Ray Davies finally irons out the Kinks
The singer finds a fresh approach to songwriting on a solo record.
During the course of an hour-long phone interview with 20 journalists, Ray Davies variously refers to what happened Jan. 5, 2004, as "the incident," "the accident," or when he "got injured." He does not recall it as the time when he was shot in the leg pursuing the man who stole his then-girlfriend's purse while they walked along a New Orleans street. Maybe it's just semantics.
For any other artist, such an episode might be a pivotal point for lyric writing. But for Davies, the singer and songwriter of The Kinks, it's neither the focus for the songs of his first "official" solo album, "Other People's Lives" - most of which was written prior to the mugging - nor for a discussion with journalists.
Like much of Davies's four decades worth of material, many of the tunes on the album "were inspired by characters who live probably 100 yards from me," says the resident of North London.
"It's so very localized," says the veteran rocker. "But it also picks up on the ironic facets of English culture. English people are a bit wistful and mundane, and I like people that have little quirks in their lives and [who are] lower-achieving people. I think they're worth writing about.''
Nonetheless, it's fitting that some of the themes of the record deal with the idea of rising above adversity.
The Kinks began with a loud bang in 1964, exploding with the ecstatic, if tortured, vocal and distorted two-chord guitar riff of "You Really Got Me.'' In short order, The Kinks developed into one of Britain's top bands, albeit an under-appreciated one when matched against the Beatles, The Who, or The Rolling Stones. Davies was one of rock's sharpest writers, a man who could be sentimental, self-deprecating, and sarcastic - a lyricist both humanistic and humorous. He could write about something as simple as not being able to afford gasoline ("A Gallon of Gas'') or the lies of politicians and the faults with both capitalism and socialism (the "Preservation" rock opera).
A primary theme on "Other People's Lives'' concerns characters struggling with ennui and inertia.
"There are a lot of issues on this record," says Davies. "It's a lot to do with identity - finding a new identity, as in the person who gets that 'lonesome train' at the end'' of the song "The Getaway (Lonesome Train)." "It's a key track for me because it's got this fade-out and there's a deep voice saying, 'Get out, make a move, get on with your life, that lonesome train's coming, and if you don't get off it, you stay on it by yourself forever.' There's that haunting feeling to it," he concludes, before adding, "Every age has its own crisis points. There are a lot of crisis points on this record.''
Davies's identity quest intensified during the mid- to late- 1990s. He says he began to figure out more who he was and how the songwriter related to the performer, when he conceived and performed a touring show in 1995 called "The Storyteller." It was a mix of Kinks music and informative chat, accompanied by guitarist Pete Mathison.
With Davies moving forward in his post-Kinks career, what has he learned and what has changed? "When I was with The Kinks it was easier, in a sense. There was a template then. Even though the albums are all different and the music was quite diverse, I knew what I was writing," he says. "With this record, I had to dig deep and find out who I was as a singer, and who to cast the songs for before I could start thinking about whether they worked or not."
During the interview, Davies expresses pride in The Kinks work, ambivalence (as always) toward his younger brother, ex-Kinks guitarist Dave, and a certain satisfaction in having influenced generations of rock bands. Those include punk bands from the mid-'70s, Blur and Oasis in the mid-'90s, and current groups such as Franz Ferdinand, the Kaiser Chiefs, and Arctic Monkeys.
Davies is currently in the midst of a 15-date North American tour with a backing trio. During the 2-1/2-hour shows, he's playing more than half the new album with the rest consisting of reimagined Kinks songs. Davies's selling points for the concerts? They're for "anyone who likes singer-songwriters and likes a bit of a kick in the drums, a bit of punch, and likes a half-decent rock show and some interesting lyrics and subtext."