Monday, 17 October 2016
The Kinks "Schoolboys In Disgrace" (1975)
Schooldays/Jack The Idiot Dunce/Education/The First Time We Fall In Love/I'm In Disgrace//Headmaster/The Hard Way/The Last Assembly/No More Looking Back/Finale
The year is 1975 and change is in the air for The Kinks, to the point of suffocation. They've already signed to third record label Arista, they're haemorrhaging band members left right and centre (Bassist John Dalton and keyboardist John Gosling have both handed their notice in though they're officially stil here till partway through 'Sleepwalker') and even their loyal fanbase are growing impatient at the endless sea of 'concept albums' their beloved band keep coming up with. For any other band this would be a good, nay a great thing and a chance to drop the things that have been holding the band back ever so slightly across the last few years: The Kinks are, after all, better placed than most to embrace the new changes coming in the second half of the 1970s (what is punk if not an embellishment of *that* razor-blade slashed riff created for 'You Really Got Me' back in 1964?), the new backing from Arista sounds great (at least, for now) and gives The Kinks a secure future to some extent, the band still contain one of the greatest pop writers and one of the greatest guitarists ev-uh in a period when both are now king again and unlike most of their contemporaries they've soldiered on through line-up changes before and always survived. Of all the 1960s bands still slaving away by 1975 only The Who are better suited to the cataclysmic changes to come (and even then the state of Keith Moon's health is more precarious even than Ray's and Dave's). The future surely looks bright and any other band would be looking to it with a song in their hearts, ideas in their heads and half an eye on their bank balance. The Kinks, though, have always found moving on and entering the new somewhat painful (they weren't once a 'preservation society' for nothing!) and 'Schoolboys In Disgrace' is one last sad look back over the shoulder from a writer digging in his heels and refusing to move on before time. After what other band would end their uncomfortable period with a record label that never quite understood them (RCA) with the promise of 'no more looking back', a thought that's undermined by endless 'ghosts' and memories of how things ought to be. In fact, Ray rebels right at the time when everyone expects The Kinks to record an album more like the future 'Sleepwalker' ( a standalone, no concept, forward looking, tough production, strong songs and not a horn section or a girl chorus in sight) by delivering the opposite one last time: a concept album that makes most sense if you already know the band's past albums that is overblown and arty as you could get away with in 1975 without being locked up and one that's ridiculously, gloriously out of touch with its times while looking back as far as it possibly could: to school.
In terms of the album this is a typically Daviesian rallying cry against injustice and the establishment moulding characters into the same shape - it may well be where Roger Waters later got ideas for 'The Wall', although unlike his contemporary you sense that Ray has a sneaking respect for education when it's done 'right'. It's specifically the tale of a young boy who always tried his hardest but just doesn't fit into a character the teachers can appreciate (too shy to be theatrical, too arty to be taken seriously, too conscientious to be funny) and whose promising grades fall after he falls in love and gets discovered cavorting with girls from a local school. Beaten during the last years of corporal punishment for human impulses (not officially outlawed until 1986 in the UK, although it's always been a grey area), this has a direct result on turning the main character into...Mr Flash, the loveable rogue from 'Preservation'. The hint is clear: if we deny children love and warmth they grow up to be the weirdest of adults, unable to hold down a 'normal' relationship and seeking revenge and power to make up for being victimised in their childhood. Even more than on 'Preservation', where you could tell Ray was really getting into the character of 'Mr Flash', this is him living out the darker side of his character, the frustrated artist who was always under-rated and un-loved and is out for revenge. Only this time, instead of having 'power power power!' Mr Flash is a powerless victim that everyone picks on and who has no one there to look after him. At the age of 31 Ray's reverted to somewhere in childhood (Flash's age seems to vary from song to song), before the 'last assembly' turns him into an adult and changes his life forever, giving him the chance to 'prove' himself as an individual away from his peers and teachers. Thankfully the 'real' Ray discovered music - but in another world, you sense, a part of him could easily have become a devious money-grabbing second-hand car spiv intent on world domination; 'Schoolboys' is an album for any child that simply wasn't lucky enough to have a guitarist brother, a bass playing friend and a brain filled with melodic and lyrical genius, to remind them that being human is not a crime when you're an adult, even if the people in charge seem to think it is when you're a child. At one point Ray makes the point that he's 'been sacrificed', the young Mr Flash made to be an example to others - again showing that the way of controlling one is used as a means of controlling more, even though that's ridiculous; adults are individuals and unique every bit as much as adults are - the same punishments do not apply to all. Discrimination against youngsters is one of the last great 'acceptable' prejudices there is in our day and age (corporal punishment is still allowed in so many homes and classrooms despite the lack of evidence for the good it does; how can you discipline an artist?); 'Schoolboys In Disgrace' is the ultimate example of The Kinks trying to give a voice to those who don't have it. Either that or it's an excuse for the band to dress up in short trousers and blazers while their backing vocalists get to dress up as schoolgirls anyway.
Despite Ray's clearly personal connection to this album though (and he clearly has connections to all his concept album 'characters'), this is really his brother's tale. Though the plot of the album as it stands is vague ('one day he got into serious trouble with a naughty schoolgirl and he was sent to the headmaster who decided to punish the boy and his gang in front of the whole school'), it's clearly based on an experience that really happened to Dave. The guitarist had fallen in love with a schoolgirl named Sue from a nearby school and the pair were inseparable for several glorious months when they were both fourteen. Sue became pregnant, Dave was named as the father, both were expelled and the parents on both sides decided to keep the pair separate from each other while everyone walked around saying how 'disappointed' they were when as far as Dave was concerned love was something good, not singful. This incident clearly haunted Dave - though he couldn't have cared less about school (it actually gave him free time to practice his guitar, so perhaps we fans should be thankful to his headmaster), the sudden separation from the love of his life will haunt him long into The Kinks period and the question of what Sue was up to without him and whether she ever really loved him will crop up in many a Kinks and Dave Davies song (most significantly on 'Susannah's Still Alive', the joyful cry when Dave finally bumps into her mother and hears some news at last). Many fans assume it was Ray that was given the cane but no - he was too shy to ever do anything that wrong; he was the 'quiet rebel' who 'loathed regulations and rules' but went along with them anyway because standing up to authority figures is scary when you're that age. Instead he appropriates what happened to his brother for his characters - which is, depending how you look at things, either a kind brotherly chance to acknowledge and exorcise his brother's demons or washing his brother's dirty linen in public after running out of his own ideas, depending how you take it ('I've been such a little fool'!' snaps Ray at one point after telling his brother's life story). By and large, though, it seems to be the former: Dave has always loved this album and he plays a much more active role in 'creating' it than he ever did on 'Preservation' and 'A Soap Opera' (just listen to the way Ray hands his final plea over to two versions of his brother's guitar on 'Headmaster', as if giving him the 'last word'). Also, for all of the 'Grease' style hilarity across this album, from the hideous front cover illustration of a schoolboy with his trousers pulled down and a sore backside (is this the single worst AAA cover of the 1970s? The back cover featuring the band aged twelve going on thirty is much funnier) and 'Jack The Idiot Dunce' (one of Ray's funniest tunes) there's a real tenderness there. 'The First Time We Fall In Love' and 'I'm In Disgrace' are as close as Ray ever comes to agreeing with his brother, claiming that falling in love the first time is hard and can make anybody do odd things ('It wasn't lust, it wasn't rape, it was just a mistake!' he sighs, putting to bed a skeleton in the family closet his brother has carried alone for far too long).
In actual fact the two brothers were quite close in 1975, after Dave and family had helped nurse Ray back to health after his post-Rasa overdose two years earlier. Ray's first wife is a key influence on many a Kinks record but her ghost hangs over this record one last time, with Ray also trying to come to terms with his own 'first time we fall in love' and his readjustment to the fact that love isn't always forever, no matter how hard you wish for that. Ray looks back to school because it was a time when things were 'simple' and love is very much offered as the point when schoolchildren grow from being kids to being adults, even though adults often have no better idea about how to make relationships and marriages last than schoolboys know how to make their crushes 'real'. Rasa is clearly there in the lyrics to 'The First Time We Fall In Love', when Ray goes on his single most anti-romantic rant about being hurt and in agony and being floored even though it doesn't start off as that sort of a song at all. 'No More Looking Back' also finds Ray's narrator unable to move on with his life, no matter how hard he tries or how many times he repeats the title to himself - because how can he move on, when the love of his life is always there like a ghost, with reminders everywhere he looks. He's not ready to move on, he's still crushed - why didn't they teach you how to deal with that at school? As much as 'Schoolboys In Disgrace' is the sound of two men trying to get over the demons that have perched on their shoulder since childhood, it's also the sound of a man trying to cope with the realisation that his marriage is finally, utterly over and trying to look back to where it all went wrong - a little too far you could argue, but that's the thing with The Kinks, the past the present and the future always live on alongside each other, impacting each other, at all times. Perhaps if Ray had discovered love later when he was better able to handle it, without all the poor judgements he inherited from his teachers - or if Dave had got his girlfriend pregnant at an age when both were older and love was 'allowed' - they might both have been happy. But there are some things school never teach you and you need to find out for yourself.
'Schoolboys' isn't a wholly autobiographical album though. There are cameos from some of Ray's greatest characters, such as the wicked headmaster who thinks discipline is more important than love and shows no mercy ('The Hard Way' is a great halfway house between The Kinks' concept prog rock and arena riffing new wave years) and 'Jack The Idiot Dunce', who fails every exam going but eclipses all his peers by learning how to dance ('be yourself' is the message that underpins the whole album but especially this song - who cares if you can't do things conventionally? Your progress in life won't always be marked through exams. It should be remembered that out of all the AAA bands, who were all successful to one degree or another, only Pink Floyd were what you might term 'swots' and even then they merely lived in Cambridge, they didn't study there). Then there's more general paeans to schooldays and childhood that are much more ambiguous than the sarcastic, demanding, personal material. The past is always a rosy place in Kinks songs and so it proves on 'Schooldays', with Ray admitting that 'we never appreciate before its too late' all the good things about being small, 'young and innocent days' before the adult world made being human a mess. Then again Ray goes on to list all the things that he genuinely loathed about being little and which made him have to act a certian way rather than be himself ('I hated my textbooks and school uniforms 'cause it made me conform and teachers were always obeyed - but I'd go back if I could only find a way...') The same double-edged sword can be heard in 'Education', which ponders across seven lengthy minutes whether education is a source for good or ill (the answer: both, depending on the teacher and how well the learning suits the child) and seems to be a conversation held between at least four different Rays, going back and forth between how learning helped mankind become more than just a grunting caveman and how in the modern age pumping heads full of random facts 'drove me insane!' The ultimate answer is that education helps us, but it's not the be all and end all; we need artists and creatives and poets and visionaries as well as good students who think outside the box; in one great outpouring Ray looks his teachers in the eye and states 'you can't tell me why I am!' Then there's the bittersweet 'Last Assembly' which, like all things Kinks, sobs as it bids goodbye to something central and crucial to the narrator's life, even while he admits he hates it and is glad to see the back of it. We've also seen, of course, on 'Preservation' how education and a good job doesn't necessarily equate to intelligence: The Tramp is by far the smartest and most 'with-it' character on that album and he's ignored because of a class system that should have been given 'the final elbow' centuries ago. The final verdict? Education is important and necessary and our best way of making the most of what the world has to offer is to teach our children everything we knew and a lot more besides - but when it's taught badly, by people who should know better and who don't accept children as individuals and only cares about exam results, we risk breeding megalomaniacs psychopaths and people out to take us for a ride. Every failed child is a potential Mr Flash; every helped child is a potentially great human being, irrespective of intelligence, but children have to be allowed to be themselves.
In terms of the Kinks Kanon, 'Schoolboys' sits in a rather weird place. It's clearly written from the heart and yet it's less involved than 'Preservation' (not to mention only a third of the length!), makes a less-recognisable social point than 'A Soap Opera' and contains more filler material than most Kinks LPs. Pitched halfway between the theatrical past and the hard-rocking future, it doesn't quite know whether it wants to let it's hair down and have fun or make a serious political point. Certain moments are pure Kinks magic: the groovy groove of 'Idiot Dunce' is a far better retro rocker than 'One Of The Survivors', the gorgeous twin guitar attack of the spacey 'Headmaster' before one of the best Kinks productions has the whole room pleading for mercy, the mega-riffs of 'I'm In Disgrace' and 'The Hard Way' and 'No More Looking Back', which has little to do with the album setting but is nevertheless pure Kinks genius. By and large, though, this album struggles to make the songs memorable all the way through to the end and they don't always have a life outside of the album. 'Schooldays' makes for a particularly soppy opening to what's actually quite a tough album and the minute-long 'Finale' is a reprise from 'Education', a track that's arguably gone on too long already. There are also maybe too many tongue-in-cheek gags about serious subjects that deserve more refinement: 'Headmaster' ends with the plea 'don't make me take my trousers down!' when it's clearly about something bigger than a caning - it's the humiliation in front of his peers that the young master Flash can't stand, while 'The First Time We Fall In Love' is only 'pretending' to be a silly song; it's actually one of the most heartbreaking, devastating Ray Davies songs of them all underneath the goofy vocals and doo wop. However there are far more things about this album that work than don't and even for The Kinks it's an utterly unique album that goes to places no other album would dare. Most fans seem to want to put this al um in detention and pretend it doesn't exist, but flawed as it is and time-marker as it may be, this last glorious nod to the past still gets an encouraging A- from the AAA teaching staff.
'Schooldays' would be an odd place for any other band but The Kinks to start - a slow, reflective song about how schooldays might well be the best of your life even though they were horrid (which might just be the most unfashionable song around in 1975). Ray hated school according to most of the Kinks books out there including his own and even here notes that his schooldays 'filled me with disdain' at the time. And yet this song isn't an 'Another Brick In The Wall' style rant but another of those bittersweet Kinks songs that views the past through rosy spectacles and the present though ugly x-ray goggles. 'Don't think about times that made you sad' Ray sighs, admitting that he wasn't always happy, but childhood now seems so far away that it's been long enough for some of the wounds to heal and for him to remember the happier times. However Ray is very vague about what they were - there's a line about 'acquaintances we made' but they're acquaintances not friends. Like other similar Kinks songs about the past (the friend-betraying 'Do You Remember, Walter?' and the war epic 'Young and Innocent Days') it's the adult world that's the villain - it changes people, takes friends on different paths when they thought they were going to be best buddies forever and the world that adults pretend to be enjoying when we're children, full of power and integrity, seem very different when you get there. This is a big subject that really deserves a bigger song - sadly 'Schooldays' can't quite escape the boozy reflective mood that probably inspired it and it ends up saying less than other Kinks songs about the past. The words are just too general and only gets exciting for the middle eight when Ray remembers about 'loathing regulations and rules' - but there's no follow-up about what made him change his mind and vow to 'go back if I can only find a way'. The backing too is a little lacklustre by high Kinks standards: though the cod-1950s doowop style backing is apt given that it would have been the 'sound' of much of the Davies' childhood, this isn't a doowop kinda song. Putting Ray's voice through a revolving speaker cabinet to make him sound like a prematurely wizened old man is clever and fitting, but doesn't exactly enhance the song - an album like this, with a mixture of pantomime and autobiography, desperately needs to at least start off sounding 'real' but the vocal effect makes Ray sound removed from us. A bit of a low-key start to the album, but it will get better.
The opening style is luckily something of a misnomer on this album, which is the rockiest The Kinks have been since 'Arthur' six years earlier. 'Jack The Idiot Dunce' is the best evidence of this, a rocking 1950s pastiche that features one of the first all-in-the-room-and-live Kinks recordings for a long long time. The subject matter is a reminder that not all schooldays were good ones - Dave, Mick and John Dalton are the school bullies picking on the title character for being thick (although their insults 'He's a fool he's a ninny, he's a jerk!' suggest that Jack went to a politer school than mine). In true Kinks fashion the 'misfit' of the school turns out to be the big hero - Jack can't think, but boy can he dance. Freed of the need to keep his peers happy, he's free to be himself when he dances and they've never seen anything like it ('His arms and his legs seem to have a mind of their own'). What's more, Jack has taken the sting out of his bullies' attacks by simply not caring - he laughs along with them when they put him down, he 'stands his ground' when they attack him and when they laugh at his clothes 'he just smiles 'cause he don't care'. And there's nothing a bully hates more than looking like they can't do their job and upset people anymore. Jack is an idiot, he's never pretended to be anything else, but he's also a hero because he's managed to be himself in a world where everyone is expected to conform. Soon all the girls are hanging round Jack instead of his enemies and the song ends in a peal of triumphant doo-wop chorus harmonies that take the cruel and harsh sound of the rest of the song and turn them into positives. Ray was too clever a pupil for this song to be autobiographical and may have been too scared himself to stick up for the people he saw being bullied around him (at least if The Kinks books are right), but his warm heart and his mega memory meant he never forgot his sneaking admiration for his comrades and fellow misfits and he pays them a fine belated tribute here. Ray admitted later that it was based on a dancer who went to his school and was considered hopeless - so hopeless he failed his exams and when nobody would employ him got kicked out of home and moved in with a distant relative. In the end it was him and the Davies brothers who became 'famous' out of Ray's year, proving that brains and success don't always go together (Ray's never said who it is and the websites dedicated to his old school aren't helpful; however if we stretch the 'dancing' part it is worth noting that a fellow pupil failed all his exams and got kicked out of school and became a millionaire; the singer Rod Stewart, who did do a bit of dancing in his videos - well, more than The Kinks did). 'Was that the end?' giggles Ray in a schoolboy falsetto at the finale, Jack messing up the end of even after his biggest starring role, utterly in character. A nice bit of fun before the album gets too serious.
'Education' is the album's magnum opus and finds Ray diving into the political debate of 'Preservation' again. The rest of this album makes the point that childhood should be the happiest part of our existence, free from responsibilities and adult worries, but that too often it's the cause for the problems that haunt us for the rest of our life. This song suffers most acutely from that 'schizophrenia paranoia blues' as learning becomes both the making and unmaking of those who go through the system. We start right back at the beginning when a caveman - who, oddly, lives in a jungle - tries to express all the many things he has to say about human existence and discovers that he can only groan. Frustrated at his inability to communicate he promptly has a nervous breakdown (Ray clearly sympathises with his ancestor) but later generations find that learning to talk makes the burden so much easier. Education is important, otherwise we'd all have had breakdowns from the burden of being human and our species would have died out. And yet, that's where education stops being useful and starts becoming a burden of its own - an angrier verse finds Ray's head being filled by 'professors in their cottages trying to feed me knowledge that they know I'll never use'. Even after all these millennia, Ray feels no closer to being able to answer 'why I am' - why he feels or thinks the way he does, what he's meant to be doing with his life and how best to live it. The problem is every lesson contradicts another: a long list of subjects all teach him different parts of different spectrums: Biology teaches him who he is, Geography teaches him where he is and History teaches him when he is, but nobody will tell him 'why' he is or 'what I'm living for'.
Without that underlying concept - of the purpose behind life, the universe and everything - none of the other subjects matter, they're mere surface detail and Ray wants to learn the main 'lesson plan'. Instead of being a great and brilliant thing, allowing us to communicate with each other and ease the burden of being alone, education has 'ruined me', giving Ray a similar nervous breakdown to the one his caveman ancestor had. The song makes the point that education is a good thing when it's done right, Ray backing up the idea that every human being has the right to access it ('Every race, every creed, every little half reed, every nationality, Eskimos and pygmies need, even aborigines!') - but swamping minds with facts they won't need in adult life is a waste of the syllabus. If this song had been written forty years later it would no doubt have a rhyme with 'Jeremy Hunt' in there somewhere - if anything the problem has got worse since this song was released, not better. Even at seven minutes Ray struggles to fit all of his ideas into a single song and the track falls apart badly at the end, with a badly stapled finale to cover up the cracks with a singalong(the 'Everybody needs...' bit) when, frankly, a song this big and unanswerable should have ended with anything but a singalong. The opening verses also run a bit too long - three minutes of caveman means that we get more of this neanderthal character than we did on 'Apeman'! However even if this is a song that ends up being less than the sum of its parts then some of those parts are pretty mesmerising. The section two minutes in when 'Education' goes from being objective and reflective and starts becoming aggressive and personal is fabulous, with Dave's guitar really flying and a Mick-John-John backing track trying to hold the song together while the Davies brothers both fly away to goodness knows where is special indeed. The 'can't tell me why I am' section is also deeply moving, Ray cutting through a suffocating and 'busy' backing track with one single mournful cry that turns the whole song on its head. Yes it's too long, yes we need a better ending and this really isn't a song you play for 'fun' (Most fans seem to put it somewhere between 'detention' and 'exclusion') - but you can learn about The Kinks and the world both from 'Education' and it makes several important points in a way that only a band as brave and off-beat as The Kinks possibly could.
Ray's been listening to too much 'Mud' (in both meanings of the word) for next song 'The First Time We Fall In Love', another parody kind of song that might have worked better as a 'straight' ballad about the heartbreak of a first break-up. Goodness knows this is a tough song underneath all the novelty: Ray is adamant that we will all suffer, sooner or later, and have our hearts broken because we can never be prepared for something so overwhelming ('I wasn't equipped for the emotional pressures and stresses of it!' snaps Ray at one point, breaking the 'jovial' mood of the song). Ray was barely out of childhood himself and still in his teens when he got married to sweetheart Rasa early on in The Kinks' period - she was only sixteen and still at school. Two years on from her walking out on him - on his birthday - and after the guilt of 'Sweet Lady Genevieve' and the whole of 'A Soap Opera' (in which a star is so caught up in his music he neglects his wife, amongst millions of other things going on in that under-rated work), Ray is in a bitter mood, juxtaposing how he dreamed his love felt with how things really are. The singer dismisses his 'innocent dreams' as 'juvenile fantasies' and sighs, for the second song within a two year period, that some things aren't meant to last forever, even when it seemed like they would. By the end of the song the narrator is content to summarise that love can be just about everything - 'exciting' and 'a bloody bore' all at the same time - but is love-struck enough to admit that the first love affair is always the best, before we are hit with the realisation that things can actually go wrong. Ray's falsetto vocal is alarming and rather detracts from the seriousness of the song, but there's no doubting his middle eight about his world 'crashing down' and being 'knocked to the core' - a bit more of that realism and heart-feltness rather than the 'falling in love, love, love' backing vocals and this song would have been just fine. As it is, this track feels like a cover-up to mask his true feelings and Ray isn't the sort of writer who usually has to resort to that sort of thing.
Meanwhile, over on side two, we get to hear that romance taking place as Ray learns about love and life in a way his teachers could never teach him. 'I'm In Disgrace' is Dave's tale though really as he falls in love with an imaginary version of his beloved on first meeting, treats her like a 'Queen' on second meeting and gets burned on the third. Somewhere in the middle of all that she falls pregnant (that was one hell of a quick love affair - actually Dave and Sue were together over a year) and Ray's narrator in disgrace ('Oh what a waste!') for no bigger crime than falling in love. He's really torn across this turbulent song, wanting her and wishing he'd never met her in equal measure. The song really does sound musically like the rug has just been pulled from underneath him and you can still hear Ray's fear of being told off by authority figures, even after all these years (he's definitely play-acting how he'd feel in Dave's position here - his brother couldn't care less about being in trouble, just about the girl he left behind). This is no cool rebel but a scared kid who doesn't understand why everyone is so mad at him - as he puts it, this wasn't lust or rape, 'it was just a mistake', albeit one that comes at a heavy price. The Kinks backing chorus sounds like sobbing too as they burst into tears on cue pleading for mercy, while Dave's sad stabbing staccato guitar riff drops down a note each time, as if mirroring the narrator's fall from grace as more and more of his peers found about the incident (in reality, of course, Dave's stock went higher with the boys at his school though he wasn't around long enough to enjoy it!) Ray, meanwhile, is still left wondering about his first girlfriend and is clearly still thinking about Rasa as he tries to wonder which of her reactions was 'real' (the loving half or the 'distaste' half) or 'was it only infatuation?' and she never cared for him. The last of the great flustered paranoid Kinks songs of the 1970s (and ending a run of songs that go back to 'Muswell Hillbillies'), this track finds Ray as confused as he's ever been, borrowing his brother's story as a symbol for what he's currently going through as a divorced rock star with his life story drawn out in all the papers. Whether a schoolboy of fifteen or a rockstar of thirty, though, disgrace is still very real for Ray.
'Headmaster' continues on the same theme and is one of the album highlights, as Ray begs for mercy by confessing all. Though once again he's singing about Dave's story ('I've been with those naughty little girls again!'), Ray is clearly putting himself into the same position here - 'this time you won't be overjoyed' the shy conscientious scholar tells the authority figure (whereas the headmaster was used to Dave being in trouble!) Maybe, along with 'Genevieve', he's really using his characters to address this song to Rasa - while he doesn't quite ask her to come back, he does beg forgiveness and puts himself 'at your mercy'. Davies again claims that he deserves a second chance because he's only a young - he's told to 'act like a man' but that's the problem - he wasn't one yet and couldn't see the consequences of his actions (sex education must have been really poor round Muswell Hill in the 1940s and 1950s). Ray is at his emotional best as he purrs the opening lyric, going from breaking the bad news softly to begging forgiveness with everything he's got. However he still hands the main tear-jerking moment of the song over to his brother as Dave's twin guitars set off on one of the greatest ever Kinks solos, Dave howling with pain in the right channel as he channels years of unexpressed grief and bitterness that build in power and tension before ending on a half-questionmark, half sneer. His guitar on the left is merciless though, slapping away this last chance with an angry 'thwack' that does a good job of sounding like the cane. The song ends with the jokey plea 'don't make me take my trousers down!', much quoted by Kinks fans, but that's not really what the song's about at all - it's about the humiliation, of being found out for a wrong mistake that the narrator didn't really mean and being looked at in a different way by people for the rest of your life. After all, until the split with Rasa, Ray was one of the most respected and 'domesticated' of songwriters - suddenly he's been labelled as being the same as other, less careful groups like The Who and The Stones and for a man who prided himself on being private, that hurts more than the cane ever could. On the plus side, though, Ray has finally found a way to mould his brother's story and guitar-playing round his own confessional, autobiographical work and the result is the most committed Kinks performance in years, with both brothers particularly strong.
The most 'famous' (or at least most performed) song on the album, 'The Hard Way' is in many ways the prototype for much of what comes after it: angry punkish energy and slashing staccato guitar riffs. The difference is this song is still being sung by a 'character' - The Headmaster to be exact as he basically gives a lesson in how not to teach students by ridiculing them. Figuring that he has to be 'cruel to be kind', he spits out some classic lines about the difficulty of being made by law to teach people things they don't need to know to people who don't want to learn, with the best 'I'm wasting my vocation teaching you how to write neat when you're only fit to sweep the streets!' One boy, presumably a young Mr Flash or maybe Jack The Idiot Dunce (but as both parts are played by Ray this bit is confusing!), cuts in: 'You do it your way and I'll do it my way and we'll see whose the one to survive...' It's as if Ray is hitting back at the teachers who told him he had to think a certain way and learn set things to be a success; the young Davies knew that wasn't true and here he is, a world-famous songwriter, outstripping the rest of his peers (not that Ray was ever that cocky, considering the top ten hits under his belt, but he must have still felt as if he made a point). Though this song is tongue in cheek and contradicts much of the rest of the album (the carrot is better than the stick), you also feel some sympathy for the headmaster who knows he's onto a losing thing here teaching children who know instinctively that he is 'wrong' - and no amount of discipline is ever going to correct that. There's another possible take on this song too - Ray commented at this point in most shows that 'I played the wicked headmaster, as always' and he was viewed by the rest of the band as a 'headmaster' figure, driving them through take after take after overdub in a desperate quest to get the recordings 'right'. Is this song, though meant as a comedy, also a genuine look at Ray's role within the band? ('Why don't you co-operate?' he sighs all too knowingly at one point). After all, The Kinks was a band of natural rebels if ever there was one - getting that lot in order (and especially the Dalton-Gosling line-up!) must have been hard work at times! A kind of instinctive bit of fortune-telling about the punk-new wave musical era to come, you can see why 'The Hard Way' stayed so popular for so long, but in truth it's not even close to the depth and detail of most of the other songs on the album.
'The Last Assembly' is a bit of an awkward track, again caught halfway between genuine lament and yet another 1950s parody. Ray is struggling to let the Rasa, RCA and concept era Kinks go and move on, even though in truth he didn't much enjoy any of it (except perhaps the 'Preservation' stage tour) and looks back to another time he felt sad saying goodbye to something that had been so much a part of his life, even though he hated it. 'The Last Assembly' tries hard to tap into that bittersweet feeling of leaving school and going into the adult world for the first time, with best friends going their separate ways (if you remember, Walter, from 1968 this was probably when he and Ray stopped being friends) and enemies finding truces with old slights forgiven. However it's also a 'goodbye' to this era of The Kinks, as Ray and co 'graduate' from their RCA Victor High School (which followed Pye primary), getting ready for the Arista College Years. 'Gather round' he ushers in his departing band members, 'everybody gather round'. For one last glorious moment 'I forgot all the grief and the hatred inside' as Ray simply revels in being with the longest-lasting line-up of The Kinks. So far so sweet, especially when the full band harmonies (so rarely heard over the past few years) kick in, while for the most part Ray's vocal drips with that emotion and loss we know so well. However somewhere along the line this simple song became a 'comedy' - Gosling hams the song up something rotten with a terrible parody of a gospel chorus, Ray's mostly gloriously vocal gets OTT in a couple of places it really shouldn't have done and you can tell that The Kinks are having fun when, in the first draft of the song at least, they should be on the floor sobbing. Not as moving as it ought to be.
However the last assembly isn't the end, as Ray has another song about love and loss that while it doesn't fit the 'classroom' theme if the perfect goodbye to this era of The Kinks. 'No More Looking Back' is one of the best Kinks songs there is as Ray tries, time after time, to say to himself that this is it, he's over his grief and moving on for good this time, honestly. 'No more looking back' he sings, 'No more living in the past, yesterday's gone and that's a fact and now there's more looking back'. But while his head knows this, his heart hasn't caught up yet and he keeps being surprised by old memories and ghosts of the people who used to be in his life (Rasa particularly you sense). Every time he vows never to think about 'her' suddenly there she is, with every stranger in every passing car sharing her looks, every visitor in every bar and cafe and every gramophone playing her favourite music. Ray's narrator just can't get away but also, you suspect, he doesn't want to. Every time it happens he sings that chorus again, a little more desperate each time, sure that this is the time he can move on with his life - but every time is a false hope, a red herring, a mis-step that finds him struggling and grieving all over again. The worst of it is, the way the song is set up this all happened a long time ago ('I see a face I used to know long ago in my life's story') and he's still struggling on, his present still doomed to resemble the past he can no longer have. Ray's performance is extraordinary, matching '20th Century Man' with the way he builds from a disconnected hum to an agonised scream by the end of the song, as each sudden brisk verse cuts in from nowhere to disturb his calm and control. The Kinks are pretty miraculous here too, playing with a finesse they didn't always have and sounding as disconnected and cold as they possibly can before Dave's explosive guitar solo finally gives the game up of how the character is feeling somewhere around the middle. John Gosling, especially, excels on the sprase Fender Rhodes, which is an unusually 'modern' instrument for The Kinks and clearly meant to symbolise the present in the way that harpischords resemble the past in a whole run of their 1960s songs. Even by the end of the song we don't know if Ray has truly moved on or not - he's still hollering that chorus over and over though more as a comfort blanket than out of any resolution that he's actually going to change his life and move forwards. Thankfully the next album 'Sleepwalker' finds him finally moving on and - a few nightmares and insomnia besides - Rasa's ghost is finally put to rest. A truly staggering song that weaves together so many Kinks thematic threads, this is a very special song by a very special band, rather 'lost' to most fans here on an album about schoolboys getting the cane.
However, it's typical of 'Schoolboys In Disgrace' that after providing us with the perfect finale The Kinks muck things up by adding on the 'Finale', which is basically a less convincing repeat of the already not-that-great ending from 'Education'. For a whole minute we hear that everybody needs education, which is odd because the album has just proved that we don't - or at least we don't need as much education as we're getting until someone can finally tell us 'why I am'. However the song serves as a nice coda to the Kinks' theatrical years, giving both the horn section and the female backing singers a last twirl in the spotlight before the curtain falls one last time and The Kinks go back to being a rock band rather than theatrical players.
Overall, then, 'Schoolboys In Disgrace' is about like what most people's schooldays were 'really' like - while some parts may well have been the happiest years of your life, some were truly awful and scarred you for life. You can hear Ray trying to come to terms with becoming an adult now he's hit thirty while at the same time remembering so well what being a child used to be like, referencing many of his 'coming of age' turning points (even if most of them are technically ripples he felt from what happened to brother Dave - don't forget the 'shame' of the event affected Ray too - if my maths is right he was still in his last term at that school at the time). As it happens this was the album I bought with the money I'd saved up to celebrate the end of my GCSEs and a very apt choice it seemed from the row of Kinks CDs they had in Andy's Records in Stafford (those were the days, I've never seen that many Kinks in one place again, my own shelves aside!) Little did I know how apt though: 'Schoolboys' is a record about much more than the classroom - it's about the things they never teach you at school that you have to learn to handle one day - betrayal, disgrace, loss and grief and how your formative years haunt you for far longer than they lasted sometimes. 'Schoolboys' may take place in the classroom, but it's actually about living in the real world and on those lines makes for a fascinating comparison with the 'fantasy' element of 'A Soap Opera'. Both records are flawed and packed with filler songs you don't really need, but both are under-rated gems in the Kinks kanon about how life doesn't always turn out the way you expect it to.
However, this is a bigger album than just the 'my childhood' concept, which is what many fans assume when they see the cover (and perhaps the reason why this album has always been one of The Kinks' worst sellers, on vinyl and CD). On the one hand it's a typically ambitious look at education in general, why we need it but why we don't need so much of it and why it could be so much better if Headmasters and teachers treated children as individuals rather than giving the same curriculum to everyone. On yet another it's a way of exorcising demons from a more recent past, as Ray tries to come to terms with the fact that a part of his life is over and done with forever and that it didn't kill him, honest, however hard it was (actually the end of his school days and the beginning of art college were a good time for Ray, but that's with hindsight; The Kinks have never really coped well with hindsight, imploding at some key moments - and exploding at all the others!) Far from being in disgrace, The Kinks are at a mini-career peak here and it's arguable whether they maintain or match it on their better-selling and less flawed but also less ambitious 'stadium rock' albums from here on-in. Although most fans baulked at the announcement of the tenth Kinks album in a row to follow a 'theme' of one sort or another (though 'I hate the music business' is a bit of a vague theme for 'Lola V Powerman' I'll accept), in many ways it's a shame that there wasn't just one more concept album from the pen of Ray Davies, as he'd clearly worked out how to make them for himself, his fans and most of all his band at the same time. Maybe it's not too late? Preservation Act Three anybody?!