Sunday, 2 January 2011

Kinks 2 (The Chicken Tikka Masala story)

See My Friend (1965) [cuts off a bit suddenly, alas]

The song appears about the same time as The Beatles, Norwegian Wood which actually uses a sitar. This has no sitar but the modality is Indian. Frederick Harrison (in a very good article) reckons The Yardbirds were first to use the sitar in April 1965 in Heart Full of Soul, though the sitar version was only released in 1984.

I don't intend buying an anorak or becoming anything as God forsaken as 'an expert' in these things. I am not even particularly interested in who did what first, especially if it was by a matter of a few months. But this was probably the first time this sound entered popular consciousness, including mine.

What to make of it? That is an interesting question. How do we begin to 'like' something unfamiliar? And it's easy to forget how unfamiliar this was, and how odd it felt on the musical palate.

Well, of course, it is somewhat familiarised by being adapted to a rock format. The intro riff is located nicely half way between standard driving rock and something a little whinier, less determined. It is only once the voice comes in you know you are culturally displaced. Even then the rhythm section is holding you in strict four-square European time. As Ray Davies's voice modulates up, the Indian influence asserts itself. The traditional middle eight returns to Europe again, but you can't forget the melodic angularity and insistence of the tune. The words are very simple:

See my friends,
See my friends,
Layin' 'cross the river,

See my friends,
See my friends,
Layin' 'cross the river

It is on the Layin' cross the river line that the Indian influence is at its most potent.


When we arrived in England at the end of 1956 we had never seen a non-European before, and I remember stopping with my parents in Oxford Street to see an African in full-technicolour costume walk past on the other side of the street. We weren't the only people to look, but not having due English good manners, I imagine we would have been among the few to stare. How beautiful, said my mother.

There were no Indian or Chinese restaurants. We knew nothing of such things and my father remained suspicious of Chinese food until the end of the sixties.

My mother, however, had made friends at work - the photographic studio - with an Indian colleague, Khan (that is the name that sticks in my head), who had a blonde English girlfriend, Shirley. It is Khan you see in the photograph below, Shirley is next to my mother on the right. The other woman is a girlfriend of Shirley's. The scene is our garden in Kingsbury, London, somewhere about 1960. I remember being invited to Khan's a year or two later and he showed us musical instruments in his room, and played a quick game of chess with me. He kindly demolished some of my pieces but did not apply the coup de grace. I thought him handsome, intelligent, kindly but a little scary in that he frowned when concentrating so I could imagine him angry. I would have been about ten or eleven at the time. There were no Indian families living near us, nor Caribbean come to that. Interesting to think what the neighbours made of Khan in our back garden. Not that my mother would have cared.

Friends in Garden, c.1960-61

I don't remember how long the friendship continued. Almost all my mother's friendships were likely to end rather suddenly and mysteriously. This too might have done.

But the Kinks have taken me back to the Chicken Tikka Masala argument, I have featured a few times before. From the Wiki link, above:

A survey in the United Kingdom claimed that it is that country's most popular restaurant dish. One in seven curries sold in the UK is chicken tikka masala. The cross-cultural popularity of the dish in the UK led former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to proclaim it as "Britain's true national dish". Britain now exports chicken tikka masala to Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

There is something in Ray Davies's voice that has an element of Chicken Tikka Masala. This is a happy accident in some respects because the Davies voice doesn't change much over the years. I described it in the last Kinks post and am happy to stick with that, adding only that edge of whine which is essentially a tendency to shift delicately on and off note. I think - I stand to be corrected - that his was the only pop voice to slide in this way, a way not unfamiliar to Indian singing.

Not that I knew any of this. I was about to record my highest ever, and wholly misleading, score in a Maths exam, and to sign off Latin too with my first really decent mark. My school performance was a little like Davies's voice. Hitting a mark didn't mean it would stay there.

And Chicken Tikka Masala is in its way a natural dish and a symbol of hope. It means an open door and an exchange.

The Kinks were not to persist long with Indian influence. The Beatles and the garlanded Maharishi Mahesh Yogi were to follow (Ringo of their time with the Maharishi in India: It was just like Butlin's). Out of the Maharishi and the Beats grew flower power. I don't think I ever did wear flowers in my hair and San Francisco and Haight Ashbury were not altogether attractive to me. Apart from grass and LSD I had no idea of what counter-culture might mean then. I had trouble enough trying to identify the culture it was countering. Actually, that culture too was partly the Kinks, as it was soon to turn out. Next week.


panther said...

My father remained suspicious of Chinese food until the end of his life ! He died this time last year.

Indian, too.

Though he hated racism in any form and told us once he didn't want us to buy sweets from a particular sweetshop after he had witnessed the white owner making racist remarks to an Asian customer.

George S said...

As a matter of fact my father wasn't that ken on Chinese food. Hungarian food is hot and spicy and the delicate flavours of Chinese food might have seemed tasteless to him. Eating a lot of Hungarian food can be a little like having your palate sandblasted.

Indian food is a different matter of course and Dad really liked it. Mind you, Dad was of the generation who adored the Black and White Minstrel Show, and Peter Sellers as an Indian doctor. He would not have seen anything racist in either.

Good for your father's attitude to the sweetshop owner.

Diane said...

I must thank you for the Kinks!! Saw them perform live in Minneapolis in 1976 and had already fallen in love with them before that.