Listen to LAZY OLD SUN by The Kinks.
Listen to BIG SKY by The Kinks.
Well, I've been putting off today's post because, frankly, I'm a little intimidated. After all, writing a piece about the "Pop Proust" (as I like to call him) is pretty daunting. But I'll put music dorkdom ahead of my own anxieties and give it a go.
Today's songs are kind of a pair, both focusing on themes of man's meaninglessness and impermanence contrasted with the impersonal, uncaring and enduring power of nature. The songs are 1967's "Lazy Old Sun" (an album cut from Something Else by the Kinks) and 1968's "Big
Sky" (another album cut, this time from The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society). Bill did a beautiful job describing the context in which these songs were written, recorded and released, so I'll proceed by talking a bit about the songs themselves and then Rasa Davies' unique contributions to them (and my own reaction to both).
"Lazy Old Sun" is one of those tunes that bowled me over the first time I heard it. It was sort of like "My dear, where have you been all my life?" Not only does it tackle thorny existential territory deftly, it does it in a pop song under three minutes. I count this a major achievement for a guy from Muswell Hill. Not only that, the psychedelia of this song makes "I Am the Walrus" look downright sophomoric. The focus on childhood and nature takes up familiar psychedelic themes, but the ominous horns, the spooky organ, Rasa's backing vocals (more about that later) and Ray's weird phrasing give it a particularly psychedelic creepiness. Now for some specifics.
Ray starts out the song with "Lazy old sun...What have you done to summertime?" Here we see his recurring (and very English) preoccupation with sunnier (happier) weather and times. I like the accusatory way he rants at the inanimate sun for his troubles, as if his complaints have a chance of changing the orbit of the planet (self) or something. Also, describing the sun as lazy--it's a nice descriptive touch, underscored by his own laconic cadence and the slowly swooping trombone-like guitar sound that follows the line. Next are the awfully cheery lines "When I'm dead and gone...Your light will shine eternally...Sunny rain, shine my way...Kiss me with one ray of light from your lazy old sun". The first couplet is self-explanatory and appropriately chilling. The second has the lovely image of "Sunny rain", which tries to leaven the darkness with a little light, but can't quite do it. Then comes the bridge "You make the rainbows and you make the night disappear...You melt the frost so I won't criticize my sun." I always heard this last word as "son", which I kind of prefer--e.g., that Ray is so cranky that he uses the weather as a reason to praise or condemn his children.
The final verse is a "little" masterpiece: "When I was young... My world was three foot, seven inch tall...When you were young... There was no world at all." Again referencing the peculiar sense of scale for a child, these lines express the combined quality of time stretching out forever and the child being dwarfed by everything around him.
Rasa's contribution to this tune is essential. Either by happy accident or by design she warbles a flat aria over the top of the song. Along with the reverb, her singing adds a ghoulish quality that really fits the subject matter.
"Big Sky", while preferred by the critics (or so Bill tells me), is a more humorous (and slight) treatment of the same topic. However, that's not meant as a criticism. Lyrically, I read this one as more of a simple projection:
Big Sky looked down on all the people looking up at the Big Sky.
Everybody pushing one another around
Big Sky feels sad when he sees the children scream and cry
But the Big Sky's too big to let it get him down.
Ray really seems to have a lot in common with this "Big Sky" character. It's he who is looking down on all the little people "who think they got problems," and he lets us know it with the mocking tone he uses when he says "they hold their head in their hands and cry." Yep, old Big Sky's too big to sympathize with people "like you and me." Musically, it has that wonderful quality that all the songs on VGPS have--They rock hard...acoustically. Rasa lends some very pretty "woo's" over much of the song, giving a delicate counterpoint to the driving drums and guitars. Her contribution (as it often does) adds a spoonful of sugar to help Ray's medicine go down.
I'd like to close with an example of the way these songs influenced me personally. My brother-in-law Kyle and I started writing songs together back in 2003. One of the first songs we cobbled together took on the title "Prodigal Sun". I'd be lying if I said I wasn't conscious--at the time of its writing--of its lyrical similarity to these two songs. Not only that, the vamps in the chorus are pretty indebted to our heroes' favorite rhythmic trick. One thing I wasn't conscious of at the time was the way Rasa's backing vocals informed the vocal arrangements of this song...and many, many more of ours. So, here's to Rasa and The Kinks!
Photo: Sons of Suns.