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The Kinks “Soap Opera”: Part Of The Second Tier RCA Years by Mike Nessing

Soap Opera”, the fifth album from The Kinks on the RCA label shows Ray Davies still being allowed to run amok with whatever idea he felt like bringing to the table. Despite the lukewarm reception of the last two records, full creative control was once again extended.

Ah, the glorious pretentiousness of the seventies, how I miss them.

Much of “Soap Opera” was actually written and performed as a BBC TV stage play during the early part of 1974 before the album was recorded late that year for release in May, 1975.

For all the rumors regarding Ray’s emotional state during this time frame, he was still writing songs at a prolific, possibly even frenetic pace.

This year’s concept is all about a man that goes by the moniker of “The Starmaker”. He is somebody who can “turn the most ordinary man in the world into a star”. Introduced to us on the LP’s opening cut, it is actually one of the hardest rocking tracks The Kinks had recorded in almost two solid years. Using a blatant variation on some of their signature guitar riffs from their glory days, our lead character boasts about his other worldly powers of Pygmalion like proportions. In fact, to prove his point, he is going to find the “most mundane little man” on the planet and turn him into a celebrity.

 That man is Norman, and The Starmaker turns up at his house one day and trades places with him to prove his point. While Norman goes out on tour with The Kinks, The Starmaker takes Norman’s place at his job, sleeps with his wife, and substitutes himself for Norman in every facet of his life. The explanation for all this is that it’s “all for the sake of art”.Quite a stretch to say the least, but the lyrical content and the dialogue is so doggoned funny the story actually works really well.

After completing the switcharoo within the scope of the song “Ordinary People”, Starmaker and Norman’s wife go to bed.

Just like in real life, morning comes all too quickly in “Rush Hour Blues”. This is the second song out of the first three that just flat out rocks hard. The humdrum of ordinary life is glorified as The Starmaker scrambles to make it to work on time on his first day as Norman.

“Nine To Five”, “When Work Is Over” , and “Have Another Drink” close out side one where the workday is described as “answering phones, dictating letters, and making decisions that affect no one”. Only when work is over, and all the employees go down to the bar, does it all make sense. Even in the most professional of settings, people still live to get wasted, and then get up the next morning to do it all over again. This is Norman’s life, researched by Starmaker and brought to life in one of his songs just like he promised.

Side Two kicks off with “Underneath The Neon Sign”, a hangover track of sorts where Norman’s doppelganger reflects on his mundane life, and how it just seems to go round and round without making much progress.

 During “Holiday Romance”, some spice is finally injected as he gets a break for a week at a “quiet little seaside hotel”. Away from the wife and away from work, our hero finally gets a shot at a little excitement, setting his sights on a cute little girl named Lavinia. They danced all night long, but when he tries to kiss her, Lavinia stops him , explaining that she is in fact, married.

Downtrodden and bitter, Norman returns home only to find that his wife has made him his least favourite dish for supper, shepherds pie. Upon explaining that he hates it, the wife has a minor breakdown, unable to cope with the idiosyncrasies of her husband. If you haven’t guessed by now, there is no Starmaker. There is only Norman, caught up in his own fantasy world, pretending to be a rock star because he simply cannot face the tragedy of absolute dullness that is his own life.

 In a moment of clarity, Norman realizes that he has to “stop faking it and start facing it”. Taking his place in the crowd, Norman finally understands that he needs to work harder emotionally to keep what he has, and even though there will always be singers and songs, he is the soundtrack to his own music and that music will always play on.

Almost universally panned upon release, “Soap Opera” would also suffer commercially, charting only as high as #51 in the US and not even charting at all in the band’s homeland. While the US chart ranking was infinitely better than both of the “Preservation” records, it was still not high enough to make any major impact and the record sunk quickly after that initial flurry of sales to the die-hards.

Today, it’s looked at as an underrated classic of sorts. Obviously, the word “classic” is a bit of a stretch. Compared to the brunt of the Kinks entire recorded output, the RCA years will always be regulated to second tier status. But when your first tier includes albums like “Face To Face”, “Arthur”, “Something Else”, and “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society” , one has to question why these efforts were judged so harshly.

 Very few sixties acts would prove to have consistent staying power through the seventies. Although Ray’s arm may have been tired, he was still in there pitching with astonishing regularity and did manage to deliver a solid inning or two along the way.

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