I’ve been in a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll drought lately; I scroll through my iTunes catalog and nothing sings to me, so I wind up with Bach or Vivaldi or Handel again. Not complaining, but after four months I was wondering how long this was going to last. Then a couple of days ago a yen for The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies surfaced and I put it on in the car driving to work one morning. Oh yes.
Muswell Hillbillies appeared in 1971 and, if I’d been paying any attention to the Kinks at that point, probably would have registered as disappointing and decidedly uncommercial followup to “Lola” and “Apeman,” the first big hits the Kinks had had here in the US for quite a while. I do remember going back to visit my old high school at the end of my freshman year in college, shortly after the album’s release, and hearing the cool art teacher (as opposed to the serious art teacher) extolling its brilliance. But prejudiced little git that I was at the time, nothing was going to convince me that a country and western album from the band whose power chords I worshipped was something to be taken seriously.
It wasn’t until more than five years later when, under the influence, I lay on the floor of a friend’s house and listened to the entire album, not knowing it was the Kinks, let alone, Muswell Hillbillies, and I fell in love with it.
It’s a strange album, even for the Kinks in the seventies. They never really dabbled in anything vaguely C&W again. There are obvious debts to unusual strains of American music—not the blues this time, but twangy slide guitars and the first hints of the Dixieland brass that would soon come to the fore in the Preservation albums. But it’s really a kind of transatlantic take on the English music-hall tradition that informed The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. If the music sounds American, the lyrics often needs translating: it took me a while to understand that “compulsory purchase” is Britspeak for “eminent domain,” that “rates” are utility bills, and that a week of damp, salty misery on the end of Brighton Pier is known as a “holiday.”
The stories that are told in the album’s lyrics still take the power from the explicit contrast between the stresses of modern life and the bucolic, village-green fantasies of the earlier album. There aren’t any china cups and jam to be had here; it’s all pretty much misery and madness. Except that it’s one of the funniest of the Kinks’ albums. Ray Davies’ wit as a composer has rarely been sharper. It’s Beaumarchais’ bon mot all over: Je me presse de rire de tout, de peur d’être obligé d’en pleurer.
He begins with a pair of acerbic meditations of modern life, “20th Century Man” with his companion diagnosis of “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues.” The album starts off like this:
This is the age of machinery,
A mechanical nightmare,
The wonderful world of technology,
Napalm, hydrogen bombs, biological warfare.
The little man face to face with this horror can do little but crumble:
I’m too terrified to walk out of my own front door.
They’re demonstrating outside; I think they’re gonna start the third world war.
I’ve been to my local head shrinker to help classify my disease:
He said it’s one of the cases of acute schizophrenia he sees.
The only solution to the stress and misery of modern life, clearly, is a “Holiday,” the subject of the third track. Except that even at the seaside there’s no escape:
Lying on the beach with my back burned rare,
The salt gets in my blisters and the sand gets in my hair,
And the sea’s an open sewer, but I really couldn’t care,
I’m breathing through my mouth so I don’t have to sniff the air.
Food and drink offer no solace either. The next song is “Skin and Bone,” the story of “fat, flabby Annie” who goes on a crash-course diet and loses so much weight that “her father and her mother and her sisters and her brothers couldn’t see her when she walks by.” After giving up all the carbohydrates and taking up a program of daily exercise, she may be more miserable than before: “Oh what a sin, cause she’s oh so thin that she’s lost all the friends that she had.” In the next song, “Alcohol,” a successful businessman succumbs to a temptation to escape “the pressures at the office and his socialite engagements” and winds up on Skid Row. In the chorus he laments the “sad memories I can’t recall—who thought I would fall / A slave to demon alcohol.”
In short, as the final song on the first side concludes, it’s a “Complicated Life.” Seeking help from a doctor, the singer of this tale describes how, on the advice of the good doctor, he tried to reduce the stress of existence:
Well I cut down women, I cut out booze,
I stopped ironing my shirts, cleaning my shoes,
I stopped going to work, stopped reading the news,
I sit and twiddle my thumbs cos I got nothing to do.
I love the way Davies recapitulates the entire first half of Muswell Hillbillies here: the useless, counterproductive advice of the quacks never succeeds in alleviating the symptoms of modern malaise; every solution just leads to a different kind of misery. And yet the humor abides and may be the only real salvation. That and a healthy dose of stoicism: “Gotta stand and face it / Life is so complicated.”
The second side of the album is bookended by two songs that speak to the personal source of much of Davies’ melancholy musings: the gentrification of the Muswell Hill suburb of London where he and brother Dave grew up. As the old neighbors are displaced and the childhood home is lost to the ravages of development, we’re back in an urban version of the nostalgia for the Village Green. “Here Come the People in Grey” is the plaint of one man forced out of his home and into a “one-man revolution” against the faceless bureaucrats who try to make him irrelevant. And the same gutsy, working-class resistance informs the concluding title track, “Muswell Hillbilly.” Despite its overt yearning for the sylvan vision of an unspoiled America, the green hills of old West Virginia, he stands with his crew in Muswell Hill, even as their community is torn apart. The opening stanza is one of those touching vignettes that have made Davies’ reputation as one of the finest chroniclers of the tenderness of life in London: tenderness in the sense of sweet kindness, but also the tenderness of a bruise.
Well I said goodbye to Rosie Rooke this morning,
I’m gonna miss her bloodshot alcoholic eyes,
She wore her Sunday hat so she’d impress me,
I’m gonna carry her memory ’til the day I die.
That verse ought to be right up their in the annals of great moments in rock ‘n’ roll with the vision of Terry and Julie watching the sunset from Waterloo Bridge, and the fact that it’s not proves (to me, at least) how unjustly overlooked Muswell Hillbillies has been in the assessment of the Kinks’ achievements.
The thematic coherence of the album drifts a bit in the remaining songs of the second side, although again, “Holloway Jail,” “Oklahoma U.S.A.,” and “Uncle Son” are among the sweetest, saddest, and most tender tales that Davies has told in his career. Rather than the humorous satires of side one, these songs empathize with the disappointed, those who have no choice but to struggle on against the odds. They are the Muswell hillbillies in a different, minor key.
The remaining song from the album that I haven’t discussed is the one that made me love the Kinks again after nearly a decade of ignoring them. “Have A Cuppa Tea” is perhaps the real thematic ringer on the album, the one song that’s hard to fit into the concept of the little guy struggling against the depersonalizing brutality of twentieth century culture, even in the days before the internet managed to raise whole new armies for standardization and mass production. It’s a sprightly, slightly silly, satiric look at the greatest British institution of all, the great leveler, the great solace, the embodiment of Empire in the parlours of Muswell Hill, the answer to all life’s problems: the cuppa.
If you feel a bit under the weather,
If you feel a little bit peeved,
Take granny’s stand-by potion
For any old cough or wheeze.
It’s a cure for hepatitis, it’s a cure for chronic insomnia,
It’s a cure for tonsillitis and for water on the knee.
Have a cuppa tea
Tea in the morning, tea in the evening, tea at supper time,
You get tea when it’s raining, tea when it’s snowing,
Tea when the weather’s fine.
You get tea as a mid-day stimulant
You get tea with your afternoon tea
For any old ailment or disease
For Christ sake have a cuppa tea.
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, Rosie Lea!
In some ways, though, “Have A Cuppa Tea” summarizes Davies’ answer to all the ills that he’s chronicled throughout Muswell Hillbillies. Davies, and the Kinks, were never quitters, no matter how hard it got. If there will always be an England, there will always be hope, there will always be an answer in the simple and the homey. The endurance of the lower and middle classes, so severely tested during the war and its aftermath that shaped Davies’ childhood, is ultimately unquestioned. We can always dream. And have a cuppa tea.
Here’s a live performance of “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” from 1973 that pretty much captures the spirit of the album, right down to Ray’s vamping and the incredible 70s haircuts of the horn section. Hope you enjoy it.