Like the best pop acts of the '60s, The Kinks found a signature style and refused to stick with it. The distorted riffing of "You Really Got Me" and "All Day And All Of The Night" may still be the sound most associated with the band–not to mention the starting point for virtually every garage and punk act that followed–but it's simply the first chapter in the long, twisting history of singer-songwriter Ray Davies, guitarist brother Dave Davies, drummer Mick Avory, bassist Peter Quaife, and later, a rotating cast of hired guns. As a developing songwriter, Ray would later explore the England he first glimpsed as a working-class London kid, a country that was vanishing with the spread of modernization. His provincial vision probably owed something to his detachment from the shifting tides of '60s rock, no doubt in part because a raucous and controversy-shrouded North American tour left The Kinks banned from the continent for much of the decade's latter half. A string of brilliant, narrative-heavy songs followed, helping create an image of Davies as a sensitive curmudgeon, music's foremost chronicler of swinging London and moldering England. Keeping the band together in spite of a feud between the Davies brothers that makes Liam and Noel Gallagher look like the Osmonds, The Kinks had another big U.S. hit in 1970 with "Lola," and returned to touring America. Throughout the early '70s, Ray Davies experimented with rock opera, composing several musicals. More hits, arena shows, and a public affair with The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde followed, but The Kinks' profile steadily declined throughout the '80s. In the mid-'90s, Davies began returning to the spotlight, thanks to his colorful book X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography, and a touring act combining classic songs with stories from the book. (VH1 later borrowed the concept for its Storytellers series.) Branching out even further, in 1999 Davies released Waterloo Sunset, a collection of short stories, and he's currently at work on his first studio solo album. In the midst of his last U.S. tour, Davies spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his band, his life, and the intersections between the two.
The Onion: You've been touring with this Storyteller concept since 1995. Did you have any idea it would take off to the degree that it has?
Ray Davies: In a strange way, I'm still learning how to do it. It's like learning a new character in a play. It's based on a book which, in an abridged way, is my life story. But at the same time, I found myself having to say, "Maybe I'm learning this." Because the period of time I'm performing is from when I'm like 11 years old to when I'm 22 or 23. It is like learning a new role. [Laughs.]
O: Any thoughts on doing a sequel that picks up where this one left off, or are those years less interesting?
RD: No, I haven't lost interest in it. It's just that this part of the show… What's happened is, I think this has become a piece in itself—the journey between me starting out in North London and ending up with "You Really Got Me," making a #1 record. It's become like a play, and that's the end of that play. Probably if I went on to something else, I could always come back and revive this, like reviving [Agatha Christie's long-running play] The Mousetrap. That's an unfortunate example, but I guess it's a bit like that. The butler did it.
O: The show presents your writing of "You Really Got Me" as something sort of out of your control, as if you were fated to write it. Did any other songs come to you that way?
RD: I did a thing on Conan O'Brien last night called "Days." They picked the song, because I guess they liked the sentiment. Really, at the present time you're analyzing every lyric in songs. [This interview was conducted shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. —ed.] I remember I was doing this song Thursday night in Boston, and I thought, "God, I can't sing this at this time." It is a tricky time for that. But I guess I was fated to write it. I think I'm kind of one of these people… All the ideas are out there, and it just depends on who grabs them, you know? I am very confusing. Very bright and educated people find me perplexing.
O: Why is that?
RD: They don't understand how somebody who seemingly doesn't say very much… I'm not a very good sociable person. I'm not very sociable, and I don't hold good conversation regularly, and I guess I'm slightly antisocial, and they cannot believe that I write warm songs about people. Songs like "Days," which people say is a very loving, caring song. And they get very concerned. They say, "How can you write such warm songs like that?" [Laughs.] I guess it's… My communication with the world has always been through my music. I guess certain other social attributes have kind of passed me by.
O: With your first two singles, "You Really Got Me" and "All Day And All Of The Night," The Kinks created a distinctive, instantly recognizable sound. And yet you departed from it fairly quickly. Did you feel any pressure to keep turning out songs that sounded like that?
RD: Well, that's what happens. They want more of the same. And I don't think the music industry has changed at all. Or the entertainment industry. Film, look at that. Nicolas Cage has done the same part in 15 films. Or maybe that's the only part he can play. I think that you do fall into the rut willingly. I jumped off that at, like, the second or third single, because I was terrified of that happening. But I suppose it was bad for us. If we'd done more conforming to what people wanted, I think we would have sold a lot more records as a band, and been an easier commodity to sell. But unfortunately, The Kinks didn't make it easy for our record companies, because we chopped and changed. Then I made things like "Waterloo Sunset," and before I made that, I made things like "Well Respected Man." If you think of the three different types of music, they're like three different artists. It was great for singles in England at that time, when singles really did drive the market. But for album people… I remember when we delivered Muswell Hillbillies to RCA, they said, "This is great. Now, can we have three more albums of the same?" The next thing I did [1972's Everybody's In Show-Biz] was about show business; it was about glitter, whereas Muswell Hillbillies was about gritty, working-class London. So I do chop and change. I approach my music a bit like a novelist, I guess, or an author, saying, "Well, I've done this trilogy. Let me move on and do something else." I do approach it from a writing perspective rather than as a career artist. I think I take myself as a performer second to myself as a writer. Maybe I should shift that priority. I know that doing this new album—I'm writing new songs for my first studio solo record—I am trying to focus on what's right for me as an artist. It will probably be the kiss of death.
O: Have you ever felt you've sacrificed that goal for the sake of commercial ends?
RD: There's only one record that we had to make, and it was a song that I hated recording, called "Set Me Free." It's a Kinks single, and it was after the band had a fight on stage. My music had started to fall away into this kind of more eclectic music that my managers didn't like, and the drummer left, he tried to kill my brother on stage and was wanted by the police, and it was all dramatic. I said, "Well, yeah, I've got to make something that sounds like The Kinks." I remember sitting down and writing that, and going into the studio. That's the only contrived piece of recording I've ever done. Thankfully, I knew I was doing it and I didn't do it again. But that song got in the American Top 10.
O: It's not a bad song, either.
RD: No, it's a good song… Well, then, I survived it.
O: Do you see that song as a turning point from the early songs?
RD: I made Everybody's In Show-Biz, and I made a long song called "Saturday Night Heroes," and I sat with the head of the company and played this long, sort of meandering song. I could see him start yawning, and clicking off, looking at his watch, because the punchline doesn't come until five minutes into the song. And then at the end of the song, he said, "That's the most wonderful thing I've heard. I was listening to it, I was tired because you weren't getting anywhere, and then you make your point five minutes in, and you've taken your writing somewhere else now." Which I thought was nice of him to say. I think at that point, I realized I maybe could make that leap from doing the three-minute singles into making albums which, in a sense, have a theme that lasts over an album rather than just over three minutes. Or you can develop ideas within a group of songs that are connected in some way.
O: You'd done that before, certainly with Arthur.
RD: Well, maybe I hadn't achieved it in the way creatively I felt I've since done it. Arthur was something where I was a hired hand. I was hired by a TV company to write the script and write some songs, so I wasn't in control of that. When the TV show didn't happen, I was left with the songs, and I had to cobble it together the best I could.
O: How did you avoid doing a psychedelic album in the '60s? It seems like every band was required to do one.
RD: Well, I think because we didn't come to America. We were banned from America for three and a half years, and I think they did us an immense favor. We missed Woodstock, we missed Monterey, we missed San Francisco at the height of the drugs. I probably would have been a bit of a casualty, being a slightly addictive person going with the flow at that time. I think it would have been really damaging to have actually been there. Maybe Village Green Preservation Society was my psychedelic album, because I withdrew into my little community-spirited… my trivial world of little corner shops and English black-and-white movies. Maybe that's my form of psychedelia.
O: That album is a young man looking back on the England of his past. How do you feel about it now? Has your attitude toward nostalgia changed as you've gotten older?
RD: Well, yeah, because I remember… Where I live now, or where I'm moving from, is in the Green Belt in England. My secretary bought me the house when I was ill. She said, "You've got to move into the country, out of the city." I'm a city person, but I lived in this house on and off. My parents moved there, and I've had a few relationships there. And it's on what we call a common, and I have common rights, and every year me and the commoners get together. I suddenly realized this year that I've got nothing in common with the common people, because it's part of an English society that's… When these people die, move on, their kids don't want to live there. I think people have to move on. This chap actually said to me, "When you moved here, my son told me you were in a rock band." This guy's a banker or something, a retired banker. "But he said you'd done an album called Village Green Preservation Society, and knowing that we always have a right to the preservation of common rights, you were the ideal person to come and live here." I don't necessarily mean to say that I feel that's right. Because I'm a city person. I've always… I feel that certain aspects, like the common land, are important to keep for future generations. Looking out now from my hotel window, it's dominated by traffic all around me. In some way, you've got to keep a bit of greenery for people. I mean, London's going to end up a big parking lot soon. I'm not a nostalgic person by nature, it's odd. I wrote songs to make my family happy, because we had family parties. My show is a bit like a family get-together. And you had to be good to actually get attention at those parties. There's a lot of rivalry. Everybody did a party piece. So I wrote songs to please them. I remember even when I was 19 or 20, writing these rock songs, I wanted parental approval. In a sense, I was writing old people's music when I was 20. "Sunny Afternoon" was like a music-hall song from another time. I wasn't nostalgic about it. I was celebrating it, and I think that's the difference. Nostalgia for nostalgia's sake is really boring. You've got to be a little bit objective about it. It's that balancing act, moving forward and still keeping the best of what you have.
O: That's a common misconception about you, that you would want to keep things stuck in the past.
RD: No, I'm not like that. Yesterday I was at this TV studio, and people said, "Oh, we've got a digital disc." I said, "Fantastic." I love new technology. But at the same time, I don't let it overtake what I do. I'm a writer who probably sits down and does my first draft with a pencil rather than a computer. I know where my strengths lie. You can't hold people in the past. You can just let people know that this is where they came from. Otherwise we're in Pol Pot Land, Year Zero, and who wants that?
O: What was it like touring the U.S. in 1969 after being banned for so long?
RD: It was a total culture shock. The first time I'd played there was the first time I ever encountered monitors on stage. And the world had changed. America had totally turned around, and was more liberal. I think one of the problems we had with America when we first came here was that outside of New York and possibly L.A., it was a very conservative country. It still is quite conservative, but there's more willingness to accept other ideas.
O: Can the story now be told as to why you were banned?
RD: Um, I think… Mick Avory, my old drummer, has the best quote. He said, "It's bad luck, bad management, and bad behavior." We were young, stupid kids being thrown into this country, thinking we spoke the same language, but then… Different words have different meanings, without going into too much detail. I think there were also a lot of deals being cut with different agents across America, and I think it was becoming quite a controversial tour. I think some people were trying to restructure the deal, but we didn't know anything about that until afterwards. My brother was 16 or 17. I was 20, being locked up in a hotel room, and everywhere you went, there were screaming people. Kids, you know? And having enough of that. I'd just gotten married, and I was completely lost. It was a combination of lots of different things, but I think it was mainly to do with the business side.
O: How's the solo album going?
RD: I've started some recording. I've written about 40 songs, and I'm still writing. Like I said, I'm trying to find who I am as a singer. And it's bloody difficult. It really is. But I'm really getting out and enjoying it, enjoying the process of discovering who I am, and where I sit as a performer.
O: Is it true you're considering Why Now? as a possible title?
RD: I thought of Why Suddenly Now?
O: Can you answer the question?
RD: Because it's there. I think because it's time. Conan said last night, "We've got Ray Davies on the show." And I turned around and said, "Who's that?" I'd like to call the album the name of a band, featuring me. I've got a great name for my album: I'll form a band and call it The Kinks. [Laughs.]
O: I think some people not involved with the album would not be very happy about that.
RD: I know, I know.
O: How closely will Yo La Tengo be involved with this album?
RD: I don't know how closely we'll be involved. We did a showcase of my new work, and I used Yo La Tengo, and it worked really well. Their part was the most successful. We did some try-out recordings in the summer, and it worked really well. It's going to be my record. I like the way they play, and I don't want the record to sound like me and a load of session men.
O: Do you have a favorite Kinks period?
RD: I was playing in Buffalo the other night, and I haven't been there since I was with The Kinks. I actually missed some of those gigs in the early '80s, when we'd broken back in. It took years to recapture what we'd lost in America because of that ban. I loved the period around '78 or '79 when we'd found a way of moving forward and making records. We had an active record company, good head of the company, good A&R, and we toured New York for about three weeks. The tour focused and found our audience. That was a wonderful time, because we were building, playing smaller colleges and smaller clubs, and I was writing this album Low Budget. Because you know somehow you're on to something that's going to work.
O: What is the status of The Kinks now? Or is there one?
RD: The status is we owe, or the record company owes… There's a contract to make another record. Whether or not it can be done is another matter. I know Mick Avory's up for it, and I think Dave, in his quieter moments, is up for it. But I said, "I don't want to do it just to make a nostalgia record. I want to get some material together, listen to it, and judge and see if it's appropriate to do now." We'll decide, I guess, in about a year's time.
O: Are you getting along with everyone now?