring there in the late 60s). As a song in its own right, this is fine: a joyous singalong that sounds really hopeful until you realise just how sarcastic Ray is being, but as the closing to such an emotional and fragile album its disappointing. After all, what happens to Norman and his wife after he’s come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be particularly successful or special? Was she equally deluded or was Norman’s wife humouring him? Will he ever find happiness? At least other similarly hard-to-read concept albums like ‘Arthur’ and ‘Lola Vs Powerman’ ended on happier, more optimistic notes, but here – depending how you read it – the ending to ‘A Soap Opera’ is sad and overly dramatic. A bit like soap operas in general, really.
So, more sympathetic than Cornoation Street, less dramatic than Eastenders, less frightening than The Archers and featuring less farmyards (and Dr Who actors) than Emmerdale Farm, ‘A Soap Opera’ sits in a curious place in Kinks fans’ Kollections. It’s far from Ray’s best work although it does include plenty of evidence of Ray’s best work (‘(A) Face In the Crowd’, particularly, is among the best 10 songs he’s ever written – and Ray has written an awful lot of really good songs) yet unfortunately it also contains plwenty of his worst work (‘Holiday Romance’, particularly, is among the worst 10 songs he’s ever written – although to be fair Ray hasn’t aqctually written that many bad songs). Like many an album on this site, you can view ‘A Soap Opera’ two different ways: its either a very clever album about people’s dull lives whose very dullness is a clever postmodern attack on the repetitiveness and lack of inspirastion in some people’s lives, or its simply a dull album. Personally, I’m with the former view and I do find this album very moving for the most part, especially the ending where our jealousies for The Starmaker’s lifestyle are tipped on their head and we find out that its all just part of Norman’s imagination and escapism anyway. This is hardly the first record you’d play to new Kinks Konverts to win them over- and it’s true to say that in many ways this is the least ‘Kinks’ like album of all, with less for the other members including Dave to do than normal – but equally, if you love Ray’s writing, his sympathy for the underdog, his ability to understand what ‘ordinary’ peoplke go through and his ability to make them seem more extraordinary than the biggest celebirtyy, then this album is for you.
A NOW COMPLETE LIST OF KINKS ARTICLES TO READ AT ALAN’S ALBUM ARCHIVES: