Date Published:
Tuesday 29 October 2002

Seriously Kinky

Ray Davies is considered by many to be the father of Britpop, penning songs with a very English accent. ANDREW WHITE talks to The Kinks' frontman...

FOR proof that you don't need a pretty face or a brilliant voice to succeed in pop music, look no further than Ray Davies.

The Kinks frontman is one of the most distinctive singer-songwriters this country has produced, up there with the likes of John Lennon, Morrissey and Noel Coward - but I wouldn't fancy his chances on Popstars.

The born-and-bred Londoner, responsible for all-time classics like Waterloo Sunset, Sunny Afternoon and You Really Got Me, has the face of a dyspeptic undertaker and - according to rock legend - the temperament to match. His voice, though he performs wonderful tricks with it, is not the most naturally beautiful of instruments.

Davies himself, whose latest solo show brings him to The Anvil, Basingstoke next week, is the first to admit he is the unlikeliest of rock stars.

"I think it's because I went to art school and my ambition was to be a painter living in an attic in Paris," says Davies, who formed The Kinks with his brother, Dave, in the early Sixties.

His artistic aspirations shine through in his songs, whose lovingly-turned lyrics and haunting sense of time and place put them on a different level to standard Sixties pop fare.

"We made records that wanted to be an image. Waterloo Sunset is a painting as well as a song. The image came first. I'm not really a musician."

In the heyday of British pop, when teenage loyalties were torn between The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, The Kinks provided a third option, combining the whimsical and literary tendencies of The Beatles and the darker, subversive edges of the Stones - together with a humour and cynicism that was entirely their own.

Like The Beatles, they started off belting out rock standards before discovering a more subtle and individual voice.

Dedicated Follower of Fashion, released in 1966, was one of the first overtly satirical songs to hit the British charts. It lampooned the new generation of Sixties fashion victims who slavishly adhered to each new sartorial fad.

"Dedicated Follower of Fashion was the first song I wrote on a typewriter. I had something to say. It never changed from the first draft," remembers Davies.

"I remember at school I always used to write stories in two paragraphs. I had a knack for doing things quickly."

Davies may have a reputation for being difficult - and his relationship with his brother is famously stormy - but talks openly enough about his work, influences and latest projects.

Born in Muswell Hill, north London, at the tail-end of the Second World War, Davies's childhood was immortalised in his songs. Like countless classic Beatles tracks, numbers like Days (later successfully covered by Kirsty MacColl), Autumn Almanac and Come Dancing (their last significant hit in 1983) are pervaded by a mood of romantic nostalgia.

The music of The Kinks is always held up as some kind of paragon of Englishness. Like fellow war babies Lennon and McCartney, Davies came of age in a world of exciting new possibilities - including rock music - but carried with him childhood memories of a more traditional era.

"Even when I was growing up in the late Fifties and early Sixties, that England had gone," he says.

"I'm just picking up the pieces afterwards. That's not to say there aren't still some good things about England. I'm looking out over the Atlantic as we speak and it looks wonderful."

Ironically enough, The Kinks' hits began drying up in the late Sixties, when they were producing some of their most defining work, including the legendary concept albums Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) and The Village Green Preservation Society.

These albums barely dented the British charts but have become cult classics. Village Green Preservation Society must be one of the few rock albums to feature songs about steam trains, cats and people called Walter.

Davies takes an indifferent attitude to this and other albums' commercial failure.

"The Village Green Preservation Society was made as an album of ideas. It's an experience you should share rather than get airplay. It was about the joy. It was an indie record," he says.

"The thing with The Kinks was that every record that came out was different to the one before.

"There's nothing wrong with doing Godfather Part Two or whatever, as long as you take the idea on somewhere.

"I believe in ideas. I don't think it's music, what I do, but experimental popular art. My aspirations were to do with work and not the success."

Davies says he never deliberately cultivated an `English' image.

"I've never really been that English. My influences were blues people in America. I had an admiration of American folk music."

He puts his seeming obsession with life's danker nooks and crannies down to his youthful lack of worldliness.

"The Rolling Stones wrote songs about Route 66. I wrote songs about the M1. I had no life experience."

Despite his varying fortunes - including a three-year period in the Sixties when The Kinks were banned from America after a run-in with the press - Davies is now recognised as one of the lasting influences of British pop. Bands including Blur and Pulp will be constantly indebted to him, while a recent tribute album saw a host of rising stars paying homage.

"I think I was in one of the great bands. I was a bit spoiled," he reflects.

Davies is currently going through a boom period. As well as his live show, which he has been touring on and off for the last seven years, he's currently putting together his debut solo album.

"It's going very slowly. It's turning into quite a big piece," says Davies, who has been working on the album for three years. It promises a new twist on a favourite theme.

"The subtext of the record is statelessness and what it's like for someone who's considered to be so English to be without a country," he says, adding: "I can only write songs about how I feel at the time."

It all sounds like a far cry from Will and Gareth. Speaking of whom - what does the so-called Godfather of Britpop make of the current craze for manufactured pop stars?

"What astounds me is the influence Stevie Wonder has had on modern singing - all the vocal gymnastics of people like Craig David and Mariah Carey," he says.

"I don't want to criticise it too harshly, although I don't like a lot of it. They're making structured pop music. The music industry has popular music under its thumb."

But never, thank God, Ray Davies.

You can see Ray Davies in concert at The Anvil, Basingstoke on Sunday October 27. Box office: 01256 844244.

Text von Andrew White für Southhampton Daily Echo