Saturday 1 October 2016

The complicated life of Ray Davies

Published 12/04/2015 | 02:30

The Kinks: (from left) Dave Davies, Ray Davies, Peter Quaife, Ray Avory in 1968.
The Kinks: (from left) Dave Davies, Ray Davies, Peter Quaife, Ray Avory in 1968.
Conor O'Brien
Darling Arithmetic - The Villagers

Johnny Rogan, one of the best rock biographers of his generation, has delivered a mammoth book on English national treasure Ray Davies. At over 750 pages in length, including exhaustive footnotes and discography, Ray Davies: A Complicated Life (Bodley Head, £25) isn't so much a warts 'n' all biography, as a warts 'n' warts study of the founder of The Kinks.

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Rogan - whom Morrissey famously hoped would be killed in a motorway "pile-up" thanks to his book on The Smiths - goes to considerable lengths to uncover his subject's less pleasant side and even the greatest Davies apologist might have to acknowledge that Ray can be, to put it charitably, difficult. There are copious tales of arguments, fist-fights, meanness and downright nastiness, and Rogan has little trouble assembling a large cast of former acquaintances who are willing to shovel the dirt.

The shadow of his sworn enemy, younger brother Dave, looms large and their decades-long acrimony makes the 'warring' Gallagher brothers look like a pair of petulant schoolchildren. Even before their first flushes of success, the siblings were at each others' throats and their acrimony threatened to tear their band apart at the height of The Kinks' 1960s success.

A measure of how toxic their relationship could be was provided in 1996 when Dave published a biography in which he claimed that their mother, on her deathbed, urged him to "get away from" Ray because of his destructive nature. By that stage, the brothers were communicating solely by fax and that same year, The Kinks were officially wound up. Truthfully, they had been a spent force for years.

The book is flecked with humour too, such as the time the brothers found themselves standing side by side at the funeral of one the many managers they had over the years and wondered aloud if he had faked his own death in order to escape their warring.

But when one strips away the soap opera from the story, the music is left and that's ultimately what Davies will be remembered for. He was barely out of his teens when he wrote 'You Really Got Me' and 'All Day and All of the Night' and was just 22 when he penned the gorgeously reflective 'Waterloo Sunset' which, for most of us, captures the idea of Swinging Sixties London best.

Anybody picking a top 10 of great Kinks songs would likely include a pair from 1970 - the cross-dressing anthem 'Lola' and the hippie-baiting curio 'Apeman' - but, in truth, nothing released after that could match their best tracks from the 1960s. Looking back, it's clear that Davies had peaked artistically at the ripe old age of 26 and he never came close to matching those highs again.

Although, given their due at the time, The Kinks had the misfortune to release their best work when both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were in their pomp. In 1968, they brought out their greatest album, The Village Green Preservation Society, but it was overshadowed by The Beatles' self-titled double LP, popularly known as The White Album, and The Stones' Beggars Banquet.

It was only in the 1990s when Village Green was properly appraised. It helped that many of the bands who were helping to make Britpop a brief global phenomenon were then in thrall to Davies and The Kinks. That was especially the case for Blur's Damon Albarn, who would duet with Davies on a memorable TV recording of 'Waterloo Sunset' and whose songs were, at least in part, indebted to vintage-era Kinks. Davies can't help but have noticed that the lyrics of Blur's 'Country House', which beat Oasis' 'Roll With It' to the number one spot in the summer of 1995, repeated the title of his own 1966 composition, 'House in the Country'.

Unlike some of his peers, Davis never quite enjoyed a late artistic flowering, and although he continues to perform with regularity, his shows are shrouded in a cloak of nostalgic yearning. That is, when he's bothered to make an effort. Several of Rogan's interviewees contend that Davies has a self-destructive streak and there was evidence of that at a truly abysmal concert in The O2, Dublin, back in 2012 when it appeared as though he would rather be doing anything else.

But once upon a time he wrote a batch of perfect pop songs that threw down the gauntlet to the pretenders who followed. That's more than enough.

* Roddy Doyle's Barrytown Trilogy is the choice for Dublin's One City, One Book initiative this year. Tomorrow night sees some of the city's favourite sons and daughters of music pay tribute to Doyle's evocative trio of books at Vicar Street. Glen Hansard, Damien Dempsey, Imelda May are slated to perform at the special show and the line-up also includes actors Aidan Gillen and Peter Cooney (Fran from Love/Hate).

Also playing is the great Richard Hawley (who's from Sheffield, but let's not split hairs). Tickets are €30.

Listen Up: Album of the week

Villagers - Darling Arithmetic

(Domino)

Following up albums as fine as Becoming A Jackal and Awayland would be difficult for anyone, but Conor O'Brien makes it look easy on his beautifully realised third album.

Virtually everything was recorded and mixed by himself at home and this DIY aesthetic pays dividends on songs as spare and honest as 'Courage' and 'The Soul Serene'. The Dubliner may have hidden behind masks in his music before, but he's happy to take centre stage on this occasion and his unabashed songs of love and longing are both personal and universal.

O'Brien has made much about Villagers being a band effort in the past, but Darling Arithmetic sounds like a labour of love for him alone. With a hat-trick of top albums to his name, he's truly joined the ranks of the great Irish songwriters.

Key track: 'The Soul Serene'

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