Autumn Almanac – The Kinks
From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar
When the dawn begins to crack, it’s all part of my autumn almanac…
This is one of those quintessentially English songs which represents, along with a handful of other tunes, the peak of the 45rpm single format. Ray Davies, the songwriter, formed The Kinks with his brother Dave Davies, Mick Avory and Pete Quaife in Muswell Hill, North London in 1963 and went on to grace the radio airwaves and the pop charts with stunning regularity throughout the 1960s. I always think of my childhood which spanned that decade as being breast-fed by The Beatles (although in reality that would have been Elvis and Chuck Berry) and weaned on The Kinks and The Rolling Stones. There were others of course, Tamla Motown, The Beach Boys and The Who, but The Kinks occupy a special position in my museum of recollections for their mini-dramas of life as it was lived in 1960s Britain. Ray Davies’ unerring eye for detail and the times gave him a palette of realism which, laced with a few poetic grace notes, makes the run of singles from You Really Got Me through to Lola pretty much unequalled in British songwriting.
Autumn Almanac is a pinnacle of songwriting for me partly because of the lyrics – “I like my football on a Saturday, roast beef on Sunday – all right” and partly because of the actual structure of the song : verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, wordless verse, chorus, wordless verse, chorus, further middle eight, and then yet another (unprecendented) middle eight, final chorus and finale. I can’t think of another song that does this – even A Day In The Life which is two songs stitched cleverly together, or even the great Paul Simon compositions (My Little Town) from the early 70s still don’t get anywhere near this kind of boldness.
As our narrator sweeps leaves into the sack he ruminates on his life : football, roast beef, toasted buttered currant buns, which “help to compensate for lack of sun, cos the sun has all gone”, with Ray singing the last word in Cockney as “gawn” which pokes fun at and yet celebrates the music hall roots of his genius. As he talks about football and roast beef, and Blackpool holidays and sitting in the sunlight Ray’s voice becomes like a character, a trick he would use on a regular basis (Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, Apeman) but just when you think he’s taking the mickey, wham, here comes his real voice and a brass band, getting properly wistful as we reach the third middle eight which evokes the glory of community, of the simple connected life we all desire :
…this is my street, and I’m never gonna leave it
and I’m always gonna stay, if I live to be ninety nine
cos all the people I meet,
seem to come from my street
and I can’t get away,
because it’s calling me
“come on home”…
The French horns return to both lament and fanfare this moment which is then somewhat undercut by the last raucous chorus which comes across almost as a drunken pub song, and the Beach Boys-esque outro bap-bap-bap ooh has Ray speaking ‘Yes‘ in a confident affirmation as it fades. It is a major achievement in popular song, inspired apparently by a hunchbacked old gardener Ray had seen in a local churchyard. Romantic with a capital R – yes, file alongside Penny Lane and Lazy Sunday as slices of pop life in Britain in the late 60s, beautifully realised.
Autumn Almanac was released in October 1967 on the Pye label and reached Number 5 on the charts. I was ten years old, in my final year at Selmeston Village School and living with my Mum and two brothers Paul and Andrew. Dad had left the previous year. There had been a divorce. This felt somewhat shameful, but we saw him every weekend, and we were kids – you know, we just got on with it. The television had been moved into the main living room. We’d bought another corgi (Bessie) after Raq, the previous corgi, had bitten Andrew when he was 18 months old. Raq had been given away. Then, when it was too late, I found a long white dog whisker in the corner where the bite had taken place ! Andrew had pulled Raq’s whisker out and got a bite for his trouble. This shocking revelation inspired the purchase of Bessie who was a very sweet dog. We watched Top Of The Pops religiously, waiting for our favourites, patiently sitting through Engelbert Humperdinck – or maybe not – no indeed, at ten years old I wouldn’t have had favourites particularly, or people (like Cliff Richard) whom I didn’t like. They would all have been fine. I’m projecting back from the mid-70s when I was a “discerning teenager” with plenty of attitude and only three bands I liked. No at ten I would sit and enjoy all music. All TV. Crackerjack. Star Trek. Thunderbirds. Do Not Adjust Your Set. The Magic Roundabout. Tin-Tin. Vision On. Johnny Morris.
And conkers. There was a large horse-chestnut tree near the village churchyard and another one further up the road. We harvested bags of conkers and selected the biggest, the best to skewer, string up and take to school. Deadly serious competitions would ensue – one hit each – knuckles would get banged, a winner would splatter the weak conker into pieces leaving a pathetic piece of string dangling, and your winner would become a One-er. One of my conkers got up to be a fourteen-er before the effects of constant combat weakened its sinews and it was shattered – the victorious conker would of course inherit all 14 wins – plus one. Did some kids vinegar their conkers? Other tactics were discussed for hardening, and techniques for the hit, from the side, from the top…
Sometimes these competitions would end in a fight. David Bristow liked to fight. So did I. We fought a lot, David and I. David got nosebleeds easily, and fight would normally end with knees straddling upper arms, pinning down your opponent and calling for submission. David’s trick, after I punched him in the nose and caused it to bleed, would be to pin me down on the grass, kneel on my arms, and drip blood into my face. There would always be a gang of boys watching, the usual suspects. And sometimes a teacher would intervene – but not often. There were only two teachers at the school, Miss Cox for the young ‘uns and Miss Lamb for the older ones. So break times were football and fights, or Graham Sutton would somehow have enough money for a bag of crisps and he would stand there nonchalantly eating them, one at a time, until you were forced to beg “Can I have a crisp please Sut?” His shoes were polished and his jumper was green and knitted. “People who ask don’t get” he said, lifting another crisp into his mouth. He was popular at primary school. The football pitch had a sand pit in the middle of it – a perfect square. We just played round it. One day we thought we saw The Beatles walking past the school fence, in the field, with Jane Asher, not all of them, just Paul and John and Jane and someone else. Excitement shuddered through the school. I’ve often thought about that moment. It can’t have been them though.
But it was.