This is something I’ve talked about here before, but only in comments, and it’s a subject that keeps coming up, so I thought I’d better make it a main post.
My single biggest political issue, the one I care about more than any other, is making Britain’s democracy something closer to functional. If we could get the constitutional changes I want — freedom of speech, proper federal assemblies for the English regions, increased devolution to Scotland and Wales, a fully-elected second chamber, no monarchy (or no role whatsoever for the monarchy in the lawmaking process, at the very least), no involvement of the Church in government, and every level of government elected by STV (or AV in the case of single-member roles like the Mayor of London), I would gladly let my political opponents have everything their own way, on every issue, for a full Parliament, because a properly working democracy can fix any problem, no matter how severe, while with a broken one like we have now it’s impossible to fix any of the major problems facing our economy, our environment, and our society.
So why, if democracy is so important to me (and the fact that the two major parties have spent this entire Parliament blocking those reforms while the Lib Dems have spent the entire Parliament fighting for them is, more than anything else, why I stay in the party despite any problems I have with the current government — it’s proof that they really are still better than the rest) why do I find the whole concept of referendums somewhat repellent?
There are many reasons, but it boils down to the same reason why I think that representative democracy is a real solution to many of our problems. It’s that I think people giving their informed opinions can only end up making the world a better place.
Most of us don’t have a real understanding of most of the business of government. I certainly don’t. There are issues — constitutional issues, civil liberties, technological issues, LGBT+ rights, copyright law — where I have very strong opinions based on serious long-term study of the facts and ideas in question. There are other issues — health, education, economic equality, the environment — where I have some idea of what kind of outcome I’d like to see, but no idea which of several competing policies might bring about those outcomes. And there are yet others — most economic issues, most foreign policy — where I simply don’t have a clue.
I suspect this is the case for 95% of people, or more. The areas that we know about may be vastly different, but everyone cares about some political issue enough to have an informed opinion about it, and everyone has blind spots where they’re clueless.
Now, in a referendum, the chances of any individual actually having a clue about that particular issue are small — and as we’ve seen with both the AV referendum and the Scottish independence referendum, the campaigns generate so much more heat than light that it’s effectively impossible for an ordinary voter to educate herself on the subject once a campaign has started. This means that in a referendum, noise swamps signal, and the chance of getting the “right” answer (where “right” is the one that will actually make most people happiest, or that most people would choose had they all the facts, or however you want to define it) is no better than chance.
This might suggest that democracy itself is fundamentally flawed, were it not for the fact that we have representatives.
For all that professional politicians are a despised class, they are people who are paid to spend all their working lives becoming experts on every aspect of governance at their level (that not all of them do so is partly due to the stupid system we have). Where they don’t have the expertise themselves, they defer to colleagues — in the same party so at least theoretically sharing the same values — who do. So in a representative democracy, such as I’d like to see (and, to the extent that we have one, in our present system), legislation is made by people who know what they’re talking about on every issue — something most of us (who have jobs that involve things other than knowing about every detail of politics) don’t have the time or inclination for.
So surely, then, this means that we should just have rule by our betters, and not bother with elections at all, if people don’t know as much as the politicians?
No — and this is the important bit about representative democracy, but it’s the bit that gets ignored, or glossed over, or not explained properly when we talk about this — because representative democracy is a great way of cancelling out ignorance and getting only the right answers out. It’s not a perfect way, but it’s very good.
Say you, I, and a neighbour all lived in the constituency of Hornsey & Wood Green (which I’ve picked for the example because it has one of the better current MPs), and we all have very different areas of knowledge. My big issue is democratic reform, yours is equality for LGBT+ people, and our neighbour’s is ending female genital mutilation.
I look at the candidates, see that Lynne Featherstone is good on democratic reform, and vote for her. You look at the candidates, see that Lynne Featherstone was one of the main people responsible for bringing in same-sex marriage, and vote for her. Our neighbour looks at the candidates, sees that Lynne Featherstone is campaigning to end FGM in developing countries, and votes for her. If a candidate is good on all our individual issues (and on schools, on health, on taxation, and on whatever other issues people in the area care about) then all the people who know about those areas can vote for her.
The result is that I know that the candidate I vote for is good on the areas I care about, and assume she will be good on the other issues, because she’s paid to investigate them all (and she obviously comes to the same conclusions I do where we’ve got the same information). But if I’m wrong in that assumption — if she’s very good on civil liberties but lousy on education, say — then all the people who care about education will vote for someone else.
This means that in a properly functioning representative democracy, what you end up with is a result that is better than any individual voter would have come up with, because it presumes everyone is competent in the areas that they care about, and that their competencies reinforce each other and cancel out their incompetencies. Someone who is good on most issues will be more likely to get elected than someone who is only good on one or two. Referendums, on the other hand, presume that everyone is equally competent at everything, which is dangerous nonsense.
Direct democracy is a tool for demagogues. Representative democracy is a tool for the people. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Last week’s election raised a lot of questions, including “should Nick Clegg resign?”, “should people calling for Nick Clegg to resign shut up?” and “why didn’t you vote for me? Is it because I smell?” (that last one mostly being asked by me, to be fair). But one topic I’ve seen coming up over and over is the low turnout.
And what people seem to be saying, over and over again, is “UKIP only won because hardly anyone voted! We should make voting compulsory!”
Firstly, because you don’t just change the rules because you don’t like the result. That’s not how democracy should work. I know (from bitter experience during the AV campaign) that the supermajority of people don’t actually care in the least about democracy, and just want to make sure their side wins, but a few of us actually do care about that kind of thing.
But also because compulsory voting, like internet voting, is one of those solutions in search of a problem that people keep bringing up, that wouldn’t actually do anything worthwhile.
Let’s look at those groups who don’t vote, shall we?
Firstly, there are a small number of people who have religious, political, or ethical objections to voting. It would be iniquitous to make these people vote. Yes, even if there was a RON or None Of The Above option, yes even if they could spoil their ballot paper. If you’re going to force people to act against their conscience, it should do much, much more for the public good than the average vote does.
That leaves the other two groups — the ignorant and the apathetic.
The ignorant are that group who simply don’t know enough to make any kind of informed decision. There are a lot of people who don’t know the most basic facts about politics — people who couldn’t name a single politician, or a single political stance of any of the parties. My own sister, for example, didn’t even know there was an election last week, despite me standing as a candidate. This isn’t because she’s stupid (she’s got a first class honours degree in physics) but because she’s never paid attention to politics. Unless you get very involved in political campaigning, though, you’ll never realise just how many of these people there are, because people who discuss politics on the internet tend only to talk with other people who know about politics. It’s only when you go knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, and phoning people up, that you realise just how many people still think the SDP is a national party, for example.
The apathetic, on the other hand, are those who consider that the result makes no difference to them. Again, this is a large chunk of the electorate. It may seem daft to those of us who spend our lives obsessing over such things, but there are a lot of people who really, really, don’t see any difference between, say, a UKIP government and a Green one.
Now, yes, you can get the ignorant and apathetic to vote, if you want, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to encourage them, because they’ll essentially cast their votes at random. This is one of the things that confuses me about this campaign to make voting compulsory — since it seems to be based around a desire for a different result, it’s essentially saying “Yes, the people who cared enough to vote and who knew enough to know what day the election was disagreed with me, but all the people who didn’t know there was an election on and didn’t care would have voted my way!”
But more importantly, it’s not a solution to the problem. It’s a sticking plaster. The solution to ignorance isn’t to force people to make choices they don’t understand, but to make sure people have more information — civics lessons in schools, voter information campaigns, and political campaigns that actually tell voters what it is the parties stand for (the Lib Dem campaign this time, while misguided in many ways, at least had a clear message about the party’s policies and priorities).
And the solution to apathy isn’t to force people to make a choice they don’t care about, but to make them care. Have political parties that don’t all compete for the same tiny space of centre-right ground, but instead present different visions of how the world should be, and have a voting system that makes their votes matter, so they can see it makes a difference to their own lives and the lives of those around them who they vote for.
But these are things that require actual work, that can’t be distilled into a single tweet, and that take time to have an effect. No, far better to go around shouting for quick-fix “solutions” that don’t actually fix the problem they’re intended to solve, but that are simple enough to sum up in a soundbite. You know, like UKIP do. Maybe that result wasn’t as inaccurate as these campaigners think…
I get really, really annoyed at the Chinese whispers of the so-called ‘progressive’ internet sometimes.
You’ve probably seen a huge number of shared image macros calling for a boycott of Papa John’s Pizza, because they’re cutting people’s hours so they don’t have to pay health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. Awful, right? You probably shared one of the pictures yourself.
And it’s definitely true, because it clearly says so on MSN — “The pizza mogul announces he will reduce worker hours in light of Obama’s re-election”.
Except that their source is the Huffington Post, which only says “he will likely reduce workers’ hours”, not that he’s announced he’s going to.
Except that *THEIR* source is this story from Schnatter’s local newspaper, where he talks about what he perceives as good and bad points of the law, before saying that “it was likely that some franchise owners would reduce employees’ hours”
Papa John’s is a franchise chain, which means that in different areas of the US the restaurants are owned by separate businesses, which just buy the license from the central company. All Schnatter has actually said is that *some of those separate businesses, which he does not control* *MIGHT* cut hours, not that he is going to do anything at all.
I disagree with Schnatter about the Affordable Care Act, but it seems all he’s actually done is commit the terrible crime of having a nuanced position — saying it’s good that everyone will be covered, but that he could imagine some people, other people, cutting employees’ hours as a result — in an age when nuance is deadly.
But then, I don’t know why I’m bothering to write this — these words aren’t overlayed on a photograph, and they’re all correctly spelled, so no-one will read it…
There are people supporting every party and none who can make convincing arguments for a point of view, and who it’s worth reading whether you agree with them or not. But I find they are increasingly outnumbered by people who it’s simply not worth reading.
And there is a simple way of telling who they are — they use canned phrases that seem to come from some political party’s central office.
Mostly these seem to come from Labour supporters at the moment (possibly because Labour are the most popular party, possibly because my social circle skews leftwards). Some of these phrases sound reasonable, others definitely don’t, but they include “Conservative-led government”, “savage cuts”, “our NHS”, “most right-wing government in [insert time period]“, “ConDems”. The problem is when those phrases get used by everyone simultaneously.
It’s certainly not confined solely to Labour, though — “Tony Bliar”, “ZaNuLieBore”, “cleaning up Labour’s mess”, “Red Ed, the unions’ man”… these all have the same effect.
If you’re using these insta-cliches, which tend to spread through political twitterers and bloggers like herpes, then to anyone who is unaligned, or does not share your particular alignment, or even who agrees with you but has an aesthetic sense about the use of words, your post will actually be saying to that person “I have not actually thought about this issue myself, rather I have read a press release from the party of my choice, please ignore me.”
If I read someone saying “We must protect our NHS from the effects of the savage cuts brought in by this Conservative-led government, cuts which are too deep and too fast”, then I know that they haven’t actually thought about the issue themselves and there’s no point reading what they have to say.
If, on the other hand, I read someone saying “We need to protect *the* NHS from government cuts, which I think are far deeper than necessary”, I think “this is a person with whom I could have a discussion, and find out which cuts she thinks are most damaging and what we could do about them. It may turn out that she’s wrong, but it may not.”
Likewise, someone saying “The government need to do this because they’re cleaning up ZaNuLieBore’s mess!” gets instantly disregarded. Someone saying “Realistically, if we want the economy to recover, then some things need to be cut, and while it’s bad, better to cut this than let the recession continue” is, again, someone with whom discussion is possible. They may well be someone I disagree with, but I will at least be disagreeing with *her*, not with a press release she glanced at.
Each of these phrases sound focus-group-chosen to be convincing on an emotional level. “OUR NHS” sounds much more important than “THE NHS”, doesn’t it? But after hearing them a thousand times, they’re not. They’re manipulative, and to me at least they have an actively scary, creepy feel to them, like being surrounded by beings that have been mind-controlled by aliens.
But luckily, there’s a very simple rule you can follow, which will allow you to write convincingly and without people looking at you in the expectation that your faceplate will fall off to reveal the robot underneath. It’s this:
Think about what it is you want to say, and what words you can use to say that as clearly as possible.
It’s a simple rule, but one that’s rarely followed by bloggers and twitterers (and, reading through Orwell’s essays, it appears never to have been followed by pamphleteers).
If you’ve thought about something, and you have a clear idea of what it is you want to say, and you have chosen the words you think will best express your thoughts — chosen them yourself, not picked phrases that have been handed to you by a third party — then people will, when they read your writing, say “That’s a good point” or “I never thought of that”, or “You’re wrong, here’s why…” — all of which are useful reactions if you’re wanting to convince people of something.
If, on the other hand, you string a bunch of stock phrases together, you may well get five hundred retweets from people who already agree with you, but you’ll never change a single mind, except to possibly make some people who did agree with you before disagree with you in disgust.
(Doctor Who post will be up tonight, nearly a week late…)
This will be the last of these Kinks posts. In a couple of weeks a revised version of these posts, along with a new introduction and a brief section covering a couple of songs that only appeared on compilations, will be released as a book titled Preservation: The Kinks’ Music 1964 – 1974. What reaction this book gets will determine how many more of these music books I do, so do let me know if you like it (I assume anyone reading this who doesn’t like these posts won’t buy it…)
And so we finish our look at the Kinks from 1964 to 1974 with this, the double-album sequel to Preservation Act One. Whereas Act One was mostly made up of songs that worked completely apart from their context, and had a whole cast of interesting characters, Act Two is about its plot.
Preservation is, as a whole, Ray Davies’ attempt at writing a political musical along the lines of Brecht and Weill’s work. Unfortunately, though, while Bertolt Brecht based his work on rigorous theories about both politics and aesthetics, coming up with works whose form perfectly fits their content (precisely because Brecht was trying to destroy normal unities of form and content), Ray Davies is not a particularly deep or original thinker.
That’s not to deny his worth as an artist, of course — anyone who has read these essays will know that I think Ray Davies one of the greatest and most important songwriters of his generation — but Davies’ work works on a primarily emotional level, and doesn’t really suit being welded to a drama about the clash of political ideas.
Which isn’t to say there is nothing of worth here. There are at least half-a-dozen fine songs on this double album, and apparently when pared down to a ninety-minute stage show, the Preservation albums became a riveting theatrical experience. But triple concept albums with spoken narration were never a great idea, and this is not an exception to the rule.
The plot is simply not strong enough to hold an album together without any truly great songs. It’s an expression of Davies’ political views, which from the evidence of this are a mixture of Libertarianism, Burkean Conservatism and small-government Liberalism, mixed with a heavy dose of anti-politics. The evil Capitalist dictator, Mr Flash, who wants to destroy everything good and traditional to replace it with flashy, exciting, modern things that will make him more money so he can have a good time, is defeated by the evil Socialist dictator Mr Black, a Puritan who wants to destroy everything good and traditional to replace it with efficient uniformity and conformity. It’s essentially the 1066 And All That version of the Civil War (“Romantic But Wrong” versus “Repulsive But Right”) reworked more cynically, so both sides are equally corrupt.
Other than Flash and his “floozies” and Black and his “do-gooders”, the only other character here is the Tramp, the authorial mouthpiece of the first album now turned almost omniscient narrator, though we also have various between-track “Announcement”s from a newsreader (played by the actor Christopher Timothy, whose father had been a BBC announcer in the 1950s).
There is merit here, but very little to suggest that this is the same band that had created masterpieces like Waterloo Sunset or Days only a few years earlier. Many of the songs here are almost impossible to talk about as standalone songs — they exist to move the narrative forward rather than for any aesthetic merit they may have — so my treatment of them here will be necessarily brief.
Introduction To Solution
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies (as The Tramp)
A simple rock song, in the style of The Who, based around a descending/ascending three-chord pattern (E-D-C-D-E), with the only change being a brief diversion to B and F#m on the line “But me, I’m only standing here”.
The lyrics set the scene for the album — Mr Flash and his cronies are living the high life, drinking champagne, while there’s rioting in the streets and Mr Black is planning to overthrow them, and meanwhile the Tramp is watching it all and wishing things were different.
When A Solution Comes
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies (as Mr Black)
A song that definitely sounds of its time, this has the cocaine-infused sheen that was common to pretty much all mainstream rock of the mid-70s. Here Mr Black, “in an attic, somewhere in suburbia”, dreams of his future revolution — he’s been sitting on the sidelines, watching the collapse of civilisation, knowing that sooner or later people will turn to a strong leader, and then he can introduce his “final solution”.
Not an especially subtle song, but largely accurate, I think, as to the psychology of fascism.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies (as Mr Flash)
The first song on the album to sound like it might have been written primarily as a song, rather than as a narrative device, this is a four-chord glam rock song, seemingly very loosely based on Joe Tex’s classic soul single Show Me. With a soul-style female backing chorus alternately doubling or echoing Davies’ voice, this sounds like nothing so much as Marc Bolan’s later work. It’s one of the catchiest things on the album.
Lyrically, it’s just a description of Flash’s ‘philosophy’ — that no-one is incorruptible and that anyone will do anything for enough money.
Shepherds Of The Nation
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies (as Mr Black)
This is possibly the most interesting song on the whole album, as Davies seems, at least in part, to be examining the ways in which his own thinking can be twisted toward evil. (For all that I’ve occasionally cricticised the way that Davies’ politics seem simplistic, that doesn’t mean that he’s unaware of his own limitations, and the self-examination in his work is often painfully honest).
A parodic rewrite of The Village Green Preservation Society, arranged in a pseudo-medieval style (with horns sounding almost like crumhorns and with vocals somewhere between madrigals and Gregorian chant), this is the dark side of “preserving the old ways from being abused/protecting the new ways for me and for you”.
Fascism always looks to a golden age in the past (this is the main difference between fascism and totalitarian Communism — Communism looks to a golden age in the future instead), as much of Davies’ work does, and usually combines that with some level of sexual puritanism, using that repression to motivate people to follow the great leader. And so here Mr Black uses rhetoric that isn’t at all far from that used by people like the Festival Of Light or the National Viewers And Listeners Association — groups of religious fundamentalists that were becoming briefly popular in the mid-70s, as a reaction to the perceived excesses of the ‘sexual revolution’ and feminism, and who were essentially calling for an end to post-Enlightenment civilisation.
Black here lumps together supposed social evils like drugs and pornography with the basic human emotions that cause those things to be popular, so he calls for an end not only to pot and heroin, but to lust and lechery, to homosexuality, even to the existence of pubic hair.
And this is all wrapped up in the standard authoritarian demands for tougher punishment — the return of capital punishment, public flogging and the stocks.
Davies’ politics, as expressed in his music, may be confused, and he may be all too keen to eulogise a past golden age, but when it comes down to a straight choice between homosexuals, dope smokers and pornographers on one side and authoritarians who want those people flogged and executed on the other, he knows which side he’s on, and it’s not the authoritarian one.
Scum Of The Earth
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies as Mr Flash
This is the cleverest song on the album, as well as possibly the best. Much of Preservation, as previously mentioned, is influenced by Brecht & Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, and this song more so than anything else on the album.
Much as the previous song was a rewrite and critique of Davies’ own The Village Green Preservation Society, this is a rewrite and critique of What Keeps Mankind Alive?, the best song by far from The Threepenny Opera. What Keeps Mankind Alive? is the most political song in the opera, and is an attack on capitalist moralisers, who keep the poor in poverty and then feign horror when they behave in an uncouth manner.
In the Preservation worldview, however, moralising (and ‘do-gooding’ generally) is the sin, not of capitalists, but of socialists. In Davies’ eyes, a capitalist will destroy everything of value in the world for his own short-term benefit, while a socialist will destroy it all and claim it’s for your benefit.
And so here, to a melody that is close enough to that of What Keeps Mankind Alive? that one is surprised the Weill estate never sued, Mr Flash defends himself against the attacks on him from Mr Black, using the same kind of argument that Macheath in the Threepenny Opera used to defend himself. He can’t help being the way he is — society made him that way, and is it his fault society made him an unscrupulous exploiter? “if they could see deep inside me/They’d see a heart that once was pure/Before it touched the evils of the world”. He quotes Shylock — “For if I cut myself I bleed, and if I catch a cold I sneeze/Have I not eyes to help me see? Have I not lungs to help me breathe” — in an attempt to emphasise the common humanity of the exploiter and the exploited.
It’s a fairly decent point in some ways — if society is to blame for the faults of the poor, then surely it’s equally to blame for the faults of the rich? — but of course it’s an utterly self-serving one. The rich, unlike the poor, are in a position to do something to change things. Flash’s crime isn’t being ‘only human’, but being selfish and amoral.
Second-Hand Car Spiv
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies (as Spiv)
This is a hard song to criticise, because while it’s not much of a song as a song, as a piece of characterisation it’s rather good.
Here Davies takes on the persona of a proto-Thatcherite ‘entrepreneur’, who started out on the dole (complete with standard Davies jab at the Welfare State, though here put into the voice of an unsympathetic character), and then worked his way up through being a second-hand car dealer to eventually becoming the owner of a multinational company and one of the most important people in the country.
The characterisation is perfect, right down to the accent — Davies sounds at times quite scarily like Lord Sugar — and is rather ahead of its time. This kind of figure would become a stereotype in the 1980s (think Loadsamoney or Del Trotter), but didn’t really feature much in popular culture at the time. For all the banality of the story Davies is attempting to tell, his characters are all real types.
Musically, though, this is nothing interesting — the rock equivalent of those lesser Gilbert & Sullivan pieces where Sullivan just rum-tums through on autopilot because Gilbert has a lot of exposition to dump, except that Davies doesn’t have anything like Gilbert’s facility with language. Fast keyboard runs up and down the scale, and a brief musical quote from Here Comes Flash, aren’t enough to bring this one to life.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies (as Mr Black)
One of the catchier songs on the album, this is supposedly a party political broadcast by Mr Black, attacking Mr Flash, but it seems more to be just a warning to a specific woman that Flash uses women, drags them down to his level, and throws them aside. (Yes, it’s supposed also to be a metaphor for how he’s treating the country, but it’s rather too literal for the metaphorical aspect to work particularly well).
Musically, this is sort of proto-disco, with Mick Avory providing a straight four-on-the-floor bass drum and crotchets on the hi-hat in the intro (before settling down into a more conventional rock part, for much of the song, only returning to the disco feel for the instrumental break), and the track sounds at first like nothing so much as ABBA’s Money, Money, Money, while later sounding more like ELO or one of the other bands who straddled the pop/prog/disco divide.
The verses are, like much of the material in Preservation, just Davies reciting lyrics over a simple backing track (to the same rhythm as the similar verses of Demolition and Preservation), but the choruses (where a cycle of fifths gets diverted by a brief change to the relative minor, so the changes go I-V-II-iv-VI rather than the expected I-V-II-VI) and the bridge (with a nice little Davies descending-semitones bassline is counterpointed by a rising female backing vocal) show a level of attention to the music that is absent from many of the songs on the album.
Mirror Of Love
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies (as Belle, Flash’s Special Floosie)
The first single from the album, this is actually on the CD in two versions — the single version and the album version, which differ in a few points of arrangement and vocal performance, but are very similar.
Here Davies takes on the persona of Belle, Mr Flash’s ‘special floosie’, an abused woman who can see that her boyfriend is unsuitable but sticks by him anyway. While it fits with the previous song, neither of them seem to have much of anything to do with the story, and one is again left with the impression that this would have been a much more coherent album had Davies got rid of the concept altogether and just released a single album of good songs rather than try to tie them to a flimsy narrative.
Musically, the song is a rather good effort at trad jazz — not at Dixieland, but specifically at trad, the British 1950s revival of the style, which had as much influence from jug band music and skiffle as from jazz. As a result it could almost be the work of a British equivalent of the Lovin’ Spoonful or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, while still retaining some of the between-the-wars feel of some of the better material on the album.
The song is mostly driven by the horn section, who had built their career on this kind of material, and so carry it off with panache. It alternates between two sections — a simple major-key three-chord chorus in D (with lyrics about how Flash is OK seen ‘through the mirror of love’), and a slinky, more ambiguous verse. The verse lyrics alternate almost line-for-line between complaints and praise (“You’re a crude and a rude lover/But I would have no other”), and the musical material is similarly ambiguous, starting out in Bm (the relative minor of the chorus’ home key, a depressing key to be in) but slowly drifting into the key of A major (the fifth of the chorus’ home key, a very happy key to go to).
It’s a simple but effective song, and Davies’ vocals are probably his best on the album, with some wonderful jumps into a trilling falsetto a la Rudy Valee. The result is easily the best track on the album.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies (as the Tramp)
And this song, more than any other, shows why I characterise Ray Davies’ political views, as expressed through his songs, as being overly simplistic.
I can largely agree with his assessment that both untrammeled greed-driven capitalism and the kind of socialism that sees government control as an end in itself are evils — Mr Black and Mr Flash both do represent real types, the degenerate cases of two political philosophies that can, in the extreme, be harmful.
But the problem is, Davies doesn’t seem to have gone any further in his thinking than an anti-politics shrug of “Well, they’re all as bad as each other”. And that leads to absurdities like this.
Because in this song, Davies (in character as the Tramp, who usually expressed Davies’ opinions) complains that human nature is such that people fight over problems and take sides, rather than sitting down and talking problems over. He illustrates this with two examples of extremism, one from the left and one from the right.
The left-wing example he chooses is the General Strike of 1926, a strike that had more than a million people taking part, caused by attempts to cut the wages of miners, and which many people feared would lead to an actual revolution.
The right-wing example is the Nazi party, the Holocaust and the Second World War.
This is such a muddled piece of thinking that one doesn’t really know where to start. The only thing the General Strike had in common with the Nazi dictatorship was that Winston Churchill was firmly opposed to both. One was a nine-day period of, admittedly quite extreme, industrial action attempting to prevent a drop in miners’ wages, the other was twelve years of the worst horrors in human history, leading to the violent deaths of tens of millions of people. That’s not the kind of comparison where “you’re all as bad as each other” is really appropriate.
And this is the problem with having moderation as a principle. Sometimes one will end up taking a moderate position between two extrremes because it happens to be the right position, but often one side clearly is worse than the other, and in those situations “you’re all as bad as each other” is effectively the same thing as siding with the worse of the two sides.
One can quite easily set up left/right dichotomies where both sides are roughly equivalent. Had Davies compared Hitler with Stalin, he would have had a point. Likewise, had he compared the General Strike with, say, the three-day week that the Conservative government had introduced a few months before this album came out, he would have seemed relatively fair.
But faced with such a massively uneven balance, the song becomes absurd. Yes, the General Strike would possibly have been avoidable had all interested parties been willing to negotiate more. That’s a fair criticism. On the other hand, one can’t really imagine all the interested parties sitting down to negotiate a compromise between Hitler’s aims and those of his enemies. The false equivalence here is so jarring that this one song pretty much single-handedly destroys any claim this album might have to be the serious work of political art that Davies intended.
Musically, the song is of little interest, being ridiculously overlong at 6:33, and bombastic with it.
Oh Where Oh Where Is Love?
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies (as The Tramp) and Marianne Price (as the do-gooders)
A pretty little tune, alternating between a 6/8 folk style (sounding much like the kind of thing the Pogues would do a few years later) and a waltz-time section (the pulse only shifts slightly — one could easily transcribe both in 6/8, but it seems stylistically to be better understood as a waltz) in a vaguely European style that once again conjures up thoughts of Weill. We also see the return of the Davies descending bass-line, adding some harmonic interest to an otherwise fairly conventional structure.
Here for the first time we have a duet with Marianne Price, who takes lead vocals on several other songs on the album. Her voice is an intriguing one, having an untrained sound that is reminiscent of Rasa Davies’, but singing in a lower range. Her slightly off-pitch, amateurish quality sounds a lot like Mo Tucker of the Velvet Underground, or the similar singing styles used by many waifish indie vocalists in more recent years, but is very different from the popular styles of the time. It’s a gentle, sensitive performance, and the technical imperfections only add to that.
Lyrically, the song is the complaint of every reactionary, that things ain’t what they used to be, and that people used to be nice and friendly and love each other and read fairytales, but now they’re all rapists and murderers. But it’s so clearly intended from the heart, and performed so well, that the track works anyway.
Flash’s Dream (The Final Elbow)
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: none
Not really a song at all, but a four minute spoken dialogue between Mr Flash (played by Ray Davies in a bizarre, lisping accent that veers randomly between Cockney, comedy Jewish, Australian, South African, and what sounds like a prescient parody of the speaking voice of the singer Rufus Wainwright, often on a syllable-by-syllable basis) and his conscience, occasionally backed with snippets of There’s A Change In The Weather, then going into a montage of vocal parts from songs from the first album, backed with a drum beat, and ending with a fanfare.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies (as Mr Flash)
Melodically, this is a variation on Here Comes Flash, with some slight musical differences, but reharmonised to fit a chord sequence very similar to that of Introduction To Solution. Davies has clearly tried to repeat motifs throughout the album, but the motifs he’s reused (the fast patter lyrics in rhyming couplets over four-chord vamps, for example) have tended not to be among the more interesting ones and have sounded more like a lack of ideas than an attempt at thematic unity — here, though, we can tell that this song is a summing up and closure of Flash’s story, as he confesses his sins as he knows he’s about to die.
This is one of the more startlingly modern sounding tracks on the album, as it sounds scarily like Bowie’s Berlin period and some of the post-punk and new romantic bands influenced by those records.
As a song, it’s not very good at all — it’s another track that exists to fill in a gap in the story, rather than to be an enjoyable piece of music — but the production is interesting enough that it is not in the very lowest level of songs on the album.
Nothing Lasts Forever
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies (as Mr Flash) and Marianne Price (as Belle)
An absolutely lovely song, which was almost certainly inspired by Davies’ marriage breakup. If in Sweet Lady Genevieve he still had some hope that his wife would return to him, here he knows that’s not going to happen. In a heartbreaking duet, a resigned Mr Flash accepts that his relationship with Belle must end, but while she says it’s for the best, he thinks otherwise.
It’s impossible not to read lines like “I know that you’ll survive/ And you’ll get by/ Whatever/Though you say goodbye/ My love will never die/ It will last forever” as a message to his ex-wife, and it says a lot that Belle is here portrayed as a fundamentally decent person, who isn’t happy about what she sees as the relationship’s necessary breakup.
Both Davies and Price here sing at the very top of their ranges, straining for the notes, and this adds a real sense of emotion to the song — they’ve tried to make the relationship work, and can’t, and the strain is showing.
While not one of the absolute top level of Kinks songs, this is one of the more touching of the post-Arthur songs, and very moving.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies (as Mr Flash and Mr Black) and Dave Davies (as Mr Black)
The second-longest actual song on the album is this attack on modernism — not modernity, it’s an attack on the aesthetic of modernism, and in particular the way that many modernist political and aesthetic movements fetishise technology as an ends rather than a means. While the conflict between Flash and Black is framed as capitalism versus socialism, a more accurate way of looking at it would be to call it a clash between Modernism and Romanticism.
Here the Modernism has got as far as transhumanism — the master race Black is building would be one very recognisable to the inhabitants of websites like LessWrong. Black’s creating an explicitly atheistic utopia full of technologically-augmented immortals, free of disease and pain. But these people are closer to the Cybermen from Doctor Who than any new, transcendent race — they’ve been created this way so Black can “Put your senses and your mind/ under constant observation/ even when you’re dreaming”. This is technology as a tool of oppression, rather than salvation.
Musically, the song comes in three sections. First we have a glam ballad, not dissimilar to Bowie’s All The Young Dudes — presumably a deliberate resemblance, as Bowie had spent much of the previous few years singing about becoming homo superior in a manner which often outright endorsed fascism. The chord sequence for this section, obviously worked out on piano, is complex but based around the old Davies trick of keeping as many notes in the chord as possible the same while moving the bassline down a semitone at a time.
For the first time in the Preservation project we also get a welcome vocal contribution from Dave Davies, here sharing the Mr Black vocals with his brother.
We then have a second, faster section, sounding much like some of Elton John’s faster songs, being driven in a similar way with fast, staccato piano chords — though the syrupy, over-orchestrated strings from the first section continue, and we have the addition of girl-group backing vocals singing “artificial, artificial man” over and over. This simple three-chord section then goes into an uptempo version of the first section, which leads to a key change from C to F.
We then have another two-chord section (“tell the world that we finally did it”), this time just playing ii-I in the new key, backed by acoustic guitar and drums, before repeating the secon section, repeating the opening, slower section, and fading out on the “artificial man” vamp.
It’s a complex structure, but it doesn’t hang together wonderfully, and it’s another song where one gets the impression that it was conceived for its narrative function rather than as a song that would work out of context.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Marianne Price (as Belle)
And once again we get a much shorter, tighter, better-conceived song covering some of the same ground straight after a flabby exposition-song. Here Belle describes the results of Black’s revolution, with identical people living in ‘identical concrete monstrosities’ and working identical jobs, with wildlife being destroyed because it’s not efficient, and with manners and basic human decency a thing of the past.
This is a simple three-chord country song, based around the Tumbling Tumbleweeds bassline that Davies had used for Holiday, and with more than a little melodic resemblance to Detroit City, played by the core Kinks without the orchestration that had been augmenting them for much of the album.
You could play this to a thousand people without any of them guessing it was the Kinks, and it’s not up to the standards of previous albums, but it’s a pleasant track, and since in the twenty-nine minutes since Mirror Of Love we’ve had seven minutes of good songs and twenty-two minutes of exposition and bombast, it is a welcome relief as we draw near to the end of the album.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies (as ‘everyone’)
And the final song on the album is the anthem of Black’s revolutionary movement (whose flute theme has been used in various forms to introduce the spoken announcements throughout the album).
It’s a curiously optimistic ending to the album, trying to find something positive in a new world, even after saying “goodbye freedom, hello fear”, there’s an acceptance that if the world is getting worse the only thing to do is not to look back at the better past, but try to make something good out of the future. It’s a simple, catchy tune based on a play-in-a-day chord sequence, and follows a straight verse/chorus/verse/chorus pattern.
There’s a subtlety to this song that’s missing from much of the album, and the idea of having a triumphant sing-along anthem about how you might as well make the best out of a bad situation is vintage Davies.
And so we end the project that Ray Davies considers his most important work. Neither Preservation album is anywhere near as bad as its reputation suggests, but nor are they anything like good enough to carry the weight Davies intended. Apparently the tight, ninety-minute stage version the augmented band performed that year was much better, but unfortunately no film of those shows exist.
But there’s worthwhile material in there if you dig, and in these days of iTunes, Spotify and so on, when people create their own playlists, it’s possible to combine the best bits of both albums into something that stands up with their very best work. [FOOTNOTE: For those with Spotify, my own attempt at doing this can be found at http://open.spotify.com/user/stealthmunchkin/playlist/0G58jzUnBPQfrigP0ztJuc.] Perhaps it’s time for the better material on these albums to be re-evaluated.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies and Dave Davies
This is a live recording from 1979, with a different line-up of the band (featuring Ian Gibbons on keyboards, and Jim Rodford, the former bass player of Argent who’d got his start playing with the Mike Cotton Sound in the 60s, on bass) performing a song which was written for Preservation, and which appeared in the stage show, but didn’t make the album.
On this evidence, that’s probably a good thing. This is a sub-Jimmy Rogers blues shuffle, with incredibly repetitive lyrics, repeating over and over that slum kids “never stood a chance/We were dragged up from the gutter/On the wrong side of the tracks”.
Possibly a hypothetical studio version would have been tolerable, but this version drags out what amounts to forty seconds of musical and lyrical material to six and a half minutes, partly through noodled solos but mostly through bludgeoning repetition. Not one of the band’s finest moments.