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12 March 2015

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.

By Mark Ellen

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.

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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)