Schoolboys in Disgrace
Released: December 1975
Chart Peak: #45
Weeks Charted: 14
If one were to simplify the old guard of British rock & roll by drawing a straight line, left to right, between the angelic Beatles and the demonic Rolling Stones, one would probably place the Who slightly to the left of the Stones and the Kinks a couple of notches to the right of the Beatles but well to the left of Townshend and company. Ray Davies may display a full share of Dionysian darkness and disorder at times, but his craziness is usually admirable and engaging, and the Kinks, if idiosyncratic, are essentially lovable.
Perhaps never more so than on Schoolboys in Disgrace, probably their best LP since Everybody's in Showbiz and a welcome relief from the ambitious but tired Preservation Act opus. Since Davies seems curiously committed to the concept album (the disappointing Soap Opera was the last), the least one can ask is that he pull it off without having to shore up his exposition by using aesthetically weak material. Schoolboys is a bit thin in spots -- "Education" sounds like long-winded filler; "No More Looking Back" is no "Waterloo Sunset" -- but it boasts at least one major song ("Headmaster") and several highly enjoyable minor ones, many of them composed and performed in delightful full-throttle, neo-Fifties and Sixties rock & roll styles. The story, according to a red-herring liner note, recounts the formative years of Mr. Flash of Preservation Act fame, ostensibly letting us in on why he became such "a hard and bitter character...[who] in future...would always get what he wanted." In actuality, most of the record is lovingly, even sentimentally, nostalgic ("Schooldays were the happiest days of your life/ ...And I'd go back if I could only find a way") and even the bad times don't seem to have left any permanent damage.
- Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone, 3/11/76.
More than most rock groups, the Kinks have relied for their musical identity and direction on the talents, whims, and fetishes of one individual. Were it not for Ray Davies' singular songwriting and vocals (which is not to slight brother Dave's unique guitar work), the band would sound like a dozen others, competent and unremarkable. It is no surprise, then, that the credits for their new album, Schoolboys in Disgrace, state that it was "written, arranged and produced by Master Raymond Douglas Davies." It's fair to assume that he was responsible for the choice of subject as well, however, and that, frankly, is a matter for surprise.
I've always regarded Ray as, among other things, unalterably opposed to conformity, regimentation, intellectual repression, and all such dehumanizing horrors, which are the main things I remember from my school days. Yet, here we find him (well, technically it's Mr. Flash, arch-villain of the Preservation saga) claiming he'd gladly return to them "if only I could find a way." Thinks like that confuse me: have I totally misread the man? How disconcerting.
Of course, to judge by the packaging, which is akin to most of the Kinks' RCA album covers, Schoolboys seems intended as some sort of joke, and perhaps I've missed the punch line simply because I'm still more sympathetic to Chuck Berry's view of "Schooldays" as something one longs to escape, not re-experience. Like most recent Kinks material, all this probably makes a great stage vehicle for Ray and the crew, but the problem is that, just as many fine theatrical pieces make for tedious reading, so Davies' musical melodramas make emotionally flat, predictable records. The slapstick clowning and sight gags the Kinks use to such good advantage in their live shows can't be transferred to vinyl, and the plots and characters seem banal and lifeless when subjected to the careful scrutiny a record demands. Schoolboys, in particular, seems less a rock opera than a rock comic strip, which isn't altogether a bad idea when you think of it -- at least we'd have to give up a few of our more ridiculous pretensions about what this music really is.
The trouble is, though, that this comic strip is not very funny (with the exception of one or two... er... "frames"), and that too is Ray Davies' responsibility, because the lyrics are unquestionably the album's greatest weakness. Everything else is just fine: the band plays as well as I've ever heard them; Dave's guitar sounds, if anything, more incredible than ever; Ray does his best singing in some time; the horn section has finally been housebroken; and even the recorded sound is less murky than in the past. In line with the nostalgia theme, the songs themselves run the gamut from Wizzard-ish "oldies" through Beach Boys harmonies and sentimentality, a Kinks imitation of Mott the Hoople imitating the Kinks, and all the way back to the Kinks' own beginnings. All this album needed were some credible lyrics, but for the most part they're not there.
In "Jack the Idiot Dunce" that doesn't matter, though. It's a dance number in the grand tradition of all such treasures, a real rocker, and it's hilarious despite its lyrical moralizing. Of course, it may only seem that good because the rest of side one is so dead, especially a seven-minute ditty called "Education" that sounds like a meeting between "Apeman" and Harry Nilsson on an off day for them both. Ray is so fond of it he feels compelled to bring it back for a last chorus to end the album -- "even aborigines need education" indeed.
Oddly enough, the best track here has a thoroughly contemporary, even trendy, arrangement, and it is titled "No More Looking Back." The entire piece is played and sung to perfection and demonstrates once again with what ease Ray Davies could become one of our best schlock writers, cranking out hit singles at the drop of a hat. Perhaps he should. On the one hand, this is no "Lola," and I suspect it will date very quickly, but then if Elton John is right, and music is or should be "disposable," that would be all to the good, wouldn't it? I devoutly hope not, but I'm beginning to wonder.
- Linda J. Frederick, Stereo Review, 3/76.
Another semi-concept set from Ray Davies and company, featuring words and music from the man many feel is the most brilliant composer to come out of the British pop explosion. This time he's dealing with education: its hypocrisies, the excessive emphasis society places upon it, the real reason for it (being able to make friends, etc.), the humiliation of school, and the fact that no matter how awful it is, we all tend to look back at it as something special. Styles are generally more basic than the last few LPs, with emphasis on good, solid rock and the harmonics of Ray and brother Dave. As always, Ray changes his vocals to suit the mood of the song, reverting to the '50s, being contemporary, or moving into some yet uncategorized area. Probably the most solid set all the way around in several years. Best cuts: "Schooldays," "Education," "The First Time We Fall In Love," "The Hard Way," "The Last Assembly."
- Billboard, 1975.
Yet another original cast recording -- in the big production number, Ray Davies indicts "Education" for its failure to teach the Ultimate Cause. Go get 'em, Ray. C+
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
As the last of The Kinks' overt conceptual exercises, Schoolboys... was further proof that Ray Davies's best "plays" happened when he focused his observational skills into singular songs, rather than fleshing out an idea over the course of a whole album. Like Soap Opera, this is only recommended for hardcore completists. * *
- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
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