Certain Songs #857: The Kinks – “Phenomenal Cat”

Album: The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society
Year: 1968

Right. While other bands could emulate The Kinks riff-rocking and social commentary songs ::coughs:: The Who ::coughs:: there were songs on The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society that were totally and utterly unemulatable, that really could really have come from Raymond Douglas Davies.

“Phenomenal Cat” is one of those songs.

It is utterly whimsical to the point on verging on psychedelic — though honestly, I never even considered it as anything close to psychedelia until I real a couple of books while preparing to write about The Kinks — but is also anchored with a descending riff played by a just-tough-enough guitar that wasn’t unlike “Sunny Afternoon” or “Waterloo Sunset.”

But not like them, either, especially the lyrics.

A long, long time ago
In the land of idiot boys
There live a cat, a phenomenal cat
Who loved to wallow all day

No one bothered him
As he sat, content in his tree
He just lived to eat ’cause it kept him fat
And that’s how he wanted to stay

And by the way, the first verse is sung over Nicky Hopkins’ mellotron (on the “fey flute” setting) and Mick Avory hitting a floor tom — because a full kit completely ruin the mood — with the guitar coming in just to keep the whole thing from floating around aimlessly. Barely.

Though he was big and fat
All the world was good to him
And he pointed out on the map
All the places he had been
Cowes, Sardinia, Kathmandu
The Scilly Isles and Sahara through

And after the travelogue comes the chorus of “Phenomenal Cat,” which is perhaps the Kinksiest Kinks Khorus that ever Kinked, which is to have the Phenomenal Cat — Dave Davies as sped up through tape effects — sing the chorus, as the guitar goes away and it’s just the drum and mellotron.

Fum, fum, diddle-um di
La la la la, la-la la la
La la la la, la-la la la la
La la la la-la la la

Oh my god, this is so silly. Oh my god, this is so lovely. For the longest time, I couldn’t fully track with the silliness, but at the same time, I kept coming back to that chorus. And honestly, the lyrics.

Once when he was thin
He had flown to old Hong Kong
And had learned the secret of life
And the sea and the sky beyond.
So he gave up his diet and sat in a tree
And ate himself through eternity

Ray doesn’t say specifically, but it’s strongly implied that the secret of life is just hanging around, eating and singing all day. Which if so, is a good deal. Of course, whenever the Phenomenal Cat is asked to comment, all he has to say is this:

Fum, fum, diddle-um di
La la la la, la-la la la
La la la la, la-la la la la
La la la la-la la la

And in the end, “Phenomenal Cat” matches the “Waterloo sunset’s fine” moment for sheer beauty, as Ray and the Phenomenal Cat first duet “Fum, fum, diddle-um di” together, then just Ray all by himself, just one time — wistfully sighing “Fum, fum, diddle-um di” like he knows he’s never going achieve that kind of zen — as the mellotron curls around the melody and the Phenomenal Cat looks on in approval and sings a little bit as the song fades out.

This song shakes me to my core. It’s so silly and so profound, so happy and so sad, so full of contradictions and juxtapositions of eternal mysteries and everyday needs that I may never get to the bottom of it, so instead, I’m just going to sing “Fum, fum, diddle-um di” for the rest of my life if that’s OK.

“Phenomenal Cat”

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2 Responses to “Certain Songs #857: The Kinks – “Phenomenal Cat””

  1. Ira says:

    This is the best case I’ve seen for “Phenomenal Cat,” but lord help me, I just can’t like this song. It factors pretty heavily in “Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround” being my favorite Kinks album, in fact.

  2. Jim Connelly says:

    Heh. Yeah, I’ve long suspected that it was an acquired taste. And I can promise you that LOLA VS POWERMAN AND THE MONEYGOROUND is going to get great treatment in just a couple of days!

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