Ray Davies: “I Withdrew into Englishness”


This piece was published in The Big Issue in July 2011.

RAY DAVIES, author of the loveliest songs about London, the man who gifted poetry to places like Muswell Hill and Waterloo Station, walks around his city unrecognised.

“I don’t think it’s a famous face,” says Davies in that dry, droopy voice. “It’s not a face that gets me jumping the queue at restaurants. But this is the only one I’ve got, so I suppose I’ve got to get used to it.”

The legendary songwriter is rehearsing at his studio in Hornsey, north London, not far from the house in which he grew up. Davies sounds moderately enthusiastic (he doesn’t do zest) about preparations for this year’s Meltdown Festival. He is the curator, and will be closing the whole affair with a performance of the great 1968 Kinks’ album Village Green Preservation Society with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Practicing the old songs has been “a nice little routine”, he says. It could be line from a Kinks’ song, his masterly English pop paeans to the commonplace: all those well-respected men, newlyweds inspecting the weekly classifieds and aging suburbanites slipping into slippers by the fire.

Ordinariness has long been a fascination for Davies. Perhaps it is a tendency toward nostalgia, a melancholy yearning for the “young and innocent days” (to quote a Kinks’ number) of his North London childhood.

He describes family life there in the fifties as “sunny and bright”, fondly remembering how his dad, a market gardener, defied the final years of rationing restrictions with his veg-planting prowess. “I always seemed to get what I wanted…”

When the teenage Davies started at Hornsey College of Art in 1962, he found a convenient flowering of interest in the humdrum, even at a time of great change. “There was a cultural revolution here, and in most of Europe, really,” he recalls. “The kitchen-sink dramas did show that people responded to subject matter that wasn’t purely about the leisure classes. It also allowed bands like The Beatles, The Stones and The Kinks to come through.

“We weren’t the prettiest of people. Certainly I wasn’t. It allowed ugly, ordinary people to get some success and be on TV. Actually, the first time I was on TV, they wanted to fill the gap in my teeth with a cap. We broke the matinee idol mould.”

Though his band never quite reached the commercial heights of The Beatles of The Rolling Stones, Davies was often ahead of the game. Keenly observed, class-conscious, character songs such as A Well Respected Man and Dedicated Follower of Fashion predated Lennon and McCartney’s Eleanor Rigby or Jagger and Richards Mother’s Little Helper in the white heat of mid-sixties oneupmanship.

The lyrics came, Davies says, not from literary influences but a love of visual art. “As an art student I knew how to draw people, observe people. My favourite places for doing outdoor studies were railway stations, terminuses, places were people were in transit. I saw the changing London around me. And so I carried that on when I started songwriting.

“It felt natural to write that kind of subject matter. If found that people around me and the world they were coping with would be quite interesting. Autumn Almanac was about someone clearing out the leaves from their garden. I mean, a song about gardening to be in the top five…quite an achievement.”

Shy and self-deprecating he may be, but Davies and his band achieved something else besides chart success: rock ‘n’ roll notoriety. Sibling enmity between Ray and his guitar-playing younger brother Dave was never far from the surface. The first of many rowdy bust-ups led to a ban from the US in 1965.

“When we realised we couldn’t go back, I withdrew into complete Englishness and quaintness,” Davies says. “Everyone else was making albums to define the drug culture, but we withdrew into this world that was really quite alien to what what other bands were doing.”

Davies says he “didn’t really go out and enjoy the 1960s”. Surely not. Was he really tucked up in bed while his peers set London swinging?

“Well I got married very young, you see…We had a baby daughter and we lived in a bedsit. We actually didn’t have much money in those days. I was being asked to write and turn around an album a year, sometimes two albums a year in the beginning, and four singles or EPs. There was a lot to do, so there wasn’t much time to go out. My focus was on my work. I wasn’t interested in fame or celebrity.

“I go two big awards last year, and I found it really difficult to get up and ready to go out. I’m not big on dressing up. In the sixties and seventies I suppose I was quite well-dressed – shirts at Deborah & Clare, an account at Savile Row for jackets. I didn’t start wearing jeans until 1981. I remember that day vividly. And ever since then I’ve been happy in day clothes. My favourite jacket is a UPS one that was given to me by a worker in Oregon – a great old jacket to knock around in.”

Having eagerly dispensed with all the latest fads and trends, Davies, now 66, has lived out one of the most familiar rock cliches: a string of doomed romances. He has been married three times and has four daughters (one by Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders).

He agrees the life of a musician is inherently unstable, but blames the grim slog of the road more than the bubbleheaded world of the muse-seeking artist.

“Yeah, if I can’t be creative in a day I get really edgy,” he reveals. “But I think the thing about relationships is you must know your friend’s faults or partner’s faults, and not try to change them. Unless you can accept people for what they are, the relationship has no future.

“I’ve been kind of blessed with people who have understood how much I like writing – that can be pleasing for them too. So being creative isn’t the problem – it’s going on long, long tours. Most people who tour all their lives have broken relationships. It’s just part and parcel of it. One of the horrible realities of being detached from the way most people live.”

It is the bond with brother Dave, the man with whom he has shared so many tour buses, that has proved the most tempestuous of all.

“There is more good than bad in the relationship,” he insists. “But it’s the damage it does to the family. My older sisters get upset when they hear about squabbling. And Dave’s boys – he’s got four brilliant grown-up boys – (but) sometimes it poisons the offspring. They might have heard a bad rap about me and it kind of instills it into them as they’re growing up.”

“Dave and I don’t talk all that frequently, but we’ve got a weird telepathy. We know when the other needs to be spoken to. It was a magical component of being in The Kinks.”

Despite some trepidation, Davies is “looking forward” to stepping on stage at The Royal Festival Hall. The spotlight would seem to be the last place he wants to be, but a love of playing with other musicians draws him back to performance.

He remains the delicate, watchful songwriter, engaged with the inner frustrations of the ordinary man, yet slightly removed from the real world. In a state of semi-detachment. Not a bad title for a Ray Davies song.

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