The Kitchen Sink School of British Popular Music
Certainly the first Kitchen Sink song I was moved by must have been Herman’s Hermits version of Graham Gouldman’s “No Milk Today”, when I was about 7. I wasn’t sure what the song was about, but it brought me post-apocalyptic vibes, as if normal life was suspended because The Bomb had been dropped. Later, with more experience of life, I worked out it was about something worse, a relationship breakup.
No milk today, my love has gone away
The bottle stands forlorn, a symbol of the dawn
No milk today, it seems a common sight
But people passing by, don't know the reason why
How could they know just what this message means?
The end of my hopes, the end of all my dreams
How could they know the palace there had been
Behind the door where my love reigned as queen?
No milk today, it wasn't always so
The company was gay, we'd turn night into day
But all that's left is a place dark and lonely
A terraced house in a mean street back of town
Becomes a shrine when I think of you only
Just two up two down.
What makes this Kitchen Sink? The clear indicators that the setting is a working class home, and the domestic symbol used as a theme; the milk bottle, which would have been washed in the kitchen sink once empty, before being put back on the doorstep from whence it came.
Kitchen Sink Drama was a useful description of the plays introducing working class home life into British theatre in the Angry Young Man era of the late 1950’s – early 1960’s; the first example was John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956); other noticeable contributions were Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) and Arnold Wesker’s trilogy (1958-1960), where the kitchen is a place to work out politics as well as relationships and life choices. They had their precursors in the novels of social realist authors like George Gissing (1957-1903), of which George Orwell said “their central theme can be stated in three words — 'not enough money'. The dominant style of British theatre hitherto had been the drawing-room drama, where the middle class gather after dinner to discuss their problems while their servants washed up.
Coronation Street (1960) proved that the conventions of the kitchen sink drama could be turned into compelling mass entertainment, while films for TV and cinema proliferated (the sets were cheap and worked well in black and white) and spoke to Britain’s dour and half-starved post-war mood, the thirst of the younger generation to break free from stifling, deferential tradition, and the growing sense of working-class identity following the War and the post-war first Labour government’s drastic reforms.
Enter an American, Scott Walker, former child singing star and now one of the Walker Brothers, an enormously successful MOR singing group (their UK fans overturned their limo once) who seem to have disappeared from boomer consciousness, other than their string-sodden emo hit “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” (1965). One night Walker attended the London Playboy Club and was taken home by one of the hostesses, who introduced him to Kitchen Sink culture, which became Walker’s obsession and a way to sculpt the meaning and feeling in his songs. Realism in songs like “The Amorous Humphrey Plug” (“screaming kids on my knee and the telly, swallowing me”) and “Plastic Palace People” (both on Scott 2, 1968) allows for epiphanies, like a Rilkean magic realism, and is supported by the music, with its stolid pace of plodding nobility, rising to grandeur, and chord changes that seem to describe the architecture of a bedsit room or a mean street of two-up-two downs at night. Scott Walker had succeeded in turning the lyrical suggestion of the kitchen sink ethos into a musical one.
Many of The Smiths’ most-loved songs have a kitchen sink setting – “William it was Really Nothing”, “Girl Afraid” (“in the room downstairs he sat and stared”). Most obviously, “This Night has Opened my Eyes”, which quotes freely from A Taste of Honey, and The Smith’s cover art, which is often taken from the kitchen sink movie canon.
Squeeze’s hit “Up The Junction”, from Cool for Cats (1979), gives us a lighter, more overtly humorous way to approach the genre, as do some Pulp and Belle and Sebastian songs that it reminds me of.
We moved in to a basement
With thoughts of our engagement
We stayed in by the telly
Although the room was smelly
Follow me, I’m lost. If you can afford it, help me to find my way.
Broadcast’s “Come On Let’s Go” (from 2000’s The Noise made by People) is quintessentially kitchen sink in its poignancy – this Jules Holland Show version is the best of the three online. Even though its lyric includes no indication of place or milieu, the Scott Walker formula is heard at its best, and these are words to be spoken over a glass of milk at the kitchen sink, even if they do seem mighty prophetic today (the reference is most likely to being stuck in watching the telly, like the heroine in a 1960’s kitchen sink drama).
Stop looking for answers in everyone's face
Come on, let's go
What's the point in wasting time
On people that you'll never know?
As passionate in its “there must be more to life” meaning as Scott Walker’s work, “Come On Let’s Go” also shares with it a little coldness, as if there is no more money to put in the gas meter.
Is there still a kitchen sink sensibility in modern music? Perhaps the recession and the rising price of gas will bring it back to the UK. Can we find it in New Zealand? Perhaps the “building up” approach to city planning will create the right environment for a new Antipodean wave. Or has the ubiquity of weed and the internet relieved us of the true kitchen sink feeling, that “there must be more to life”?
Was there ever an equivalent to the kitchen sink song in American music? Paul Simon’s early work suggests some awareness of the British scene, but little connection to it. Jana Hunter’s “Have You got my Money'“ (2005) suggests that something corresponding to the kitchen sink might exist out there in some Winter’s Bone setting.
Have you got my money
I need the milk and my baby needs
Algorithmic hint: Sleaford Mods - UK GRIM