There is actually very little written about punk music and The Kinks. The comparisons are usually based around Dave Davies’ frantic guitar playing and their particularly stomping early singles, violent live shows, reputation for debauchery and kinky bacchanals. Sure. But, I think The Kinks were unique among the British pop bands in establishing ground for popular music that didn’t escape into romantic sentimentality, but drew blood from the dreary concrete laneways of the big black smoke, that spoke of the cruel horror of daily working life, and made sick, dark humour out of it.
One defining aspect of punk is the use of schadenfreude, humour based in cruelty, cruel music, cruel lyrics, cruel art and aesthetic, and cruel sound. Ray Davies’ understanding and execution of this cruelty is worth exploring for anyone who finds this element appealing. Many don’t, and this is why punk scenes are always rife with tension, between people who find the cruelty a source of power and those who find it “problematic”. Sardonic glee in the suffering of others is punk. The outraged response is Christian and hippie guilt, and has rarely resulted in punk music. The pity politics of punk, the emphasis on understanding and solidarity and the commune, are rarely expressed through good songs, and this is why they have lacked a staying influence .
What lasts, and what will continue to last, is the instinct towards expressing cruelty. Life stinks, I like The Kinks.
“Kick you in the face when you get down to kneel / and pray, pray to your God / No feelings”
“Let’s go see who was in an accident”
[[[Interestingly enough, hardcore abounds in good songs about “life as one”, even as it decries “world peace”. A reactionary impulse against the nihilism of punk? A necessity of survival of the streets? Hardcore is generally a humourless form, and thus schadenfreude is rarely expressed effectively (exceptions: the Inmates, Vile, Gehenna). Hardcore and punk are often used interchangeably, and I think any attempt to define them separately should look here for a distinction in approach.]]]
Ray was certainly more refined and careful with his cruelty than the best punk bands became known for. Cloaked within the painted smile of a reluctant performer and pop star was a mind attuned to horror. He presented the pettiness and weakness of the English people back to them, with songs that depicted life as a painful and dreary experience.
At his most generous, he could write songs that offered some kind of solace from living in a universe with no interest in the pointless meanderings of human existence, but that solace was basically little more than a communion with another person who could stare into the void, not any kind of indication that the void was going to be any easier to look at. Simply that it was there and staring was something some people had to do. ‘Big Sky’ is sublime. It expresses a rare of kind of awe, an abundance of sorrow and joy in the presence of beauty. It has religious significance. I could imagine even miserable old Schopenhauer or the hateful French cunt, Celine, together, weeping tears of relief at hearing ‘Big Sky’. That someone could understand the solace of staring into the ether and measuring one’s insignificance against the insignificance of every speck of stardust, finding them equivalently without value, and yet, and yet.... ‘Big Sky’ is a nihilistic hymnal. “When I feel that the world’s too much for me / I think of the big sky / and nothing matters much to me”.
Considering this kind of experience is him being kind, I’d like to consider some of his more brilliant moments of being cruel. Laughing at the smell of blood may be the only appropriate response.
‘Mr. Pleasant’, the B side of ‘Autumn Almanac’, is Ray at his malicious best. The bulk of the song constructs the pleasant life of a middle class English gent.
Luxuries abound, all is good, fine, OK and pleasant. Ray serenades the man, cataloguing his possessions and achievements, concluding that the world is pleasant if Mr. Pleasant is, because “the whole wide world is on your side”. English society is based around the elevation of his type into a position of comfort, from which those above can have assurance, those about can have pride and those below can have envy.
Almost as an afterthought, after the song has seemingly run its course and Ray has established his point, Ray turns to enquire after Mrs. Pleasant. He reports that she has been seen cavorting with a younger man while Mr. P was working overtime, and the closer, the punch line, is “that it’s not so pleasant after all”. The accompaniment, a rinky-dink bar room piano with a comical bellowing horn line, a chorus of “hey, hey!” and “as long Mr. Pleasant’s alright…” is garish and distasteful, an extra elbow in the ribs. This poor sap has labored for nought, his life is a fraud, his pleasantry is a hoax, and Ray is standing over his broken, crumpled corpse, directing his finger downward, howling with laughter .
The entire rotten, repugnant state of pleasant society is presented as the same: a fraud, a hoax. It’s not so pleasant after all. Hey hey!