Well Respected Man

With The Storyteller, Ray Davies finds a new way for rock to age gracefully

Of all the contributions that the '60s British Invasion made to rock, maybe the most important was that it shifted the emphasis to bands. Up until that time, almost all the major figures in rock 'n' roll--Elvis, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry--had been solo artists. Even the Crickets were basically a front that allowed Buddy Holly to record for two different labels at the same time.

But the British Invasion was all about bands, and it was from this example that we formulated our very concept of what a rock band was supposed to be: a tight-knit young gang resiliently scraping through tough gigs in the seedy clubs of Hamburg, fending off the apathy of its hometown and boldly taking on the world until it makes it to the toppermost of the poppermost.

Most of the noteworthy British bands of that period were built on interdependence. Lennon and McCartney knew they couldn't make it without each other. The same went for Jagger and Richards. Even Pete Townshend, much as he controlled the creative path of the Who, needed the blustery machismo of Roger Daltrey to impress the tough young mods of England.

Only one major British band defied this rule: the Kinks. From the beginning, this band of self-proclaimed Muswell Hillbillies was dominated by the talents of Ray Davies. An art-school dropout with theatrical ambitions, Davies took a ragtag group of musical mutts and fashioned them into a great band by sheer force of will.

Consider his accomplices: Davies' younger brother Dave was a hot-tempered young lout with only the most rudimentary guitar skills, while drummer Mick Avory was a thick Boy Scout type who had been dumped by the Stones for Charlie Watts. Only bassist Pete Quaife could deliver the goods, and he was as bereft of personality as any man ever to strap on a four-string. No, Ray Davies was the Kinks. An amazingly prolific writer known to crank out as many as 40 songs in a single night, he also sang lead, arranged the tunes, and dominated attention onstage. He needed the other Kinks about as much as Bill Clinton needs an aphrodisiac.

In spite of--or maybe because of--Davies' complete domination of the band, the Kinks have endured for nearly 35 years. Along with the Stones, they're the only surviving British Invasion band. Unlike the Stones, they've endured long commercial fallow periods, which have been framed by three separate moments on top: the band's initial burst of mid-'60s fame on the strength of raunchy rockers like "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night," a 1970 comeback with the gender-tease anthem "Lola," and an early '80s emergence as arena-rock favorites, culminating with the nostalgic hit "Come Dancing."

It's the music that the Kinks made between their first two periods of fame that loyalists cling to with the most affection. From 1966 to '69, the Kinks made four of the greatest, most enduring albums in the history of rock. But because this work consciously rejected the trendy psychedelia of the period in favor of music-hall miniaturism and poignant stories of mundane British life, the masses ignored them. Nonetheless, the Kinks' celebration of the underdog during this period has won them rewards through the years. In the late '70s, when British punks lambasted the rock aristocracy as a bunch of boring old farts, the Kinks not only were spared such abuse, but actually earned covers by the Jam ("David Watts") and the Pretenders ("Stop Your Sobbing"). In recent years, Britpop heavyweights like Blur have once again focused attention on the Kinks' mammoth influence.

Yet, in the early '80s, when the Kinks concentrated on the American market by reinventing themselves as a veteran heavy-metal act, it was hard not to feel inner conflict at the sight of Davies' shameless mugging and prancing. Kinks loyalists have always been a forgiving lot, and many simply enjoyed the band's chance to reach a mass audience again, even at the cost of some dignity. After all, the Stones had "fans" who either hoped to sleep or party with the band. The Kinks, on the other hand, had preservationists, who unabashedly carried signs proclaiming, "God Save the Kinks."

The most difficult part of watching Davies grow into middle age with the Kinks was the sense that they were holding him back. From the arena shows of 1981 (for an album fittingly titled Give the People What They Want) to a 1995 performance at the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Kinks seemed to bring out the worst in Davies, the hammy showman willing to dumb down for a crowd who'd never heard "Waterloo Sunset," "Two Sisters," "Autumn Almanac" or any number of timeless Davies standards. It's one thing for Mick and Keith to flog "Satisfaction" in stadium after stadium, but any Davies aficionado knew he was capable of much more.

If any rock icon of the '60s had the potential to age gracefully, it was Davies. His best songs, unlike those of his contemporaries, were not the hedonistic rantings of youth, but wise, clear-eyed depictions of the British class system. More often than not, his songs sympathized with the parents over their rebellious kids, or with suburban housewives over swinging Londoners. If Townshend's "My Generation" sounds stupid coming from anyone over 30, Davies' songs like "Days" or "Too Much on My Mind" could be sung by a singer of any age, without losing their power. At his arena-rock worst with the Kinks, Davies couldn't help but make you wonder if he himself grasped what his true achievements had been, if he knew his good songs from his bad ones.

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