Mr Songbird: Ray Davies at the Flask pub in Highgate, north London, 1972. PHoto: Gijsbert Hankeroot/Redferns
Show Hide image

The Kinks frontman Ray Davies: an imprisoned rock legend or just plain mean?

The title of veteran rock writer Johnny Rogan's biography Ray Davies: a Complicated Life may be something of an understatement.

Ray Davies: a Complicated Life
Johnny Rogan
Bodley Head, 756pp, £25
 

Let’s focus for a moment on one aspect of the tangled character of the former Kinks frontman, Ray Davies: his meanness. It’s breathtaking. It’s beyond the realms of conventional parsimony: he makes Rod Stewart look philanthropic. On the rare occasions that Davies goes to the bar, he asks, “What half are you drinking?” The pipes freeze in his mid-1960s flat because he won’t turn the heating on. When his first wife begs him for “the money for that coat”, she’s referring to the one she already owns but can’t afford to retrieve from the dry-cleaner. When he is mugged in New Orleans just before his 60th birthday, he pursues the assailant to get his cash back and is shot in the leg. When medical orderlies then tear his clothes to inspect the wound, he yells, “But they’re new trousers!”

You soon discover that he is just as extreme in every other aspect of his thinking. Acute levels of suspicion make him hire a detective to spy on one his three ex-wives. Hell-bent on control, he dictates musical arrangements and tells everyone that his drummer Mick Avory has “the personality of a cucumber sandwich”. His petulant behaviour and refusals to appear on stage get the Kinks blacklisted in the United States and Scandinavia; Davies wryly suggests at his manager’s funeral that he had preferred to die “rather than take another call from me”. The leader of the Kinks attracts a wide range of adjectives in the course of this brick-like, 756-page chronicle – restless, fearful, creepy, neurotic, narcissistic, silent, vampiric – and there’s a story that loudly expresses every one of them.

However, the most important shade of his convoluted make-up, and the key to both his success and failures, is his detachment. His lumps, bumps and idiosyncrasies make him as textured as the songs he writes – “Dead End Street”, “I Go to Sleep”, “Waterloo Sunset” – but he is painfully self-conscious and lacks the urge or ability to merge with any particular crowd. Davies’s magnificent, hit-filled purple patch between 1964 and 1967 puts a swath of humankind beneath the microscope: the posh, the working class, the fashionable, the gauche, the dispossessed. Yet he never seems to identify with any of them. He is always the outsider, the observer peering in, nose pressed to the glass, waspish, brittle, very occasionally affectionate.

All of this makes Davies perfectly suited to his chosen role as the commentator on a fascinating period of social and cultural flux – and of rapid variations in the economy (“Save me from this squeeze,” he sighs in “Sunny Afternoon”). The author Johnny Rogan is exceptionally good at painting a picture of the moment he is exploring (he did it superbly in Morrissey and Marr: the Severed Alliance, one of the best-selling of his 20 or so rock biographies). As his account of 1963 kicks into gear, he sketches a world in which the press considers the Rolling Stones “caveman-like” and the sexual revolution is sufficiently riotous for Private Eye to amend Harold Macmillan’s “You’ve never had it so good” to “You’ve never had it so often”, the Sunday Mirror to offer its “How to Spot a Homo” guide and the ever-curious New Statesman to ask: “Are virgins obsolete?” Ray’s lawless younger brother, Dave Davies, the Kinks’ then 16-year-old guitarist, hurls himself in at the deep end and is discovered by his mother in bed with five girls, but his aloof and acerbic sibling – “a miserable little bleeder”, in the words of an uncle – steps back to try to make sense of it all.

Ray’s friendship with the cartoonist and writer Barry Fantoni soon fuels the satirical tilt of “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and “A Well-Respected Man”, skilled pen portraits that position people as floundering caricatures in the grand tradition of Swift and in social contexts with echoes of Hogarth. Another of Rogan’s skills is to glance sideways and take the temperature of the prevailing mood. Three lackadaisical hits arrive within weeks of each other – “Sunny Afternoon”, “Daydream” by the Lovin’ Spoonful and “I’m Only Sleeping” by the Beatles – and all, he notes, make the same psychedelic point: the world may be awash with irksome inconvenience and wearying conventional activity but the wise response is to sit back, watch and do nothing.

It’s intriguing to learn that Davies, as the leader of what became the third-biggest band in Britain (the Stones being the second), disparaged the Beatles in public and switched off the radio when it played their music. Yet when his manager reminds him that he’ll never get started unless he adopts their hit formula of using the inclusive words “you” and “me” in their song titles – “She Loves You”, “Please Please Me”, “From Me to You” – Davies dutifully responds with “You Really Got Me”.

By the end of this engrossing book, there are still a few questions you don’t feel equipped to answer – why, for instance, did Davies change his name and age on a marriage certificate? – but you’re left with a sympathetic understanding of the subject’s ways and motives. The death of one of his six elder sisters from heart failure while dancing at the Lyceum Ballroom on the Strand certainly left its mark, as did the exit of another to Australia, which he melodramatically declares was “the beginning and the end of everything”. And you suspect that some of the obstacles in his path were of his own making. The band’s career-denting ban from the US tour circuit smacks of self-sabotage – although, predictably, when they are not invited to play at Live Aid, he sarcastically claims it’s because they’re not as legendary as the Boomtown Rats.

The Kinks had an energy that caused riots at their early concerts and promoters to wish they were “nice and polite like the Rolling Stones” but it melts away in the 1970s and 1980s. The piercing perspective Ray so superbly applied to the dandies and dullards of the 1960s starts to lose its focus. Perhaps there was nothing there to catch his eye; perhaps he was so blinkered by events in his private life that he wasn’t able to see it all. I’m almost glad that there isn’t more on his tense, impossible and heartbreaking relationship with Chrissie Hynde (though it’s interesting to be reminded by a 2010 newspaper report that their daughter, Nata­lie, inherited her parents’ fiery spirit: “Ms Hynde, 28, and her boyfriend – veteran eco-warrior Simon ‘Sitting Bull’ Medhurst, 55 – are on bail facing charges relating to a failed attempt to prevent the building of a road linking Bexhill-on-Sea and Hastings”).

You come to understand, most of all, the imprisoning predicament of any 1960s rock legend. You still want Davies to see the world with the delicacy and detail of old hits such as “Autumn Almanac” – with its “buttered currant buns”, its caterpillar on a dew-soaked branch and the “poor rheumatic back” of its fictional star – but he is condemned to wade through the extravagant and public chaos of personal circumstances that the original success encouraged and underwrote. As Rogan so precisely suggests, it’s “the curse and triumph of the heritage act, forced by market conditions and public expectation to confront their past at the expense of their present”.

Mark Ellen is the author of “Rock Stars Stole My Life!” (Coronet)

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

Show Hide image

Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era