Brothers at Arms

After three decades of classic pop and internal turmoil, the Kinks are still not like everybody else.

By Harold DeMuir

Pulse Magazine - May 1993

Photo by Mim Michelove
Ray Davies is sitting in the midday sun on a bench on the grounds of New York's Lincoln Center, not far from the apartment he keeps in Manhattan's West 70's - and mere yards from the cencert hall where, two decades prior, he took his most famous pratfall.

"I had a sore throat," recalls the singer/writer/producer, who's led the band through three decades and 25-or-so albums' worth of artistic, commercial and emotional ups and downs, "and when I walked out to the stage somebody gave me some water with something in it. The room started spinning, and i fell back on my amp and narrowly missed being decapitated by my stack, which fell beside me. The audience got up and sang all the songs. It was wonderful."

The days when such hapless happenings were a regular feature of Kinks concerts are long gone, although Ray and his kid brother, Dave, still manage to exchange the odd rude gesture once in a while. The latest generation of Kinks fans knows the band as a polished live act and all-around rock institution - perception that does a disservice to the unique nature of this pathologically unpredictable band's remarkable body of work.

The Kinks were something of an oddity even in their brief mid-'60s stint as British Invasion hitmakers, a period during which they scored seminally primitive hits like "You Really Got Me," whose rude garage sound (spearheaded by Dave Davies' influential pre-metal guitar work) clashed brilliantly with the band's famboyantly fey visual image.

"I remember Mick Jagger's jaw dropping the first time he saw us," Ray recalls fondly. " He couldn't believe that four such uncool people, at the time, could have a bigger hit than he did. The Kinks were genuinely rebellious and threatening, because we knew no shame."

And here they still are, still shameless after all these years. The brothers Davies have somehow withstood numerous peaks and valleys in the band's commercial viability - not to mention the ravages of their own legendarily volatile relationship - to emerge as rock's least likely survivors. But the colorful psychodrama of their checkered history ought not to distract us from the fact that the Kinks' katalogue includes some of the most brilliant music ever made in the pop/rock idiom, music whose gentle but unshakable humanity belies the group's history of internecine strife.

Photo by Mim MicheloveBy the time the Kinks' original string of state side hits dried up after 1966's "Sunny Afternoon," Ray Davies - later described by one journalist as "a genuine and brilliant neurotic in a landscape full of sham psychotics" - had already begun to distinguish himself as a singularly brilliant song writer. While other Brit combos strained to push back rock's stylistic boundaries with overblown conceptual conceits, the Kinks turned out under stated, bittersweetly British albums like Face to Face (out of print in the States, but available as an import), Something Else (Reprise), The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (Reprise) and Arthur (Reprise), which basked in simple musical pleasures while pining for a simpler, quieter England that probably never existed. Naturally, they didnít sell worth a damn.

As his contemporaries feigned enlightenment with orchestrated concept albums about the oneness of the universe, Ray encapsulated timeless truths in breathtaking musical miniatures like "Waterloo Sunset," "Days," "Two Sisters" and "Big Sky," songs which still pack as much genuine emotion into three minutes as any pop tunes before or since - and exuberantly ironic pop-rockers like "David Watts" and "Victoria." It would be negligent not to also mention the vocal and songwriting efforts of Dave davies, who though increasingly overshadowed by Ray's more voluminous output, added numerous memorable tunes to the Kinks' late - '60s repertoire (his "Death of a Clown" was a number three U.K. hit in 1967).

The success of the 1970 transatlantic smash "Lola" (generally considered to be the only Billboard Top 10 single to deal explicitly with transvestitism) snapped the Kinks out of the commercial doldrums long enough to win them a big-bucks deal with RCA. Characteristically, they used their short-lived new clout to turn out a series of satirical concept albums - some of which, like Soap Opera and the two-part Preservation, received elaborately staged productions within the band's concerts. (Soap Opera and Preservation are both available on Rhino, which has reissued the band's entire RCA catalog.)

The Kinks' career stock rose immensely after a late-'70s move to Arista, where the band actively and successfully courted the American market that it had lost touch with years before. While just a few years prior they were notorious as one of rock's sloppiest live acts, the new-look Kinks were a tight, eager-to-please arena band, anchored by Ray's hyper-camp stage persona and Dave's metallized axework. This new development was a mixed blessing for longtime fanatics - it was satisfying to see the Kinks achieve belated mainstream success, but disheartening to note the glibness of much of the band's Arista output, which often saw Ray falling back on mere cleverness rather than emotional insight. Still, scattered moments of brilliance like "Better Things" (from 1982's Give the People What They Want) and "Come Dancing" (from 1983's State 0f Confusion) made it clear that Ray was still capable of whipping up an inspirational classic when the mood struck him.

Photo by Mim MicheloveMeanwhile, the rise of MTV gave Ray (who'd previously written and appeared in some English television plays, two of which formed the basis of Arthur and Soap Opera) the chance to finally pursue his longstanding celluloid ambitions with a series of impressive promo videos and his well-received first directorial feature, Return to Waterloo - well-received, that is, by all but his brother, who declined to join his fellow Kinks on its soundtrack (which is not available domestically on CD).

A subsequent trio of albums for MCA proved relatively unrewarding commercially, but the last of these, 1989's U.K. Jive, showed encouraging flashes of the qualities that originally endeared the Kinks to longtime loyalists. That sense of the band returning to its true strengths was confirmed last year, when the Kinks' new label, Columbia, released a five-song CD single featuring the hauntingly reflective "Did Ya."

Which brings us to Phobia, the Kinks' first album of the '90s and unquestionably the band's best work in ages. The 14-song collection features Ray's least flippant, most emotionally honest writing in ages, with personal apocalypse and worldly calamity providing a backdrop for such affecting numbers like "Babies," "The Informer," "Donít," "Only a Dream" and "Still Searching." Dave's two compo sitions, "Itís Alright" and "Close to the Wire," feature a compelling helping of his beloved vocal and guitar wailing.

Both Davies brothers view Phobia as the start of a new era for the band - which these days includes bassist Jim Rodford (a Kink since 1978) and drummer Bob Henrit (who joined in 1984, replacing long-suffering founding member Mick Avory - who remains a drinking pal of Ray's and actually played on a few of the new albumís demos).

"I think that there's a special feeling about this record," says Dave. "Making it was an emotionally draining experience, and sometimes I thought that I would go mad, but I think that we're all very pleased with the result. Ray and I spent a lot of time together on this record, and a lot of it was really intense, and I think that shows."

"I think it's a pivotal record for us, in the same way that [1971's RCA debut] Muswell Hillbillies and [1977's Arista debut] Sleepwalker were," states Ray. "I think I kind of found my voice again on 'Only a Dream,' which I wrote on a plane to England after I decided that the album needed to have a little more humanity. It's odd that an artist who's supposed to have been around still gets intimidated by certain things, but I do, and I had to really get myself prepared to do that vocal. The night before I did, I went out and got rat-arsed drunk on wine. I was still shaking when I got to the studio the next morning, and I did the vocal in one take. It's only a pop song, but there's a lot of emotion in it and there's a lot of me in it."

Elsewhere on Phobia, the Davies brothers' strained relationship is addressed in tongue-in-cheek fashion on the Ray-penned "Hatred (A Duet)," on which the siblings trade lines with a mixture of venom and humor. "Now that I think about it, I wish I'd called it 'Hatred (A Love Story),'" Ray says. "I didn't tell Dave it was gonna be a duet; I just said, 'I think you should sing this,' and didn't tell him that I was gonna cut our vocals together. In the second verse it goes something like 'Politicians pretend that they can cure all the problems of the world, but at least you and I know where we stand,' and then it says, 'Hatred is the only thing that keeps us together.'

"I know so many people like that; I remember my mum and dad arguing endlessly when we were kids. I was in a relationship once, and we'd had a fight the night before, and when I woke up in the morning the first thing I saw was a television flying towards me. And the first thing I thought was, 'Wow, you must really love me to want to destroy me that much.' It really is a fine line between love and hate.

"Yes, Dave and I have this professional and personal rivalry," Ray continues, "and we are more detached from each other than we've ever been - I think he's living in Los Angeles or somewhere ridiculous like that. It's terrible; I can't go visit Mum and Dad with Dave, and I can't go to the pub with him and fight and then go home. We've been torn apart, but at the end of the day there is a bond, and we are close."

"The thing with me and Ray, very simply, is that we're very different from each other, and we tend to go about expressing things in very different ways," says Dave, who is indeed living in L.A. these days. "I like to think that I'm more tolerant of Ray than he is of me, but he would probably say the opposite. It's difficult, because creative people are crazy - at least the good ones are.

The resigned tone of "Hatred" implies that the brothers have achieved a certain level of acceptance of their differences. "Sometimes you'll be arguing with somebody and it reaches a point where it's just funny, and the anger dissipates," Dave says. " It was a bit like that doing this album. There was this genuine undercurrent of 'You bastard, what are you trying to do?' But at the end we'd usually just look at each other and think it was really funny. There were some moments on this record where I got very frustrated, thinking, 'Why the fuck is this still happening?' But the position I always take, when it feels like it's the last straw, is that we both really want the same thing; we just both think we know better than the other how to get it."

"There's a part of me that wishes I'd quit at White City in 1973," says Ray, referring to the London show where, onstage, he announced his departure from the band. "I'd made the decision to quit and completely change my life, because I felt that the music industry was getting bigger and uglier. I also wanted to quit in 1984, after 'Come Dancing.' I felt that that was the end of an era for the Kinks, and I wanted to stop the treadmill and step back and reappraise the whole thing, but we had another album to deliver. It seemed like we always had another album to deliver."

Still, Ray's managed to escape the album/tour cycle enough to pursue a various number of outside projects in various related fields. Lately, he's been working on and off on "a sort of autobiographical novel"; he's directed an as-yet-unreleased documentary on jazz great Charles Mingus in conjunction with the recent Weird Nightmare Mingus tribute album; and he's hoping to mount a new production of his 80 Days stage musical. The latter project, an adaptation of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, received good notices in a limited California run in 1988. (Interestingly, a bootleg tape of Ray's demo versions of his songs for 80 Days shows much of the depth and poignancy lacking in much of the Kinks' latter-day recordings).

Photo by Mim MicheloveRay says he's also been thinking about reviving the band's old custom label, Konk, as a vehicle for new artists, and of resurrecting his extravagant early-'70s political allegory, Preservation. "I'm constantly rewriting Preservation. I probably shouldn't be telling you this, but I've remixed it, with new drums and samples and things, and it sounds really good. It's kind of my lost lifelong project, the thing that I constantly find myself going back to, just like Rembrandt kept painting his self-portrait. It's about lost innocence and lost friendship, and things that can never be recaptured, which are things that have always interested me."

Meanwhile, Dave, whose impatience with Ray's extracurricular interests has never been much of a secret, expresses interest in recording another solo album (he's released three, the most recent being 1983's out-of-print Chosen People [Warner Bros.]), and adds that he's working on a screenplay of his own.

Even more interesting, however, is Ray's prediction that his next album may be an official solo effort rather than a Kinks disc. "I want to make a solo record, because sometimes it's hard for me to say certain things in the context of a Kinks record. Whether or not you believe it, the Kinks is still run as a democracy - there are fights and arguments, but it's still democratic - and I consciously think about writing for the Kinks. I'm very interested in taking my music in new directions now, but maybe I should do that somewhere else.

"I've got this new bunch of songs that have been written since this album, and they're all me and I'm not afraid of them at all. It may sound odd coming from someone who's been around for as long as I have, but suddenly I'm not afraid of showing my emotions. In the past I've always written a lot of observations about other people, but I haven't written very often about myself, and that's going to be the idea behind my next project."Photo by Mim Michelove

Nonetheless, both Ray and Dave express confidence that Phobia spells a new lease on life for the Kinks, and seem to have made some small peace with the contradictions inherent in the band's continued existence. "I don't think much about our place in history, I'm just interested in getting on with it," says Dave. "I'm very excited about the next year, and I've got a feeling that this is going to be a very good time for us. I don't have any reasons or excuses for why we're still doing it. I'm just glad that we still are, and I'm feeling ready for a fight."

Ray echoes his brother's sentiments. "I've never been worried about my age, perse, because every time I write a song, every time we make a record, every time I walk on stage, I'm every bit as scared as I was when I started. I'm still constantly torn between despair and elation, and that's a big part of what keeps me going.

"Music is becoming more and more important to me the older I get," Ray concludes. "The Kinks have got this tremendous catalog now, but it still feels like a work-in-progress. I'll sit back and listen to it and recognize the connections and get the feeling that it isn't quite finished yet. And I suppose it won't bother me too much if my epitaph just says, 'The guy who sang with the Kinks."'

By Harold DeMuir - Pulse Magazine, May 1993

New York-based freelance scribe Harold DeMuir still considers his purchase of Golden Hour of the Kinks at the age of 14 to have been a turning point in his adolescence.

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