We should all know by now that the world of magazine-cover headlines is nothing more than a land of empty promises. Even so, when a recent issue of the U.K. music magazine Q promised "The 100 Greatest British Albums Ever!" I couldn't wait to look inside, considering that the onset of the British Invasion coincided roughly with the time I stopped wearing diapers, and changed my life almost as much. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles each had several LPs on the list ("Revolver" was No. 1). Oasis, Radiohead, the Clash, the Sex Pistols and just about every other U.K. act that ever looked sideways at a Union Jack filled in the remaining slots.
But the Kinks were nowhere to be found.
No "Arthur." No "Muswell Hillbillies" (save for a brief mention in a sidebar). Most unforgivably, no "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society." You don't have to be much of a Britpop or Anglo-pop fan to be outraged, or at least puzzled, that the Kinks, the band Ray Davies and his brother Dave started in London in 1963, didn't take at least one spot on the list. Who could beat the Kinks for sheer Englishness? After all, they wrote songs about tea and stuff, didn't they? One possible explanation is that, especially in the U.K., the Kinks had always been more of a singles band. Perhaps the real problem, though, was that the Kinks were too obvious a choice for Q's editors; opting instead to include Duran Duran's "Rio" or Eric Clapton's "Unplugged" would surely start more pub arguments.
But for me, there's no Englishman more English than Ray Davies. Pop music isn't supposed to be a sociology lesson; you can't understand everything about another country and its people just from one songwriter's work. But Davies' view enwraps so much conflict, and so many difficult contradictions, that he's anything but a typical symbol of the generational rebellion that characterized postwar Britain. He's such an anomaly, so balanced and confused at the same time, that it's easy to trust that his England is exactly the right one.
"I was born, lucky me/in a land that I love," Davies sings with swinging abandon in the Kinks' 1969 "Victoria." He's speaking through a character named Arthur, who is, as Davies explains in his self-consciously obtuse but entertaining 1995 autobiography "X-Ray," "an ordinary man like myself, who had been a small cog in the empire and had watched it pass him by." Davies shouldn't be underestimated as an actor (and what are singers if not actors?), but the song's sound, almost unnervingly vital, reveals its deepest truths: It's a serenade to past glory that treats its subject like a movie star. Davies pours love into the chorus as if it were sugar; brother Dave offers a guitar motif so gorgeously filigreed it's fit for a royal's crown.
And that's how a song about a fat, dour-looking queen makes you feel: as if you could leap off the top of a very tall building -- and fly instead of fall.
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Ray and Dave Davies were the youngest of eight children whose ages spanned almost 30 years; the six elder siblings were all girls. The Davies family home was a tiny house in the London suburb of Muswell Hill, although the two brothers spent many of their childhood years apart -- Dave went off to live with one of the sisters, Rene, while Ray divided his time between his family's home and that of his eldest sister, Rosie, and her husband, Arthur (who was roughly the model and inspiration for Davies' first significant concept album, the 1969 "Arthur, or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire," originally conceived as a musical television drama).
The brothers were never close, and their persistent, crackling sibling rivalry -- which probably wasn't helped much by either Ray's stubborn eccentricities or Dave's loose-screw loopiness -- has become the stuff of legend. It's probably also the thing that gave the Kinks their distinctive character: Ray was the chief songwriter and singer, Dave the lead guitarist and glamour boy. Ray is always acknowledged as the great mind behind the Kinks, but lurking in the shadows of the band's story is the niggling sense that Dave completes him in some way -- or, at the very least, tends to piss him off so much that the tension throws off a creative charge.
Oasis' Liam and Noel Gallagher may make a great show of hating each other's guts, but as squabbling siblings go, they're hardly a patch on the Davies' brothers. The uneasiness between Ray and Dave Davies has fueled a number of Kinks' songs, like the baroque and eerie 1966 "Two Sisters," in which brotherly strife is transmuted into a story about a married woman's envy of her sister's freedom: "She was so jealous of her sister ... she'd throw away her dirty dishes just to be free again." Ray was married, rather unhappily, at the time; Dave was free to play at being a rock star, and allegedly it wasn't unusual to see him running down hotel corridors completely nude except for a pair of pirate boots, with one or more comely conquests in hot pursuit.
The Kinks' career has spanned more than 30 years, through various record labels and lineups (the original members from the Kinks' glory days in the '60s, bassist Pete Quaife and drummer Mick Avory, split from the band in 1969 and 1984, respectively). Their story is riddled with the usual difficulties and a few novel ones, including an altercation between the band and a bloc of unions and promoters here in the States that prevented the Kinks from touring the U.S. for the last half of the '60s.
Davies also became embroiled in legal battles over the rights to his songs, which he'd naively signed away as a fledgling musician. (He names names, bitterly, in his 1970 screed "The Moneygoround.") The consensus is that Davies always seemed to pour more of himself into his work than into his personal life, and in 1973 his young wife of several years, Rasa, left him, taking the couple's two daughters with her. The episode led to a drug overdose and an emotional breakdown, which caused Davies to announce from a concert stage that he was retiring from music for good.
He came back, of course: Davies and the Kinks still had plenty of life left in them. The '60s had brought the band a torrent of hit singles in the U.K., although in the States, the only Kinks songs to reach top 10 status were "You Really Got Me" (1964), "All Day and All of the Night" and "Tired of Waiting for You" (both in 1965). The band wouldn't crack the U.S. Top 10 again until the release of "Lola" in 1970. With that song Davies made pure genius out of gender confusion, but I've always marveled more at the song's minute but loaded details, like Davies' tossed-off description of his paramour's "dark brown voice."
In the '70s, Davies and the band began to devote themselves to larger-scale projects, voluminous epics that sometimes seemed to grow beyond their control. When it was released in 1969, "Arthur, or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire" was greeted largely as an imitator of the Who's "Tommy," although "Arthur" had been completed by the time "Tommy" arrived on the scene. (And for my money, it hangs together much better than Pete Townshend's overgrown opus.)
On the whole, albums began to take precedence over singles in the '70s, and Davies rode the trend, writing songs that would fit into the larger, overarching theme of a particular album -- it was an approach he'd first explored with the band's beguiling 1968 love letter to English country life, "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society." Davies and his compatriots knew how to work discrete songs into a larger, meaningful whole. The band's terrific (and underrated) 1971 LP "Muswell Hillbillies" was a backwater-blues record of sorts, a work that sounded like Americana even as it mined evocative details of English urban life. A fragile, shivery ballad off that LP, "Oklahoma USA," about an English girl who in her dreams lives on the far-off plains of America, may qualify as the loveliest middle-era Davies song, with its Chinese puzzle of a line: "If life's for livin', then what's livin for?"
As the '70s unfolded, Davies' concepts got bigger and more unwieldy. In 1973, the Kinks released the first part of Davies' first full-blown rock opera, "Preservation Act I." The public hated it. The following year, the band released the opera's concluding half, "Preservation Act II." The public hated it more. Before long, though, the Kinks would usher in an era of bigger album successes stateside than they'd ever had before: Their 1977 LP "Sleepwalker" became a major U.S. hit, as did "Give the People What They Want" in 1981.
In their latter career the Kinks could now and then pull off a good song (the musical self-mockery of "Destroyer," off "Give the People What They Want" was a high point). But even though the band had become more successful than ever in the United States, their later work can't be characterized as particularly beguiling. It's uneven and largely uninspired. Davies personal life became fodder for gossip in the early '80s, when he became romantically involved with the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde. (Hynde and Davies produced a daughter in 1983, but the two never wed and eventually separated.)
The Kinks haven't officially disbanded, although Davies has moved on to tackle a broader range of projects in the '90s. His "X-Ray" was published in 1995 (Dave followed in 1996 with his own autobiography, "Kink"), and earlier this year he published an admirable if not exactly sparkling book of short stories, "Waterloo Sunset," loosely based on some of his songs. In the mid- to late '90s Davies also performed a series of live shows under the title "Storyteller," in which he read from his work, told stories about his life and played old songs and debuted new ones.
It always sounds like such a dismal proclamation to declare that an artist's best work is behind him -- and it's a dangerous assumption to make, because who ever knows? It's more crucial to hold up a person's best work and affirm, and then reaffirm, that it's in no danger of slipping into the ozone. Ray Davies spent his youth -- gave it up, in fact -- writing songs that some of us will carry around, like a talisman in a hip pocket, forever.
The Ray Davies of the '60s was a peculiar creature, a world apart from other gifted contemporaries like Jagger, Lennon or McCartney. He was as modern as any of them, and as much of a rabble-rouser (though he had infinitely more dimensions than Jagger). The disaffected, feral virility of 1964's "You Really Got Me," the Kinks' first top 10 hit (in both the U.S. and the U.K.), is very real, both an irresistible come-on and a sexual scowl you can hear.
Equally genuine, though, is the blushing, sunburned fondness of the 1967 "Autumn Almanac," a song that celebrates old-time fixtures of English life like seaside holidays and currant buns, even as it tugs gently away from their lulling, compelling current: "This is my street/and I'm never gonna leave it/And I'm always gonna stay here/if I live to be 99," Davies sings, the honeyed smoothness of his voice unable to hide a flutter of homesickness, as if he secretly wished he could live that life. Even in the thick of the swinging '60s, arguably one of the best times in history to be a young man, Davies was an old man trapped in a young man's skin. He never scoffed at the idea of simple human comforts, but it was his curse and his salvation that he also knew how confining they can be.
Davies has a rare gift for combing through strands of useless, habitual nostalgia to come up with the golden threads worth salvaging. Sometimes a way of life is discarded for good reason; other times it's thrown away out of nothing more than thoughtlessness or boredom. Like a rag-picker with superb taste, Davies has always known how to separate the things that drip with preciousness from the things that are truly precious. Doilies: toss. Teapots: keep.
There's loads of charm in the way Davies sings fondly of roast beef on Sundays and dismal English weather. But as endearing as his Anglo-centric vision can be, it's far from benign. As critic Greil Marcus wrote, "Commercial failure turned Ray Davies back on himself. What he found were the futile aspirations to gentility harbored by the English working class: the pain of living within limits one could not afford to damn, because that would mean admitting they existed."
Davies may have seen the bleakness of those aspirations, but he never confused it with hopelessness. If I had to compare him with an actor, I might choose the late, and extraordinary, Sir Alec Guinness as the closest equivalent. Davies, like Guinness, could easily slip into the role of the English everyman, without ever being condescending or overly mannered. His vocal style, like Guinness' gentle chameleon face, is nondescript and immediately distinctive at the same time. In fact, his direct, sometimes elegant phrasing has probably been informed more by the great British song-and-dance man Jack Buchanan than by Elvis. His songs clearly owe a debt to English music-hall tradition; when his brother Dave was getting into rock 'n' roll in the early '60s, Ray was still infatuated with Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Which isn't to say that Davies is a particularly gentle soul. He's no stranger to sexual posturing -- that's obvious from songs like "You Really Got Me" and "Lola." But you could spend hours reeling off the other qualities that fly like sparks from his work: His wit and punditry, his always-brushed-with-dignity rambunctiousness, his stiletto-sharp social commentary in songs like the 1965 "Well-Respected Man," an acid indictment of the hypocrisy behind English propriety.
But if Davies has ever understood anything, it's the romance of isolation, a sense of the clarity gained by being on the outside of things: Loneliness is a small price to pay for self-knowledge. That's the declaration that creeps out from behind the guitars, twirling like a corps of ballerinas, in "I'm Not Like Everybody Else." The song is a miracle of self-protection masquerading as self-revelation, the on-the-spot struggle of a singer who's torn between wishing he could keep his secrets private and wanting to let them out in the open to breathe. The almost breathlessly desperate line "I don't want to live my life like everybody else" emerges from an earlier one, "I don't want to go to bed like everybody else," as if going to bed and simply living were the two crucial bookends of life. For the duration of the song, at least, it seems that they are.
If I were ever forced to choose the 10 most beautiful pop songs ever written, I'm certain there'd be one Ray Davies song among them. It's just a matter of choosing. I'm always instantly seduced by the wistful majesty of his 1968 "Days," a song that turns a failed affair into an everlasting kiss. "Days" doesn't so much tell a story as outline the shape of it; the episode is a secret preserved by the singer, but the joy its memory brings him is like a hymn that bursts in the air. "Days," like the Venus de Milo, is complete in its incompleteness. The beauty of what you don't see intensifies the beauty of what you can.
But it's "Waterloo Sunset" that always, on the 100th listening as much as the first, takes me apart and becalms me completely in the space of its three minutes. Before he became a professional musician, Davies entertained thoughts of going to art school; he'd also fallen in love with movies, and at one point he thought he might like to be a filmmaker. "Waterloo Sunset" is a kind of songwriting that borrows from filmmaking, in the way Davies uses visual details to draw a character's interior life out into the open.
The narrator of "Waterloo Sunset" is a man who looks out on the world from his window, taking particular interest in two lovers (like puppets or pets, he's named them Terry and Julie) who meet at the train station each Friday night. The lines "Dirty old river, must you keep rolling/flowing into the night/People so busy, make me feel dizzy/Taxi lights shine so bright" substitute for cinematography, painting a backdrop for the central action of the song, two lines that swoop down on you unexpectedly: "But I don't need no friends/As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise."
The view from that window, like a scene encased in a snow globe, is the narrator's own personal work of art, a miniature world that seems quite good enough -- after all, there are lovers in it, so who can complain? But even as the singer sinks into the comfort of his armchair, the song's melody, wheedling and mournful at once, seems determined to convince him that there's more to the picture than what he can see. A guitar phrase repeated insistently hangs in the air, a half-formed suggestion -- it's tentatively playful, like a quizzical cocker spaniel framing a question that looks like "Out?"
But who really knows if Out is better than In? That's the question trembling at the heart of "Waterloo Sunset." Experienced in the world as we are, we think we know what's outside (good things as well as bad, but mostly good), and we want to take this recluse by the hand and bring him out, blinking, into the world -- to show him a view beyond his dirty old river, because we're so certain we know better. But "Waterloo Sunset" works a sweet little trick, fostering a persistent suspicion that the man in the armchair may be right, that maybe there is nothing so beautiful as what he sees outside his window. In the end, we have to leave him there, trusting that he knows best.
Davies is asking us to make a supreme leap of faith: To trust that this man is happy with the limits he's set for himself. It's our job, not his, to find happiness on the other side of the window. If he takes pleasure in looking out at us as we make our clumsy magic, then we've done right by him. It's the most we can give -- and the least we can do.