The Kinks: Songs Of The Semi-Detached
Reaktion Books £9.95
For the past 50 years or so, I have been a fan of Ray Davies, or Sir Ray Davies, as he now is. At one stage, I owned every single record by The Kinks, and knew most of their lyrics by heart.
The Kinks in 1965, from left: drummer Mick Avory, guitarist Dave Davies, singer Ray Davies and bass player Pete Quaife
When virtually every other pop composer was writing only about falling in love, Davies was writing about a vast spectrum of human feelings and impulses – loneliness, nostalgia, respectability, fashionability, poverty, laziness, hero-worship, alcoholism – and all in the voices of a variety of different characters.
A few years ago, I spotted him in our local Co-op, and realised, as I stalked him, goggle-eyed, around the aisles, that my fandom was far from over.
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Sure enough, when he got to the till, I was right behind him, so that when he asked the cashier if there was a greengrocer in town, and she said she didn’t know, I was able to chip in with ‘Turn right and you’ll find one a hundred yards along on the right.’ Imagine my joy when the great man said ‘Thank you very much,’ adding, as he got to the door: ‘Merry Christmas!’
I had bumped into him once before, also around Christmas time. I was travelling on the London Underground in December 1973, when I saw him through the window connecting the carriages. On impulse, I got out at the next stop and nipped into his carriage. I then sat and told him how much I’d enjoyed The Kinks’ concert at the White City stadium that summer. I remember him groaning, and saying quietly that it wasn’t one of their best. He got out at the next stop with a cheery ‘goodbye’, but I sensed that he was planning to get back in further along, at a safe distance from his over-familiar fan.
It was more than ten years later, on reading Jon Savage’s excellent authorised biography of the band, that I discovered that Ray Davies was being characteristically understated when he said he hadn’t enjoyed that White City concert: it turned out that he had attempted suicide after it. ‘I did try to kill myself that day,’ he told Savage. ‘I took what must have been uppers, the whole bottle. I went to Whittington Hospital and I said, “My name is Ray Davies and I’m dying.” And they laughed. I had my stage make-up on and a clown’s outfit, and they said, “Oh, we believe you. Why don’t you just write down the names of two people who are next of kin?” I wrote the first one. The second one I couldn’t see. I fell over and they knew they had a real case. They dragged me into the ward, got the stomach pump and made me throw up. I remember such terrible guilt.’
This dramatic incident is mentioned only in passing in Mark Doyle’s new book about The Kinks. As the Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University, Doyle has other things on his mind. ‘The Kinks’ relationship to working-class England is the central concern of this book,’ he announces in the introduction, adding: ‘This is an exercise in what I have decided to call historically informed rock criticism: situate the object of analysis within its historical context.’
Thus, Doyle follows an ever-increasing line of academics who attempt to sanctify pop music with stuffiness. In so doing, they extinguish its fire in a great whoosh of homogenous jargon.
‘For historians,’ writes Doyle, ‘Davies’s lyrics offer useful primary source information about the changes Britain underwent in the 1960s, shedding light on such diverse subjects as working-class affluence, popular attitudes towards the welfare state and changing ideas about sexuality.’
IT’S A FACT
While depressed, Ray Davies once ran six miles from his home in Fortis Green all the way to Tin Pan Alley near Soho, to punch his publicist.
Well, yes and no. Davies is a very particular sort of songwriter, not a dispassionate sociologist who collates statistics. To look to him for ‘information about the changes Britain underwent in the 1960s’ is like looking to Picasso for information about the cattle industry, or Tommy Cooper for the history of the fez.
The Kinks’ first big hit, You Really Got Me, came in 1964. It remains a great dance song, infinitely more raw and urgent than any other British hit of the time. Doyle quotes Davies as saying it was inspired by a young girl he spotted at a club in Piccadilly. ‘She had beautiful lips. Thin, but not skinny. A bit similar to Françoise Hardy. Not long hair, but down to about there. Long enough to put your hands through… long enough to hold. I wrote You Really Got Me for her, even though I never met her.’
But academics are trained never to leave well alone, so Professor Doyle can’t resist the urge to interpose his pipe-sucking radical overviews between the song and its listeners. ‘Yet in its soul You Really Got Me remains a blues song,’ he insists, professorially, ‘a howl of discontent from a particular time and a particular place that expressed the frustrations and passions of its performers just as surely as the folk-blues of the Mississippi Delta had done in their time and place… Its very inarticulacy tells more about what it felt like to be a teenager in a post-war, post-rationing, post-National Service North London than a hundred well-crafted words could do.’
Ray Davies in 1973. The Kinks’ first big hit, You Really Got Me , came in 1964. It remains a great dance song, infinitely more raw and urgent than any other British hit of the time
And so he goes on, turning the great Kinks songs – Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, Days, Autumn Almanac, Waterloo Sunset – into dreary hangers upon which to display his standard, hand-me-down anti-Establishment analyses of post-war Britain.
Of the witty Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, Doyle concludes, ‘one of his [Davies’s] strongest impulses was to question the economic and political premises upon which the myth of Swinging London rested’. In fact, most of Davies’s songs are closer in spirit to Noël Coward, Flanders and Swann and Gilbert and Sullivan than to anything more overtly political. There is always the glint of mischief in them, a hint of fun in the air.
Having set Davies up as a key member of those intellectual class warriors who ‘subjected their world to… relentless, sometimes pitiless interrogation’, Doyle feels the need to stamp this false identity on all Davies songs, no matter how whimsical, personal or amusing.
In true academic style, he compares the jaunty Autumn Almanac with Louis MacNeice, Dylan Thomas and L. S. Lowry before settling on the rural Victorian poet John Clare. ‘Clare’s anti-enclosure laments and poems of childhood innocence have a strongly Kinksian ring to them.’ Oddly enough, he says that, in Autumn Almanac, ‘Davies sings like an old man, rheumatic back and all’, but Jon Savage’s biography makes it clear that Davies himself has long suffered from a spine problem. Far from being anti-anything, Davies regards the song as ‘a very up song about a man, a contented little gardener’.
Believing, like many academics, that gloom equals worth, Doyle transforms Davies’s masterpiece, Waterloo Sunset, into something slyly miserable and equivocal, simply because the final chorus says: ‘Waterloo Sunset’s fine.’ ‘Not brilliant, not heavenly, not transcendent, but fine,’ Doyle chips in. ‘It is as if Davies has embedded a tiny escape clause into the song, just in case somebody should come along and say that the sunset isn’t so spectacular after all. Nobody said it was spectacular, he can reply; I just said it was fine.’
Come again? Davies himself has said that as a child he was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital on the Thames. He told Jon Savage: ‘I nearly died. I had a tracheotomy and the balloon burst. I was attached to a machine… Two or three or four days later I couldn’t speak because of the operation. Two nurses wheeled me out on to the balcony, where I could see the River Thames. It was just a very poetic moment for me. So I thought about that time – I wanted to write a really great London song. There’s no memory of that song that isn’t pleasure.’
So Doyle has loaded on to this great uplifting song a sense of gloom and doom that it has done nothing to deserve. Po-faced students and professors may be able to extract something from this leaden book; fans would be better off going back to the songs.