There are precious few who would argue against The Kinks' lofty position in the marble façade of British musical history. Born out of the explosion of British bands from the towns and cities of the UK as the perfect storm of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Fashion and Teenagers came ashore from across the Atlantic, they eventually came to epitomise a particularly English form of songwriting and music: kitchen sink dramas; suburban life; village greens; seasons and emotions; the beauty and romance in the glow of a London sunset. Looking back in retrospect, The Kinks can, in many different ways, be viewed as perhaps the quintessential ‘English’ band of the 1960s.
But long before the china cups and virginity, and prior to providing the perfect soundtrack for Orton screenplays, The Kinks were part of a musical scene hungrily feeding on American rhythm and blues; learning their trade with a musical ear cocked firmly to the likes of Chuck Berry, Leadbelly and early Elvis. And it was against this background that their first three records: 1964’s Kinks followed by Kinda Kinks and The Kink Kontroversy (both from 1965) were recorded almost overnight as the band swiftly grew in popularity. While many of the album tracks are covers of American rhythm and blues staples, they show a fascinating transition of a band from raw, untamed kids set loose in a studio for the first time to a band developing into their own sound and place; eschewing their original strands of influence for a more melodic, introspective and cerebral act, paving the way for some of the finest English pop songs ever committed to record.
In celebration of the deluxe re-release of these first three albums, Drowned in Sound was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak to Dave Davies: the band’s legendary lead guitarist, vocalist and occasional songwriter to discuss his memories of recording the albums, the influence of the sixties on his, and many others lives, the recent loss of Pete Quaife, the legacy of the band and whether the long-awaited reunion between him and his brother Ray is any closer to fruition…
Hi Dave, thank you for speaking to Drowned in Sound, it’s a real privilege to talk to you.
“Oh, thank you!”
How are things going musically, have you got anything out at the moment?
DD: I’ve just released a CD called The Aschere Project. We’re hoping to do something and turn it into a stage musical so there will be live performances with that. Just not yet (Davies hasn’t played live since suffering a stroke in 2004). We’re working on getting this together; it’s got a good reaction so far.
That’s fantastic and great to hear. Could you tell us a little more about it?
DD: Well, The Aschere Project is a project that my son Russ and I put together. The actual CD is called Two Worlds. It’s a mixture of rock, kinda classical and electronic music because my son’s background is ambient and electronic music. It’s like a science fiction, outer-space love story. It’s so exciting to work on. It’s been out for a couple of months on the internet only and we’ve been grafting in new music and songs for it and we’ve spoken to stage musical producers about getting it turned into a ballet/musical. And it’s very exciting, it’s early days but its taking shape.
I’ll have to keep an ear out for that, it sounds great. We’re just doing a little piece about the first three Kinks records being re-released…
DD: The reissues? Yeah!
I’ve had a chance to listen to them properly and even coming as someone who’s has been a fan of The Kinks long term, I’m surprised listening to them at how raw and bluesy they are, especially the first record; there’s a low of raw R’n’B on there. How much of that were your influences growing up and how much was the record company attempting to get you to succeed in the US?
DD: Well, the first three albums, especially the first album, the only songs we knew are the ones we learned to play live. So it really depicts a percent of where we were in the live situation. And they wanted it done quickly, as everyone did in those days. So you virtually just did the songs we did live and the ones that we liked. We did what we knew. It was only through time that we learned to write specifically and perform specifically for albums.
So it was quite a progressive process?
DD: Yes. But on that first album….that’s what The Kinks were.
Obviously on that first album you’ve got ‘You Really Got Me’ which is obviously one of the original compositions…
DD: Well yes, it’s got to be the most pivotal song for us of any other song. It opened the door for us and for a lot of other people because it was quite a new style of music in a way, at that time.
It’s obviously been very influential, I’ve read about a lot of American rock bands talking about how striking it was to come across this raw and powerful sound which you were really important in creating with the guitar riff the whole razor to the speaker cone incident…
DD: Oh yeah, exactly. Well, it was quite a revolutionary record really. I mean, the guitar sound grew out of that frustration and a bit of rage and youthful exuberance, y’know? I got this amp from this shop from up the road from where we lived in Muswell Hill and slashed the speaker cone. Because it sounded so boring. And when I plugged it in, it made this incredible sound. And I worked on it with putting it into another amp and that’s how we got that unique sound. And even on ‘All Day and All of the Night’, I find that even more raucous and aggressive. Before ‘You Really Got Me’ came out, I don’t think people knew if that sound was going to be successful or not. And I think once it became successful, it kinda gave us the license to make ‘All Day and All of the Night’. And in a way, that sounds a lot more open and freer and aggressive sonically.
With ‘You Really Got Me’, I gather there was a lot of pressure on you at the time because the first two singles hadn’t done well and there was pressure from Pye Records. Is that right?
What was it like doing that under such pressure? Was that what you refer to when you talk about the frustration in the song?
DD: Well I think so. Because we only had a short time to record it. And we’d recorded it once before at Pye studios and they messed up the recording. It had loads of echo and it really didn’t shape up how we wanted it. And we wanted it just to sound like we sounded like. Y’know: plug it, set up, play and sing it! And they didn’t seem to understand that because they thought we were a bit green at the gills. But no-one knew what to do. I mean, the record industry was very new then. But we insisted, our manager, a guy called Robert Wase gave us £200 to re-record it how we wanted it. So we went into a studio in Regents Street…IBC I think it was, and we just did it how we wanted.
So that recording that’s out there is the one you did with the £200?
DD: Yes! I never found out what happened with the horrible version. I think it was trashed, in those days they’d just go over tape.
It’ll probably appear one day - someone in Pye Records will discover it in a cupboard!
DD: Yeah, that’d be great (Laughs).
So when you’d finished recording the single, did you immediately think “We’ve got something really good here?”
DD: Oh yes, we did. And when I first heard it on the radio, I thought “Oh wow, this is amazing”. In actual fact, I thought it was someone else, not us! So it was a turning point for us and in a way, I think it was a turning point in music in a sense, or in a style of music.
And it led to the band breaking through in a big way. But then I gather there was an incident with with you and Mick Avory (Kinks Drummer) on stage where you ended up being in hospital and you got banned from playing in America. Is that right?
DD: They were two different things. I mean, that was just a bust up, being on the road and being fed up with each other. But the other thing was, we went to the States in ’65 and it was totally unrelated issues, we toured there and I think our management were a bit green as well we were and we upset the unions, we didn’t realise how important the unions were in America-still are! So we got banned from playing in America for three years so we didn’t go back there until late ‘69.
With the market as it was then with British bands being huge there, that must have been a big setback at the time?
DD: Well of course it was. Because Woodstock was coming up and we couldn’t play it. And The Who got our slot and we were really quite pissed off about it. But in a way, I think it did us a favour because it made us become more introvert and think about our own backgrounds. Because The Kinks music has drawn a hell of a lot throughout the years from our family background; from the characters in our family and our values. Ray and I come from a fairly big working-class family and it was very supportive and very loving and nurturing. So a lot of our ideas come from our family. I think that saw us through that period. And we did ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ and ‘Arthur’ before we went back to America which were very English, very reflective social commentaries.
To me, that’s always been one of the main things about the band that has lasted the ages. It’s very real, very honest music. Was that something you really tried to create?
DD: No. I’ve always been the sort of person that judges things outside myself by the way I think. If something feels right then maybe it is right. And sometimes we mull over things and think about something. And music can be technically perfect but sound awful. So there’s somewhere in between where you get that gut feeling. And it’s fine as it is: don’t mess with it. I think those instincts are very valuable, I’ve always gone by my gut instincts. And Ray has crafted his writing around real events, real observations and real people and our family and family members. And I’ve always judged our music about how it made me feel. If it feels good, it’s good. And that’s why I didn’t like the first part of the 70s. Because the business was becoming a big business, it was very druggy and the rock ‘n’ roll…it was very dark and a bit sinister. But I think by the late 70s, with the advent of punk rock I think it got that feeling back again; that “let’s just get up and do it, see what happens”. Which was virtually how we started; you try it, you get ideas, you try it and see what happens. Rather than make it sound too cultured.
And that comes back to that rawness, that feeling…
DD: Yes, but it touches people. I mean, most people growing up in a working class environment, that guitar sound, it was a lot related to me; the feeling I got about our background. Of course, the back story is probably inspired by the black blues guys: Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and all these guys who sang about hardship and difficult times and getting put down. And the working class of that time didn’t really have a voice. Y’know, if you think back to around 63, 64, 65 was a time when there was a big cultural explosion anyway through art and with movies and especially clothes and music. And it was really the first time that the working class people had a voice in a way. Whereas before that, you grew up and you followed your dad into a job or joined the army. So it was a very different time from a decade before.
Looking back as someone who’s been within the music industry from the 60s through to now, do you think young people now still have that sort of thing?
DD: To draw on? It’s funny; a lot of young musicians now seem to draw on our material. But people still have hard lives and the class system has gone to a different era; it’s more of a class system based on money now, like America: the haves and the have nots. It’s all based on money. Money and the media manipulate everything. Today has got its own set of trials and tribulations for young people and I can imagine it can’t be easy. And I think they listen to our music because it’s got a bit of fight to it but it’s also quite fragile. Some Kinks music is very tender and very reflective and fragile; you’re almost afraid to play the thing. But other times it’s aggressive and it wants to fight back: “stop trying to keep me down because I want to express myself”. And that’s a condition that’s relevant to all members of the cross generations. That feeling of “I want to do something but I feel repressed” and that must be just as relevant today.
I don’t know if you’re happy talking about it but obviously last year Peter Quaife (original Kinks bassist) sadly passed away. And I noticed that you’d commented to the effect of “He was never really given the credit for his contribution to The Kinks”. I just want to ask a bit more about what you meant with that?
DD: I think you have to remember that when we first started it was really just me, Pete and Ray. And I think Pete helped me and Ray communicate a lot together, because we were never really close as small kids, even though we had our own special language and stuff like that. But the thing was, as we got older and got into football and school and especially music, Pete came along and helped galvanise ideas. And we were always playing guitars together and he’d come round our house and we’d jam around on guitars and play records and…”Pete, listen to this record; I’ve got this record”. Y’know, Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry and blues…Howling Wolf. And all these elements came together and Pete was a great sounding board for ideas. He had his own style and people forget that when Pete left school and before The Kinks, Peter had a job in a place called The Outfitter which was a fashion magazine at the time which was in the West End. And I got chucked out of school and I got a job at a music shop in Leicester Square. So we used to hang out a lot me and Pete and we used to go and look at clothes and design clothes – he was a good graphic artist. And we’d go around picking out clothes we liked: PVC and weird and wonderful hats. So the fashion thing was as important as the music to us. It’s all a part of learning, finding out your new identity. And clothes are a great way to express yourself: to have fun and everything. It’s all relative to self expression: art, music, clothes, the people you hang out with. It was fun, y’know. And Pete was a big part of that. He was part of the DNA of the band and he’ll be remembered in a special way: he was instrumental in creating the culture of The Kinks.
And 45 years on, there’s still an interest in the music; people are still listening to it and finding something in it today. It’s surely a measure of quality…
DD: It’s the same with anything: good art is good art. If it’s good, it stays good. Stuff doesn’t diminish with time. But we were very lucky as well. Luck has a lot to do with it: being in the right place at the right time.
As in coming out of London at that time in the 1960s?
DD: At that time, at the age we were and the type of family we came from. We were brought up in that working class attitude: you had to be resourceful or inventive. And my mum was an incredible woman. She was so resourceful. I mean, our family was more of a matriarchal structure. Y’know, they learnt that from the war. And I think a lot of that spilt over into us as kids. And with the time and the cultural changes that were happening. The innocence and the spontaneity and the excitement of the time…
And then you took it on and moved it a little bit further forward?
DD: Yeah! That’s right. And you shape things by your own perceptions of the world. New ideas to old ideas. And that’s the whole thing about ‘Village Green’ really. Y’know, everyone was taking acid and drugs and saying “get rid of everything that’s old, let’s move forward”. And sometimes you have to take the old stuff that is established and does work and add it to the new ideas. Which was a thought that didn’t really come in until the late eighties or nineties. And I think it’s all related to our background and how we grew up.
How did your parents feel then, about you and Ray going off and forming a band?
DD: Well, I think that when me and Ray first went on tour, my mum started smoking (laughs). She was in her late forties then…too much stress!
And as for the songs themselves, they’ve lasted the years fairly unscathed. It’s very human music. They still mean something. I mean, I was at Glastonbury last year when Ray was playing and people all around were in tears, me included, I’m not ashamed to say…
DD: Deep down, people don’t really change. They’ve a saying they’ve got in America: “The more things change, the more things stay the same”. And I think that if you look at people; not outwardly, but inside, we’ve all got similar things going on: emotions and feelings and what we like and how we get affected by the world and the environment. And it’s only reflecting those feelings, it’s interpreting human frailty and anger and love and stuff: the whole gamut of what makes us human beings. And sometimes we’re confident and sometimes we’re weak and sometimes we laugh at the world. There’s a lot of humour in our music as well. And sometimes that’s all there is. Without a sense of humour you’re dead and buried!
I know you’ll have been asked this a million times but I’m sorry, I’m going to ask anyway as people will be keen to know. Do you ever see a time where you get back on stage with Ray and the rest of the band?
DD: Ray and I have spoken recently about doing something. But we’re not really…. (Long, Long Pause) It would be nice. I don’t know what; I think people might be surprised about what we’d have in mind. But we’ll let you know!
The first three remastered Kinks albums are re-released this week through Sanctuary Records.
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