Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Kinks 'Sunny Afternoon'

Chart Peak: 1
The group's third No. 1 single, 'Sunny Afternoon' was No. 1 in July 1966, and was their 9th Top 20 single in Britain. The singer and writer of the song, Ray Davies, appeared as Colin's Dad in the 1986 film Absolute Beginners.
Spot the desperate grab for 1986 relevance there. Now, I don't know if you've heard anything about this but you know that World Cup thing that starts tomorrow? Apparently they did one before in 1966 and England won it. This happened to be the Number One single when that happened and that fact seems to have helped shape the popular image of the Kinks - it was already part of the familiar but restricted greatest hits package that people knew them for at this point when they were still releasing albums and which the Britpop era pretty much boiled down to this, 'Waterloo Sunset' and 'You Really Got Me'. Hey, I'm as guilty as anyone, I bought The Village Green Preservation Society because I'd read that they were an influence on Blur. I'd certainly agree that their best work was in this so-called English era while they were largely ignoring American influences and consciously depicting their own home nation and everyday life, but there's more to Ray Davies as a writer than that, not least his satirical edge.

'Sunny Afternoon' is a difficult song to parse as it's clearly written with an element of sarcasm about it, but also represents a genuine complaint about taxation (in fairness to Davies, and to George Harrison and other big British stars, higher tax rates in the 1960s were far higher than the rates Gary Barlow is avoiding these days). Cleverly, though, the finished song has an utterly unsympathetic protagonist, an obviously rich playboy who's not just upset about his bill but that his girlfriend has left him "telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty"; he's an unreliable enough narrator that we don't know whether these are true stories, whether she's actually dumped him because he's not rich anymore, or both. Either way, he's left sipping ice-cool beer (which, in an English context, is presumably supposed to be a bad thing?) in the summertime, apparently under no particular obligation to work for a living. He's not a man we can feel sorry for, even if he is joking when he says "I love to live so pleasantly". And yet there's something sort of seductive about him too, and we find ourselves singing along with him. A lot of this is obviously due to the music, a brilliantly simple composition with a solid arrangement including the piano that runs through to guide the listener along and generate instant audience participation. The simple acoustic guitar figure that repeats throughout is an example of Davies' favourite trick to hook the listener's attention, but it works. Incidentally, it's worth noting that he hasn't totally abandoned the blues influences he started with: the "save me from this squeeze" section has a slight New Orleans tinge about it. His other masterstroke was the follow this single with 'Dead End Street' (and its banned video), which is musically similar but has a lyric from the opposite end of the social pyramid.

As a song, 'Sunny Afternoon' isn't among my all-time Kinks favourites, partly because it's so overexposed. But it's undeniably an artistic success, and certainly a summer tune.

Available on: Waterloo Sunset: The Very Best of the Kinks and Ray Davies

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