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.
Well, the answer came in 1994 with the publication of X-Ray, a self-described "unauthorized autobiography" and possibly the most creative work of nonfiction ever written by a celebrity. For X-Ray, Davies employed an inspired conceit: that the setting was the 21st century and a young reporter had been sent to interview a now ancient, embittered Ray Davies. Some Kinks fans complained after contending with the book's peek-a-boo style that they felt that they knew less about Davies than they had before. But X-Ray not only allowed Davies to unleash the literary wit we all knew he had, it offered him a new approach to performing, a way out of being pegged a nostalgia act.
Davies' new album, The Storyteller, captures him on his X-Ray promotional tour, blending his gifts in a way that he never had before. Part book reading, part musical concert and part live theater, The Storyteller is Davies' strongest musical offering since the Kinks' 1983 album State of Confusion. Rather than straining to write a slew of songs to fit a narrow theatrical piece--as he did in the '70s with Soap Opera and the Preservation albums, for The Storyteller Davies put together a smartly chosen collection of his old songs and wove them into his autobiographical readings. In many cases, he concentrates on a mere snippet of a song, using whatever fits his purposes. When he follows a childhood story about watching his older sisters entertain boyfriends in the front room of his parents' house with a bridge from "Tired of Waiting," the lines "I was a lonely soul/I had nobody 'til I met you" take on new meaning.
"When I started in this business, I wanted to put my artistic ambitions together with music and combine them, and take them somewhere," Davies told interviewer Lisa Robinson in the mid-'70s. With the X-Ray tour and The Storyteller, Davies has finally pulled it off. His newfound willingness to open up his past--within limits, of course; he reveals much about his youth but steers clear of adult traumas like his early '80s relationship with Chrissie Hynde--makes it more obvious than ever how autobiographical Davies' songs have always been. "Rosy, Won't You Please Come Home?" was a plea to his sister, "Get Back in Line" an evocation of his father's humbling experiences in the unemployment lines, and "Two Sisters" a female version of his relationship with his brother Dave.
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No longer quite the fragile neurotic who once ran all the way to his publicist's house with a sock stuffed with money and began hitting him over the head, Davies now seems more comfortable with his insecurities. He once remarked that all his songs were about some form of weakness, and as recently as 1995 he remarked, "I'm reconciled that I'll never be a peaceful person."
Davies still clings to the Kinks, but one can't help but think that his real interest is in his solo work, where he can trample all over his history and not have it trample over him. As wonderful as it is to hear him revisit a nugget like "See My Friends" (the first rock song influenced by Indian drones and the first rock song to evoke homosexuality, however implicitly), the most encouraging news on The Storyteller is that the new songs seamlessly fit into the mix. The standout is the title song, a graceful country shuffle that recalls Chet Atkins. In the song, Davies depicts himself as a person passing on stories told to him by a friend. The song delivers fresh evidence that no matter how far Davies gets from the awkward kid who plugged into an eight-watt green Formica amp and jammed with his brother in the front room of the house, he's never ceased to be the voice of the common man.
X-Ray begins with a passage that declares, "My name is of no importance. . . . I am one of the faceless thousands manufactured by this corporate society." Though the passage refers to X-Ray's fictional journalist, Davies--in his liner notes for The Storyteller--reveals that they're really about him, about the way he felt like a person desperately searching for an identity. On The Storyteller, Davies sounds like his search has ended at last.
Ray Davies is scheduled to perform on Friday, May 1, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Showtime is 8 p.m.