TIME plays tricks on irony. Something happens in the audience at The Kinks' show at the Clapham Grand which is as poignant as anything in Ray Davies' lyrical canon. A normal-looking, middle-aged fan in shirt and tie, who's been standing rapt and immobile throughout an energetic set, suddenly punches the air and screams out the chorus to 'I'm Not Like Everybody Else' as if his life depended on it. The Grand is the perfect venue for getting uncontrollably nostalgic about The Kinks. The newly opened balconies of the restored music hall spill over with goodwill. In response the band put their all into a set which offers great ness and mediocrity in roughly equal measure.
The dramatic fluctuations in The Kinks' work are traditionally explained in terms of the mythic power struggle between the brothers Davies. Their antipathy is still much to the fore. Whenever guitar-crazed junior sibling Dave embarks on a solo, Ray wanders offstage to change his jacket. The Kinks have a new album, Phobia (Columbia, all formats), which they insist on dipping into. By far the best number on it is 'Hatred', a duet about brotherly love with the memorable chorus 'Hatred - it's the only thing that keeps us together'.
But it's not just a matter of the elder brother's supple lyricism being overwhelmed by the younger's clod-hopping power-chords. The Kinks have made two great contributions to the rock 'n' roll pantheon, and the first of them - the primal buzz-punk aggression of 'You Really Got Me' and 'All Day and All of the Night' - owes at least as much to Dave as it does to Ray. But it's for the pioneering jug-band social observation of songs like 'Waterloo Sunset' (which they don't play) and 'Dead End Street' (which they do) that The Kinks will be remembered. Ray Davies' ear for the everyday - 'Pour the tea and put some toast on' - inspired much of the best British songwriting of the Seventies and Eighties, from The Jam via Madness to Morrissey. It's this fact that makes the absurd ponderousness of much of his subsequent writing so very hard to take.
Either Ray Davies can't tell his best from his worst, or he's got a perverse sense of humour. Just when the lovely, wistful 'Days' threatens to make the night a transcendent one, he launches into 'Aggravation' - an awful, (mercifully) unreleased 10-minute epic about cars taking over the planet, complete with interpretative dancers. The encores grind to a raucous halt with 'Great Balls of Fire' and 'Twist and Shout'; well-worn standards with nothing to offer the dry, homespun cadences of Davies' voice - strange choices for a band with more than enough great songs of their own. Davies, as so often, is probably making a point. Why else would he have donned a hideous reversible jacket with a Union Jack on the outside and the Stars and Stripes on the lining?
The Kinks' vision of Englishness was never meant to be the whole picture first time around, but a night at the Holloway Rocket shows just how much of now is missing from it. In the entrance hall to the Club Megadog there's an Animal Liberation Front information stall, and someone is selling watermelon and individual Mr Kipling apple pies at surprisingly reasonable prices. Inside, for all the mind-contracting chemicals in the communal bloodstream and the stereotypes of 'dog-on-a-string' social disorganisation, the proceedings run as if on invisible wires.
DJs, bands, unicylists and deranged, fluorescent trapeze artists follow on seamlessly. When their turn comes, Fun-Da-Mental - militant Asian rappers from Bradford - march up and down the stage and wave sticks, but in a friendly way. Individual words don't stand out from their hyped- up ragga stutter, but the music they've constructed is unfailingly eloquent. Sampled voices, prayer calls and marching feet build up a powerful wash of sound on songs like the current single, 'Wrath of the Black Man'. A potential air of menace is dissipated by a riot of multi-cultural headgear - turban, Kangol and Palestinian kaffiyeh. Like their obvious role models Public Enemy, Fun-Da- Mental reverse the racial polarity of power, and the overall effect is to celebrate diversity, not promote separatism.
By the time the electro-folk outfit Ultramarine have hit the stage, most of the crowd are past discernment. Barclay James Harvest could essay a rockabilly set and enthusiasm would not flag. As it happens, they are excellent. Anonymous in appearance - a posse of short-haired men fiddling amiably with synthesisers - but distinctive in sound, Ultramarine take the established languages of disco and dub, slow them down and spruce them up. The backdrops of flowers and faces complement a style of music that can best be described as pastoral house. Their forthcoming collaboration with Robert Wyatt is awaited with keenness.
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