Ray Davies' well-respected legacy
It took Ray Davies three years to recover after he was shot in 2004. The lost time has increased his determination to ensure his work endures, he tells James McNair
Friday 19 June 2009
If this goes in it's going to be a great day!" says Ray Davies CBE, taking aim. Passers-by don't seem to recognise the 64-year-old, but then Davies, the erstwhile linchpin of British pop legends the Kinks, has been careful to preserve some anonymity. Today he has flu, but you wouldn't guess it from the way he jumps up to retrieve his Styrofoam coffee cup before planting it in a nearby bin. "Ah, well - I did throw it left-handed," he laughs.
The singer and I are seated on a park bench in Highgate, North London. Davies is wearing Ray-Bans (what else?) and grins his familiar gap-toothed grin freely and often. It has been five years since New Orleans; since Davies was shot in the leg while giving chase to thieves that mugged his girlfriend while he was working in the city's French Quarter. "Recovering took much longer than I expected," he says. "The only thing I regret is that I can't run any more because of problems with my upper hip."
Davies still goes to the gym for physio four or five times a week, but one upside of the shooting was that it made him think very carefully about his legacy and future ventures. The 2004 re-issue of the classic Kinks album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society; his 2007 solo album, Working Man's Cafe, and his 2008 stage musical, Come Dancing - these and other projects saw Davies shift back up through the gears.
"Basically, I've realised that I'm very competitive," says the singer, "and having lost three years recovering from the shooting, I'm more determined to see all of my ideas through. I also want the lifespan of the Kinks' material to be enduring. I want to make sure that the catalogue is properly looked after, not farmed out to some 'Best of the '60s' compilation."
One project Davies recently ticked off his "to do" list is The Kinks Choral Collection, a new album of classic Kinks and Davies solo material that he and his band recorded with the 65 members of his local choir. The seeds of the venture were planted when Davies and the Crouch End Festival Chorus performed live at the BBC Electric Proms in 2007, their takes on Kinks classics such as "Waterloo Sunset" and "Days" refreshing some of the key songs of the Britpop canon.
"I watched them rehearse a big Elgar piece and they were stunningly proficient," says Davies. "I've been trying to make them less perfect ever since. The first time I heard them sing 'You Really Got Me', it nearly knocked me off my seat. There's also a medley of songs from The Village Green Preservation Society on the new record, and David [Temple, co-arranger alongside Davies and Steve Markwick] was able to explain how important that album is to me. The choir understood what they were singing about, and you can hear that. Sometimes you communicate to musicians what you can't communicate in your personal life."
Released in November 1968, The Village Green Preservation Society was a quintessentially English album. The Kinks swapped the psychedelic experimentalism of the day for a nostalgic sound, Davies focusing on the parochial and / or traditional while tipping the hat to writers such as Orwell, Larkin and Harold Nicholson. Some critics thought his snapshots of village life were part inspired by gigs the Kinks played around rural Devon - not so, says Davies.
"You have to remember that North London was my village green, my version of the countryside. The street [and district] I grew up in was called Fortis Green, and then there was Waterlow Park and the little lake. I sang in the choir at St James's Primary School until I was about 10, then I trained myself to sing out of tune so I could hang around with a gang called the Crooners instead. Our Scottish singing teacher Mrs Lewis said, 'Never mind, Davies - I hear crooners are making a lot of money these days.'"
"God save little shops / china cups and virginity," runs one famous line from TVGPS's title track. When I quote it to Davies, our discussion widens to include traditionalism versus progress, financial debacles and the general state of the nation.
The singer laments the deracination of working-class communities in the East End and says he is working on a musical, Olympicland, which he might stage at the Theatre Royal, Stratford during the games. He tells me that, only yesterday, his girlfriend was assaulted by youths on the bus home from Camden Town, while "up here", where he has counted 15 different estate-agent offices within a 150-yard radius, things are not as they seem. "It might look tranquil, but behind closed doors worried people are frantically exchanging emails.
"Doing my job - touring - I see things," Davies goes on. "I'm not Mick Jagger - I can slip in among the general public. Back in 2002, when I was thinking about buying a place in New Orleans, I picked up on what was coming just from talking to people in banks about how easy it was for people with no money to get credit. It's all changed now, of course, but I'm an optimist. I believe something good will come of all this, but with the whole MPs' expenses thing what I want to know is, where are they going to erect the guillotine? If this was the French Revolution, most of our politicians would be dead."
Even at some 40 years remove, the legacy of prime-era Kinks is impressive. At a time when the Beatles and the Stones were still in thrall to American blues and rock'n'roll artists, Ray Davies and Dave, his lead-guitarist and kid brother, spearheaded the most British of the British Invasion bands.
By the time they played live together for the last time in 1996, the group had notched up 22 hit singles. Along the way they influenced scores of other bands, including the Pretenders, Blur and the Kooks. Dave Davies is oft-credited with inventing fuzz-guitar on riffy Kinks nuggets such as "You Really Got Me", but sadly he was to suffer a stroke in June 2004, after promoting his solo album Bug at the BBC's Broadcasting House. His illness - coupled with the fractious, long-standing sibling rivalry between he and Ray - made a Kinks reunion look even more unlikely, but that great leveller, misfortune, may yet salve wounds. What's clear is that Ray's shooting and Dave's stroke have provided some much-needed perspective.
"I gotta tell you - I miss the Kinks," says Ray. "I heard 'Lola' on the radio a few months back when Chris Evans played it, and I was amazed how strong the intro was. With the other, fuzz-guitar-driven stuff I could always get that energy and power from my brother Dave. Jimmy Page and Eric [Clapton] are great technical players, but you wouldn't have got that from them."
And how is Dave? "He's good. Apparently he visited my sister in the West Country last night, and she said he was well; driving the car again. I look at it this way: there's this E E Cummings poem ["Possibly Nobody Loses All the Time"] about adapting to things. A guy who was a fast runner hurts his knee and learns to become a really good hopper, then he dies and he's buried and starts a worm farm. That's a rough synopsis of the idea, but you get my point. I'll work with Dave, and whatever he can play we'll create something around it together. We'll function just fine like that."
So a Kinks reunion is a possibility?
"No, but I will continue to play with ex band members like [Kinks drummer] Mick Avory from time to time. With Dave, a lot of it is psychological. I'll guide him in, and coerce and nurture him, and when the time is right I suppose I'll even shout at him again. I'm an Alex Ferguson-type motivator - I'm not a great producer like Lou Adler or Phil Spector."
As our interview winds down, Davies tell me there is a new film about the Kinks in the offing, and that Julien Temple, best known for his documentaries about the Sex Pistols, wants to direct it. Davies, meanwhile, is planning to make a new album in Nashville, and he also wants to finish Flatlands, the Norfolk-set choral work he began with the Britten Sinfonia back in 1998. But what of humble old songwriting? Is he doing any of that?
"Yes. I like to write at the weekends these days; it always reminds me of when I didn't have to go to school. Last weekend, I wrote two country songs, one of which is about the difficulties of family relationships. It's called 'Brothers and Sisters'."
'The Kinks Choral Collection' is out on Decca; Ray Davies and the Crouch End Festival Chorus play Kenwood House, London, 27 June
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