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12 April 2017

Ray Davies on understanding hipsters, not talking to Pete Townshend – and why he fled Tony Blair’s Britain

At the end of the interview, the Kinks frontman says, "You haven't asked me anything."

By Kate Mossman

On the night the Kinks finished recording “Waterloo Sunset”, in April 1967, the long-suffering wife of the 22-year-old Ray Davies drove him from the studio down to the riverside spot. Ray wanted to see whether he’d got it right. He stood on the bridge, surveyed the scene, decided that he had and told her to drive him home. For the next twenty years, the women in Ray’s life would be his chauffeurs. In his mid-forties, he met one he liked who couldn’t drive, so he was forced to learn. He took his first test in Wood Green in north London, went up a busy side street with his foot quivering on the clutch and, he tells me, “ran over a lady”. He got out to help but forgot to put the handbrake on, so the car rolled over her shopping.

Five tests later, he passed: at 8am in Woking, sockless and emboldened by alcohol from the night before. Now he is “just another person on the road”. His instructor forgot to do roundabouts with him, so he hates the North Circular. He also hates the Dartford Tunnel. And he still gets lost in south London.

Davies lives a mile and a half from the house in Muswell Hill where he was born, in Highgate village, a north London peak that lies above the modern-day smog. He says he stayed here because of the light. He sometimes does interviews on the park bench where he broke up with his first girlfriend, but today it is raining, so we meet at Café Rouge, in a back room, where his whispering voice can be caught on a tape recorder. As he materialises with an umbrella, he mutters greetings to two women by the door saying he’ll see them later in the pub. That’s where Davies conducts his social life. “I don’t have many friends,” he says. “I love people but when it comes to friendships, I . . . not back off, exactly, but would rather observe than interact.”

He is a ghostly presence at 72. The previous week, he threw a party at the Kinks’ studio, Konk – a sprawling Victorian building in Hornsey, all Seventies teak and brown carpet. “You should have been there,” he says. “Everyone loved it. Film people, theatre people. I was late, and someone said it was like my memorial service, because everyone had come for me but I wasn’t there. When I arrived, they looked surprised.”

I’d been at Konk a week earlier to hear a playback of his new record, Americana, the first part of a double concept album about his knotty relationship with the country. The Kinks were banned from playing in the United States in 1965 after Davies punched a union official; over the next four years, they missed out on the stadium circuit that bands like the Rolling Stones were swept up in. When Davies moved across the Atlantic years later, things didn’t go to plan, either – he was shot in the leg in New Orleans after chasing a mugger.

On Americana, the unique Davies formula is intact: sweet, velvet-voiced tunes laced with sarcasm and satirical observation. There are visions of a young swinger on his first trip to Los Angeles and an acerbic view of the British music “invasion” from someone who wasn’t allowed to invade.

After the record finished playing, Davies was brought in, tall, thin, with tufts of reddish hair, and he stood there on the Seventies backdrop in front of journalists, like a rare animal stared at in a zoo. In the silence, he started asking the questions. For all his unwillingness to interact, it’s something he does a lot. Here are 16 of the inquiries Davies makes of the New Statesman during our interview in Highgate:

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“What’s the difference between a cappuccino and a latte?”
“Did your mother work?”
“Can hipsters change light bulbs?”
“Is Diss in Norfolk?”
“What does a hipster’s girlfriend look like?”
“Did you go to a posh school?”
“Is that guy out of Depeche Mode gay?”
“What would you have been if you were living in the Fifties?”
“What did Martin McGuinness die of?”
“Is the left screwed?”
“What’s Pete Townshend up to?”
“Does the New Statesman want to be more tabloid?”
“Do you have deadlines?”
“When is Easter?”
“Do you play an instrument?”
“Is Viz still going? Johnny Fartpants?”

At the end of the interview, he says, “You haven’t asked me anything.”

Davies’s incessant questioning is a symptom of what he once called his “abiding sense of apartness”. It may have led to an unhappy existence but it served him well: he became the spokesperson for the Swinging Sixties precisely because he stood outside it. He wrote “Tired of Waiting for You” at 15, “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” at 19. And he is responsible for the first anti-hipster song, “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”, written in response to a fashion designer who owned a shop and who accused him of wearing flares.

“I said, ‘They’re not flares, they’re tap­ered,’” he mutters. “He banned me. I got home and wrote the song immediately on a Remington typewriter.” According to Kinks lore, Ray kicked the designer and his girlfriend up the arse – just as he punched others during the band’s tempestuous history – but today he says that it was just a spat.

Although the Kinks embraced the knockabout films and velvet trousers of the time, Davies sees the whole era as black and white. Literally: he sees decades in terms of colour. “I think of the Sixties as black and white but the Fifties as colour,” he says. “The country had a team spirit. It wasn’t all down. And the Technicolor imposed a colour sense. The Seventies were black and white, too. The Eighties were definitely bad colour.”

And the Nineties?

“Sepia,” he says, smiling. “Not black and white and not colour. At least, not a black-and-white you could trust.”


It’s in keeping with his contrarian nature that the Kinks disbanded in 1996 at the very moment they could have had their biggest cash-in: when Damon Albarn was echoing “A Well Respected Man” in Blur’s “Country House”, Oasis were flapping Union Jacks and Jarvis Cocker was reflecting Davies’s pipe-cleaner, deadpan class satire. Of course he felt alienated from the country when the country was having a party! Instead of becoming the elder statesman of Cool Britannia, he moved to the United States.

“I was in New York when it happened,” he says of Tony Blair’s 1997 election win, as though talking of a natural disaster or terrorist attack. “The Blair government set a bad tone and a bad taste. That’s why I left England. It was like another world. I didn’t trust it. I was a fan of John Smith. Old school. Blair was necessary, as Thatcher was necessary, as Corbyn is necessary – we need to see what it’s like before we go elsewhere. I’m not saying Blair was a bad man. He was a smart man who led us down some cul-de-sacs. But I just didn’t like the feel of England at the time. People in my job, we don’t have an insight – we have to second-guess everything.”

In the early Seventies, he wrote Preservation Act 1: a “very political” concept album, he tells me, about a comedian who ends up running the country. “Every time there’s a Trump or a Boris, people say, ‘Revise Preservation,’” he says. Almost every observation he makes is linked directly to music he wrote, or would like to write.

We meet the week before Article 50 is activated. He was thinking about the end of the British empire in his twenties, I point out. “Earlier,” he corrects. “I’m not sitting back and saying, ‘I told you so.’ I’m very concerned. But we are becoming a new country. Something will be resolved, but it will be difficult for a time. I never understood why we had the Common Market in the first place. We’re not the only country that is scared. We are all going through a period of self-assessment. Except the Danish, who somehow hold it together. They’re meant to be the happiest nation in the world. My brother’s ex-wife was Danish.”

Was she happy? “No!”

One of eight children, Davies had six elder sisters who seemed, he says, to be from a different generation – so far removed that he found it hard to penetrate their psyche. But through them he acquired the musical sensibility that informed his songwriting: dance hall, big band, the show tunes. His sisters were given piano lessons by a neighbourhood man called “the Colonel”, who was ex-military and “wore one of those hats”. At primary school, his teacher Mr Lill still wore his demob suit.

“It was a time of change for me, psychologically,” he says. “I knew something was coming. I knew society was changing. I couldn’t articulate it, but I knew something was up. This was the generation that voted out Churchill after he’d led us in the war, so it was a really interesting time, mid-Fifties at primary school. I had the thoughts, but I couldn’t put them anywhere.”

In 1947 his younger brother, Dave – his future nemesis and creative counterpart – was born and suddenly Ray was no longer the boy baby in a house of girls. On his 13th birthday, his eldest sister, Rene, gave him a Spanish guitar – then died of a heart attack that same night while dancing at the Lyceum Ballroom in the West End, where The Lion King now plays. She was 31.

Around this time, the trouble started. His uncle Frank rechristened him “the miserable little bleeder with the long face”. He sustained a back injury by falling against some goalposts during a football match and, not long after Rene’s death, his mother discovered him bashing his shins in with a hammer, hoping to strengthen his resistance in the game. A doctor sent him to therapy. He moved out of the family home to live with another sister, Rosie, a few hundred yards down the road.

“I think growing up being an isolated person in a house full of people had an impact on me,” he says. “That’s why I became . . . inside myself. For lots of kids, that’s par for the course nowadays. There are names for that kind of dysfunction. I kept that dysfunction on in my adult life.”

Davies’s dislocation from the Sixties extended to his relationship with his peers. He claimed John Lennon once sneered, as the Kinks took to the stage, “Don’t worry . . . If you run out of songs to play, we’ll lend you some of ours.” America only wanted the Beatles and the Stones, he moaned. Jimmy Page was an “asshole” – for some years, he was rumoured to have played the lead on “You Really Got Me” (performed by Dave Davies using an amp he’d slashed with a razor blade).

“For all I know, Jimmy was having dinner with his mother that night,” said Ray scathingly, some years later. “I hated my contemporaries,” he told an American journalist in 1981. “I hated the lifestyle of Paul McCartney. I didn’t want to be like Elton John or Rod Stewart [Stewart was in the year below him at William Grimshaw Secondary Modern in Muswell Hill].” He added, “There’s only one person who’s more insecure than I am, and his name is Pete Townshend.”

There is more than one parallel between Davies and Townshend, another willowy youth who stood for the Sixties while looking like he wasn’t enjoying it. Both had meltdowns in the Seventies; both have spent the four decades since then feeding their music through increasingly complex concepts and forms, conceiving plays and stage musicals and large-scale orchestral and choral works. Townshend’s long-term girlfriend, Rachel Fuller, helped him score a symphonic take on Quadrophenia two years ago. Davies’s more experimental projects range from directing the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown festival to producing the vaguely Alan Partridge-sounding film Visions of England, with songs set on Cromer Pier, which won a documentary of the year award for Anglia Television.

You get the sense that both are anxious to shore up a sprawling musical legacy, and that their ambitions exceed their knowledge of the formats they are working in. Davies privately took orchestration lessons in the Seventies. His dream has always been to score something without an instrument, just using his head. He’s tried the music software Sibelius but is irked by how the notes flash red if they fall out of range. “I don’t like anything that slaps your hand.”

“Mind you,” he reflects, “if I’d known too much about music at the start, I wouldn’t have written ‘You Really Got Me’ . . .”

His peers – he repeats the word grandly, ironically – are “linked by a time period but, regarding the music, we are miles apart”. What is his relationship with them like now? “Don’t have one,” he says. “Saw the guitar player from the Faces at a function [Ronnie Wood, who has actually been in the Stones since 1976]. My girlfriend didn’t know who he was. I said, ‘This is Ronnie Wood, the famous artist.’ She said, ‘I’d love to see your paintings.’”

And Pete Townshend?

“There is a mutual telepathy,” he concedes. “I think we listen to one another’s work. When I did have a meaningful chat with Pete, he said, ‘We never talk.’ And I said, ‘Why start now?’”

The week before we met, Davies had picked up his knighthood from Prince Charles. “All this choreography,” he says. “Take two steps up. Wait till my name is mentioned. Walk four steps on. Turn. Nod your head. Kneel down. I forgot to kneel down. It was a great piece of traditional theatre.”

I ask him if his family was proud. In ­keeping with the genetic predisposition of the Davies family, he has four daughters and no sons. “They don’t really see me,” he mumbles. “Or they see me, and they hear the music, but they don’t really participate. My daughter Victoria changed her name to Tor. She was born when I was writing a song called ‘Victoria’. She changed her name because she’s an independent girl.” He gives a wonky smile.

In the mid-Seventies, he, too, changed his name – shortly after he divorced Victoria’s mother, his first wife, Rasa (she who drove him to Waterloo Bridge). He lived as Raymond Douglas for four or five years for privacy reasons. “It was a horrible divorce,” he says. The deed poll change allowed him to marry his new love, Yvonne Ann ­Gunner, a domestic science teacher from Croydon, under his new and anonymous name.

Despite the trauma of that period – a suicide attempt, from which he recovered at his brother’s house – he tells me that if he could choose to live in one decade all over again, it would be the Seventies. That was when the Kinks got their visas back and toured America with experimental albums that he may not have been free to make, had megastardom arrived. And there was “Lola”, the ode to a Soho drag queen that prefigured Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” by two years and filled the front rows in LA and Chicago with people who would then have been described as “transvestites”. Davies describes Reed as “a very nice man who passed away a few years ago”. He says there’s a video somewhere of the pair at a hotel in London, in which Davies tells Reed, “You’ve got to get your image together.”

“‘Lola’ was ahead of its time in many ways,” he tells me. “It was more innocent than ‘Walk on the Wild Side’. It’s about a gradual disintegration into the abyss. It was banned in Australia, which is ironic because there’s more drag queens in Australia than anywhere else.”

Then he says, still thinking about the Seventies, “Peter Tatchell has been going all this time. Isn’t that amazing? He was a militant outsider then, and he still is!”

He tells me he has two grandchildren – three, he corrects himself. He says that they find him scary. “It’s not like a traditional grandparent role. I play football with them. They’re warming to me. As they get older, possibly. They understand I’m not a stockbroker, not a banker, I don’t work at Tesco’s. It’s not a job you can define.”

Does he spend much time thinking about his . . . “Legacy?” he says with luxurious sarcasm, the same way he said the word “peers”. “I would like to tidy up my work. I’ve got a lot of unfinished video, film and music on tape. I still save an old VHS player. I’m interested in retaining the so-called dead formats for archive purposes. We were talking yesterday about throwing out a load of my notes. It might be of interest to people. If I was interested in a writer, I’d like to see the detail that came to make that final piece of work. Maybe I will have a giant eBay.”

Ray saw Dave before Christmas, at the ­local pub in Highgate. “We didn’t know the other was going to be there,” he says. “He had a couple of his sons with him and they were witnesses, so nothing could happen. It was a good pint of stout.”

He tells me how he put Dave up in his home a few years ago, after his brother had a stroke, for about six months. “He only left because there was no room in the house for his pet rabbit. My cleaner saw it one day and started screaming because she thought it was a rat. I bought him a rabbit hutch.”

He recalls talking to Dave from his hospital bed in New Orleans after he got shot. “I said, ‘Why don’t you come across?’ He was only in Florida. But he flew to LA instead.”

“What’s the story?” he says suddenly, his eyes rather piercing, possibly slightly irritated. Then he makes his final observation of the day. “I was looking at you as you looked down at your paper,” he says, “and I suddenly saw you in 50 years’ time.”

“Americana” will be released on 21 April on Legacy

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue