Ironing out some Kinks
A near-death experience prompted Ray Davies to write a revealing account of his time in the US with his underappreciated group
The Kinks, from left, Dave Davies, Ray Davies, Peter Quaife and Mick Avory in 1968. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
On January 4th, 2004, Ray Davies was shot in New Orleans. This was his John Lennon moment. Instead of a crazed fan, the assailant was an opportunist purse-snatcher. Or was he? This is just one of the questions that vexes Davies as he lies in a bed at Charity Hospital, pondering his fate, while doctors and nurses discuss his disconcertingly slow heartbeat. His mind commutes back to his childhood and forward through his rock-star years as he contemplates his ambivalent attitude towards the United States.
Like most “war babies”, Davies was entranced by American culture. His sister Rene married a GI and emigrated to Canada, regularly sending over the latest Elvis Presley records before they were released in Britain. Davies immersed himself in rock’n’roll, R&B and American musicals and movies long before he formed The Kinks. That group helped spearhead the “British invasion”, registering US hits including You Really Got Me, All Day and All of the Night and Tired of Waiting for You.
Their career was mysteriously derailed after a disastrous US tour in 1965, when they fell foul of the American Federation of Musicians. Four years would pass before they returned to the States, a lifetime in the 1960s pop world. There was no “official ban” but something closer to a universal blacklisting. It was almost Kafkaesque.
Great ‘forgotten band’
The Kinks became the great “forgotten band” in the US, suddenly reduced to the level of an obscure cult outfit. Amazingly, even their finest and most commercial work was ignored; tellingly, Waterloo Sunset failed to reach the US Top 100.
The United States’ abandonment encouraged Davies to concentrate on more parochial themes, notably an exploration of English sensibility expressed in songs such as Autumn Almanac, Days and Shangri-la and the celebrated albums The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur.
By the time the mysterious “ban” was lifted, The Kinks discovered a new US, a rock machine that demanded endless touring and promised rich rewards. At first they attempted to promote Davies’s arcane rock operas – from Muswell Hillbillies and Preservation to Schoolboys in Disgrace – but eventually found success by reinventing themselves as a hard-rock stadium band with albums like Sleepwalker, Low Budget and Give the People What they Want.
Although Americana offers Davies the chance to revisit Kinks history, he is sparing in his reminiscences. Having already written X-Ray, an “unauthorised autobiography” from 1994, he rightly prefers to present The Kinks in flashback, offering snapshots of the past rather than lengthy meditations.
It works, too. This is no tired rock story but something far more profound, funny and disturbing. The reader’s attention is focused on Davies during his time in New Orleans, a defining spell when he confronts his mortality and attempts to mine the source of his musical influences and creativity. Many previously unseen song lyrics and notebook entries illuminate the text, like coded commentaries on his psychological state.
As a storyteller Davies is arch, allusive and evasive. Funnily enough, it’s his memories of subsidiary characters that prove most engaging. Bit players such as Ken Jones, a roadie, Barbara Bothwell, an assistant, and Tony Gibbins, a minder,draw more attention than Davies’s fellow Kinks. Even his relationship with his brother Dave (arguably the most notorious tale of sibling rivalry in pop history) is understated here.