Jim Sullivan revisits his years in conversation with the Kinks guitar great
It was July of 1980 and I was just a year into my freelancing life for the Boston Globe. I’d been a Kinks fan for years – on record, in concert – and, as it happened, so was my editor. I pitched the piece and she imme-diately said to go for it.
This was to be my first meet-up with either of the Davies brothers, and it was lead guitarist Dave. The Kinks were on hiatus and Dave was making the rounds in America to promote his debut solo album for RCA entitled AFL1-3603. I’d worked in record stores. I knew immediately what the title referred to: It was same as its catalogue number, a clever little jab at what the record companies called “product.” This album was just a number in RCA’s system. (Public image, Ltd. did something similar a decade later by releasing the same audio product, variously titled Album, CD and Cassette. In 1982, Flipper named its debut LP, Generic.)
I would meet Ray, the lead singer-rhythm guitarist and main songwriter a year later, and do a massive, in-depth interview in Minneapolis.
Dave had written a handful of songs. “Susannah’s Still Alive” was one of my favorites. It was initially released as a Dave single in England where it hit No. 20, but considered a Kinks song on The Kinks Kronikles comp. That’s where I and most American Kinks fans first heard it. (The Kinks all played on the song.) And, of course, there was Dave’s biggest Kinks hit, “Death of a Clown.”
Dave and I met in a Cambridge hotel room. The soft-spoken guitarist projected a comfortable vibe from the get-go. How, I asked, did Dave think his music differed from Ray’s?
“I think there are things in Ray and myself that are very similar in the core,” he said, “but we express them in a very opposite way. Ray’s more intellectually orientated and I feel I’m more of a feeling, emotional kind. In a way, it was a great lesson for me to be in the shadow of Ray for all that time. It made me, in a sense, develop a different slant on my place in the setup, to give me validity, if you like. This album is like opening a little door; maybe it’s the beginning of a creative time for me.”
Thirty-eight years later – with many interviews/reviews behind us – I resurrected that old quote and asked Dave if he still stood by it. By that point, there were eight more albums under his name, including the latest, Decade, and one, Open Road, with son, Russ.
“I think so,” he said. “I think on reflection I always felt the Kinks were a collaboration. I think that Ray and I were important, who are still I hope much longer, important, inter-acting. When I look back over the years, it’s like when I was writing [the album] Rippin’ Up Time  and I wrote about the old days and how we started and it made you think of eras and times and albums we’d gone through. It’s pretty powerful when you put it all together. I’ve always felt that when we really were in sync, emotionally, it’s quite powerful.”
Some backstory: In “Death of a Clown,” a song Dave technically co-wrote with Ray, hit No. 3 on the British charts. (Ray apparently contributed the five-bar “La la la” hook.) It was thought by many back then that the younger, lesser-known Davies might launch a prosperous offshoot solo career.
Dave didn’t really think so. Although he had recorded enough tracks for an album (with the rest of the Kinks backing him), it was never released and Dave slipped comfortably back into his role as a Kink: Lead guitarist, backup singer, occasional songwriter.
“I didn’t really know why I was doing that album,” Davies recalled. “I think I felt a bit pressurized into doing it and I made a half-hearted attempt in a small eight-track studio.”
“Death of a Clown” became somewhat of a millstone for him. In the liner notes to The Kink Kronikles, John Mendelsohn recalled a 1969 concert where Dave charged to the mic to sing his hit and two lines into the song yelled, “I can’t remember the fucking words!”
“That was true,” Davies said with a sheepish laugh.
Although “Death of a Clown” was a clear example that Dave could write a great pop song, he wasn’t a prolific writer, and none of the few songs he later wrote matched it. Naturally Ray wouldn’t let Dave forget his one and only triumph. In various early-’70s concerts (one of which is documented on Everybody’s in Show Biz) Ray repeatedly would introduce his brother with lines such as, “Let’s have a big hand for Dave ‘Death of a Clown’ Davies on guitar.”
“He used to do that to really irritate me,” Dave said with a smile. “He knew I hated it – oh, the fucking names I called him! I’d scream at him and he’d keep doing it and then I’d turn up a bit louder.”
AUDIO: The Kinks “Death of a Clown”
I’ve spent a lot of time with both Dave, who turns 75 Feb. 3, and Ray over the years. Separately, of course. In separate limos, in separate hotel rooms, on separate phone lines. It seemed a little odd at first, their enforced separateness offstage, but then I realized they’d spent decades together –growing up in their Muswell Hills home with six older sisters, in the studio, on stage, on planes.
They each had their own ideas about things, and neither one minded when I had interview time slated with the other. They knew they were the key Kinks, and each had worthy takes on the band. (No disrespect to founding drummer Mick Avory and the late bassist Pete Quaife, nor many of the others who’ve worked under the Kinks banner.)
And then there was “Scattered” (from the LP Phobia, 1993).
Written by Ray, it’s a buried gem, a song where a complicated emotional ride is spun out in just over four minutes. “Ray wrote it during the time that me and Ray lost our mother,” said Dave, “and I think embedded within the lyrics and the feeling is a tribute our mother, who was really – I don’t know if Ray would agree – but in my view, she was like my first guru, my spiritual mentor. I think it’s very special for a lot of reasons that are probably not obvious at first. Ray likes to hide his feelings within a lot of other meanings.”
The accompanying video is lovely, with Ray and Dave together in the front seat of the car, with Dave driving. (Ray didn’t drive until late in life.) The song is nothing but upbeat in melody and rhythm and the images of death – ashes to be scattered, a funeral service in the video – put dying in a cyclic context, the inevitable end of a life well-lived. There’s sadness, yes, but as Ray sings: “To the fields we scattered/From the day that we’re born to grow wild and sleep rough/Till from the earth we are torn/And a soul that is free can live on eternally.”
“I loved making that video,” says Dave. “It was a chance to be together but not in a flashy over-emotional way.”
VIDEO: The Kinks “Scattered”
Some samples of how I’ve heard directly from them about their back-and-forth over the years.
From that 1980 interview: Dave said he and his brother still had flare-ups but they were less violent: “We kind of laugh about it now … It’s silly really, acting like overgrown children.”
In 1984 I was talking with Ray about Dave. “I love him,” Ray said, softly. “But sometimes … he’s family …and I don’t really like family.”
I was talking to Dave in 1993 before a rare Kinks club gig in Boston. I asked where the situation with Ray currently stood. “It’s not that I really hate him, though I hate him at times,” Dave explained. “I suppose I find him more irritating and exasperating.”
And in 1999, Dave, during a stop on a solo tour, told me, “I think the thing is: There’s always going to be love; I’m always going to love my brother. I might not like his personality, but it doesn’t prevent me from loving him. I don’t hate his works because he can be difficult.”
During a BBC Channel 4 interview in 2018, Ray was asked if he was close to his brother. Did they get on? “I’d like to say no,” Ray said with a slight smile, “but my brother is much brighter than I am. I’m kind of a lost soul, really, but he’s very in touch with his spirit, his soul, the cosmos and he’s very ethereal. And he’s very good at chess. So, he’s got this combination of math and artistic endeavor.”
“We didn’t write that much together,” Ray told Channel 4, of working with Dave in the Kinks, “but again, he knows what I’m thinking and in the studio it’s much easier to do that. …The Kinks had that telepathy, and my brother, we grew up with one another.”
Asked if they still fought, Ray said, “Not total violence. Just occasional violence. It’s tapered off down the years and other people would be the punch bag.”
Dave wrote a memoir, Kink, in 1997. When it came out, I reviewed it for the Boston Globe, writing, in part, “It is often a hoot — sometimes intentionally so, sometimes not. It’s also a groaner at times, as a numbing cavalcade of rock cliches rolls over you. Davies has a heart and a soul, a certain naive sweet nature, but this is mainly an account of a debauched, if occasionally creative, life. It’s a sordid, squalid run-through of semi-stimulating/semi-stultifying encounters — stories of nonstop sex (girls, boys, whomever), drugs (whaddaya got?), and rock ‘n roll (the louder the better). Up until the alien voices come calling and a form of religion knocks on his door. It’s also a story about respect and extreme sibling rivalry.
“The dominant theme of the book is wreckage: emotional, physical, outward, inward. Davies wrote, of a recording session in Germany: “I sat on the stool and performed my little song, with the technicians and floor manager sneering at me from behind the cameras. As I sang I felt an overwhelming desire to go to sleep. I struggled to stay awake, praying inwardly, `Please God, let it be over. Please.’ I finally got through it and was led back to my dressing room where I fell into a deep alcohol-and-drug-induced sleep. All this time my friend was in the bar with the two hookers. I don’t remember going back to England, but I must have. Of course I did, didn’t I?”
He’s got another memoir. Living On a Thin Line, coming later out July 7. I’m guessing it may have a more reflective, spiritual tone.
In 2015, I caught Dave and his backing band at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston. It was a spirited show, mostly Kinks songs and some solo material. The song that will be the title of the new memoir is one of the best in their catalog and was a highlight of his solo gig. Dave sang, “All the wars that were won and lost/Somehow don’t seem to matter very much anymore/All the lies we were told/All the lies of the people running ‘round, their castles have burned.”
AUDIO: The Kinks “Living On A Thin Line”
We were talking post-show, having a rather friendly and feisty chinwag, not an interview per se, and I said, almost apologetically, “You know me, Dave. I’m a journalist. I gotta ask: What are the chances of a Kinks reunion?”
Dave shrugged a familiar shrug. “Fair,” he said.
In a jocular, if black-humored, manner, I followed up with, “Jesus, Dave, you know one of you will die at some point and then there can’t be a reunion.” He winced. Dave had had a stroke in 2004 and it took him a couple years to recover. He seemed taken aback and maybe he’d come too close to death to joke about it. I immediately rushed in by blurting, “I don’t mean now! Not soon! I just mean … inevitably. We all die.”
Dave smiled ruefully and said, as always, a reunion was up to Ray.
The brothers worked on a handful of songs in early 2016 – “embryonic ideas and lyrics, bits and pieces,” Dave said – and a Kinks reunion was a possibility.
“We were working together and that we were getting on pretty good now – touch wood, touch wood – we’ll have to see,” said Dave. “Sometimes you have to let nature take its course. Maybe there will never be another Kinks album; then again me and Ray worked on the demos project [so] we might feel that need to actually do something. Who knows? If you force something, it never works.”
As to any real reunion – I’ve seen the various teases and denials – I’d say a studio album (or some tracks released) is a slight possibility and a tour much less likely. And, really, that’s all OK. What the brothers Davies – and the various other Kinks – have given us over the years is mighty strong stuff, eternal if you will. The Kinks ‘60s songs are dear to my heart, but so are many of the latter-day ones in the ‘70s and ‘80s – the ‘80s being their more “hard rock” era when they broke through to arena status.
I think now of two of my favorite Kinks songs, “Nothing Lasts Forever” and “No More Looking Back.”
AUDIO: The Kinks “Nothing Lasts Forever”
AUDIO: The Kinks “No More Looking Back”