Review: Ray Davies: A Complicated Life - a creative powerhouse riddled with ambivalence

Johnny Rogan’s thoroughly researched study of The Kinks’ Ray Davies is not exactly a feel-good fable

Sun, Mar 15, 2015, 06:00


Book Title:
Ray Davies - A Complicated Life


Johnny Rogan

The Bodley Head

Guideline Price:

Although The Kinks were rightly venerated as British Invasion pioneers (You Really Got Me was a transatlantic smash as early as 1964), the band never quite cultivated the market-branded glam of fellow travellers the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and The Who. Until Britpop, The Kinks seemed held in highest esteem by US musicians who came of age cranking out versions of All The Day And All Of The Night in 1960s bar-bands. To this day, Ray Davies plays the theatres while his contemporaries pack out enormodomes on lucrative comeback tours.

Ray Davies: A Complicated Life goes some way towards explaining why. This doorstep of a biography (well over 700 pages, including end-notes and discography) portrays Davies as an ambitious man but a reluctant rock star, by turns outgoing and self-doubting, sporty and studious, cocksure and troubled. His character type seems closer to that of a Townshend-like lieutenant than a spotlight-hogging frontman, a creative powerhouse with wide-ranging interests in film and literature, but too riddled with ambivalence to be a natural bandleader.

It’s precisely these quirks that make him a worthy study, and Johnny Rogan is the man for the job, a writer renowned for going to extraordinary lengths to research his subjects, often to their chagrin –Morrissey famously wished him a nasty death following The Smiths autopsy The Severed Alliance. Rogan, the author of more than 20 titles, is rigorous and relentless (his ongoing project Requiem For the Timeless, an exhaustive history of The Byrds, is nearing Tolstoy proportions), the kind of biographer who’ll go so far as to invoke Freud and Laing in order to throw light on the notorious rivalry between Ray Davies and his tearaway brother and fellow Kink Dave.

Blitz-spirit knees-up

The early years are, as is often the case, the most compelling. Rogan describes a postwar London last evoked in Keith Richards’s Life, a time of rationing and cruel poverty alleviated by Blitz-spirit knees-ups and bottled beer, a place where where young girls cruised coffee bars and dancehalls in the hopes of seducing GI Joes.

The adolescent Davies was both confused and transfixed by the Utopian visions of the 1951 Festival of Britain at the South Bank, a “tonic for the nation” designed to stimulate ideals of a bright shiny future. He also experienced a visceral response to the television adaptation of Orwell’s 1984, starring Peter Cushing. Davies’s teenage wasteland was a monochrome world turned day-glo by jazz, skiffle and rock’n’roll, but, unusual among his contemporaries, he never abandoned the crooners, big bands, music hall artists and variety theatre acts that predated Elvis’s year zero of 1956.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Davies found salvation in an art college environment that allowed working class kids to pursue bohemian pipe dreams, exploring European and American film and fashion. In these early chapters, A Complicated Life functions as a social history as well as character study. Rogan illuminates the labyrinth of Swinging Sixties record labels, managers, bookers and pluggers, and spares no blushes in his depiction of the young Kinks as a thoroughly miserable bunch, too consumed with in-fighting, professional jealousy and youthful arrogance to enjoy their first flush of success. This was a shambolic and unprofessional live act, hell-bent on self-sabotage, often provoking the audience, and each other, to the point of physical violence.

So, The Kinks’ first US tour was an unmitigated disaster, fracturing their management and resulting in a de-facto five-year ban from the American musicians’ and broadcasting unions. Here Davies comes across as tight-fisted, unpredictable and fatally ambivalent about his profession, prone to blowing gigs at any moment. Married and a father by 19, one wonders how he managed to produce songs as evergreen as Dedicated Follower of Fashion and Sunny Afternoon amidst constant personnel changes and complicated legal wrangles.

A nervous breakdown seemed inevitable, but the subsequent rest from roadwork allowed him to develop his writing skills and cultivate a niche as poet laureate of the ordinary, culminating in a golden period that produced kitchen-sink classics such as Dead End Street, Autumn Almanac, Days and the Kodak masterpiece Waterloo Sunset. The 1968 concept album The Village Green Preservation Society, a modest-selling record now considered a cult classic, signalled the end of the first act.

On the skids

As the 1970s began, the Kinks were perceived as a hit-and-miss singles act, while The Beatles and the Who got the credit for revolutionising the long-form album. They were well on the skids until a new record deal, a repeal of the US touring ban, and a quirky little cross-dressing classic entitled Lola bailed them out. Thereafter Davies continued to play against his strengths, disappearing down a rabbit hole of anachronistic rock-theatre productions, television commissions, marriages, divorces and broken romances, the most high-profile of these being a tempestuous relationship with Chrissie Hynde.

The Kinks wouldn’t score another hit until 1982’s Come Dancing, although Davies’s torch was kept lit by The Pretenders’ versions of Stop Your Sobbing and I Go To Sleep, The Jam’s David Watts and Kirsty MacColl’s Days. The band seemed all but creatively bankrupt by the late 1980s, but their leader remained unwilling to take the plunge into a solo career for another decade. The vicious sibling rivalry and in-band shenanigans continued. The closest thing to a third act redemption would come in the form of Cool Britannia kudos, the Come Dancing musical, and a serious of well received solo shows.

The casual reader will find these later years wearying, and wonder if Rogan might have better served the book’s latter third by compressing the narrative into a sped-up newsreel collage. Be warned, A Complicated Life is not a feelgood fable: it’s a tale of familial dysfunction and wasted chances, of tiresome manipulations and endless machinations. But – and it’s a big but – when all the squabbles and botched opportunities have receded into the fog of history, Davies’s songs will remain undiminished to the end.