It may shock you to know that Ray Davies – the pop poet laureate who provided the definitive soundtrack to London at the height of its Sixties swing – didn’t own a pair of jeans until 1989.
‘I didn’t consider them proper trousers,’ he says, when Weekend meets him for coffee near his Highgate home. ‘I was the youngest square in the world. The only thing that was ever rebellious about me is that I wasn’t a rock and roll rebel.’
If this sounds like a surprising admission from the man who, with the fuzzy riffs of You Really Got Me, also accidentally invented heavy metal, then it shouldn’t be. The clues are all there in the music – from Dedicated Follower of Fashion’s withering satire of strutting Carnaby Street peacocks to The Village Green Preservation Society, one of many Kinks songs in which Davies rejected modish Cool Britannia in favour of bittersweet evocations of a vanishing Imperial England of tea shops, cricket pavilions and draught beer.
‘Although I was part of swinging London, I didn’t really experience it,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t go to clubs a lot. I had a young family, so I was at home most of the time.’
Another reason he was home was because The Kinks had been banned from America after Davies punched a TV producer.
‘I didn’t punch him,’ he clarifies. ‘It was self-defence.’
The pair had got into a row after the producer called him ‘a Commie’ (this was 1966, ‘when America was still fresh from McCarthyism’). But trouble had been brewing from the moment the band had stepped off the plane.
‘They didn’t want us there,’ says Davies. ‘They called it “the British Invasion”, but they didn’t want all of us. They wanted The Beatles. The Beatles were great entertainers, very acceptable. There were unions disputes, rows between promoters in different states… They wanted to make an example of someone. It was in the air.’
The whole tour had been plagued by ‘bad luck, bad management and bad behaviour’, with members of the band – including Davies and his brother Dave, who invented rock sibling rivalry decades before Oasis – at each others’ throats, and lawsuits flying back and forth between managers. Then came the punch.
‘All of a sudden, we weren’t wanted. We got a letter saying: don’t come back to America, your visas have been revoked.' The Kinks, it transpired, had been blacklisted by the American Musicians’ Union. 'It was a big deal, because we were on the verge of cracking the big league, playing big arenas.
‘In career terms, it set us back, but creatively it didn’t. Because we couldn’t tour America, I wrote songs about England instead: Village Green Preservation Society, Sunny Afternoon… none of those would have been possible if we’d been on the road in America. So it did us a favour in many respects.’
It was this fertile period that forged Davies’ reputation as the quintessential English pop songwriter, turning out timeless classics like A Well Respected Man and Waterloo Sunset. ‘I just wrote about things I knew,’ he shrugs. ‘When I needed a follow-up to You Really Got Me, I didn’t have any new life experiences, so I just wrote about characters in the neighbourhood where I grew up. And all the songs that followed were in that context.’
But he always kept half an eye on America, a country he'd fallen in love with at an early age watching cowboy pictures, and which had first fired his musical imagination through blues, jazz and R&B. It’s a complicated relationship (after their 60s rejection, The Kinks eventually became a huge stadium act in the States in the 70s and 80s) that he explores on his new record, Americana.
Based on his 2013 book of the same name, the album chronicles Davies’ transatlantic fortunes through a mix of spoken word testimony and his finest collection of songs in years, recorded with US alt country outfit The Jayhawks. ‘This is my take on America,’ he explains. ‘It’s not meant to be a country and western record. You can be quintessentially British and still write about somewhere else.’
His American adventures came to an abrupt and violent end in 2004 when he was shot in the leg while chasing a mugger who had stolen his girlfriend’s purse in his adopted home of New Orleans. He has since said that ‘the symbolism of the shooting was more significant than the actuality’. Meaning what, exactly?
‘The guy shot me, I fell on the ground, I thought f*** this hurts – but what about the symbolism?’ he says, with a cackle. ‘It’s got to mean something. I equated it with the early bullets I saw in cowboy movies as a kid. It really made me think about the gun culture in America. When you see those things in films, you can forget they actually hurt. He aimed here [he puts a hand to his chest] but I ducked out of the way. I was lucky to survive, but obviously it had a big impact on my psyche.’
And so he came home again, to north London, a stone’s throw from where he’d grown up, the seventh of eight children, in Muswell Hill – a ‘lonesome kid’ who was shattered by the death of his older sister, Rene, on his 13th birthday.
‘She’d got this heart condition, and she wasn’t supposed to do exercise, but she went dancing at the Lyceum Ballroom, because she wanted to die happy,’ he recalls. ‘We got a knock at the door the following day. She died on my birthday – the day she gave me my first guitar.’ A pause. ‘That’s symbolism for you.
‘It had a big impact on me. She was the one person who knew how to communicate with me, through music. I went emotionally AWOL for a few years after that. Probably still haven’t got over it, in a sense.’
As for Dave, he says their relationship these days is ‘pretty good… on the few occasions when I meet him. The bottom line is you have to get on with family, for better or worse, whether you like it or not.’
Despite that, Davies – who has been married three times and has four daughters, one of them by Chrissie Hynde – admits his children would probably describe their relationship with their father as ‘difficult’. ‘The older ones remember me as this man who used to disappear for a couple of hours every day to write songs, and come back and play them. I was like the family entertainer. I still have fond memories of playing my baby daughter Lola when I first wrote it. I didn’t tell her it was about a transvestite,’ he grins.
In March, Davies was knighted for his services to British music – but admits he’s ‘not sure if anyone ever really earns a knighthood.’ Perhaps he’s earned it, Weekend ventures, through one of the greatest songbooks in pop history? ‘Yeah,’ he says with a sheepish grin. ‘People keep telling me I should be happy with my work.’
At 72, Sir Ray – a diffident, softly spoken, thoughtful figure – can’t foresee ever giving up songwriting. ‘There’s a line in Sunny Afternoon [the Olivier Award-winning Kinks musical loosely based on his life] where somebody says “I think in song”,’ he muses. ‘That time when my sister died, I found it hard to communicate, and maybe songwriting helped me evolve as a communicator. I still have a problem with conversation. I don’t know why – I’m a very quiet, shy person. But songs enable me to express myself. Without writing, I wouldn’t be a person.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, April 27, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend