One of my pastimes after college was attending an urban design graduate program. It was a pastime, I say, because I never quite fit in with the nice folks there. There were anarchists (I kid you not), community organizers, hardcore environmentalists of the EarthFirst kind, and anti-growth advocates. (And I thought I was an environmentalist when I entered!) You could do as you pleased there, because it was all pass/fail, and everyone passed and everyone did exactly as they pleased.
But it was there that I began to actually think about cities and the way they are put together, and there that I began to have a healthy fear of the urban planner -- the ones with all good intentions but a severe lack of understanding of communities. Thankfully, many of them are gone, and there is a sensitivity to communities, in making them human places, but that wasn't always the case back in the 60s.
That's exactly what Ray Davies and his band, The Kinks, are onto in Muswell Hillbillies, a 1971 album that's really a critique, a social commentary laced with wry humor, of heavy- handed British urban planning in the late 60s. It entertained me in high school and continues to provoke me today.
Why Muswell? Because that's the North London working class neighborhood where Ray and Dave Davies grew up. The site of heavy bombing in WWII, the Government came in and cleared whole neighborhoods, knocking down perfectly good homes that survived, simply because they did not fit into the "beauty" of the renewal scheme. As Davies says, "There was just one problem. They forgot the people." That's the tone of this concept album -- a critique of urban renewal by planners who really didn't know the community, the people, that they said they were trying to help.
For example, the album opener, "20th Century Man," is the cry of the last man on the block, who doesn't want his house knocked down. "This is the twentieth century/ but too much aggravation/ it's the age of insanity/ What has become of the green fields of Jerusalem? Other songs are about family members, like "Uncle Son," or "Holloway Jail," lending an interesting cast of characters to the album, peopling it with rich particulars that provide vivid images.
The album had no hit single, usually the kiss of death at that time in the business, and yet it became a cult favorite. It's tragi-comedy at its best. ""Here come the people in grey/ they're gonna take me away to Lord knows where,/ But I'm unprepared, I got no time to pack/ and I got nothing to wear,/ but here come the people in grey/ to take me away." By the time the album closes with the title track, a full picture is rendered: They're putting us in little boxes,/ No character just uniformity,/ They're trying to build a computerized community,/ But they'll never make a zombie out of me."
Funny, and then it's not.