An overlooked little gem, and about as pretty as anything in the Kinks’ catalogue, Phenomenal Cat is one of a number of quirky, idiosyncratic tracks off the classic Village Green Preservation Society, a quintessentially English album that featured Ray Davies being, as ever, both wryly and affectionately observant of the foibles of insular British society (as in the title track) and hopelessly nostalgic for days gone by (listen to the wonderful Do You Remember Walter?, about an old schoolmate, which concludes with the rather moving sentiment that things change, dreams are forgotten, old friends drift apart, but fond memories of people can remain). “I withdrew into my little community-spirit … my trivial world of little corner shops and English black-and-white movies”, said Ray, describing the record as his own version of psychedelia, suggesting, perhaps, that the distortions of memory can be just as illusory and deceptively beguiling as anything his rock ‘n roll peers were then experiencing under the influence of LSD.
In Sixties parlance, a “cool cat” was a guy who was hip by the standards of pop culture, but here Ray presents us with a phenomenal cat reared in the “land of idiot boys”, who’s been all over the world and seen it all, very much in the manner of an English gentleman of the Victorian era who’d toured the far-flung outposts of empire (I always picture him as an orange short-haired Tabby, the classic British “Imperial Cat”). It sounds almost like a children’s nursery rhyme, yet with satirical undertones straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan, leaving one to wonder whether we’re meant to feel admiration or disdain. Ray’s bandmate brother Dave suggests the former:
It shows in a very cunning and thoughtful way the mystical and spiritual potential we all have… Phenomenal Cat is the mystical side of all of us. It’s a metaphor, saying, ‘You do have a soul.’ The cat is the coolest part of you. You don’t know it yet but through healing we can throw your ideas up in the air and see which ones stick.
…but I’m not so sure. Upon closer listening you can also discern something of a bitter indictment of the privileged classes, who alone enjoy the luxury of stepping away from the fray to while away their days in quiet, untroubled contemplation. Fat, inert, unbothered, and blessed by fate is our phenomenal cat, now oblivious to the wider world, idly remembering how he once visited exotic places, and learned, he believes, some sort of profound yet nullifying truth, which inspired him merely to prefer doing nothing while giving up his diet and eating his way through eternity. And who knows, maybe he’s right. Once you’ve seen the reality of it all, and provided you have the means, why do anything more than sate every decadent impulse? What else can life really be for, honestly? And if nothing has any real meaning, then surely there’s no point in growing beyond the self-indulgent impulses of a little kid. Is that it? Or is there something more? Is this comfy cat in his tree enlightened or just depressed, lazy or simply at peace, philosophically serene or thoughtlessly complacent? Does he know something we don’t, or is he just a smug, self-satisfied quitter, vying for the Python Award for Upper Class Twit of the Year?
Ray’s voice, sped up to sound like a child’s, portrays this cat as both sly and inscrutable, betraying nothing, while singing happily and enigmatically to himself: Fum fum diddle um daaaaaaaa…..