Posts Tagged Postal
Do you ever get that odd sensation when you suddenly become aware that, for a while, you’ve been aware of something without really realising it?
Right, just me then.
Anyway, this happened to me most recently with The Artist and particularly its lead actor, Jean Dujardin. Over the last six months or so I’ve been (mostly subliminally) picking up bits and pieces about the film, and had this nagging feeling that I knew Dujardin (by name at least) from somewhere.
If you rewind about 13 years, you’ll find me in a small flat in a small town in France going through what, in hindsight, was somewhere between acute home-sickness and a mild borderline nervous breakdown, induced by a strange kind of loneliness, shyness, and inertia. I am of course making far more of this than I should, but I was very stranded in a very small town, and, with too much time on my hands, and most of that spent on my own, I turned a little eccentric. But not even in a particularly good way, I just did things like buying a house plant and naming it after France’s most recognised living cultural icon. Despite being a student at the time, there wasn’t even any smugly self-conscious ‘irony’ about this. It was genuine. Fucking hell, I’ve just remembered that before I left France I actually planted ‘Johnny’ somewhere where I thought he/it would get plenty of sunshine and rain (I don’t know whether the correct response to that sudden, unexpected memory is to blush, laugh, cry, or shudder. So I just did a bit of all four).
A couple of years later, my Mum breezily said “we did wonder if you were ok” which is my Mum’s way of saying “we thought you might have been going batshit mental”. Thing is, this was before the internet was anything like embedded in everyday life, so Christ knows what I would have been like with the facility to easily and, essentially, freely document my thoughts and ruminations at the time. Frankly, I’m quite relieved about that. Can you imagine?
So, yes, I spent a lot of time doing not very much, and a good portion of that was spent watching TV. Now, to be fair, I genuinely consider TV to be a cultural boon, and being isolated (etc etc yawn whinge whine) it was a brilliant way of exposing myself to something approaching the French way of life (much better than, say, going to a bar, buying a beer or two and saying a simple bonsoir to the locals).
In all the many, many hours of watching French TV, a favourite of mine was Un gars et une fille (A Guy and a Girl), a series of slices (dare I say vignettes? I do) of domestic life which I saw from its very first episode. Imagine a French version of Men Behaving Badly, with just one couple, without the god-awful laddish elements, and with a surprising amount of slightly-clichéd charm. Anyway, its two stars were future spouses (in hindsight, this seems inevitable) Alexandra Lamy and, yes, Jean Dujardin. And 13 years later, out of nowhere (from this uninformed idiot’s perspective, anyway), Dujardin has won an Oscar. Fair to say I didn’t see that one coming (Johnny the house plant may have done, but I could never tell what he was thinking. Inscrutable, you see).
I find it almost painful to watch these back; it reinforces my habit of allowing myself to act and think as if places and people don’t change when I leave them (for example, ex-colleagues’ children are, in my mind, the exact same age now as when we stopped working together five or more years ago). And so if I’m not careful France, to me, is still a place where they’re about to switch from one currency to another, where male politicians carry on like rutting chimps, and where the party of the extreme right is led by a bigoted fool by the name of Le Pen.
In effect, I’m instantly taken back to the time in question, and want to tell myself to get a grip, and get out of the flat.
And to stop watering that bloody plant.
Just a year after a return to chart success with Lola, and with a move to a new record label (RCA) under their belts, late 1971 was clearly the right time for the Kinks to capitalise on their comeback, seize the moment, and stake their territory as mainstream rock and roll heroes.
Alternatively, they could release an album of songs inspired by those most reliable measures of commercial triumph in Britian, country and western music, and lyrics about urban regeneration, social exclusion, and mental illness.
Inevitably they went for the latter and the album, Muswell Hillbillies, tanked.
But frankly, and nearly 41 years later, who cares, because here we are dealing with a most rarefied form of genius.
Ray Davies addresses the personal and the global – or at least his own world of north London – opening with a cry for escape from the 20th century, its civil servants and threat of nuclear warfare (interesting juxtaposition). When he howls “This is the 20thcentury / Too much aggravation / This is the edge of insanity! / I’m a 20th century man but I don’t wanna be here” he sets out the platform for most of what follows. Paranoid waking nightmares, wishful escapism, eviction, unjust incarceration, a forced vacation (with a thankfully short-lived impersonation of a toothless blues singer), all of life’s joys are here.
Davies highlights the burgeoning obsession with weight and physical appearance (as well as the carb-free diet a good 30 years or so before ‘Dr’ Atkins brought it to the, er, masses), and concludes the album with a railing against imposed social change. We’re left with an impression of the world ‘out there’ besieging us with its demands, insistences, and constraints, and of a man on the brink of breakdown – in the midst of one, even – but who can still muster defiance against the powers that be.
This is a totally cohesive album, the seemingly disparate elements of music and lyrics combining perfectly. Davies takes the most bleak personal troubles and society’s ills, and somehow, somehow makes them humorous, inspiring, and comforting.
He even found space for a playful homage to that most British of institutions.
I’ve lost count of the number of time I’ve popped Superabundance by The Young Knives on my headphones in bed, and drifted off to sleep listening to it, only to wake up in near-heart attack conditions part-way into this song (I’ll not tell you at what point exactly, have a look and see if you can guess):
Having watched the video doesn’t help either.
PS oh ok, it’s at about 1m55s, but watch it from the beginning to appreciate the full slumber-to-shock transition.
By 1966, The Kinks were trying to either recapture the popular success of their earliest singles, or trying to set a new direction for themselves, or, probably ideally, both. Ray in particular was under pressure to recapture his previous glories, yet after three studio albums in barely a year he was beginning to resent the music business and its demands on him as the de facto leader of the group. Add to this a somewhat unexpected marriage and parenthood, and Too Much On My Mind, tucked away as the fourth track on Face To Face, says it all, in both title and lyrics.
My thoughts just weigh me down,
And drag me to the ground,
And shake my head till there’s no more life in me
It’s ruining my brain,
I’ll never be the same,
My poor demented mind is slowly going
In Face To Face, Davies’ focus falls variously on family loss (Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home, a precursor for Arthur), the material excesses of the 60s (A House In The Country, Most Exclusive Residence For Sale, and Holiday In Waikiki), and the supernatural and mysticism (Rainy Day In June, and Fancy). Throw in some more conventional (for which read ‘staid’) pop songs in You’re Looking Fine and I’ll Remember, and you’re left with something of a hotch-potch of themes, most of which hint at, or scream about, the sadness and frustration beneath the surface.
It’s worth lingering on Dandy a little while. In the very middle of the Swinging Sixties, a time of unprecedented sexual freedom, not least for pop stars, Davies castigates a womanising, playboy figure for “pouring out your charm / to meet your own demands”. Predicting a future where the Dandy remembers being told that “two girls are too many, three’s a crowd, and four you’re dead”, Davies is scathing about this selfishness (“And Dandy, you’re alright, you’re alright, you’re alright…”), a fine example of his genius in subverting the norms.
Where subsequent albums would rise above their imperfections to become, well, gloriously imperfect, Face To Face doesn’t manage to overcome its limitations. And yet, with Sunny Afternoon the group demonstrated that their move away from rock and roll could be both a commercial and a critical success. As such, Face To Face is best viewed in the context of the Kinks’ career trajectory as a whole. From Ray Davies’ ravages of mental torment came a single which, ultimately, confirmed the Kinks’ growth beyond their contemporaries, and set the foundation for them, in their golden years of 1966 to 1971, to transcend the contemporary full stop.
Despite essentially being a way of getting people to download Google Chrome, The Wilderness Downtown is an entertaining idea well executed, and is nicely soundtracked by an Arcade Fire song. All you need to hand is a postcode and that there link up above.
For the record: DN4 6UQ. Feel free to share yours.