East of NORMAL

Of royalties and a stiff upper lip

Stuck for a topic, I asked my editor, Moloch, what I should write about. “Write about your favorite band,” he suggested. That’ll work, I thought. And so here we go.
     We’ll get to the music in a moment, but there’s an interesting dynamic between the members that I want to discuss first. On one side of the band we had a crack-shot rhythm section, two young men not given to dramatics or hooliganism. Then you had the two guitarists. They were brothers, and they hated each other. The reason why goes back to the very beginning of their lives, with a family situation that almost never happens.
     In the 1920s, a working-class Englishman named Mr. Davies took a wife. It was a happy marriage, and over the years they had six daughters. Working-class English homes are very small, and the large family’s pip-pip, cheerio, stiff-upper-lip constitutions kept them from bumping into each other all the time.
     Years went by, the daughters grew up, and then, when you would least expect it, Mrs. Davies got pregnant again. But this time they had a boy! They named him Raymond Douglas Davies, and called him Ray.
     With six older sisters, Ray was doted on, spoiled rotten, and precocious. He displayed an early aptitude for music, and he delighted in being the center of attention. Babies of families are often the ones who turn into performers, and Ray was exactly that. Until he was 5 years old. And that is when Mrs. Davies, unbelievably, became pregnant — again! She delivered another boy, whom they named David Russell Gordon Davies, and called Dave.
     Ray’s egocentric, performer’s personality was fully formed, and now there was a new kid in town, and he was the one getting all the lovey- dovey treatment from the older sisters. Ray instantly hated him, and over time Dave learned to hate Ray right back. The notion of the two of them someday forming a band together, and living in vans and buses together for decades, was unthinkable, but that’s what happened. And in 1963, when Ray was 20 and Dave was 14, they became the Kinks, with Mick Avory on drums and Pete Quaife on bass.
     There were two primary activities for the band as they rocketed to the top of the charts: the pounding of pulse-quickening rock & roll with off-the-rails catchiness, plus a distorted guitar sound that had hardly ever yet been heard; and Mick and Pete stepping out of the way whenever Ray and Dave got in a fistfight, an almost daily occurrence. They fought in dressing rooms, they fought over the dinner table, they fought in the recording studio, they even fought onstage. (I saw a goodly shoving match between them onstage in Louisville in 1982.) I interviewed the producer of their early records, Shel Talmy, and he recalled how, one day, the two siblings had an atrocious punch-up in the studio, got it out of their systems, and immediately thereafter recorded the version of “Tired of Waiting” you hear on the radio to this day.
     They rocked harder than the Beatles or the Stones. “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” were perhaps the first head-banging hits in rock’s pantheon of head-banging hits. Dave invented the power chord by slitting the speaker cone on his amp with a razor blade, creating an unholy distortion. Ray wrote the songs, and he sang them. His voice was better than Dave’s, and it became clear before long that Ray was a genius on par with Lennon/McCartney, Pete Townshend, Jagger/Richards, and even Bob Dylan.
     Within a short few years, the band abdicated the head-banging power chord rock & roll for a more reflective type of pop with increasingly sophisticated chord changes and arrangements. Songs like “Autumn Almanac,” “Sunny Afternoon,” and “Shangri-La” adapted the theme of observing British life, the taking of tea, the conservatism, the aforementioned stiff upper lip, the love of the Queen, and so forth.
     Then came the band’s 1967 masterpiece, “Waterloo Sunset” — a gorgeous, encrusted jewel of heartbreaking harmonies accompanying Ray’s poignant story of two lovers crossing over the Thames to share a romance the observer might never know. It’s enough to simply say that the band was good enough to play such a song. It was a long way from “You Really Got Me.”
     The trouble was that their sales were slumping. Beginning in the mid- to late ’60s, the albums were getting better and better, but they weren’t always rocketing to the top of the charts anymore. In 1968, they delivered their magnum opus, the understated and reflective The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. It was arguably the best record anyone’s ever made, and it didn’t even crack the Billboard Top LPs chart. That’s how far they’d fallen.
     Meanwhile, as they were Ray’s songs from the beginning, it was he who collected publishing royalties from them, and he who subsequently got richer than the other lads — just another excuse for right crosses to the jaws.
     With the exception of their surprise monster hit, “Lola,” they otherwise limped through the ’70s, writing and performing rock operas, of all things, and drank to excess onstage. By the end of the decade and into the next they reconnected with their rock & roll roots and had hit singles again: “Superman,” “Low Budget,” and “Come Dancing.” With the latter part of the ’80s came the long, slow final dance. Eventually, the relationship with Ray and Dave (and Dave and Mick Avory, for that matter) just became too sulfurous, and that’s no way to live.
     I’ll close with a story that’s too good to fact check. In 1987, Nashville’s Royal Court of China opened a spate of shows for the legends, and one night, Robert Logue and Oscar Rice found themselves riding in a hotel elevator with the Davies brothers. The rock heroes acted like Robert and Oscar weren’t even there as Dave screamed bloody murder at Ray for skipping over Dave’s solo vocal in the set that night and going to the next song on the list. Ray’s response was measured and matter-of-fact. “Well, Dave,” he said, “they’re here to see me.” WHAM!! POW!!
     Ah, Ray and Dave, their lives started with fights and will probably end with them, in the old folks’ home, in wheelchairs, playing chicken. Rocking to the end.