Well respected certainly but hardly a flower to be looked at and most unlikely to laze around in the afternoon, sunny or otherwise. The life of Ray Davies that Johnny Rogan puts under his all-seeing microscope is indeed complicated, involving a relentless tug of war between The Kinks and his personal ambitions, a brutally toxic relationship with his younger brother Dave, obduracy that time and again stymies professional advancement, workaholic propensities that scupper three marriages and a penny-pinching miserliness that, as Kinks producer Shel Talmy drolly puts it, ‘makes Rod Stewart look like a philanthropist’.
Having already written two Kinks books[i], it was to be expected that Rogan would one day write the definitive Ray Davies biography, though he kept it to himself until late last year when Amazon offered the book as a pre-order and let the cat out of the bag. As it was the author, a personal friend of many years’ standing, gave me a proof edition to read over Christmas which I did, spotting the odd (Who-related) error, now duly amended, which I conveyed to him, and promising not to post a review until the late February embargo.
Well, this is a massive, sprawling book, containing everything you would want to know about Davies and quite a few things you probably wouldn’t, written to Rogan’s customary high standard of literacy, scrupulously researched and as eye-opening as it is conclusive. It also serves as a first-rate Kinks biography, of course, and a pretty good primer on the rise of the UK beat group scene in the sixties and all the important social changes that made the decade swing.
While clearly admiring Davies’ great skills as a songwriter, Rogan spares no blushes in disclosing personal flaws that repeatedly expose his subject as duplicitous, devious and mean-spirited. Davies has driven several managers to distraction by causing endless unnecessary problems in the belief that anyone who makes money off the back of him and The Kinks needs to work very hard indeed for that money, but at the same time such intransigence has operated to his and the group’s detriment time and time again. The book contains numerous examples of this deliberate ‘awkwardness’, best epitomised by the case of the manager who calls Davies to inquire whether The Kinks would be willing to play a festival in Belgium. “How does Dave feel about it?” Ray asks. “Dave’s keen to do it.” “Then I don’t think we’ll bother,” replies Ray, the inference being that if Dave wasn’t keen, then Ray would have replied: “Let’s do it.” This selfish, stubborn attitude, the constant need to gainsay his brother and try everyone’s patience, goes a long way to explaining why The Kinks never achieved the same measure of success enjoyed by their great rivals The Who, a rivalry that forms one of many sub plots as the book develops.
The frugality is introduced in the opening paragraph of the introduction wherein Rogan relates how before a pre-arranged luncheon interview with Davies a PR calls with an urgent inquiry; not – as might be expected – a request that Rogan limit his questions to matters musical with nothing personal broached, but to obtain an assurance that the meal will be paid for by the magazine for whom Rogan is working and to convey the vital message that ‘in order to avoid any embarrassment’ Ray must not be presented with the bill. Here is a multi-millionaire, with homes in London, Surrey, Ireland and New York, whose publicist fears the consequences should his client have to pay for a modest lunch. It’s the first of many such instances throughout the book, a litany of stinginess that alienates many well-meaning admirers who back away as a result and more often than not don’t come back.
It may be that this disagreeable character trait was formed in childhood. The Davies family was dirt poor, six sisters[ii] and their two younger brothers crammed into a tiny terraced house in Fortis Green, and there’s a touch of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen about his upbringing – “We were poor but we were happy” – with Rogan painting a touching portrait of a messy working-class household where everyone was welcome to drop by after the pubs closed on a Saturday night, especially if they brought a bottle and had a song to sing, causing the stuffy, uptight, miserable Joneses next door to order their son Peter not to mix with the Davies clan. In the event Peter would become a Kinks’ roadie, one of many who toiled on their behalf for little reward – and this includes musicians too, not least Peter Quaife and Mick Avory, the other two original Kinks whose hapless fate is intrinsically bound up with the warring Davies brothers.
This family background would inform Ray Davies’ writing for all time. Although Davies was enamoured of R&B and the first wave of American rock’n’roll stars, Rogan argues convincingly that his real inspiration was much closer to home, the old time music halls where lilting melodies brought out the sing-along character of the English at play. In this regard The Kinks’ great opening salvo, ‘You Really Got Me’ and ‘All Day And All Of The Night’, seems like an aberration compared to the hits that followed, the wry observational songs like ‘A Well Respected Man’, ‘Dedicated Follower Of Fashion’, and ‘Sunny Afternoon’, all of which would have gone down well at the Hackney Empire when it opened in 1901. Rogan’s eye for detail in regard to the lyrics of Davies’ songs reveals not just their music hall roots but how so many of them contain snippets from family recollections of his childhood and teenage years. The ‘dirty old river’ of ‘Waterloo Sunset’, for example, was the view of the Thames from the window of a hospital near Westminster Bridge where in 1958 Ray, aged 14, was hospitalised to have his jaw reset following a childhood accident.
Then again, the miserliness might have had something to do with the unusually complex managerial structure behind The Kinks. Initially they were managed by a well-meaning friend who was ousted by a couple of toffs, Grenville Collins and Robert Wace, but these two were soon joined by former pop star Larry Page who’d moved from singing to management because that was where the money lay. Producer Shel Talmy also had his finger in the pie, as did music publisher Eddie Kassner, so all these individuals put their oar in and took their percentage out, leaving only small change for the boys in the band, at least until the situation was resolved, and this gives rise to Davies’ lasting distrust of the music industry. Rogan unravels this intricate web as best he can but it’s not easy, nor, as he admits, is a clear understanding of quite why after their first US tour in 1965 The Kinks were banned from, or at least unwelcome in, America for the second half of the sixties. Essentially, it was a combination of bad luck and bad management coupled with yobbish belligerence towards persons of influence, but whatever the cause it set them back five years in the race for US fame and fortune with the result that during the years when the Stones, Who and others prospered mightily on American soil, The Kinks would remain a cult act there, at least until Ray deliberately targeted US tastes with a series of harder rocking but less imaginative albums in the late seventies and eighties.
All of this is explained in great detail as The Kinks release their glorious run of hit singles between 1964 and ’67, then stumble through their concept album period, their shows increasingly resembling variety acts, with Ray camping it up in a floppy bow-tie in the stubborn belief that this is the way forward, much against the inclinations of brother Dave. Meanwhile Ray’s first marriage (to Rasa Didzpetris, the mother of his first two daughters[iii]) falls apart, he becomes more and more reliant on alcohol and his health, both mental and physical, deteriorates alarmingly. As time moves on and the personnel of The Kinks varies but never really solidifies, Ray seems quite unable to turn down prospective commissions from TV and film companies, many of which fall by the wayside leaving him bitter and unfulfilled. Further personal relationships, including two more marriages and his fractious involvement with Chrissie Hynde, also come undone and, as the book enters its final quarter, the picture we have of the master songwriter is that of the lonely artist, misunderstood, paranoid about his money, the bottle his only friend, his work his only salvation. And this is never resolved.
As would be expected Rogan is particularly good on the music, with every album dissected, just about every song analysed, and this partly explains why the book stretches to 600 pages. Davies is and always has been prolific, even if the standard of his wonderful sixties songs becomes progressively more difficult to sustain as he approaches his pensionable years, but Rogan often finds something to admire in later, lesser known Kinks and solo recordings. Interestingly, in an elegant segment devoted to ‘Waterloo Sunset’ that extends over several pages, he suggests the inspiration for Davies’ most cherished song might be ‘Ol’ Man River’, the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein number from the 1927 musical Showboat, an observation I’d never considered before.
Inevitably with a book of this size the lion’s share is devoted to the first 30 years of Davies’ life, with a concentration on the period 1963-73 and the last 40 years squeezed into the final 100 pages or so. The shooting incident in New Orleans in 2004 is dealt with in some detail and it somehow comes as no surprise that the reason why Ray Davies recklessly chased the armed mugger who’d snatched his date’s handbag was because earlier that evening he’d stashed his own wallet and cash in there. Plus ça change.Highly recommended.
[i] The Kinks: The Sound And The Fury (Elm Tree, 1984); The Complete Guide to the Music of The Kinks (Omnibus Press, 1998).
[ii] One of whom, Peggy, Rogan reveals, gave birth out of wedlock in the early fifties to a girl they called Jackie whose father was a mysterious African who returned there not long after the child was born. It is to Davies matriarch Annie’s enormous credit that Jackie was raised within the family without any concern for the potentially scandalous consequences.
[iii] Rasa (who incidentally discloses she saw The Beatles in Bradford in December 1963, the same show I attended) proves a valuable source of information for the author, speaking candidly about the strain of being married to Ray, his penny-pinching and their challenging domestic circumstances. Ex-wives and former (let alone current) partners of male rock stars are all too often missing from rock biographies, no doubt silenced by their former husbands under pain of losing maintenance payments or simply unwilling to dredge up painful memories. Those biographers who succeed in persuading the girls to grant interviews invariably discover a rich seam of material with which to illuminate their books. Two examples from the Omnibus catalogue are Dear Boy: The Life Of Keith Moon whose author Tony Fletcher succeeded in persuading Kim McLagan, formerly Kim Moon, to speak candidly about life with the unconventional drummer, the first and most substantial of only two interviews she ever gave, and Had Me A Real Good Time, Andy Neill’s biography of The Faces, for which he managed to round up a posse of former WAGS, all of whom were refreshingly indiscreet in their recollections.