RAY DAVIES: A COMPLICATED LIFE
by Johnny Rogan
(Bodley Head £25)
The exhilarating finale of a musical called Sunny Afternoon currently offers one of the great nightly spectacles in London’s so-called ‘theatreland’, as hundreds of mostly middle-aged punters leap or, in some cases, creak to their feet, jigging and jiving to the music of The Kinks.
Just a few weeks ago, I was one of them, and resolved as I left to learn more about the singular life of Ray Davies, the band’s brilliant but melancholic frontman, who wrote such timelessly wonderful hits as Waterloo Sunset, You Really Got Me, Lola and, indeed, Sunny Afternoon.
Well, Johnny Rogan’s monumental biography has filled all the gaps in my knowledge of one of the men who made the Sixties swing (while simultaneously lampooning the Swinging Sixties with his mickey-take of Carnaby Street dandies, Dedicated Follower Of Fashion).
Gloriously rousing though it is, the stage show hardly does justice to the enigma that is Raymond Douglas Davies.
Mercurial, introspective, sometimes cruel and spectacularly, almost sociopathically, mean with money, but also sensitive, principled and capable of great kindness, Davies is above all one of the creative geniuses of our age.
Those who are or have been close to him, including his brother Dave and the singer Chrissie Hynde (the mother of one of his four daughters), might not always echo the sentiment, but we are lucky to have him.
Davies was born in 1944 in Muswell Hill, North London, on the night of an air raid. It was a suitably explosive beginning. He was the seventh child in a boisterous, tight-knit, working-class family but, more significantly, the first son.
One of the pivotal episodes in shaping his complex personality came before he was three years old, when baby David arrived, rudely undermining his status.
Much later, Dave’s musicianship would also be central to the success of The Kinks, but he was resented by Ray from day one. Indeed, David still remembers a childhood mock fight in which he thought he’d accidentally knocked his older brother unconscious.
He bent over him, whispering, ‘Are you OK?’, only for Ray to spring up and punch him hard in the face. ‘I felt the pleasure that I’d knocked him over, then concern that I’d hurt him,’ says Dave now, ‘but all he really wanted was to get back at me. It’s symbolic of our whole relationship, really.’
While Dave grew up happy and outgoing, Ray was troubled and solitary and was even sent to a child therapist, which can’t have been usual in working-class North London during the Fifties. The sudden death of much-loved older sister Rene compounded his torment.
But he found refuge in music, especially in the records of the American blues singer Big Bill Broonzy, a discovery he credits with changing his life.
With Dave, and schoolfriends Pete Quaife and John Start, he formed the Ray Davies Quartet.
He auditioned a cocky boy from the year below him at William Grimshaw Secondary Modern, but the lad’s voice was so raspy that Start’s mother wouldn’t let them rehearse in her house. His name was Rod Stewart.
While young Stewart forged his own path towards superstardom, the Ray Davies Quartet, shedding Start and adding drummer Mick Avory, mutated into the Boll-Weevils, the Ravens and, finally, The Kinks.
There are various contradictory explanations for the famous name, but the best guess is simply that ‘kinky’ was a fashionable adjective in the early Sixties.
Rogan implies that inspiration may even have struck thanks to a Mail cartoon of a girl praying beside her bed, captioned: ‘All I want for Christmas is a Beatle, failing that, a pair of kinky boots . . .’ Similarly uncertain are the precise origins of The Kinks’s first hit, You Really Got Me, in the summer of 1964. But it reached number one and made Davies a star.
Not that success tempered his extraordinary tight-fistedness. He would habitually hold open pub doors for his bandmates to enter — not out of politeness, but to ensure he was last to the bar.
And the band’s manager, Larry Page, was present on the day Ray’s first wife, Rasa, who he’d met when she was a schoolgirl attending one of their gigs, pleaded with him, ‘Ray, what about that coat?’
He replied, ‘No, you can’t have it . . . it’s a lot of money.’ She continued begging him, pointing out how bitterly cold it was outside, until finally he relented, and told their driver to take them to Sketchley’s. She wasn’t asking for a new coat. He just hadn’t wanted to pay the dry-cleaning bill.
Ray’s parsimony is one of the reasons why the story of The Kinks is a tale of epic in-fighting, as well as marvellous music. But only one of the reasons.
Besides, he was merely a spectator at their most notorious scrap when, during a show in Cardiff in 1965, his brother Dave spat at Avory, and Avory hit Dave with a cymbal so hard that many there thought they’d witnessed a murder.
Four decades later, Davies himself was almost the victim of a murder, when he was shot in New Orleans while chasing a mugger who’d stolen his then-girlfriend’s handbag. It was yet another traumatic incident in what has been, to quote this book’s barely adequate sub-title, a complicated life.
But shining through the violence, the personality clashes, the litigation with former management, the volatile relationships with women, even a mental breakdown, are the songs — none of them more enduringly haunting than Waterloo Sunset.
His voice might not be what it was, but Davies was the perfect choice, and it was the perfect song, to close the London Olympics three years ago. Yet this book reveals it was, at first, tentatively titled Liverpool Sunset, and he intended it to represent the death of Merseybeat, which he felt was presaged by the Beatles moving away from their roots and buying big houses in Surrey and St John’s Wood.
That wasn’t for Davies. He stayed in or near Muswell Hill and he’s still there now, with wispier hair but the same familiar, gap-toothed smile, which we might never have known had he had his teeth capped one afternoon in 1964.
He was actually sitting in the dentist’s chair, the drill whirring, when he leapt up and left the room. If he was going to make it, he told himself, it would be through his songwriting, not his looks.
It was a firm statement of artistic intent and still ‘the most important decision I’ve ever made’, insists the man who, happily for us, has never been a dedicated follower of anyone’s fashion but his own.