Kinks - 'Soap Opera': Rock Theater That Works
The Kinks' 'Soap Opera' deserves your hi-energy rock-lit review, but the damn thing was so much fun I kept laughing at the right places, forgetting to have profound reflections, and in general boogiein-g my credentials away. So blame Ray Davies, not me, because 'Soap Opera' is a subversive animal - it isn't too profound, nor very original, nor prophetic, nor hermetic - it isn't even particularly spectacular. It was just good, and good-natured, and intelligent - a piece of very funny, humane musical entertainment, which along with 'Preservation' - the last Kinks' production - is one of the two really successful rock theatricals that I've seen.
The only observation I salvaged from the scene were first: that the crowd was much younger than your Kinks crowd of recent vintage (fewer guys with pipes, thank God), which may indicate that the Kinks are going to be the first band to go from teen-faves to cult heroes and back to teen-heroes again, and secondly, that even the most casual comparison between 'Soap Opera' and a transcendental rhinestone twinkie like 'Tommy' reveals that rock'n'roll could use a lot more talent and a lot less 'genius.' Because Townsend is really a genius but he has just openers in the talent department whereas Davies is so talented, and so secular, that any mention of genius is not only irrelevant, but like Davies himself, rather amusing.
Like a lot of great songwriter-performers, Davies isn't musically sophisticated (for all I know he thinks 440 A is a motel room) but he understands rock and roll as well as any man alive. He knows it is about a band and an audience, the status gulf that separates them and the primitive music that unites them. He knows that rock and roll is like Mexican food. As it improves in quality it stops being what it is.
Anyway, that's what 'Soap Opera' is about - another dumb story about being a star, or not being one. Davies, in the role of 'Starmaker,' replaces 'Norman,' an ordinary man, to do research for a 'concept' album, only to become trapped in Norman's dull existence in a Tom Stoppard twist by which it suddenly appears that the leading character is not Starmaker playing Norman but Norman playing rock and roll star. At this point the lead character insists that he is fact Ray Davies of the Kinks, and offers a short oldies concert as evidence.
When he looks to the band for confirmation of his identity they reject him, then he appeals to the audience, who, on the night I was there, affirmed his stardom with uncontrolled enthusiasm, quite genuine. At this point, the lead character points out that it doesn't really matter, since 'everybody's in showbiz' and concludes the song in praise of 'rock stars of the past,' leaving Davies in a no-man's land between the audience and the band. For a change, finally, he seems happy there. It has obviously been a long road to get to where he's always been, and 'Soap Opera,' in its devious way, is a send-up of every attitude which separates the two.
Every grotesque cliché of rock royalty and the new populism gets a clean funny shot, and it works because Davies doesn't introduce theatrical effects into rock and roll. He takes the theatrical aspects which are already in rock and roll and uses them to his advantage: every variation on the rock rituals of mike handling, from phallus to club to ice cream cone, is used to dramatic effect. Davies' exquisite macho cool lead-guitar choreography becomes the device by which 'Norman' is rejected by the band. There is nothing wasted and there is nothing which hasn't been part of rock theatrics for years.
Davies not only understands that rock is more than music, but he understands that theater is more than drama and illusion: he knows (and not many rock composers do) that unlike movies, which overwhelm and seduce the viewer by the power and veracity of the image, theater must invite the complicity of the audience.
A subtle contract must be negotiated between the performer and the audience before it comes alive. Finally, he asserts that he is not the 'Starmaker' or 'Norman', but in fact 'Ray Davies of the Kinks' he solves the major problem of rock and roll as theatrical music. Rock depends on a real person singing to real people - the directness of that relationship is the primary source of energy - so when rock is sung by a 'character' there is dilution in the mediation. What Davies does is 'use' that drawback playing a character through three quarters of the show, then collapsing that distance. The effect on the audience was almost chemical - it was dramatic, funny, touching, and so goddamn smart it made you want to hit a wall.
I guess you might say that 'Soap Opera' involves Davies stripping away his stardom to reveal his humanity, but it is done with such skill and bravura that he finally reaffirms his own gifted status - there's nothing quite as dazzling as a magician who shows you how to do a trick and then fools you with it, nor anything as humane, since he respects you enough to show you how it's done.
On the way home I kept thinking about the opening of an earlier Davies song 'Sitting in My Hotel': "If my friends could see me now, driving 'round just like a film star in a chauffeur-driven jam jar they would laugh." In 'Soap Opera,' he glosses that text, befriends the audience, lets them see in the jam jar and they do laugh, and so does Davies, the tricky son of a bitch.
The Village Voice, May 19, 1975