The British Scourge
"Really, I'm quite a traditionalist," says Ray Davies, the British scourge of British conventions. He loves Englishmen with all their idiosyncrasies and he hates them for constantly reaffirming the class system. Like English heretics from Orwell to Muggeridge, he wants to do all sorts of violence to the Lion- and-Unicorn icon, but stops short of smashing it. His rock and roll commentary on working class English life since the First World War (called "Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire") is at once poignant and derisive. It's power derives from Davie's agonized, ambiguous vision of Britain and her traditions.
Davies, the spokesman and composer of the Kinks, grew up in Muswell Hill, a tough, grimy suburb of North London. Like many British rock musicians, he is a son of the lower middle class. Whereas John Mayall and Eric Clapton adopted the foreign-sounding blues to voice their English malaise, Davies chose a native mode of expression, satire.
His new songs are reputed to be witty, but they sometimes bear a closer resemblance to Teddy Boy taunts than to Noel Coward's nonchalant putaways. One of his earliest squibs, "A Well Respected Man," was little more than a snide description of the petty daily rounds of a British nine-to-fiver. Since those days, he has improved at characterization, substituting real people for straw men. His portraits have become correspondingly more affectionate; the Britishers he now sings about could live on the same block as such Beatles people as Polyethelene Pam and Vera, Chuck and Dave.
Davies is not an angry young man. He is easy to talk to, though he answers questions in a shy mumble. Tall and lanky, he sits up in his chair and looks at you with dreamy, vacant eyes. Occasionally he unpurses his lips in a bashful grin.
Not long ago he was the passenger of a London cab driver who recognized him and said, "I like your songs, but why are you always trying to take the starch out of us?"
"I haven't got it in for anybody," he protests. "Because in all these people I can see the same weaknesses I've got." And the sympathetic tone of "Arthur" bears him out.
Davies wrote "Arthur" as a score for a TV film which will be shot next fall. It tells the story of a carpet layer named Arthur Morgan who has been bullied by the harrowing deprivations of the '30's into settling in his later years for the dull suburban family life. Davies dwells on the same characteristic of the English lower classes which frightened George Orwell 30 years ago: their acceptance of orders from anyone three social-shelves above them.
"Yeah, you're conditioned to be what they want you to be," is Davies' most serious indictment of Arthur.
In a song called "Mr. Churchill Says" Davies even calls into question the government's motives for waging the Battle of Britain. Was it not fought to preserve a pernicious class system, to hold onto the Empire of coolies and wogs which supported Britain? The song suggests that Churchill was shucking the little people, giving them the false picture of paradise England would later be after the war.
"Today, TV exposes weaknesses in politicians," says Davies. "But I don't know about Winston Churchill. He may have been a bit more ruthless than we've been led to believe. When the battle's over and you've won, you always look good. But what was achieved by it?"
"The government said to the people, "If you dig up your iron railings from the garden, we can send them to the factory, melt them down, and make bombs out of them," he says. "And what struck me is that they just accepted that, did what they were told. I pick up on little things like that and I'm not explicit enough and they get misinterpreted. It's my fault, because the more I sit around with an idea, the more involved it gets. Then I leave vital things out because I know them so well."
"Mr. Churchill Says" is indeed a vague song, and it forgets to mention that Hitler, not Churchill, convinced the English that they were fighting for survival and had better take orders.
But there are other songs that do better by the period, notably a clip-clopping number called "Drivin'", that perfectly captures England's dogged self-deception during the "phony war" era of the late '30's.
Davies is more sure of himself when he tackles other British social themes. A rag-time song called "She Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina" deals with the mindless adulation of the lower class for the upper. "He's bought a hat like Anthony Eden's because it makes him feel like a Lord - but he can't afford a Rolls or a Bently. He has to buy a second-hand Ford." The song's charming treatment of lower class pretensions mark it as a close relative of the Edwardian music hall standard, "I Live In Tralfagar Square."
Another song, "Shangri-La," gently disparages Arthur's lusterless, ambitions life-style. Describing his neighborhood, the song says, "And all the houses in the street have got a name, 'cause all the houses in the street they look the same." Another song, "Nothing To Say," artfully suggests that Arthur is ignoring how own problems as obdurately as Britain had ignored the Nazi threat. "How is your life insurance? How is your trade union? How is your independence?" asks the singer and Arthur has nothing to say. Finally, the Kinks sound a note of compassion for Arthur, the album's last line is "Oh! We love you and we want to help you."
"Arhtur's" one, minimal shortcoming is that it offers no plans for improving the present situation, no prescription to cure Britain's tired blood. One clue to Davie's attitude is that he hopes to move to Holland, or Denmark or even Iceland. "I saw this plain in the north of Iceland, a huge crater, actually," he says, waxing curiously enthusiastic. "I thought, in a hundred years this could be just like L.A. I've got to buy it."
It is unlikely , however, that Davies will be able to leave England for some time. He has to supervise the making of "Arthur" there, and supply the Kinks with new songs.
Davies is also incubating several ideas for rock musicals. His principal jog, however, is to lead the Kinks and supply them with material.
In 1964, when the Kinks began playing in public, Davies was still in his teens and he wanted to become the best guitarist in the world, a Charlie Christian jazz guitarist. But as the group developed and he became their prolific songwriter, he found less and less time to practice guitar. Eventually, the Kinks demoted him to rhythm guitar and his brother Dave moved up to the lead spot.
The Kinks have never been models of musicianship. At the Tea Party, recently, they proved to be as wildly erratic as ever. In their first set, the four instruments were packed tightly together, in neat layers. By their final set, the sound had turned to mush. The band sounded as if they were blaring out of one tiny squakbox.
The Kinks are a great group not because of the way they play but because Ray Davies is a great composer of rock and roll songs.
But the Kinks have often worn themselves to a frazzle with inter-group frictions. "We are a very self-destructive group, the Kinks," says Davies.
"At first," he says, "our music had to be perfect." Then early in their career, Dave and drummer Mick Avory had a fist fight on stage in front of 5,000 people. "After that," says Davies, "We got sloppy." They had a peace-making meeting and managed to tighten up their sound, but the quality of their playing still moves in cycles. "We get so tight that we get uptight and then we say 'let's relax' and we get sloppy again" says Davies, laughing.
The Kinks also suffer from classic sibling rivalry: Ray the millionaire composer, versus Dave, the modestly paid rock and roll musician. In a standard face-off, Dave will decide the order of the songs Ray has picked or the volume at which Ray is singing. He will begin to play "off" chords. Ray shouts at him. Dave shouts back. They punch each other out.
It was brawling that caused the Musicians Union to ban the Kinks from America for four years. The cutting off of live American appearances hurt the group to an extent that can easily be measured: the two Kinks albums that preceded "Arthur" - "Something Else" and "Village Green Preservation Society" - sold a combined total of 25,000 copies which in the rock industry is equivalent to closing in New Haven.
Timothy Crouse - Show Guide Magazine, 1969