from the desk of H. Bowie...

desktop with typewriter


A song written by Ray Davies in 1975

Chief among this song’s many pleasures is Ray Davies’ largely successful attempt to encapsulate the entire history of human civilization within the first three verses. The recording is also an excellent example of how Ray can change characters and perspectives many times within the same song. In addition, the song demonstrates Ray’s ability to shield his main theme within multiple layers of story and character, until he is ready to fully state it. In this way, he keeps us as listeners always amused, yet always off-guard, never quite sure where he is headed until he suddenly reveals his underlying intentions.

The opening drums, along with slashing guitar and organ chords, are slow, powerful and raw, suggesting primitive forces running loose at the dawn of creation. This accompaniment is almost immediately replaced, however, by a cautious, cantering piano riff. The effect is something like a zoom shot at the beginning of a film, with the initial view providing perspective and location, gradually moving in for a close-up of our main character. Ray’s voice starts off quietly and gently, again sounding timid, like the piano.

In a deep dark jungle,
Long time ago,
Lived a lonesome caveman:
He was a solitary soul.

We are immediately given the problem to be solved: human isolation. Ray now elaborates, adding comic touches as he goes, letting us know that he is pulling our leg.

And he spent his playtime
Chewing meat from bones.
He didn’t know how to talk much —
He only knew how to groan.

We shift to minor chords and a more insistent beat now, adding a sense of drama to the accompanying words.

Then he lifted up his hands and reached to the sky,
Let out a yell and no one replied.
Frustration and torment tore him inside —
Then he fell to the ground and he cried and he cried.

Now, just when the Kinks have us genuinely worried about this poor soul, the humorous, upbeat chorus kicks in, abruptly announcing his salvation. Again, they are letting us know that they are still only kidding, and that the real point is yet to come.

But then — Education saved the day!
He learned to speak and communicate.
Education saved the day.
He thanked God for the friends he made.

We shift tones again, the rest of the chorus unfolding quietly, giving us the first foreshadowing of the real purpose of the song, still as yet unexplained. Ray’s voice turns appropriately wise and knowing at this point, playing the mature, modern liberal.

’Cause everybody needs an education.
Everybody needs an education.
Black skin, red skin, yellow or white —
Everybody needs to read and write.
Everybody needs an education.

The second verse starts now, but actually with a different chord structure, melody and accompaniment, much more urgent than the quiet opening verse. The driving beat propels us along.

Thank the day when that primitive man
Learned to talk with his brothers
And live off the land.
He left his cave and he moved far away,
And he lived with his friends in a house that they’d made.
He learned to think and to work with his brain,
And he astounded his friends with all the knowledge he gained.
He wrote it down on a rock that he found —
And he showed all his friends, and they passed it around.

The progress of the song is speeding up now, again reminding us of similar cinematic effects, such as pages quickly turning on a calendar. Our caveman is already building houses, living with roommates, and impressing friends with his vast knowledge. We now skip any kind of chorus and effectively go directly to the next verse, maintaining the sense of onrushing forward momentum.

Well, man built a boat and he learned how to sail
And he traveled far and wide.
Then he looked up above, saw the stars in the sky,
So he learned how to fly.

The rapid progress of the song is now almost dizzying. The sense is of man confidently conquering all of nature and bending it to his will. Quite a change from the lone caveman nearly overwhelmed by his primitive environment only a verse or two ago!

The tone and perspective suddenly shift now. Using a biting, sarcastic tone and sounding like a contemporary young punk, Ray spits out the next ungrateful words.

Thanks to all the mathematicians,
And the inventors with their high IQs,
And the professors in their colleges,
Trying to feed me knowledge
That I know I’ll never use.

Continuing in the same vein, but with a more considered and reasonable tone, Ray goes on.

Thank you sir for the millions of words
That you’ve handed me down and you’ve told me to learn.
But I’ve got words in my ears and my eyes —
I’ve got so many facts that I must memorize.

Ray now goes on to the upbeat chorus, but with altered words. At this point he is comically playing the modern man now overwhelmed, not by the forces of nature, but by the massive accumulation of human knowledge.

Because education’s doing me in —
I want to stop but my head’s in a swim.
Education drives me insane —
I can’t recall all the facts on my brain.

Ray now quickly reverts to his previous gratitude for the social benefits of education, contrasting it with the cynicism just displayed, and the more serious note to follow.

Education came that day.
The day it came was a sacred day.
Education saved the day.
He thanked God for all the friends he made.

Ray now reveals his real purpose, delivering the following words without any comic accents or overtones, but with straightforward earnestness, for the first time in the song.

Teacher, teach me how to read and write.
You can teach me ’bout biology.
But you can’t tell me what I am living for,
’Cause that’s still a mystery.
Teacher, teach me about nuclear physics,
And teach me about the structure of man,
But all your endless calculations
Can’t tell me why I am.
No you can’t tell me why I am.

Note how our hero has come full circle. Starting out physically isolated from other people, he now has all the knowledge and communication abilities of modern civilization at his command. Yet he finds himself still alone, unable to divine his own purpose for existence from any outside source, having only his own internal resources to call upon.

Dave Davies takes a piercingly lovely guitar solo at this point, gradually ascending the scale, but with adorning flourishes and embellishments along the way. The solo perfectly expresses the inability of words or of any civilized structure to adequately communicate the essence of a single individual. The purpose of even a single human life cannot be expressed in words, its mystery touched upon only by this haunting musical expression.

The main theme of the song now successfully delivered, the Kinks retreat back into humor, delivering the following lyrics with comic bombast. The word “education” is now repeated, almost as a chant, at the end of every line. The reasonable modern liberal tone taken earlier is now exaggerated, the implicit condescension now brought out into the open.

Everybody needs education,
Open Universities (education).
Every race, every creed (education),
And every little half-breed (education).
Every nationality (education).
All the little people need education.
Eskimos and pygmies need
And even aborigines, education.

The song now speeds up, heading for its big finish. Typical school subjects are listed in the lyrics, still accompanied by the ongoing “education” chant. Finally, just the one word is repeated over and over, until the song finally slides to a melodramatic close.

Again looking for cinematic comparisons, I am reminded of some of Frank Capra’s great films. Like Capra, the Kinks offers a message of humanism and individuality. Also like this great American film director, the Kinks use humor to lighten their fundamentally serious tone, to win the audience’s sympathy, and to misdirect the viewer/listener, making the serious scenes all the more effective when they finally come.

The overall progression of the song, of course, is one of liberation: liberation from ignorance, powerlessness and isolation initially, followed by liberation from the dominating influence of modern bureaucrats, educators and intellectuals who insist they know what is best for us. Almost paradoxically, but utterly true to rock’s fundamental methods and principles, we are simultaneously liberated from isolation into cooperation, and from conformity into individuality.

The liberation discussed in the lyrics is more than mirrored by the freedom taken with the structure of the song. The Kinks use the pop conventions of chorus and verse here only in their loosest sense, freely adapting the chords, melody, tempo and accompaniment as they go along to suit the intent of the lyrics. As with many great rock recordings, the effect is one of breaking down artificial boundaries and limitations, sprawling past the normal guidelines, and breaking out of past constraints.

May 5, 2005