The Kinks: Well respected man

Forty years after 'You Really Got Me', The Kinks are at last winning global adulation. Ray Davies tells Ian Birrell of his plans
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The Independent Culture

After more than an hour of talking about The Kinks, songwriting and suchlike, Ray Davies takes off his sunglasses (Ray-Bans, appropriately) and visibly relaxes. He starts to smile; his answers seem less considered; he even attempts the odd joke. Soon, he is showing me a picture of his seven-year-old daughter on his mobile phone.

"I'm amazed at how good the world is compared with what I thought it would be like when I was 15," he says. "And I think I am lucky to be still doing what I am doing. I can't say I'm bitter and twisted, even though desperate people have ripped me off over the years."

Sunny optimism is unexpected from such a contrary and supposedly conservative chronicler of his age. His best-known songs reek of nostalgia - providing a mass memory for all of us of an England that probably never existed, according to David Bowie - and he has been known to laud the age of Empire during his solo stage shows.

He had seemed slightly nervous as he sat down in the French restaurant he had chosen in Crouch End, north London, just down the road from his recording studio and within a few hundred yards of the Clissold Arms, in Fortis Green, where a plaque pays tribute to his first concert 47 years ago. Whippet-thin and wearing a short-sleeved check shirt, he fiddles with his mobile phone and confesses that he still dislikes giving interviews.

"The concept of 'I' has never been a favourite," he says, before explaining how he invented a cast of characters who populate his songs. "I write for characters, like an actor. It is not a defence mechanism, it's just getting the work done. When I started out I only had one guy, and I don't know who he was. Now I have a radical character I see me through, a nosy character, a jerk, who is a really ridiculous character. It's alter ego - people do it all the time. And it's not unique - look at Bowie with his Thin White Duke."

I ask him to tell me about one of these characters. "I have Mr Manners, a guy who wants no trouble from the world and lets all the big issues pass him by in a very disguised way. He becomes a nonentity as a person. Mr Manners wrote 'Waterloo Sunset'. It's just a different hat to put on and say how can I get this job done?

"Then there's Jack the Lad, who is going through a very exciting phase because he's just done a song called 'Stand Up Comic' and it's being performed and reaching new heights. It's very difficult to control because he wants to take over my whole record. But he's not a bad guy."

This new record is a solo album that Ray has been working on for five years, due for release next year. Incredibly, it is his first solo album. "That's my priority at the moment. I made the mistake of saying to a record company that I had never done a solo record. I've done lots of songs, but whether they're any good is another matter. All the songs are different, but they're all about me, which is quite worrying when you think about it."

He has also written material for a musical with Terry Johnson, the playwright, which Andrew Lloyd Webber is set to stage, while he continues to take his engaging solo show on the road, and to run residential classes in songwriting around the country.

I ask him which modern songwriters he admires, and he mentions the writing of The Streets, the energy of The Libertines and the showmanship of The Polyphonic Spree. "But the last record I bought was the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, a band that was around in the Fifties."

So what of The Kinks, who last played together in June 1996 in Norway? "They're dead. No, they can't be dead. I'm having to deal with them every day so they're still very much alive. I don't know at this point if we're going to play again. But we are all speaking and friendly." He adds that he is sifting through a cache of newly discovered tracks, which may be released soon.

Although unfailingly polite and charming, Ray weighs his responses carefully when pressed about himself and, on occasion, contradicts himself. One moment he says he doesn't believe in heroes, then says Tommy Lawton, the footballer, and Big Bill Broonzy, the blues musician, are his heroes. He alludes to how it's all been downhill since the end of Empire, then says he doesn't really believe Britain was a better country in its imperial days. It is almost as if he is playing with his characters and ideas some of the time.

"Maybe I'm an actor who just likes to create good parts," he admits. "But I can't act. A few of my friends are actors and, with the greatest respect, to be any good you must have no interior. I've got too much going on inside."

Inspired by Tony Richardson and the French new-wave cinema, he originally wanted to work in theatre and film. Having left school at 14, he went to Hornsey Art College and only took up music as a way of earning some money. He rapidly discovered that he could express himself best in music, hooked up with his younger brother Dave's band and the rest is musical history.

The string of hits began in August 1964 with "You Really Got Me", with its sleazy, distinctive riff that so influenced Jimi Hendrix and, less laudably, is claimed as the first heavy metal song. It is re-released this week to celebrate the 40th anniversary of reaching No 1, and still sounds remarkably modern. "It wasn't until we discovered the sound that we discovered the power of it. When we heard it, we knew immediately that was what we wanted."

The sound was achieved by Dave sabotaging his equipment until it produced that crunching sound for the five-note refrain (based on a country-blues riff that Ray had written three years earlier). So how did the rock'n'roll legend that Jimmy Page created that riff come about?

"I think it was professional jealousy. Jimmy came to a session later on during our first album and played on a couple of tracks," Ray replies. "In those days, he was still unsuccessful but a very good session musician, so envy was there."

While their debut hit was a classic burst of teenage lust, Ray's songwriting gradually began to explore more complex themes with satire and social commentary in a string of finely crafted hit singles that only ended with "Lola", six years later. "No one taught me how to write songs, and I was exploring new avenues. I just began to write about what I knew about and what I could relate to. 'Autumn Almanac', for example, is about the guy who did my garden.

"When I wrote 'Dedicated Follower of Fashion', I approached it like a journalist. It was written on a typewriter and I never altered the first draft. That was it. Some came as visions, so even though the words weren't there, the vision is there. With 'Waterloo Sunset', the vision came first - I saw the characters like a Victorian print."

Were Terry and Julie in this song Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, as is often supposed? "No, Terry and Julie were real people. I couldn't write for stars."

Thanks to a royalty rate of just two per cent, their three managers and a music publisher who raked off half the publishing royalties, The Kinks earned very little. So while they helped define the Swinging Sixties, and his brother was living the sex'n'drugs lifestyle to the full, Ray was living in north London with his wife and baby, worrying about the mortgage and churning out the hits.

The pressure eventually led to a breakdown, despite his comparatively abstemious lifestyle. "I stopped taking drugs when I became a musician. I was too busy and had a young family. I had also bought a house, and was aware of being a property owner. That's a dreaded responsibility, and I couldn't cope with it."

The band, meanwhile, had a fearsome reputation, with endless stories about vicious fights between band members, both on and off stage. It is little wonder the Kray twins were among their biggest fans, but their aggressive attitude led them to miss out on the British invasion of America due to a union ban imposed after a 1965 tour of the States.

Ray admits that the feuding was "bloody awful" for much of the time, but puts it down to their passion - and it is clear over the course of the interview that he has enormous respect for Dave's musicianship. So do they still fight? "We quarrelled about two weeks ago over something. But I think we're more adult about it now - we had a good conversation over the weekend."

Like The Beatles, they produced a body of songs that were a snapshot of a disappearing world. While often dismissed as suburban satirists, they were also innovators, bringing Indian music to British pop music, playing with gay themes, writing the first rock opera and having a video banned by Top of the Pops.

Despite this, The Kinks have not been accorded the reverence of The Beatles, nor the respect of The Rolling Stones. They have never been handed a Brits lifetime achievement award, for example. Does this bother Ray? "I think we have had a fair amount of acclaim..." he says, rather unconvincingly.

So what does he now think of his Sixties rivals? "I met George Martin recently and told him 'I'm always in awe when I'm with you, George, because you were the man who produced the Goons'. But I think their producers should have had more credit. A great band, a terrific band, but there's been a little bit of hype too."

The Stones? "A great R&B band. When I saw them play at college for £50 a night I thought they were the best band I'd ever seen."

He believes his own band sacrificed success in Europe to break America when the ban was lifted in 1969. Having retreated into their English shell, with tours of working men's clubs and whimsical albums that bombed and are only now being belatedly recognised as masterpieces of their time, such as The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, they went back to basics in the States, touring at the bottom of the bill with the likes of Neil Diamond.

"I was obsessed with getting back to America and doing well. We started from the bottom again - and we had to kill off the guys in hunting-jackets." It paid off, with the band emerging as the unlikeliest of stadium rockers, although Ray admits he regrets the "Americanisation". Their biggest hit of the time, however, was "Come Dancing", a slice of powerfully sketched, character-driven nostalgia inspired by his sister and the world of big-band dancehalls that was killed off by rock and rollers like himself. It provides the title and backdrop of his musical.

The recent re-release of Village Green Preservation Society has led to a reappraisal of The Kinks, with a recognition that for all the lyrics about cricket, strawberry jam and steam trains, this was a piece of acute commentary about ordinary people at a time of immense change. "I knew it would not be successful, but we had to get our vision out. It is more about the ideas than about the music."

Essentially, it is about the need for community, something that still bothers Ray. "I do worry about the narrow-mindedness of people, and I try not to embrace that culture. But I do think there's too much division. That's the charm of our world: we all try to be different but in a strange way, we're conforming."

And with that, one of the great non-conformists of the pop world gets up, clamps those sunglasses back over his eyes and heads back off into the north London streets that have provided him with such a wealth of material over the years. At last, he is a well-respected man.

The Kinks' 'You Really Got Me', 40th-anniversary reissue and 'The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society' deluxe edition are out now, both on Sanctuary. Ray Davies plays the Arts Centre, Aberystwyth, on 23 September, and tours to 5 October, including five nights at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London

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