The Kinks’ Music — Everybody’s In Showbiz

A revised version of this essay appears in Preservation: The Kinks’ Music 1964-1974, available in paperback , hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK) , and for all non-Kindle devices from Smashwords.

Everybody’s In Showbiz is possibly the most overlooked album from the Kinks’ early period. A rather odd double-album, the second disc is made up of live recordings, almost entirely of songs from the previous two albums (the CD reissue adds two 60s classics — Til The End Of The Day and She’s Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina — but other than the three cover versions dealt with below, the original live recording contained one song from Arthur, two from Lola vs Powerman and five from Muswell Hillbillies), while the consensus about the first disc, of new studio recordings, is that it is mostly a rock star whinging about how terrible the life of a rock star is, with the occasional song that sounds like an outtake from Muswell Hillbillies.

But while this consensus is, in fact, accurate, it slightly misses the point. Putting out a live album that is almost entirely devoid of hits is in itself a fairly odd thing to do, but to couple a live album with an album of songs about how awful touring is — songs that if one has any empathy for the singer sap any semblance of joy from the live recordings that follow — has to be a deliberate artistic statement.

And while almost every rock musician of the 70s released an album about how awful life on the road was, the life of the Kinks at the time was truly awful. Dave Davies had recently had a breakdown — what sounds from his later descriptions like a psychotic episode lasting a few months — and communication between the two brothers was so bad at the time that thirty years later Ray Davies claimed not to be aware it had happened. Meanwhile, the band had by the time of this album been obsessively touring the USA for three years, trying to slowly rebuild the audience they’d lost there in 1965, and Ray and Rasa Davies’ marriage was coming to an unhappy end, leading to another in Ray Davies’ increasingly frequent bouts of mental illness.

What we get, as a result, is an album that is almost entirely about dissociation — about having no emotional connections to either one’s environment or to the surrounding people. Sometimes this makes the songs come off as affectless and difficult to empathise with, but at other times there’s a surprising beauty to the songs, although they remain in the simple style of Muswell Hillbillies, with little musical invention when compared to Davies’ work from 1966 through 69.

(This review will primarily deal with the studio songs, only looking at the live cover versions that don’t appear elsewhere.)

Studio

Here Comes Yet Another Day
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

In what sounds almost like an overture to the album, like a curtain is rising, Ray Davies here sings about the grinding monotony of the touring life, with lyrics that have little rhythmic variation but come so fast that lines overlap, over a clomping rock beat and what amounts to a single chord (in the middle eight the guitar very briefly throws in a passing IV chord a couple of times, and goes to V before the change back to the verse, but otherwise the entire thing is all on a single I chord).

It succeeds all too well in conveying the dullness and repetition of touring, as even at only 3:30 it seems a good minute and a half too long.

Maximum Consumption
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This is one of several songs on the album that seem obsessed with food. In this case, over a harmonically simple backing very much in the Muswell Hillbillies mode, Davies talks about food (specifically American food — clam chowder, beef steak on rye, pumpkin pie and so on are foods that Davies would only have been eating on tour in the US) as fuel, and himself as a machine that needs refuelling — “I’m a maximum consumption, non-stop machine/Total automation, perpetual motion.”

Even the sexual innuendo here (“I’m so easy to drive, and I’m an excellent ride”) is all about the body as machine.

In the context of the album as a whole, then, this is another song about detachment — the focus in this, as in several songs on the album, is on the functions of the body rather than the mind inside it. After becoming detached from his home country and the people around him, the protagonist of the song (who in this case, as with much of the album, we probably can identify with Davies in a way we can’t always with earlier songs) is starting to think of his body, too, as something other, something separate that’s moving around independently of his wishes, a machine that requires food and sex.

Unreal Reality
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Musically, this song is not one of Davies’ best — he’s continuing here (and on much of the rest of the album) his Muswell Hillbillies habit of writing with only standard rock & roll changes, and his ideas are wearing thin. This song is almost entirely made up of just I, IV and V chords (with one brief move to ii, on the line “Because they can touch it, it’s gotta be reality”) and sounds like it was written by a computer asked to generate a Muswell Hillbillies-esque song.

Lyrically, though, this is the most disturbing of all the songs on the album, and really the lyrical key to the entire thing. This could almost have been written by a Philip K Dick protagonist, and portrays someone getting more and more detached from reality. Normal Kinks targets (the businessman in his suit and tie who seems like he’s made of plastic) merge with the strange environment of a foreign country, with its towering buildings that “reach…right up to the clouds”, and convince our narrator that he’s in an unreal world.

Here Muswell Hillbillies‘ longing for ‘authenticity’ has turned sour — our narrator is convinced that the ‘inauthentic’ experiences he’s having are literally, not metaphorically, unreal. He’s so detached from his surroundings that he worries they’re hallucinations.

Hot Potatoes
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray and Dave Davies

A five-chord song, the most harmonically complex thing we’ve had so far, though still rudimentary compared to the band’s pre-RCA work (this time with a guitar line that seems to be parodying George Harrison’s guitar on My Sweet Lord and a piano part that sounds like it was inspired by the Small Faces’ Lazy Sunday), this is another one that makes the connection between appetite for food and sexual appetites, as the protagonist’s wife won’t ‘satisfy his appetites’ with anything other than hot potatoes unless he goes out to work.

The lyrics are confused and don’t make much literal sense, but again there’s an emphasis on the carnal, on the needs of the body, as the relationship between the protagonist and his wife is deteriorating.

Sitting In My Hotel
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Easily the best song on the album, this is a piano-based ballad with a simple chord structure and a return of the fragmented descending basslines that Davies had used so effectively in earlier songs. The descending bassline clearly makes Davies think of baroque music, and so we have some lovely fanfare-like baroque trumpet playing from Mike Cotton over the top.

Musically the song sounds like an experiment in writing musical theatre (something the song comments on itself, with the line about “writing songs for old-time vaudeville revues”), and has a lot in common with the more singer-songwriter end of glam — it could easily fit on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album, for example.

Lyrically, once again this is about alienation — being away from one’s friends and acting in a way that doesn’t feel natural. The protagonist wonders what his friends back home would think if they could see him “Dressing up in my bow tie/Prancing round the room like some outrageous poof” (Davies has an unfortunate tendency to associate homosexuality, theatricality and artificiality, even as he is ambivalent about the first, fond of the second, and scathing about the last).

The whole thing paints a touching picture of someone trying to hold on to his old values and use them to re-evaluate a life that seems to have gone horribly wrong.

Motorway
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A fun track, this is actually the second-best comedy country song about how bad motorway service station food is of the 1970s [FOOTNOTE The best, of course, being Watford Gap by Roy Harper] — a subject close to the hearts (and stomachs) of many touring bands then and now. Based on one chord for the most part (expanding to four chords for the middle eight), this features some nice country guitar picking in a bluegrass style, while John Dalton’s bass part is clearly influenced by Marshall Grant’s simple tic-toc root/fifth parts on Johnny Cash’s records.

Once again, though, this is a song about detachment from one’s normal life, travelling and thinking only in terms of basic bodily functions — eating cold meat pies, using filthy toilets and sleeping in cheap hotels. Davies, here, is living a life in which every sense is being battered and he’s being ground down, and once again he’s trying to reach out to anyone from his home life — “Mama oh mama, my dear Suzi too, This motorway message is sent just for you.”

You Don’t Know My Name
Writer:
Dave Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

A welcome return of Dave Davies as a songwriter, after two albums on which he didn’t have a single song, this is another song about dissociation and travelling, done in a country-rock style that sounds spookily like Ronnie Lane’s songs for The Faces (which featured Rod Stewart, an old schoolmate of the Davies brothers who had briefly sung in a band with them in the very early 60s), but with an incongruous jazz-folk flute part that makes this one of the most interestingly-arranged tracks on the album.

Supersonic Rocket Ship
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

The Kinks’ last UK hit single of the 1970s, this reached number 16. Musically, it’s an attempt to rewrite Apeman, but actually has a far more convincing calypsonian feel to it than the earlier song did, with an arrangement that puts the country dobro sound Dave Davies has been using for much of the last two albums up against a convincingly Trinidadian-sounding horn section and steel drums.

Unfortunately, Ray Davies uses his comedy Caribbean accent for most of the song, as it would be quite lovely otherwise. In this song about escaping from pressures, the ‘supersonic rocket ship’ here plays much the same role that the train to heaven does in older spirituals. But unlike almost everything else on the album, here Davies is looking outward — he’s offering to ‘take you on a little trip/my supersonic ship’s at your disposal if you’d be so inclined’, making an offer rather than trying to persuade, and to someone else rather than looking inward.

And it’s a generous-spirited offer, too — an offer of a trip to a world where no-one shall be enslaved by poverty or conformity (“On my supersonic rocket ship, nobody has to be hip,nobody needs to be out of sight/Nobody’s gonna travel second class, there’ll be equality and no suppression of minorities”). Davies had always hated the pressure to conform to what was considered cool, as far back as Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, and here he explicitly places that kind of conformism on a par with the other kinds that the hip, then and now, were happier with him satirising.

There’s probably a slight element of sexual double-entendre to the lyrics, but it’s very slight, and for the most part this should be taken sincerely as being about a desire to escape — but in a more generous, open-hearted way than many of Davies’ more misanthropic songs.

So it’s a shame that with the misjudged vocal he turned what could have been one of his best songs into a novelty number, but there’s still substance here if you listen for it.

Look A Little On The Sunny Side
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Utterly different from anything else on the album, this is arranged primarily for the horn section and is vastly more harmonically complex than the rest of the record, with descending basslines, drone notes held at the top of the horn stack and so on leading to chords like a VIaug going to iv with a VIb in the bass.

It’s also practically the Kinks’ only real excursion into a music-hall style. The term ‘music hall’ gets applied to the band all the time by lazy rock journalists, but in truth almost none of the band’s songs have any real relationship to any of the many styles that were performed in the music halls — the songs that usually get labelled that way tend to have more in common with the songs written for comedy revues by people like Flanders & Swann than with the working-class music hall tradition.

This, on the other hand, could easily fit on a bill with actual music-hall songs like I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside or I Live In Trafalgar Square, at least musically. Lyrically, it’s a different matter — while the title is definitely one that fits the style, the song is actually about not letting bad reviews of your music get you down.

This song is, lyrically, pretty much thoroughly defended against any kind of critique, because it argues that no matter what kind of songs you write, a critic will always say it’s not as good as your older stuff or that you should work in a different style. Therefore, I won’t say anything about the lyrics — anything I could say about them, good or bad, they’ve already pre-empted.

Celluloid Heroes
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

And the studio part of the album finishes with this, one of the Kinks’ most-loved songs. Unfortunately, I have to be a bit of a contrarian here, and say that I simply don’t see what the fuss is about with this one. At six minutes and twenty-two seconds, it’s at least three minutes too long for the limited musical ideas.

It’s overblown and bombastic, and seems to my ears like an unsuccessful rewrite of Oklahoma, USA that Davies has for some reason tried to turn into Hey Jude instead. All the real emotion of the earlier song has been replaced with cloying sentiment, and it’s very much of a piece with Elton John’s Candle In The Wind, with its expressions of pity for the lives of film stars from the golden age of Hollywood.

Fundamentally, I can’t see the appeal of this song, but this may well be a fault with me — to most Kinks fans this is the band’s last true classic.

Live

Mr. Wonderful
Writer:
Jerry Bock, George David Weiss and Larry Holofcener
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A thirty-second live snippet of a song from a musical, made famous by Peggy Lee, with Davies putting on an exaggerated crooner voice.

Banana Boat Song
Writer:
Irving Burgie and William Attaway
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A brief one-minute run-through of part of the traditional calypso song.

Baby Face
Writer:
Harry Akst and Benny Davis
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A return to the Mike Cotton Sound’s trad jazz roots, with a cover of the 1926 Al Jolson song, done in an approximation of the style of Louis Prima.

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15 Responses to The Kinks’ Music — Everybody’s In Showbiz

  1. Stephen Bray says:

    Ah, the first duff Kinks album (after they started being good) of course. Have to disagree with you on Celluloid Heroes, though. I think it’s an absolutely beautiful tune, with some truly emotive (in a good way) lyrics, and a non 60s music loving friend fell in love with it upon hearing it on the radio the other week which suggests some appeal.

    Anyway, the main reason I’m here is to let you know that if you wish to get your Monkees tally up from three* to four, Mike Nesmith’s playing the RNCM in October. He might play ‘Rio’, but then again, he might also play ‘Tapioca Tundra’ so it’s surely worth the risk.

    *Obviously kicking myself about this even more these days.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks for that, but picked up my ticket at 9AM the day they went on sale, already arranged Monkeefan meetup, meeting with TV’s Iain lee off of the 11 O’Clock Show and so on. See you there?

  2. Stephen Bray says:

    Iain Lee likes the Monkees. How random. You shall indeed see me there, yes!

    Is there a general expectation of what to expect at a Nesmith show then – should I set my hopes high or low?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Iain Lee doesn’t just *like* the Monkees, he likes them in the “has anyone got any video of the Australian tour they did in 1987, other than the obviously-circulating stuff I mean?” way. He bought my book on the Monkees (and my book on the Beach Boys). He’s interviewed them all on his radio show, and used to have a picture of him with Micky as his Twitter icon.

      You can stream a poor-quality recording of Nez’s return to live performance here — http://www.monkees.net/michael-nesmith-live-2011-performance-reviews/ . That’s only a short set, and he’s playing there with a band he’s not played with before, but it’s a pretty decent set of songs — Little Red Rider, Thanks For The Ride, Joanne, Some Of Shelly’s Blues, Propinquity and Different Drum. He’s mostly been doing very short sets as part of larger bills, and mostly similar sets to that.

      He hasn’t played a full-length solo show in a decade or so, so we don’t know what he’ll do, but he’s said:

      “The shows will take a complete look at the songs I’ve recorded over the years, starting back when I was just a solo folk singer. I have decades of music to draw from and I think I can put together something exciting, something that will make for a very full, dramatic and emotional evening.”

      He also called them ‘solo’ shows on Facebook, but didn’t clarify whether that meant solo acoustic shows with no band or not.

      • Stephen Bray says:

        Well, looks like I’ll spend the next few months researching Nesmith then in order to get as much out of this show as possible.

        ’87 Monkees. Ugh. I remember buying ‘Pool It!’ as a kid having not entirely hated “That Was Then, This is Now” (and you can’t mock me for that – if memory serves, your first record was Shakin’ Stevens!). I thus associate all Monkees stuff around that era with ‘She’s Moving In With Rico’.

        Is there any suggestion that it’s Davy’s death that’s driven Mike to this? “Oh God, if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it!” sort of thing? Seems to be a commonplace sort of idea these days, with it being the reason Pulp and, I think, others got back together.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Some people have suggested that, but he started doing small appearances at the back end of last year. Micky Dolenz has even said that before Davy’s death they were planning a tour of all four Monkees, so it may just be that Nesmith finally felt like gigging.

          I’d suggest concentrating on the First National Band albums — Nesmith has been talking about getting that band back together for a tour, so that material’s obviously on his mind.

          As for the Monkees in 87, yes Pool It! was awful (though That Was Then… isn’t all that bad) but their tours around then weren’t at all bad (though the hip-hop version of Ditty Diego with Micky rapping in a Grover from Sesame St voice is best forgotten) — they used to do a great little acoustic set in the middle of the show, just the three of them singing with Peter’s guitar, and some of it’s just superb on the extant recordings. When Love Comes Knocking, for example, a song I’ve never liked much, gets turned into a ragtime-folk song. Certainly far classier than the shows the Beach Boys were doing after *their* late-80s comeback…

  3. thisunrealreality says:

    “A welcome return of Dave Davies as a songwriter, after two albums on which he didn’t have a single song”

    Well, Dave has two songs on Lola, which are ‘Strangers’ and ‘Rats’. I don’t know if you’re counting Percy, a soundtrack album, if yes, sorry for that.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yes, I’m counting Percy. That will be slightly clearer when I collect these as a book, because the chapter on it will be there.

  4. TAD says:

    I’d have to disagree with you about Celluloid Heroes too. A little overlong perhaps, but I don’t get bored with it, and it works even better in context (as an album closer).

  5. Hal says:

    Andrew, regarding your comments on Celluloid Heroes I think it is a pretty good song but you are *absolutely* spot-on about the length issue, it really *is* at least twice as long as it should be for the musical content and therefore seems to drag on for an age.
    Your mention of Elton John’s awful Candle in the Wind (which became *truly* execrable in it’s zombified Diana version) and, earlier, the dubious “outrageous poof” line from Hotel got me thinking about Reg ‘n’ Bernie Torpid’s All the Girls Love Alice (from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road), that’s quite a good pop rocker but the *lyrics* are another thing entirely. While Glam Rock/Pop, the Kinks with Lola, and even Rod Stewart with The Killing of Georgie Parts I and II (although it um ends with the titular event sadly) had featured sexual, romantic, and gender ambiguity with characters who were *different* from the “norm” and for that difference to be celebrated or just *there* Alice opts for lesbianism to be treated as “wrong”, and for the title character to turn to it (and not just promiscuity but, apparently, prostitution) because her parents didn’t love her enough then to top it off she ends up *dead in a subway* for some reason. So instead of a lascivious pop song about a girl enjoying herself and her sexuality (which is what we’d likely have gotten if she was “straight” or a man) we get a grim song about a “confused” girl who dies which is a horrible depressing let-down considering the memorable tune and performance. However, what really irritates is that there seem to be very few people today who’d even think of writing upbeat mainstream rock/pop songs about non-straight protagonists *today* (then again is the mainstream interested in subject matter outside “celebrity” and the conventional now?). How boring and distressing.

  6. Lyrically, ‘Celluloid Heroes’ is a work of genius: it goes from from pathos to bathos and back. Where to begin?Why, on Hollywood Boulevard, that less-than-glittering, topsy-turvy place where you look, not up to the heavens, but down to the pavement to see the stars. The motion picture stars, that is, those other-worldly, ethereal beings from a “fantasy world” whose names here are mundanely “written in concrete”. There is throughout this song the constant interplay of the figurative and the literal, of the truly touching and the tritely tacky. If you look up from down here, you’re as likely to be looking up a lady’s dress as scanning the skies for celestial truths. Are we to believe that Bette Davis’ life was really that lonely, or is that just a wistful projection of the protagonist/singer’s own isolation? There’s a genuine depth of emotion suggested here. But then we’re crashing back to earth with the stock sentimentality and low comedy: covering the imperious George Sanders with garbage, avoiding Bela Lugosi’s vampire bite. Of course one can stomp on Mickey Rooney: because he’s so little–no, wait, we’re talking about a flat slab of sidewalk, not the diminutive actor; and everyone can be “tread on” here, even cinematic giants like “dearest Marilyn”, who we’re told was not made of “iron or steel” , but “flesh and blood”. But then we’re confusing her celebrity with her star which is set in concrete, just like the others. This song could be titled “Unreal Reality”, Part two. Appearance and reality: true identity vs. the mask of celebrity; real emotion vs. sordid sentimentality; villains and heroes vs. everybody on every street in every city; painfree immortality vs. “I wish I my life was….” I wonder…. Ray Davies, were you nervously walking hand-in-hand on the Boulevard of dreams with super-groupie Pamela Des Barres when you conceived this masterpiece? And if so, did you have any inkling that it would be a cautionary premonition of your immediate future? Marital strife, decreasing sales and critical approbation, attempted suicide…. Anyway, when analysing this song, be always on your guard: there’s more to it than meets the ear. So, it’s a masterpiece, say I.
    (But I agree that “Sitting in my hotel” is pretty compelling too!)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Nice analysis — not totally convincing, and it still doesn’t make me like the song, but it is an interesting reading.

    • Dave Jenkins says:

      That is an excellent analysis of one of my favorite songs of all time. I cannot listen to it without tears.

  7. Bob says:

    It’s worth noting that the later compilation allbum – The Kinks Greatest: Celluloid Heroes – (1976) has a live version of “Here Comes Yet Another Day” that begins with the same “All right, let’s hear it for the Kinks!” intro that precedes Everybody’s in Show Biz’s live version of “Top of the Pops.” I dont’ have the record right at hand, but I recall that there are also alternate versions of a few other tunes off Muswell Hillbillies.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Interesting — I have multiple versions of most of the actual albums, but the only real compilation I have is the Picture Book box. Thanks for the info.

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