"I'm fucking sick of the whole thing. I'm sick up to here with it," announced the Kinks' Ray Davies from a London stage in 1973. Davies had recently attempted to take his own life once again by downing a bottle of uppers, and as the story goes, later that evening he checked himself into a hospital dressed as a clown. During triage he announced, "My name is Ray Davies and I'm dying." After a few hours, his brother Dave, who by his own admission had already survived his own period of being "mentally in very bad shape," went and checked Ray out of the hospital. He and his wife nursed him back to health.
That descent into rock and roll hell was just part of the real-life soap opera known as the Kinks' career in the mid-'70s, which Velvel Records has revisited with four entries from the disturbed Davies family album--1975's A Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace, 1977's Sleepwalker, and 1978's Misfits. Dogged by multiple label deals, out-of-print selections, mismanagement, and misplaced royalties, it's part of the plan at Konk, the Kinks' custom label, to set the record straight, and celebrate one of the great dysfunctional brotherly relationships in showbiz. With additional liner notes, photos, and obligatory bonus tracks, Kinks kompletists (the "k" is a time honored Kinks gimmick) will note that this is at least the third opportunity to purchase these recordings. But who's counting? Bridging the gap between the last of their early-'70s concept albums and their late-'70s U.S. revival, it's an interesting aside to four decades as a world-class show band.
Dave Davies's guitar sound, which defined the Kinks and "You Really Got Me," was cooked up by accident when he started poking around with a razor blade on the speaker of his cheap amp setup in the Davieses' family sitting room in Muswell Hill. That song, with its distorto-heavy metal guitar riff--often imitated, never duplicated--ultimately topped the British charts and hit the U.S. Top 10 in 1964, setting the pace for a string of hits in the mid-'60s.
So imagine Dave's state of confusion ten years later when brother Ray, the band's chief cook and resident malcontent, insisted on embarking on yet another unmitigated, band-morale-deflating, critically-ill-received concept album. 1975's A Soap Opera would be about a "rock star" who lives his life backward and becomes a "normal" guy. Ray had conceived the idea during the making of Preservation Act 2, an unwieldy double-record concept album that followed Preservation Act 1, an unwieldy single-record concept album conceived in the wake of Ray's famous sick-of-it speech.
"I felt that could easily have been the swan song for the Kinks," says Dave. "That period when Ray was experimenting a lot and not really knowing what direction he wanted to take as a writer ... There didn't seem to be any spirit, and we were kind of going through the motions a little bit. Having said that, on reflection, it's quite an interesting album, Soap Opera."
Dave, that former cape and kinky boot wearer, is speaking from his part-time Los Angeles home, where today he pursues an interest in yoga; Davedavies.com, his website, includes a "Spiritual Planet" page on Eastern meditation in addition to Kinks-related information. He's soft-spoken, and talks quite openly of the days when Ray retired the hook-laden hits and replaced them with songs that verged on improvisational jazz and show tunes--days when their stage shows resembled a circus, and Dave was reconsidering membership in the band while his brother was "disappearing up his own ass."
But maybe Ray wasn't as mad as the hatter everyone made him out to be in 1974. Soap Opera's opener, "Everybody's a Star (Starmaker)," finds the same desirable pomp and swagger as the best glam tracks from the era, from T. Rex's "20th Century Boy" and David Bowie's "Diamond Dogs" to Roxy Music's "Prairie Rose." Ray had a knack for capturing the zeitgeist in song, along with the terrain inside his ever-loving mind, which had a tendency to work overtime. And boy, could he roll his eyes better than any of those other queen bitches.
"It's a very tongue-in-cheek, satirical look at the rock and roll of that period--how people take themselves too seriously," explains Dave, as if the concept of his brother having a major meltdown in public needed explaining. "It was a fun time, but we were coming at it from a different point of view." No kidding.
Among their British Invasion peers--the Who, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles--the Kinks stood alone. They were willfully ambivalent and ambiguous about their sexuality and their allegiance to God, country, family, and especially other bands. The only institution they remained true to was rock and roll itself. Though the lineup would change over thirty-plus years, the Kinks had two constants: a songsmith with attitude and an eye for detail, and a guitarist whose work enhanced even the tiniest nuance in the singer's erratic delivery.
Ray could document fashion trends ("Dedicated Follower of Fashion"), sexuality (the gay-friendly "See My Friends"), and most notably England past and present, celebrated in songs like "Waterloo Sunset" and larger projects like The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur. Where do you think the term "Britpop" came from, anyway? But the theme that Davies would explore again and again--as if it were some obsessive compulsion to ease his own neuroses about his place in the world--was celebrity, from the intricacies of the star-making machinery to its psychological implications.
Meanwhile, Dave had graduated from the angry, razor-slashed amplified sound to a more emotional lyricism, particularly during the band's confusing mid- to late-'70s period. Though he remained the riff monster, often copping his own for tracks like "The Hard Way" and "I'm in Disgrace" for Schoolboys, the tone of Dave's guitar lines complemented Ray's rage-desire melancholy on songs like "No More Looking Back," one of Schoolboys' more evocative and atypical numbers.
"Schoolboys was a very poignant and important record for us as a band," says Dave. "The actual theme is based on my personal schoolboy experiences. I fell in love when I was fourteen or fifteen, and she got pregnant, and it was a very big scandal at the time, and we weren't allowed to see each other, and we were both thrown out of school. It was very autobiographical. Although [the album] was Ray's observation," Dave chuckles, "it was based on my actual life."
It appeared Ray and Dave had survived the despair by 1977, when 350,000 American teenagers bought Sleepwalker. The album starts with "Life on the Road," a showbizzy anthem with the same kind of "C'mon kids, let's make a show!" spirit as their old theatrical pieces. But Sleepwalker is most notably an American record without a concept. Lyrically, Ray was still singularly obsessed with the machinations of the music industry--touring, sleepless nights, evil corporate infrastructures. On "Mr. Big Man," he takes on a guy whose ego is no longer his amigo; a slow creeper of a number, Dave plays lead guitar with so many flourishes it's almost annoying in its Brian May-ness. Though not widely considered a jewel in the krown, Sleepwalker was an overdue and much-needed commercial breakthrough.
"I have a great fondness for Sleepwalker," says Dave. "It was a time we signed with a new record company who really got and understood what the Kinks represented musically. We've often suffered because of that lack of empathy with record companies."
Misfits followed in 1978. Dave's "Trust Your Heart" affirms a burgeoning spirituality, while "Rock and Roll Fantasy" is one of those universal songs about the soul-restoring powers of music. Both brothers claim the album; the song about a fan who "turns his stereo way up high" re-energized them and reaffirmed their faith in themselves and their band. It probably didn't hurt that by then the Kinks were cool again. England's natty Jam were experiencing success with an old Kinks tune, "David Watts"; the Pretenders covered "Stop Your Sobbing"; Van Halen had resurrected "You Really Got Me." Ray, with his skinny pants and skinny ties, made a perfect elder statesman for the new wave of rockers--neurotic, nervous, angry, a little punk rock.
Though the brothers haven't spoken for some time, Dave has made peace with their adversarial past. Early next year he'll release a collection of solo work and Kinks songs, Unfinished Business. The remainder of the later Kinks catalog awaits reissue by Velvel, including 1979's Low Budget and 1983's State of Confusion, which would place the Kinks at the Top of the Pops all over again, thanks to another nostalgic, Davies family story, "Come Dancing."
"I would've loved my song 'Unfinished Business' to have been a Kinks single," Dave finishes, "but it wasn't to be. I think that the unfinished business idea applies to the Kinks as much as it applies to my own personal sense of lack of feeling fulfilled or whatever. I've still got this feeling that there's still something that we've got to do. It's not over till it's over, you know