The Kinks: “Powerman”
The Kinks were one of those bands, much like The Beatles, who could do little wrong in the ’60s and beginning of the ’70s. From Face to Face in 1966 through Muswell Hillbillies in 1971, they released six incredible studio albums in a row. While never experimenting in the studio the way The Beatles did — in fact, it’s easy to hear that it’s the same band playing on, say, 1970’s “Lola” that plays on 1965’s “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” something you would have trouble saying about the early vs. later Beatles — they continued to become a better band, and Ray Davies’ songwriting got better and better. Davies honed his talent for telling a complete story within the confines of a single song, a talent matched by few others in the history of rock music.
Davies became somewhat obsessed with the idea of the concept album, beginning with 1968’s The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and although this became his downfall later in the mid-’70s, when he simply could no longer maintain the quality and focus to hold them together (see the Preservation, Acts 1 and 2 albums), he put out some great ones in the process. One of the most focused of these was 1970’s Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. The title is merely a conglomeration of three of the album’s song titles, and doesn’t really hint at the content — “Lola” doesn’t really fit into the overall theme — but the album is Ray fighting the establishment, class inequalities, and the corruption of money and power. Several songs were focused specifically on how screwed-up he saw the music industry (that is, “The Moneygoround”) as being — Ray was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore.
The song “Powerman” is one of my favorites from the album, on which Davies rants against “powermen” — anyone obsessed with power and using it to get whatever they want at the expense of everyone else. He cleverly uses the phrase in two ways, referring to both the power itself as well as those who are wielding it:
It’s power, man, power, man, and all that it can bring.
Powerman don’t need to fight, powerman don’t need no guns
Powerman got money on his side.
The song begins with ringing acoustic guitar, and then Dave Davies’ machine-gun-like electric guitar kicks in and drives home the message. It seems almost pointless to stand up against the Powerman, but Ray has faith in the goodness of the common people, and after Dave (in his typically underrated vocal style) reminds us that there have been those trying to seize power for as long as man has been civilized, Ray returns to find the answer to not letting it get you down at the personal level:
And he’s got my money, but I’ve got my faith
And powerman, powerman, I’ll never be your slave.
Well I’m not rich and I’m not free
But I’ve got my girl and she’s got me.
It’s a seemingly pessimistic song that nonetheless leaves you with a sense of optimism. Followed up on the album by “Got to Be Free,” the underlying message is that, bad as things may be, you’ve always got your inner strength to pick you up and help you press on in the face of it all.