Ray Davies: A Complicated Life by Johnny Rogan

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Ray Davies: A Complicated Life by Johnny Rogan

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Category: Entertainment
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Undoubtedly one of the most versatile and gifted British songwriters of all time, the personality of Ray Davies of The Kinks is every bit as complicated as this magnificently detailed biography reveals his life to be. It's a long read which leaves no stone unturned. The author has interviewed Ray and his brother Dave, as well as other members of the band, managers, friends and associates, and built up a well-rounded picture of his career, personal life and character, in addition to appraising his group and solo recordings with enthusiasm as well as objectivity. An extensive discography ensures that the book will serve as a work of reference for the fan as well.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 784 Date: March 2016
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099554080

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Most of Britain's most popular and successful songwriters of the last 150 years, from Gilbert and Sullivan and Lennon and McCartney, to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb, have been partnerships. The only solo writer in the same league is Ray Davies, front man of The Kinks from their formation in 1963 to their final performance in 1994. While this mighty tome is partly an account of the group's tortuous thirty-year history, it is also first and foremost, as the title says, a biography of Davies himself. Through interviews with the Davies brothers, Ray and his younger brother Dave, the group's guitarist and only other constant member of the line-up, other group members, managers, friends and associates, Rogan has given us as complete a book of the man as we are ever likely to get.

The story starts with Frederick and Annie Davies, who married in 1924 in the London borough of Islington and raised a family of eight, comprising six daughters and after a six-year gap two sons, Raymond and David. They were a closely-knit family, although there was always tension between the two little brothers. Nothing, it seems, ever changed, and the tension is still there over sixty years later. Life in post-war London for the Davies family was sometimes a drab existence, punctuated by occasional highlights such as the Festival of Britain in 1951, the televising of a groundbreaking adaptation of George Orwell's '1984' three years later, and the advent of rock'n'roll two years later. But the likes of Elvis Presley did not have the monopoly of the record player or radio, and Ray was exposed to an eclectic diet which also included the great musicals, blues and jazz. His absorption of such varied influences would be reflected in his songwriting a little further down the line. Poignantly, it is also noted that his 30-year-old sister Rene, who suffered from heart problems, gave him his first guitar for his 13th birthday and accompanied him on the piano while they played show tunes together. Shortly afterwards, she went out for an evening at the Lyceum Ballroom, where she collapsed and died in the arms of a stranger on the dance floor.

At the height of the British music scene in 1964 when Beatlemania had taken on the world and won, The Ravens became The Kinks, and after two unsuccessful singles, they hit the bright lights with You Really Got Me, a chart-topper which has remained a staple radio favourite ever since. Several chapters are devoted to the next two years or so, a dramatic tale of in-fighting between Ray and Dave and fellow group members Pete Quaife and Mick Avory – to say nothing of disputes and courtroom battles with managers and publishing companies. Ray's nervous breakdown and convalescence came close to stalling the group in its tracks, but instead they performed an astonishing volte-face. After a succession of raw gutsy hits like Till The End Of The Day, he began penning satirical social comment songs like A Well Respected Man and Dedicated Follower of Fashion. Many of us from a certain age have our own favourite Kinks song, but for Rogan it seems to be the epic Shangri-La. If it had reached No.1 as a single, he contends, Ray's reputation as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation would have been established beyond argument. Some of us might contend that it is anyway, and that singles chart success is not the ultimate yardstick of artistic achievement.

Geniuses are often flawed people, and Ray is no exception. Like many creative souls, he freely admits to the author that he was never very good as a husband or father, or as a businessman. He once described the group as being like a football team that's always on the brink of relegation to the second division but somehow does just enough to avoid the drop with another hit record. One of their managers said that they never wanted to be as big as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or The Who. 'They could have been, but they ran away from it'. Several other musicians joined the group but gave up the unequal struggle, each one finding that a few years was enough. One, bass guitarist Andy Pyle, had the greatest respect for the Davies brothers, and regretted that they could never work together properly. The reason they never joined the top league was 'because of their silly arse games'. Other people in the business found them equally infuriating to work with; Ray was often his worst enemy. Was he arrogant, bipolar (something he has strenuously denied) or whatever – the jury is still out. To quote the title of his composition on the B-side of 'Sunny Afternoon', 'I'm Not Like Everybody Else'.

It's an engrossing story of fame, fortune, sometimes squandered or at best misdirected talent that often did not reach its full potential, and a dysfunctional family life. Two of his former wives are thanked in the acknowledgements 'for their exceedingly polite demurrals'.

As the author sums it up, the group were 'one of rock's greatest under-achievers'. How else can one explain the extraordinary statistic that between 1968 and their final unravelling in 1994, none of their new albums ever made the British LP chart – only 'greatest hits' compilations. Even the classic 'The Village Green Preservation Society' baffled fans so much that it never sold enough in any particular week, month or even year to register. A discography extending over 30 pages, including a list of unreleased compositions, rounds the book off as a worthy work of reference.

It's impossible not to admire the talent of Ray Davies, but one would have to be exceedingly thick-skinned and patient to work with him for any length of time. In conclusion, let us not forget however one of his 'more endearing enterprises', his regular tutoring of a five-day workshop in Suffolk where he worked with aspiring songwriters and gave one-to-one tutorials. As a former colleague said approvingly, that was 'the real Ray Davies'. As a lifelong fan, I came to the end of this book having already known much about the man and the group but also having learnt a good deal more. It's a very long read, but an extremely rewarding one.

For a more concise account of the group, published in 2011, You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks by Nick Hasted is also recommended reading. You might also enjoy Heaven And Hell: My Life in the Eagles, 1974 - 2001 by Don Felder.

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Buy Ray Davies: A Complicated Life by Johnny Rogan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Ray Davies: A Complicated Life by Johnny Rogan at Amazon.com.


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