The Li'l Green Aggravation Society
Rock & Roll's Cain & Abel: The Kinks' Davies Brothers
No, the story of the Kinks is the story of the most brilliant and insightful popsmith the Sixties British rock scene produced, and of one of the most distinctively raunchy rock & roll guitar players to emerge from a pack of Lennons, Richards, and Townshends. First and foremost, however, the Kinks are about...
It sounded like nothing you'd heard in your life.
It sounded monstrous, nasty, vicious -- like a big, green, swamp snake snapping out, ready to attack.
Then came the voice: flat nasal, almost indifferent. Giirrrll, ya really
got me goin'/Ya got me so I don't know wot I'm doin'. The lyrics seem to
wanna hold your hand, much like those
cute/cuddly/inoffensive Beatle boys, but the music leers at ya, as if with a tube of K-Y in its hand. And it keeps building, piling on intensity in ever-thickening layers, 'til the whole damn thing blows apart in a guitar solo that ka-booms like so much 16-year-old testosterone buildup. One more verse swaggers in on its Cuban heels before the song comes to a tottering resolution, which sounds like its drunkenly kicking huge-ass holes in the sheetrock.
When the teenage Dave Davies took his daddy's razor to the inefficient speakers of his li'l 10-watt green practice amp and inadvertently introduced the world to the distorted powerchord (Dun-nuh-nuh-duh-nuh!), he'd captured a weird intangible for the audio-acoustic world: frustration. Frustrated with "that clean, chingy Fender sound" that then characterized rock & roll guitar with only a few exceptions (Link Wray, Paul Burlison of Johnny Burnett's Rock `n' Roll Trio, Howlin' Wolf sideman Pat Hare, John Lee Hooker), Davies unleashed a sort of sonic profanity which has yet to be excised from the rock & roll vocabulary. This is why, even today, the record which introduced the world to Dun-nuh-nuh-duh-nuh! -- the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" -- sounds just like Punk Rock 1964.
Ray Davies, whose laconic deadpan has had to recreate that moment virtually every night the Kinks have taken a stage, concurs. "Yeah, there's a lot of similarities in there, obviously," he intones in a voice pitched in a terminally bored register, probably not helped by having to do another anonymous interview on another anonymous phone in another anonymous hotel room in Boston. "I think when that wave of punk came through the U.K. in '77 and '78, there had been a terribly pompous period in music before that.
"Without naming names," he laughs, "Elton John and Rod Stewart were strutting around, and although they were both friends of mine, I was not terribly into what they were doing. We were doing our sort of Schoolboys In Disgrace thing, Soap Opera things, kind of a different way to go. And it was all very pompous, and music was becoming The Stadium or Nothing; stories of promoters giving artists Cartier watches, and they were all making so much money. It was getting a bit obscene, and when the punk thing came along, it was great, more than a breath of fresh air. There were a lot of acts -- like the Kinks, I suppose -- that actually welcomed them, because we didn't really fit the mold of the successful stadium bands."
Dave, the younger Davies brother, can't really argue with the Kinks-as-punk-rock theory, either. "Yeah, it's weird, innit?" he asks over a telephone line from London in a voice less bored and higher pitched than older brother Ray's, though they share the same pudding-thick Cockney seasoning. "There were only a few bands that had this sorta really rough-sounding, what we used to call `R&B' style in the Sixties. There were the Yardbirds, there was us, there was the Pretty Things, as well. There was this band called the Downliner's Sect, who were very typical of that London/West End scene -- very R&B, blues-based -- a very important band from that period, but I don't think that they were poppy enough for the public."
And therein lies what links the Kinks with first-wave punk: The best vintage U.K. punk records featured really good pop songs played....
"...with a little bit of aggression," Dave blurts. Just the same as the Kinks did, when their name meant stupid, red, fox-hunting jackets and endless mutations of the primordial "Louie Louie" riff. The punks paid endless propers to that legacy, whether by affectionate pilferage (such as the core riff to the Clash's "1977," which sounded as if Mick Jones had been playing it, er, all day and all of the night), or directly when the band met such pogo rock luminaries-cum-Kinks-fans as Jones, Joey Ramone, and Paul Weller. Ray even recently informed a U.K. rock magazine that the best rock & roll show he ever witnessed was a chaotic 1976 set from Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers: "It typified everything that music was about, really. And what rock should be about!"
Their influence has endured. Just ask dyslexic British garage maven Billy Childish, whose records sound like he owns Dave's Li'l Green Amp. Or ask virtually anyone in the current U.K. hit parade. It seems any Englishman that picks up a guitar these days, if he's not uttering the words "Small Faces," is uttering "the Kinks" instead. (Ironically, Ray recently presented the Ivor Novello award to the Small Faces' surviving membership.) "It's not exactly a mod thing they're celebrating," notes Ray. "It's more to do with English pop, and Small Faces and the Kinks, I suppose, never got that initial praise that they're supposed to have gotten. I suppose they're getting picked up by a lot of smart young musicians."
He's got a point. The Kinks that interests bands like Blur and Pulp is hardly the electric raunch Kinks. They appear more fascinated with the mid-period Kinks of "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" and Something Else and on through to maybe Arthur, when Ray's songs evolved beyond teenage horndog riffrock into something more subtle. The Kinks now mean pop music obsessed with Englishness, whether skewering the upper crust in "Well-Respected Man" or romanticizing the "dirty old river" of "Waterloo Sunset."
It's these Kinks that inform Supergrass' raucous live renditions of "Where Have All the Good Times Gone?" and who provide the subtext as Jarvis Cocker skewers the well-respected slumming debutante protagonist of Pulp's "Common People." It's these Kinks that gloss-coat virtually every note struck by Blur. And don't think the Davies brothers are oblivious, either: Ray agreed to duet with Blur's Damon Albarn on the British TV show The White Room last year, the two blending voices on "Waterloo Sunset" and Blur's "Parklife." More recently the pair reunited for a "poetry gig" at Albert Hall, with Ray reciting "Parklife" poetically to Albarn-ian accompaniment and Damon returning the favor on an unspecified Davies composition. Dave, meantime, enthuses over Kula Shaker and Ocean Colour Scene, among others.
"It's like the Second British Invasion!," raves Dave. "It's really interesting, innit? Things really do go full-circle. This is even more full-circle than the late Seventies punk thing, really, because the actual sounds of the records, sonically, are similar. The structure of their songs are very Sixties. But it's good writing, I think it's very good pop writing."
Well, isn't that what matters at day's end? Isn't the essential ingredient always going to be a good song?
"Yeah, I think so," says Dave. "Melody has been important to me, and I think a lot of the better Kinks songs -- even the hard rock stuff -- has melody. That's been a major part of our music. But I think a lot of people over the years have gotten confused by our diversity. If you played Muswell Hillbillies and (1993's) Phobia side-by-side, you'd probably think they were different bands!"
Well, not too many have had that chance. The eternal story of the Kinks' career has been one of occasional flashes of success amidst several years of criminally neglected (yet usually excellent) records and shit-hot live shows, with modest support from a die-hard cult fan base. You can blame this mostly on record company indifference, which doesn't help the Kinks' perennial image as oldies act; the band who did either "You Really Got Me" or "Lola" or "Come Dancing," depending on when you graduated from high school. Who knows what the band's newly minted profile as Seminal Britpop Influence will bring?
But the Kinks have hardly been inactive, either. Signed to the sixth label of their career, Guardian Records (the recently-erected pop subsidiary of classical giant Angel Records), the Kinks have just released one of the more interesting items in their lengthy catalog: To the Bone, a 2-CD live document culled from both standard wattage-soaked Kinks concerts and from an acoustic set performed before an invited audience at the band's own Konk Studios (where, besides the Kinks, Big Audio Dynamite and Elastica have both recorded). Which means you not only get full-blooded, Marshall-overload renditions of standards like "All Day And All Of The Night," but gentler fare like "Celluloid Heroes" and Dave's signature "Death of a Clown" in a more intimate setting. Dave, for one, is pleased to have another crack at tunes like "See My Friends," which may have lost the distinctive Indian touches that marked its original 1965 incarnation, but now features stronger harmony work.
And even if they didn't have the Kinks to occupy their time, the Davieses have plenty keeping them from pulling a mutual Cain & Abel. With the modest success of Ray's "unauthorized autobiography," X-Ray, comes the release of Dave's autobio, Kink, which has apparently been in the works since the late Eighties. (Nevertheless, the book's uncomfortable timing is hardly lost on the elder Davies: "There's not a lot you can do about it," he smirks.) Dave is planning an anthology of his solo works to coincide with the book's American publication in February, along with a possible tour backed by the Smithereens.
Read the books, and you can virtually read the men. X-Ray finds Ray's tale filtered through an elaborate, near-science fiction plot involving a future run by an Orwellian corporation that sends an anonymous drone to seek out the aging Ray Davies in order to gather biographical data. Kink, on the other hand, is straight-forward autobiography, told with a painful, almost too-naked honesty, running from kiss-and-tell anecdotes of drinking and drugging and sexual experimentation (of both female and male varieties) to an account of Dave's encounter with alien forces who sound like they may be related to those which supposedly visited Phillip K. Dick.
"Yeah, that's just the way that I am," says Dave. "Ray's always closed things. In some instances, it may be a device he's cultivated to protect himself emotionally from certain things that have happened to him. We all have our little, built-in survival devices or kits or whatever. I like to get things done. I find sometimes you get more inspired when you do things impromptu. I always like to get to the point. I think that has to do with my personality. I like to get to the point quicker, then move on and do something else."
Doesn't this also typify their musical roles? Ray appears to be this craftsman, who sits there and agonizes over every detail. Dave's guitar work is brash, impatient, ready to get the job done and go down to the bar for a few fast ones.
"This is where Ray and I have often differed and often had great arguments, because sometimes I feel it's actually not necessary to spend quite so much time over something when you might have it already. And that's happened quite a few times. A lot of our biggest records were actually recorded and actually constructed relatively quickly. I think a big frustration of mine with Ray is that sometimes he spends so much time constructing something which actually isn't really very much different from the original idea. But this is a big ongoing argument which Ray and I have been having for years now. Sometimes, I have to turn to him in the studio and say, `Ray, everybody's falling asleep! It's the end! It's done, it's over, it's finished! Let's move on!'
"But conversely, some things obviously do require a different technique -- you need to construct them in a different way. But it isn't always necessary to go around the houses to arrive at the end of the street," he laughs.
Although the Kinks endure, the street appears to be leading its creative components into different streams of traffic. Ray has clearly been enjoying the solo gigs he's been playing since X-Ray's publication. ("His cabaret show, as I call it," snickers Dave.) An intimate affair, Ray hunkers down with an acoustic guitar, a well-thumbed copy of X-Ray, and the tasteful, economical accompaniment of guitarist Pete Mathison, offering stripped-down renditions of Davies classics -- often given fresh, bluesy reinterpretations -- and relevant passages from the book. ("Joey Ramone came to one of my gigs," Ray laughs. "It was quite funny, 'e liked it. He wants to write a book now and do the same thing! He should.") A Ray Davies solo album is also in the works, a record which would have its base in the solo shows, "but along the way, I'll turn it into something else. It'll be more expansive than that.
"I carry a little four-track on the road with me. I like working that way. The new style I'm writing for this record is gonna be mainly acoustic, anyway. I just need an acoustic guitar and a tape recorder. So, um, we'll see how it blossoms. But I will use other musicians for certain tracks."
Is it just good to get a break from the Kinks and work with other people?
"Well, it's something I should have done more of, I think. Because it does absorb everything I do, the band. It's nice to go off and do things. I'd like to take certain chances. I used to take chances. When you end up with an established act, I suppose, that has a certain track record, it's difficult to take chances in the sense that the record company don't like you to. When you do, they'll say, `Yes, you've got the artistic right to do it.' But they do sod all with it, once they get it. So, it helps me to focus on the thing I'm writing about, and less for a formula."
Ketchup and chocolate ice cream. Twinkies and motor oil. Tipper Gore and Blackie Lawless. Ray and Dave Davies....
"I know," Ray laughs. "It goes on and it goes on."
"Maybe because Ray and I are so different in our approach," says Dave, "it's helped the Kinks' music over the years. It's the tooing-and-froing of two different types of energy operating within it. I'd like to think that when it's been good, it's complementary to the music.
Dave Davies laughs. "And when it's been bad, it's been 'orrible!" n