Ranging over his life as a band member for the legendary rock outfit, The Kinks, as a friend to many, a son to beloved parents and as a brother to a host of sisters and that man, Ray Davies. Singer and guitarist, Dave Davies, talks to Paul Rigby
We could talk about the arguments now but that would be too easy. We could list the tensions too. Too obvious. It’s what you expect. It’s even cliched: the fights; the blood; the broken bits of cymbal…
But that’s not Dave Davies. It’s not even an edited version. What makes Dave Davies tick, what makes him ‘operate’ is the companionship, support and feedback from others. What he gets, he gives. He’s an archetypal family man. It’s what’s kept him safe, made him happy and secure but it also sourced his frustrations and his anger.
To Davies, though, ‘family’ can mean a lot of things. There’s the obvious definition of the name, of course. Mum and dad were crucial to the formative years of Dave Davies. This family was safe and warm, not cosseted (Could it ever be in not in post-war austerity?) The family was an emotional buffer.
“There were always parties and get-togethers. My dad would come home from the pub, on a Saturday, with a crate of ale for a piss-up and a knees-up,” said Davies who almost disappeared, right at the start of this interview, into a nostalgic funk. It’s a time of his life that he holds in great affection. “The whole family was involved. Everyone played piano to some degree. My sister, Joyce had a lovely voice too. We’d sing old standards of the time. My mum was a big fan of [Welsh tenor] Malcolm Vaughan,” he said this and cringed but with a smile. “Many people don’t realise that there was so much music in the house.”
Yet the bonds of family extend further than that, for Davies. Friends, like Kinks founder-member, Pete Quaife, certainly falls under that definition, “He was really important,” said Davies suddenly becoming very serious. “We wouldn’t have started the band without Pete. He was a big driving force. Ray hit it off with Pete, they were older than me. Then the three of us would jam together and hang out and play. At school, we had a little band.”
Which grew into The Kinks: another family unit. Another ‘bubble’ to provide protection from the outside world and to allow Davies to experience the magic of friendship and comradeship, “Some days we’d be miserable but we’d also generate an energy, without realising it. There were times on stage and in the studio and you’d get a feeling. You don’t know what the hell it is. You think, “What the fuck’s happening?” but its amazing. It was a sort of psychic interaction between people. People who are in total harmony with each other. You’d be playing a song and it’d return. The music brings things out of people.”
The fans themselves also provided an essential connection to Davies. Although, possibly, not in the way you might think, “I wanted to give up the music business.” He was standing in a New York street. It was 1973. According to Davies, the music business attracts, as he calls them, “the wrong kind of people.”
Which was why Davies had had enough. He’d had enough of them, of being a member of one of the most iconic and influential rock bands of that era and of being Dave Davies. He knew that he needed to be healed so he sought out a healer.
“I told him, ‘I’m fed up. I want to jack it all in.’ He said, ‘So what is it that you really want to do?’ I said, ‘I really want to heal others.’ He laughed and said, ‘So what the hell do you think you’re doing now? I sit here, charge people 60 bucks and try to give them healing and direction and comfort. You can get up on stage and project your healing, through your music to thousands of people!’ I thought, hell, this guy’s right.”
Davies needs people. He needs that interaction, the vibe it creates and the buzz he gets when artists produce and elevate a piece of work such as a simple song. He couldn’t do without it back in the 60s and he still can’t. It fuels him.
Music also fuels him. His luck, to be surrounded by so much music of various genres and styles, at an early age, provided him with a rich artistic education, “Growing up in North London in the 50s, from a big family of six sisters and one older brother, no computers, CDs or anything, home entertainment, generated physically by each of us, was important. We also had a wind-up gramophone with 78s. My sister loved Doris Day and especially Billy Eckstine, who sang in beautiful tones. In the late 50s there was Elvis but the man who became a really big influence to me was Lonnie Donegan. I know he was famous for skiffle but he brought a lots of American blues to our ears. He was responsible for peaking my interest in people like Lead Belly.” Donegan, of course, ‘jazzed up’ Lead Belly’s own 1937 version of Rock Island Line and made it a hit in the UK in 1954, “The blues made me think more deeply about life and the troubles that people have which I could relate to, coming from a working class family. The records were a social education.”
“There were plenty of other genres of music around the house, though,” added Davies. “My sister, Dolly, loved Slim Whitman and Hank Williams. Williams was an enormous influence to me. He was funny but sang about life, emotional pain, upset and pathos but he made a joke about it. That was very much in tune with working class families of that time in austerity, after the war.”
Other important singers that informed Davies included one of the few English rockers of that time that held any form of musical credibility, Marty Wilde, “He had a single out called Bad Boy, I loved that record.”
Which was all well and good but nothing could compare to the real thing. To Davies, the real thing meant two men: Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry, “When we heard the American music, it really took hold,” said Davies. “As soon as I heard Eddie Cochran, I thought, ‘I wanna do this!’. As for Chuck Berry? I regard him as the king of rock’n’roll and guitar. Although Little Richard was really important, Chuck Berry had the look. In fact, I always thought that he looked like a French jazz player, he had European features. Really cool. Both him and Eddie had a certain look and both were great guitar players. They could sing, they were funny and the sound was phenomenal. I was totally focused on them.”
Brits were not ignored as time moved forwards, of course. Shane Fenton (later to evolve into Alvin Stardust, of course) and The Shadows were enjoyed, “Although, once I heard The Shadows, I quickly got into The Ventures which were more in the groove, if you know what I mean.”
At this time, Dave Davies became something of a record collector with an eye for detail. He realised that some of the more interesting musical works often resided on the B-sides of popular singles, “They were the days when the B-sides were often as good as or better than the A-sides. No Trespassing, from The Ventures, which was the B-side to Perfidia, in 1960, is a good example. It was obviously a track they put together to make up the numbers, it was probably rushed. I know that feeling very well. It had some unusual chord shifts. It wasn’t just a 12 bar thing. In fact, that track started to make me think about music. As did music from The Champs and Johnny And The Hurricanes.”
Davies’ had already experienced this effect from his first ever record purchase, Johnny Cash’s Sun release, Ballad of the Teenage Queen, “But I preferred the B-side which was called Big River, which had a kind of Duane Eddy riff on it. A real stick-it-in-your-face riff. Me and Ray were big Johnny Cash fans, along with The Everly Brothers. We realised later that Chet Atkins was responsible for a lot of their records so we started following him too. His style of playing influenced us.”
Davies was also known for a ‘style of playing’ and two people were largely responsible for his adventure with the instrument. The first was his brother, Ray Davies, who began taking guitar lessons, “Ray started before me. He had some lessons. I used to pick up his guitar and play a few chords and then I started to really get into it.”
The other principle guitar influence was Davies’ brother-in-law, Mike Picker, a guitar player himself but also a bit of a back-street electronics engineer, “He’d build his own amps and make guitars too,” said Davies. “I used to help him.”
This love of hardware also spilled over to sharing musical influences as both Picker and Davies would enjoy performances from Barney Kessel, Tal ‘The Octopus’ Farlow and Charlie Gracie, “He had access to these records and I might not have come across this music if it wasn’t for Mike.”
Picker was a supporter of the Davies brothers’ misguided adventure into musical research and technology, “We wanted to make a Hawaiian guitar, Ray and I. We loved the guitar sound on some of Hank Williams’ records and we thought it was a Hawaiian guitar but, of course, it wasn’t anything of the sort— its was a pedal steel. Nevertheless, we tried to emulate the sound. So we made this guitar from three quarter inch chipboard. Mike made home-made pick-ups from a gramophone magnet with bits of cigarette paper and wire. I learnt a lot about the technical aspects of the guitar while I was learning to play. I liked to play some of Mike’s guitars too. He’d show me chords and a few boogie licks.”
Another of Picker’s loves was musical performances on film, “One day, over at Mike’s house, he showed me this film of Big Bill Broonzy playing at a club in Paris. That blew me away. That got me really into the blues. John Lee Hooker too. He had a great guitar tone.”
Davies’ musical education was contained and evolved in and around the family. The family was the place to turn to for protection and sustenance but it was also the place to go if you wanted to get something done. If you sought progress.
Davies didn’t think he was progressing fast enough. There was a restless side to him, “I tell you, though, I thought that once I learnt my first five chords, I thought I knew it all. That’s why I liked the guitarist in The Ventures because he played bar chords. He played rhythm guitar where he only played the bottom strings. When you do that, you don’t have to worry about the top strings, all the minors, major 7th and so on. So you can bluff your way through quite a complicated chord sequence without necessarily playing all the notes. It looks good and sounds good. That actually was a big influence in my style of playing. Ray was more into the picking thing and country styles.”
This impetuous nature actually helped to move Davies over the boundary from merely copying others and aping his influences to creating his own musical pieces, “I was always a very impatient kid and I couldn’t be bothered to work out guitar parts. So I’d mish mash through it and come out with something new. I never knew it was called improvisation. It saved me having to remember things from the record. I’d create something else and think, ‘That’ll do.’” This almost accidental method of creating not only found favour with Dave, “That helped Ray’s writing process as well.”
But this new force, this increasingly independent style, was also becoming a conduit. Davies’ guitar style was quite aggressive and fierce, “I was quite an angry kid. I took it out on my guitar which was good. Rather that than worse. The guitar made me feel good, especially in front of an audience. It was exhilarating.”
Davies saw in his favourites, people like Eddie Cochran, a motivation, a permission, as it where, to let go. It infused his performances with energy. He felt that he was allowed to express himself by talents such as these, “A lot of the music that influenced me also physically moved me. How can you not get up and dance when hearing Eddie Cochran’s Somethin’ Else?”
Of course, it was only a matter of time that such activity would emerge into the public although, once more, it would do so under the wing of the family when, “Ray and I began as a duo singing in my dad’s pub, just us and two guitars.”
To confirm this family bond, Dave never felt the initial need to strike out on his own. He didn’t experience a rebellious urge to dump the baggage of his family and to seek new ties, new relationships and new pathways, “I enjoyed being part of a group. Playing in a band was an extension of a family unit,” he said. “I felt very comfortable when playing on stage in a band.”
And so the Davies brothers rapidly progressed, becoming the Ravens in 1963, with the addition of long term friend, Peter Quaife and new drummer, Mickey Willet. Then being signed up by American producer, Shel Talmy, after he heard a demo of the band which helped them to land a contract with UK record label, Pye replacing the drummer with Mick Avory and a series of hit singles that launched a singular career.
The pace was a fast one, at this time, and that family structure was important to Davies. It made the job of being a Kink that much easier, “It’s was all about supporting each other: whether that be music, laughter, sadness, food on the table, whatever. Sharing and supporting one another. Music became an extension of that.”
And, in an odd way, it also drew each member to each other. Creating an ‘us and them’ feeling that enhanced the creative energies and performances. In modern day sport, the notion of the siege mentality is a common one. Developed and accentuated to encourage a team spirit and a fighting energy, the separation of ‘us’ from ‘them’ was one that the Kinks were practicing in the mid 60s. “We always felt like misfits,” confirmed Davies. “I did, certainly. We were in the scene but apart from it. ‘What are we doing here?’ We drew our ideas from our friends and family. Old folk music, family get togethers and so on.”
There is a theory that, when the band were, still rather mysteriously, banned from entering the USA to tour in 1965 (possibly as a result of a growing reputation for internal and rather violent, squabbles) The Kinks not only missed out on mixing with their American admirers, they also missed out on further exposure to the home of the blues. The Kinks never received a first-hand blues education, in the same way that The Rolling Stones, the Who and even The Beatles did, “It’s worth saying that, yes. And it had an affect on our music. It internalised us and made us look more about where we lived and came from. The blues guys had their roots – we decided to look at ours and our own culture.”
So while Howlin’ Wolf had the Mississippi for inspiration, Ray Davies looked towards his nearest village green. B.B. King was infused by T-Bone Walker but the Kinks were enamoured with Noel Coward.
For many Kinks contemporaries, the problem was self-indulgence. Jagger, Clapton et al (self-absorbed, decadent, foppish, culture cuckoos of the 60s renaissance) were living the blues experience vicariously through their blues heroes, desperately trying to compute, in a slightly bewildered fashion, how witnessing Muddy Waters painting the Chess studios ceiling was to fit into their adopted blues angst. Meanwhile, in their slipstream, were blues ‘axe men’ like Alvin Lee, convincing Woodstock audiences to take a long trip while he selfishly satisfied himself with yawn-inducing electric guitar solos and plenty of masturbatory gurning.
This too little discussed issue was succinctly summed up by krautrock legend, Can’s percussionist, Jaki Leibezeit, a fan of the blues. He would tell author, David Stubbs, in his book Future Days, that it would be geographically inappropriate to adopt the blues as his own, “You can only create in this tradition if you can be a part of this tradition…as a European, as a German, it’s a lie to try to play pure blues.”
The Kinks were ahead of the game on this subject. They were back home, realising that their own culture was as valuable, as fragile, as influential and all encompassing to their own roots. The Kinks told their own story. They were unashamedly celebratory of their own traditions. There was no ‘faux cool’ for them. They may have loved the blues but they were sensible enough to realise that they were not of the blues.
That’s not to say that the band was, in any way, short-sighted or restrictive in their creative endeavours. The inclination to break boundaries and innovate remained, “Although we loved the blues and country music, we were interested in English folk. For example, we were big fans of Davy Graham, an accomplished guitar player and folk/blues player. But he mixed genres of music, he merged different cultures such as Moroccan stylings.”
The band’s internal squabbling, allied to their on-stage energy and dynamism, was of a more universal nature. Mention has already been made of Pete Townshend whose own band, The Who, were no strangers to fisticuffs and the odd insult. Did Davies recognise a certain kinship with their contemporaries at least on this level? “Probably yea, you have to let it out. If you’re unhappy, you’ve got to express yourself in whatever way you can. It can be angry sometimes. It’s often better to get it out than do nothing. The Who, though, had a big advantage…they weren’t related to each other.”Did someone say, “Ray Davies”? Dave Davies targets the family link as an important part of what made The Kinks a unique proposition in English rock, “The family aspect and empathy that Ray and I had for each other and still have – it doesn’t go away – it was crucial how The Kinks music evolved. Can you imagine if The Everly Brothers had not been brothers? They had the psychic, delicate thing, the harmonies… There’s an energy but also an unspoken love and respect. There’s a lot of humanity in a lot of The Kinks’ music. We were not perfect. We’d argue and scream and shout and laugh and cry. That was very special about the Kinks: you had humanity.”
Dave admits that the relationship with Ray is complex, “The things that worked the best came from unspoken feelings. Instinct. I can recognise it in other people’s music. It’s a magnetism. We’d be totally in tune with each other.”
But there are problems. Dave Davies freely admits that there were issues within the band. That age difference, for example, was and is a universal issue for family and friends at an early age. There was the famous ‘generation gap’ between Paul McCartney and the kid, George Harrison, for example. When you are a young teenager, a couple of years difference between friends can be a major factor in a future relationship. Both men never really got over it, even in their adult lives. Dave Davies had the same problem, “Certainly that happened with Ray, in our relationship. But when Pete Quaife was around, Pete was a bridge. I always felt safe when Pete was around. I felt like I could do anything I liked and he wouldn’t look around with a grimace. He was always encouraging. Being a positive inspiring individual is a great thing to be. Sometimes people look too often for the obvious. Sometimes the real magic is the emotional glue that’s holding everything together. Pete brought me and Ray together a lot.”
The band grew and evolved as the early chart hits began to dry up. Arguably, the music quality improved, hitting the heights with Village Green Preservation Society, an undisguised classic of an album. Ahead of its time, in artistic terms, it was only appreciated many years after its 1968 release, “It’s interesting because, when you dig deep inside you, you uncover a lot of stuff. You try to work things out. It’s fundamental in how we express ourselves as human beings. I’m always asking questions. Village Green… was a great way for Ray to reflect on our lives and growing up in a strange family. His writing matured as we grew up with our music.”
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, however. The early 70s releases of Preservation: Act 1 and Act 2 were commercial and critical flops. Even Dave Davies was not the biggest fan of those albums, “No, I wasn’t a big fan of that. Yet, when you support someone, you help to open their mind. It works for others and you too, of course. At that time, I wanted to support Ray when he did that, to help him develop. But I wasn’t a big fan of the albums. My heart wasn’t in it. I could see the importance of what Ray was trying to say in Village Green but I was starting to lose heart with those, they were self indulgent.”
This was why an album like Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround Vol.1 (1970) was critical to the soul of the Kinks. With releases like this, Davies believed that The Kinks were retaining their inherent musicality, “And trying to keep a musical integrity together. That’s what’s so special about that LP. It was a chance to integrate, theatrically, all of the imagery that was going through Ray’s consciousness. At the same time, it was also a way for me to rhythmically and musically glue the thing together in an uplifting, positive way.”
Davies saw that album as one of the band’s most important releases, “It was a focal point, a make or break, asking if we should carry on. We reach these pivotal moments in our lives that send us into different paths. Lola was an important emotional and spiritual LP.”
The other focal point in the band’s career, according to Davies, was the 1978 LP release, Misfits, “At the time of Misfits the band, as it was, had broken up. Ray worked on a song called Rock & Roll Fantasy. It challenged the fact that the music business was in any way glamourous. He asked if we should carry on amongst the bullshit. Music isn’t glamorous. For most of the time, you are faced with horrible people. You do meet some beautiful, creative, talented people but there’s also a lot of shit there. In the period of Misfits, we thought, ‘Why the hell are we doing this now?’”.
Both albums represented tough times and both albums were projects that pulled the band through difficult moments, allowing The Kinks to emerge at the other side, intact as a creative force, “You go through these periods,” said Davies. “Both albums spurred us on and gave us energy. Difficult times turn you into stronger characters. You find out things about yourselves.”
Of course, while the band was doing its thing, Davies’s solo career wasn’t. It stuttered, spluttered and didn’t really get going. There was nothing of any major, lasting significance in terms of an album project, for example, “I was trying to find a voice. I recorded a few things but it didn’t feel right. Towards the end of the 70s I began to feel my own direction. I felt really focused with the LP, Dave Davies (aka AFL1-3603; 1980), “I felt confident and had a really good engineer. It was great fun. It was one of those moments where everything you try works and everything comes together. There was still Kinks albums and touring to do which also kept me busy.” Which restrained his output to occasional LP releases later in the 80s and the noughties.
Of more recent vintage, Davies has retained the family atmosphere by linking up with his son, Russ who helped him on his 2007 outing, Fractured Mindz. The album that explored his health issues, as he suffered from a stroke in 2004, “Russ is a really talented young guy with a great knowledge of music and he’s successful artist in his own right. A potent writer and musician who is inspiring to work with,” said his father rather proudly. “We did work on an album in 2011 called The Aschere Project. A bit of experimental, theatrical rock production. Kind of prog rock meets ambient dance. I’m still trying to turn it into a stage musical. It’s still work in progress and I’m very excited by it.”
More recently, Davies released a live album, Rippin’ Up New York City, from a recent New York show. Songs from the album, Rippin’ Up Time are accompanied by old Kinks songs.
In many ways, Dave Davies’ family, in whatever form this notion has taken over the years, has allowed him to freely express himself whilst retaining his innate sensitivity. You can see and hear it when you talk to the man now. He loves to talk of spiritual matters, his mind is enquiring at all times, always seeking, full of questions. He has a rather endearing straightforward simplicity on life that contrasts appealingly with his undoubted intelligence. There’s also a accompanying vulnerability. Like a child who wants to put a finger in the fire in order to learn more about it.
All Dave Davies and Kinks fans love Dave, his solo work and his live performances but the shadow of brother Ray always lingers somewhere in the background. That’s the big one, isn’t it? All Kinks fans hope and pray for a reconciliation. One that will ultimately result in The Kinks playing live on stage once more.
Asked about Ray and the future and where the pair are currently at in terms of their rocky relationship, Dave Davies was initially reticent, “We get on ok,” he said without too much enthusiasm but thoughtfully. Then, searching desperately for positives, “Luckily, I’ve got a very productive career going on. I’m having a really good time. Ray’s also a creative and productive person. He likes to do things.” Davies then struggled to express himself satisfactorily. After a long series of false starts, he seemed to finally, mentally, slump and ended with, “Maybe we’ll get together when the time is right. Who’s to say that’s it’s over? It’s family.”
Girlfriend, Sue Sheehan became pregnant with Dave Davie’s baby daughter when Davies was 16 years old. The couple were forcibly separated which proved to be traumatic to Davies. He would, in fact, refer to Sheehan in songs he would pen later in life. Davies didn’t meet his daughter until 1993. He reflected on how his loss affected him to that point, “Everything stays with you. You never get over things like this. It’s like grief. Sometimes you try and push them away. Any sort of life experience is difficult. The secret is not to question. Not to say, ‘Why me?’ Just to endure the experience. Try to take positives from it. Maybe it was meant to happen.”
When he was reconciled with Sheehan and his daughter, the experience was an intense one, “Sue and I, we met again in the 90s and I met Tracey and it kind of resolved itself but it leaves a mark. It was fantastic too, unbelievable. You can’t explain it. A joyous union. It had a profound effect on me. There’s something about the trauma of the thing that happened between me and Sue…it went very deep. It was a wonderful chance for me to put things right.”
Davies suffered a stroke as he was getting into a BBC lift, just after completing an interview, in 2004. Eleven years later, he his fighting fit but he has reflected on the experience, “It teaches you not to take yourself so bloody seriously!”
Upon which Davies launched into peals of laughter. “We can be walking down the road, happy and laughing and get run over by a bus. You’ve got to try and find happiness and coping mechanisms. I’ve yet to learn it myself but we shouldn’t take life so bloody personally. It’s not a conspiracy.”
If anything, Davies has become aware of the hectic pace of life and how it has possibly deflected our attention from what is really important, “We’re so busy trying to control things. We seem to have lost the ability to trust: ourselves, our friends, our culture, nature itself. We over-think. I know that I do. We have too many distractions. Modern life is designed to keep ourselves busy so we don’t think deeply. In fact, sometimes I wonder if we’re contriving things to amuse us to stop us thinking about the things that are really important. We need more balance in our lives. Maybe life is a lot simpler than we think it is.”