IRONING OUT THE KINKS
The frontman behind one of pop’s great bands takes a gentler view of life these days, writes Dan Cairns
EVERY other summer for the past six years, Ray Davies has held a residential course in songwriting for the Arvon Foundation. ‘‘ I thought he’d fly in for a couple of hours and let an assistant do the rest,’’ blogged one recent participant. ‘‘ But he was so selfless. That’s not the image we have of celebrities, being so giving.’’
There are plenty of people who have played alongside, managed, produced or married Davies in the course of the past 40- odd years who may raise an eyebrow at such a description. The central irony of the former Kink’s life — that as a musician he is one of pop’s most effective communicators, while on a personal level he has always seemed to struggle with intimacy — is not lost on him. Talking about a lyric in his new song One More Time — ‘‘ Why is true love so difficult to find?’’ — he says: ‘‘ Every time I sing that line, I get a funny, eerie chill.’’
A notorious skinflint who apparently used to walk around London in the early days of the Kinks with all his cash stuffed in one of his socks, the 63- year- old risks debunking his cagey, tightwad reputation by giving away copies of his new album, Working Man’s Cafe , with Britain’s The Sunday Times . But Davies has always been fleet of foot when it comes to evading categories and expectations. He may have shown an uncanny knack for prising defeat from the jaws of victory, as when, on the cusp of a breakthrough in 1965, a violent argument with a union fixer on a US television set led to the Kinks being banned from performing in the US for four years.
But he has also demonstrated a prescience at odds, again, with received wisdom, which has Davies down as a curmudgeonly Little Englander, forever shackled to his past and railing against modern life.
His live show Storyteller , which mixed sung performance with inter- song reminiscences, inspired the US music show of the same name. And here he is, 50 years after he first picked up a guitar, surfing the cover- mount Zeitgeist and seemingly quite comfortable in the uncharted commercial waters in which he has set sail.
Well, fairly comfortable, at any rate. ‘‘ I think I’d rather have stayed in the West Country and gone fishing,’’ he cackles, when our discussion turns to the value that is placed on music in today’s file- sharing environment. ‘‘ It’s difficult for people like me not to sound hypocritical, because music is for the people. But there must be some means of compensation to the artist. I’m supposed to be a wise old head, but I’m baffled by it all.’’
We are in Davies’s publicist’s office in north London, and the singer, despite sitting semiconcealed beside a bookcase, is in affable form. He begins by removing his shoes. He tends to do this, he says, because it eases the pain in the leg in which he was shot during a robbery in New Orleans in 2004. He is wary, he admits, of succumbing to nostalgia for the old record industry days, even though, like many, he is pessimistic about the present situation.
‘‘ We got totally ripped off,’’ he says about the early contracts the Kinks signed. ‘‘ Now, though? I’m not saying Oxfam should start a record company, but it’s getting that way. At what point does it become charitable? The good thing about the music industry, back in the Wild West days, was that there was always another crook to go to. Now it’s down to two or three major labels that own the world.’’
Davies traces the present crisis back to the 1970s, when ‘‘ it became grotesquely inflated. I remember sitting in Warner Bros and this man said, ‘ I’ve got some bad news today. We’ve become an industry.’ ’’ Not that Davies is entirely against the coexistence of creativity and the bottom line. ‘‘ I don’t know if commerce should dictate art, but in a sense it always has. The wisest, most durable painters always had a bit of a business head, from Michelangelo. Rembrandt had to go to his benefactors. And I can go on about the bad old days of corporate interference, but it’s good to have something to fight against: it gets the anger up. Or people go off and make concept albums.’’
Including, of course, Davies, who embarked on a succession of such records with 1968’ s superb The Village Green Preservation Society , before descending into megalomania with stinkers such as the two mid-’ 70s albums Preservation Act 1 and 2 . This least lovely period in the Kinks’ canon culminated in 1975’ s wretched Soap Opera album. The conceptual conceit here was that a delusional accountant named Norman believed he was Davies; thus, live shows depicted ‘‘ Norman’’ ( oh go on, then: Ray) acting out this fantasy by singing Davies’s compositions. Not surprisingly, the Kinks left their record label shortly afterwards.
A key track on Working Man’s Cafe seems to touch on this state of confusion, of a sense of identity being bent out of all recognition by other people’s perceptions.
‘‘ It’s been great to watch the sights,’’ Davies sings on Imaginary Man, ‘‘ playing the edited highlights. And all the outtakes you did not see were only my unreality.’’ The song opens with the arresting and implicitly stock- taking question, ‘‘ Is this really it?’’
‘‘ If you say that,’’ argues Davies, ‘‘ people get it at once. If you open a door for the listener, you’ve got their attention, simply because you’ve just said, ‘ Please come in and find your world within mine.’ I did some writing once with ( playwright and scriptwriter) Jack Rosenthal, and he said the best way to start a film or a play is to see a brick going through a window. You want to know.’’
What was largely missing from those mid-’ 70s conceptual nadirs — the tunesmithery that produced imperishable classics such as Waterloo Sunset , Sunny Afternoon and You Really Got Me; the inclusiveness and need- to- know structures of his human mini- dramas — is what Davies’s new album shows him rediscovering. His first official solo album, last year’s Other People’s Lives , may have been lyrically acute but, with one or two exceptions, it failed to reconnect with that once gushing musical and narrative wellspring.
In contrast, Working Man’s Cafe positively bristles with melodies and inquiry. The ‘‘ oohooh’’ harmonies on Imaginary Man; the descending chord progressions on Peace in Our Time and You’re Asking Me: these work to templates invented by Davies that are his and his alone. As, too, is his ability deftly to turn the general into the personal, which is at its most devastating on the title track. Beginning as a lament for landmarks and reassurances lost in the hurly- burly of change and progress, the song switches suddenly and unmistakably to the subject of Davies’s younger brother and longterm love- hate figure, Dave: ‘‘ I thought I knew you then, but will I know you now?’’ the elder sibling sings. ‘‘ There’s got to be a place for us to meet/ I’ll call you when I’ve found it.’’
‘‘ I would like to work with him on a creative level again,’’ Davies says of his brother, who suffered a stroke only months after Davies was shot. ‘‘ It’s something I really look forward to, as irksome and painful as it can be at times. But it’s the spark that made that unit function in the way it did. I miss that opposition. I’m not saying what I do now is unopposed, or that I don’t do a certain amount of self- criticism, but I do miss that continually having to prove my point.’’
The self- criticism he brings to bear on his work is an inevitable part, Davies says, of the solitary nature of songwriting. When I ask him if his personality made this process more insular than it might have been, or vice versa, his answer goes round and round the houses. ‘‘ I was solitary as a child,’’ he begins, ‘‘ in a big family, but very selfcontained.’’ ( He was the second- youngest of eight children, and Dave, his only brother, was born three years after him.)
‘‘ Songwriting suited my lifestyle,’’ he continues. ‘‘ It was something I could do really late at night when I couldn’t sleep.’’ Later, he doubles back. ‘‘ It really suited my development as a person: we came together at the right time, the art form and the person. After the first few hits, I thought, ‘ Here’s this wonderful opportunity to develop this mad, chaotic bunch of people and just give them things to play.’
‘‘ The only downside was that I didn’t really go out and enjoy the ’ 60s: I stayed home and wrote songs, in a semi. But, you know, what’s wrong with that?’’
Plenty, apparently. ‘‘ People would say, ‘ If only Ray Davies would do a solo album, get away from the Kinks.’ But I’ve done that, and I miss them, I miss the playing, casting music for them. We’d make records like Village Green , somehow knowing that it might be a flop, but it was a cause, we all believed in it. You can do that with bands. It’s like Radiohead saying, ‘ Let’s put this record out and let people pay what they want for it.’ A band can make that statement. It’s much more difficult as a solo performer.’’
Private space, he says, is overrated. ‘‘ You go, ‘ I’m alone at last’, and what happens? You can’t write. A lot of the good stuff is written on the back of newspapers you’re carrying around, anyway. But I’m really bad at taking that handwritten scrap and typing it into a computer. In a strange way, it loses its innocence if you do. It’s not as tactile, you can’t feel it, that moment in a restaurant when you wrote it on a napkin.’’
He pauses, and lets out a long sigh. ‘‘ I’m so dumb, it’s not true. Why can’t I just be normal?’’ Like the quintessential songwriter that he is, hovering above himself, self- medicating through song, Davies reflects: ‘‘ I write a lot to discover why I’ve reacted in a certain way, or how I behaved, why that moment affected me.’’
He ends with the startlingly bleak conclusion: ‘‘ I’m so uncomfortable being a solo artist, it really is awful.’’
Morphine Song , another key new track, unites all of Davies’s gifts in one four- minute package: narrative, setting, contrast ( the jaunty knees- up of a tune, jollied along by accordion and brass; the narrator’s humour- coated but essentially bleak, hospital- bed view of life, and death, going past). On No One Listen , he attempts to cauterise the psychological wounds resulting from his shooting with a wry but menacing sideswipe at the Louisiana justice system, which recently announced it was not proceeding with charges against the singer’s assailants.
‘‘ It has given me considerable grief,’’ he says. ‘‘ Do you let somebody go who you know perpetrated the crime?’’
Later, on the phone, Davies is in even more avuncular form, laughing when I suggest he has been burdened with a sourpuss, doom- mongering reputation every bit as onerous as the stupendous back catalogue he carries around with him. ‘‘ I don’t think my work is as glum as people make out,’’ he chuckles. ‘‘ Sourpuss and doom- monger? I definitely oppose that.’’
I ask him if he ever plays his music to his children ( he has four daughters from separate relationships). ‘‘ I’ve got an adorable 10- year- old who just likes the hip- hop,’’ he answers, sounding slightly downcast. ‘‘ The older ones get to listen to my music eventually. It’s always nice when someone close to you says, ‘ Yeah, that’s pretty good.’ I remember with my last album, I played it in my car to my youngest daughter and afterwards she said, ‘ Dad, do you have any other songs?’ ’’ Oh, just a few.
The Sunday Times
Effective communicator: Ray Davies, singer and songwriter with the Kinks, and latterly a solo artist
A dedicated following: The Kinks in the 1960s