Interview: The Kinks’ Ray Davies on Americana Emotion
photo by Alex Lake
Ray Davies can pinpoint the moment he awoke from the American dream.
It was 1965, and the Kinks were on the verge of rivaling The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, thanks to a successful international tour and a series of influential early garage- rock singles, when they were banned from performing across the pond for four years by the American Federation of Musicians. Over five decades later, the exact reasons for the ban remain fuzzy—Davies points to an incident on the set of Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is show—but the sudden shift caused the English outfit to look to their homeland for inspiration, resulting in a new sound that moved away from American-rooted blues, R&B and rock. And, though that embrace of folk music, pastoral imagery and a decidedly British dialect resulted in era- defining albums like 1968’s The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, the ban stunted the group’s growth in the country that inspired Davies to play music in the first place.
“When the British Invasion started, with The Beatles and all these bands from the U.K., people saw it as a threat to their culture,” Davies says. “Particularly the more conservative areas of America.”
The Kinks returned to the U.S. in the late-1960s and Davies has continued to perform overseas throughout his solo career, yet his relationship with America remains complicated. In 2004, he was shot in the leg during a robbery while living in New Orleans and, a few years later, he started documenting his exploits in “the land of the free” for his book, Americana. “I wanted to focus on the old days—our tours in America,” Davies says. “And I wanted it to encapsulate the journey back after we were banned. We started from scratch after having many hits all around the world. So I documented that journey, which culminated in learning from that shock.”
Recently, he’s also used that 2013 travelogue as the basis for two studio albums, 2017’s Americana and this year’s more “storytelling”-oriented sequel Our Country — Americana Act II. Though he started writing the albums before Brexit and the 2016 Presidential Election, the LPs double as commentaries on the current wave of nationalism sweeping through Western politics. “A song like ‘Our Country’ is about a country observing nationalities to develop an identity,” he says. “I’ve been told it’s very appropriate for now.”
Our Country — Americana Act II also arrives as Davies is preparing to reunite the Kinks for the first time since 1996. In an interview with The Telegraph in June, Davies revealed that he plans to record a batch of new material with his brother Dave and Mick Avory and even play a few Kinks shows. Davies was partially inspired to revive his legendary band after seeing the Stones but, unlike that ever “professional” outfit, Davies admits that “the Kinks will probably be playing the local bar.”
Coming of age in the U.K., what was your gateway to the American experience?
In the late-‘50s, the great cowboy Western country films, the heroes of the Wild West, symbolized the American Dream. That’s when I saw the recklessness, the freedom of America. That pioneer spirit really inspired me—it fits quite well into rock-and-roll, and one of the reasons I went there is because it symbolized the musical freedom that we didn’t have growing up in London after the second World War in the 1950s and 1960s. There was food-rationing in Britain, and America came with its cars and its music—its new styles and shopping mall symbolized a new world.
Along with guitarist Bill Shanley, The Jayhawks back you on both Americana and Our Country. What led you to them?
I was going to get my usual studio musicians from England, but there’s a telepathy between bands like The Jayhawks that’s unique. On the new record, they play slightly out of their comfort zone which attests to their flexibility. There’s a song on the album called “The Take,” where the character meets this incredible woman in St. Paul, Minn. There’s a song by Johnny Cash called “Big River”—“I met her accidentally in St. Paul, Minnesota”—so I used the analogy of meeting this woman in the Midwest. Midwestern music is very hard and can be brutal with big backbeats. The band enjoyed playing that one because they’re based in Minnesota.
You’ve said that this album cycle is more about the “American emotion” than our country itself.
It’s about the sensibility and the emotion involved in Americana music. It’s all about the aspiration in people and that anybody has the ability to be president— anybody can achieve. I saw rock- and-roll and the blues, in particular, as opportunities to succeed and express oneself. But we got banned from America. In fact, they cut us off in our prime. That sounds quite depressing and I suffered through quite a bad, emotional time. But what I did instead was I put together The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and I wrote new material that really explored England.
What cultural changes did you notice when the Kinks returned to America?
When we first toured America in 1965, before we got banned, most of the other groups we played with—The Beach Boys and Paul Revere & the Raiders—were clean-cut. American bands had very short records and they looked, dare I say, very tidy. When we returned, people like the Mothers of Invention and Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart were being radical. American music really developed into rock-and-roll.
You include a 1971 Kinks song, “Oklahoma U.S.A” on this record. What was the process like of reworking that state-specific number for this travelogue-like journey?
I refer to that song in the book because it was originally about my older sister, who left school when she was 14. She went to work in a factory and her form of escape was the great cowboy Western movies. The point was that something special was waiting to happen. I wanted it to sound quite naturalistic.
This article originally appears in the September 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.