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Q&A: Afternoon Tea With Ray Davies

The Kinks’ singer on his affinity for surfers, sunsets, and his few and far between poetic influences.

Ray Davies, The Kinks

Ray Davies

Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“The world keeps going ’round,” Ray Davies once sang, and every once in a while you hear the Kinks and wonder where they’ve been. Ray Davies used to write gutsy songs about not sleeping at night and getting tired waiting. His directness led him down a quiet and lonesome path that most people turned off as the world turned on. With the release of the Kinks’ eighth album, Arthur, you might feel like catching up.

Many of Ray Davies’ songs have set me thinking of the Taoist saint who fished with a pin and a single silk filament. The man caught multitudes of fish because he was perfectly attuned to—contemplating and participating in— – the endless flowing. The means of Ray Davies’ songs are small – —like the persons he sings about— – but the effect is that of a small and quiet radiance that would seem to belie the songs’ subjects but which in fact light them up from the inside. “Sunny Afternoon,” “Waterloo Sunset,” or “Sitting by the Riverside” suggest the world of T’ang Chinese poets conversing and drinking wine by moonlight or, closer to home, the streams and meadows of Izaak Walton’s angler.

This clarity and directness of feeling imbues even Ray Davies’ perceptions of the inhabitants of Dead End Street and suburban England – —the anonymous losers of anybody’s political program. Thus Arthur, the anti-hero of the new Kinks opera, lies on the opposite side of that musical coin where the Who’s Tommy is heads. But together, these two characters not only define English life now but also present a composite awareness of successful and failed attempt at self-realization.

Afternoon tea with Ray Davies took place in the garden restaurant (a converted carriage house) of Kenwood Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath. The setting might have been a Kinks song: gray-lit cool autumn afternoon; children playing, old persons sitting. Signs on the grass positively read: Please Step On The Paths. And in the toilet, a little boy sang cheerily “I Like you, daddy,” as his embarrassed father outside muttered: “Get a move on.” As Chekhov once said, almost defining Ray Davies’ method, “I imagine people so they can tell me things about themselves.”

After tea, we continued the interview on a bench on the heath, and just as Ray Davies was mentioning how he thought people hated the Kinks, the cassette machine broke down. On playback, you heard a sped-up Donald Duck voice augmented by the sounds of a squadron of fighter planes reaching an explosion: then silence, as if the loosing of the apocalyptic beast had terminated the interview, even though Ray Davies and I continued to talk, tapes turning, microphones registering.

We concluded our conversation a couple of days later amidst the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

Before your first hit, “You Really Got Me,” you recorded “Long Tall Sally” and “You Do Something to Me,” the second of which sold something like 127 copies. Really? Fantastic. How did you know that?

I checked it out. Then it must be true…I was an art student, like thousands of others. Then I got together with my brother and a friend and we decided to go and play dates. The more we played, the more we wanted to do it. And it got to a stage when we wanted to do it all the time. Our repertoire consisted of rhythm and and blues, Sonny Terry things.

For a while when you started, the Kinks were listened to as much as the Beatles and Stones. No, we weren’t, never. ‘Cause I think we were more unpopular than they were. In the States, our old image is still lasting, since the last time we went there that’s what they remember us doing— – the heavy things, the chunk chunk things, you couldn’t really miss it. Those three chords were part of my life— – G, F, Bb – —yeh, it is, and I can’t help noticing it. But there have been other things nearly as close to it which people haven’t noticed, other songs we’ve done.

“See My Friends (Playing Cross the River)” moves from those chords to something closer to an Indian drone. I got the idea from being in India. I always liked the chanting. Someone once said to me, “England is gray and India is like a chant.” I don’t think England is that gray, but India is like a long drone. When I wrote the song, I had the sea near Bombay in mind. We stayed at a hotel by the sea, and the fishermen came up at five in the morning and they were all chanting. And we went on the beach and we got chased by a mad dog – —big as a donkey.

It sounded as if you were singing about an English river. I think it was the Indian Ocean.

A number of your earlier songs sound not like places, but like other songs: “I’ll Remember,” for example, like a Beatles’ song. “I’ll Remember”? No, no, bullshit. It’s a song written on the sixth, Buddy Holly! I wrote it on a harmonica in Seattle, which is in Washington. I’ll remember. I liked “Love Me Do.” When it came out, I thought it was an American surfing song. Totally unsurfer. But I did think it was an American group…I like surfers. Their imagery, it’s great. And that floating feeling…I wrote “Holiday in Waikiki” at the Waikiki Hotel in Hawaii, and admittedly it’s like Chuck Berry. We used to do a lot of his songs.

One of your songs reminded me of the lkettes. Ikettes? Right. Who were the Lennon Sisters? Do you remember? Were they about the same time as the Inkspots?…I think that song writing changed when groups started spending more time in the studio. See, when groups were on the road, they used to go right in the studio and create the same kind of feeling they had on the road, and the stuff they used to cut was influenced by what they did at gigs. But then groups spent more time in the studio and started to change, the atmosphere changed.

When you’re making a record, and if you spend more time over it, you have to record it a tone lower or cut the tones lower because you can’t reach some of the notes, I find this. But when you go on stage, you have to put the key up and it really changes the whole thing.

A lot of our stuff recently has been routine for the studio, when it should have been routine for the stage, and that’s why it sounds so different. I think the writing’s the same, maybe, but it’s the fact that we spend more time in the studio and less on the road that’s changed the sound of it.

You create an easy driving feeling in “Sunny Afternoon.” The guy’s had to sell his yacht, his money’s gone, and he wants to live life pleasantly. How much are you the person you’re singing? Not at all, really. I’m easy driving. But I’m not a person who loves to live pleasantly above everything else. I’m not that way at all. I might think that I’m that, but I’m not really that. I think the person in “Waterloo Sunset” is closer to me.

“Sunny Afternoon” was made very quickly, in the morning, it was one of our most atmospheric sessions. I still like to keep tapes of the few minutes before the final takes, things that happen before the session. Maybe it’s superstitious, but I believe that if I had done things differently— – if I had walked around the studio or gone out – —it wouldn’t have turned out the same way.

The bass player went off and started playing funny little classical things on the bass, more like a lead guitar; and Nicky Hopkins, who was playing piano on that session, was playing “Liza”— – we always used to play that song. Little things like that helped us get into the feeling of the song.

At the time I wrote “Sunny Afternoon” I couldn’t listen to anything. I was only playing the Greatest Hits of Frank Sinatra and Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”— – I just liked its whole presence. I was playing the Bringing It All Back Home LP along with my Frank Sinatra and Glen Miller and Bach—it was a strange time. I thought they all helped one another, they went into the chromatic part that’s in the back of the song.

I once made a drawing of my voice on “Sunny Afternoon.” It was a leaf with a very thick black outline—a big blob in the background – the leaf just cutting through it.

You sing a lot about sunsets and autumn. I like autumn things. I did a record called “Autumn Almanac”— – I drew pictures of it and everything. After I wrote it, for a whole month I was thinking about it. I wasted a lot of time, really, because I was sweeping up dead leaves and putting them in the sack. I’m susceptible to that sort of thing – —to walls and flowers. Walls. You can get probably something more from a wall than from a person sometimes. It’s just put somewhere. It’s in line, in order, it’s in line with the horizon. Ah, ridiculous.

What I try to do probably doesn’t come out. What I’ve worked out, what I do – —I might not be right— – is to do something very personal, and then suddenly I look at it, up in the air, I look at it. I blow it up and look at it and then I come down again. A better man.

All my records – —at one time they’ve been the most important thing I’ve ever done. Even the ones that aren’t hits. Even the ones that sell 100 copies. At one time they’ve been the most important thing to me. So I can’t hear our records on the radio, I can’t stand it, because they sound to me so out of what everyone is doing. You know what I mean? I get embarrassed doing television shows that have lots of people on, compressed, like Top of the Pops, one group after another, and we’re right in the middle. I feel wrong, not inferior, just wrong. I think we need a bit of time for people to get used to us.

You’ve also sung about blue skies and suns. “Lazy Old Sun” has what sounds like a hippo groan, almost joking up what you’re saying. Unfortunately, the song just didn’t come off, really. When you look at it in writing, it’s a lot better. I don’t like a lot of the lines. It’s nicer when I think about it than when somebody tells me what it’s like. I know what I was getting to, but didn’t quite get there. It is a joke, it ended up as a joke, a very sad joke…too bad. At one stroke it can sound jokey and the next minute I can believe it.

Both at once. As if you’re saying something real, don’t want to take it seriously, so undermine it with the groan. I could be wrong. But you’re really right.

Are you worried about sentimentality in your songs? I worry about it because I think other people think I worry. That’s the only reason. I like looking at things, remembering things, I like that.

“Dead End Street” sets the theme for a number of your songs. “We are strictly second class.” Cracks in the ceiling, sink: leaking. At the end of the song, you sing: “Dead End Street/Head to my feet/I can feel it,” so that the personal and the social awareness come together. What you’re saying, too, is that it’s not only what other people are doing, it’s what I’m doing, what I’m feeling. It’s a little bit selfish as well. The Beatles are aware that Mr. So-and-so in Northampton is about to buy the record and listen to it while he’s having his tea. I think they’ve always tried to keep that in mind. I’m a little more selfish. I like to do things that involve me a little bit. Sorry, I’m not answering your question directly. We do tend to think about what we’re doing…too much. And that’s what happened to “Dead End Street.”

I’ll tell you about “Dead End Street.”It was about miners, to begin with, because we had a thing in England called Aberfan where a coal tip fell on a school in Wales— – they dig for coal and they put all the slack and make a hill. It all fell down on a school and killed two hundred little kids. That’s where it all started. I wrote the song about that time, and all that time there were news flashes about Aberfan, and also it was the first year of the economic cutback. I felt it was like the days when they had the depression.

“Big Black Smoke” has that mood, too, about the girl who takes purple hearts and sleeps in bowling alleys. Yeh, it was written at the same time. But it started off to be something different. The big black smoke was there, and I said, Why can’t I just say “Big Black Smoke”? There are some songs that sound great. You don’t know the words— – you don’t want to know the words –- it’s the way they roll off the tongue, they might mean anything. And when you look at the song sheet and the words say “I love you, baby” or something very ordinary, they just sound something good. “Big Black Smoke” had that sound. But I had to put something around it. I had two lines: “Big black smoke” and “She took all her pretty colored clothes,” and the song revolves around those lines, really. Because the build-up to the song occurs when she comes into it, or when he comes into it, or when I come into it: “She took all her pretty colored clothes.” The beginning builds up to it, and from that line it fades out. There was the first draft, and then I got involved in the story. You’ve got to have something build up to that line: “She took all her pretty colored clothes.”

How did ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ come about? Three years ago I wanted it to be Under Milk Wood, something like that, but I never got a chance to do it because we had to make albums. Somebody said to me that I preserve things, and I like village green and preservation society. The title track is the national anthem of the album, and I like Donald Duck, Desperate Dan, draught beer.

Johnny Thunder lives on water. he don’t eat food, he feeds on lightning [laughter]. Frankenstein. It’s not a cowboy song. It would be nice to hear the Who sing it.

Phenomenal Cat went to Singapore and Hong Kong and decided it was just as well to get fat. I didn’t, he did, it was completely his own decision. And he came back and sat and ate himself to eternity.

Hope he’s there. He’s always there.

In “Animal Farm” you sing: “I want to be back there among the cats and the dogs and the pigs and the goats, where people are people and not just plain.” I like plain Janes. In “Waterloo Sunset” I wanted to use the names Bernard and Dorothy, but it wouldn’t work. Terry [Stamp] and Julie [Christie] would have to dog themselves up a bit. They’d have to be less glamorous for a Waterloo Sunset movie. Plain Jane…. I’d like to hear Burt Lancaster singing “Big Sky.”

“Sitting by the Riverside” is similar to “Afternoon Tea” or “Waterloo Sunset.” They have that loosened-up, spaces between feeling. That’s the studio. Maybe people should have a winding down session before listening to our songs. Maybe they should be briefed. Or debriefed. I think they should be debriefed.

Listening to lots of your songs, you get a sense that there’s a house on Dead End Street with big black smoke around, a guy upstairs with his Harry Rag, the cat always eating…. Do they all live together in a house?

Yes. Plastic Man and Dandy come around to visit. Do you intend to create this kind of world? I’m not aware of trying to, but it might seem that way. I think on the Village Green Preservation Society they were all brothers and sisters. Nobody made love because it was all in the family. I don’t think there’s a love song on it. Our new record is literally about a family.

You make a perfect family where everyone’s friends. Yeh. The people I’d like to be with are over – there across the river. I’m not left out. I’ve got a choice, but the easiest one is the one I don’t really want. There a line that says: “Wish that I’d gone with her/She is gone/ Now there’s no one left but my friends.” Yeh, she went over there and I stayed here. [Silence].

Would you say something about your new Opera, Arthur?  The opera is about the rise and fall of the British Empire, which people tend to associate me with [laughter]. You could sum up the British Empire in one song. I haven’t written it, but it can be done, a little fifteen-minute thing [laughter]. But about the opera: I decided to make it about one person, someone who didn’t really count, that’s all, and mixed it with a few people whom I knew, put them into one. I told Julian Mitchell, who wrote the script, a story about somebody I know. We liked it and worked on it and it came from there. He was easy to work with.

“Some Mother’s Son” contains those beautiful lines: “But still the world keeps turning I/Though all the children have gone away.” The idea of childhood and the sun join each other in the song. That’s “Lazy Old Sun,” see, that’s the way it works. It didn’t work in that song: “When I’m dead and gone your light will shine eternally.” The idea was right to me, and there was a vehicle in “Some Mother’s Son” for it to work.

I wrote the song in a kitchen. Wrote it at night, it’s not a day song. I had a song which I liked, but which nobody else liked very much called “Wonder Boy,” and the lines went: “Wonder Boy, some mother’s son / Turn your sorrow into wonder.” I had to use “some mother’s son” again. It was just one line and it was gone and had to be explained, for me, I was interested in that line. And then I wanted to write about how soldiers must have been frightened fighting and killing each other, but they were just some mother’s son. Apart from the line “Head blown up by some soldier’s gun,” the song could be about executives in an advertising agency.

What do you think of the people you sing about in “Shangri-La”? I played “Shangri-La” to somebody – an old friend of mine and I knew half way through it that he was embarrassed by it because it was about him, and he realized it, and I didn’t want him to realize it, and I can never sort of talk to him again. I wanted his to hear it, and then I realized: there he is.

I’m not laughing at those people in the song at all. They’re brainwashed into that, they brainwash themselves. She says, “That’s it, I don’t want a new dress,” not because she really doesn’t want it, but because she can’t afford it. Their minds are like that; they’re happy, really. It becomes a religion to them. The glory of being boring. It’s a glory. He shows you his stamp collection. It’s a sense of greatness he’s got around him that you can’t penetrate because you feel you might upset him, he’s got that aura of stuff.

The chorus “Shangri-La” is a bit of a chant – —like “See My Friends.” It’s a religious thing. You accept it as your religion because you can’t have anything else, and whatever you’ve got anyway is what you accept yourself. You let yourself believe it…. No, perhaps not. If you lived there [Kenwood] and you accepted this, and this was as far as you could go, you’d be a lot happier. Well, no, perhaps not. See, I’ve tried living in a big house and I can’t. I’m going back to a little house. I don’t think people really want to live in a posh house, as much as a rich person doesn’t want to live in a slum. I don’t like to say what I’ve got and be happy with it. I’d wear hobnail boots by my fire rather than slippers. I can’t stand slippers ’cause they symbolize giving up to me. But at the same time, I love the people who are like that. But I hate what’s handed down when people get into the state where that’s all they want. And that can be anybody toffs, toffs are the worst offenders. Top hats and walking sticks. Cary Grant’s a toff. David Niven.

It’s like the song “Princess Marina.” My brother David said, “I don’t know whether you like these people or you hate them.” You don’t really hate anybody, do you? You only hate people for an instant. They can’t help it. “Princess Marina” starts pretty sad, maybe, then it goes into the bit about what it’s all about— – “I haven’t got any money or anything,” they’re having a hard time. And then they sing the way they did in the music hall, because that’s the way they used to express it: “Don’t Have Any More, Mrs. Moore.” There was a song about poverty. People think I’m taking it out on ordinary persons. But it’s about all people. In fact, it’s more about nobs and toffs, executives – —”Yes, sir, No, sir, Three bags full, sir.”

If people are second class, and if, when they start making it, they become dedicated followers of fashion, what alternative do they have, given the way thing are? Be like me and be unhappy…We went to Australia and they wanted to take pictures of us surfing, and I thought they only surfed in America. We rolled our trousers up and pulled our overcoats up. It was 100 degrees and we were sweating, but we refused to take our overcoats off. Why should we do it? Surfing in Australia! Rebel at any cost. That’s what it seems like, but it isn’t really. They’ll probably play our song “Australia” at cabaret clubs with maracas and things. That’ll be nice. Fabulous!

The line “Australia, no drug addiction” might be too strong for them. Might have to bleep it out.

The singer in “Driving” sounds like the singer of “Sunny Afternoon.” Can’t drive. I probably can. I’m probably a hustler. An American told me I was a hustler: I pretend I can’t do things and I can, really. Is that what it means? I probably can drive, but I’ve never been behind a steering wheel…. The song was written for 1938 or 9. “Dead End Street” is written about now, but it could be about the depression. “Drivin” is about the Thirties, but people still take the attitude: Let’s just go driving and get away. I don’t ’cause I can’t drive.

In “Yes Sir, No Sir,” you wrote: “You’re outside and there ain’t no admission to our play.” Again, these people aren’t part of what’s happening. Superb line the way you said that…. Nothing’s happening. (laughter)

“Now I’ve got children and I’m going grey/No time for talking I got nothing to say…” Better with an American accent.

Nothin’ to say. That’s what you tell the cops. Most certainly. I was in a lift in New York City and wanted to go to the 50th floor. A woman came in and wanted to go to the basement. She pressed basement and I said, I was in here first, I want to the 50th floor, and she said “Sue me.” Great. I accepted it…. A lot more casual, the Americans.

Sometimes they shoot you. In England they just let you live. [laughter]. That’s the best way to die. The deadest way.

Greyness is beauty in boredom. I could have given Arthur a limp, I suppose, made him buy funny books, have a secret life. Then, that isn’t the important thing – he’d have had control over his secret life, and he hasn’t control over what’s happening to him. But he thinks he does…. When we play the opera in America, I hope people will accept the opera as a musical thing. There’s Jamming – we do a lot of that, but people don’t think we do, since we don’t do it on record. As far as the next thing I’m doing, I’m leaving what I’ve done. That’s why I didn’t want pictures taken of me reminiscing. I’m not like that, really. I’m going to try something else next…. Someone will get me if I talk about it.

How do you go about writing? Everything has been thrown at me, and paper boats float past me, but something more direct might hit me and leave its mark. I think the things I write about are a the things I can’t fight for. There are a lot of things I say that are really commonplace. I can’t get rid of them. I go into something minute, then look at it, then go back into it.

Have you been influenced by any poetry? I like a poet who has the same name as me, someone named Davies. And a crummy eight line poem that ends up saying “And that lovely woman is my mother.” There’s a poem I like, too, whose first line goes “Imagine that life was an old man carrying flowers on his head.” And it ends up by saying “And death liked flowers.” I’m afraid that’s as far as my poetic influences go.

How do you feel about the name of your group? I went to a studio in a grey pullover and horrible tweed trousers, and the next day I went in an orange tie, and a bloke told me, “Now you really look like a Kink.” Maybe it was an unfortunate name – the sadistic image or the things in your arm. It’s a good name, in a way, because it’s something people don’t really want. I think people hate us. they think we betrayed them. Perhaps we have.

But when you recorded live at Kelvin Hull people were screaming and adoring you. Yeah, it was recorded at a cattle show. There was a large metal roof which gave that effect. Someone said that the audience was more in it than the group. The part I enjoyed was when everyone started singing “Sunny Afternoon.”

They must love us really.

In This Article: Coverwall, Ray Davies

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