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Stop Your Sobbing

In the wake of September 11, Ray Davies reconsiders his past and looks to the future.

Before long, Davies may be adding to his personal gallery. He's in the midst of recording new compositions for a CD he hopes to have out next summer; astonishingly, it's to be his first-ever solo studio recording. At present, he has about forty songs from which to choose, and he openly admits that the new realities we're facing may well play a role in determining which of them will make the final cut.

"What goes on around me does have an impact," Davies confirms. "That's something I've realized doing The Storyteller -- how influential my life is on my lyrics and my lyrics on my life."

For the better part of a decade, Davies has focused on documenting his life, using a variety of approaches to do so. In addition to The Storyteller (a CD version was released in 1998), there's 1995's X-Ray, an elaborate and ambitious autobiography, and 1999's Waterloo Sunset: Stories, a collection of vignettes inspired by Kinks tunes and supplemented by a longer tale whose aging rock-star protagonist is clearly modeled after Davies. This concentration on self smacks of egocentrism, but fortunately, Davies's career has seldom been less than intriguing -- and the soundtrack that's accompanied it is one of rock's finest.

Working (with)out the Kinks: Ray Davies has temporarily exchanged his front-man role for a solo jaunt as a storyteller.
Working (with)out the Kinks: Ray Davies has temporarily exchanged his front-man role for a solo jaunt as a storyteller.
Davies (far left) and the Kinks were one of Britain’s more creatively daring — and underappreciated — acts in the ’60s.
Davies (far left) and the Kinks were one of Britain’s more creatively daring — and underappreciated — acts in the ’60s.

Ray and his brother, Dave, nearly three years his junior, grew up in a section of London called Muswell Hill, an origin commemorated in the title of 1971's Muswell Hillbillies, a likable, largely overlooked Kinks album reissued in 1998. Precisely how the pair wound up in a band together is a matter of some dispute: Dave, who's written an autobiography of his own (it's cleverly titled Kink) tells the tale one way, Ray another. But suffice it to say that the twosome, whose feuds and fisticuffs make Oasis's battling Gallagher brothers seem like pikers by comparison, were the key members of an outfit dubbed the Ravens when, in 1963, the combo was inked to the Pye label. In early 1964, the group changed its name to the Kinks just prior to unleashing its first single, but neither that track, a cover of Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," nor its successor, "You Still Want Me," made much more than a ripple on U.K. music surveys. But "You Really Got Me," built on Dave's hugely influential, gloriously distorted riff and Ray's beyond-rudimentary declarations of romantic confusion, broke the band first in its homeland and shortly thereafter in America, amid the second wave of the British Invasion.

The popularity of "You Really Got Me" helped an album named for it climb to number 29 on Billboard's sales roster in 1965, and Kinks-Size, featuring the aggressive "All Day and All of the Night" and the considerably more introspective "Tired of Waiting for You," did slightly better. But despite sporting three thoroughly enjoyable singles ("A Well Respected Man," "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" and "Who'll Be the Next in Line"), Kinkdom, the act's third U.S. album, failed to reach such heights, setting the stage for a recognition downturn that, in retrospect, seems positively criminal.

Between late 1965 and 1969, the Kinks put out a blizzard of superb EPs, as well as five full-lengths: The Kink Kontroversy, Face to Face, Something Else by the Kinks, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, and Arthur (or the Rise and Fall of the British Empire). Each of the latter is impressive on its own, and when viewed as a whole, the music compares favorably with the accomplishments of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones over the same period. Yet Face to Face wasn't put out in America in its original form, even though it features "Sunny Afternoon," another domestic fave, and the rest, distributed by Reprise Records, were allowed to wither on the vine. None of them got within sniffing distance of the U.S. album top forty.

The usual excuse for this poor performance is Davies's inveterate Britishness; his obsession with the class system, in particular, supposedly bewilders Yanks. But that doesn't explain why a list of the best British albums of all time offered up last year by England's Q magazine didn't include a single Kinks offering -- a choice that prompted journalist Stephanie Zacharek, writing for the Web site Salon, to pen an entire essay decrying the injustice. Davies, for his part, doesn't get too exercised about the oversight: "Q is such a fashion-victim magazine -- and I did write 'Dedicated Follower of Fashion,' and maybe they took offense to that." He laughs. "Their memory only goes back about five years, so I wouldn't take it to heart.

"Overall, I think the Kinks receive their due. We were one of the first British bands to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [in 1990], and I feel privileged to be in it. I think the real institutions, if you like, acknowledge the Kinks."

Following the stateside flop of Arthur, the Kinks seemed unlikely to receive public acclaim ever again. But 1970's "Lola," from the wry music-industry satire Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, changed all that. This comic encounter between a swoony young man and a person who may or may not be a transvestite ("I know what I am, and I'm glad I'm a man/And so is Lola" is a couplet whose mysteries may never be plumbed) became an instant radio classic whose notoriety led directly to the Kinks signing a fat contract with a new label, RCA. This initially looked like a good move for the company: While Muswell Hillbillies didn't move many units, it received plenty of critical praise, and its studio successor, the relatively shaky Everybody's in Show-Biz, at least contained "Celluloid Heroes," a mawkish ode that somehow managed to connect with FM music directors. But afterward, Davies cranked out a series of concept pieces -- Preservation: Act 1, Preservation: Act 2, Schoolboys in Disgrace, Soap Opera -- that failed to gain widespread acceptance for a far better reason than was the case with the neglected masterworks that preceded them. Plainly said, they weren't very good.

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