The Kinks vs. the People in Grey

According to the rock star, “My grandmother lived in Islington in an old, beautiful house. They moved her to a block, but she doesn’t have a bath.” Because there’s no room to bathe, she has a shower. Because she is 90, she cannot even stand up in the shower. That has not been taken into account. And they knew she was going to move in because it’s a new block and they took her around and showed her where she was gonna live and she didn’t have any choice….The government people think they are taking them into a wonderful new world but it’s just destroying people.”

It was 1971. He was sitting with the Kinks, who had just put out a new album. Circus magazine to promote it. The L.P. was explained by talking about architecture. Ray Davies exclaimed, sounding like Jane Jacobs in classic rock. They’re tearing down every house in Holloway, Islington, and then moving everyone to new housing developments. The houses that they are tearing down appear to be old and damaged, however they don’t really believe this.

This was not your typical rock-interview. This was a different kind of interview. Muswell HillbilliesThe 50th anniversary of ‘The Greatest Rock Record Ever,’ was not a standard rock album. It was a concept album that explored the negative effects of urban renewal. However, the music didn’t even touch the mainstream. Instead, the songs delved into blues and country as well as early jazz and British music-hall traditions. The horn section was reportedly heard playing their instruments in the bathroom of one track to recreate the sounds from an older recording session. These songs were not your typical Top 40 material. They included Dixieland lyrics about paranoid schizophrenia and a tea-themed song. It’s no surprise that the single was not a success. BillboardCharts.

Some people think that it is the greatest album of all time.

Before the music starts to play, the sleeve artwork sets the scene. The band enjoys a few beers in an English pub. They are surrounded by young and old drinkers. An iron fence surrounds the site of a wartime bombing attack in the center of the city. When the music starts, it plays a song that describes a collection of individuals living in particular places, trying to survive in the shadow of these institutions. Davies describes the characters in these songs with the same care that planners did when they provided an apartment for a woman aged 90 without a tub.

He also sings of those planners. The authorities are about to tear down the home of the narrator in “Here Come the People in Grey”. The singer has a reverie of resistance: “We’re gonna live in a tent, we’re gonna pay no more rent….We’re gonna buy me a gun to keep the policemen away.” That’s a dream. “Someway, I gonna beat these people in gray/But here comes the people who are in grey to take my place.”

It’s a dystopian vision—but only to a point. It has some cracks. There are little pops of color in the dystopia: distant relatives and eccentric neighbors. Muswell Hill was the North London suburb in which Davies spent his childhood. His lyrics are full of references to those and places that he knew as a kid.

The phrase also describes places he could only imagine as a child. The dreams of these Londoners drifted to America while they lived out their lives in Muswell Hill.

* * * * *

While Muswell HillbilliesAmerica was listening to itself as it shipped to shops. Merle Haggard was America’s greatest culture-war song as the mid 1960s faded into the early 1970s. The #1 hit for 1 country was “Okie From Muskogee.”

The song was first released in 1969. It also happened to be the year that Vice President Spiro Agne called for the “silent majority” to defend its rights. One side was cannabis, LSD and draft card smokers. The other was swingers, longhair, hippies, San Francisco. Beads, sandals, campus rebels. There was Old Glory and chaste courtship. Leather boots were popular as well as football. He firmly placed himself in the second group: “I’m proud of being an Okie from Muskogee/An area where even squares have a chance to have a good time.”

One critic argued the song was meant to be a joke. The song is more like a dramatic monologue. It tells how one Middle-American feels about culture changes. You decide if you laugh or smile. In 1971 almost everybody read Okie as anti-hippie jeremiad. Robert Palmer used it as a way to invoke it. New York TimesReview of The Kinks album. Palmer said that the closing track of The Kinks’ album, “Muswell Hillbilly”, was a country-rock song. However, rather than aggravating existing conflicts, the song stresses the unity between the young disaffected and the older victims of society’s interlocking power structures bent on destroying human dignity and eventually human life.”

This is a clever comparison. It’s not because they share the same musical DNA and shit-kicking spirit. It’s important not to misunderstand the singer and the narrator with “Muswell Hillbilly”, as well with “Okie”. Ask yourself these questions as you listen. This story is being told by who?

This verse is the beginning of the story. It sketches a character with a savage and loving manner.

Rosie Rooke was my last goodbye this morning.
Her bloodshot, alcoholic eyes will be missed by me.
I was impressed when she wore her Sunday hat.
She will be with me until the end.

We don’t know much about the Sunday alcoholic. Rosie Rooke apparently was a person, a friend to Davies’ mother. In verse 2, we get to know a bit more about our narrator.

Tomorrow, they’ll take me to Muswell Hill
All I have are photographs and souvenirs
They are going to try and change my lifestyle
They won’t make me anything that I don’t already have.

Take note of the preposition, “They’ll Move him Up” To Muswell Hill. This isn’t a song about being pulled away from the community where Davies grew up. It’s about someone being resettled in that neighborhood, back before Davies was born.

Who’s telling this story? Not the man singing it. But it’s someone he knows. “My parents had grown up in Islington and Edmonston and had later moved out to the suburbs called Finchley, Highgate, Muswell Hill away from the inner city and the Victorian factories,” Davies wrote in 1994’s X-Ray: An Unauthorized Autobiography. “It must have been unrecognizable then.”

In the same paragraph, Davies said the song was about “a family similar to my own.” So maybe the narrator is one of his parents, or maybe it’s simply someone a lot like his parents. It doesn’t really matter which. It was not typical, in 1971, for a rocker to sing a verse from the POV of either his own parent or a parental stand-in, and it was even less typical for the parent to be the rebellious young star of the story. There’s more generational unity here than Palmer probably realized.

There is another song from the period that pulls off a trick like that. It was sung by a man from California whose parents had moved there, during the Depression, from Oklahoma. It’s written from the perspective of someone who is from Oklahoma, and the man who co-wrote and sang it has said it was inspired in part by people like his father—”proud people whose farms and homes were foreclosed by Eastern bankers. And who then got treated like dirt.” The song is “Okie From Muskogee.”

“Okie” still reflects a generation gap, or at least a culture gap; the narrator is full of complaints about hippies and student rebels. “Muswell” has none of that. As Palmer says, it damns a system that afflicts old and young alike. That system has already had a cameo in the song: It’s the “They” who are uprooting the narrator and plotting to change his way of living.

We’ll hear more about They in a bit. But first there’s a chorus, and the chorus turns everything upside-down:

‘Cause I’m a Muswell Hillbilly boy
But my heart lies in old West Virginia
Never seen New Orleans, Oklahoma, Tennessee
Still I dream of those Black Hills that I ain’t never seen

Wait. What?

This isn’t the United States that Haggard lived in and sang about. It’s an imaginary American vista, a landscape that an Englishman might visualize while listening to a Haggard record. Our narrator is dreaming of something he never experienced but feels like he faintly remembers, a past he thinks he recognizes in garbled images of America.

The album prepared us for this with another song, the haunting “Oklahoma U.S.A.,” about a woman who makes her neighborhood rounds lost in a Hollywood trance (“In her dreams she is far away/In Oklahoma, U.S.A./With Shirley Jones and Gordon McRea”). But the Muswell man’s daze draws on more than just a single movie—it’s a montage of fragmented impressions. West Virginia hillbillies, Oklahoma Okies, New Orleans jazzmen: together they seem to signify something old and authentic and free.

In fact, none of them (save those Black Hills) are as old as Muswell Hill, and the narrator is frank about how inauthentic his connection to them is. As for freedom: Davies was well aware that the sorts of bureaucrats that he decried in England had been tearing down homes in America too. He even recorded a song called “Mountain Woman,” left off the original album but eventually attached to a CD reissue as a bonus track, in which a pair of bona fide hillbillies—not the Muswell kind—lose their land to the U.S. government, which floods it, builds a hydroelectric power station, and moves the couple to “the thirty-third floor of a man-made concrete mountain.”

But in “Muswell Hillbilly,” Davies isn’t singing about the actual America across the ocean. He’s singing about a dream. Oppressed, he dreams of freedom; uprooted, he dreams of roots.

That dream makes him defiant:

They’re putting us in identical little boxes
No character, just uniformity
They’re trying to build a computerized community
But they’ll never make a zombie out of me

“They” are back in this verse, and their totalitarian intentions are becoming more clear. The narrator insists that They won’t succeed. And on reflection, we know he’s right, because we’ve been listening to a series of stories about the people of Muswell Hill, all persisting in their distinctive individuality.

The phrase “identical little boxes” calls to mind Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes,” a rather smug song about suburban conformity (“little boxes made of ticky tacky…little boxes, all the same”). In 1960 and 1961, shortly before Reynolds wrote that song, the sociologist Herbert Gans interviewed dozens of people who had moved a few years earlier to a freshly built New Jersey suburb. He found more heterogeneity than the stereotypes of the time suggested; the town’s residents, he wrote in his 1967 book The Levittowners, “made internal and external alterations in their Levitt house to reduce sameness and to place a personal stamp on their property.” Character overcame uniformity, in Levittown and inMuswell Hill.

They’ll try and make me study elocution
Because they say my accent isn’t right
They can clear the slums as part of their solution
But they’re never gonna kill my Cockney pride

We’re back Haggard territory here. “LIsten to that line: ‘I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,'” Haggard told Nat Hentoff in 1980. “Nobody had ever said that before in a song.” Okie pride and Cockney pride come together in the chorus, though the allusion to Oklahoma has been replaced by something else the second time around:

Muswell Hillbilly boy, ‘Cause’
My heart is in West Virginia, however.
Despite my hills not being green, they are what I see in my dreams.
Bring me back to the Black Hills I haven’t seen before

Davies invokes William Blake on the album’s opening track: “What is the matter with the green, pleasant fields of Jerusalem?” The final verse of the L.P.’s last song finds us back in Blakean territory, dreaming about green hills amid these sinister mills. Now, the place where paradise can be built is not Jerusalem. It’s West Virginia. They will never stop fighting mental battles, and they won’t let guitar rest in their hands until America is built in England’s pleasant green land.

* * * * *

The reference to Blake’s Jerusalem came in “20th Century Man,” a song where Davies declares: “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/’Cause the 20th century people took it all away from me.” These lyrics are evocative of Clement Attlee (prime minister, 1945-1951), who built Britain’s welfare state and promised a new Jerusalem. The New Towns Act of 1946 was a part of the New Jerusalem. It began the process of moving Londoners out of homes considered substandard or homes simply bombed out to communities planned outside of the city.

This is what you get. Muswell Was it something I was reacting to? ForIs this you? Davies’ father voted in Attlee’s Labour Party. Ray Davies voted Labour even though he was growing increasingly disillusioned. Davies called the New Labour party “a seamless mixture of polite socialism, conservative policies, and a fearful level of political correctness”. He voted in it even after its formation. In his 2013 book, he declared that the party was “an obsolete and somewhat ineffective power.” AmericanaHowever, he didn’t find the Tories appealing to him, even though he did value many aspects of the past associated with conservatism.

A track is available Muswell Hillbillies called “Uncle Son.” The title is “Uncle Son.” One verse recites a list of ideologies. After that, it switches gears and reminds listeners that there are some people who don’t believe in them. Have that sort of ideology: “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.” The lyrics suggested that it was impossible to make change worthwhile if the Uncle Sons were not in your mind. “Blessings, Uncle Son/They will not forget about you when revolution arrives.”

Muswell eschews grand visions: Its politics are rebellious, even revolutionary, but it doesn’t want a revolution that isn’t built on real families and neighborhoods, on actual individuals and their concrete freedoms and attachments. You will end up with a supposedly New Jerusalem, which exiles women from their comfortable homes and places them in flats where they can’t bathe.