By Mark Guarino
On January 4, 2004 the national news wires quietly moved one of the more unusual news stories of the week: Ray Davies, songwriter and leader of the 1960s British Invasion band The Kinks, was shot in the leg by a mugger in the streets of the French Quarter of New Orleans.
As a newsmaker, Davies is not exactly up there with Brad Pitt. He hadn’t had a hit song since 1983 and he’s dead to your average homemaker glued to the pretty faces of “Access Hollywood.” But even to the casual fan who can hum “Come Dancing,” “Lola” or “You Really Got Me,” the news that the most British of British songwriters was living, not in the Muswell Hill neighborhood of London that he made famous in his songs, but in the humid swamplands of Louisiana, didn’t quite add up.
Yet to the cult of Kinks obsessives, the news was just part of what they already knew about Davies. Which is: not much. The Kinks are considered one of the all-time greatest rock bands of all time, with a back catalog that’s more diverse than The Beatles, more threatening than The Who and more psychologically complex than The Rolling Stones. As early as 1964, the band introduced the dangerous pleasure of guitar distortion, influencing every band that came in its wake, particularly those later defining themselves as heavy metal and punk. Davies is considered one of rock’s true humanists, with songs that delve into working class life with both satirical wit and deep compassion.
But while all this may be true, the simple fact is Davies and his collaborator brother Dave have somehow been doomed to the sidelines. As their peers cash out the last phase of their careers with high priced tours in sports arenas, the Davies brothers don’t have that opportunity. To their followers, the reason for this is like the mystery of Amelia Earhart. Whether it was self-sabotage, their hoodlum ways, Ray’s disdain for the press or the brothers’ physical and legal fights that endured decades, somehow The Kinks became engulfed in a fog and no one has a clear explanation why.
“I’ve spent every interview with every rock star discussing The Kinks and could not figure out why they weren’t bigger,” said Q101’s Mancow Muller, a self-proclaimed Kinks disciple. “I believe if Ray could have gotten out of his own way, we’d be talking about him, not John Lennon or Mick Jagger.”
“We didn’t think too much about our own star status. Maybe we should have. We probably would have all been sort of doing a little bit better than we are now. But I’m glad we kept our sense of humor. People forget that we were punks. A lot of people, my peers, were frightened of punk when it came out. But I thought the Sex Pistols were the funniest band I’d ever seen.”
Ray Davies is talking to the press. A few weeks ago, after insisting he didn’t want to do interviews, he is on the phone from his home in London, reminiscing. His gunshot wound gave him the most press he’s had in years, but this time the exposure is for a better cause: “Other People’s Lives” (V2), his first new album of new music in 13 years.
As the title suggests, the album is rife with character songs, of people nearing the end of their life, seeing the end of the train line in sight and wondering what to do before they arrive.
To Davies, 61, the answer is simple: jump the track. “Time is the avenger/but why should we just surrender to it?” he sings (“Run Away From Time”). Against depression, a constant theme throughout his career, he sings, “don’t turn into a total embarrassment for your friends and family/go out of bed, the whole day’s ahead, so take the pills and drink your tea” The song’s title poses a challenge: “Is There Life After Breakfast?”
“I ask myself that question every day,” he said.
That Davies is able to get inside the head of his characters, joke with them and then deliver their innermost secrets and dreams is something he’s been doing since the 1960s. On albums like “Muswell Hillbillies, “ “Village Green Preservation Society” and many others, he championed the anonymous and the marginalized while using music — American country music, British vaudeville and folk — that charmed.
“You know, English people are a little bit wistful and mundane and I like people who have little quirks in their lives. And the lower achieving people. I think they’re worth writing about. And I don’t think I’ve lost that … Maybe I should form a group called The Quirks,” he said.
Although the pubs and livings rooms of Muswell Hill, the northern London neighborhood where he grew up, is the constant backdrop in his songbook, the majority of his new songs were written in New Orleans, where he lived until recently. Living in the Faubourg Marigny, a quiet neighborhood outside the French Quarter, he said his life involved walking to a bakery in the morning, riding his bike, writing and listening to music at night. “It was just great,” he said.
“I felt comfortable there because America is, you know, (full of) monolithic big buildings. But New Orleans felt like a village to me,” he said. “The music community didn’t have any snobbery to it. It’s the most laidback place in America and it’s genuine.”
America seduced many musicians of Davies generation (his childhood involved “growing up with the imagined America,” he said) to discover its music — blues and country in particular — and then deliver it back to the Americans ears that had long marginalized it as inconsequential. But while the British Invasion hijacked American culture for a short while in the 1960s, The Kinks were banned in 1965 and did not return until 1969 when it was over. From that point on, many felt the band was cursed.
“I’ve always thought there was a conspiracy at work to prevent The Kinks being the top band in the world,” said Dave Davies in a recent issue of the British magazine Mojo. “Whenever we were doing well, something (expletive) would happen and we’d fall flat on our arses. It’s been like that throughout our career.”
When Dave Davies slit the inside cones of his guitar amp with razor blades, guitar distortion was born. It was first heard on “You Really Got Me,” the single that opened the doors for their first U.S. tour. What happened there became the stuff of rock myth. To this day no one knows the exact details. “They were four rough working class guys, the original punks,” said Tom Kitts, professor of English at St. John’s University in Queens, a co-editor of “Living on a Thin Line: Crossing Aesthetic Borders with the Kinks” and the writer of a forthcoming bio of Ray Davies.
The story involves classic hooliganism— fights with promoters over money, onstage fights and getting on the wrong side of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that banned the group from the U.S., thereby giving their competition free reign to conquer America in their absence.
Kitts said The Kinks were unfairly targeted. “(The union) was tired of the British Invasion and felt it was cutting Americans from work,” he said. “They didn’t pick on The Beatles or The Stones but The Kinks who were third or fourth place at the time.”
Missing the late 1960s meant Davies had to carve out his own path, a decision that kept him flirting with the mainstream, but never yielding to it. His instincts led him to create tender opuses about British life, primal rock anthems, rock operas and later, mainstream pop music, together creating a body of work that is a goldmine of music working on many levels: social satire, wistful nostalgia, character portraits and romantic songs of an idealized future. With the exception of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, no songwriter from that era continued to write with such a restless, innovative spirit long after they were fashionable.
“He keeps changing styles so it’s a nightmare for a marketer. But it’s the same thing with Dylan. Even when they’re not at the top of their game, they’re interesting. You can’t say that about everybody,” said Kitts.
If creative shifts weren’t enough to keep the public one step behind, the warring Davies brothers didn’t make it easier. In his family, Ray was the youngest after six girls, which meant he was doted on and happy. Then Dave was born. A natural competition was struck. The two haven’t performed together since 1993. In 2004, Dave suffered a stroke.
“I miss him,” Ray said. “More guitarists can play loud, but they couldn’t knock you against the wall with the sound like Dave could do it. My brother’s got great hands. He’s got really strong, powerful hands and it just comes through when he’s playing.”
Q101’s Muller is convinced that the reason The Kinks are not a household entity is not because of Dave Davies (who played Muller’s wedding), but is due to the fact his brother Ray is a depressive who has always been uncomfortable with success.
“The reason I’ve gotten into radio is to try to make (The Kinks) the biggest band on earth and could never understand why everyone was not with me. Every new band that I give a (Kinks) CD to, it has a big impact. It’s timeless songwriting. Will there ever be a song as beautiful as ‘Waterloo Sunset’ again? And the fact that it came from such a mean guy is amazing,” he said, laughing.
The same time The Kinks dissolved in the early 1990s, a new generation of British bands, Blur and Oasis in particular, began championing them as one of the most innovative bands in rock. In 2002, a tribute CD featuring Fountains of Wayne, Queens of the Stone Age, Yo La Tengo and others covered Davies’ songs. While many bands of their generation fell into parody at some point in their career, The Kinks are cherished for simply refusing to stagnate. The combination of Davies’ bleak social outlook, blue collar wit and pop songcraft make his songs endure.
For his part, Davies said writing has not gotten easier. “I once fell out with another writer. I won’t mention the name, but a famous writer. She said, ‘how do I go about this?’ … I said, ‘I’m afraid, my dear, you start with that blank piece of paper’. And it cost me a friendship, because she wanted more encouragement than that and she thought I knew how to do it. But actually,” he said. “I don’t know how to do it.”
“I don’t have a permanent sense of being anywhere. I still live in the moment. I live about two miles away from where I grew up. And it’s a bit eerie up here because a lot of the people I grew up with have sort of moved out,” he said. “I’m still here.”