10.06-PHENOMENAL CAT (Kinks)




A long, long time ago
In the land of idiot boys,
There live a cat, a phenomenal cat,
Who loved to wallow all day.

No one bothered him
As he sat, content in his tree.
He just lived to eat 'cause it kept him fat,
And that's how he wanted to stay.

        Though he was big and fat,
        All the world was good to him
        And he pointed out on the map
        All the places he had been.

                Cowes, Sardinia, Kathmandu,
                The Scilley Isles and Sahara, too

[Scat break]

        Once when he was thin
        He had flown to old Hong Kong,
        And had learned the secret of life
        And the sea and the sky beyond.

                So he gave up his diet and sat in a tree,
                And ate himself through eternity.

[Scat coda]

The Village Green Preservation Society is not a psychedelic album. Instead, it continued to develop, for the most part, the kind of music hall tunes matched with social observations and character sketches for lyrics that Ray Davies had begun to record after the success of the Kinks' hit single Sunny Afternoon in 1966. In 1967, the Kinks released a couple of singles (included in TLA)—Waterloo Sunset and Autumn Almanac—that genuflected toward psychedelia at the end of the record, but the psychedelic effects felt added on, or at least not essential to the spirit of the songs. In Village Green there were two songs that would be considered psychedelic today, the Dave Davies rave Wicked Annabella and the mellotron-driven Phenomenal Cat, which was the first Ray Davies song that was psychedelic in its conception since Fancy back in 1966. But for the first time in the TLA collection, the psychedelic songs are not among the best on an album: Do You Remember Walter; Picture Book; Big Sky; People Take Pictures of Each Other—all these cuts (and maybe more) exceed the quality of Phenomenal Cat. With Village Green Preservation Society, psychedelia is beginning to again be relegated to the novelty record (where it had its beginnings in 1966 with songs such as Yellow Submarine, Rainy Day Women and Mellow Yellow).

There has been a good deal written about the nostalgia in Village Green Preservation Society, which as a concept album, focuses on a small town and its inhabitants in an earlier era before Britain lost its colonial grandeur. Andy Miller notes in his book on the album that it bears similarities to Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, A Play for Voices (1954). Ray Davies’ nostalgia is different from the Beatles’ psychedelia (such as Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane) that returned to childhood memories in order to recapture freshness of perception in accordance with a Wordsworthian aesthetic. Davies returned to the past because he felt life was better back then; inherent in his lyrics is a critique of the post- colonial 1960s in which he lived. In this Davies, all the way back to Sunny Afternoon in the Summer of 1966, anticipated a spirit that Bob Dylan injected into American pop music with his album John Wesley Harding at the end of 1967. But whereas Dylan, the Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young and some other American singer-songwriters of the 1970s looked to the Civil War South and The Wild West of America for inspiration—a time before industrialization, the Kinks sang of an era which was properly of their parents or grandparents’ generation. Davies was remembering a time when England in its arrogance thought itself the best, the most well-mannered of civilizations…a time when eccentricity was valued, and even considered enchanting in its way. Back in the day eccentricity was not the norm it had become by 1968 when the motto was “Wave your freak flag high!” [Jimi Hendrix Experience: If 6 Was 9]

Phenomenal Cat opens by using the mellotron to synthesize a flute-like sound similar to the one found in the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever. By this time, the device had already been overused for this effect (Red Chair Fade Away by the Bee Gees, Sing This All Together by the Rolling Stones, Hole in My Shoe by Traffic; Passing the Time by Cream, come to mind—-all English groups). The second line, which mentions “idiot boys”, suggests that this sound may be a spoof, a little bit of satire a la Frank Zappa. At any rate, the whole of the song is apparently aimed at children (like some of the aforementioned novelty records of 1966) and thus, shouldn’t be taken very seriously. Add to this that Davies is drawing from John Lennon’s own comedic source, Lewis Carroll, for his imagery (as seen in I Am the Walrus in particular), and the listener is quick to realize that the song is a reiteration of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland.

One might think the Phenomenal Cat was kin also to Pink Floyd’s cat Lucifer Sam, who is a bit like a 007 secret agent: he’s here but then he isn’t. What sets the Phenomenal Cat apart is that he has traveled far (to the Sahara, to Kathmandu) but equally traveled close-by to English sites (Cowes and the Isles of Scilly, sites that would be generally unheard of by Americans). Perhaps his travels have actually been hallucinatory adventures aided by psychedelics which would allow him to escape his physical limitations and “learn the secret of life”. If we believe this to be the case, the poet seems to be saying that having found this truth, he stopped ranging far and wide in curiosity (as advised in the Beatles' Inner Light), and became content to “sit in his tree and eat himself through eternity”. I speculate that when the cat found, after long search, that there was no meaning to existence, he began gluttonously trying to fill in the vacuum, and became a mere consumer. Although the lyrics do not reveal this, the manner of singing (in which the singer appears at times to harmonize with the cat for a time) suggests that eventually the cat eats himself up as well when his part of the song drops off, leaving Ray Davies’ voice alone. This would be explain the strange appearance and disappearance of the Cheshire Cat, who leaves only his smile in Wonderland.