Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 235 from March 24, 1977. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
After three years of theatrical experimentation, vocalist Ray Davies and the Kinks (drummer Mick Avory, guitarist Dave Davies, bassist Andy Pyle and John Gosling on keyboards) have returned to what Davies calls "just a batch of songs." The band's revised approach to music is being backed up with a new label (Arista), their first album in a year and a half ('Sleepwalker') and a ten-city American tour, playing mostly middle-sized halls, culminating in a February 26th television appearance on NBC's 'Saturday Night.' Then, according to Davies, the group will return to England for a short while, come back to America to start recording their next album, and begin another American tour sometime in March.
The Kinks' return to "just songs" seemed inevitable. Their popularity had waned during the past three years while they experimented with concept albums/shows — 'Preservation,' 'Soap Opera' and 'Schoolboys in Disgrace.' Yet Davies says that there wouldn't be a Kinks today had it not been for the changes forced on the band by those three shows: "Being in a band is like living with someone for a long time," he told the 'Los Angeles Times.' "They become invisible, you don't talk to them, you rely on telepathy. That's how it got with us. They had a reputation for being a bit sloppy onstage and it made them tighten up. We all needed to do something different."
Though the shows may have helped the Kinks stay together, Davies also admits they came close to breaking up the band. "There was a lot of conflict in the shows we did, from my brother [Dave Davies] first of all; because he likes to play rock & roll and he likes to play loud." There was also tension between RCA and the band because of the concept albums: "When we went there," Davies admits, "they thought they were buying people from 1965, and I wanted to go on and change."
As one change led to another, the Kinks left RCA and, in what Davies called his only decision of 1976, moved to Arista Records. "Anyone I've talked to at Arista, I've told them I was not going to do a show, just an album," he says of the move. "It's good, because we haven't used any extra people, just the basic band. And it's good. 'Soap Opera' was bigger than the Kinks. The show was the thing and we were just the players. Now we want to be seen as the band and play the music, which is understandable."
"By choice, I think I've been a bit of an outsider from rock & roll," says Ray Davies, quietly ordering up a hot chocolate from room service. "In the last five years I've tried to go out and talk to people, and because I've done that, my songs have gotten more withdrawn. I think I'm going on a level now — compromising and bouncing in and out — so I think the two are going to come together.
"But I'll always have to work. I'll never be a rich person. I'll always have something that I'm unhappy about. I don't think I'm going to be happy."
Davies is proud of the band's accomplishments, and apprehensively hopeful about the future. But spending an hour with him is like trying to unravel a knot of philosophical paradoxes bound all the more tightly because its creator is so willing to help. He has been in the trenches too long not to be a master at mixing sincerity with evasiveness. Well dressed in a brown suit and bright red sweater, he seems to drift about the room even while he is sitting still.
"Total freedom has always sort of held me back, in a way," Davies continues, "because I've got nothing to fight against. I wouldn't have finished Sleepwalker if I hadn't given myself a deadline. Then, I had to finish it, whether I liked it or not. If I hadn't had this deadline, I probably wouldn't have put out an album in '77.
"When you produce your own stuff and you write it as well, it becomes like a mountain. I'd really like to be the kind of temperamental artist that storms into the studio and storms out, does a tantrum, sings his vocal and goes home. That's a real luxury. But even if I did that, I'd sneak back in and listen to the rough mix."
Ray Davies has written about 30 songs since his last album, Schoolboys in Disgrace, was released by RCA Victor in November 1975. (About that label, he says: "They've had clocks and things on the moon. They've got parts of rocket ships. What do they want to know about Preservation Act?") Of the 30 songs, the Kinks recorded 20, then selected nine for Sleepwalker. Seven of those were edited down from an average length of seven minutes: "I overdid things because I like space," explains Davies, adding that although Sleepwalker is "just a collection of songs with no unifying thread," there was no pressure from Arista to have it come out that way.
While he would probably deny it, Davies seems hurt by the relative lack of interest in his LP-length narrative material. He pays lip service to the notion that he's taken his concept of the concept album as far as it can go ("I'm telling stories in three or four minutes now — that's a bit of discipline, a change of style"), but his eyes light up whenever Soap Opera is mentioned — and he mentions it often. He appears to be particularly fond of the lead character, Norman ("It was me onstage, pretending to be a man called Norman, who was pretending to be me") and speaks constantly, as would an actor, about the need to weld live performance to specific characters. Music doesn't seem to be enough anymore.
Although he writes very little while the band is on the road, Davies regards touring as something fundamental to the creative process: "I think it's essential. You've got to feel an audience. Otherwise, if I'm not going to write songs for an audience, who am I writing for? I'm not writing for the microphone or the studio. You start talking to your tape recorder. You do things like composing music for a desk or a console.
"TV's a good thing. Sometimes after I've written a new song, I'll listen to it and look at the TV with its sound turned down. Somehow, the things that really work go with any images on the screen — anything that's happening will fit the music somehow." But there is a darker side.
"Going back to what we were saying about freedom — to get it, you've got to hate something. When I stop hating, that's probably when I'll stop writing songs. It's a horrible thing to admit — you can call it unpleasantness, you can call it indigestion — but in the end, it comes out as hate. Sometimes, I'd just like to get songs out of my system, regardless of whether or not they're good."
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