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But the Kinks had several lives left. After being dumped by RCA, the band re-emerged on Arista as a more song-based unit -- and to the delight of fans, many of those songs rocked more than they pontificated. Sleepwalker, from 1977, charted higher in the States than any Kinks record since 1966's Greatest Hits, and beginning a year after Van Halen scored with a cover of "You Really Got Me," Ray and company reeled off three gold albums (Low Budget, One For the Road, Give the People What They Want) plus a fourth, State of Confusion, that contained "Come Dancing," as unlikely a smash as any in the Kinks catalogue.
"The record company didn't like it at all," Davies recalls, "and when the band heard it, the bass player, Jim [Rodford], said, 'I can't pin this down.' Musicians like to put things in compartments -- 'This is three-four,' 'This is heavy metal' -- but no one could do it, because it was so innocent. The innocence is the key. It's a simple song about a guy who lives in East London who has a ballroom that's closing, but the innocence got through to America as well."
"Come Dancing" upped Davies's profile, and he took advantage of the opportunity by branching out into film with 1985's Return to Waterloo, a project whose accompanying album was released under his name rather than that of the Kinks, and an appearance in director Julien Temple's stylish 1986 musical, Absolute Beginners.
That, however, was just about that. The Kinks wore out their welcome at Arista; did likewise at another label, MCA, for which they made three dispiritingly mediocre LPs; stuck around Columbia Records long enough to produce 1993's weak Phobia, marred by "Hatred (A Duet)," which tried and failed to make hay out of the Ray-Dave friction; and by 1996 were reduced to re-recording their old songs for the disposable To the Bone. It's no wonder, then, that neither Ray nor the Kinks is presently signed to a U.S. record contract.
But Davies doesn't seem troubled by these circumstances, and if signs don't necessarily point to a full-fledged Kinks revival, there's certainly been a rekindling of interest, exemplified by two Kinks tribute discs in the works. Seattle's Burn Burn Burn Records is assembling Give the People What We Want, with contributions from Mudhoney, Mark Lanegan, the Young Fresh Fellows, the Murder City Devils and the Makers, among others. Also on tap is This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies and the Kinks, due on Praxis in early 2002, with participants ranging from Fountains of Wayne and Matthew Sweet to Queens of the Stone Age and Damon Albarn (of Blur and Gorillaz), who clearly views Davies as a role model. Davies has heard several tracks from the Praxis package, and, he says, "I'm amazed by the bravery of these people picking songs that weren't necessarily hits. They pick songs like 'Better Things' and 'Big Sky,' which are by and large Kinks cultist tracks."
Davies cheekily refers to the groups saluting him as "bands that are too cool for Q magazine," and on several occasions of late, he's gone out of his way to embrace the new generation of indie rockers. At this year's South By Southwest music confab in Austin, Texas, he not only climbed on stage with Superdrag, a fine power-pop band, and the New Pornographers, a collective helmed by Zumpano's Carl Newman, but he delivered the gathering's keynote speech, displaying along the way a keen appreciation for emerging talent and a hard-earned derision for the more oppressive aspects of the music business.
"When I first started out -- I talk about it in my show -- it was inevitable that pop music in England was going somewhere," he says. "But now there's this incredible industry, and kids going into it have to be aware of that. Since most of them are bright and well educated, I think they're more savvy and more aware that it's run by big corporations, and they're ready for it. I don't know that I would be. I would probably find it daunting. Sometimes when you're talking to record companies, they have to look at their demographics and their statistical things and their marketing, and there's always the question of what facet of the music industry you fit in. Are you classic rock? Are you dance? Are you rap? It's gotten so fragmented now, I don't think anyone really knows where they're going.
"That's why I lament the state of corporate rock now. It's gotten such a paranoid edge that something's got to change. Otherwise, a lot of the bands I saw at South By Southwest -- and there were a lot of very good bands there -- won't get signed, and we'll just have safe music on the radio, which I don't think is healthy. It's just like a film that's been processed by all the producers in Hollywood until all the soul's been kicked out of it. After it goes through the corporate stuff, with all the rules and stipulations they have, it gets watered down, and in the end, it sounds empty."