The Kinks

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Ray and Dave Davies espouse contrary working class attitudes toward women and the big city (i.e., girls dumb, city bad), but sometimes it certainly seems as if they do.

The Kinks recorded many monumentally enjoyable songs during their “golden age” (roughly 1966 to 1970, or more specifically The Kink Kronikles to Arthur, and maybe Lola Vs. Powerman…), many of which were spiked with Ray’s caustic social commentary. Sneering at shallow fashion fawning and so on, Davies also took a few open-handed swipes at what can only be characterized as flighty girls who get in over their heads in the big, mean city. Two of the more notable songs–indeed, two of the Kinks’ more accomplished tracks–are “Big Black Smoke” and “Polly”.

Both songs are b-sides. And while “Big Black Smoke” holds its own against the colossally good “Dead End Street”, poor “Polly” languishes as the backside of the limp and hopelessly fey “Wonderboy”. Both are incredibly well produced by Ray himself, coming directly on the heels of the Kinks’ break from long-time producer Shel Talmy. In fact, both songs sound so raucously good you just might overlook how snidely they address their subjects.

“Big Black Smoke” sets the scene as some small village naif breaks away from her provincial world only to find degradation in the industrial scum of some unnamed British metropolis. She fritters away her money on drugs and some scamming boy named Joe, the songs fades with clanging church bells and Dave Davies wailing “aw-kay”, and the poor girl’s fate swirls indeterminant into oblivion.

Yeesh.

Kinks chronicler Andy Miller describes “Polly” as “the Kinks firing on all cylinders”, and I have to say I heartily concur. If it weren’t for the bemoaning misadventures of the title tartlet’s tale, I’d say this was a first-class breezy pop gem. Ray always says his most condemning lines with a beaming smile. Still, the band drives on admirably–the la-la-la-la chorus, Nicky Hopkin’s moonlighting, hammering piano, and Pete Quaife’s fantastically blurting bass.

Ultimately, Polly goes home and is presumably restored to some degree. But this underscores the narrative of the song duo, specifically the city is a trash heap full of cads waiting to besmirch the virtue of countryside lasses. Ray Davies at this point in his career was barreling toward his signature album The Village Green Preservation Society, set to level the bloated artifical pop scene (and we all know how that turned out). His songs took on a progressively anti-progressional attitude. While The Beatles and the rest of the pop world were all about expanding minds and gobbling up the trappings of modern society, Davies had started to didactically push for a simpler, more pastoral lifestyle. And though it seems he longed for this Edenic return more than he actually pursued it, it still leaves ardent cautionary tales like “Big Black Smoke” and “Polly” that are precious for, if nothing else, their frantic parochialism.

Dissection aside, the songs are phenomenally good fun. Especially if you think girls are dumb.

The Kinks “Big Black Smoke”
The Kinks “Polly”

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