Dedicated followers of passion

One partied, one stewed. How the brothers Davies wore their rivalry and debauchery into the rough beauties of The Kinks hits.

By Sean Elder
March 5, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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very near the end of "Kink," Dave Davies' rambunctious rock 'n' roll autobiography, he recalls a meeting he had with his brother Ray's psychiatrist. "He said that if I didn't get away from my brother he would eventually end up destroying me," Dave writes. "Not consciously, but purely because he just couldn't help it. And many years later, my mother, on her deathbed, would say something very similar."

Mother knows best, it seems. For over 30 years the brothers Davies -- who are, in essence, the Kinks -- have been the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of rock, more Bitter Twins than Glitter Twins, locked in immortal combat, forever bashing each other with rattles, toys and, finally, guitars. The animosity began early: Ray, the youngest child and only son in a working-class family of seven, was not amused by the arrival of another brother, and used their cowboys-and-Indians games as an excuse to maul the interloper.


"I was punished by my own conscience," Ray wrote in his own autobiography, last year's "X-Ray." "As I slept at night, I had a recurring dream. My brother and I were playing on the edge of a cliff. David Russell slipped over the edge and I grabbed him as he fell. There he would stay, one brother literally holding the other's life in his hands." The dream ends, of course, with Dave plunging to his death and Ray sweating and screaming.

Dave's nocturnal memories are a bit different: a sleepwalking Ray running into the garden, pursued by unseen tigers, until he is shaken awake. "I realized that night, even though I was the younger brother, I would somehow have to fulfill the role of the older one and keep a look-out for him," writes Dave. "Shit. I was worried that life was becoming more serious."

He needn't have worried. Serious is something the 49-year-old Dave doesn't get until deep into his narrative. This is a story so drenched in drugs and alcohol it could have been written on blotter acid paper and cocktail napkins. While Ray's book was often coy, skirting issues of excess and sexual experimentation when it suited the author, "Kink" is a straight-ahead recounting of the did her/drank that variety.


Typical is this evening: A cool West Indian named Eddie invites Dave and Kim, his girl-of-the-moment, back to his pad to sample some outrageous reefer. Jazz is played. Kim goes down on Dave. "Uncontrollably, and without warning, I was overcome with terrible nausea," Dave recounts. "Suddenly, I threw up all over poor Kim, who was so far into her act it was downright tragic." Kim showers and leaves and then Dave himself is shown the door by his smiling, no-problem host. "I remember being as white as the sheet used to be as he handed me a small bag that contained some more of the dope. 'Come back soon,' Eddie said."

but this was London in the swinging '60s, and Dave was keeping some fast company. Youth, too, must be given its due: Ray was 18 and Dave 15 when "You Really Got Me" ripped a hole in the U.K. charts in 1964, the first in a two-year string of top-10 hits that included "All Day and All of the Night," "Tired of Waiting," "See My Friends" and "Sunny Afternoon."

Age and ignorance also serve to explain a number of bone-headed business mistakes the lads made then -- squandering their royalty rights, paying off a host of dubious handlers -- that would affect their careers "in perpetuity," as the lawyers like to say. Agent Eddie Kassner offered Ray £40 a week for life -- in exchange for the rights to all the Kinks' songs. And don't think Ray didn't take it.


Dave partied on, in a style befitting a high-school dropout. He bought an electric car and track and drove it around his bachelor pad. He broke his foreskin balling some groupie. He ended an evening at a Scottish lord's manor dressed in a suit of armor, swinging from a chandelier.

Ray, meanwhile, was living the life of a suburban gent, a life he would praise and parody in his songs for years. He had married his pregnant sweetheart when he was 18 and bought a house in Muswell Hill, the family's old nabe. "He was withdrawn and thoughtful," Dave wrote of his brother. "I did the partying; he wrote about it."


It wasn't until a particularly bad LSD trip in Los Angeles that Dave began to reconsider his ways. "I walked all the way down Sunset to my hotel," he writes, "telling myself that I couldn't live in this crazy unreal world any more." He fell into a deep depression. Shows were canceled. He tried to tell his older brother about his pain, but Ray's advice was to soldier through.

Not that Ray's approach was any more stable, in the end. While Dave prowled the streets going apeshit, Ray went indoors to quietly lose his mind. And sometimes it spilled out on stage -- as in a notorious show at New York's Philharmonic Hall in the early '70s in which a drunken Ray Davies knocked down a wall of amplifiers. After Ray was helped off, Dave invited the audience up onstage, and in moments the band was swamped with carousing fans, some of whom made off with Mick Avory's drum set.

It was not the last, or first, of the band's public dramas. In 1973, despondent over his wife leaving him, Ray ate a bottle of amphetamines before a show in London and halfway through announced his immediate retirement.


Even in the first flush of success, in 1966, Ray had started suffering public breakdowns. As he wrote in "X-Ray": "With 'A Dedicated Follower of Fashion' such a hit, people started coming up to me on the street and singing the chorus in my face: 'Oh yes he is, oh yes he is,' as if to say that I knew who I was. Unfortunately, my inner and somewhat distorted sense of reality told me that this was not who I wanted to be: I didn't know who I was."

So he drank himself insensible, went to bed for a week, grew a beard and punched out his publicist. His pain was real (both "Too Much On My Mind" and "Rainy Day in June" were written in this period), but his enemies were sometimes shadowy; his "inner life was both like a battlefield and a bizarre pantomime at the same time," he wrote.

The last time I saw Ray Davies was last year at the WestBeth Theater in Manhattan. He was performing his one-man show, "Twentieth Century Man," a patchwork of Kinks songs and anecdotes from "X-Ray," all performed with a nudge and a wink and a slight sense of psychodrama. His renowned bitterness over the downward turns his career had taken was much on display, as was his sly skill at mimicry. And throughout the performance, Kinks fans -- an odd lot in the best of times -- called out to him as if he was a vendor. When Ray invoked a studio sideman of his acquaintance, a big bearded fellow beside me shouted the name of one of his favorite songs:


"'Session Man,'" he cried.

"Yes," Ray replied, rather distractedly, "like the song."

"Play it," the fan demanded.

So here he was, one of rock's premier singer-songwriters, with 30 years of stardom under his belt, being reduced to his worst nightmare: Ray Davies, human jukebox.


The antics of the Davies brothers would be of no more concern to us than those of the Krays (the West End gangster brother duo who wanted Ray and David to play them in a film) were it not for the pure and enduring quality of the music they created. Perhaps it was the friction between them that threw off the heat; perhaps it was something genetic. (The family was a musical one, always singing around the piano, and between the sisters and their men the boys grew up listening to everything from Hank Williams to Django Reinhart.) But with the help of a crummy little eight-watt valve amplifier -- "the green amp" -- the boys set out on a sort of religious quest, a search for a sound. Dave violated that amp; he slashed it with a razor and stuck hat pins in it, finally plugging it into another, larger amplifier for the boys' live shows.

"As it vibrated it produced a distorted and jagged roar," writes Dave. "In fact, the original set-up was so crude that the main amp's hum was almost as loud as the sound I had created. A sound was born, but I didn't know it at the time."

That sound was immortalized in the opening chords of "You Really Got Me," but only after Ray insisted on a costly second session; prissy engineers, pointing to George Martin's success with the Beatles, had cleaned up the original, but the Davies boys knew it didn't sound right, it didn't sound live. "It doesn't make me want to drop my knickers," was how Dave's girlfriend summed up the problem with the sanitized version. When the second was recorded, in two takes, everyone present knew they were witnessing something special. Soon the song was monster, and everywhere was the sound of dropping knickers.


In the wake of the Beatles' success came a million bands, each with a sound and a gimmick: The Dave Clark Five goose-stepped to "Bits and Pieces," while the Kinks (who had been the Ramrods, the Ravens and the Bo Weevils before) were dressed in hunting coats and frilly shirts. Despite the silliness of their trappings, the Kinks found a sound as varied as their musical heritage and showed an unerring instinct for staying out of step with the trends of the day: As other bands veered into psychedelia in the late '60s, the Kinks began to pay homage to music-hall numbers; while others preached rebellion, Ray sang of preservation; at the beginning of the summer of love, the band released its sad masterpiece, "Waterloo Sunset."

The Kinks did much to add a splash of angst to pop's soda (it's no wonder Wim Wenders loved them so) and they never lost touch with their anger. When punk's progenitors began calling for the heads of all '60s survivors, the Kinks' names were not on the list. This was partly out of respect for their early records, their grappling with feelings of sexual confusion ("Lola" was the first top-10 song about a transvestite encounter) and their enduring odes to feelings of worthlessness and isolation. "Dead End Streets" and "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" sound as fresh and desperate as they did 30 years ago.

The Kinks stumble on today, making the odd record, which almost always features one song of note. "Phobia," from 1993, is a rather pitiful excuse for an album, but it does include the duet "Hatred" ("It's the only thing that lasts forever"), sung with great feeling by Ray and Dave. Humor has always been the band's saving grace, and though Ray often seems more bitter than amused and Dave now channels souls with different odors (when he's not watching out for UFOs), there's hope that the two might write another song together -- something along the lines of "Where Have All the Good Times Gone."

That is, if they don't kill each other first.

Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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