Q&A With Ray Davies

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In light of his overwhelming back catalog of songs that can stop people dead in their tracks, Ray Davies must be considered in the same breath as Lennon/McCartney, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend and Jagger/Richards as the preeminent songwriters of the ’60s rock revolution. Davies refused to Americanize his sound like all the rest, remaining true to his “pint of bitter, 20 Benson & Hedges and a packet of crisps” English roots. And no Kinks album better voices that traditional spirit than The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, a record that sold poorly when released in 1968 but is now appreciated every bit as much as Something Else, Face To Face, Arthur and Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround as the gold standard of Kinks klassics. Davies has even breathed new life into Village Green with The Kinks Choral Collection (Decca), newly recorded versions of Kinks gems backed by the Crouch End Festival Chorus. Davies spoke to MAGNET from a tour stop in Albany, N.Y., just before he was whisked off to rehearsal and sound check. Davies will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all this week.

For more on Davies and the Kinks, read our 2008 Davies Q&A conducted by Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan; our list of the 20 best Kinks songs compiled by members of the Pixies, Spoon, Of Montreal, the Wrens, Okkervil River and others; our Q&A with Kinks guitarist (and Ray’s younger brother) Dave; and our list of the 10 most overlooked Kinks songs.

The Kinks Choral Collection‘s “Celluloid Heroes” (download):

MAGNET: I saw you play the Warfield a couple weeks ago in San Francisco with what must have been 25 voices in the choir. That must be a powerful feeling, standing in front of that huge sound.
Davies: No, I think we had 40 voices at the Warfield. Yeah, it felt really good. It’s very energizing.

Have you had this idea for some time?
I did a choral piece about 10 years ago, all new music. It’s called Flatlands, commissioned for the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, which is in East Anglia, the eastern part of England. I had 100 voices and a small symphony orchestra. I thought it would be nice to try and incorporate it with rock music. Not out on record yet, it’s a work in progress. I’m gonna try to get my teeth into that when I get some spare time.

Were you influenced at all by the choral intro to the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”?
No, not really. That came as an afterthought. No, it purely came from doing the commission I did. It’s a little bit more elaborate than just singing a chorus.

Are you still jogging around Waterlow Park and Highgate Cemetery?
I jog, but not as much since I hurt my leg (from a 2004 gunshot wound in New Orleans). But I work out. As long as I keep working out, the leg is doing well.

Something I meant to ask you in past chats: Are Terry and Julie from “Waterloo Sunset” really Terence Stamp and Julie Christie from the film Far From The Madding Crowd?
No, they weren’t. But if I’d made a movie, I would have cast them. They were a combination of my sisters and partly me and my first girlfriend who walked along the river. But they’re fantasy characters. Those two characters represented all the optimism that was around in the ’60s.

I was at the Fillmore West in 1969 when the Kinks finally returned to tour America. I remember you played most of The Village Green Preservation Society album.
We played a lot of it, yeah. I remember that people sat down on the floor to listen to us. At Fillmore East, they sat down on seats. I miss Bill Graham very much whenever I go to San Francisco. I think Bill Graham is responsible for resurrecting American music after the British Invasion. Bill really pulled it all together. A great loss.

It was an odd bill. You were supported by Sha Na Na.
I seem to remember we played the Jimi Hendrix version of the English national anthem and made everyone stand up. And most of the people in the audience couldn’t stand up. They could barely walk. Yep, Sha Na Na and also Taj Mahal with Jesse Davis on guitar. They were great shows. I loved them very much.

I thought I heard you say in the middle of “Autumn Almanac” at the Warfield, “Can you believe this shit?” What was that all about?
“Can you understand what I’m singing about?” basically. Because a lot of references in my songs are purely English. I just wondered if they understood. But the audience seemed to revel in it and loved it. I was just concerned that I’d started something that I couldn’t finish.

Your work needs no subtitles for those who truly love it. We get it. Another remark you made was hard to hear, but I think you said “See My Friends” came from a trip to India. Is that right?
Well, I can’t remember exactly who they were, but they were fishermen singing as they went to work early in the morning. They were chanting. It’s a general thing, men going to work, singing as a way to lift their spirits. And that stayed with me. Then I thought of my own chant and wrote the song “See My Friends.” I was only in India for a couple days. I was en route to Australia.

Once again, live, you’ve lopped off my favorite chorus from “Celluloid Heroes”: “If you covered him with garbage, George Sanders would still have style/And if you stamped on Mickey Rooney, he would still turn round and smile/But please don’t tread on dearest Marilyn, because she’s not very tough/She should have been made of iron or steel, but she was only made of flesh and blood.”
Yep, you know, we must get round to singing that. I keep meaning to do that, with that bit about Marilyn Monroe. I’ll try and do that tonight, actually. Thanks for reminding me.

Have you seen Happy-Go-Lucky with Sally Hawkins? You should check it out. She won a Golden Globe for it.
No, what’s that about?

She plays a permanently glass-half-full school teacher who takes driving lessons from the crabbiest guy in town. It’s right up your alley. One last question, the usual one: How about a Kinks reunion?
Dave is doing a few dates in the new year. We’ll see how he feels after that, and then we’ll talk about it.

—Jud Cost

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