Ray Davies, the former Kink and for the past decade a solo artist, say that these days he “stays -- notice I don’t use the word ‘live’ -- at Highgate Hill which is literally half a mile from where I grew up in Muswell Hill. It’s the highest spot in London and you can look over the city, one of the more romantic places in London.”
This seems entirely fitting for the 63-year old who has chronicled English, and sometimes specifically London, life in Kinks songs such as Dedicated Follower of Fashion (skewering Carnaby Street foppery in the 60s), his classic Waterloo Sunset, and on late 60s concept albums, and who continues to probe the changing face of English culture on his solo albums Other People’s Lives and Working Men’s Café.
He has sometimes located himself elsewhere -- New York, the Republic of Ireland -- but ironically the place he felt most at home was New Orleans, the city in which he was shot in 2004 after a mugging.
It is Davies’ love and chronicling of England, its people and institutions which has had many calling him the poet laureate of English rock. His admirers include Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Damon Alban (Blur, the Gorillaz), Paul Weller (Jam, Style Council) and Pete Doherty (with whom he rehearsed recently).
In Auckland last week at a private dinner a famous English author passing through town after the arts festival in Wellington spoke enthusiastically of Davies’ wry observational and often funny songs noting Hay Fever on the Misfits album of ‘78 -- from the band’s ignored and unloved period -- is perhaps the only song ever written about that irritating condition.
Davies is, the words of his own (satirical) song “a well respected man” and a week before the shooting in New Orleans, the British establishment awarded him a CBE for his services to music.
Few in the English rock scene would deserve it more.
This interview catches a tired Davies preparing to catch a flight from Perth, Australia to . . . He isn’t sure, Adelaide or maybe Sydney. He does know however that after Australia he will be in Auckland, New Zealand for a concert which seems to be billed his show as a greatest hits toour -- which is where we pick up the conversation.
All your big songs for your concert here are listed in the ads and on the posters, but I assume we are going to get a measure of songs from your most recent albums?
I don’t know who is doing that, I think it might be an insecure promoter. But I’m here because the new record Working Men’s Café is out so I’ll certainly be playing some songs from that. This whole tour came about in two stages. First, I refused because I didn’t want to come on a long trip . . . Working Man’s Café is probably the quickest album I’ve ever done. There was one [faster] for the Kinks, but in the modern age. I only started recording it on March 18 last year  and I wanted to do it in London with the touring band, but a few of the players weren’t available and I didn’t like the producer I was working with in London and I knew a friend in Nashville. So I took the songs over there, I had 30 songs we knocked down to 14, and we cut the thing in about 15 days and I did fixes in London for a week or two. And that was pretty much it. I didn’t really want to tour too much after that but then this tour came along I thought, ‘Ah, go for it’.
When the songs are worth playing to people it’s worth doing it and I’m pleased with these new songs. I’ve done some acoustic promotion in the States which went well, so I’m really pleased with this record.
I’m curious, you said you had a friend in Nashville. I guess journalists make more of these things than they perhaps warrant but the reason you went to Nashville wasn’t because of the culture or ambience of songwriters but simply because you had a producer-friend there?
Yeah, Ray Kennedy who produced my first solo album and it was scheduling I think -- I’ve got a comment to make on scheduling in a minute -- but I just remembered his phone number and he was just about to close his studio. The reason we did it in 14 or 15 days was because it was going to close. I think it isn’t there anymore. It’s been bulldozed.
Talking about scheduling. With the Kinks it just seemed easier to do, people didn’t have a schedule. We were a bunch of guys together and we could say, ‘Should we go in and do a track together this weekend’ and we’d all say ‘Yeah’. But it doesn’t work that way anymore. What I did was I phoned Ray and said ‘Have you got four players who could play on these tunes’ and he said ‘Yeah, there are guys who could do this’. So I just turned up, shook hands with the guys and sat down and made the music. (Laughs) It was simple.
That’s like the old jazz thing that if you can read the dots on the page you can do the job.
Exactly, and they were very good guys and sometimes I ask musicians to play beneath themselves, they don’t have to play every note to impress me. So I said I said just play it simple, play the melody.
Before we get into the music, I note that a version of copies were given away with the Sunday Times in Britain. I know Prince has done that and I was curious about whether . . . .
I can give you a more complete explanation of that now. Unbeknownst to me the record company that had it was being dismantled and I think they didn’t have the budget to promote it properly in the UK and the week after my record came out . . . I wasn’t a signatory to it and it was a big shock to me. I don’t mind people doing that kind of thing when they say ‘Here’s four or five tracks from the new album, here’s something from the other album and here are some Kinks things’ so it is a compilation. I would have understood that.
But they gave 10 tracks away. I have to say though that many people -- there were 1.5 million copies given away -- there were many people who got it who may not have had access to it before.
I wondered about that because Paul McCartney did Memory Almost Full through Starbucks and I thought the logic was that there were a lot of Paul McCartney albums in the world and if you want to get some attention to this one then here was a way of taking it to millions who wouldn’t otherwise hear it. You get publicity if nothing else.
Yeah, but this is only the second Ray Davies album (laughs)
Oh yes, I know that.
I have a big issue with the record company which did that, so it is an on-going matter.
But presumably a cheque came in the mail?
They just did this . . .
I think they covered their debts.
It is a bit, yeah. If nothing else Graham, it’s dumb. It negates a lot of work I could have been doing in the UK -- but it’s a fresh market here and a fresh chance if people want to hear the thing and so we move on with it.
Let’s now turn attention to the music. I remember at the time of Other People’s Lives I heard you talk on radio in the States, PBS I think it was, and you spoke about how when you were at art school you would go sketching at railway stations and cafes and that you had always done that as a songwriter, and there are strong elements of that in this album. Is that how you see yourself, as an a recorder and observer of people?
I found it difficult being a solo artist and I’m getting used to it now. When I did the Storyteller thing I was still recounting the Kinks music and although I wrote it all I still felt as though I had a band with me. But now being a solo performer I realise I’m a writer more than a performer, although a lot of people might disagree. I did a show last night and people came up and said ‘Great performance’ and all that. But I still come at it from the writing aspect.
This interests me because I always think of you foremost as writer -- because you have written X-Ray, a short story collection and of course Storyteller. What I’m leading to is that for you music is just one vehicle of expression. Are you surprised that not more musicians explore the other writing possibilities?
I think that a lot of musicians who would try would find it what I discovered is that its not easy doing what you guys do, writing things longer. It is quite daunting and lonely, although I enjoyed the loneliness of it because I am quite a solitary person anyway -- and its like an open canvas, you can build this world up. In a morning you can come up with 11 or 12 pages and no one has done anything like it before. It is the possibility of doing that I find it exhilarating.
It’s just that I’m known for being a songwriter. If I did another book I might do it under an assumed name, but people liked [X-Ray] for the work and were not saying ‘Oh we can put that package out with a couple of old hits.’
X-Ray was critically favoured for the writing.
Yes, and I was flattered. It’s being reissued in the States and I’ve done a little foreword that I think it should be read now in the spirit it was written, slightly quirky and of its time. It evokes a time and the way people lived.
The new album similarly evokes a time from the title on inwards and I’d like to come back to this point . . . that you always struck me as an album man from the time I heard Something Else in 1967. And even today I think that was the first quintessentially British album of a complete piece. But we live in the world of single downloads.
Yes, this was written as an album but if I had been in the singles world . . . If I made single now it would be hard for me to get on tv because of the generation I’m from. That aside, I love doing singles But I love making an album form a body of work, and I had 34 songs to choose from and I was very democratic and sat down with Ray and we ticked off the songs we liked. Ray missed one that was a single and we’ll record that later, the hit single we missed because he felt the players couldn’t do it justice.
But it’s a different mindset making singles, you need an accomplice or a band and you spend a couple of days in the studio and make a single. I love that. When I put a track down I still think I’m going to do it on Top of the Pops (laughs)
Even though Top of the Pops doesn’t exist anymore, I still do it with that mind.
But this is a collection of songs and there are two or three on there which, if edited down, would make great singles in the right time and the right place.
You’ve mentioned a couple of times the idea of a band and you almost sound nostalgic for the camaraderie -- and the volatility -- of a band?
I love working in a teem, I’m a team player. That’s another thing I’ve done, I’ve made a couple of films, one for tv. And I enjoyed being part of the crew and it being a team effort. It goes back to the day of being a house captain at sports and working with all the players in the football team -- but having said that I am a solitary person in my writing. So there is a contradiction there.Yes, I know of many writers who are often uncomfortable in company because they prefer the small room and their own companionship.
When it comes down to it, it is just you and a piece of paper.
Let’s talk about Working Man’s Café and that song in particular. Again a nostalgia for an England that is passing . . .
If I could jump in I’d say it is about a world that is passing. I was just on a personal visit in Adelaide and it doesn’t have to be greasy spoons and people in cloth caps (laughs) but I found a place that hit the spot, the feeling of a little community there and people know a bit about each other. It’s not this faceless person saying ‘Do you want a latte or a triple latte’ and you pay for it in one place and walk to another to pick it up. You are cut off from the world, you are just a consumer.
The songs is about that and how we are cut off, and the death of the mum and pop shop, the death of retail with music for example. So it is generalised.
I noticed in Mojo some months ago in a quick interview you noted that for many people it’s not cool to be English.
Certainly not in the UK. We’re one of the few countries where on our national day you can’t get a pub extension on that day and you can’t wave the flag. It’s not against the law to do it but people who wave the St George flag are generally considered to be right wing people -- and that’s not the case at all.
We see that in this country too and of course especially in America that if you run up your country’s flag you are perceived to be right wing and I’ve always thought left-wing people need to start reclaiming the flag. It is theirs too.
Absolutely, all governed by the laws of that flag and the political correctness of that flag. I was brought up to be a socialist -- but I shouldn’t get into politics because I’m pretty heavy duty when I get into it. (laughs)
You’ve got a CBE, you can say whatever you like, mate.
I did that to give my daughter a day out at Buckingham Palace. I did it for my family and my sisters are all a lot older and they lived through the Second World War and I thought it was a big deal, so I took a couple of my sisters. I am really proud of my country but at the same time but I don’t really indulge myself in it to the extent that I would put CBE after my name.
It perhaps gets you a better seat in a restaurant?
It think it works the opposite in London.
But an honour and an acknowledgement of a life’s work?
And I would hope the work to come, those things tend to put the final nail in the coffin and I’d rather avoid that. The funny thing is that my daughter from a marriage which has been dissolved lives in the Republic of Ireland and it so happened that on the day I got the CBE it was St Patrick’s Day so I thought that was a nice irony.
You mentioned you sisters . . . And I’ve heard you say you've been surprised by people’s attachment to Waterloo Sunset and that you realised you were writing it for your older sisters who didn’t get the Swinging Sixties.
Yes, it is their song.
It has a grey ennui, but you still mange to make London sound romantic.
It is romantic place full of mad people, but at certain times when the sky is right it is a great place.
Where do live now Ray?
I’m staying, and notice I don’t use the word live, at Highgate Hill which is literally half a mile from where I grew up and it is the highest spot in London and you can look over the city. It is near Parliament Hill and Hampstead Heath and is one of the more romantic places in London.
Have you ever lived for any real length of time anywhere else?
I have. I wasn’t domiciled there but lived in New York for a while, and in the Republic of Ireland, and I tried living New Orleans and rented a place there for a while before I got shot and decided it wasn’t for me. The closest I’ve come to living anywhere else was New Orleans funnily enough, it reminded me of Muswell Hill and I don’t know why. It has tree-lined streets and not built-up houses, like cottages, when you get into the district where I got shot. I liked the community there.
When you were living in these other places, were you still a Londoner at heart? I’m not sure how to put this, but were you reflecting on that from a distance as it were?
Not reflecting on that life. I felt comfortable there because the street where I was staying resembled the street where I grew up. I’m still a Londoner, if I pay a guy in cab I say ‘Thanks guv’nor' so I retain my Englishness. I don’t absorb myself culturally that much. I have a love of music and am a fan of music and that traditional jazz which is quite uncool, and it was uncool when I was a kid to like it -- but the thing I enjoyed about it was there was no snobbery about music and everybody had the right to make a sound, whether it was washboard or harmonica or a sophisticated jazz band.
It was that musical ambience or cultural ambience you liked?
Yeah, and I think it’s still the case in London, it’s too classified, you have to be one thing or another. And that is one thing that has been the downfall in the English scene at the moment. There are still good people coming out.
I have three adult sons who are musicians living in London and when I speak to them they’ll tell me ‘the Arctic Monkeys are big now so everyone is trying to sound like them‘. Trends come and people follow.
The Arctic Monkeys were in Konk, the little studio where the Kinks used to record and they don’t compose songs, they assemble them. I sat in on a session and that is directly influence by compuaters because they’ll get eight bars of frenetic tight playing then cut it together, very much the way Frank Zappa used to work. Technology has made a big impact.
But you are still a notebook and pen man?
Strangely enough without a computer I couldn’t have finished Working Men’s Café because they were all done as demos on tape in my house but I took them over on a little hard drive and brought them back on a hard drive. So I use the technology where I can but I try not to let it dominate my life.
But the genesis of the idea will always be the individual who can hear the song there?
That will always be the case. I’d like to collaborate with people and one of the next projects I am doing will be a collaborations record. I did a track in Konk the other week with Babyshambles. I couldn’t get back in time but the offered me an award -- the NME award -- and we did a demo of You Really Got Me with Pete Doherty on lead guitar -- and it was really good.
How do you see Pete Doherety. We see him through the filter of tabloid magazines.
He is a guy trying to make music and make his statement and if he can survive the media pressure and come up with some good song there is a talent there.
There’s a good lyricist there but I sense he might have to survive himself first.
Yes, he’s quite and endearing. He came to the studio and brought me a flag he’d bought with the Union Jack in the corner and the rest of it is red. What’s that, a red ensign?
I believe so.
I think we’ll work together again. But I’d like to work with other bands too and actually come up with new material too. I’ve got a few people in mind.
I’m think of Paul McCartney when he worked with Elvis Costello, you . . .
Did he? I didn’t know that.
Yes, they wrote about 14 songs together and they were trickled out through McCartney and Costello albums over a period of a few years. I’ve got say those songs were by far the superior songs on McCartney’s albums like Flowers in the Dirt because he had somebody to bounce off.
Yeah it’s very important. I say I ‘wrote’ the Kinks songs -- I wrote Death of Clown with my brother -- but I had a muse, the band were my muse. I wrote some songs with Ry Cooder some years ago. It was interesting but nothing came out of it, but it was a fun couple of days. I think absorbing people’s ideas and personalities is a good thing.
How is you brother Dave, because he had a stroke?
He’s alright. I asked if he could get into a studio but he’s not ready for that, the long hours. He stayed with me, him and his girlfriend, but she had pet rabbits, so . . .
A cat or a dog I can understand, but pet rabbits I don’t get.
No, nor do I. But Dave is gradually getting there.
And you are gradually getting here, you perform here in about week so we are looking forward to that.
Yeah, me too. But now I think I’ll go and get this plane. I sleep badly on aeroplanes but we’ll see . . .
This is a transcript of an interview for an article which appeared in the New Zealand Herald www.nzherald.co.nz