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Cover story: Ray Davies

| December 4, 2009

And Then The Chorus Hits


He might have been a fit for Monty Python. When we met him in the ’60s, Kinks frontman Ray Davies was one of many shaggy-haired Brits ripping back the fabric of traditional mores. “You Really Got Me” and “All Day And All Of The Night” remain two of the most explosive ordinance pieces in British Invasion arsenal, fever-pitch teen anthems that gleefully Indian-burned the status quo.

Later, however, (partly because The Kinks were pushed away from American soil) Davies turned his band on the homeland. Before the Pythons skewered the islands on television, Kinks albums jumped on the back of the crumbling, post-war Empire and pulled at the Queen’s skirt. Through Arthur, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, and Lola Vs. Powerman he impishly eulogized the old order while the rest of the rock universe was tripping balls at love-ins and cranking their amps to 11.

Get Davies on the phone, though, and you’re not speaking the jolly sarcasm of a John Cleese or Eric Idle. This particular late-October afternoon he’s full of measured answers while explaining his latest project, The Kinks Choral Collection (Decca). Pillorying Labour or Tory issues takes a backseat to a semi-exhausted English grumble/mumble with the occasional, Beefeater-dry witticism.

He has been so consumed with details for the past two years that you can’t blame him if he’s not in the mood to entertain. Under fire from his brother/ex-bandmate Dave for indulging in “Kinks karaoke,” the elder Davies is keen to express how much work went into the Choral Collection.

“I want to emphasize that this isn’t a re-recording of Kinks songs,” he says, “because I could never better those recordings. For all their faults, those records stand on their own. I wanted to interpret these songs in a slightly different way.”

He’s aware of what people might be thinking: arrogant, aging rock aristocrat believes himself so blessed that he presents old work as if it’s been kissed by God. Tampering with bronzed songs is rarely well-received (Google “let it be naked; mccartney, paul”), and should you venture into classical-music ornamentation you might as well start drafting a press release detailing your struggles with alcohol.

Davies thinks he has a get-out-of-jail-free card. “It came about in a strange way,” he says. “I’d done a choral piece of new music, 10 years ago, already. I enjoyed working with a choir — in that case it was with a symphony orchestra, part of a commissioned piece I did for a festival. When Working Man’s Cafe [his 2007 solo album] came out in the U.K., I played the Electric Proms in London, which was a big TV event and I remembered some of the choir people and got them involved. We did some, just a few Kinks songs; I picked the obvious [songs], no-brainers like ‘Waterloo Sunset,’ which has really great backing vocals on the record.”

The piece he worked on a decade ago, a favorite topic among Davies cultists, goes by the name Flatlands. A logical extension of his obsession with British history, he found himself overwhelmed. “It was based on an English myth of George and the dragons and a lot of epic proportions. I had to write it in three months, and a lot of people take two years to do these things. I’d like to go back and finetune it. Bring it up, have it performed and maybe recorded.”

The irony is though Choral Collection wouldn’t exist without Flatlands, the latter can only now be finished because of the former.

“I want to go back to it, because it was a very challenging piece. But that was all new music,” Davies explains. “Now, if I did another record, I’d be a little more adventurous. Maybe I’d have the confidence to do that sort of stuff. It was a learning experience as well.”

Regardless of his former bandmates’ protestations, using Kinks material helped him unlock some choral mysteries not only because he knows the material inside and out, but rock ‘n’ roll is so simple.

“‘Waterloo Sunset’ was a note-for-note rendition with 60 people singing instead of three,” Davies says, almost dismissively. “When it got to songs like ‘Shangri-La,’ I wanted to bring the choir in as part of the music more, make them be proactive in the arrangement. ‘Shangri-La’ really works on that level. It was a song that really made me think this would be a worthwhile project. The Proms was really successful; record company said, ‘Would you record an album?'”

— Steve Forstneger

For the full interview, grab the December issue of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.

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  1. Bez says:

    Great article. Ray is truly a treasure.

  2. Dave Davies says:

    It is now time to reform The Kinks and make a new Kinks album.

  3. Steve L says:

    Didn’t 4 people sing on the original Waterloo Sunset (including Ray’s wife)? The backing vocals are so superb that an entire choir could not surpass them. Kudos to Ray, Dave, Pete, and Rasa.

  4. Dave Davies says:

    Dave Davies says:
    December 7, 2009 at 1:18 pm
    It is now time to reform The Kinks and make a new Kinks album.

    Where do you get your information from -I did not say this – there are many outstanding issues before this can even be considered
    Yours sincerely,

    Dave Davies (The Kinks)

  5. Collibosher says:

    You tell ’em, Dave!