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Ray Davies: A Complicated Life
THE British summer of 1966 was a glorious dream of sun, glamour and success. The nation basked in a heat wave, boutiques flourished, late-night music clubs opened, Playboy bunnies served drinks and England won the World Cup. The song that summed up the national mood, kicking the Beatles' Paperback Writer off the No 1 slot, was Sunny Afternoon by the Kinks. Its air of languorous self-indulgence seemed an echo of popular contentment.
Closer inspection of the lyrics, however, revealed a dark subtext. The singer's money has gone to the taxman, a 'big fat mama' is trying to 'break' him, his girlfriend's taken his car and gone back to her parents, 'telling tales of drunkenness and cruelty'. Far from a song of sunny euphoria, it's a cry of despair, a dream of escape from the 'big fat mama' of the English Establishment.
This vast biography of Ray Davies, the Kinks' singer, front man and songwriter, tries to explain the chronic angst that lay behind his terrific songs. Davies has always seemed a misfit in the rock pantheon (troubled, awkward, asexual, malcontent, a bit superior) and his songs deal with subjects other bands would deem uncool: unpunctuality (Tired of Waiting for You), transvestism (Lola), dandies (Dedicated Follower of Fashion). Johnny Rogan's book masterfully teases out the warring impulses wrestling in his psyche.
Davies was born in 1944 into a working-class family in Muswell Hill, north London. Every Saturday, the family enjoyed beery, post-pub Cockney singsongs round the piano. Ray's father Fred, a slaughterman, would climax the evening with Cab Calloway's Minnie the Moocher. Gradually, songs by Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins started to feature in the repertoire. Davies empathised with American culture and rock'n'roll, but spent his musical life trying to rediscover the lost world of pub/music-hall/vaudeville conviviality.
He had six elder sisters and a younger brother, Dave, the Kinks' guitarist. From boyhood Ray was plagued by insomnia and depression. The death of his sister Rene (a heart attack on the Lyceum ballroom dance floor)in 1957 hit him so hard he didn't speak for a year. At Hornsey College of Arts and Crafts, he took up the guitar, and a chance encounter with Alexis Korner of Blues Incorporated got him his first job as a musician. Dave raided the shops of Carnaby Street and the Kinks made their television debut on Ready Steady Go! in February 1964, wearing thigh-high boots, leather jackets and tweed. They were soon talked about as the No 3 group in the land, after the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Class is a huge theme in this book. Davies could never reconcile his humble background with his love of aristocrats. He was embarrassed by the former and wary of condescension by the latter. The band's managers, two public-school City types, impressed him with their confidence and sophistication. Many early gigs were played at the homes of their society chums. But the more Davies embraced middle-class respectability with a wife and children, the more he satirised bourgeois complacency. It became a form of self-laceration.
Another theme is sibling rivalry. The mutual dislike of Ray and Dave makes the Gallagher brothers look like the Waltons. They were temperamentally miles apart, Dave cheeky, mischievous and confident, Ray quiet, anxious and alienated. When young they savaged each other with boxing gloves. On stage they liked undermining each other for the audience.
The Kinks' early hits, such as You Really Got Me, were riff-tastic bursts of R&B, but critics could detect dark shadows in the words (Burt Bacharach thought All Day and All of the Night was 'very neurotic'.) After some disastrous misfires, Davies found his true voice in calmer, reflective pieces of social mockery and everyday epiphanies, including that immortal hymn to solitude, Waterloo Sunset.
Sad to relate, the chronicle of the band's fortunes behind these terrific songs is often dismal - rows, fights, smashed windows, flying furniture, cancelled gigs, contractual disputes, and a slew of later albums whose reliance on music-hall jollity shocked the fans. Disappointment and frustration took its toll. The band members regularly attacked each other on stage. In 1965, the drummer, Mick Avory, whacked Dave with a high-hat cymbal and nearly decapitated him. The Kinks couldn't tour the UK because no hotel would have them. Their first American tour was a nightmare of tantrums, aborted concerts and a fight with someone from the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists that put the band on an unofficial blacklist for four years.
Rogan is the author of a score of rock'n'roll guides and biographies. He has been working on this book since 1981, and interviewed everybody who ever came in contact with its subject. For a rock writer he employs a curiously fusty writing style. Davies didn't just go for long walks, he 'took sporadic constitutionals'. But he's adept at relating the social history of the 1950s and 1960s to Davies's brooding character and lyric obsessions. Rogan can make the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and the end of tea rationing all seem vitally important in building Davies's attitude to England, class and culture. He uncovers psychological traumas everywhere and is fascinating on the bitchy rivalries between 1960s pop titans. When the Kinks opened for the Beatles in Bournemouth in 1964, John Lennon evidently thought they were mimicking the moptops' sound. 'Can I borrow your song list, lads?' he asked. 'We've lost ours.'
Such tales make this unfeasibly long, oceanically researched biography go with a swing, even though Davies's life story is a tale of class-obsessed, self-destructive woe - with regular heartening flashes of song-writing genius. When, to borrow a Davies lyric, he turned his sorrow into wonder.
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