Tales of Drunkenness and Cruelty

The tragi-comic soap opera of the Kinks spans a quarter-century of conflicts, traumas, tantrums and tears before bedtime. Of defeat grimly snatched from the jaws of seemingly inevitable victory. But once again their fragile, fractious leader is back to defend his reputation as a Great British Songwriter. "And I often wonder why," he confides to Charles Shaar Murray.

Real live early '60's beat combos don't just grow on trees. As the greenhouse summer of '89 wears on, The Who and The Rolling Stones have reassembled the Diaspora of their constituent parts to surf the legends around the US stadium circuit, basking in the admiration and fiscal tributes of both their comfortably grown-up original fans and a new generation of teens and twenties who have been trained, through the good offices of Classic Rock radio, to respect their elders. The Beatles are, of course, long gone; the Beach Boys are a mere empty shell; the Yardbirds didn't even see out the '60's before mutating - all ripped seams and green skin, like Bill Bixby becoming Lou Ferrigno in a re-run of The Incredible Hulk - into Led Zeppelin; and only the mentally ill could give a damn what happened to Freddie and the Dreamers.

Meanwhile, the Kinks never went away. Or maybe - despite their glittering string of hits and Ray Davies' entirely justified renown as a Great British Songwriter (just below Lennon and McCartney, just above Pete Townshend or Jagger and Richards) - The Kinks never quite arrived.

"The reason we chose the name The Kinks," muses Raymond Douglas Davies, "is that it only had five letters and it fitted on the billboards." He pauses before continuing, in a tone suffused with ironic melancholy. "I've always hated the name. I remember a man named Patrick Doncaster, who used to write for the Daily Mirror, who said that there was a new group out, and they had good records and everything, but unfortunately they're called The Kinks. It's unfortunate for them, because the name is really gonna do them in. And I think it was a bad choice in the long term; in the short term, we were at the bottom of the bill on a show and there were five other acts on, and even though we were bottom of the bill, our name still looked big. That was the whole idea of it."

Well, The Who went one better because their name only had three letters.

"They always went one better than me. Than us. "


The improbable saga of The Kinks spans a full quarter-century of conflicts, traumas and tears before bedtime; of defeat grimly snatched from the jaws of seemingly inevitable victory; of Ray Davies's well-nigh ceaseless struggle to overcome the advantages of his own colossal talent. Managers, publishers and record companies have staggered, bloody and bemused, into the wings, telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty. The other heroes of the British Invasion went to the States and cleaned up; The Kinks crossed the pond and fucked up; vitally important late '60's showcase gigs were sabotaged by over-refreshment and under-rehearsal. Their arch-rival London art-school post-R&B rockers The Who may have trashed instruments on stage, The Kinks sometimes trashed each other ; one never-to- be-forgotten-mid-'60's Cardiff gig, drummer Mick Avory (only recently departed from the ranks) attempted to maim his fellow founder-member, Ray's lead-guitarist kid brother Dave Davies, by cutting his head open with a hi-hat cymbal stand. Punk rock or what?

Yet the chaos and mayhem was always counterpointed by the miniaturist delicacy of Ray Davie's sentimental, nostalgic social-realism; an almost unparalleled catalogue of songs with an emotional range exemplified by the two most recent covers from his catalogue: The Stranglers' grungy, guitar-mauling All Day and All of the Night, and Kirsty McColl's eerie, affectless version of the exquisite, yearning Days. They may have been the most inept and unconvincing blues band spawned from the Great British R&B Boom, but on one who consumed pop in the '60's could forget the heartbreaking urban-pastoral visions like Waterloo Sunset, Autumn Almanac, Shangri-La or Dead End Street ; or uproarious, plank-spanking rave-ups like and 'Till the End of the Day ; hole-in-one social satires like (which, unforgettably rhymed 'Goes to the regatta' with 'dyin' to get at her') and Sunny Afternoon ; or goofball shaggy-dog stories like Apeman and Lola ; let alone just plain great songs like Set Me Free, Tired of Waiting, Wonderboy, See My Friends and Days . The Davies songbook has been raided by the likes of David Bowie('Where Have All the Good Times Gone'), The Jam ('David Watts'), Van Halen ('You Really Got Me', 'Where Have All the Good Times Gone) and The Pretenders ('Stop Your Sobbin'', 'I Go To Sleep'), Pete Townshend considers Ray Davies to have been the greatest British pop songwriter of the '60's, and he's probably right.

The Kinks spent most of the 70's turning their shows into massive dramatic extravaganzas designed to promote concept albums - Preservation Acts I and II, Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace - sufficiently ambitious to make the bombastic brain-children of the man Townshend seem like Kylie Minogue singles by comparison; Ray diverted any surplus energy into the attempted launch of his own Konk label, with an artists' roster that included Cafe Society (featuring a young Tom Robinson, with whom a spectacular falling-out soon ensued) and Claire Hamil. Konk Records failed - Ray Davie's talents as a businessman are only slightly more impressive than Donald Trump's skills as a songwriter - and, more significantly, The Kinks stopped having hits.

Until, that is, they responded to the New Wave challenge by cranking up their amps, returning to arena-rock basics and finally making a convincing dent in the American market, which returned the compliment by gathering the veteran British eccentrics to their collective bosom. But though The Kinks American dalliance revitalized their careers and produced at least two songs - their 1984 hit Come Dancing , and Ray's scene-stealing Quiet Life, a highpoint of Julian Temple's Absolute Beginners - which were the equal of all but the very best of their '60's classics, disappointing sales of their 1986 album Think Visual have worn the gilt of that particular gingerbread-burger.

So, what did happen to the Kinks?

It is not so much a Sunny Afternoon as a Rainy Morning over North London, complete with a squalling storm which provides the rough equivalent of a needlepoint spray of fresh sweat. Inside Konk Studios, a square grey concrete thing just a Les Paul's throw from Hornsey Station, Ray Davies is climbing the stairs to the cramped attic room - crammed with recording equipment including a small DAT recorder - where he produces his demos. Down below, the main studio is being readied for the afternoon's client, and, in another room, the current Kinks rhythm section of bassist Jim Rodford and drummer Bob Henrit (both ex-members of Argent, trivia buffs) are rehearsing up the new songs for the next spate of live concers. At 45, Ray Davies looks uncommonly spry and youthful; he seems five years younger than Pete Townshend, 10 years younger than Keith Richards and at least 20 years younger than Van Morrison. He wears a yellow T-shirt with DAVIES emblazoned on the front in stick-on letters, and he is using his DAT machine to record our conversation. He is considering the preparation of his memoirs, and he finds that he is most eloquent in conversation with others. Or maybe he just doesn't want to be misquoted.

So, does Ray Davies consider The Kinks the band who are still here and still successful despite doing everything wrong?

"Well, I'm still here, but we're not particularly successful in the world of Good Morning Britain, or whatever it's called, or in the press or in the media. But we go out and play concerts and there's a hard body of fans there that happens to turn up. I dread going on tour. We played a couple of dates here last summer and it was pitiful. It had only been advertised a week before and it was the height of summer....but it was typical of the way we are, I remember us going on tour when we had a Number 1, and we had about 10 people in the audience. It happens that way. Or we'll have terrible press or no press and we'll do a warm-up gig somewhere and it'll be packed, so you never know what to expect. And I think that was true of us, as well. People for a while didn't know what to expect from us."

Except that, on their day, they could be either hideously or hilariously inappropriate and unpredictable. Haven't they spent 25 years positively avoiding success?

"I tell you what it was. We'd had, I think, three Number 1s and a Top 10 in six months, right? The first one was in September (1964) and the following February I sat down and said, I can't do this anymore. We were going to Southampton to do a television program, and we were like celebrities enough to be presenting awards to people, and didn't go, I said, I won't stand for this shit anymore. I don't want to do it. I've just had enough of doing publicity. I'm not very good with the press and I don't like my pictures in the paper. I'd said that I thought I could sing You Really Got Me better than Frank Sinatra, and somebody asked, Who is this guy who thinks he can sing better than Sinatra? I'd had all the praise for the first three records and I was getting the backlash and I didn't want to do it anymore. Now our press guy at the time was Brian Sommerville, a very strict guy who'd done the Beatles. He'd manipulated the press on that very famous Beatles night when they'd done the Palladium ("rattle your jewellery"), and he turned round and said, Don't be stupid. You're doing this job; you're either in the business or out of it. And I said I wanted to be out of it, and I didn't do press for a long time, and maybe that's why I've had a mixed reception....press people think I'm difficult."

But it's not just the press.....

"My secretary thinks I'm difficult."

You've reduced successive waves of managers to despair, checking themselves into clinics....

"I think they have gotten what's theirs, quite frankly. Same as I got what was mine. There's a wonderful line in Godfather II when my favorite actor Lee Strasberg is talking to Al Pacino and telling him the story of Moe Greene who founded that city - what's it called? - Las Vegas. Moe had a dream. And he says, 'Moe got his - and that's the rules we play. That's the game we play, and that's the life we chose.' I don't think any of my managers checked into a clinic, though I think they ought to have done. I was the one that ended up in a clinic.

"And I found myself confronted with frightfully well-educated interviewers, people from The Observer actually reading things into my songs that I hadn't intended. Until a smart girl called Janet Maslin came along and pointed out in the New York Times that I write from an unconscious stream of thought and it bypasses any kind of analysis that I might do. So then I went through a stage of trying to analyse what I was doing and play it by their game, and that didn't work and the music became pretentious and I did. Not me," he adds hastily, "but 'I' through my work, because my work was me. So you have to find yourself, and you fail, and you find yourself. I remember the keyboard player of The Mojos, who were above us on our first tour, and they had a hit called Everything's All Right, and he said, I'm only going to stay in this business as long as we keep going up, because I don't think I can think the downs. And when they went down, and he's an accountant now, being very successful. But we went down several times, and I kept coming back.

"And I often wonder why. Am I a liar? Am I just pretending to be an artist? Have I got this silly studio - which by chance happens to be half a mile away from the art college that rejected me, but I wanted to change mid-course and do a film and theater. They said, You're doing fine art now, and if you want to change you'll have to go to another college and lose your grants. Am I trying to get back at that? Or was it my dream to have a studio and recording complex where performers can be free from the restrictions and the rip-off of record companies that we had when we were getting three per cent - and playing 40 per cent to managers? So I started Konk and what happened? Old Tom Robinson started slagging me off in the press like I had become everything I'd fought against. You know what I mean? I don't think there's any way out. Artists need authority, or someone who resembles the benefactors and patrons of old, to fight against. Like going back to the Medici and the people who supported Rembrandt.

"We became successful before the market research got involved with record companies, before it was really an industry . It was Louis Benjamin down at ATV who happened to have Pye Records as a subsidiary. I was with Mo Ostin, who ran WEA, the day the music industry got bigger than the film industry. The sheets had just come in, and the record division had made more money for that quarter than the film division. We'd just had Lola, which was a big, big hit, and my then manager sat down to negotiate my worth, and I asked just one question. I said, Can you tell me how many artists you have on your roster? And they didn't know, because there were so many. So I backed off. And what did I do? I went to RCA, where they had even more people."

If time travel was a reality, and the mature, worldly-wise Ray Davies of today could whizz back to 1964 and murmur words of wisdom in the ear of his petulant, fractious younger self, what would he tell himself?

"I wouldn't tell him anything . I'd find out what ideas he had, and I'd take them. I don't think I would have listened, quite frankly, if the older me was giving me advice. No, I'd say, Get a lawyer, get laid and wise up. Get drunk...do anything to delay a decision. Live a bit. But there was no time because I knew I had to be successful with You Really Got Me, or I would never do anything. So we took bad deals. We knew they were bad, we knew we were getting screwed, but we just had to take the chance that we had.. We were just at the end of the era of the Larry Parnes-style manager, who had total control. And I didn't realize until about four years ago, when I had a brief period of being managed by Larry Page, who'd managed us originally, and I realized that he had to have total control, because he came from that era. Whereas people like (Pretender's manager) Dave Hill and (Elvis Costello's manager) Jake Riviera were like an arm of the band, and they would take that to the record company, and the record company would then serve the band."

Yet no matter how badly served The Kinks may have been by their management and labels, they were still their worst enemies. The onstage fights, the walkouts..."It was a few guys who'd been nobodies a few months before. We didn't go through what The Beatles had gone through in Hamburg, we didn't hang around as a band and live as a band. I went straight from college into the band; I was a nobody, then I was successful. It was not being able to grow up. Judy Garland is an extreme example of someone who wasn't able to grow up properly. My ideal version of me is like a jazz guitar player. That's how I got started; going to the clubs. No singing, just sitting in a corner playing the guitar like Tal Farlowe; walking home to Highgate from Soho and arriving home at five in the morning for college at nine. I was happy doing that; then something triggered me to be successful. We didn't have a chance to evolve or mature as people.....

"I remember we did a concert in Denmark and there was a riot at the gig. The police were beating the kids up and the kids smashed the theater up, and they locked us up in a room. The people were very abusive to us as if they thought we'd brought the devil with us. It was very frightening, but if it had happened to the Beatles it would've been a fun experience. They would have been smuggled out in an ambulance by Norman Rossington and whisked on to a train where they would've sung a song to two dolly-birds. It was things like that which caused a lot of insecurity with the other guys, and the famous fights started between Dave and Mick. The famous Mick attempted murder on Dave....in front of five thousand witnesses."

Way back in prehistory, Ray Davies wasn't the central figure of The Kinks. Originally, the group had been the brainchild of Dave Davies, three years Ray's junior, who had the longest hair, wore the wildest clothes and was the first to root out the John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf records which were the undeniable badge of hipness in the early '60's. The long-running fraternal wrangling between Los Bros Davies has been the most constant element in the tragi-comic soap opera of the Kinks. "I was the rhythm guitarist in The Kinks. Dave did the singing because he was the prettiest and looked more like The Rolling Stones than I did. I was a very good rhythm guitarist.

He had the best haircut in British rock for a while.

"For a while, yeah. You should see it now! The saddest day for me was when Mick left. Dave and Mick just couldn't get along. There were terrible fights, and I got to the point where I couldn't cope with it any more. Push came to shove, and to avoid an argument I couldn't face....we were doing a track called Good Day , and I couldn't face having Mick and Dave in the studio, so I did it with a drum machine. Dave said he wanted to replace Mick, and Mick had an important sound. Mick wasn't a great drummer, but he was a jazz drummer - same school, same era as Charlie Watts. I took Mick out, and we got very, very drunk. We were in Guildford, and after about five pints of this wonderful scrumpy, Mick said if any other band offered him a tour, he wouldn't take it, because he didn't want to tour. And I remember him getting the train back - because he was banned from driving; it was a very bad year for Mick - and he walked to the station and disappeared into the mist. I'd never fired anyone before. When someone in the nucleus of the band goes, I get upset... but now I'm used to people leaving me, I expect it every day."

The essential Kinks, though, are Los Bros Davies; without Dave it would simply be Ray Davies and the others. "It was like that on the soundtrack of Return To Waterloo. Dave refused to play and so it had to be 'Ray Davies and members of the Kinks'. If he had worked with me on it, it would have been a great record, but he let me down."

Ray Davies displays a fist with a knuckle squashed down below its fellows; he acquired this through thumping a wall as an alternative to thumping Dave during one of the more fraught sessions for the new album. Rock's most famous fraternal row still continues, and there will be no end to it this side to the end of the Kinks. Though if the new album does not achieve the success which Davies craves as a validation of his very existence, that may well be the final outcome. Maybe, says Ray, the end of the band would be the making of the 42-year old kid brother. Maybe. After all, he hates the name. He even hates the name 'Ray Davies', though - he says, sketching in the air - 'it's quite good name graphically, I suppose."

The latest Kinks album, U.K. Jive, is recorded, mixed and being readied for release (naturally, the tune that inspired the whole album - entitle Million Pound Semi-Detached - isn't on the record); but Davies has more non-Kinks projects on the go than ever before. Eighty Days, a musical based on the novel by Jules Verne which Davies wrote with playwright Barrie (The Long Good Friday) Keefe, has already had a moderately successful stage run in California and may well move to Broadway in the near future. Breakfast In Berlin, a semi-autobiographical sequel to his TV film 'Return to Waterloo' based on events leading up to the recent death of his mother and featuring some of the songs from the new album, is in the preparatory stages; and he is having talks with Sue Mingus, widow of the great bassist and composer Charles Mingus, about a "modest documentary" film based on her husband's life, So why does he still need the Kinks?

"I've got to do these little things, otherwise I won't be happy playing with the band. If the Mingus thing doesn't happen I'll find something else, but I've always been at my best when I've come off something else and then make a record. This has been tough for me, because I had to make this record, but I was sick for a while last year and there was a chance that we'd never tour again anyway. I had a circulatory problem, I had stomach pains and pains in my arm....I remember Dave coming to see me. Actually, he didn't visit me in the hospital. Nobody came! But he let me know through somebody else that if I wanted to quit he would understand and we could call it a day. The Who say they're going to quit and nobody believes them; we say we're gonna tour and nobody believes us .

"I think it's a combination of not wanting to pull the plug and realizing why I wanted to be successful; because there was no other way for me. There's that double-edge; you hate what you do but when you haven't got it any more you realize how lucky you were to have it."

As ever, Ray Davies complains; as ever, he mourns what he complained about as soon as it's pulled down, because what replaces it will be even worse. The eternal nostalgic grouser, he still hymns the good old days. So, Ray, when was it good?

"I'll tell you when it was good. When I was walking down the road with Michelle Gross, whose dad owned the sweetshop. She was about a foot taller than I was and she had her arm around me and I said, "God, if I can stay with this girl forever I can have all the sweets I ever want.' That was when it was good."

I bet you mourned the pound note when it went out. "I've still got some!" But if the coin is replaced by the ECU, you'll probably start missing those. "I hate pound coins. They're only good for parking meters...and I hate driving."

Looking back over a quarter-century of The Kinks, Ray Davies is proudest, he says, of the intro to You Really Got Me and the lyrics of Come Dancing. Depending on the public reaction to U.K. Jive, The Kinks could coast the baby-boom back into the big league, or they could fade out with a final whimper. Whatever happens, Ray Davies probably won't be ready for it.

Charles Shaar Murray
Q Magazine, September, 1989