Ray Davies: Well-Respected Man


The biting satire of Ray Davies helped make the Kinks one of the most unmistakably English bands of the British Invasion. Lately Mr. Davies has had a lot of time to consider his homeland: He’s been grounded there for the last six months on doctor’s orders after blood clots were discovered in his lungs.

At his home in North London, about a mile from where he grew up, Mr. Davies has been writing songs and working on a memoir that, like his 1995 book “X-Ray,” will be “kind of fictionalized,” he says. The singer and guitarist, who has been working solo since the Kinks split in 1996, has also been preparing for this weekend’s annual Meltdown festival in London. He programmed the event’s lineup, which includes U.K. stalwarts such as Madness and Nick Lowe, yet also sprinkles in some U.S. imports, including seminal garage rockers the Sonics and the Fugs.

Mr. Davies has two performances scheduled there, including a rendition of the Kinks’ influential “Village Green Preservation Society” album with the London Philharmonic and a local chorus. It’s one of the various ways the 66-year-old singer is presenting the Kinks’ catalog in a new light.

On his recent album “See My Friends,” he sang Kinks songs with Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Metallica and others. The first three Kinks albums were reissued in April, to be followed by four more albums this month, including “Muswell Hillbillies,” a 1971 album influenced by country music. Mr. Davies, who says his doctor has cleared him for air travel starting next month, spoke recently about singing with an accent, his observational lyrics and his latest project.

The Wall Street Journal: You were hospitalized as a kid. In 2004 you were shot in the leg in New Orleans, and now this recent health scare. Have these brushes with mortality influenced your songwriting?

Mr. Davies: Makes you think about how lucky you are to be around. I think that’s how I feel at the moment, celebratory about what I do.

What do you think of all the plays on the letter K in the band’s early days? “Kinda Kinks.” “The Kink Kontroversy.” The liner notes to your first album packed four puns into one sentence.

I know, I know. Somebody went and got a degree in being a clichéd writer.

Those notes had goofy introductions of each band member. They said you enjoyed “the occasional sulk.” Was that an apt description?

I went straight from being an art student, drawing people, to writing songs. I kept that same theory in my head. Watching people at the stations, isolated people, the shut-ins, the people who like to party. The diversity of humanity I quite enjoy. What amazes me is how it cobbles itself together.

Many of your songs are about everyday people. Have you observed anything lately that might be a lyric in waiting?

Mr. Davies: Just the joy of seeing people in these troubled times who are basically just getting on with their lives. I was in the studio today. It’s in a real down, blue-collar area. Over the road there’s a Pakistani shop that’s been there for eight years, or it’s the Turkish café. The neighborhood is still struggling, and that’s what I like to celebrate in my songs, the act of living. The characters. Everyone’s got a soundtrack. Some you don’t want to hear.

How have your ambitions changed?

My aspirations haven’t changed very much. If I write a song, or put on a show or curate a festival, I ask myself, would I buy a ticket? Would I get in line and pay for it myself?

For all the explosiveness of early songs like “You Really Got Me,” there was often a weariness in your voice. Or was that just your singing style?

I recorded “You Really Got Me” when I was 19 and I was weary. Maybe I watched too much Perry Como. I remember watching when I was a kid. He said, “The reason I’m so relaxed is I’m so tired all the time.” There were elements of that maybe. A 19-year-old world-weary person.

Songs like “Sunny Afternoon” alluded to the downside of the rock-star lifestyle before that was common.

What amazed me are things on [1966 album] “Face to Face,” like “Too Much on My Mind” and “Fancy,” which internalized the surprise of being famous at 21 or 22. Songs like that were written by somebody looking inward for a way to express emotions that I thought only I had. You’ve got the hard attitude of the person of “All Day and All of the Night,” then you’ve got this sensitive, delicate, jelly-like person wobbling around the world.

Two of the top albums in the U.S. recently are from British acts, Adele and Mumford & Sons. Do you hear anything distinctly British in their music?

Mumford & Sons I’ve had collaborations with. They sing with their own accents, and that’s vital to their Britishness. Adele wants to be a more global artist. She’s got a great voice, but it’s impossible to pinpoint where she’s from. Adele could be Italian. That happens when stars become world famous. In a sense nationality goes out the window. “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen. I heard it in a car in Spain and I felt like it was part of the culture there. A world hit, same as “Lola” or songs like “You Really Got Me,” they all become part of the become part of the cloth. You lose your national identity.

Is that something you fought?

That’s what we did with “Muswell Hillbillies.” We were touring so much in America that we went right back to the area where my parents grew up [North London neighborhood Muswell Hill]. In a strange way it worked better with American audiences. I have no understanding of why that was.

In the Kinks’ early days, did anyone ask you to Americanize your voice?

There was one record in particular. “Come Dancing.” I didn’t sing [in a flat, nasal accent] “dancing.” Anyone who cares to do it, listen to every time I say “dancing” on that record. It’s slightly different every time. I tried to retain the Englishness. That record, I remember [record executive] Clive Davis didn’t want to put it out because it was too much of an English subject matter. I was singing in a very East End accent. Lo and behold, it became our biggest American hit for many years.

Is there anything that makes you nervous about the show coming up?

I’m doing the “Village Green” in its entirety. It’s the first time I’ve played most of the songs since they were recorded. I had to read the liner notes to the original record to remember why I made it.


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