The Kinks’ ‘Celluloid Heroes’: Everybody’s a Star…

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No other songwriter in rock during the 1960s portrayed life in the British Isles as richly and as pointedly as The Kinks’ Ray Davies. In songs such as “A Well Respected Man,” “Autumn Almanac,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and “Dead End Street,” and on albums like Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur, Davies captured vividly the class-driven lifestyles and peculiarities of the English, both present-day and in times gone by.

By the time the 1970s kicked in, though, Davies had begun reaching into a deeper well for inspiration. The albums Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (1970), which took aim at the inequities of the music industry, and the following year’s country music-influenced, nostalgic Muswell Hillbillies, found Davies and the Kinks extending their lyrical and musical range.

For Everybody’s in Show-Biz, released on RCA Records in the summer of 1972, the Kinks went the double-live album route—one studio disc consisting of 10 brand new songs, and a live LP recorded at Carnegie Hall in March of that year. The latter consisted primarily of songs drawn from the recent studio albums, while Davies’ new material—the writing of which coincided with the Kinks’ trend toward more theatricality in their live performances—mixed the autobiographical (a few songs focused on the touring life—and the crappy food consumed along the way) and the observational.

Related: Everybody’s in Show-Biz revisited

The Kinks in 1972, with Ray Davies second from right

While not quite fully a concept album—not in the way that the following Preservation Act 1, Preservation Act 2 and Soap Opera were, anyway—the studio half of Everybody’s in Show-Biz was the most unified statement the band had made since 1969’s Arthur. It was, as all of their output had been over the past several years, exceptional.

It was also a relative bomb. In the United States, where the Kinks’ popularity had ebbed and flowed—largely due to a legal snafu that kept them from touring in the States between 1966-69—the album only reached #70 in Billboard, 35 points lower than Lola had (but better than Muswell Hillbillies, which stalled at #100). Show-Biz also failed to produce a hit single, whereas the title track of Lola had given them their first U.S. top 10 in five years.

In retrospect, what’s most astounding, perhaps, is how American radio—and, consequentially, record buyers—utterly failed to initially recognize what was easily one of Davies’ finest compositions to date: “Celluloid Heroes.”

Today, it’s considered something of a Kinks Klassik—one of those songs that defines the band and is often cited as being among Davies’ finest creations. The ballad finds the singer looking wistfully at the heyday of Hollywood, that era when all it took was a dream, a modicum of talent and a bus ticket to Los Angeles for fame to turn from a dream to reality—or not.

In the opening stanza, Davies sings: “Everybody’s a dreamer and everybody’s a star/And everybody’s in movies, it doesn’t matter who you are/There are stars in every city, in every house and on every street/And if you walk down Hollywood Boulevard, their names are written in concrete.”

“Don’t step on Greta Garbo”…

The latter reference, to the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame, is Davies’ nod to the many who’d come and gone, “Some that you recognize, some that you’ve hardly even heard of/People who worked and suffered and struggled for fame/Some who succeeded and some who suffered in vain.”

He name-checks several: First there’s Greta Garbo, who “looks so weak and fragile, that’s why she tried to be so hard.” There’s Rudolph Valentino (who “looks up ladies dresses as they sadly pass him by”), Bela Lugosi, Bette Davis, George Sanders and Mickey Rooney. And, of course, “dearest Marilyn,” the most glaring example of the star system’s lures and failures: “She should have been made of iron or steel/But she was only made of flesh and blood.”

Recorded with the piano of recent recruit John Gosling taking a prominent role, “Celluloid Heroes” was tender and melancholy, both tribute and admonition. It’s not the stars themselves that our narrator identifies with; it’s who they play. He doesn’t want so much to be a Hollywood star himself; he wants his own life to disappear into those of the characters on the screen. “Celluloid heroes never feel any pain, and celluloid heroes never really die,” Ray Davies sings. It’s a gem of a song that was almost lost amidst the indifference to an underrated album. Fortunately, its own star rose and hasn’t faded since.

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been one of the most respected and prolific music journalists in the country for some four decades. He was editor of Goldmine for 15 years, the first editor of CMJ and Grateful Dead Comix, and an editor of Relix magazine. He has written for dozens of publications including Billboard, Newsweek, Playbill, Creem, Mojo, Newsday, New York Daily News JazzTimes and others, and has contributed to the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music and All-Music Guide. He has written the liner notes for more than 80 CDs, including most of the Jefferson Airplane catalog as well as the Beach Boys, Merle Haggard, Tom Jones, Chubby Checker, Al Kooper and the J. Geils Band.

Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. As a consultant to the Music Club CD label, he assisted in releasing over 180 reissues and compilations, in styles ranging from jazz to country to pop. His first book was Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (published in June 2003) – the first biography of this legendary San Francisco band written with the cooperation of all of the band members. He is also the co-author of Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc, with Howard Kaylan. From 2002 to 2006 Jeff was the editor of Global Rhythm, the leading magazine for world music and global culture. He was the Associate Editor of JazzTimes from 2008-16. He lives in Hoboken, NJ, with his wife, the novelist and Boston Globe book columnist Caroline Leavitt. Their son, Max, is a theater major at Pace University in New York.
Jeff Tamarkin
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  1. Lanny
    #1 Lanny 13 August, 2017, 08:51

    Live version of Alcohol and Holiday should have been hit songs – one of the kinks best albums of all time.

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