From The Sunday Express, April 28, 2002RENEGADE RAY
The veteran Kink, in from the cold again, talks to Chris Goodman in a rare interview.
While Lennon and McCartney are constantly lionised and Jagger and Richards keep on playing the greatest hits, Ray Davies ebbs and flows in and out of public attention. But another spell in the sun beckons with a tribute album from adoring fans and his own debut solo album. To top it all, he will perform one of his greatest hits. Lola, at Buckingham Palace's Jubilee concert - perhaps the first time a song about a transvestite has been presented to Her Majesty.
The Sixties threw up some of the greatest and most influential of British bands - The Beatles, the blueprint, the Stones, the white R&B pioneers, and The Kinks, a rock 'n' roll hurricane from Muswell Hill. Ray and brother Dave were the heart of the Kinks. They were the original Gallagher brothers, and their fights became legendary. They rocketed to No l with You Really Got Me in 1964 and released a string of classic hits throughout the decade - Sunny Afternoon (No 1 when England won the World Cup in 1966), Waterloo Sunset, Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, Autumn Almanac, Dead End Street. These were intense rock classics, wry observations and social protest, often defining the way we look at Britain.
"I was born, lucky me, in a land that I love," sang Davies on Victoria. But he became forgotten at home with albums rarely charting, although he was always revered in the US.
However, Britain regularly rediscovers its finest. In the early s Eighties, The Pretenders and The Jam had hits with Davies's songs. He was the godfather of a Britpop, and the spotlight still flashes on and off.
"When You Really Got Me" went to No 1, I said I didn't want to sound American. It stuck with me then," says Davies of his Anglo-centric songs. "The Kinks were banned from America for three years, so I picked up English topics. I wrote about village greens and people in suburbia. I discovered material from my own background rather than being on the road in the States with Jack Kerouac."
On a first hotel-trashing American tour, Davies had a fight with a media man who turned out to be a powerful union representative. The Kinks could not get booked anywhere for three years.
Davies doesn't think we have changed as a nation but adds that we might like to think we have modernised. Does he hanker for the old English ways? "I kind of hanker for the On The Road style," he chuckles, almost surprising himself. "I think the new record is stuff I would have done during that three-year period if I had gone to America."
Interviews with Davies are rare: he has never enjoyed them and we both seem aware that this is quite a privilege. But he answers with thought and care. There is no PR machine to keep him in the public eye, unless there is something to sell.
This time it is the tribute album, This Is Where I Belong, with a Seventies Davies on the cover, predictably drinking tea. The man himself is pleased. "They haven't gone for Tom Jones or Robbie Williams like people normally do, so it's a very soft sell."
Instead, mostly American contributors chose some of Davies's more under-appreciated works, much to his delight. Alt Country names such as Josh Rouse and Lambchop abound (Muswell Hillbillies is considered by some as the first Alt Country album) with indie rockers Fountains Of Wayne and London's Davies-clones Cracker "I'm acutely embarrassed," admits Davies. "I normally associate these things with tributes to artists who've been dead for a long time. Maybe some of these are young enough to think I am dead."
Blushing he may be, but Davies is well aware of his classic British songwriter title - in the same league as Lennon and McCartney. "I'm not a conventional showbiz songwriter, he argues. "I bracket them as showbusiness. I kind of went my own way went astray, got my own space. But it's nice to be put into those categories."
Davies did not get on with his illustrious contemporaries. "Paul was all right but John was a tough nut to crack. He was a good bloke deep down, I just think he had a lot of issues to deal with. It mellowed out in later years and we ended up being neighbours in New York for a while.
"The toughness and abrasiveness was part of John and it comes through in those wonderful bittersweet songs."
Davies found his own space in the face of commercial failure in the UK. A former art student, he was committed to his craft over sales. He was a pioneer. Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) in 1969 was a rock opera pre-dating The Who's Tommy The 1965 single See My Friends introduced an Indian sound to its backing, the year before George Harrison played sitar on Norwegian Wood.
But whatever the rivalry with The Beatles, it was nothing compared with Ray and Dave. "I've thought about this a lot," he begins carefully "My eldest sister was 20-odd years older and she brought me up, so Dave and I lived in separate houses. Brothers and sisters who live in the same house learn to live with each other's space. We didn't do that early on. Also, when Dave was 17 and I was 19, we couldn't go out on the street for mad screaming fans - we weren't taught how to be pop stars."
The pressures of stardom and Davies's constant work cost him relationships and led to emotional breakdowns. Internal divisions threatened to tear the band apart. Dave tormented drummer Mick Avory on stage, eventually kicking over his beloved kit causing Mick to insert either a cymbal or drum pedal (reports vary) into Dave's head. Davies allegedly played on while his brother, unconscious and with blood pouring from his head was rushed to hospital.
But they worked together for the best part of three decades, a creative tension assisting Davies's songwriting, the rivalry spurring Dave on to more inventive cuffs. He would work with his brother again, "if there is anything worth saying", but does not see him much, adding "E-mail is a wonderful invention.
However, he is not without praise for his sibling, adding: "Auditioning guitar players has been really difficult for me on this record," he says. "Dave is a great innovator in his own right and he hasn't had his due for inventing that sound."
Avid Arsenal fan Davies still lives in north London: "Our neighbourhood was like a village - that part of London is still magical. There's something special about north London, and I was affected by the atmosphere. It's still a great place."
I point out that people might expect him to be retired in the country house in Sunny Afternoon. "I've been there and it's boring," he laughs.
Deep down Davies, 57, still thinks of himself as 19. "I don't think I've changed my basic emotion since then," he muses. "I've learned a lot more, how to con myself and pretend I'm an adult, but basically I'm still that insecure 19-year old."
That's strange, because he used to say he felt older than he was. "Mmm, that's true," he ponders, "I was one of those wise kids. They used to say I was an 'old fashioned' kid. But once I got to 19 the fear of finally becoming an adult stuck with me - I still have that nightmare."
Ray Davies may be an outsider but that has fuelled his legend. "I wrote Dedicated Follower Of Fashion because I stayed out of fashion. If you're at fashion's cutting edge, you can be out next week I consciously stayed away from being too visible."
Does he even feel part of the England he is so fascinated with, the same nation that has revered and rejected him in equal measure? Ray pauses. "In a strange way, no," he almost I whispers. "But there is a part of me... you can go into a pub somewhere and connect, be a stranger, but something... it happens more in the regions, small country pubs. There is still an Englishness out there.
And he adds: "I still get a kick out of watching people, off guard in documentary type situations. I still seek out those people, an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation."
He has helped to shape our culture and whether or not we credit him, his legacy looms large. He will be forgotten and revived many more times, but there is always a little bit of England that is forever Ray Davies.
The tribute album This Is Where I Belong: The Songs Of Ray Davies And The Kinks is out now on Rykodisc.