After breaking the sound barrier in 1964 with “You Really Got Me,” the Kinks have flitted in and out of American cultural consciousness for more than 50 years. They helped kick start the garage rock revolution with their crunchy early singles, but thanks to an undeserved touring ban in America, the U.K. band with a volatile reputation disappeared from U.S. airwaves not long after — despite crafting a string of ’60s albums now recognized as masterpieces. Eventually, they re-emerged in the ’70s as a blockbuster arena act before splitting in the ’90s, even as critics retroactively assigned them historical importance on par with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Today, the band — founded by brothers and occasional frenemies Ray and Dave Davies in 1963 — is dormant, but not dead, and hardly spent. 2015 has seen two excellent Kinks compilations hit the market, both the two-disc Sunny Afternoon: The Very Best Of and the massive The Anthology: 1964-1971. The former is a companion piece to the West End play Sunny Afternoon, a musical that tells the story of the outfit’s formation in a working class suburb of London.
Whether by dint of his own golden years or the 21st century’s obsession with nostalgia for past eras (something he mined long before it was creatively en vogue), Ray Davies has been especially open to looking back on his life lately. Aside from the aforementioned musical, the Kinks frontman released his autobiography, Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story, in 2013, and is readying a solo album of the same name — a nod to his boyhood obsession with American music — for a release “soon.”
With the Kinks’ early days on his mind but a new album on the horizon, Ray Davies spoke with Billboard about everything from the Kinks’ tour ban in the ’60s to music in the digital era to what he thinks about new U.K hitmakers like Adele. And yes, he also talks about that elusive Kinks reunion.
The Kinks are now placed in a “Big 4” of ’60s bands: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and the Kinks. But the Kinks experienced less chart success in the U.S. than the other three. Why do you think that was — was it just the tour ban, or do you think it was something different about your sound?
You had the hits: “You Really Got Me,” “Tired of Waiting,” but the tour ban unfortunately put a hold on our career. We couldn’t tour America for four years. And inevitably in the days where TV channels and radio [set the conversation], you fell off. But we restored that when we came back.
Did you care at the time?
I was confused. I was 22, 20 when it happened, my brother was 17, and we were very confused. We were cut off in our prime by the country that inspired us — America banned us. I have to say I went into a bit of a depression for a few years. But then I went back to writing music about England and eventually connected in what they call the underground… Village Green was slightly less of the world. We fell off the radar in America, but English music resonated in the underground in America because it was the Vietnam War at the time. That album harkens back to a better time and I think the underground music [fans] in America embraced it. And when we eventually went out on tour again, they were what you call cult hits. It was a struggle coming to America because we were embroiled in management disputes, but without touring we would have gone broke. Thankfully we restored our image and we able to tour again, although it was a long climb back, as my book Americana illustrates.
When you came back you were touring huge arenas. Did that change your musical direction? The Kinks sound seems to have gotten more commercial in the ’70s.
We signed to RCA and went on a very eclectic tour with a concept record redefining our image, and having theater rock with soap opera. When we signed with Clive Davis at Arista [RCA operated Arista until 2011], we went to Clive’s flat in New York and got in touch with the American culture as much as you can. That helped give us sign posts. One of our big comeback albums was a record called Low Budget. It bridged the gap between Cockney working class singing and American blue collar, which was going through a crisis at the time.
One thing I love about your music is the recurrence of working class themes, from “Get Back In Line” to Low Budget. Not a lot of bands talk about those themes these days.
Well, I didn’t take up a cause, I didn’t become a folk singer for the working class, but I am from a working class background and I wrote about what I knew about. When we did “Sunny Afternoon” I was thinking about how my father told me about the Great Depression — he was old enough to have lived through it, that happened in America as well. So it was stories handed down, almost like folk music. I think working class has disappeared slightly [in Britain], I think they’re becoming an underclass. Middle-upper is one class, and rich and poor another. Whereas in America, I think it’s big enough and geographically diverse enough to allow working class. And I think the advent of technology and e-commerce made it possible for people in the working class without a job to have an iPhone, which connects them to the World Wide Web, which makes anything possible. People can have different identities. Whether it’s a good or bad thing, it gives people connectivity. Which leads people to think, “I can aspire to something more than what my origins are.” Whereas in the ’60s, I was very rooted in my origins and celebrated it. I’m not saying they’re ashamed of it, but I think this is the aspirational generation now — you can be anything you want on the Internet in Britain and America.
The Internet has also changed music consumption enormously. Do you think that’s been a detriment or a positive?
There are three answers to that. Let’s start with free is bad for music makers. Second answer is that anybody can make a record now because of the technical advances, make their own record and put in on CD. A young artist starting out today will be able to make a CD whether they get a record deal or not. And that’s good. And then the third answer is for new artists, though it’s good that all these things can happen, new artists embrace the corporate world more than we did when we started out. Artists that start out now are very aware and very savvy about the corporate world and embrace it. Therefore — not being critical — the music ends up being slightly corporate-driven.
Yes, almost all artists today have a strong online presence. Do you use social media personally?
I don’t have a Twitter account, I don’t do Facebook. I think I have a Facebook page but I don’t personally do it. I write [music] using a computer and I play guitar into a computer, but I don’t do Twitter or Facebook.
Do you find writing on a computer easier?
The problem is, in the days when the Kinks started with “You Really Got me,” you would go to a sophisticated studio and make a very basic record. Now you can do very sophisticated home recording and it’s limitless with what one can achieve with sampling, etc. I’ve been working on a new record called Americana and I’ve got the luxury of 120 songs to choose from. If I had limitations with technology, I’d probably hone this album down quicker. But I’m recording on Konk instead of tape.
What do you think about the current crop of British hitmakers, like Adele or Ed Sheeran?
I always listen to whatever I can that’s interesting to listen to, that grabs my ear. Adele — she’s a performer, she has a wonderful voice. Ed Sheeran is an interesting vocalist. But I think generally speaking they’re the newer artists that have embraced the corporate world and therefore a lot of their music sounds very corporate. Not saying it’s wrong to be that way. I prefer the cutting edge of music.
Gosh, of course you’d ask and I can’t think of a name. But computers allow your expectations to be more ambitious. A lot of new music looks to the past. Ed Sheeran might write what sounds like a Marvin Gaye song and Adele has a powerhouse of a voice and I think she’d be successful in any era. But I think young artists are more savvy about the music industry these days. I think it’s probably easier to be an artist now than when the Kinks started.
What about new albums from Paul McCartney, or Dylan’s Sinatra covers album, or your brother’s new album — do you keep up with those?
I don’t go out and buy Paul McCartney records, but I’m interested in what he’s doing. My brother, it’s great he’s producing new music. I think Bob Dylan is admirable in doing covers. Everyone can do what they want. I personally want to write new material and to each his own, as they say.
It’s been a while — can we expect something in the next year?
Well, I had a book out year and a half ago called Americana and there are 100 some songs with that I need to start recording. And I’ve been fact-checking this musical called Sunny Afternoon that’s become a hit in the West End, so that took a year out. The last few years have been dedicated to that. But there is music coming.
What about a Kinks reunion? Dave said he’s open to one.
It really depends. This is always my answer: If we make it relevant to new music. Not saying we need a new album, but it’s got to relate to new music. Because it’s impossible just to do the hits. I like playing the hits, I just did a solo tour, but when the Kinks get back together, I need to be inspired to write new material. We made experimental records and our success fluctuated because of that. My catchphrase right now is “feel free to fail.” Because you gotta try, even if you don’t succeed. At least you tried. That was my approach with the Kinks, and it paid off for the most part. But when it was bad it was awful.
What is bad Kinks to you?
Not bad necessarily, but symbolic of the time it was done.
Anything else you want to add?
Americana is coming soon.