Libertarian Theory: Working Out the Kinks

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Libertarian Theory: Working Out the Kinks

The Music of Ray Davies

by Timothy Keirnan, January 1999

Last May I attended a concert performed by Ray Davies, lead singer/songwriter of the legendary Kinks, on a solo tour for his Storyteller album. Having been a Kinks fan since my teenage years, I was eager to see Davies's solo show at the Paramount in Denver. Most of you probably know the Kinks hits like "You Really Got Me," "In the Summertime," "Lola," "Come Dancing," and so on. But how many of you have noted some libertarian influences in Davies's musical themes?

That's right -- I strongly suspect Ray Davies is a "small l" libertarian, as some of his song lyrics indicate. In a world where many entertainers seem to be socialist stooges whenever interview topics stray from their artistic expertise, Davies stands out as an artist who understands that personal freedom and economic freedom must go hand in hand in a just society. Perhaps a brief analysis of some libertarian aspects of Kinks lyrics will help the reader appreciate their music even more.

Davies's Storyteller show began with this admission:

"You see, I'm a product of a century which started at the height of class conscious imperialism and ended with a society so reduced to totalitarian commonness that in my final years at college the saying 'mediocrity rises' became very popular. And, being mediocre, I rose."

After that succinct statement about the least common denominator effect of socialist systems, he continued to describe the forces that led him to write so many songs in praise of individuality such as "I'm Not Like Everybody Else":

"But oddly enough, although I was taught to think of myself as a man with no face, somewhere inside my soul I believed that one day I would become an individual."

Hmm, is this Ray Davies or Ayn Rand? And with that, Davies kicked into my favorite of what I call his "libertarian rockers," the classic "20th Century Man." It's the first track off the Kinks' Muswell Hillbillies album from 1971 and a clear condemnation of the authoritarian states of the 20th century. The song goes:

I was born in a welfare state
Ruled by bureaucracy
Controlled by civil servants
And people dressed in grey
Got no privacy, got no liberty
'Cos the twentieth century people
Took it all away from me

Davies goes on to admit fearing the abusive power of the state in the lines "Don't wanna get myself shot down / By some trigger happy policeman." This fear of being abused by authority, both governmental and corporate, is a recurring theme in Davies's work with the Kinks.

The Muswell Hillbillies album has many more choice moments. In the sardonic "Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues," Davies bemoans "the man from Social Security" who "keeps on invading my privacy." "They're watching my house and they're tapping my telephone / The income tax collector's got his beady eye on me."

In "Here Come the People in Grey," Davies attacks "eminent domain" seizures of private property:

The borough surveyor's used compulsory purchase to acquire my domain
They're gonna pull up the floors, they're gonna knock down the walls ...
Her Majesty's Government have sent me a form I must complete it today ...
I'm gonna fight me a one man revolution someway
Gonna start my rebellion today
But here come the people in grey
To take me away

In "Uncle Son," Davies reveres the common working people and criticizes the forces that can repress them:

Liberals dream of equal rights
Conservatives live in a world gone by
Socialists preach of a promised land
But old uncle son was an ordinary man
Unionists tell you when to strike
Generals tell you when to fight
Preachers tell you wrong from right
They'll feed you when you're born
And use you all your life

In the mid-70s the Kinks toured to perform their rock musical Preservation: A Play in Two Acts. Davies's premise for this ambitious work was to forecast a society in which a corrupt government approaching anarchy allows a crime boss and land developer named Mr. Flash to flourish at the expense of the citizenry:

The people were scared
They didn't know where to turn
They couldn't see any salvation
From the hoods and the spivs
And the crooked politicians
Who were cheating and lying to the nation

The people cry out against a system where the free market is ruined by political and criminal corruption. Unfortunately, the people in this society aren't very smart (too much state-controlled "education," perhaps?); they yearn for yet another politician to solve their problems for them:

Show us a man who'll be our Saviour and will lead us
Show us a man who'll understand us, guide us and lead us

Enter Mr. Black, leader of what should today be referred to as the Religious Left (unlike the US media, Davies knows pro-State religious movements can be socialist as well as fascist). Mr. Black's religious movement has little to do with spirituality and much to do with concentrating worldly power into his scheming hands:

I am your man
I'll work out a five year plan
So vote for me brothers
And I will save this land
And we will nationalize the wealthy companies
And all the directors will be answerable to me
There'll be no shirking of responsibilities
So people of the nation unite.

Mr. Black uses a moralizing crusade to mask his intentions of becoming dictator. Like any authoritarian with no ideology other than raw personal ambition, Mr. Black will use any group's concerns to advance his own political career:

When a solution comes
It won't take sides with anyone
Regardless of race or creed,
The whole wide world is gonna feel the squeeze
I have waited a long, long time
Biding my time and waiting on the sidelines
Watching it all go wrong.
Witnessing the disintegration,
Everybody's searching desperately,
They've got to run to someone
And that someone's going to be me.

In short, a civil war breaks out between the forces of Mr. Flash and Mr. Black while a confused populace stands in between. A last minute repentance on Mr. Flash's part is too late to stop the ascendancy of Mr. Black's party to power. In a refreshing departure from saccharine endings, Davies concludes the album with the nation in Mr. Black's iron grip, curfews and price controls clamping down on the citizens who elected him. Their desire for security and freedom from rampant crime led the nation into a socialist dictatorship.

I doubt that Davies is a member of any political movement. But some of his lyrical themes and the fact that his band owns their own recordings, thus providing them equality in dealing with record companies (whose abuse of artists is infamous), indicate a man of strong independence and reluctance to trust institutions. Great music and great themes --what more could a Kinks fan want?

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