theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Ray Davies | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Ray Davies
theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Ray Davies
The king of The Kinks has reasons to be cheerful: a new greatest hits album is out, and 'Sunny Afternoon' is unveiling a new cast
The Kinks have turned 50 last and nagging talk of a reunion is still in the ether. In the absence of the real thing, there is a double-disc greatest hits album surfing the wave of latter-day Kinksmania. Meanwhile a kind of Kinks reunion stormed the West End in the shape of Sunny Afternoon, written by playwright Joe Penhall from an original story by Ray Davies.
Taking the band’s glorious songbook as its soundtrack, the musical follows the Kinks from their first number one “You Really Got Me” through to the end of the 1960s when they were allowed back into America after a four-year ban caused by, depending what you read, bad behaviour or refusal to pay union dues. On the way there are contractual wrangles, internecine fallouts, a breakdown for Ray and, stringing them all together, those towering songs about life and love in old London town.
I’m me and I can’t be any better or any worse
If not quite a Kinks reunion, Sunny Afternoon does reunite the divided selves of Ray Davies, the conflicted colossus to whom songs come as if in a dream but who crumples on impact with the pressures of business. That conflict is expressed in his outfit the day I meet him: he is dressed from the waist up as a country gent with tweed cap and tailored green wool jacket, and urban scruff from the waist down in skinny grey jeans and Adidas trainers. His beady blue eyes scan the middle distance as he talks, the sibilants lisping on his tongue. His puckish smiles are full of mischief. We meet outside near his home in Highgate in north London, specifically at what he calls “the break-up bench”, where he split with his first girlfriend. Can there be any songwriter for whom London’s lost, prelapsarian past is so constant a presence? Ray Davies talks to theartsdesk about sunny afternoons, dark days and Waterloo sunsets.
JASPER REES: I hesitate to call Sunny Afternoon a jukebox musical because it’s actually an autobiography as well. But given that the genre has been around for a while, where do you see yours in relation to other back catalogue shows?
RAY DAVIES: It’s a song cycle. Jukebox musicals, there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re great. I just wanted to tell a more in-depth story, believe in the characters. What’s good about it also is that there are songs that aren’t necessarily on the tip of the tongue commercially that actually move the story on. One of the most moving things for me in it is the two brothers singing at the end, “A Long Way from Home”. In my notes for the cast album, I said: “It’s as if I’ve been writing this show all through my career.” That song was written in 1971. It could have been written specially for the scene.
Can you remember the circumstances in which you did write it?
Yes, it’s for my brother, literally as it is in the show. We did an album called Lola Versus Powerman, which is about the money aspect, the business of music. I’ve nothing against jukebox musicals and if this is considered a jukebox musical I think the content is strong enough to stand up against anything that’s been done before. I haven’t seen Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia! surprisingly.
How long ago did the germ of this idea happen?
My first draft for it was 2005. I had just had another musical called Come Dancing that failed to get produced. It eventually came together in 2008 at Stratford East. I had heard about Come Dancing not going ahead and I thought, it’s “Sunny Afternoon” itself. I wanted to write something built around the song. The scene written in the studio where I’m trying to get the sound right really happened. I’d had a kind of epiphany or breakdown, not a nervous breakdown but a work burnout. Maybe I was being erratic. It was a question of letting go. It was a miraculous period around the writing. I’d been ill. I think partly because of all the lawsuits and partly because I realised for the first time in my life other people depended on me for a living. It was written in March or April ‘66. We’d just had a big hit with “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”. And I started walking into walls, and not perceiving the world, going to sleep for five days. Writing the song was an epiphany.
That’s where the genesis of the whole idea came in 2005. I didn’t want it to be obvious. I wanted people to grab the story rather than wait for the next singalong. So it had a gradual reveal of the characters. I don’t believe in coincidence but the fact that we hooked up with the managers we hooked up with, had that incredible journey, and then I hit a block... It wasn’t a block actually but I think it was the pressure of not having a record company, we didn’t get royalties for the first six years of our career. We didn’t get royalties actually till we took it to the High Court. The case was a draw. We just ran out of money and we settled for not a very good deal. So we had to tour. I think it’s a build-up of continually being on the treadmill. Also as an art student I didn’t know how to write songs. I came up with “You Really Got Me”. It was about the fifth song I ever wrote and it was a number one. Everybody started knocking on the door saying, “What you got?” And the scene with the publisher is not as extravagantly performed as it is in the show but it really happened.
How much did you finesse?
It’s not a documentary.
It feels emotionally true.
Obviously the timeline. The songs didn’t happen in that sequence. Once it went linear. My original script in 2005 was about 70 pages. That basically came from my show Storyteller which was an autobiographical show I did in the 1990s. I played Edinburgh, I played the show for five years. And I re-enacted dialogue. A lot of it came from that. That had a more linear form. What’s amazing is no words have been changed in the songs. I understand that in other shows of this type they adapt words.
There were times when I was thinking, surely that has been finessed for theatrical purposes.
The song about all the managers?
“The Money-Go-Round”? Again it was almost written at that time for this show. I always felt there was a theme to my career once I got in with the band and realised it was not as simple. We didn’t have our three hits and get regular jobs. There was a purpose for almost dedicating one’s life to be in this job. It’s got to have a purpose to it and what’s the purpose? It’s a long way from home. It’s the story of a song cycle about two lads who didn’t really fit together. In a sense I never really had a relationship with my brother in a normal way. I lived down the road with my sister from when I was 11 till when I was 14. When I was at art college I used to live there. And when we joined the band Dave was 16 and I was 19 and we never really had a normal brother relationship. (Pictured below: George Maguire as Dave Davies in the original production at Hampstead Theatre)
So you were sort of strangers in a way?
We were. But what’s wonderful is the telepathy we have. Or did. He always knew what I wanted in the studio.
Are there moments in the show where you wanted to demonstrate that?
I thought long and hard about the brother relationship. It’s also about the relationship with someone who’s not there. The sister who died. The original draft was more about that. I used the songs originally as settings for the show rather than being a musical but it evolved into being a linear story of the band. And it’s not just for people who know the material. It’s for new people, particularly when we were at Hampstead. Eighteen-year-olds were coming just wanting to see the show and finding out about the music. Anyway, it was very sport-driven. There’s a speech with the managers. "We’re a winning team." One of my drafts was called The Winning Team. By accident those elements came together. It’s a small miracle – people from different backgrounds. It couldn’t have worked any other way. It’s like great bands being together. Not great individual players but they worked together as a team.
Are you still getting used to thinking of yourself as a character?
When it’s onstage it’s somebody else.
The scene in which Ray talks about losing his sister and being given the guitar...
That happened out of a workshop. We did a workshop and the scene wasn’t landing. I got Joe [Penhall], my book writer. I sat down and said: “We’ve got to inject what I call expressionism.” I called it utopian speak. I just came out with the lines. Every time I want to write a new song I imagine it’s that one.
Have you ever written that song?
Well there is a cheesy way round this. It could have been "Waterloo Sunset".
The claims of the show suggest that that is the utopian dream.
Well that’s good.
Is it that song for you?
It’s one song cycle. I went on to write other songs. But for that period and everybody’s sensibility, it’s nice to think that that was it. That would work for the piece.
Was the creation of the song quite as much as a peaceful ideal as dramatised in the show?
It’s one of the most wonderful experiences. I don’t want to give away the show. The scene before “Waterloo Sunset” was finessed, it’s not based on reality.
Pete [Quaife] didn’t come back into the band with that walking bass line?
It’s just storytelling, it’s fiction. The reality is the song came to me literally like a dream. The reality was the band didn’t hear the song. I never told them the lyrics anyway because musicians sometimes laugh or snigger. “Terry meets Julie at Waterloo Underground.” And maybe someone in the band says: “Is he going to give her one then?” So I retained as much of the secrecy. We tried it with the piano. We had a piano player at the time, Nicky Hopkins, who was a marvellous player. I did an obit for the New York Times for him. We never got further than the back track. Pete did leave and he came back, not as dramatically in the show, so there is an element of finessing and storytelling rather than reality. And I tried it with acoustic guitar and bass to get the shape because it was a lot of dynamic issues. Did that. Then the next session we did…. We did it at the end of sessions, doing something else. I said: “Can we come back to that song?” I didn’t even have a title for it. Didn’t give them the title. And I said: "Can we do the guitar part?" I taught Dave to do the guitar part, put the part on and got the echo effect. We had not much technology in those days. So the echo effect was put down, not added later. At the end of the next session, I said: “Let’s do the backing vocals.” So it was put on in bits. And then that was of course when I had a cold and I couldn’t wear headphones because I had sinus problems so we did the playback through a speaker in the studio and on The Kinks version, there is a leak, you can hear a bit of spill coming back through the speaker, which gave it an edgy glassy effect. (Pictured below: John Dagleish as Ray Davies in the original cast. Photograph by Bill Knight)
So it was a series of accidents?
No, it was deliberate. I knew if we put it down together there would have been a solo in the middle. I just wanted to put the structure down. It was more structured than in the show. But people going to see the show want to believe it, they don’t want the reality. But in many respects because it comes near the end of the show it has to show the band uniting. And I think that works really well.
Did the uniting of the band feel real or is the show a fairytale, ending on a high? It documents an extraordinary number of travails that you went through to do with relationships, contractual stuff, getting thrown out of America. Does the ending reflect reality? Did the togetherness of the band feel real?
I knew it was a great record. And I didn’t want it to come out.
I thought to myself, it’s a great song, let it lie there. I’m not going to get any royalties for it so there’s no point in doing it for money. I used to invite my family round to hear it. And didn’t want it to come out. It’s one of the most personal songs I’ve written, I think. It’s the perspective of an outsider who is watching the world. Rather than, I want you to be with me all of the time, all day and all of the night. It’s someone who’s reached inside. So it was a difficult song. You couldn’t just slot it in without having a purpose. So we used the device of the band being united.
How did you feel singing it at London 2012?
I didn’t have a chance to think about it. I was concerned. We had problems with the mics. People like Paul McCartney were not hearing their vocals till two seconds after because we had a time delay and I had a problem with my… it’s so trivial... with my set that connected me to my earphones for playback. And they weren’t working. Just about a minute before I went on, I said: “I can’t go on because… can we just wait a bit while we fix this thing?” They said: “We’ve got no time, it’s going out live all over the world.” So they threw me in the cab, and it banged in my pocket. I didn’t know it was going to work till I opened my mouth and sang. Thank God it worked.
Do you feel nerves on such an occasion?
Erm, no I don’t. If I had to do it next week I’d be nervous now, but on the day you don’t feel nervous. I’m nervous all the time so the only time I don’t have nerves is when I’ve got to do my gig. I get nervous sometimes before a take when I’ve got a great song. There is a wonderful outtake of a song, we start playing, I say: “Mick [Avory], for Christ’s sake, don’t wait for me, you have to lead the track.” He usually sits behind the beat, waits for the vocal to land and hits his snare drum. “Will you lead it for once?” He said: “OK, I’ll try my best.” You start the song and it’s “Days”. It’s a wonderful moment and I can’t remember it. They found it in a vault somewhere. It’s all about business when you’re in the studio.
Intriguingly, you haven’t bothered with the drums in the stage version of “Days” or any instrumentation at all.
That’s why I’m so proud of the cast album because the performance is great. I’ve done it like King’s College Choir. And it’s a song of farewell, and it’s about team spirit.
Back to London 2012, it felt like the quintessential London pop song. Was there a part of you that felt proud to be representing the city in this moment where the whole world was watching?
I had some flak from my brother’s family as I always do. "Why was it just you up there?" They said: “Do you know they didn’t ask for the band?” And I think they only asked me... I think more than anything else they wanted the song. They didn’t want me even. It’s nice that I was onstage doing it.
Did they accept that?
Yeah, that’s the truth.
And did you feel proud for London to be represented by that song?
For that moment, yeah. People, unless we’re from London, don’t necessarily know the stories behind the songs, they don’t appreciate it as much. I hope they felt the connection in Singapore.
There is a lovely line early on in the play. "Ray boils at a different temperature."
That is a line we heard somewhere. I don’t think the father really understands Ray so he says he boils at a different temperature. We just heard the line. I think it’s something to do with sport.
Does Ray boil at a different temperature? I’m talking about you now.
Oh, me? I can boil at any temperature.
What kind of pop star are you?
I’m not a pop star. The reality is I’m not.
Were you once?
I don’t think I ever was.
Maybe that’s what the show is partly about.
Dave wants exactitude, he wants precision
Meeting these young teenagers it’s not like X Factor at all. It’s the opposite. Nowadays, if we were starting out they wouldn’t even get on TV, the Kinks. The thing about having my teeth fixed, it’s a real story. I shouldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be the lead singer. Particularly in those days. It’s strange it’s gone full circle because I think the Simon Cowell world is very much the way Larry Page’s world was. You have to look great, have that great look, dress properly, act a certain way. They did try a bit of that with me but it didn’t work.
Another key question of the show is “Why can’t you be happy?” That’s a very exposing thing to put in a show about yourself. Were you content to excavate your feelings?
It’s not an original idea. Judy Garland wasn’t happy.
She didn’t write a show about herself though.
No, that’s true. But I think she improvised it every night. The real show Sunny Afternoon is about depression. What words are repeated? “Help me, help me… Save me save me… I’m going under.” Why can’t you be happy? Because the realities around you offer a different set of circumstances. The happiest moment I ever had was making it back to Madison Square Gardens. My book Americana goes through that process. It took just over 10 years to make it to Madison Square Gardens. After this show I said to the guys, this was in 1981: “Just think about this, this is the best night of our lives. So we made it, we came back.” I also said to the drummer, he played like shit. No, he played great. Everyone was on.
Were you victims of an injustice being banned in the States?
The show has toned it down a bit. We didn’t commit anything bad. We were just ourselves. We didn’t pander. And it was a total shock when we were prevented from going to America.
Were you victims of an injustice then? The father says: “Only the socialist musicians get kicked out by the unions.”
It’s a smartarse way of saying... It works for this version. The reality is we were treated unfairly. Of course there is no court of appeal. If they said "You’re not getting a visa", that’s it, you can’t work here. It took three and a half years to get back.
Have you always been a theatregoer?
I’m not an avid luvvie, but my great friend Ned Sherrin and I used to talk about theatre a lot and I went to theatre study. I did Sean O’Casey. I’ve got my theatrical heroes.
Who are they?
People like Sean O’Casey. I love Private Lives. I saw the first production of Sweeney Todd when I used to live in New York.
That’s a speech of the man manipulating me trying to write a song. I’ve got a Novello Award.
Do you feel as if you belong in that tradition?
It's written as a wind-up to get this man to give him a song. As for songwriting, I’m flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as those people, but obviously I’m not. But I’m me, and I can’t be any better or any worse. That was for the scene. I remember somebody said, when we had a first number one, we went into an office in Denmark Street, somebody said: “Our pop aristocracy have just walked in.” I thought: “How crap. Last week they wouldn’t even let me in the room.” It’s a bit of flattery to get the character to actually come on board.
You were subject to that flattery?
I think every new artist is. Anybody who wants anything from somebody else will do that. It’s nothing to do with music.
Have the surviving Kinks been to see it?
Dave had his opinions and it was dealt with. Mick came to the show. We cut a scene about him being a lazy wanker drummer and he said: “I’ve got a problem with that. I want it back in.” I think one of the problems with my brother and him is I got very close as a friend to Mick. He didn’t take Dave’s place, but Mick and I have always been very friendly, he was very amicable. And I can talk through issues with him. In the bad days when we were trying to make our way back he’d stay at the studio and sleep on the couch while I did the mixes. He’s a true band member.
How about the "You Really Got Me" riff?
It’s getting the sound, slashing the speakers. I poked the speakers with a knitting needle. I don’t remember Dave doing it, but he slashed it with a razor. That was the only issue he had. It’s a staging issue. Nothing to do with anything else. But everybody is going to have another take. It’s not a documentary, it’s a piece of theatre.
I’m sorry to ask the next question, but…
Is there no answer to the question?
There is no answer. Is there any answer to the question? I don’t know. I really can’t play with my brother as that name, the Kinks, and not have Mick in. Mick will work with him, but Dave doesn’t want to work with Mick. I have no idea! Sibling rivalry is nothing on their rivalry. I have no idea what’s wrong with them. But Mick is very affable.
And it’s insuperable, is it?
The reasons for it have become so complex. I do these writing seminars and I could get together with a guy playing washboard and stand-up bass and a saxophone player and I can make some music out of it. I can work with anybody. What Dave forgets is... We had a record - "Come Dancing" - and Mick comes in a beat behind everybody else and makes it sound so beautiful. Dave wants exactitude, he wants precision. You don’t get that from Mick. You get the pleasant happy surprise. It’s a difference in the way we approach what we do.
So he put up with him behind the beat for 20 years?
He wasn’t always behind the beat. We did a disco record called “I Wish I Could Fly Like Superman”. And Mick played on the beat. I stood next to him while he played for an hour’s worth of recording. In my book I described the feeling of doing that with him. He sticks in a fill that at the time there were only two drummers in the world that had the expertise and the background to do it and they were Mick and Charlie Watts. Mick is more in the style of Charlie Watts than, say, Keith Moon.
There are lots of lovely references to other bands in the show.
That’s a nod. “You wouldn’t get John Lennon sleeping all day in bed with his wife.” Those are endless and tongue-in-cheek.
It makes it sound like you all knew each other. Did you?
The bands? There was an element of camaraderie. Remember, it was a time of amazing experimentation because technology was not digitised. There is a song I didn’t put in the show called “Autumn Almanack”. I reversed the tape, I did a reversal melody and stuck it in as a bridge. That’s experimentation. I know the Beatles always got the Kinks single when it came out. When “See My Friends” came out Paul McCartney bought it or John Lennon bought it. I think we were aware we were all involved in something very unique, a unique time. I wouldn’t get together with John Lennon and say: “What you doing now?” “Oh, I’ve got this song called ‘Help’.”
You both had songs about the taxman.
Yeah, but mine came first. They did have a song called “Taxman” that came out a year after. They were complaining they had to pay tax. We were complaining because we had no money at all.
It’s on one level the best show ever written about contracts. I’m saying that lightly. It’s a story about overcoming some real problems.
I said to Joe: “You’ve got to keep this piece of paper moving all through the show. A piece of paper moves to another piece of paper.” A piece of paper with your name on it. You sign one piece of paper to get rid of another piece of paper. That was uppermost in my mind. “Money-Go-Round” is about a piece they sign to get rid of a problem. It’s about passing on difficulty. I think that comes through subliminally in the show.
It wasn’t all hell, was it? The show depicts some heavenly moments of musical inspiration.
Sure, it wasn’t all hell and I don’t think in the show it comes through as all hell. There is a wonderful moment when Larry the manager … There is a fulfilling moment in the existing show when he says: “What’s in your head?” and it just cuts to "You Really Got Me" being number one. And they play it. And it’s a very uplifting moment. And it wasn’t until he had a moment of euphoria that my character realises, hell, I’ve got to do this now and they’re expecting me to deliver. And he says to his mum and dad: "I can’t do this. I don’t want to be on television. I’ve seen myself on television and I’m not as pretty as I should be." I had a bit of a hang-up because everybody wanted to change the way I looked. I’m just the way I am. The euphoria is in the work. Going back to the Beatles - it was in my original draft, it’s been cut from this version - we were supporting the Beatles in Bournemouth or Liverpool or somewhere. People were shouting, “We want the Beatles, we want the Beatles.” When the curtain was down John came up to me and said: “Don’t worry about it, if you run out of songs to play we’ll lend you some of ours." And the curtain went up and I said: “I don’t need any of your fucking songs.” We played “You Really Got Me” and they were with us. That was a moment of euphoria. But the real euphoria is when you know you’ve found your audience, like we did at Madison Square Gardens.
Have you found another audience?
Even people who know the music say they want to find out more. What’s happened behind the music is very important. I think people coming to the show who don’t know the band are very interested and fulfilled at the end of it. It’s not a history lesson, but it’s part of our common shared history. To me it comes together. The reason why I thought of making “Sunny Afternoon” into a musical is that magical time when Britain actually seemed to have reached its peak when we won the World Cup. Geoff Hurst gave us our music hall of fame at Alexandra Palace. The greatest thing I’ve ever heard is “When we won the World Cup in 1966 we listened to the Kinks.” That’s what he said in his speech. I was so touched by that.
Is it also a memory piece about a lost England and a lost London?
When I was writing those songs I already knew it was over. I used to write for an older generation. I was 22 when I wrote “Sunny Afternoon” the song and I was writing it for my dad’s generation. The two characters in "Waterloo Sunset" are my sisters and their generation, and they are a generation older than I am. So I was writing for other people. You see that emerge in this piece, if you want to call it that.
Have your sisters seen it?
A couple have.
Do they recognise themselves?
Again it’s not a documentary. It was more the case with Come Dancing because Come Dancing was based on the sister that died. She is a central characters. They were more interested in that. And I had to change a couple of names: the Gwen character, the Renee character.
Do they feel like rough approximations of your parents?
Again it’s going back to the actors. I said: “Just watch me in rehearsals, watch my body language and the way I speak.” They all asked, but I said: “Go from the page and interpretation rather than impersonation because you’ll never get the reality.” My mum was a bit of mystic. We’ve got no time for that. This is based on an original story which is semi-based on reality. I think all the signposts of actuality have been hit, but obviously you can’t have everybody’s quirks and foibles and characteristics. Sean O’Casey could do it. I did the design for one of his plays when I was a student and the lights blew up. I said to my teacher, “I’m leaving art college” – it was a theatre course – “to do music.” He said: “One day you’re going to come back.” I didn’t know what he meant.
Is there a song of yours that expresses who you are to perfection?
When I knew the show was going to be produced after I’d written the script, I looked at an old clip of “Sunny Afternoon” on Top of the Pops. I’m wearing a black polo neck. I was so resistant to doing it. I think every emotion I was going through – I was happy, I was a new parent, I had one child, and I was not living badly but had no money. Every emotion comes through in that song. It’s very close to being me. That performance – I looked at it and it spoke across the years. This is what we were. Every emotion, every inflection. I’ve sung that song and heard that record so many times over the years. If you listen to it, if there is a barometer to read emotions within lines like “Help me, save me, but I love to live so pleasantly” – there’s nothing. I think it’s very much like me. It makes one realise all those songs were character studies. I was a character writer in those days. And a lot of me comes through in the songs. But without those wonderful characters around me, I wouldn’t have had subject matter. Samuel Pepys, that’s what they used to call me.
I’m going to stop there.
- Sunny Afternoon: The Very Best of the Kinks is released on 16 October
- Sunny Afternoon is at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End until 16 April 2016
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