Record Review

Put the Kettle On, Mate, and Have a Cuppa Ray Davies

Stuart Mitchner

It's an old story for most parents. You have an enthusiasm you want to pass on to your child and it doesn't work out. Maybe you love baseball and your kid could care less. Or maybe you're hoping he or she will appreciate Jane Austen and they think she's a bore. Sometimes it's as if there's an unwritten rule about keeping your distance when it comes to sharing favorite things. There was a time when my son didn't "get" the Kinks. But in high school, without any prodding on my part, he discovered that Ray Davies wrote great songs — songs guaranteed to lift his spirits when nothing else could — and in the summer of 1995 he and I made a special trip to darkest Long Island and a second-rate motel near Westbury so we could see our hero Ray and his band. On the way, with the car stereo turned up, we sang along with the songs we knew by heart. That's one reason it's hard to call Ray "Mr. Davies"; singing along makes a first-name relationship inevitable. When Ray and the Kinks played West Point earlier in the nineties, he had the cadets singing along to "Lola," and that night at the Westbury Music Fair he had the crowd doing it to "Sunny Afternoon" and "Well-Respected Man." That was the last time the Kinks played in this country, and it's been ten years now since they put out an album.

Last week saw the release of Other People's Lives (V2 $17.95), the first full-scale solo album by the leader of the group that, thanks mainly to his passion and compassion and songwriting genius, comes closer to expressing the heart and soul of England (its warts and blemishes, vices and virtues, fancies and follies) than any other band, including the Beatles. The Queen has knighted Elton John, Paul McCartney, and even Mick Jagger, but "Sir Ray?" Somehow the title doesn't fit the composer of "Dead End Street" ("There's a crack up in the ceiling/and the kitchen sink is leaking"), who laments in "Yours Truly Confused N10" that England's "green and pleasant land," this "sceptered isle set in a silver sea," has turned into "a laughing stock divided without harmony." Only a special sort of laureate will do for this true poet-knight of the realm, the working-class, art-school, bedsit bard who answers his own question in the new sing-along pub song "Is There Life After Breakfast?" by telling us to give ourselves "a kick up the backside," "put the kettle on, mate" and "have a cuppa tea." A card-carrying member of the Village Green Preservation Society and the author of London's rock anthem, "Waterloo Sunset," he "owns" Waterloo Bridge as surely as Wordsworth has a poet's claim on Westminster Bridge. He is also an outspoken cynic, gadfly-satirist, and storyteller-seer who has never stopped rocking.

Ray is not exactly a stranger to the Royals, however. He's played Buckingham Palace more than once and Princes Harry and William are said to be Kinks fans. Queen Elizabeth even presented him with a CBE not long ago, telling him, so he's said, "I hope they catch the bastards who shot you!" She was referring to what happened in New Orleans in January 2004 when Ray chased after someone who had swiped his companion's purse. Spokesmen for the Queen were quick to insist that Her Majesty would never have used "that sort of language."

Ray Davies will be performing at Irving Plaza in New York, March 24, 25, and 26.

The New Orleans chapter of Ray's songwriting life that began in May 2000 is still being written. He went to the Big Easy because "America is the place that made me want to pick up the guitar." Visions of New Orleans haunt the artwork on the new album and proceeds from a preview mini-CD, Thanksgiving Day, will go to a charity supporting the young musicians of the stricken city. He was not around when Katrina hit, but told a New York Times reporter that the "horrible" aftermath had made him "more determined than ever" to finish the album "and try to bring some good" out of the disaster.

In the same feature, which appeared in the February 19 issue of the Times, Ray spoke of his songs as "small plays." In fact, he's a stock company unto himself. He not only creates his characters, he gives them different voices. Like the best singers, he is a gifted actor. Able to bend his intonation this way or that in the space of a line, he can sound suave and smarmy, stupid and sinister, BBC-smooth and Cockney. It's hard to know which is the real Ray Davies. You feel that he's very much there in one of his greatest songs, "Shangri-La" (on Arthur: Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire), where he literally sings his heart out, at once sympathetic and brutally ironic in his depiction of the "little man with a mortgage hanging over his head" living in his Shangri-La ("Gone are the lavatories in the backyard") on a street "where all the houses look the same." And he's certainly there in "Waterloo Sunset," but knowing what he can do with his voice, it would be all too easy for him to make that wistful observer into a precious Pollyanna. The rocker who snarled and howled his way through the song that put the Kinks on the map, the three-minute hit-and-run called "You Really Got Me," is still around, though he's more likely to be snarling at himself (or at his drunken persona) as he does in "Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After)" on the new album ("Get up, you wreck, and crawl out through the door").

You could fill pages listing the varied types from the cast of characters Ray has sung to life in the course of his career, from "The Dedicated Follower of Fashion" to the aging beauty watching the young boys go by in "Don't Forget to Dance" to the suicidal man seen in the window of a high rise in "Cliches of the World (B movie)," one of his most powerful and most neglected creations. Then there's the slimy hypocrite in the new album who sings "We are such creatures of little faith" and yet is allowed to bring the essential meaning of faith home by the end of the song, which for the man who wrote "Big Sky" ("He's too big to sympathize") is not religious faith, but faith in oneself and one's art. Like a rock and roll Shakespeare, he puts words of wisdom in the mouths of rogues and fools and brings it off. At the end of "Only a Dream" on the Phobia LP, a song sung with dopey earnestness by a hapless soul riding an elevator who is elevated and devastated by being smiled at one day and then ignored the next by a pretty woman ("She had to be a young executive/She looked so corporate and clean"), we get the all too familiar platitude: "Life's just like that elevator/It takes you up and brings you down." This "tale sung by an idiot" signifying something makes you smile, satisfies your musical needs, and makes its point even as it's mocking both the message and the messenger.

Much of Ray Davies's best work has been underrated or simply overlooked, like his last two albums with the Kinks, UK Jive (1989) and Phobia (1993). Both these records make sense as a transition to the new one, in spite of all the years that have passed between them. One of his most characteristic turns is "just like that elevator": he brings us down to raise us up. His politics are intensely human and universal. He can be topical when he wants to be, though songs such as "National Health" and "Young Conservatives" tend to be among his weakest, like letters to the editor set to music. But when he cares about something passionately enough, he puts it across, whether it's man's inhumanity to earth and man in "Now and Then" and the sublimely silly but exhilarating "Loony Balloon" (i.e. the earth), or the emotional barriers people put between one another ("How Do I Get Close"), all on UK Jive. One of his favorite targets is the amorality of the media; on the new record the title song indicts the tabloid culture.

It may take a few listenings before even hardcore fans of Ray to realize that Other People's Lives is a triumph. You may miss Dave Davies's vocals and brilliantly searing guitar licks, but the production makes up for the loss by bringing what sounds like a dozen guitars right up front, Ray's version of the Wall of Sound. As for his talent for sending significant messages in seemingly ordinary packages, listen to what he does with well-worn phrases like "the morning after," "after the fall," "that's all she wrote," and "over my head." In "Things Are Gonna Change," having twice introduced "the morning after," he gives it arms and legs ("the morning after gets up from the floor") in a turn that would make the Metaphysical Poets proud. The other image of the drunken sot twice telling himself "to crawl out through that door" is turned back on all of us (a typical Ray Davies move) as he sings, "So we must dig inside and crawl outside ourselves." The sing-along catchiness is still there, especially in the choruses of "Next Door Neighbour" and "Over My Head," and, as already mentioned, "Is There Life After Breakfast?" If you've ever wanted to stand in front of a mike and let it all out, you'll know what Ray's talking about when he writes of "Runaway From Time" in the liner notes: "I really loved singing run run run run run run runaway. It felt so good."

The whole record feels good. Welcome back, Ray.

Return to Top | Go to Cinema Review