When I found out that today was Ray Davies' 68th birthday, I knew I had to pay tribute to him somehow. The man's music over the years has played such a large part in pop culture (or at least pop culture as this writer has experienced it).
Since the internet loves hyperbole, and I like hyperbole, and most readers I know are somewhat partial to hyperbole, I tried to come up with something hyperbolic to say about Ray Davies. But it was harder. My last entry was about how Rory Gallagher was the greatest electric guitarist of all time. A different post that I'm almost done with is about how Tinariwen are the greatest live act on tour today.
But what about Ray Davies? He's a good stage performer. His voice has limited powers. His guitar-playing is about average (his brother Dave was the Kink responsible for the famous Kinks guitar sound) He's a great songwriter, but he's not Hoagy Carmichael, or even Bob Dylan or Carole King- you can admire his songcraft, but it's hard to do anything with a Ray Davies song that he hasn't already done with the Kinks.
Then it hit me: you go to Ray Davies to hear Ray Davies songs performed by Ray Davies. He's not the greatest singer or the greatest songwriter, but he is the greatest singer-songwriter. And here are the reasons why:
1) He brought non-rock styles into rock music.
In the Sixties, when the Kinks emerged, genre-hopping was trendy in a way that it probably hasn't been since. Bands would start albums with guitars, segue into violins, dabble in sitars, dip into showtunes, and finish with tape loops.
The Kinks were a Caucasian pop-rock act, just like most of their contemporaries. But unlike many other frontmen, Ray Davies never obscured the fact that he was making Caucasian rock music.
The Beatles dabbled outside of Caucasian music and outside of rock, and usually produced great results ("When I'm 64," "Eleanor Rigby," "Within You and Without You") But those songs weren't exactly rock songs.
Before rock songs with sitars were standard operating procedure, Ray Davies was writing, "See My Friends," a mysterious song about mortality and the afterlife that was based on music he'd heard while the Kinks were on tour in India.
Ray brought the song to lead guitarist Dave Davies (his brother) and asked him if he could imitate the droning sound of a sitar. He tried, and, in the summer of 1965, "See My Friends" became a top 10 hit in the UK.
This was the summer 1965. The world would soon hear rock songs featuring sitars (The Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black") and Indian songs performed by Western musicians that weren't really rock music (The Beatles' "Love You To").
But "See My Friends" is something else entirely: a raga-rock hybrid that managed to conjure an Indian sound out of an electric guitar, bass, and drums.
"See My Friends" is the best example of how the Kinks absorbed non-rock styles, but it's certainly not the only one. "Fancy" would revisit Indian musical forms, "Sunny Afternoon" could be described as jugband rock (a bit like the Lovin' Spoonful, but more to the rock side of the spectrum), and "I'm on an Island" could be described as calypso rock.
All reflected a deep interest in non-rock styles, but all featured the same classic Kinks sound. Other singer-songwriters of the era were great chameleons, but Ray Davies was the great sponge. While others were taking brief vacations from the rock n' roll formula, he stayed nearby. He was on an extended staycation, adding to the formula itself.
2) He straddles the line between eccentricity and kitsch.
Paul McCartney is a high priest- a vessel for a Pop Culture God, delivering perfect, archetypical songs that you swear you've heard before. Songs that recall Milan Kundera's famous definition of kitsch as something that is improved by the idea that everyone else likes it as much as you do.
Bob Dylan is a superhuman who comes along and says "Forget that McCartney guy," and then leads you to strange places McCartney could never take you. Bob Dylan fans tend to feel they have a more personal relationship with his music- even though hundreds of college students are probably listening to "Bringing It All Back Home" at this very moment, the album will never sound kitschy to their ears.
Paul McCartney can be darkly eccentric and Bob Dylan can be profoundly kitschy. But "Helter Skelter" and "Lay Lady Lay" are among the outliers in their respective canons. With Ray Davies, the darkly eccentric and the profoundly kitschy will co-exist within the same song.
Take "Celluloid Heroes," which manages to be both an anthemic ballad and a diary entry from a lonely fanboy:
3) His lyrics are clever but require minimal listening effort.
The rock era produced an interesting array of music-lyric combinations.
Sometimes the lyrics themselves barely mattered. The guy could just as easily be singing "kiss the sky," "kiss this guy," but it didn't matter. Whatever it was, you were sure it was something cool. And besides, it wasn't about "listening," per se. It was about tuning into the heady sound. (Drugs were a plus.)
Sometimes, it was the opposite. Sometimes lyrics were so important that concert organizers would chop amplifier cables just so the lyrics could be heard over the guitars. (Drugs were a plus.)
It's hard to say when the Rock Era began and ended, but it's definitely over. It began around when British people got into electric guitars and it ended around when the general international public realized CDs were just computer disks. But the point is, the era didn't last that long, and it left a lot of unanswered questions. One of the unanswered questions about rock music was "How important should lyrics be?"
It was a tough question, because Rock Music, unlike many of the popular styles that preceded it, often featured loud instruments that could easily drown out subtle vocals, and, perhaps more importantly, it was a bit unnatural to fit something particularly important into a song that lasted three minutes and had three chords. Because of that, it was usually best to pack those three minutes with hormone-charged lyrics and music so powerful that they'd actually stay with you once the three minutes were over.
The Kinks' early hits, such as "You Really Got Me," "I Need You," and "All Day and All of the Night" were recorded when Ray was 19 and Dave was 16, and those hits were exhausting three-minute bursts of hormones (what Tim Steagall calls "teenage horndog riffrock"). But, beginning around 1965, Ray started telling stories on top of his brother's distorted guitar riffs:
But it wasn't so much that he told stories - plenty of singers did that - as that he told them without deviating from the simple pleasures of a Mid-Sixties rock song. The overall tone of the Beatles' "Nowhere Man," was a big step from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," but the overall tone of "Well Respected Man" wasn't too far from "You Really Got Me."
Perhaps most importantly, Ray Davies told stories that didn't require much of your attention, but rewarded the little bit of attention you gave them. The ambiguous "Lola" is a song that you won't "get" unless you pay attention to the lyrics, but you can listen to it from a beat-up car stereo that gets bad reception, have a conversation over it, and still understand exactly what the story is about. Of course you'll still be asking yourself, "Is Lola a man or is she a masculine woman?" But the fact that even a casual listener will seriously ponder that question says a lot.
4) He writes songs for "waitresses and divorced people."
Ray once said that he makes pop music for waitresses and divorced people. At first, that remark seems like a joke that's not really worth reading into. But there's really something to it.
The Kinks demographic is the demographic that does listen to pop music, but wants something more personal out of it.
The Kinks demographic likes silly love songs, but might be more attracted to silly songs like "Tired of Waiting," a song that's very emotive but doesn't even pretend to be about real, deep love.
The Kinks demographic likes empowering working-class anthems and sentimental suburban epics but is probably more into the Kinks' album Arthur, a satirical rock opera (conceived before The Who's Tommy, but released afterward) about the decline of the British empire which translates uncannily well to today's USA. Its centerpiece is "Shangri-La," about the horrors of home ownership...
...and it ends with "Arthur," an upbeat song about a depresssed, broken middle-class father that fades out with a sincere chant of "Oh we love you and want to help you."
There's another important thing about Kinks fans (other than the fact that they're probably bitter and middle-class): they listen to the songs over and over and over again. They might go through phases where they give the Kinks a rest for a while, but they don't really ever stop being Kinks fans.
It's hard to say why that is. Maybe there's something about the Kinks that invites loyalty. Maybe it's because there's nothing particularly youthful about their music (Ray Davies has always sounded like he could just as easily be 17 or 70), so it's kind of hard to "grow out of it."
In a world where musicians collect a good amount of their royalties from repeat plays via on-demand streaming music services, "waitresses and divorced people" might be a pretty great fanbase to cultivate.
Maybe Ray Davies has seen the future of music all along?
5) Ray Davies wrote"Waterloo Sunset."
Of all the songs that Kinks fans never grow out of, "Waterloo Sunset," from 1967's Something Else by the Kinks is probably the greatest of them all.
Ray Davies could have stopped writing songs after "Waterloo Sunset"and he'd still be a legend just for that song alone.
It's so many things about the song. It's the surf-y guitar combined with the unconventional vocal harmonies. It's the sense of nostalgia that comes through even as he sings in the present tense. It's the magical accidents that happened in the recording studio, leaving us with something more interesting than just a polished version of a great song. And it's the way the song ends way too soon, but leaves you thinking, "Yeah, it did have to end there."
It must have been amazing to be Ray Davies after he wrote "Waterloo Sunset," but it also must have been terrible. It must have been amazing to know that you were about to be catapulted into History. But it must have been terrifying, too- terrifying to know you'd just created something greater than yourself, and terrifying to know that you could never top it.
Even if Ray Davies had only left us with "Waterloo Sunset," he'd still be one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the rock era. But, remarkably, he left us with dozens more songs over several decades.
The post is almost over, and I didn't even need to make the obligatory references to Wes Anderson soundtracks or Hot Fuzz.
He just might be the greatest.