frontman is a 21st century kind of guy but he definitely don’t wanna
BY JUD COST
When music critics get teary-eyed about certain artists—Nick
Cave, Steve Wynn, Steve Earle, etc.—creating some of their finest work after
turning 40, what does that say about Ray Davies, due to hit 64 in June? With a
robust back catalog of Kinks songs whose shimmering melodies and Dickensian
attention to detail would give even Lennon & McCartney a run for their dough,
Davies has cut a second solo album, Working Man’s Cafe (New West/Ammal),
that shows the old boy still fully in control of his art. His new tunes treat
world peace, job out-sourcing and the demolition of old churches with
For a man who once complained he felt woefully out of place
back in the 20th century, Davies was rudely welcomed to the new millennium,
American-style, when he was shot in the leg on January 5, 2004 as he tried in
vain to apprehend a purse-snatcher in New Orleans’ French Quarter. A short stay
in a local hospital gave Davies time to reassess his life’s priorities and, no
surprise, compose material for a new tune, which he scribbled on the
complimentary stationery left next to his bed. He was coughing when he picked
up the phone connection from London.
How are you feeling, Ray?
I’m all right, just recovering from flu like everybody else around here. It’s
been an epidemic.
Do you ever look back nowadays on your 45-year musical career?
Yeah, I have to look back because I’m cursed with our first recording deal
which was with Pye, and when they closed they wouldn’t sell us the Kinks
catalog. Now it’s ended up with one of the monsters of the music industry. It’s
not an ideal situation. I don’t think it’s anything to do with money. At this
point, it’s more market-share-go-round.
Any chance to re-acquire your old stuff?
I think if the court of human rights convenes anytime soon and has the time,
apart from all the other horrors in the world. [laughs, then coughs]
It must be nice to have such a fertile catalog of songs you can reference.
Do you ever re-use bits and pieces of your old material? There’s a riff in
“Peace in Our Time” that sounds like the familiar descending intro
line from “Sunny Afternoon.”
Oh, yeah, that “Waterloo Sunset” phrase. I think that’s my
nature. I’ve been listening to a lot of Percy Grainger recently. He’s an
English composer. Old Percy does that. I’ve been playing him in my car for the
past few days. Every writer has a signature phrase, you know, and I think
that’s one of mine.
We haven’t spoken since you were shot in New Orleans. Can you tell me about it?
I got shot. Haven’t got much to say, really. Wrong place at the wrong time.
Tried to defend a lady’s honor. Her purse was snatched, and I didn’t like the
way he was shouting and shooting his gun at the ground. I’d had a bad day, and
he was just the last thing I needed. The shooting wasn’t as bad as the
after-care. It’s very impoverished down there, and they give the best help they
can. But it’s left me with a bit of a problem in my left leg. Fortunately I’ve
stayed fit all my life, and that’s really held me in good stead.
The new song “Morphine” comes from the New Orleans incident, I assume.
Yeah, I wrote that song in hospital. They were worried about me because I’ve
got a really slow heartbeat. I went down to about 24 beats per minute. I was
really frightened because I could see they were frightened.
The worst part of being in the hospital, for me, is that constant
“beep-beep, beep-beep” of the heart monitor. I asked them to turn it
off once, but of course, they won’t do it.
They won’t do it. If that goes off, it means you’ve gone off. [laughs] So, I wrote the lyrics to
“Morphine” out on a notepad and didn’t change anything when I
recorded it. It’s a first-draft special. When I came to do the melody I just
used that “tick-tock, tick tock” rhythm.
Tell me about “Hymn for a New Age.”
I went to church when my daughter was christened, and I was appalled by the
quality of hymns. Here they were, trying to modernize the church, and all that,
making hymns that were friendly to the new society. And they still sound really
square. Churches are closing all around in the U.K., replaced by fancy apartment
Did being shot have anything to do with that song?
Nah, I had that song already. But, yeah, the after-effect, those incidents do
make you reconsider all your standards and your place in the universe.
Will there ever be a Kinks reunion? I read somewhere that Dave hadn’t spoken
to you in six months.
I spoke to Dave about a month ago. And Dave really would like to do it. But
it’s not just me and Dave. If it could be done at all, I think everybody’s got
to have their heads into it. Some of the guys in the various bands we’ve had
over the years get together and play every so often for fun. I went to one gig
they did and just listened to them. It was Mick Avory on drums, John Dalton on
bass and John Gosling on keyboards, and a couple of the girl backing vocalists
from Preservation turned up. I was
amazed how tight the band was. They call it the Cast Off Kinks.
You once complained in the song “20th Century Man” about being
stuck in the wrong era. Do you still feel out of place?
Oh, definitely now, more than ever, and I didn’t like it when I was in the 20th
century. It’s not a grumpy old man song. A lot of my beliefs come from my dad.
He hated the industrial revolution. It’s things I heard people say when I was a
kid about the ways of the world. You know, I wrote that song to be sung by somebody who’s
demolishing a street. It’s from Muswell Hillbillies, and it’s about an
area in Holloway that’s being knocked down. It’s about someone refusing to
leave their house and dynamiting the house.
I know you’re an Arsenal football fan because of your dad. Last time we
spoke, 10 years ago, you were going to watch the FA cup final in Nashville, I think.
I did, and Arsenal won. I watched the cup final once in San Francisco when I was playing the Alcazar
Theatre. My tour manager was Liverpudlian and Liverpool
was in the final. We found a pub somewhere at six in the morning and sitting
next to us was Elvis Costello, who’s a Liverpool
Is Elvis an old friend?
We bump into each other from time to time. He narrated and appeared in a
documentary about Charles Mingus I did years ago for British TV called Weird
Nightmare. I heard Mingus’ records a lot when I was an art student in the
Someone, maybe it was Miles Davis, once referred
to Mingus as “rock ‘n’ roll artist number one,” and he didn’t mean it
as a compliment.
Mingus probably hated rock ‘n’ roll. But his attitude was very rock ‘n’ roll:
not much music written down, but getting the arrangements through brute force
and continual repetition at rehearsal. In many respects, I think he was like an
early rock ‘n’ roller. Although his tonality, obviously, was purely jazz, there
was just an attitude in him, I felt. In the end, the film was about a
tormented, brilliant person, and those people tend to leave a tormented trail
behind them, full of rumor and hearsay that help make the legend, the
You cut Working Man’s Cafe in Nashville.
I got fascinated by some of the good old boys down there. I’d like to do a film
about someone like the Louvin Brothers. They were this country duet, precursors
to the Everly Brothers. But there was this whole thing about being brothers.
Speaking of which, I’ve seen you and
Dave play many times, and I’ve never seen you strike each other onstage. Or is
that just part of the myth?
I think it’s more like we’d throw a punch, miss and hit a wall. [laughs] If we’d been from somewhere like
think we’d have blown each other away by now. There was a lot of sibling
rivalry. These things run deep. You can’t analyze it, you can’t say who’s right
and wrong. And you can’t define what makes it go wrong. There’s just an edge
there that rubs up the wrong way.
I know you didn’t like Tony Blair. Is Gordon Brown doing any better?
I think we’ve become the whores of Europe.
Tony Blair was one of these guys who seeks public office to do good work for
the country. But there’s an element in him that did it because it looked good
on his CV. It’s like picking up a bad guitar solo. You’ve got no inspiration
afterwards. You know what I mean? One bad solo leads to another. You think you
can jump in there, change the key a bit and put in some more improvisation, but
it’s still as crappy as the one that came before it. It had a profound effect
on me when Tony Blair became prime minister. I just didn’t buy it. So many of my
peers did, the Britpop thing with Oasis going to Number Ten Downing St. It was
the seduction of a culture, of a generation. And then he took us into this war.
And now, meet the new boss who claims he has nothing to do with the old boss. But
he’s basically the same thing.
What do you think of Barack Obama?
Obama-rama! I dunno, I’d like to see him really tested. I didn’t see any of the
debates, but I’d like to see him pressured by a really good journalist. He
hasn’t had that yet—he hasn’t really been grilled.