Where To Start With... Ray Davies
As the frontman and chief songwriter in The Kinks, Ray Davies is a man who needs little introduction. Handed a knighthood in December last year for services to the arts, Davies has been a key fixture in the music industry in the UK – and indeed further afield – for more than half a century.
In the 1960s his band were one of the key players in the so-called 'British invasion' that conquered America alongside bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but The Kinks continued to release roughly an album every year for the next three decades and by the 1990s Davies was often referred to as the 'Godfather of Britpop', thanks to his influence on the wave of British bands of that era and the patronage of people like Blur's Damon Albarn.
But while his output with The Kinks puts him amongst the most prolific songwriters the UK has ever produced, solo albums are a rare thing for Ray Davies and over the length of a career that spans five decades, he has only released a handful of records under his own name. When he does, it's often the case that there's a concept behind the album: his first, Return to Waterloo, was a soundtrack written for the film of the same name starring Tim Roth and Kenneth Colley, which Davies wrote and directed himself. His second solo album, Storyteller, was released in 1996 and became the basis for VH1's series of the same name, comprising a mixture of live performance and spoken word anecdotes.
His first 'straightforward' solo album, Other People's Lives, came in 2006 and was followed just a year later by another, 2007's Working Man's Cafe. A decade on from his last solo release, this week sees the arrival of his fifth album, Americana, and much like the first two there's a concept behind the record.
In 2013 Davies released a memoir titled Americana: The Kinks, The Riffs, The Road: The Story, in which the songwriter describes the influence of American culture on his life and his music, telling the story of The Kinks' travels in America as part of the British invasion and the series of incidents that would see them banned from touring the country for four years between 1965 and 1969, something that The Kinks' drummer Mick Avery would later to refer to as the result of “a mixture of bad agents, bad management, bad luck and bad behaviour.”
The album that arrives this week is based on that memoir and includes a selection of new songs based on the stories in the book, as well as some spoken word elements lifted from the memoir's pages. Davies has recruited alt-country rockers The Jayhawks as his backing band on the album, which is co-produced by Davies himself alongside Guy Massey and John Jackson.
The album's lead-off single, 'Poetry', shows that The Jayhawks are a good fit for the album, all jangling guitars and pop-rock that provides a perfect backdrop for Davies' lyrics. It's a similar story on 'Rock 'n' Roll Cowboys', where the band bring their skills to bear on a lilting, country-influenced ballad.
A quick glance through The Kinks' impressive back catalogue should be enough to tell you that Ray Davies is a skilled craftsman when it comes to writing a great song and Americana shows that, despite his advancing years, he's still in possession of all his faculties in this regard. You can listen to 'Poetry' below, beneath that we've picked out a handful of other gems from Ray Davies' solo albums for anyone who has yet to hear his work outside The Kinks...
'Not Far Away'
Much of Davies' solo debut Return to Waterloo has the feel of a soundtrack and there's quite a bit of experimentation with synthesizers across the album's nine tracks, but on 'Not Far Away' Davies veers almost into punk rock territory with this shouty stomper of a song. In the film, the song is performed in a confrontation between Tim Roth's character and a couple of suits on a train, but if anything the version on the album has even more of a raw edge and it's one of the best moments on the record.
'Voices in the Dark'
Return to Waterloo's closing track also soundtracks the film's end credits and with its bubbling synth bassline and vocoder backing vocals it's pretty unfamiliar territory for Davies, but it's also one of the album's best moments and probably one of the most intriguing things he's done outside The Kinks.
Featured on the Storyteller album released in 1996, 'London Song' is a sort of love letter to his home town and the lyrics are half sung, half spoken as he paints a picture of London's upsides and downsides, paying tribute to some of the city's most colourful characters and neighbourhoods. Blues and gospel elements augment the song's driving groove and it's one of the real standouts on the album.
One of the things that made The Kinks' songs so unique in comparison to their peers is Davies' observational style of lyric-writing and of all the things he's done in recent years, this cut from his 2006 solo album Other People's Lives is probably the best example of this. Based around a lazy, meandering groove and acoustic guitar riffs in the verses before exploding into life in the chorus, this is easily as good as any of his best moments with The Kinks.
'Working Man's Cafe'
Our final pick is the title track on his 2007 solo album and finds Davies in reflective mood, lamenting the changes in English towns and cities on his return to the country after a stint living in New Orleans. “Everything looks and feels like America” he sings, describing his search for familiarity in the gentrified neighbourhoods of London. He's got a point: coffee shop culture is all well and good, but sometimes there's just no substitute for a good old greasy spoon...