Ray Davies: “The world is at war. But it’s a war you can’t define. It’s cultural. It’s emotional”
Ahead of his BBC proms in the Park concert, the Kinks frontman talks about his life, career and his unique view of the world
Sir Ray Davies might have been the only person in the realm who was surprised when he was knighted earlier this year. As the lead songwriter of the Kinks and sometime solo artist, he’s authored some of most English-sounding songs of the last century – including two about tea: Afternoon Tea (1967) and Have a Cuppa Tea (1971). He remains prolific even in his eighth decade, with a hit West End musical, Sunny Afternoon, his most acclaimed solo album in years, Americana, and a headline performance in Hyde Park for Proms in the Park.
And yet Davies, 73, still seems to define himself by his failures – his “glorious flops”, as he terms them. “Good name for a band, that, the Glorious Flops,” he deadpans. His biggest regret is not jacking it all in back in 1973. “I sat in this room with my brother, about when my first marriage broke up,” he says. “I wanted to give up the whole idea and become a painter. I wish I’d done that.”
We’re talking at Konk Studios in Hornsey, north London, a suburban rabbit hole that has been the Kinks’ HQ for decades (Davies lives up the road in Highgate). The studio is littered with antique Mellotrons and state-of-the-art mixing decks, plus a pair of ceramic pigs whose shirts say RAY and DAVE, in honour of his fruitful/fateful relationship with his younger brother and onetime lead guitarist. (Dave recently gave an interview in which he complained that Ray had once stabbed him in the hand with a fork; Ray doesn’t deny this.)
Davies is currently recording Americana Part 2 and apologises for being in what he terms a “fugue state” – when he’s mid-session, he occupies a slightly different time frame from the rest of us. “My songs speak better for me than I do,” is his customary excuse.
He has a reputation for being difficult – he claims to have few friends – which is not to say he lacks warmth. Peers such as Pete Townshend speak of him in the most glowing terms (“Ray was one of the first people who took this language of ours and defined it, refined it and purified it and made it what it is today”) but profess never to have managed a proper conversation.
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Davies speaks slowly and sighingly, but his mind moves fast as he touches upon the on-going woes in the Arsenal defence; the 1950s colour palette of Hollywood; how he once bumped into Donald Trump in Studio 54; and how much he admires the diction of Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis. He frequently changes the subject midsentence. But he does seem genuinely touched to have been made a knight and imagined how much his parents would have disapproved if he’d turned it down. “What amazed me was how much it meant to people in the neighbourhood. Because I’m notionally famous, what I found moving about the ceremony was the amount of ordinary people who got awards for services to education, or health. I was trying to work out ‘Why me?’”
Well, the opening riff to You Really Got Me would strike some of us as claim enough, or the melody of Waterloo Sunset, the prettiest in pop, perhaps?
So what did Prince Charles say? “Oh, he asked me something about writing songs. I said: ‘Yes, I’m writing one right now about this.’ His mother was very nice when I got the MBE too. She said: ‘So many songs.’ I said: ‘Yes, but you only need a few good ones.’ We do ceremony well in this country. It’s one of the few things we’ve got left.”
He places the Proms in the category of superior British ceremony too – and is looking forward to teaming with the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Crouch End Festival Chorus. “I think it’s becoming a lot less pompous and flag-waving. Will there be a flag left to wave, I wonder?”
He’s also hoping to inaugurate next year’s 50th anniversary of his most acclaimed album, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968), for which he’s preparing accompanying notes on Englishness. It’s set “out in the country, far from all the soot and noise of the city,” where US tourists snap pretty pictures and ambition is quietly smothered. I’d always heard it as an affectionate send-up of England’s small island tendencies. I wonder if he regards Brexit as the ultimate revenge of the Village Green Preservation Society? He looks miffed. “I don’t use the B-word. What does that word mean?”
He’s disinclined to discuss politics (“My work is quite political but I don’t personally do politics”), but he does offer a few words on Brexit. “This is the biggest event in our lives. We’re all connected by this event. It strikes me it’s too late to do anything about it. But European control did become too all-embracing. I still believe countries should have their own identity. I know immigration is a huge issue, but what’s more important is commodities, business, equity, markets. That’s what runs the world.” Has it changed his view of Britain? It seems not. “We’re defined by our geography. We’re an over-populated island where it’s difficult to get about. But I think we’ll survive.”
He believes the internet is largely to blame for people’s sense of disquiet about the world. “The world is at war. But it’s a war you can’t define. It’s cultural. It’s emotional. It’s not about bombs and guns – it’s about belief.”
Davies was the seventh of eight children, born into a working-class family in Muswell Hill at the end of the Second World War. He was ever-conscious of the disappearing working-class culture of vaudeville, pubs and local pride, even as he looked to America for excitement. “England was very austere. America was opportunity. Optimism. Good guys and bad guys, and you knew who the good guys were. Roy Rogers. Gene Autry. Clint Eastwood. Rawhide. It’s where the heroes were.” No longer? “They’re still there but they’re struggling.”
The Kinks was actually his brother Dave’s band – and their formative R’n’B tunes, punk before punk, were as much marked by Dave’s screaming guitar and wild haircut as Ray’s baroque, diffident tendencies. Ray still considers Dave the frontman, and has tended to stand to one side on stage. But his outsider’s eye gave them an edge, and he was adept at assimilating new influences. It’s tempting to wonder what a producer like George Martin, or bandmates of more equal standing might have coaxed out of him. Then again, the Kinks’ playing was always in service to Davies’s songs, and his songs were always so singular. “There’s an inherent loneliness in a lot of my music. I write about the outsider. I walk away from the crowd.”
The band’s defining moment came about more or less by accident. In 1965, when the Kinks Mk 1 were vying with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones at the forefront of the British Invasion, they were banned from America. The rock ’n’ roll gloss was that they were banned for fighting and boozing. In truth, they fell foul the American Federation of Musicians and retreated back to Muswell Hill feeling defeated. “The ban was critical. We came here when everyone else was over there. But for the ban we’d never have made Village Green. We’d have been on tour in America making heavy metal music turning into drug addicts.”
It didn’t seem quite such a happy fate at the time. “It was stressful. We all had young families who we had to support and our income was cut off because we couldn’t go on tour.” In the musical Sunny Afternoon, the recovery from this low is the show’s turning point: Ray is catatonically depressed at the band’s failure but finally rouses himself to compose Sunny Afternoon, which ended up being number one when England won the World Cup in 1966.
It unleashed his richest seam of work: Waterloo Sunset, Autumn Almanac, Dead End Street, Village Green, Victoria and the rest. “We managed to get out of just churning out singles and relying on airplay all the time. I’m still doing that today.” But it also sparked a desire to get themselves “unbanned” and they began to flex their rock muscles in the late 1970s, finally becoming the big US touring act they always wanted to be.
But Davies has always remained a little out of step. At the moment of his greatest acclaim, as the mid-90s Britpop bands like Pulp and Blur cited him as a musical godfather, he decided England was going to the dogs and moved to New Orleans. “I had a crisis about where I wanted to live and what was happening to my country.” What was so wrong back then? “The politics! New Labour. I’m a socialist. I remember Glenda Jackson telling me she’d joined the Labour Party. I said, ‘Which party is that?’” He believes the country is still recovering from that period of compromise.
Is he heartened, then, by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and his far more emphatic socialism? He gives a wry smile and tells me I should look up Preservation, the rock opera he made in the early 70s. It’s about vaudeville comedian Mr Flash who becomes a dictator. “Mr Corbyn is Commander Black in that: ‘While the rich get their kicks with their affluent antics / Mr Black sits and ponders their fate / He just sits in the gloom of his dimly lit room / Waiting for them to swallow the bait’… What do I think about Mr Corbyn? He has his style. He’s very media-friendly.” He speaks admiringly of politicians but has no fondness for the current media. “I once had a box set of Winston Churchill’s speeches on vinyl. He had a real speech impediment. And he spoke so slowly. What he said was so incredible, on the Cold War and so on. But he wouldn’t even get on television now.”
Davies has been married three times. He has four daughters. There’s Louisa and Victoria with first wife Rasa Didzpetris, whom he met when she skipped convent school to see the Kinks play in 1964. There’s Natalie with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, with whom he had an affair in the early 1980s. And there’s Eva with his third wife Patricia Crosbie, an Irish ballet dancer.
“Didn’t King Lear have four daughters?” he muses. Three, I think. His are now scattered: Kent, Sussex, Ireland and Crouch End. “But I don’t see the one who lives in Crouch End so much.” (Presumably he means Natalie, from whom he is reportedly estranged.) He is currently in a relationship with “an anonymous person” but he does tell me that she’s very “compact”. “I admire people who are compact. I’m one of these annoying people who make a huge mess but who knows where everything is.”
If Davies has a defining feature, it’s a resistance to being defined. But it does make for a restless muse. He has his sights on two further musicals. “One is about an iconic woman who I can’t really tell you about. And the other is about siblings. I was interested in siblings not because of any rivalry, but because of that connection. Where it’s more like telepathy. But that will be completed once I get through this Americana project. It’s already taken five years.”
At any rate, he cannot conceive of any other way of being than observing the world and writing about it. “I think creativity is a human right – I feel very lucky that I stumbled upon a way of expressing myself. But a lot of people in the so-called real world don’t get that opportunity.”
Interview by Richard Godwin
BBC Proms in the Park is on Saturday 9th September from 5pm on Radio 2 (watch the highlights on BBC red button)