Book review Ray Davies: A Complicated Life - biography with kinks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 April, 2015, 6:51pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 April, 2015, 7:04pm


Ray Davies: A Complicated Life
by Johnny Rogan
Bodley Head

Internecine strife is a routine hazard of rock'n'roll life: bitter conflicts over writing credits, who's playing too loud, who's hogging the limelight, who sits where on the tour bus. Think The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. But most of all think The Kinks, where the usual animosities were amplified by the sibling rivalry between Ray and Dave Davies.

The brothers' feud (still raging today) was carried over from their sprawling working-class family, in which they competed for the attentions of their parents and six elder sisters. They were polar opposites: Ray, the shy, sensitive insomniac; Dave, the happy-go-lucky youngest of the brood.

The Kinks was simply business as usual played out in public, although the siblings could unite against a common enemy, with mild-mannered drummer Mick Avory a particular target in the group's early days. A bloody onstage fracas duly ensued.

Tour manager Sam Curtis recalls the Kinks' US tour of 1965 when a brawl with a union official led to the group being blacklisted for several years: "You could say something innocent and finish up with the most unholy row… a punch-up, or they'd smash a few bottles or knock a table over."

It would take a decade or more before The Kinks conquered America, by which time their music had mutated into dull arena rock. Behind them lay one of the most inspired canons in pop history.

Johnny Rogan tells the familiar tale of Ray's ascent from shaggy degenerate (the young Kinks were just as mad, bad and dangerous as the Stones) to national treasure with much detail but little verve.

What Rogan does supply is masses of interviews and research spiced with juicy, often scabrous anecdotes. Ray's year at Hornsey College of Art emerges as more influential than is usually thought, leaving him with a lifelong (and only partially fulfilled) ambition to make films. The managerial mess of The Kinks' early years, pitching a pair of English toffs against a duo of music biz sharpies and a high court showdown, is well dissected.

For all the interviews of band members, associates, lovers and wives, Ray remains frustratingly out of focus. The measured, affectionate testimony of Ray's first wife, Rasa, from a Lithuanian Catholic family, and deemed "a stateless, refugee bride" by the north London press, is the nearest we get.

Rogan is unwilling or unable to locate the blithe, sometimes acerbic spirit behind those classic songs. His warts-and-all portrait ends up being mostly just warts. The great Muswell Hillbilly deserves better.

The Guardian