The Great Lost Kinks Movie

"I'm still a frustrated filmmaker. I got diverted by joining this band of my brother's called the Kinks." - Ray Davies

The man quoted above has long since earned his place among the Great Fuck-Ups of Our Century. As with anyone nominated for this pantheon, it's easy to describe the fellow's fucked-upedeness - the attributes of which are, let's face it, shared with legions of less defensible mortals. But to the prim of heart, it's difficult to explain what's so bloody great about him. On the debit side, one could simply say, as Dwight MacDonald said of James Agee, that "even for a modern writer, he was extraordinarily self-destructive...drinking too much, smoking too much, making love too much, and in general cultivating the worst set of work habits in Greenwich Village." (Then, when one's loved one starts nagging one, one could add: "And look at how much he accomplished!").

But how to vindicate such incorrigible characters? Well, here goes. Ray Davies: the man, the mind, the booze. Return to Waterloo: the album (Arista), the movie, the mess. Yup, Ray's done it again: every conceivable strategically wrong move. In America (the Kinks most lucrative "market" since the early 70's), the movie premiered in May at New York's Waverly, where it closed pronto, without a chance of reaching the legendary Kinks Kult. Then, in August, a soundtrack was at last released, but with no lyric sheet or story synopsis - unlike 1969's Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Also lost in space this time were "Ladder of Success" (one of the film's most pungent and crucial songs), and the voice overs that made otherwise undistinguished songs like "Dear Lonely Hearts" or "Sold Me Out" so dramatically effective. Finally, in September, an ineptly publicized reopening of the film was "timed" to coincide with the Kinks gig at Pier 84, where a hodgepodge set Kinks crowd-pleasers included only one selection from Return to Waterloo. Hey, what better way to plug a movie that 90 percent of the audience will never see? And through it all, Mr. Davies remained gloriously incommunicado, a not uncharacteristic stance towards publicity. Clearly, if everyone had his sense of logistical coordination, D-Day would have fizzled. Then again, so would've the Wermacht's invasion of Poland. Depends on your point of view. It tickles my heart to see that somebody up there plainly doesn't care about those rules.

Yet despite his obviousness to the business side of it, Return to Waterloo has clearly obsessed him for several years. (This accounts for the doodling, perfunctory air of the four previous Kinks albums of the '80's: One for the Road, Give the People What They Want, State of Confusion, Word of Mouth.) Indeed, according to Jon Savage's The Kinks: The Official Biography, Davie's declares Waterloo "my final stand". Let's hope not. For while it signals an ambitious return to his most worthy thematic - the every day condition of the working class during the protracted decline of the British Empire - the movie's marred by one too many bathetic lapses. It would be wiser for him to think of it as a beginners exercise. Yet I, for one, look forward to him becoming as adept at conveying the visual dimensions of "the Ray Davies sensibility" as Julian Temple was on the 1982 "Come Dancing" video. Because I've long valued Davies much more as a storyteller than Davies as a singer (poignantly frail, at best) or the Kink as a band (irritatingly sloppy, except when leaned on).

Still, for two decades he's been an almost peerless songwriter. His early raveups smoked: there may never be a more explosive adolescent expression of horniness, or of white r&b grunge, than the summer of '64's "You Really Got Me." But Davies got bored with variations of same real quick, and suddenly the hardest rockin' bunch in the U.K. comes out with the timeless music-hall/cabaret stylings of "Sunny Afternoon." Another reason I bless Ray Davies: the proletariat's pain warrants his earnest anger, while it's modest pleasures (e.g. "Drivin'") elicit mirth of bittersweet affection. But when he turns self-referential, to the "I can't sail my yacht" woes of a millionaire pop star, it's just a rich joke, and he's never lost sight of that. Contrast this with Carly Simon, Duran Duran, or prime-time soaps, where the-rich-have-problems-too ideology is ladled out with melodramatic syrup. However explicitly "political" Ray Davies may not be - and he's never a leftist team-player in the Clash/Weller/Bragg/Midnight Oil sense - his class instincts, and loyalties, are unfailingly on target.

Savage's bio does a fine job of explaining how the Great Fuck-Up can keep such a level head regarding what matters to him and yet - not coincidentally, I suggest - be so cavalier toward his music-biz obligations. He'll always have his people to fall back on. The man is rooted in Muswell Hill, in the continuities of a nurturing, extended family and a community with solid class-in-itself consciousness rarely seen in the U.S. outside embattled pockets of Appalachia. So Ray never went along with the "generation gap" horseshit, that nefarious divide-and-conquer trick assiduously promoted by Time, Jerry Rubin, and other allied sleezeballs. In fact, he especially misses his grandmum, who drank nightly and stayed merrily soused until she was ninety-eight. Take that, Alcoholics Anonymous!) So is he really the "conservative" of Village Green? Or the maximalist radical of Arthur? He is, of course, both, just as every intelligent radical should be: "We Marxists live in traditions, and have not ceased being revolutionists because of it," sayeth Trotsky, Yet how much more stupidity will be bandied about in the trap of familiar left/right categories, without the essential questions ever being broached: What's worth conserving? And what deserves to be destroyed?

Which brings me to The Great Lost Kinks Movie. It was Arthur, folks, and we all missed it. Actually, Arthur was originally conceived as a made-for-TV movie, and the story of why it never came to fruition is yet another in a long line of Davies misadventures. Yet even as one of those pristine movies-in-our-minds (the ruination of which is the most common lament about video), Arthur has two ingredients that Return to Waterloo lacks. One is humor, and rock's most gifted clown should never be without it. (Besides, daily life really isn't unrelievedly grim - it only seems that way between paychecks.) More seriously absent from Waterlooo is, as we say, "the moment of affirmation," of resistance to present conditions, other than raw punk fury and vague invocation of "another dawn" breaking. But to intimation of contemporary struggles: no miners' strike, no Greenham Common, no break from the endless cycle of quotidian misery.

Arthur's rousing finale, on the other hand, made Davie's class empathy and utopian vision explicit. In reconciling the generations, you see, it suggests the fusion-in-practice of traditional working prole demands with the 1960's maximalist agenda, beckoning all to "a new horizon where there's plenty for everyone." Gosh, to paraphrase ultraleftist journalese, you might even say: "It represents a synthesis, within the realm of art, uniting the waged and unwaged sectors of the class, aiming toward a condition of zerowork." The actual Davies formulation was marvelously succinct: "If only life were easy, it would be such fun." This CORRECT, dammit, and there was NOTHNING WRONG with what we wanted. We merely failed.

Finally, I should mention that Return to Waterloo, the album, sports the virtues of masculinity, focus, and evident care in production last heard and welcomed on 1979's Low Budget. It also embodies Davie's most consistently sustained aesthetic vision since, you guessed it, Arthur. And "Not Far Away" is the best punk song ever. (I'd like the False Prophets to try to top "Chaos will rule/The world will be saved.") Moreover, Davies' filmmaking career, at age 42, shows infinite promise. All he needs now is a ton of Marx, some early E.P. Thompson, and the rest should be a piece of cake. So brave on, drinking class! Perhaps the Great Lost Kinks Movie, like the reinvention of life, still lies ahead.

Tom Ward
The Village Voice - October 1, 1985