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And just when I wanted no one to be there / All of my friends were there / Not just my friends / But their best friends too.
Behind Ray Davies is the celebrated British music hall tradition: an era of song, laughter and alcohol. Music hall was riotous and unconstrained by the Royal Patent which regulated legitimate theatres, and its songs told stories in the folk tradition. Rogues, wastrels and criminals were remembered and even celebrated on the Victorian stage, like ‘Sam Hall' or George Leybourne's comic character ‘Champagne Charlie'. The created persona is also a characteristic of Ray Davies's songwriting. Just as the revered Vesta Tilley was the first music hall star to dress as a man, so ‘Lola' was the first male pop character to dress as a woman. The molly houses of eighteenth-century London streamed with cross-dressers and effeminate masculine personalities. Following in the tradition, music hall stars were able to offer a contrast to contemporary prudishness just as modern pop can challenge archaic attitudes. Hoxton-born Marie Lloyd sang the saucy ‘She'd Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before'. This story of a naive country girl arriving wide-eyed in London has echoes in the Davies ballads ‘Big Black Smoke' and ‘Polly'. His songbook runs riot with sexual ambiguity as well as an eye for male vulnerability: ‘Out Of The Wardrobe' and the more directly gay and fancy-free figure of ‘David Watts'. The Kinks, as their name suggested, played theatrical camp.
The London of 1860 had conspicuous parallels with the world Ray Davies would mirror in song a century later. More than 50,000 prostitutes were earning a living on the streets of the capital. The city was rife with disease and filled with an awful stench from the Thames, and tens of thousands of families lived packed into one-room tenements. Charles Booth's study of the working class revealed that almost a third of Londoners were living on or around the poverty line. In 1966, at the height of the media-proclaimed Swinging Sixties, the disparity between excess and bare existence was equally shocking. When England lifted the World Cup at Wembley the nation's number one singalong was ‘Sunny Afternoon'. Davies had conceived the song in stark contrast to the mood of the age. Behind the knees-up rousing chorus the song attacked in subtle, cutting verse the big fat momma, symbol of an all-consuming, taxing government, and the drunkenness and cruelty of a broken-down aristocrat. ‘Dead End Street' reflected the country's failings with equally devastating observation, referring to a crack up in the ceiling and family nourishment limited to bread and honey. The song was reminiscent of Fred W. Leigh and Charles Collins's standard ‘My Old Man', which told of a couple fleeing from the burden of unpaid rent. Davies's compositions offered musical gaiety to sweeten bitter tales. The naked E major descending scale of ‘The Money Go Round' robed itself in vaudeville delivery whilst attacking the theft of intellectual property. ‘All Of My Friends Were There' described a disguise of shame with a worn moustache and parted hair. Out of the circus rhythm, falling notes in F major release the song's joviality into a beautifully segued half-time melancholy. Wit was a Davies tool of anger handled with precision blows.
The great British songwriting legacy is traditionally in defiance of the establishment. Like Jagger and Richards, the outspoken Davies paid little heed to convention. A century earlier Harry Clifton had accepted payment from factory owners to write songs encouraging employees to graft, but ‘Work, Boys, Work and Be Contented' reflected a very different mood from the industrial world of the Sixties. Davies voiced the grievances and plight of the neglected working man. His songs recognized the hardship and struggle at the propping-up end of society. ‘(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman' was a song of escapism from strikes and bills, whilst the celluloid dreamer of ‘Oklahoma USA' asks all life we work but work is a bore, if life's for livin' then what's livin' for? Davies's songbook is a chronicle capturing the pulse and heart of the British working man. His stories show the realities with telling insights from everyday life, and his observations blend quaint and humorous storytelling with damning indictments of authority. He tells of prosaic characters and their everyday rituals, such as taking afternoon tea or roast beef on a Sunday, watching football or negotiating the weights and pulls of emotional attachment. His words are accessible and easy to understand, and there is a magnetism in the song construction that is deceptive in its simplicity. One of The Kinks' greatest achievements was The Village Green Preservation Society, celebrating a nostalgic image of a disappearing world. The village green acts as the focal point for the characters of ‘Walter' and ‘Johnny Thunder', representing a decaying of innocence. But it was not just a fondness for the past and the last good old-fashioned steam-powered trains that informed the album. There was an underlying sense of hope, determination and an ache for change. As the Seventies dawned, Davies would take these desires and re-examine his relationship to pop music.
The fountainhead of Ray Davies's imagination is London. ‘Waterloo Sunset' conjures the unique atmosphere of the city's famous river. It is the nearest pop music has to Impressionism in art. The paintings of Whistler and Monet depict the fog of London shrouding the Thames, and Davies too draws the dirty old river with strokes of enduring symbolism. His eye for detail came from an art-school background. As a student at Croydon Art College he regularly crossed Waterloo Bridge, and this, coupled with a brief period as an in-patient at St Thomas' Hospital where he was able to watch the river flow, provided the idea for the song. His simple storytelling and eye for life's everyday detail bring to mind Hogarth's paintings and the fiction of Charles Dickens. Davies, though, connects with his audience via the highly accessible channel of popular melody. ‘Waterloo Sunset' rests on three sets of five-note melodies working their way lazily down one octave. Another inspirational Londoner, William Blake, published in 1794 his collection Songs Of Innocence And Of Experience. The poems juxtapose the contrary states of humanity that interest Davies: good with corruption; childishness with adulthood; sexual purity with lust and jealousy. Two centuries may divide the writings, but the common ground is clear. Like Blake before him, Davies is keenly attuned to the city and the human beings who inhabit it.
In 1964, the newly elected Labour government, the first in thirteen years, boasted a straight-talking prime minister with a Yorkshire accent. The Kinks, too, traded on accent. Davies sang in his natural north London voice, establishing a semi-spoken delivery. Equally characteristic of The Kinks' early releases was the group's instrumentation. The sound of Dave Davies's guitar on ‘You Really Got Me' and ‘All Day And All Of The Night' was revolutionary. Both songs rested upon raw driven chord movement, abrupt key changes and fierce staccato. Fifty years later Metallica re-recorded ‘You Really Got Me' for Ray's collaborations album. It represented a homecoming for heavy rock's founding influence. Before the invention of foot pedals to change frequency dynamics at the press of switch, Ray's younger brother experimented by skewering a knitting needle into his eight-amp guitar speaker. Dave's home-modelled Green Amp, once fed through a Vox AC30, emitted a cacophonous distorted effect. It was ahead of its time and defined the early Kinks sound.
The Davies brothers were born at 6 Denmark Terrace, Muswell Hill. Raymond Douglas arrived on 21 June 1944 as British troops advanced through Italy. Three years later David Russell Gordon completed the family of two boys and six girls. ‘Come Dancing', written by Ray four decades on, and adapted in 2008 as an award-winning off-West End musical, nostalgically revisited his childhood memories: his sister dancing at the local Palais and he the unseen observer at the window watching two silhouettes saying goodnight by the garden gate. Tragically, on the eve of Ray's thirteenth birthday, his older sister Rene collapsed on a West End ballroom dance floor and never recovered consciousness. Her present to him was a Spanish guitar. It was the birth of Ray's complex relationship with music. The front room of Denmark Terrace offered a new space for night-time revelry. It was the home of the family piano and later the gramophone, and the room of entertainment, particularly when the boys' father came home drunk from the pub over the road. The finger-picking country-and-western-styled two chords of ‘You Really Got Me' were radicalized with dramatic key shifts and repetition on the front-room upright. Davies would increasingly construct ideas at the piano. He told Melody Maker in 1966, ‘The chords come first. The lyrics grow from fitting words to sounds … I'm not a good piano player. If you are reasonably good on an instrument and use it to compose on then you tend to get too complex—and that doesn't work in pop music.' Ray and Dave had served their apprenticeship in north London free-and-easies. In 1960 The Ray Davies Quartet, augmented by school friend Pete Quaife, performed their first shows, playing local dances. The band name changed from The Ramrods to The Boll Weevils to The Ravens until a settled line-up with the addition of Mick Avory on drums signed to Pye Records as The Kinks on 23 January 1964. Within a year the quartet was celebrating a trio of number-one singles.
For the next four years Davies's rapidly developing conversational tone demanded centre stage. Band arrangements become subservient to narrative storytelling. ‘Where Have All The Good Times Gone' recalled Daddy didn't have no toys and mummy didn't need no boys; ‘Well Respected Man' reflects Fifties conformity and class, but the main character secretly adores the girl next door 'cause he's dying to get at her; ‘Dedicated Follower Of Fashion' points to the writer's interest in subterfuge: they seek him here, they seek him there; ‘Situations Vacant' addresses upward social mobility and ‘Mr Pleasant' superficial domestic happiness. Ray was the cruel observer with a fragile vocal delivery: if I can't have you to myself / set me free. The writing revelled in the elasticity of language: my poor rheumatic back / yes, yes, yes it's my autumn almanac and was sparing in the use of the word love. Davies brought an emotional and intellectual core to popular music delivered with subtle satire and social commentary. His trick was to favour imagination over reportage. Unfortunately in 1966, the American Federation of Musicians of the United States withheld permits, preventing The Kinks from touring the country. The Davies brothers' historical infighting on stage had fallen foul of an Anglo-American union agreement. In 1969 Ted Dreber, assistant president of the Federation, told Rolling Stone magazine that although there was no reference to the band on file the ‘reciprocity agreement allows either union to withhold permits for a group if they behave badly on stage or fail to show for scheduled performances without good reason'. In ‘Americana' Davies described the problem slightly differently: … the English beat group known as The Kinks are banned from America / Their licence to perform has been revoked indefinitely, before centring the disagreement on an altercation with a television union representative: You with your red hunting jackets and your yellow frilly shirts … you're never gonna work in America again. For Ray it was a disastrous and at the same time pivotal moment in his career. He responded by going underground. What emerged was exploratory and adventurous writing rewarded with commercial wilderness. Spirituality undercut ‘God's Children'. Loss, depth and maturity blessed the endless and sacred ‘Days'. The successful writer ‘Sitting In My Hotel' dressed in satin strides and two-tone daisy roots … writing songs for old-time vaudeville revues was a sumptuous piano ballad with unexpected movement of chords and melody. As the Seventies began the American ban was lifted but Davies has always felt that The Kinks were denied their greatest opportunity. The country would embrace the band again, culminating with a performance (including the appropriately titled ‘Give The People Want They Want') to a sold-out Madison Square Garden in 1981, but the momentum of the Sixties had been irrevocably crushed.
The British Music Hall Society motto, ‘cherishing the jewels of Britain's musical past but actively supporting the interests of the future' might have been created for The Kinks. Much of the extensive commentary on the band's work would have you believe that Davies's writing career halted abruptly sometime around the end of the Sixties, then briefly reappeared in the early Eighties, before conducting a valedictory tour in the 2000s. Music chart statistics do a great disservice by suggesting that success is directly linked to artistic achievement. The songwriting of Ray Davies dispels this notion single-handedly. After a breathtaking run of magnificent singles in the Sixties, he began to look outside mainstream expectation. A series of records investigated the possibilities of the long-player and its relationship to popular music. They were bold and daring explorations. Soap Opera addressed the privileges of fame, using spoken-word links. Schoolboys In Disgrace was a collected song cycle examining education whilst Preservation I and II took Davies's theatrical leanings into scripted character parts. The release of Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) in 1969 coincided with The Who's rock opera, Tommy. The two albums, though vastly different in conception, embraced a thematic song cycle reminiscent of Italian cantata. But whereas Pete Townshend began to sidestep the structures of the popular song, verse, chorus, middle eight, Davies remained episodic, allowing each song to work independently within the greater theme. In his twenties Davies had taken orchestral lessons and their influence has affected various of his projects since. A commissioned piece, Flatlands, in the early Eighties, recorded with the Britten Sinfonia, used a choral offering to evoke the atmosphere of the Norfolk landscape. The Kinks Choral Collection in 2009 allowed long-forgotten gems such as the yearning ‘Celluloid Heroes' and the suburban conformity of ‘Shangri-La' to be arranged for the Crouch End Festival Chorus. Noel Gallagher employed the same voices in his debuting Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds in 2011. It was a clear tribute and a reminder of a 66-year-old's influence in the new millennium.
In conversation Davies has consistently and perhaps deliberately given his songs ambiguous interpretations. X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography was a master class in veiled truths and opacity. He is like a crossword: the pleasure is found in the challenge, not the personality of the game-setter. Meeting for our conversation was a flirtation of phone calls, theatre visits and backstage bonhomie. Ray has a kind, inviting manner and is a tease when explaining the songwriting process.
Carol Ann Duffy suggested in an interview that words take on a greater value when they are typed because in print they seem more glamorous and important.
Strangely enough, thinking back to ‘Dedicated Follower Of Fashion', that was typed out, first draft, never changed a word, as was ‘Come Dancing'. I use a pen quite a lot. I do like to write things out. I keep lots of notes. She's absolutely correct. It's maybe an age thing, but if I see something typed out on a screen I can only really evaluate it when it's in hard copy. So I'd go one step further: they have more power when you see the hard copy and even more value when they've been chiselled out in the lithograph.
When you have ideas how do you remember or capture them?
I've gone through periods of not writing anything down, believing if the idea is good it will stick. It's a really good question: whatever it takes. I literally do use serviettes in restaurants. I carry a bag round with me sometimes with various quite thick notepads. I've been a bit slack this year; I've only used two notepads up. There's always a few sheets of paper in my pocket.
When you're pulling ideas together do you need certain circumstances in which to write?
I remember writing when I had my first marriage. I had the television on. I was playing music. The two kids were crawling around the floor. All right, I was twenty-two years old, but I could work better in that situation than in silence. I liked being bombarded with external sources. My theory at that time was, if the idea's good it can survive all these onslaughts from the outside world.
Has the capacity stayed with you?
To a degree. I try to take the preciousness out of writing. Alone in a quiet room I tend to be too reverential of the space needed. It's the old Jimmy Webb theory: apparently when he wrote ‘Up, Up And Away' and the hits for The 5th Dimension he lived in a car and had a very transient lifestyle. According to folklore he had all the success, bought a fantastic house, put a studio in it and then couldn't write.
Did that ever happen to you when you made the move from Muswell Hill to larger houses at the peak of your success?
It worked to a degree. Sometimes you need space. The tidier the space the tidier the ideas; and they're not always interesting.
I recently saw the Victoria & Albert exhibition dedicated to the artistic life of Annie Lennox. She explained how moving landscapes from taxi windows, tour buses or trains sparked her imagination.
I know what she means, people writing in transit, that's a good way to write. Like I say, the ideas have to be more durable and have to sustain themselves. If you're in perfect silence … that's why people drink, I suppose.
How developed are your ideas before they are committed to a written form?
I think the thought process is interesting. We didn't have tape recorders when I started writing songs. You couldn't tape ideas. I had to notate a lot of stuff. I've still got ‘You Really Got Me' notated somewhere. Generally speaking, the good ideas stay in the head. I've got a couple of tunes going round my head and they won't leave me alone until they're finished. It's something I've built into my artillery. I use military words for songwriting: my artillery, my weaponry. I train my brain to remember incidents and people; sometimes they morph into one, certainly in a work like Return To Waterloo. That was an interesting project because for a couple of years I was going up on that same route making notes about imaginary people: people that I'd observed. Then I wrote the screenplay for it and it all just came out. It was all in my head. The discipline of that was interesting because each railway station along the line had a specific memory. I didn't realize it. I was writing that treatment for the two years I was taking that journey up on the train with it going through my head. When I got the commission to write it I took the journey on the train and said, ‘Yes, I remember that man, this will happen at the second part of the story and this station reflects that emotion.' It's an interesting way, sort of Pavlov's theory of writing songs, writing a bigger piece.
Reading the Waterloo Sunset short stories gives the impression that your songs have developed backstories much as an actor's depth of character is implied by suggestion, not explicit explanation.
You can't do too much with a three-minute song. It's possible to layer it in such a way and throw in lyrics, ideas that trigger the imagination of the listener. All great songs can do that. I like to put in backstory. My theory is this: doesn't matter if you're writing a novel or doing an Edward Bond play or doing a short sketch on TV; if you've got the backstory right, you know the characters right.
Do you write in long form and then condense it down to a pop-song structure?
I believe in the three-act structure whether it be a film, play or song. It's a little test. Sometimes it doesn't work, but it's a good rule I have.
Aristotle would say the final act is resolution.
I guess you've got character, conflict and resolution. Sometimes it's bad to write to that sort of formula. It's a good thing to have in the artillery.
Much of your writing thrives on other people's lives; what is the attraction?
One of my favourite actors is Alec Guinness. I was shocked when he was interviewed saying the reason he's so good in all these great characters he played is because he's like an empty shell. Most good actors let the character consume them. One of the first books I bought after I started writing songs was Stanislavski's An Actor Prepares. I learnt that a lot of the rules that actors use can be applied to songwriting. It's not as profound being a songwriter, but I am more interested in seeing other people. Other people's lives have to resonate in me or else I couldn't write the song. Sometimes it takes strangers that fascinate me to trigger off the creative urge. I like non-attractive people with big emotions.
What would make you reject an idea?
Feeling I'd done it before. I've got a high rejection rate and I reject too easily. There's only so many ideas, so many things you can write about. The secret is to put things in it that are unique. I'm writing a couple of love songs; it's really hard to write them. They're the ones that go through my head all the time and I'll put something unique in and I'll find something. It's like whittling down. I used to describe songwriting—I think it's when I was writing ‘Waterloo Sunset'—it's like whittling down a stone and smoothing out the rough edges: it becomes perfect. You have to pitch songs to yourself. Sell it to yourself.
Have you had to overcome dried-up periods?
It's not drying out, when you sit down and write … like this morning I got up and I wrote some things and was finishing off some unfinished work. I realized sometimes the reason there's a problem with a particular song is it should be a bigger piece. So I started writing a bigger piece of music because that's what I was trying to do, but I thought I was doing a three-minute song. So I got it out of my system and put some samples in and created a more orchestral pad. Sometimes the orchestra's enough and you don't need the lyric. It's one of my ambitions to do an instrumental record with just as much narrative in it as some of my songs. Revisiting The Village Green Preservation Society was an overwhelming and humbling experience. I was amazed by the depth of the songs. I re-demoed every song to bring out the words. I did skeleton arrangements before they were orchestrated. I was very proactive in that area. There's a narrative to it which really worked for me. It made me realize I must have known something then when I did it. Being in a band is difficult … I think if I'd approached it as a piece in its own right without the band, I'm not saying it'd be more successful; I can't say that it stands as a great band album … there are many aspects on the record that no other band could have played, certainly some of the weirder Eastern European-sounding tracks. Only The Kinks could have done that.
Do you like re-visiting the past?
It's hell. The past is something you can't take back; it's wonderful. The joy of doing Village Green; it allowed me to interpret the songs. We didn't change any notes but the arrangements stretched and allowed the songs to breathe more, which was very rewarding for me.
Do you go back and listen to your own records?
With songs I haven't done live for a long time, I just get the lyric sheet out and that tells me everything. It's interesting to note songs like ‘Misfits' and ‘Full Moon', how the songs thematically express themselves in a story-like narrative. I haven't sung ‘Misfits' in years and it ends like it should end. The key phrases come out. Songs evolve over the years. ‘Lola' writes its own arrangement; you just sing the song. It's always there. What I'm discovering is the value of doing things acoustically. If it works acoustically it will work with a big band. I never used to do that. When I was with The Kinks I always used to write songs that would suit them as an entity.
Can you recall the sentiment behind writing ‘Lola'?
It was about love, but not directly. The song was designed. I didn't show the words to the band. We just rehearsed it with the la-la la-la Lo-la chorus which came first. I had a one-year-old daughter at the time and she was singing along to it. But I was bothered by the arpeggio guitar at the beginning. I said, ‘It's got to be a hit in the first three seconds.' Later I went back in the studio and took the phrase at the end of the verse, C C C C D E, and replayed it at the beginning to grab people's attention. I had a new Martin acoustic guitar which I tracked three times all slightly out of time to give it character. And then I put a National guitar on top of it.
What was the ambition at the turn of the Seventies behind creating more theatrical works like Arthur, Preservations I and II, Soap Opera or Schoolboys In Disgrace?
The Who and The Kinks were both on a quest for the same destination but went about it in different ways. I did it with things like ‘Shangri-La' and ‘Australia', what people call the section songs: the thematic songs. I was trying to set up the idea that songs could be playlets, small theatre pieces. To put them in a format so they could be treated as more than a three-minute pop song. I will always aspire to write the great three-minute song. I've not written it yet. ‘You Really Got Me', ‘All Day And All Of The Night' and ‘Tired Of Waiting For You' came close. I just know there's more juice in the tank. Better performances. There's always a better song to sing.
You once said ‘Two Sisters' was like playing a chess game; a couple of more mediocre lines thrown in before the killer move no longer jealous of her sister. Similarly ‘Wonderboy' is about the joy of life before the pay-off refrain life is lonely.
That's true. I can pick up on something Jackson Browne said to me. We were doing ‘Waterloo Sunset' on the collaborations album. He said, ‘I don't need no friends?' He said it twice. I said, ‘Yeah.' He said, ‘That's the most beautiful thing I've ever had to sing. It doesn't make sense on the page but when you put it with the music…' I hadn't thought about it that way. The melody takes the curse off the grammar fault. The choice of words, the way they're pronounced, sometimes gives an emotion that's unexpected. Don't is the killer word because it's not correct. Great lines are only great because of what precedes them, maybe sometimes when they happen after. That's why I've got complete reverence for Shakespeare as I've got older. When we did Schoolboys In Disgrace I had the great joy of doing a mock Shakespeare in the live show when the headmaster had to give a speech. It's so great to liberate yourself to writing out the colours and the words used. It wasn't very good but it was effective. I did it in a Richard Burton impersonation (laughing). Speaking of Burton, I got a copy of Under Milk Wood recently and I played it in the car to drive to Wales. Why not have some Dylan Thomas? The language of Polly Garter is beautiful: she says what a nose, there's a conk! She's a loose woman and she's talking to one of the lovers, just great words and humour. Going back to the original question, I like to suppress certain words. ‘Two Sisters' is a good example. It's mundane. It's ordinary and then you get a key change and that's the secret: a note change with a crucial word. Sometimes it gets that serious. There's a song called ‘Motorway': Motorway food is the worst in the world, you've never eaten food like you've eaten on the motorway, motorway food is the worst in the world that goes on and on and on, goes to a chorus and at the end of the song is what the song is about: Mama oh mama, my dear Suzie Q, this message is sent just for you … my back really hurts, I never thought I'd travel so far to work. It's saying different things. It's setting it up like a list song at the beginning then it goes to the real emotion near the end. I do that. I set things up like that and sometimes I come in with a punchline at the end. The classic example is from an album called Everybody's In Showbiz from the early Seventies. I played the album to the head of the record company and he said, ‘Why's this album called Everybody's In Showbiz?' There's a song at the end called ‘Celluloid Heroes' which is about six and a half minutes long but he sat there and he sat there and on the last few bars I sing everybody's a dreamer and everybody's a star and everybody's in showbiz, it doesn't matter who you are. He said, ‘I get it, you set it up, I understand.' The man took the time to listen to it. Without that delay … punchlines are great if they come in straightaway: She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah, but sometimes they need a set-up. I like the song called ‘Maximum Consumption' from that album. It's just making wordplay with menus.
How important is truth as a starting point to a lyrical idea?
Oh, truth … well I'd say if I was looking at it as an assessment you can only write something if it's truthful to you, then you can believe it. Nothing can be honest if its premise is a lie. In fact there's a song I have about a compulsive liar. I've had it since I first started writing songs. It's a country song and I can't finish it. I wrote a lot of songs when I was living with my sister. Then when I joined the band I wrote a second bunch of songs. It's from then. I did a demo of it at home about four or five years ago. It's an exercise for me. I set myself impossible exercises to write songs about … to stretch. You've got to do a workout sometimes. It's like gymnasium exercises for your body: sometimes you need to work your brain out.
Do you believe you must hate something or have an element of cruelty to write from true emotion?
There's a song called ‘Mr Reporter', it's one of my minor songs. Dave and I both did versions of it. He actually says I hate you, Mr Reporter but I don't believe it, the word hate. Songs have to land. Musical songs land, they have a finish, a button. ‘Hello Dolly' will have a button. The audience knows it's over. You've got to convey ideas. A good song we did on Phobia was called ‘Hatred': the only thing that lasts forever. Dave and I as a duet, and that worked. But in ‘Mr Reporter' the word was not set up. It's such a big word, ‘hate'. I didn't really do my writing properly and the song didn't land as a result.
A curious thought: did having your brother in The Kinks offer you security or freedom to be more artistically expressive?
When in doubt you … It was liberating to have him in the band. I did a song called ‘Australia' years ago. I had to finish it really quickly; the back-track was down. I had Opportunities are available in all walks of life in Australia, and I thought, I don't know what to write next. I wanted to make Dave laugh so I said no one beats around the bush in Australia and he laughed! That's what's great about bands rather than being singer-songwriters. You can try out things on the rest of the band and if it works for them then it's good enough for me. I went through a phase of not letting the band hear the lyrics until we'd done the back-track 'cause I thought they'd laugh or be disparaging towards me, so I kept them secret. ‘Waterloo Sunset' was like that. I didn't want them to know what it was really about.
Because of giving away something that's so personal to you?
I don't know. I just didn't want them to play duff notes over it or do something to screw it up, and certainly with ‘Wonderboy': please be realistic, what's that lyric all about?
John Lennon said it was one of his favourite Kinks songs.
People strain their eyes to see, but I see you and you see me, and ain't that wonder? Sometimes the metre of songs … good lines are thrown away. Like I just said that line, that's the way I'd like to sing it, but you can't in the confines of four 4/4 bars, usually. Sometimes I let the words dictate. I'm notorious for sticking in 3/4 and 2/4 bars on top of a rock song and going to a 9/8 bar. I've done that before, to the constant frustration and sometimes amusement of the musicians working with me. The words dictate the metre. The difference about writing then, it sounds cruel and harsh because I was young; now I'm more considered with writing.
There's a beautiful song you wrote called ‘Sweet Lady Genevieve' that has the lyrics Once under a scarlet sky I told you never ending lies … I acted so slyly because you were acting so shy.
Between that: but they were the words of a drunken vagabond who knew very well he would break your heart before long. Oh forgive me, Genevieve.
Do you use characters to confront or disguise your own realities? ‘Mirror Of Love' might be a similar example.
I do use characters and that character is … as soon as the man starts speaking in ‘Sweet Lady Genevieve' you don't trust him for one moment. Good character writing, I guess. ‘Mirror Of Love' is completely benign, it's innocent. It's a man looking in the mirror saying, ‘You're not such a bad guy after all'; two different emotions entirely. It sets up a thought pattern with people.
It's tempting to think the use of characters is a therapeutic device.
Yeah, it is a disguise.
No one can penetrate me, they only see what's in their own fancy. How much of you is revealed in song?
Less than you would imagine, more than you think. Around the later Sixties I was writing songs for a series on TV. They'd give me a brief on a Thursday, I'd write the song on a Friday and it'd be in the show on Saturday, but even in the songs that are just paid as a job something of you is inevitably going to transfer into that. I can't write a song without putting … an album like Arthur, for example, which was written for a script about a character. Something of me did end up in that. It's inevitable. There's a lot and a little.
You gotta be shrewd you gotta be strong, you've gotta convince yourself that you are not wrong. Whistle a tune and think of a catchy happy little song and look a little on the sunny side. It's perplexing that some of your greatest writing has met with commercial silence. What gives you confidence to keep writing?
Without going through that experience and those times I wouldn't have come out with those songs. Getting mediocre reviews puts you in the underground for a while—what's all that about?! It comes from a lack of awareness of your work. They've always done that with The Kinks. It's something to do with the name, me. We set a fairly high standard with our first bunch of singles. They're now regarded as something to aspire to. I often think of Usain Bolt: how much faster has it got to go? He's a great runner but when he came second he was off the radar. It's staying on the radar within myself is the important thing. I had a chat with Damon Albarn when Blur were going through the Britpop war with Oasis. I said, ‘You've just got to sit down and write your own songs and don't think about the publicity.' He did that, did his own thing and diversified. If I'm partly responsible for that I'm very happy.
Did school recognize talent in you as an artist?
I left school at fifteen to get some work experience. I then went back to art college and got all the qualifications I needed. The artistic side ran right beside the sporting side. I was captain of the sports team, fastest runner. The two worlds, art and sport, worked for me. I was acknowledged; I had something to say. I visualize songs before I write them, which comes from studying composition as a painter. Like the imagery in ‘Waterloo Sunset'.
Where does melody come from? Do you believe in divine inspiration?
You can construct a melody. I studied orchestration in my late twenties and learnt a bit about melody structure, which didn't do me any favours as a songwriter because my whole philosophy of songwriting is untrained. The more I knew the less I could discover. I had a bunch of writers last week I was working with and I was trying to get to them to write more anthemic melodies. Great melodies are the most difficult to set lyrics to. You should interview Hal David. I had a long talk with him once at an awards ceremony. We were going to work together till we realized we both wrote lyrics. He said more often than not he got the melody from Burt Bacharach. They're quite complex melodies. The art of great lyric writing with great melody writers is to really know your scan and your vowels. ‘Jerusalem' was a piece of text first, then Hubert Parry wrote the music and set it. It was a musical setting, not a melody. What an incredible setting. If he could have written that setting without that lyric And did those feet in ancient times. In those first few bars he created something immense. The way William Blake's lyrics scan, they don't rhyme, the great words he puts in, the images he conjures up. I'd love to have been around with Parry when he was writing that, doing his setting.
Do you develop vocal melody from your mind onto an instrument so you can see the notes you're working with?
See it in images, you mean? Interesting thing when I did the Choral album is how insignificant the melodies can look or sound if they're not written out properly and how the great melodies, Beethoven's Fifth, are very simple. Is it a triplet over 2 / 4 or is it a pick-up beat? ‘You Really Got Me' if it was played on the downbeat, the first beat which is most people's (hums riff), it would be different totally, but it's a skip beat. It changes the whole emphasis. It's very important where those things are. So the writing of notes is crucial. My theory is—and I don't notate half as much as I should do—if it looks good it will sound great.
Are you trained to notate musical ideas?
I can to a degree; I can't do too much complex notation. In my late twenties I'd write out the classics. I did all the Bach Riemenschneider theories and Bartok's Mikrokosmos. I always got in trouble and irritated my piano teacher, the Colonel, because I was rewriting them all. I started singing in the school choir. When I did Flatlands for the Norwich Festival I had to write an entirely new piece of music especially for a choir, unlike Village Green which was adapted from an original rock record. I was more in control of the phonics. The thing I learnt by writing a new piece and using a mainly amateur choir—about forty per cent professionals—is to write simply. I learnt that very fast. If the notation looks good on paper it will sound good. Get the basis simple and articulated, then work on it to your heart's desire and be as tricky as you like.
The Kinks enjoyed greater stateside success in the Seventies and Eighties. Did your writing adapt for American consumption?
They say that Bartok when he moved to America used to notate conversations he heard in stores. There is a different language and tempo to the way people speak and pronounce words and that definitely had an effect on me with songs like ‘Catch Me Now I'm Falling'. Being in the space does have an influence on the way you write.
Later you lived in New Orleans as a solo artist?
I went there primarily to write songs like ‘The Real World'. ‘The Getaway' I wrote in St Louis, Missouri, where I went for a weekend. I rehearsed ‘Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues' with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for Meltdown. They acknowledged how much New Orleans music has influenced me. I was a fan of trad jazz and blues and Cajun music and country. It felt like a good place to go and write.
Is it important as both a writer and producer to see a song through from its origin to its end?
I've already got an idea of the way I want a song to sound before I write it. Sometimes songs are designed. I have an idea, something fires me up to write about it and I have a sound in mind. There's an album called Give The People What They Want from the Eighties. We were playing big auditoriums and I wanted the drums to sound like I was sitting in row sixty. It didn't work with some songs, I have to say. You never get it completely right. I certainly had that vision with ‘20th Century Man'. I'm singing as if I'm singing down to my chest. I don't really want the listener in on everything I'm saying. The song almost needs subtitles.
Face To Face in 1966 marked the beginning of your producing career.
Shel Talmy was great at producing very quickly. It was at a time when we were trying to evolve and didn't want to be bracketed in one sound. Each song should have its own interpretation. ‘Dead End Street' we felt was rushed; it had a whirligig-type organ on it played by our road manager and a French horn doing the phrase which made it sound like the Roman soldiers coming home to meet the Emperor. The French horn player was a man called Albert Hall. That name stuck with me. That's why there's a line in ‘Session Man': He never will forget at all the day he played at the Albert Hall. I wanted ‘Dead End Street' to be a bit dour and a bit earthy and a bit working-class, and the trombone fitted beautifully. Also it was more of a stomp. The version Shel wanted to make was more like a pop beat version. He finished the track and said, ‘That's great,' and went home. Then we pretended to leave but came back to the studio and re-recorded the song. We played it to him the next day and he said, ‘See what I mean, there's nothing wrong with it.' He thought we were playing him his version. I had some great times with Shel and we made some great records but it was clear it was time to move on.
Who or what did the character ‘Dandy' represent?
I've thought a lot about this. Sometimes I write songs … I think it was about someone, probably me, who needed to make his mind up about relationships. Also about my brother, who was flitting from one girl to another. It's a more serious song than it seems. It's about a man who's trapped by his own indecision with relationships and lack of commitment. That's the way I'd write it now, but when I was twenty-two or twenty-three I wrote it about a jovial person who's a womanizer.
Do you remember writing the intro to ‘Sunny Afternoon'?
I do. I'd bought a little white upright piano second hand. I hadn't written for a time. I'd been quite ill. It's a chromatic … writing scales practically on the piano. I was living in a very Sixties-decorated house. It had orange walls and green furniture. My one-year-old daughter was crawling around on the floor and I wrote the opening riff. I remember it vividly. I was even wearing a polo-neck sweater. All the times when I've had big success it's been at a time when I'm either ill or miserable or we're stuck. When ‘You Really Got Me' got to number one we were stuck on a train that broke down on the way back from Torquay. The press were waiting to meet us. We all got flu, freezing cold in this carriage. It was a joy to have a hit with ‘Sunny Afternoon'. England won the World Cup and we knocked ‘Paperback Writer' off the number-one spot. It's not one of their greatest singles but I'm a big admirer of The Beatles, an amazing band. It was quite significant.
Was it difficult as a writer, with the emerging dominance of The Beatles and The Stones?
You know what, sometimes they envied our freedom; we had one thing they didn't have and that was the right to fail. We failed but we tried something really radical. We didn't have the publicity machine The Beatles had. They were more accessible. They had more clearly defined roles within the show business society and hierarchy. With The Kinks, sometimes the audience are a little bit hesitant. It's like, ‘What mood are they in today?', ‘Are they going to please us or challenge us?' I think in a strange way it's paid off.
Do you remember a song called ‘Yes Man' evolving into ‘Plastic Man'?
I wanted to write a song about a person who has no self-identity. It's quite trendy now to be like everybody else.
And the song ‘I'm Not Like Everybody Else'?
I used my brother as a model, as I did with ‘Dandy'. Dave was always angrier; he's three and a bit years younger than me. He's a more outward person. He tells you what he thinks. It was great, liberating … casting a song for Dave's character. It's great now when I sing it. It's like if you cast something for actors each actor will bring to a play their own interpretation of it. My interpretation is more psychological whereas Dave's is more physical.
Is there a connection between your sister Rene playing the record ‘Oklahoma' as described in your unauthorized autobiography, X-Ray, and the song ‘Oklahoma USA'?
Yes, that was intentional: She's walkin' on the surrey with the fringe on top. She actually died whilst she was dancing to ‘Surrey With The Fringe On Top' when she was at the Lyceum Ballroom. It was written on a battered Spanish guitar, nylon strings. I barre the A chord then do the quick movement with the fingers. I pedal the A note even though I change the chords. John Gosling played a beautiful piano part.
What was your thinking with the 1971 album Muswell Hillbillies? It was a radical change in sound and approach for The Kinks.
We'd gone through a phase of expanding through the Sixties. Muswell Hillbillies was a return to what we thought we were as people. You reinvent to become yourself in the sense that we'd become these public personas with our haircuts and the way we dressed. We had longer hair and I was wearing country and western jackets. I figured the Muswell Hillbilly was like the Beverly Hillbillies. My parents come from inner Holloway, Islington. My mother was born in Barnsbury when it was a slum. People said, ‘How upper-class,' but now it's become elevated to that level because Tony Blair lived there. My parents moved out to what was in those days … my mother took a bus out, she said, ‘I've got to get out of the inner city.' For her it was like moving to the Hebrides, and it was Muswell Hill. It was more affluent and harder to fit in. It's a play on the Beverley Hillbillies. It was a change of identity. We felt like we were reverting back to our origins before we grew up in Muswell Hill.
It was inspired by the Archway Tavern. The family had drifted apart; last time we were with the family properly was before ‘You Really Got Me' and then we went on tour. This pub my parents and sisters went to, there was the worst Irish country and western band you'd ever seen. A guy was playing the pedal steel but it sounded like a wild music. We had a great connection then. Dave used to turn up. He's very nostalgic for the family. Muswell Hillbillies came about after I went there with a writer friend of mine. It was an Irish pub then in the midst of all the Troubles. They burned the English flag. I made my apologies and left. It was a sign that there was undercurrent.
There was also lot of demolition and regeneration. If you look at the pictures on the record we're outside on a street that's boarded up and ready to be demolished. For ‘20th Century Man' I wrote a little script: it was a bigger story. He was a person that was holed up. He attached dynamite to all the doors and windows and threatened to blow himself up if they demolished the house. His was the last house standing in the street. That's a fiction. But I'd worked that out, and then wrote ‘20th Century Man'. That's why that emotion stays with me. And I still think of that when I perform it today.
Muswell Hillbillies seemed to be swimming against the tide after the enormous success of ‘Lola'.
Yeah, I know, we were a success despite ourselves. I wanted to write songs that are not as light as they sound, like ‘Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues'. Songs about subjects that were close to me, and I wanted to write things that had an element of danger to them and an element of love. Sometimes love songs are so tender that you don't want people to hear them, they're so personal, and that's certainly the case with ‘Oklahoma USA' and ‘Holloway Jail'. When you're writing about real people you want to serve their memory well; doing a single about them doesn't always work.
Why are you a songwriter?
Good question. I still wake up in the mornings and wonder what I'm going to do when I grow up. Why am I a songwriter? That's the way it ended up. I'm going to write some long-form stuff, maybe a couple of small plays. Writing is writing; I just love writing tunes for them. I'm a very ambitious, creative person.
Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Rachel