Vintage Davies Brothers
Maybe the promotional acetates are out of reach for Davies’ collectors – but Kinks’ memorabilia on affordable auction this month includes a full-page advertisement for their February 1982 Australian tour. Michael George Smith was there.
A little Low Budget lowdown on The Kinks
“The Beatles made it because the people wanted a Beatles, not because they were great.” Not that Ray Davies for one moment didn’t think The Beatles were great. Sitting in the sadly long-gone Sebel Townhouse restaurant in Sydney’s Kings Cross back in April 1982, a week after his band The Kinks had completed that year’s Australian tour, he was pondering the whole idea of being in the right place at the right time.
“I was just lucky to be where I was when I was,” he suggested self-effacingly. “The artist doesn’t change things. The people make him when the things he creates coincide with what the people want. There are guys that are playing in little bars everywhere that are just as good and better than a lot of the stars, but they just don’t get the luck. They’re in the wrong place.”
After the fall…
While in the 70s The Kinks remained one of the seminal British bands, the decade hadn’t been quite as embracing of Ray Davies’ musical vision as had the ‘60s, as he, like so many of his contemporaries, began to explore themes and ideas well beyond the three-minute pop song and into the realms of the “concept album”. For The Kinks, that meant each album being less successful than the one before. Things started to turn around again with the release of their Sleepwalker album in 1977, which reached #21 on the Billboard chart.
Then came punk…
More importantly for Davies, then came New Wave, 1979’s Low Budget album and a return to the quintessential three-minute pop song format.
“Before New Wave,” he explained to me that afternoon at the Sebel, “the only thing I could relate to was Paddington reggae. With New Wave, I felt that here was something I could relate to, ‘cause there’s an element in me that just wants to make a statement and use a simple method of making that statement. Just because you’ve been around making records for a long time doesn’t mean that everything you do has got to sound like you’ve been around a long time.
“I get cynical about my own writing sometimes because I’ve been on the other side,” Davies said, noting his work producing records for The Kinks and other artists. “With Low Budget, I said, ‘You’re going to spend as little time as possible mixing this thing and getting the sound. You’re going to get a sound you’re happy with and go with it.’ If the song’s good, it’ll carry it. So I worked much faster because of that.” Low Budget took a month to write, another to record and reached #11 in the US, earning The Kinks their second US gold album.
One For the Road
That was followed by 1980’s live double-LP One For The Road, another US gold album for The Kinks, selling half a million-plus copies and reaching #14 on the Billboard chart. “Selecting stuff for One For The Road, technically, with The Kinks, it’s more about atmosphere than anything else. And even the studio stuff we’ve done, when things have really worked – Lola for example, for some reason, has atmosphere. I think all the great hits – thinking right back to early Beatles hits – I Wanna Hold Your Hand had atmosphere. Even Sex Pistols had atmosphere. So that’s what I have to consider when doing a Kinks live album.”
Give the People What They Want
The title of their next album said it all – Give The People What They Want – another US gold release peaking at #15 on the Billboard chart. The uncredited voice of The Pretenders’ singer Chrissie Hynde, who Davies was dating at the time, features on four songs on the album – Predictable, Add It Up, Art Lover and A Little Bit Of Abuse. It’s funny to recall Davies’ record company rep at the time asking me not under any circumstances to ask him any questions about Chrissie Hynde!
The first single off the album, Better Things, reached #12 on the Billboard Rock Top tracks, their only successful single release in the early ‘80s, though even then it only managed #92 on Billboard’s main Hot 100 chart.
Not only, but also…
Davies might have set aside the whole “concept album” thing as far as The Kinks were concerned, but he was still enamoured of the whole theatrical possibilities in the making of music and 1981 saw him present his first stage musical, Chorus Girls, written with dramatist Barrie Keeffe, best known for his screenplay for the British gangster classic The Long Good Friday, starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. Opening in London’s Theatre Royal in 1981, the plot of Chorus Girls was never really going to stand the test of time.
The idea centred around the kidnapping of Prince Charles, played by Marc Sinden, son of actor Donald Sinden, by a group of activists determined to save their local theatre building from being demolished. Jim Rodford, who by then was playing bass in The Kinks, featured in the musical comedy’s “house band”.
“The hardest part of any musical is getting a decent plot for it,” Davies admitted to me. “I don’t feel that slapping together a bunch of songs with similar themes can produce a really great musical. A strong plot line is essential.”
Lessons from musical theatre…
“It demands a whole new sense of technique,” Davies pointed out to me, “an approach very different to songwriting. You have to learn a whole new kind of audience involvement, techniques that demand a greater sense of character. I’ve always been interested in character study and I’m approaching the albums in a similar way now, where I develop a kind of ‘narrator’ for a song and try to develop some thematic consistency across the album through the characters of the songs. That’s not to say that it’s heading back to the concept albums idea but I want to create a better idea of what I’m trying to say with each track.”
As much of his subsequent work, including his autobiography, makes clear, the idea of The Narrator has become one of the most important devices in the now Sir Ray Davies’ creative oeuvre.
By Michael George Smith, former Associate and Contributing editor at The Drum Media and The Music, freelance music journalist for RAM, Juke, On The Street, JAMM, Sonics and way more, freelance book reviewer for Overland, Island and Quadrant, author of What’s Been Did (And What’s Been Hid): A Narrative History of Australian Pop and Rock, three volumes completed to date, Volume I covering the artists and acts that emerged between 1955 and 1963, Volume II those between 1964 and 1969, and Volume III those between 1970 and 1976. Bass player with Mushroom signing Scandal 1976-78, and legendary instrumental surf guitar band The Atlantics 2006-12.