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Friday, June 28, 2013
As he prepares for a massive gig in Hyde Park, the Kinks legend talks to Alex Bellotti about David Cameron, North London and a Kinks reunion
As A Day in the Life segued into that familiar cascade of acoustic strums, a pristine black taxi pulled up between replicas of Elizabeth Tower and the London Eye. In one of the warmest moments of the Olympics Closing Ceremony, Ray Davies emerged from the doors with a royal wave as Waterloo Sunset burst into life around him.
“Once I’d sung the song, I got back in the car and took it down to the pub to watch the rest of the ceremony on TV. I didn’t…what’s the word…schmaltz? There was no schmaltzing, I wasn’t into any of that.”
What else would you expect from Ray Davies? Part heart-rending melody maker, part satirical commentator, the former Kinks frontman has always favoured public houses and village greens over the world stage.
Now firmly a British institution himself, does he ever tire of being regarded as a godfather of old Britannia, that ‘quintessentially English’ artist?
“I feel people call me that when they have nothing to say,” he replies, half through a sigh.
Probably shouldn’t mention then that this is exactly how an impressive trio of musicians, Davies included, appearing at Hyde Park this July have been described.
Why does he think he and his stage mates, Elton John and Elvis Costello, are so often described this way?
“Well the other two might point to different reasons, but I think it’s because I’ve always sung in an English accent. Not mentioning any names, but there are a lot of big artists who sing in this kind of transatlantic drawl.
“Back when the Kinks were recording Come Dancing, which was a big hit in the States, the record company actually asked me to sing it in more of an American accent. I just refused.”
In many ways a punk before Punk, Davies has rarely bent to the demands of the music industry. “I don’t get along with establishments in general,” he adds, with just enough sharpness to suggest why his name isn’t paraded around the newspaper circuit too often.
“The changes in the music industry mean it’s still a game to be played, more than ever in fact. I just try to step outside as much as possible.”
When it came to the Olympics though Davies is the first to admit it was a “great honour” to be asked to perform. Insisting that it was about the song rather than his presence, the Highgate resident only has one regret.
“I would’ve liked The Kinks to have done it in truth but, you know, we unfortunately weren’t around as the band.”
The words come as somewhat of a surprise. Considering the highly publicised rift between Ray and his bandmate brother, Dave Davies, reunion hopes from either would seem wishful thinking. The former, however, welcomes the idea.
“If we were still relevant and had new music to perform, I’d be up for it. The thing is, you’ve got to keep evolving – I always have new interests.
“I’m listening to Bulgarian folk songs at the moment, some Swedish music – a lot of different stuff. What people don’t realise is that the Kinks have fans all over the world. Well, maybe not the Middle East, but basically everywhere else.”
Listen to the Indian influences of 1965 hit See My Friends and it is clear Davies isn’t bluffing. The musically innovative side of The Kinks is often underrated but perhaps that is because it is overshadowed by some of the sharpest lyrics ever written about these shores.
“I started school in Muswell Hill in the late 1950s and I saw that this empire we had was collapsing. I wouldn’t call my songs nostalgic as such, they’re more wistful and humourous.
“Then there’s some like You Really Got Me and All Day and All of the Night which are angry – punk even.”
Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that for someone recently chosen to perform in front of royalty, many of his songs are openly critical of working class conditions.
Other songs, like Sunny Afternoon, comically mock the sort of privileged caricatures often found in political newspaper cartoons.
“I was in Singapore once and bumped into Noel Coward, who was a great writer and musician in his own right. He said to me ‘always keep a smile on your face when singing about anything that makes you angry.”
In this spirit, I am reminded of Morrissey’s horrified reaction to finding out David Cameron listens to The Smiths. The Mancunian subsequently declared that the Prime Minister was “not allowed” to listen to The Smiths. How would Davies react if Mr Cameron admitted an admiration for The Kinks?
“I’d say he has excellent taste,” Davies laughs. “I’m surprised he likes The Smiths actually, they have that grittiness, that ‘looking up at the stars from the gutter’ mentality. You’d imagine him liking something more like pomp rock.”
We move onto the topic of North London, of Highgate and home. Immediately, Davies’ surprisingly shy demeanour softens and suddenly he is even asking the questions.
“Since we’ve been talking about Britishness and flag-waving,” he says, “if there was a flag of North London, what do you think would be on it?”
Quickly trying to reverse the question, I mumble something generic about hills and Alexandra Palace. Presumably he’s thought about it himself?
“Yes, quite a bit, but I’m still not sure. What would it be? Probably something like a cappuccino cup…”
Consumerist gripes aside (“the green on Highgate Hill has no phone reception, it’s great”), Davies has always held a great affection for the area he lives in and grew up in.
A writer and painter as well as a musician, he recently opened up Konk Studios in Muswell Hill for an art show and hopes to stage his own exhibition there in a few years.
How, then, will he cope with having to shift centrally for the British Summertime festival?
“I said I’ll only play this thing if I can bring my own box and stand up at Hyde Park Corner.
“What would I say? It’d have to be a big political statement, wouldn’t it? Well, I’ve got a few weeks, I’ll get thinking.”
Whatever he says, you know how it will be delivered – with a very, whisper it, ‘British’ brand of honesty and that quintessential Davies wit.
Ray Davies plays Barclaycard Presents British Summer Time Hyde Park on July 12. Elton John headlines the night, with support from Elvis Costello and Gabrielle Aplin. Tickets are available from bst-hydepark.com