The Lonely Kink
Ray Davies, one of rock’s most influential songwriters, is making his way as a solo artist. But all he really wants is his band back
If sibling placement theory is to be believed, the happiest and most secure of all humans is a youngest male with all older sisters. And that is the family Raymond Douglas Davies was born into on June 21, 1944, in the working-class neighbourhood of Muswell Hill in North London. He had six older sisters to look after his every need. He had a good deal then, with all those girls to carry him around and play records for him. Then on February 3, 1947, Annie (at age 45) and Fred Davies had another son, Dave, and Ray’s Garden of Eden became a turf war. The two brothers were fated to compete and collaborate for the rest of their lives.
“That’s the back story of my life even now,” says Kinks lead guitarist Dave Davies, in a quavering Cockney accent. “My family was great, I felt loved and was encouraged to pursue music. Things only got psychotic when Ray and I started to have hit records. We were adolescents, and we had to finish growing up around some nasty people in one of the nastiest businesses in the world.”
The brothers even debate the Kinks’ greatest contribution to rock & roll: a guitar that sounded mean. According to Ray, Dave had the idea of sticking a knitting needle through the speaker of their tiny green eight-watt Elpico amplifier to create more guitar distortion. According to Dave, Dave had the idea of slicing the speaker of their ten-watt Elpico with a razor blade.
“The only person who was there when I did it was me, so who would know better?” says Dave. “I just wanted to torture my amplifier. It kept giving me the same sound. I wouldn’t have minded if it had died on the spot, but instead it had that great raunchy sound that I loved.”
Knitting needle or razor blade, the idea that more distortion could be desirable on a guitar was quite revolutionary at the time, and when Dave took a simple blues-piano riff written by Ray and turned it into snarling bar chords, they knew they had something new under the sun. The electrified crowds at their shows knew it too. Pye Records didn’t know it, and Ray had to insist that they be allowed to record it and then record it again to capture the snarl properly. The resulting single, ”˜You Really Got Me,’ by the Kinks, became a hit in 1964 and still sounds stunningly vital to this day. A sinister, relentless declaration of lust, it was also the birth of the power chord, thus inspiring both metal and punk. It even launched the second phase of metal when Van Halen covered it in 1978. It’s hard to think of a more influential song.
“To me, one of the tests of a great song is if you can play it on an acoustic guitar,” says Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne. “When I was trying to figure out songwriting, that’s what I discovered in the Kinks. Ray wrote tunes that were almost campfire songs, and those are the hardest to write. Ray could write songs and leave them simple. Or he could make songs loud and trashy but remain pop underneath. Any time you hear a band like Nirvana playing a loud, trashy pop song, that’s the influence of the Kinks. Even the Beatles didn’t do that.”
In the early Sixties, Ray wrote one more sinister, relentless declaration of lust with a killer riff, ”˜All Day and All of the Night,’ and got bored with the whole thing, not quite relinquishing his hormones or the Kinks’ snarl, but expanding his gaze from hot babes to the world at large. Picking up at some midpoint between Chuck Berry’s short stories and Bob Dylan’s jeremiads and English music-hall comedy, Ray became an anthropologist with a guitar, writing precisely observed character studies, wildly screwy anecdotes, pensive journeys within and cultural manifestos on some of rock’s greatest albums, some of which sold and some of which didn’t. After their initial slot in the British Invasion, the Kinks were just too hard for record companies and fans alike to classify. No matter what the era, they were always slightly off kilter, or way off kilter, in their costumes and haircuts and timing of tours. But the song catalogue is undeniable: ”˜Victoria,’ ”˜Lola,’ ”˜Dedicated Follower of Fashion,’ ”˜Tired of Waiting for You,’ ”˜Waterloo Sunset’ and dozens of others that will be influencing popular music for generations to come.
Ray became one of the funniest and most charming performers in rock history, when he wasn’t asserting absolute control in the studio or insulting his brother onstage. He would give Dave introductions like, “The little twerp will try to sing one for you now.” A raw-nerve introvert, Ray could go off on anybody in the vicinity ”“ other bands, his wives, girlfriends ”“ but Dave probably absorbed the most abuse.
So when talk of Kinks reunions arise, Dave leaves the door cracked open for a live gig but is leery of the prospect of recording. “To sit in a room or studio with him and have my brain and heart slowly sucked out . . . no friggin’ thank you,” he wrote recently on his Website, going on to equate Ray with Hannibal Lecter.
“Yeah, he’s good at that,” says Ray. “But I take it with a pinch of salt. There’s a rumour we might make another record, or play again, which I think is great. I heard some former members of the Kinks playing ”“ they do a pub gig every year ”“ and they sounded really tight. I would only do it if there’s new music. But we could do it. The original members are all still alive. The fact that I know this bunch of guys are quite tight instils in me something that wants to write a tight song for them to play.”
“I quite like being Dave Davies,” says Dave, who is playing guitar again after nearly dying from a stroke in 2004. “I’m just not sure that Ray likes being Ray Davies. I’m not sure he knows who Ray Davies is. I don’t know about recording again. Because it was torture! But then there are those beautiful moments that are like falling in love, when a recording goes magically perfect. Those moments don’t last long, but they do happen.”