Ray Davies: A Complicated Life by Johnny Rogan, book review: A dedicated follower of melancholy

Rogan's immense tome on The Kinks's creative mainspring is something of a backhanded compliment

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The Independent Culture

It could be said to be advisable – perhaps even inevitable – that the tone of a biography should mirror the character of its subject. That's substantially the case with this immense tome by Johnny Rogan about Ray Davies: which is something of a backhanded compliment, it being hard to find within its 744 pages anyone with a kind word to say about The Kinks' creative mainspring. (Tellingly, Davies himself opted for an alternating first-person/third-person format for his own "unauthorised autobiography" X-Ray, as if distancing himself from his actions.)

Everyone here agrees that Davies was one of the finest songwriters of his generation, a major contributor to the Sixties British cultural revolution; but on a personal level, few of his musical peers can have prompted such a deluge of bitter acrimony. Contrary, capricious, hypocritical, imperious, miserly, aloof, distant, volatile – these are just a few of the epithets littered among the recollections of those who spent any length of time with the singer. Even his brother Dave, asked to comment on Ray's behaviour, asked his interviewer, "Can you use the word 'c**t'?".

Of course, the Davies brothers' sibling rivalry is legendary, even by the standards of such comparative lightweights as the Everlys and Gallaghers. The temperamental chemistry of their contrasting personalities (Ray detached and introvert, Dave exuberant and extrovert), while clearly crucial to the creation of Kinks classics like the volcanic "You Really Got Me", was personally corrosive. Everyone around them remembers life on tour with The Kinks as one long round of pointless, petty backbiting – in one case, a meaningless argument about whether pasteurised milk was "real" milk triggered the trashing of a cafe.

In perhaps the most poignant expression of the gulf between them, Dave says of his brother: "He was miserly with his money and, in later years, he would be equally miserly with his emotions and affections."

The brothers were born to a working-class London family with six older sisters, and although the regular family sing-songs undoubtedly established Ray's musical character, the dynamic of such a huge family possibly contributed to Ray's introversion. Certainly, his sister Rene's death in 1957 from heart failure while dancing at The Lyceum provoked what became known as "The Great Silence", months during which Davies withdrew into barely communicative isolation.

But there was a shared fascination with music, the teenage brothers forming with Pete Quaife the group that would become The Kinks. Ray's songwriting rival Pete Townshend astutely analysed the dynamic between the brothers, observing that "there was no sense of them working together – they were both working outwards, both competing for the audience". The Davies' tempestuous rivalry, however, would seep into their bandmates too, eventually resulting in the attack in which drummer Mick Avory tore open Dave's scalp with a cymbal after the guitarist had kicked over his drumkit. It was a harbinger of the problems that would result in the band suffering a long-term ban from the USA at the height of their powers, effectively sabotaging their chances of enjoying the kind of global success enjoyed by the Stones and The Who.

In the absence of American opportunities, Ray Davies sought solace in his Englishness, wryly celebrating homegrown qualities in songs like "Sunny Afternoon" and "The Village Green Preservation Society". He felt out of step with the psychedelic era, to which he likewise reacted by retreating further into native traditions – in Davies' case, music-hall/pub-culture singalongs. His best work, such as "Waterloo Sunset" and "Days", is marked by a wistful, reflective tone whose parochial poetry is surely indicative of the songwriter's character: a personality inescapably reflected in this biography's lingering air of ponderous melancholy.