Ray Davies: My new question to people is, do you know who you really are
The former driving force behind the Kinks on identity, politics and timeless characters in his songs as the musical ‘Sunny Afternoon’s comes to Ireland
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25: Ray Davies attends an after party following the press night performance of "Hamlet" at the Barbican Centre on August 25, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)
Constructive story ideas have always fascinated Ray Davies. The one-time frontman of The Kinks, and a songwriter long regarded by many as the poet laureate of pop music, prefers detailed work more than snappy one-liners surrounded by verse-chorus-verse doggerel.
We are in a Liverpool hotel lounge room, a short walk from the city’s Royal Court Theatre, where later that night, Davies’s latest foray into long-form story ideas, Sunny Afternoon, makes its Liverpudlian debut.
No sooner are we into our conversation, however, when he interrupts the chat with, “My new question to people is, do you know who you really are?”
This is a key link to many of Davies’s best-known songs (and quite a few that aren’t), because if there is one British pop songwriter of the past 50 years who has invested his work with a broad range of recognisable characters who may or may not be what they really are, then it is Ray Davies.
Softly spoken, with a subtle wit, the 72-year-old songwriter refuses to disappear gently into the good night. As well as preparing for the Dublin premiere of Sunny Afternoon (at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on March 21st), he is also prepping his forthcoming solo album, Americana, due for release in April.
Banned in the US
No stranger to theatrical representations of his work through the decades, Sunny Afternoon represents the pinnacle. It is based on the 1960s period of The Kinks, and touches on Davies’s fractious relationship with his brother Dave, managerial issues, his sister’s death, his failed marriage, and, following a disagreement with the musicians’ union, the banning of the band from the US.
The idea behind the musical, he says, references The Rake’s Progress, an octet of narrative paintings by the 18th century British artist William Hogarth.
“When I was coming up with ideas for something like this, I was thinking about The Kinks’ story, and it’s a strange one – the kinds of things we gave away to become what we turned out to be, all of it wrapped up in not knowing what or who we were. Essentially, Sunny Afternoon is a coming-of-age piece, quite dark and worrying. Not very sunny at all, really.”
I could have glamorised it and made me into a very important, if not pivotal, character but it was never going to be a squeaky clean autobiography
This may be true, but the story it tells is fascinating. What sets it apart from other musical treatments of a songwriter’s output is that it’s far removed from what Davies terms “your average jukebox musical”.
All constituent parts remain rooted in the kind of reality that Davies has utilised in his work throughout his life – the people portraying the characters can act, and anyone that plays an instrument can play it very well.
It’s no surprise that during its 2015 run at London’s West End (at the Harold Pinter Theatre), Sunny Afternoon won four Laurence Olivier awards. It is also no surprise that Davies sees no point in glossing over some of his less than charming characteristics.
“I could have glamorised it,” he admits, “and made me into a very important, if not pivotal, character but it was never going to be a squeaky clean autobiography. After the first workshop, I spoke to the actors doing the parts, and I said they were never to think about me, just to be the character they were there to portray.”
Between such portrayals and throughout the show (with almost 30 songs performed), what is most radiantly highlighted is the range of classic pop music underpinned by keen sociopolitical observations.
I couldn’t help writing about the society I lived in at any given time
Davies views the musical’s title song – released in the summer of 1966, several weeks before England went on to win the World Cup – as something that would suit the mood of the nation. He was almost right.
“The politics of the lyrics, the status of England’s finances – the pound was just about to be devalued, and the lyric ‘the taxman’s taken all my dough’, and so on . . . It’s not just a summer song.”
Many of his songs, especially in The Kinks’ songwriting heyday of 1964-1975, were layered with stories and messages. “I think I’ve always stayed away from politicising music, but I couldn’t help writing about the society I lived in at any given time. Songs such as Sunny Afternoon referenced that, and a song such as Dead End Street touched on unemployment, which was a subject my dad talked about. Dedicated Follower of Fashion is a really political song – I was appalled by how fashion dictated the way you were looked at or perceived. As a songwriter, those topics obviously resonated with me.”
He amiably takes to task the notion that he is, essentially, a nostalgic songwriter. An audience forgets, he remarks, about the era in which music is made – people become engrossed in the characters. Their stories, he emphasises, become timeless.
“Any four people, or a gang of people, on a quest for freedom, to rise above what their origins are, to find out what makes them tick – that’s a universal tale, isn’t it?”
‘I was über shy’
At this, Davies looks at his watch – it’s almost time to head to the theatre to say hello to the cast members. “It’s interesting that many of the younger people, younger musicians, I’ve spoken with after the shows weren’t really familiar with the Kinks’ actual story, yet they could really relate to what the Kinks – as musicians in the music industry back in the 1960s – were experiencing. Maybe not much has changed, after all.”
For Davies, the message is quite clear – stick to your guns. “I had communication difficulties when I was a child, and I was sent to a special school to be taught how to be expressive. It was a big deal for me to actually complete a song without faltering; the confidence came later, after the hit singles, but initially I was über shy.”
Expression through song – which, he says with a sly grin, “is seemingly, a simple art form”– really helped him.
“I’m still that same challenged individual with a desire to find a way to express myself. The musical, and the new album, are more examples of that.”
Ray Davies on hit singles and albums that didn’t sell
“Our albums not selling is one of the reasons why The Kinks left our early record label, Pye. I tried to get the label to be actively interested in concept albums – we tried with 1968’s The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, but they begrudgingly put that out. It was the same with our 1969 concept album, Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), and our 1970 concept record, Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (inset). The big lure to us eventually signing to a major label such as RCA was to put out albums like 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies; we found record labels that were willing to help and to sustain and to believe in the content of the albums. The conceptualisation of pop music was evolving quickly then, and it’s fair to say that by the end of the 1960s, pop singles culture was quickly being replaced by concept-driven pop music.”