A couple of years ago I had the absolute pleasure of spending time at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. As glorious sunshine bathed the imperial gardens I stepped into the venue to spend a sunny afternoon listening to Ray Davies talk about his book Americana, which charts his complex love affair with America.
Davies started things off by reading an extract from the book, nervously approaching the lectern he reads aloud a passage which conjures up an image of a young boy watching cowboys and indians on a tiny black and white television set in Muswell Hill. This is followed by an hour of chat with Paul Gambaccini, questions from the audience and a book signing.
Ray Davies has always belligerently sailed against the tide of “popular” trends, instead collecting an array of idiosyncratic characters, charting English eccentricities and painting a picture of village fetes, jumble sales and cream teas. He has always been interested in telling stories and creating characters, driven by a compulsive need to write the next song or create the next album. To the packed audience he hints that sometimes his drive for perfection has a dark side. He explains that having been asked for more singles by his American record label he came up with the song Celluloid Heroes. At 6 minutes 19 seconds it is not ideal single length and having spent two solid days recording it, he still found issue with one of the lines, having to re-record it, to the despair of the sound engineer. The story is told with gentle warmth and humour but gives an insight into his steely determination and grit.
One of the many fascinating things about Ray Davies is that he seems to be almost completely lacking in ego, he comes across as humble with a real twinkle in his eye. He has the packed tent in the palm of his hand and his dry wit frequently reduces the audience to laughter, a standout line coming with his description of Phil Spector as “a great record producer, writer and murderer”
His book Americana charts a period of Kinks’ history that may be unknown to a lot of people in the UK. From about 1971-1984 the Kinks toured the states obsessively, making up for lost time after their 4-year ban, during this period they accrued three gold selling albums. “Low Budget”, “Give The People What They Want” and “State of Confusion”, records that did not even chart in the UK. This is indicative of the gross under appreciation of The Kinks work but Davies does not seem to mind, he loves all the records he has produced and is always hoping that the next record could be “the one”. He explains that you really have to “get the kinks” to truly appreciate them.
The book also covers his shooting in New Orleans, he tackles the subject eloquently warning of the dangers of increased gun crime in the UK. Another highlight of the afternoon comes when an audience member asks what music he likes from the current chart scene and he confesses to enjoying a “Rihanna afternoon” from time to time. The audience laughs but he then goes on to explain that he enjoys the production values of Rihanna’s records because of their clean sounds. He is always ready to confound expectations, something he has done throughout his career. He talks briefly about his brother Dave Davies, remarking that they might make new music together soon but nothing too nostalgia driven.
The records he has written have been produced from his own individualistic perspective, making him a unique talent. He doesn’t benefit from the same creative partnership enjoyed by Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards, he is on the outside, a rock loner, telling surreal tales at the end of the pier. Whilst The Beatles were releasing the “White Album” and the Stones “Beggar’s Banquet”, The Kinks were releasing a very English concept album “The Village Green Preservation Society”, typical of Davies’ offbeat view of the world.
Spending time in his company (albeit along with 300 other rapt audience members) makes you appreciate his place in rock history as perhaps the greatest British songwriter of his generation.