As chief songwriter and vocalist for the Kinks, Ray Davies wielded considerable influence over a generation of musicians who drew inspiration from his early bursts of youthful exuberance like "You Really Got Me" and "Lola," as well as his later, more wistful tributes to times gone by, including "Celluloid Heroes" and "Come Dancing." Though the Kinks never reached the heights of fame as contemporaries like the Beatles or Stones, fans held up Davies' wry, literate songs as some of the best English pop and rock of the postwar era. Following their initial success in the early '60s, the Kinks hit their artistic stride at the end of the decade with The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968), a lovely reminiscence of English country life as it faded into the past. Davies would follow this success with a string of highly theatrical albums before returning to the three-chord rock of the Kinks' early days for a string of '80s hits like "Catch Me Now I'm Falling" before long-simmering tensions between Davies and his brother and bandmate spurred the Kinks to call it quits in 1995. Davies then embarked on a well-regarded solo career that included reworkings of his past catalog on The Kinks Choral Collection (2009) and See My Friends (2011). Throughout the course of his career, Davies' best work influenced virtually all music movements, making him one of the most invaluable figures in the history of the medium.
Raymond Douglas Davies was born in the North London suburb of Muswell Hill in England on June 21, 1944. He was the seventh of eight children, including his younger brother, Dave, born to Fred and Annie Davies, who introduced their children to a wide variety of musical styles through weekly nightlong parties they held on Saturday nights in their home. There, Davies and his brother had their first tastes of English music hall songs, as well as jazz, blues and early rock-n-roll. In 1957, he received his first guitar and began playing shows with his brother just three years later. They formed The Ray Davies Quartet in 1961 with drummer John Start and Pete Quaife, a classmate of Ray's from the William Grimshaw Secondary School. For a very brief period of time, another classmate, Rod Stewart, performed with the group before joining a rival band, the Moontrekkers. The quartet went on hiatus in 1962 while Davies immersed himself in a variety of studies at the Hornsey Art School and later Croydon Art School, but reunited in 1963 under a variety of names, including the Ramrods, Boll Weevils, and Ravens before settling on the Kinks, a moniker that Davies disliked.
American producer Shel Talmy, who would later oversee many of the Who's early hits, brokered a contract for the Kinks with Pye Records, which released their first single, a cover of "Long Tall Sally" in 1964. The record stalled at No. 42 on the U.K. singles charts, while its follow-up, "You Still Want Me," failed to chart at all. The Kinks were on the verge of losing their contract with Pye when their third single, the Davies-penned "You Really Got Me" was released in the summer of 1964. A concentrated two-minute burst of teenage lust and aggression on full blast, the song shot to the top of the U.K. charts on the strength of its ferocious, distorted guitar riff, which was achieved by Dave Davies slicing a hole in the speaker cone of his amp. Its success minted Ray Davies as the de facto leader of the Kinks, a position he would maintain for much of the next three decades. He continued to produce Top 10 hits for the group throughout 1964, including "Set Me Free," the pensive, chart-topping "Tired of Waiting for You" and "All Day and All of the Night." The Kinks soon found themselves on a high-profile package tour of Australia and New Zealand with fellow up-and-coming British rockers The Yardbirds.
But tensions within the group pulled the group out of contention for international stardom almost as soon as they began their ascent. Open brawling between members on stage led to a ban on the group from performing in the United States by the American Federation of Musicians, which had a deleterious effect on their profile in America. Unable to promote their music through concerts, the Kinks' singles dropped off the Billboard chart. But while the ban effectively kept the band from achieving the same level of fame as the Beatles or Rolling Stones, it granted Ray Davies a degree of freedom in his songwriting to focus on subjects outside of the usual pop material. "See My Friends" (1965) predated the Beatles as the first Western pop song to incorporate Indian musical elements, while "Well Respected Man" and "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" saw Davies move away from the thunderous rock-n-roll of "You Really Got Me" towards a more nuanced style of writing that emphasized social commentary, humor and a distinctly English sensibility. By 1966, they were topping the charts again in their native country with "Sunny Afternoon," which underscored one of Davies' favorite themes: a bittersweet longing for a less complicated life.
The pressure of maintaining such quality songwriting while enduring the endless squabbling between his bandmates took its toll on Davies in 1966 when he suffered a nervous breakdown. He used his recovery time to write new material and consider the band's future. When the Kinks reconvened in late 1966, their first single, "Dead End Street," was a pointed criticism of English class structure, placing them even further from their R&B roots. Again, it reached the Top 10 in the U.K., but only No. 73 in America. Its immediate follow-up, "Waterloo Sunset," was one of Davies' greatest musical achievements, an achingly gorgeous tone poem about lovers entering the famed Waterloo Station underground terminal as the narrator reflected on the contentment of his simple existence. It reached No. 2 on the Melody Makers chart, and became one of the band's most admired songs. But it also marked the end of the Kinks' reign on the English charts. Their 1967 single "Autumn Almanac" drew criticism from the British press for sounding too similar to Davies' previous efforts, and subsequent releases dropped quickly from the charts. But instead of shifting his focus to more pop-friendly material, Davies dug in his heels and began work on a record called Village Green, which would explore in even greater depth the fading traditions of English life.
Village Green became The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968), which was later credited as one of the crowing achievements of their careers. A wistful remembrance of English country life, the record earned near-universal praise from critics, but failed to reverse their fortunes on the U.K. charts. Oddly enough, it revived some interest in the band in America, where the underground press hailed its unique vision, unburdened by popular trends. Davies brokered an end to the American Federation of Musicians' ban in 1969, which set the stage for a major North American tour to promote their next album, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (1969), which featured the ebullient "Victoria." Originally planned as the score for a television drama, it focused on the Davies' childhood during the end of World War II and in particular, on their older sister Rosie, who migrated to Australia with her husband in the early 1960s. But the Kinks found relatively few American audiences interested in their distinctly English song cycle, and the tour was deemed a failure.
The Kinks roared back to the charts briefly with "Lola," a rollicking 1970 single about an unwitting romantic encounter with a transvestite that became one of the band's trademark songs, boosting the accompanying album, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround (1970) to the Top 40 on the album charts in the U.S. and spurring a new five-album contract with RCA Records. The Kinks' initial efforts for their new label, all recorded at their new studio, Konk, were critically well received but continued to place in the lower depths of the charts; the calypso-themed "Supersonic Rocket Ship" (1972) would be their last U.K. Top 20 hit for over a decade. Undaunted, Davies delved deeply into theatrical material for Preservation Act One (1973) and Preservation Act Two (1974), which further explored the themes from Village Green. As before, it performed only modestly well, but the band's live shows, which had expanded to feature actors, a horn section and backing singers, made them a top concert draw. However, at the height of this period, Davies was undergoing a painful separation from his wife, Rasa, who left him with their children on his birthday in 1973. Davies collapsed after an expletive-laded tirade on stage in London, after which he was hospitalized in critical condition.
Davies eventually recovered and began work on a musical production for Granada Television called "Starmaker" (ITV, 1974), about a rock star that traded places with an average citizen. The story also provided the backbone for the Kinks' next album, The Kinks Present a Soap Opera (1974), which led to a lengthy tour through 1975. Their final theater rock effort, School Boys in Disgrace (1975), took the English educational system to task in its origin story for Mr. Flash, the anti-hero of Preservation. The following year, the Kinks left RCA for Arista, which marked their return to more straightforward rock material. The new approach generated a slew of hits for the band, from the nostalgic "Come Dancing" (1982), their highest-charting single in the U.S. since "Tired of Waiting for You," to the more cynical "Catch Me Now I'm Falling" and "Do It Again," the band's last entry on the Billboard Hot 100. Following the release of Word of Mouth, their final album for Arista, Davies released a solo album, Return to Waterloo, a soundtrack album for a hour-long musical film he wrote and directed. His devotion to the project, as well as a stormy relationship with Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde, pulled his attention away from the Kinks, sparking new tensions with his brother.
The Kinks signed with MCA Records in 1986, but the results were less than spectacular, with only Think Visual (1986) reaching the Billboard 200. They were soon dropped by the label, which marked the beginning of the Kinks' decline in the 1990s. Their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 did nothing to revive interest in their careers, and tenure with Columbia Records resulted in several largely overlooked records before the label also dropped them from their roster. The band launched their own imprint, Konk, in 1994, but album sales continued to plummet. Following the publication of Davies' autobiography, X-Ray in 1995, the Kinks performed their last public performance at the site of the Clissold Arms pub, located directly across from their childhood home in Fortis Green, and where the band gave their first concert in the early 1960s.
In the wake of the Kinks' split, Davies launched a series of well-regarded solo projects. Following the release of X-Ray, he promoted the book through a series of concerts he called "Storyteller," in which he played Kinks songs while reading from his book and telling anecdotes about his career in music. He later filmed one of these shows for VH1, which in turn launched a series of intimate concerts with other musicians under this same title (VH1, 1996- ), as well as a new book and album, also titled Storyteller, in 1998. Davies was appointed a Commander of the British Empire in 2004, shortly before Other People's Lives, a full-length album of new songs, appeared in 2006, which reached the Top 40 in the U.K. but only No. 122 on the American charts. Its follow-up, Working Man's Café (2008), featured a 20-minute short film directed by Davies that featured footage from a 2001 Storyteller tour. In 2009, he released The Kinks Choral Collection, which featured new versions of classic songs from his band's catalog recorded with the Crouch End Festival Chorus. It reached No. 28 on the U.K. charts, and spawned a 2009 reissue which featured the Christmas single "Postcard from London," a duet with former girlfriend Chrissie Hynde.
A performance with Metallica on "All Day and All of the Night" at the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concert prompted Davies to release See My Friends (2010), which again featured new versions of classic Kinks songs, this time recorded with fellow superstars like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Corgan, Jon Bon Jovi and Jackson Browne. After a brief 2011 health scare involving blood clots in his lungs, Davies was appointed curator of the 2011 Meltdown Festival in London, at which he performed The Village Green Preservation Society with the London Philharmonic. Throughout the '90s and new millennium, Davies repeatedly fielded requests for a Kinks reunion, which were invariably quashed by his brother Dave. The death of Pete Quaife in 2010 and Dave Davies' recovery from a 2004 stroke also made a full-fledged reunion impossible, but overtures from each brother were still being made as late as 2011.
By Paul Gaita