As I wrote a while back, I rediscovered the Kinks in the 1970’s and fell in love with the band’s music all over again. I’d basically been ignoring them from about the point of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society onwards. And when I started paying attention again, the band was just at the end of their so-called “theatrical” phase, or as we called it back in the day, their rock operas. If VGPS was a concept album in the mode of Sgt. Pepper’s, then Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) had a kinship with Tommy, although without the musical structures of conventional opera that Townshend had attempted.
Both Tommy and Arthur were released in 1969, with the Who getting there first. But the Kinks, as usual, went them one better: there were the clear mythological or quasi-historical overtones to “Arthur,” and the nostalgia for a lost England that had animated VGPS received equally historical treatment in Arthur. From the opening lyrics celebrating the age of “Victoria,” through its treatment of Britain coping with the wars of the twentieth century in “Some Mother’s Son,” to the post-war adjustments and strivings of “Shangri-La,” Arthur was an ambitious undertaking.
After a few years and a few more conventional albums, including another brush with the concept concept in Muswell Hillbillies, the full-blown theatrical phase with its complicated story-telling came back to the fore with Preservation (Act 1 and Act 2), The Kinks Present a Soap Opera, and finally, with Schoolboys in Disgrace.
Schoolboys supposedly provided the backstory to the villainous Mr Flash of the Preservation albums, but for me that was never really the point. I was happy to read the album’s story at the simpler level of a boy’s public-school education, his initiation into romance and sexuality, and his passage into a wiser adult life. Thematically, it was the stuff of the Bildungsroman (broadly), and it evoked what was for me the romantic visions of English colleges with all the distress that attended them. It was George Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Days” and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited set to rock ‘n’ roll. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me then.
There was something about the structure and pacing of Schoolboys that made it even more appealing when tied to the storyline. The album opens with the slow and nostalgic “Schooldays” that sets the plot in motion. “Jack the Idiot Dunce” picks up the pace; it’s fast 50’s music, “The Twist” played through the filters and fuzz of 60’s rock.
The central four tracks, “Education,” “The First Time We Fall in Love,” “I’m in Disgrace,” and “Headmaster,” take the slow-fast pattern of the opening numbers and contain it within each of the songs. That is, after generally soft and slow opening verses, the loud hard guitars punch in and carry the tune with kick-ass verve the rest of the way. These four numbers also contain the heart of the story of both a traditional comprehensive and a sexual education.
From this central climax of the action, the slow-fast pattern is reversed to fast-slow in the final narrative songs, the guitar-snap rocker “The Hard Way” and the piano-heavy “The Last Assembly.” These songs, musically, are the mirror image of the two tunes that open the album. There’s also a verbal mirror. If “The Idiot Dunce” is the schoolboys’ mockery of one of their own, “The Hard Way” is the Headmaster’s comparable conclusion about the intellectual aptitude of his charges. “The Last Assembly” is the farewell to school and comrades introduced in “Schooldays”; both songs rest on nostalgia. Then comes the finale, the grand production number that so often concludes a Kinks album, in this case the retrospectively focused ironically titled “No More Looking Back.” A reprise of “Education” is the curtain-closer, the encore that sends us all out into the night feeling it was all worth the pain.
I loved this album. I played it a lot. A lot.
And somewhere in those years, I fell in love. It wasn’t for the first time, but it was the first time I really dared to admit the sexual attraction that went along with the love to the guy who was the object of my affections. I was done with the closet, done with the guilt-inducing drunken sexual encounters, done with sneaking around. I was pretty sure the feelings were mutual, and one night, I took that step into my future and told him how I felt about him. Of course, it was a disaster. He was kind and gentle, supportive … but straight.
The first time I fell out of love, it knocked me through the floor My world came crashing down, it shook me to the core I was unprepared cause I was only a kid And I was much too young and I wasn’t equipped For the emotional pressures and stresses of it
Well, I didn’t really fall out of love, but I didn’t see him again for almost a year. My spirit collapsed, I moped around the house, I most likely drove my poor housemates to distraction (they too were kind and gentle and supportive, but there ought to be limits, and I know I overstepped them in my misery).
Love can be exciting, it can be a bloody bore
Love can be a pleasure or nothing but a chore
Love can be like a dull routine,
It can run you around till you’re out of steam
It can treat you well, it can treat you mean
But Schoolboys helped me to get through all that. I played it. A lot. I learned to play “The First Time We Fall in Love” on the guitar, and beat the crap out of the poor instrument, over and over again. The catharsis it provided was probably a real lifesaver. And at some point, I flipped the record over to Side 2 and learned to play “No More Looking Back” on the guitar as well. The Kinks had seen my through that dark night of the soul and took me forward. “Yesterday’s gone, and that’s a fact / Now there’s no more looking back.” Time for tomorrow. God Save the Kinks.