Ray Davies: Americana (Virgin)
The new book by one of rock’s most complex, unpredictable yet totally gifted performers, is subtitled The Kinks, The Road and The Perfect Riff and documents Ray Davies’s endless quest for solutions to the challenges that his personal and creative life pose for him. It also does an excellent job of highlighting the similarities and differences that characterise the relationship between Britain and America. Dave Jennings gives Louder Than War his verdict.
This is the second book written by Ray Davies, following on from 1994’s ‘unauthorised autobiography’ X-Ray. This was written in the unusual format of a young narrator interviewing a Davies who was imagined as being much older than he actually was and wary of a corporate conspiracy against him. It was unorthodox, imaginative and fascinating, much like Ray Davies himself. It may be a cliché to refer to him in the title of one of his earlier songs, but Ray Davies really is Not Like Everybody Else.
Americana chronicles Davies’s life long fascination with the culture and music of America and the impact it has had on his life. Characteristically, it is also an enigmatic document of the bittersweet relationship that he has enjoyed and endured with the United States. Unsurprisingly, it also fails to offer a definitive answer as to why The Kinks were banned from the US in 1965 for almost 5 years at the height of their success and which led to the band having to rebuild their career and reputation when it was finally rescinded. That they were able to do so, and become regular stadium fillers in the US is a testament to the enduring resilience of the band.
‘Quintessentially English’ is a phrase that has been used to describe The Kinks and it’s undeniable that few bands have captured the often mundane realities of life on this island better than them. Ray Davies is the sharpest of observational writers and has the ability to create characters that fit into storylines that are often deceptively intricate as exemplified on The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur and Muswell Hillbillies among others. However, during his formative years, Davies was influenced by a wide of music from music hall, through rock’n’roll to Blues legends Howlin Wolf and Big Bill Broonzy and somewhere in here lays the essence of The Kinks. Of course they were an English band but the reality of their music and influence is way beyond the twee swinging sixties label that may be used to file them for convenience. Indeed, the recently remastered Muswell Hillbillies perfectly captures the enigma of the band with its lyrical inspiration being drawn from the extended Davies family circle and their North London manor, but with music that includes music hall and American folk and country influences. It’s an album that will enhance any record collection. This book, with the sleeve jacket depicting a much younger Ray Davies apparently clad in a combination of the US and British flags, is a maze-like testament of his attempts to reconcile his mixed feelings about both countries.
Americana was never going to be a simple or structured narrative or a chronological documentation of Ray Davies’s dealings with America. Instead, it uses the death of Labour leader John Smith in 1994 as a curious starting point, but one that makes perfect sense as we see the rise of Tony Blair’s New Labour alongside Britpop with music “that seem to have been crafted by the same PR people as Tony Blair’s spin doctors.” Becoming increasingly estranged from his homeland, Davies returns to America and finds himself drawn to The Big Easy, New Orleans, possibly due to his childhood love of Big Bill Broonzy. The musical heritage of this city is legendary but there is another, more disturbing reason why the narrative keeps returning to New Orleans throughout the book which is this is the scene of Ray Davies’s shooting by armed robbers in 2004. Unsurprisingly this event and the subsequent time in hospital casts a long shadow that he wrestles with alongside his attempts to rationalise the musical and cultural influence of America on him and his music.
A personal consideration on approaching Americana was how much of himself Ray Davies would actually reveal as he has previously admitted that he finds writing about other characters, fictional or real, much easier than writing about himself. His previous work X-Ray, hugely enjoyable as it is to read, can seem a little ambiguous in places. Not so in Americana where Davies relates personal issues that cannot have come easily alongside a kaleidoscope of characters from both within and outside the music business. At one stage he finds himself in a car dangling perilously over an Irish cliff top one Christmas Night due to a determination to continue a transatlantic argument by mobile phone whilst struggling to get a signal. At another, we read of his determination to set up an exchange between high schools in New Orleans and North London in order to enrich the musical knowledge and appreciation of students from both cities. An effective contrast that captures the difficulties with personal relationships Davies has long endured whilst continually striving for innovation.
Having been in the music business for fifty years, there is no shortage of stories to relate and the legendary Ray Davies humour is never far away. It is easy to imagine that famous gap toothed grin as he relates the tale of how he chose to ignore a prone Mick Avory who reached out his arm while being stretchered out of a club where Davies was meeting record company executives. Complementing these is a chapter of diary extracts from a US tour in 1977 that reveals a range of aspects of Davies’s life at the time such as the enduring tension within The Kinks to his opinion on Star Wars (didn’t like it as the music was too pretentious). Hidden within these entries however is perhaps the greatest triumph of Ray Davies and his band, namely the resurrection of a career in America that had been all but killed off in the mid 60’s when others like the Stones and The Who made hay. Most bands only get one chance if they are lucky, but The Kinks broke through again riding on the back of nothing more than talent, going on to claim the success that should have been theirs originally.
America has certainly left its mark on Ray Davies physically, emotionally and culturally and Americana is an authentic testament to the power the country clearly wields over him. For fifty years Ray Davies has been at the cutting edge of rock music innovation so any work that can shed light on his influences and creative style is to be welcomed. This book does that and so much more and takes us as far into the psyche of the legend as we are ever likely to get.
All words by Dave Jennings. More of Dave’s writing on Louder Than War can be found in his author archive. He is also on Twitter @blackfoxwrexham