Graded on a Curve:
The Kinks,
Low Budget

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in American life. But Ray Davies is English–as distinctively English as the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and eel pie–and American rules don’t apply. So The Kinks front man and resident genius got his second act and what did we get? The disappointingly crass arena rock to be found on albums like 1979’s Low Budget.

Listening to the bloviating (and very, very obvious) hard rock of Low Budget, it’s hard to believe that Davies was the same guy whose delightfully gentle send-ups of English middle class life were delightful little worlds unto themselves. Davies was the Marcel Proust of England’s village green preservation societies and Waterloo sunsets, of old photo albums and “Do You Remember Walter?” If he wasn’t the last of the steam-powered trains, he was the backwards-looking chronicler of its sad passing.

Listening to Low Budget it’s hard to avoid the obvious–that Davies’ talent had coarsened over the years, and that his once semi-ironical (and so finely observed) satires of English middle class life had set like the Waterloo sun. The early Davies was a Dr. Jekyll, using his scalpel-like wit, whimsy, and nostalgic turn of mind to lovingly satirize England’s always deep class divides.

But at some point he drank a draught of curdling bitterness that boiled off all of the man’s sense of whimsy, satirical subtlety, and attention to the fine detail that made his early work so unique, and was transformed into the Mr. Hyde who dragged the Kinks from arena to arena on the American concert circuit, much to the dismay of old fans but much to the pleasure of younger American audiences, who made Low Budget the Kink’s highest selling American LP (non-compilation division) ever. I used to hear this baby playing just about every day in my dorm in Naugle Hall at Shippensburg College, and I sometimes suspect I got myself tossed out of said dorm just to get away from it.

As H.L. Mencken once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.

The title track is a lumbering plaint about the shitty state of the economy and has all of the subtlety of a brick thrown through a bank window, and what makes it worse is that poor rock star Ray actually seems to be singing not about working stiffs like you and I, but about himself. “Millionaires are a thing of the past,” he kvetches, and what are we supposed to do about it? Send Ray money? Besides, he’s full of shit. Maybe our shoes don’t fit, but you can be damn sure his shoes fit quite nicely into his Lamborghini.

“National Health” is a total suck fest–half “Mother’s Little Helper” (seems nervous tension is England’s national plague) and half remedy for a cure–namely, ”a little bit of exercise.” It’s as flaccid a topical song as I’ve ever run across and I can’t help but compare it to the Talking Head’s “Psycho-Killer,” which came out two years before. The latter song practically crackles with psychotic energy. “National Health” is a sodden and lethargic affair, and has the sticking power of a soggy band-aid.

“(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” is another topical number about hard times, and at least some of its details are mildly amusing. But the song’s entire conceit is jejune at best, and it doesn’t help that it exhibits the same vaguely disco-esque pretensions as so many other songs by so many other big rock acts (The Stones, The Who, Rod Stewart, etc.) at the time.

But why go song to song on this fiasco? Other than the fetching (but lyrically vacuous) acoustic pop of “A Little Bit of Emotion” (the album’s only non-rocker) and the crass but otherwise okay “Catch Me Now I’m Falling”–that desperate cry from a Captain America in need of some help from all the countries the poor U.S. of A. has helped over the years–there’s nothing on Low Budget I’d be caught dead listening to, from the bad Stones imiation that is “In a Space” to the mock-bluesy “A Gallon of Gas” (oh boy, a song about the gas shortage, and sung from the perspective of a rich rock star no less) to the not very dance friendly dance track “Moving Pictures.”

Low Budget is sad proof that Davies’ uncanny ability to create tiny vignettes of English life went the way of the little shops, Mrs. Mopps, and the Draught Beer Preservation Society he so lovingly evokes on “The Village Green Preservation Society.” If the Stones represented youth rebellion and The Beatles produced psychedelic dayglo homilies to the ideals of peace, love and togetherness, The Kinks’ trucked in nostalgia, albeit a nostalgia tinged by an always affectionate irony.

The early Ray Davies had a deft and magical touch, but by 1979 he’d curdled into a blustering “road musician”; the songs on Low Budget are clumsy and even oafish affairs, all hard rock bluster and second-hand sentiments. Of coure the early Kinks played hard rock as well–but songs like “You Really Got Me” pack a visceral proto-metal punch that such gormless ditties as “Pressure” and “Misery” altogether lack.

As for the album title, it’s the greatest example of truth in advertising this side of The Rolling Stones’ Sucking in the Seventies. And the album cover blows!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D

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