We find the former Kink in reflective mood at Konk Studios, as he talks UK politics, relations with brother Dave, and the latest album in his Americana trilogy
To Konk Studios for an audience with its proprietor, SIR RAY DAVIES. There Andy Gill discovers the former Kink in a philosophical mood, reflecting on recent upheavals in British society, his own well-respected legacy and the current state of relations between brother Dave and himself. Although there is a new album due - Our Country, the next chapter in his Americana trilogy - Davies’ eyes are firmly fixed on the horizon. “I’ve got a great story,” he confides. “It’s about siblings…” IHornsey. t is an unfeasibly sunny April afternoon at Ray Davies’ Konk Studios in north London. the complex sprawls discreetly, tardis-like, through several semis in genteel suburban
Upon learning I arrived via the A406, London’s notorious North Circular, Davies murmurs, “I wrote a song about the 406 once. It’s called ‘Aggravation’…” Davies knows about aggravation. Indeed, it seems to have proliferated exponentially through much of his career. the famously violent aggro that constitutes such a storied part of the Kinks’ legend led to the aggravation of their being banned from touring America for much of the ’60s, which in turn helped precipitate the business and subsequent legal aggravations that prevented Ray from accessing his due songwriter’s royalties for several years. It’s a cruel trail of toppling dominoes that brought this mild-mannered fellow to the brink of breakdown. You want aggravation? He’s plenty to spare.
In recent years, though, Ray’s ship has docked with a satisfyingly redemptive cargo of distinctions. Sunny
Afternoon, the jukebox musical built around his Kinks catalogue, won a hatful of Olivier Awards, including his Outstanding Achievement In Music. And, of course, he is our most recently ennobled musical Knight – though you’d never guess it from his appearance, which is resolutely casual, from plaid shirt to trainers. He’s surprisingly soft-spoken, too; a tad withered by age, but the infinite variety of his creativity remains undimmed.
We set up in one of the studios, where the floor groans momentarily under my tread. “that part of the floor’s creaked for years,” chuckles Ray. “It’s where the vocal mic was set up, so it got a lot of punishment.” He gazes round the room with the air of genial wistfulness that characterised so many of the Kinks’ classics. “the Kinks were a good band,” he says, needlessly. “this room holds many memories for me. We recorded loads of records here: Mick Avory’s drums would be set up over there, beneath the control room. that line from his “unofficial autobiography” X-Ray is about here, ‘The air conditioning had all his songs on its breath’.” Well, not quite all of them. Davies has hundreds of unrecorded, unfinished songs hoarded away, just
“I miss the Cold War. You knew where you stood”
awaiting a home in one of his many thematic projects. A forthcoming Anniversary Edition of The Kinks’ masterpiece The Village Green Preservation Society will include another 20 or so unreleased songs, he reveals, while the imminent second instalment of his album trilogy, Our Country: Americana Act II, is due to be followed by a third next year. Like a dog with a bone, once Davies gets his teeth into a project, it gets well and truly chewed. In a sense he really is his work, as if he’s trying to substitute his actions for his self. Tellingly, when he wrote X-Ray, he devised an ingenious semi-fictional format that allowed him to remain effectively at one remove from his own life.
So it’s no surprise that, although calm and collected, there’s an underlying air of melancholic restlessness about Davies, confirmed by the revelations that he has no pictures on his walls and never unpacks his suitcase – as if always ready to escape. Possibly from himself. “I’m still essentially that kid walking around north London,” he admits, “looking for somewhere to go.” You’re now Sir Ray Davies. As a working-class outsider, did you have any qualms about accepting a knighthood? I thought about it a bit. I was offered one before, but this time I thought about my parents’ generation, people born on the cusp of the First World War who lived through the Second World War, struggled all their lives, and unleashed brats like us in the 1960s who wanted to undo all the things they’d tried so hard to put together. I did it for my parents, my family, who were thrilled. Ironically, all the public-school guys who fed off your success in the ’60s would be absolutely green with envy at your ennobling. The sort of public-school guys I knew… Kim Philby was a public-school boy. I went to college with his son John. On summer break, he said, “I’m going to see my father.” I said, “Where’s that?” He said, “Moscow!” When he came back after the holidays, he was followed around by MI5 for days. They tailed us to the pub. It was the height of the Cold War then. You know, I miss the Cold War. You knew where you stood back then. The title track of Our Country contains an explicit celebration of immigration into Britain, of the various cultures feeding into it. The song was written for many different reasons. Part of it was our country, us being the invaders going into America. Then I started writing freeform lyrics, and it
turned out to be a right-wing manifesto, so I knocked that one on the head! The first verse is about the ’60s changes in my country, how anybody leaving our country got disillusioned. Then it turns into a mass of speeches. So you can take it in many different ways. And now we have the Windrush disgrace. The Caribbean brought great music – ska, reggae, all great rhythmic things – to Britain. So to be told you don’t belong is awful. I heard you have to have four different pieces of proof for each year you’ve been here – who has that? But it makes Our Country, dare I say, topical. It could have been written this year. Do you see yourself as establishing a vein of English songwriting, or are you more part of a longer tradition, such as Noël Coward? I think I could be bracketed within that tradition. From very early on, there was big play made of the fact that we sang in our London accents. My inspiration was the blues – Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters – but my delivery was always very English. I remember once, doing an album in the ’70s, I said I want it more like Mad Dogs & Englishmen. Mick
[Avory] said, “What do you mean – like Leon Russell?” I said, “No. Like Noël Coward!” Some would say you were a precursor of Brexit decades ago, with albums like Village Green
Preservation Society and Arthur lamenting the erosion of parochial English culture. It’s such a horrible word, the B-word. But there’s an anniversary edition of Village Green Preservation
Society coming out later this year, and it brings a new dynamic to it. Preservation Society resonates differently because of present-day culture and politics. But I try not to write explicitly political songs. A famous songwriter told me once, “Avoid writing political songs.” Who was that? I’m not telling you! Someone from another generation. I’m presuming you voted Remain? I don’t vote. It’s such an emotive issue, and it was so rushed, by a prime minister who wanted out of it anyway. I don’t think the country got the whole story. It was too big for him to deal with, a massive undertaking. And it’s undoing everything that was set up in the 1950s, all that postwar progress through things like the NHS. People are really worried, because when it comes in there’ll be huge cuts in arts funding. You were a classic ’60s art-student pop star… I wasn’t a pop star while I was an art student! In the ’60s, as a kid leaving secondary school, there was no possibility that I could go to university. I was lucky to pass the exam and get to go to art college, which is where I did most of my learning. I did a combination of fine art and more documentary-style, political art. And I did theatre and film on another course, at the Central School. But then I joined the band instead. Learning art now is different: they teach you how to get jobs! Back then, you got your degree and the next stop was Paris, a garret somewhere. Would you have become a painter if the music hadn’t worked out? A big decision I made was after “You Really Got Me”: I wanted to make one hit record, so I could go off and paint, make film, do theatre. Then I got on a treadmill – you’ve got to pay for lawsuits, you’ve got to play gigs, make more records. It was litigation that kept us together! It’s a great motivator. To quote a line from one of my old songs, “Top Of The Pops”, “This might turn into a steady job.” That’s from Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, yes? Which I’m going to do a major rewrite of in the next few years. That was way ahead of its time regarding the music biz. The track “The Moneygoround” should be required listening for every aspiring pop musician with dreams of the industry. It’s true as well: the financial breakdown in that song is absolutely correct. It’s a horrible industry – but I’m sure that people in other industries, Facebook and digital media, get better deals. But the modern system is all based around streaming, and my stuff is probably unstreamable, because there’s a lot of story content. It’s really difficult for people like to me to make money, because we’ve gone back to a threeminute culture, and I go for the big-picture, conceptualised album, the bigger story. The
Americana project, which Our Country is the second part of, has a third album to come next year. The nearest equivalent is something like the TV box set. The dream is eventually to present it as a performance piece, with rear projections, actors, musicians. I’m always looking for a new way to engage creativity. You’ve always been like that, from way back: you wrote concept album after concept album after rock opera… Much to the frustration of my band, who just wanted to do gigs! But then, they didn’t have to write the songs. All songwriters in bands face the moment when they come back from touring and, while their bandmates are going off on holiday, they get the phone call from the record company about the next album. Phone call? They turned up on my doorstep! “The record’s just dropped out of the Top 10, we need another.” No wonder all the writers are screwed up! You seemed to be on a treadmill even when
you weren’t required to be. I understand there are reputedly hundreds of songs that never made it to the studio? There are. The anniversary reissue of Preservation
Society is not just going to include songs that haven’t been released, it’ll have songs that are in the process of being written! I’ve got about 20 of those – I found all these notes when I was going through stuff. I’m a bit of a hoarder. Much to the frustration of people who work with me. Still looking for Rosebud! There’s always been a melancholy retrospective air to many of your songs, as if looking back from the future. I try to put things in perspective when I write. I can’t write just a fantasy song; they’re always tinged with reality. The real world’s always waiting just across the hill. It’s the pioneer spirit of people crossing America. On Our Country, “The Real World” is about someone trying to escape from it. His wife tells him, “Go off and find a new life, but you’ll come back to reality eventually.” In America, it’s possible to disappear. I found that out in New Orleans, which is full of people who came from other parts of America to create a new life, start from scratch again. But eventually, the past catches up with you. We did a show at the Hollywood Bowl back in the ’60s. This was when my brother was fighting with Mick Avory, our management had pulled out, and our tour manager was just this man who ran a hardware shop, and there we were at the Hollywood Bowl with The Righteous Brothers, Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher, The Byrds, Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs. It was awful, there was all this aggro backstage. It was a nightmare. We got banned for four years. Not just because of that gig, it was a cumulative thing. Which is a pivotal plotline to Americana, going back there to restore what was taken away from us. The Kinks employed elements of what we now call camp. Perhaps that bothered Americans more than Brits, who were used to camp through music hall? When I say the Kinks ban was a cumulative thing, I think the capper was on the Hullabaloo show, where they had Freddie & The Dreamers doing their thing, and Annette Funicello or whoever, and they’d cut to the artists looking cool, and when they cut to us it was me and Mick Avory dancing together, ballroom dancing. Went down like a plate of cold vomit! In retrospect, the undertow of sexual ambivalence in The Kinks probably helped lay the groundwork for the glam era. I sang for the girl. “Girl, I want to be with you all of the
night.” I was struggling with that context, and maybe the way I delivered it live, I’m suggesting, forget the lyrics, forget the music, in the performance I’ve got issues with this song – that’s what he’s saying. I make the mistake of looking for subtext in a lot of my songs. Sometimes people just want to hear the music. I need more – if I wrote a song saying, “I’m feeling great today,” you just know something bad’s about to happen! But then I can reconcile it by writing the third verse. That’s the joy of songwriting. In some of your solo work you seem to pair songs, as if offering different views of the same situation. In my later songs, I cut a lot of images together, like a statue of a war hero juxtaposed with someone begging on a street corner; I try to set up loads of ideas. It’s like a default in my system, to put all of the cards on the table – if the cards aren’t all on the table, show the one up your sleeve. I like being an outside observer, try to write it like a play. And I put myself into different characters: the guy who sings “Celluloid Hero” isn’t the same g uy that sings “All Day & All Of The Night”. They’re characters acted within the song. On Village Green, songs like “Picture Book” and “People Take Pictures Of Themselves” presented photography as a form of proof that things had happened. Nowadays people even share pictures of their dinner – it’s become a modern mania. Do you do social media? I carried a camera everywhere when I was living the events in Americana, making a home video. So I’m guilty of that, but I don’t share them on Instagram. I do the internet, because I have to. I think eventually texting will change the way people communicate – a new language will evolve, like the old-fashioned telegram, when you had to pay for every letter. Village Green was planned as a double album, but cut back. Do you think it would have made more impact at the time as a double? It was planned as a Walt Disney fantasy extravaganza! It was going to be a musical. There’s a quote from the
NME from back then where I said I wanted to be the musical Walt Disney, as a platform to do songs about English society as I saw it at the time. It gave me an initiative to write, because if I’d just been writing singles, I would have stopped. If we’d got paid, and litigation had ended, I would have quit after “Tired Of Waiting For You”. Three No 1 records and out. From what one reads, you seem like someone who never really feels at home, or fulfilled. Is restlessness a spur to your creativity? In the sense of homelessness, I’m not trying to find a home. My family were very close-knit, so we all lived close together, through the years when I was out on the road. I only left my parents’ home when I got married. Then I got divorced, that explosion… I never unpack my clothes. I always keep a case packed, ready to move out. It affects a lot of people that way, divorce. But I’m a restless person. Do you think life nowadays has become more extremist, in general? People tend to think in terms of black or white, right or wrong… In old cowboy movies, the bad guys always wore black hats. Nowadays it’s harder to distinguish
anybody. Particularly with action heroes: you knew Superman was a good guy, but I’m not so sure about some of these monsters in action movies now.
They reflect American murder culture...
When I was in hospital after being shot in New Orleans, there was a TV on the wall, showing endless gangster movies, people getting shot all the time. I thought, ‘Do the people who make these movies realise that you get hurt when you really get shot?’ It is a very strange culture. Apparently the guy that shot me bought his gun in Walgreens pharmacy.
Has being so quintessentially English been a help or a hindrance when dealing with America?
It’s a different culture – we speak the same language, but we have different meanings for the same words. When I was working with The Jayhawks on Americana, I said, “Oh, we’ll double-track the vocal.” They said, “What do you mean? Oh, stack them!” Different terms. It’s particularly pronounced when touring America. Each district has a different culture. There’s so many regional distinctions in America; these days it’s probably easier with the internet, but back then you had to tour, you had to be in town, or else the local radio wouldn’t play you. So when The Kinks were banned from touring, we couldn’t get on television or radio. And yet “WellRespected Man” came out, a demo, with me singing in a very English accent, and it got into the Top 10, one of our biggest early hits. How satisfying was it to win the Olivier Theatre Awards for the
Sunny Afternoon musical? I don’t usually like awards ceremonies, but I went to that one. It’s a very competitive world – these shows run for years, subsidised by big corporations. It’s all about paying rent on the theatre. Hopefully, it’s going to America next year. I’ve got a couple of other musical projects I’m working on – it’s a world that interests me, as does film. I still haven’t left art college, clearly! I’m still looking for the right combination. That’s why Our
Country is so important to me, seeing that through. And when we get the next phase done, it’s like building an estate, it’ll really pay off. It’ll be rounded.
Ah, but then you’ll want to do Phase 4, won’t you?
No, I’ll move on to something else. I’ve got a great story. It’s about siblings.
So, will there ever be a Kinks reunion tour?
I don’t know. Dave’s still not very well. But it’s a nice fantasy. Don’t fancy playing the O2, though. If we got together again, we’d play a pub. No business sense at all! That’s part of the charm of The Kinks – we were never seduced by luxury. I don’t have that sort of thing. I don’t have pictures on the wall; you have to take them down eventually. I once had a girlfriend, between marriages, she kept visiting me in the flat I had at the time. We didn’t last long – afterwards, she sent me a little photograph with a note that read, “Put this on your wall so you have some company!” I didn’t see the need to decorate the walls, because I wasn’t going to be there that long. I don’t carry memories. Our Country: Americana Act II is out on June 22 via Sony Legacy
“I like being an outside observer…”
The Kinks at a request stop in Muswell Hill, September 7, 1964; (right) Ray receives his knighthood at Buckingham Palace, March 16, 2017
“This might turn into a steady job ”: Davies, at the BBC, 1968
The Kinks on NBC variety show Hullabaloo, Feb 1965, NYC
Ray guests with Dave at Islington Assembly Hall, December 18, 2015