A Well Respected Man
There aren't many songwriters who can take credit for helping to change the course of rock music history, but Ray Davies is certainly one of them. As the leader of the Kinks, he's covered the spectrum of the rock idiom like few others, writing such rock classics as "You Really Got Me," "Lola", "Tired of Waiting For You," "A Well Respected Man", "Dedicated Follower of Fashion", "Come Dancing" and "Sunny Afternoon."
While Davies has long been considered the quintessential British songwriter, the Kinks and their leader were never just an English phenomenon, as America first accepted Davie's lyrical sense of humor and irresistible hooks during the first British Invasion in the early Sixties, and the love affair has continued through hot and cold periods for over 30 years.
The same could be said about Davie's notorious relationship with his brother Dave, the Kink's lead guitarist - a relationship which, at various times, has led to onstage fights, breakups and reformations.
Despite periods of inactivity, changing lineups and numerous side projects, the Kinks, with the Davies brothers at the core, have remained relevant to rock and roll since the group's inception in 1963. (The Kinks were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990).
In 1994, Davies' "unofficial autobiography", X-Ray, was published, spawning a solo acoustic tour on which he performed his favorite Kinks songs, in addition to reading passages from the book that told stories about the inspiration behind many of the songs.
As we creep up on 1997, Davies brings everything full circle with the Kinks' latest album, To The Bone, a two-CD compilation of Kinks material - ranging from stripped down versions of the band's most popular hits, to lesser-known cult favorites, plus two new studio cuts("To the Bone" and "Animal").
And, after stints at several major labels, the Kinks have now taken the independent label route, releasing To the Bone on Guardian Records (featuring Ray's own Konk label imprint) and are gearing up for yet another tour in 1997.
Music Connection was fortunate enough to catch up with this rock legend for a discussion on songwriting, his love-hate relationship with his brother, as well as life with and without the Kinks.
MC: When did you first realize that you wanted to be in this crazy thing we call the music business, and did you expect to be in it this long?
I didn't even think I was going to live past the age of 25, but I first realized I was in a business when I clutched my first songwriting contract. It was this one-page contract and it was like waiting to sign with the devil. And I said to myself, "are you going to sign it and be in this for life, or tear it up and walk into the distance?" I signed......and I walked into the distance.
MC: You've had some well-publicized battles with record companies, managers and publishers, and you even started your own label, Konk. What's the most important thing you've learned over the years?
RD: I think what I've learned is tolerance, the ability to see the other side. I can't believe that the majority of people come into the music industry just to make a lot of money. Even the most brutal businessman likes music at some point in his life.
And, I don't believe that every so-called artist is 100 percent artist. I think that every artist has got to have at least one percent of the business person in him or her. Yes, I do have my wars with the industry, but at the end of the day, I understand them more than they know....and that's why I try to stay away from them.
M.C: Do you think that you and your peers, like McCartney and Jagger, have changed what rock and roll is about?
No, I don't think so. At least I haven't.
MC: Well, back in the sixties, there was this belief that rock music was for young people, but now you have artists from that era who are still going strong and their audience spans across generations.
See, that's where I've differed from my contemporaries, and why I didn't always feel in tune with them. I wrote "Sunny Afternoon" when I was 21 years old, and I wrote it so my granddad could sing it. I didn't write it to make my parents angry. Same with "Waterlooo Sunset." I wanted everyone to like it.
I didn't exclude adults from my audience. I basically wrote for my family, because I came from an environment where everybody sang and was musically inclined. I never had this hatred of adults that everyone said they had. I don't believe that Pete Townshend hated old people and wanted to die before he got old, because he got along really well with his dad. I think the generation gap was blown up by the press more than by the individuals involved.
MC: How did coming from a big family affect how you handled being in a band?
That's a really good question. I think, with what I call great neurotic bands like the Talking Heads, I always got the feeling that they were like four only-children that got together. I've heard Keith Richard and Charlie Watts saying that they love the Rolling Stones just like a woman. But the Kinks have felt like another family to me, however dysfunctional that family can be sometimes!
MC: Sounds like Oasis. Are you familiar with that situation?
I feel for them. The Oasis situation is almost a replica of what happened to the Kinks. I can also understand why so many of their fans were outraged for canceling the tour, but I would advise [Oasis fans] to have a little more compassion and patience. The fans were attracted to the music in the first place and let's hope Oasis will continue to make records.
MC: Your solo tour had to be different for you. Was there anything surprising?
What surprised me was that people said "Wow! How long did it take you to think this up? What made you do it?" I don't think I was doing anything different. It's just that when you take the band away, you see more of what I'm doing. Everybody thinks this storyteller one-man show started a whole trend, but it's something that came naturally because of the book. X-Ray came out and I was doing readings and I thought, "Well, why don't I just put some songs in there?"
MC: Speaking of X-Ray, the book had an unusual concept: a teenage journalist (a young Ray Davies) interview Ray Davies looking back on his life at the age of 75. If you were to take on the role of a critic reviewing the book, what would you say?
I try not to think about critics because I know a lot of writers who've tainted their work because of what the critics were going to say. But if I were a critic reviewing my book I'd say: "A bit audacious. It's too bad he had to incorporate too much fact and he should've just continued with the idea of creating this world with the kid journalist living in this corporate society, the kid who doesn't dream and has a lot of his ambitions stifled at birth."
I found that the more I was getting into the subjective narrative, which a lot of people construe as being not true, the more I began to find out more about myself, because it was creating that subjective world which showed more about who I am than the autobiographical reminiscing. The world in the book is a nightmare scenario - it's the kind of world that I don't want to live in, and that says a lot about me.
A critic might say, "Well, he should've just written a novel and told us about his nightmare world!" But it's kind of like one of those Monty Python jokes where one guy says, "Oh, I just had a horrible dream!" and the other guy says, "That wasn't a dream, that's reality." The odd thing is that being in the Kinks has been like a science fiction journey!
MC: While we're on the subject of criticism, who do you feel has a right to review your work?
Criticism always hits you hard when you read it and you say, "Yeah. I know, I could've told the critic that." Like when they say something that hits home, something you thought they wouldn't notice. I'm sure most creative people are aware of their failings. We're all our own worst critics, anyway. I know what I am [laughs]. I get suspicious when someone praises my work!
MC: Have you read your brother's book?
MC: Has he read yours?
I tried to get him to read it to get his consent for certain passages, but he refused to read it. Mick Avory read it he was fine with it.
MC: How often do you see your brother?
I see him in my dreams. I think they're more like my nightmares!
People keep saying that you and Dave are opposites. Is that accurate?
I'm not a psychologist, but I think what annoys people about one another, and why I think children fall out with parents, and siblings fall out with each other, is because they see everything they hate about themselves in that other person. And it's familiarity that breeds contempt, not so much the things that are opposite. It's the embarrassment of seeing yourself in another person that makes you dislike them.
MC: I've heard that you were wanting to make a musical out of Around the World in Eighty Days. Is that still an interest to you?
Yes, but it's a very expensive musical to do. It would work, but the trouble is that, in musical theater, you have to work with a lot of people who've got to have their ten cents worth of opinions. It's not like the film genre, where you can have a dictator - the director. You have to resolve things amicably in the theater, and I don't think the personalities have been there to resolve the issues.
MC: Kinks songs have appeared in commercials. How do you respond to people who say that's selling out?
The one's you've heard in America are the early songs, and I don't have any control over them. But if I had control over those songs and for the Kinks songs I do have control over, I usually say, "if it helps the project and it doesn't harm people, why not?"
MC: I hear that you occasionally have songwriting workshops in England. What are they like?
I firmly believe that can't teach songwriting. We have these get-togethers. At the last one, we all got together at this big house in the country and we stayed there for three or four days. We talk about songs, the problems we have with them and how to resolve them. As I said, you can't teach songwriting. You have to draw it out of people and encourage them with no definite rules.
MC: Who comes to these workshops?
We have aspiring songwriters, and sometimes, we get the odd novelist or screenwriter. There's also been some really established performers and contemporary songwriters, but I can't mention their names. They're always welcome to come, and they're always treated equally, as people trying to write songs. There are young people and old people and those in the middle. We get a real cross-section.
MC: In terms of your songwriting, are there songs you have written that you feel have been misunderstood by your fans?
People always have their own take on what a song's about. What amazes me is how often people come to me with insights into what I've done. They sometimes read more into it than what is there. But then again, I don't know much about what I write about. I'm not always capable of understanding or analyzing my work.
MC: You've been many things at different times in your life - decadent rock star, family man, introspective songwriter. Having seen and done it all, how would you say those different lifestyles have affected your creativity?
I think lifestyle is important, but, at the end of the day, it comes down to how feel comfortable with yourself. I think most people would rather settle for happiness. And to achieve that, you have to give away a certain amount of your creative persona.
Creativity is a selfish beast. It's very self-motivated and it doesn't care too much, as long as it gets results, and that's not really something that attracts much happiness. It's a questions of weighing one up against the other. So, you find yourself for six months saying, "You know, I'm not going to be happy for a while." When I'm happy, I start waking up in the middle of the night and saying, 'Why aren't I writing?' And the whole things starts again.
MC: So, if you wrote a song about your life, what would it be?
"I'm Not Like Everybody Else."
Carla Hay, Music Connection, Nov. 10, 1996