Ray Davies: The Muswell Hillbilly And The Greatest Living Englishman

After a cracking performance at Meltdown yesterday, here's a tribute to Raymond Douglas Davies, a songwriting genius and a national treasure
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After a cracking performance at Meltdown yesterday, here's a tribute to Raymond Douglas Davies, a songwriting genius and a national treasure

He is the Muswell Hillbilly whose heart lies in Old West Virginia. The man that has written the greatest song about London and maybe the greatest song about England – Waterloo Sunset.

That, in its own context, should be enough but add in the fact his band The Kinks documented Swinging London better than any other band of their genre. They were slum clearance kids dressed in clobber from Granny Takes a Trip whilst at the same time took the piss out of everybody in Dedicated Follower of Fashion.

Davies wrote about sexual ambiguity in See My Friends whilst, earlier, brother Dave invented heavy metal with that riff from You Really Got Me.

Davies’ muse has rarely left him and it was never more evident than in 1968 when he penned the band’s cult classic The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society.

They were banned from America at the height of their fame and nobody appears to know why as Ray Davies continued to write about the perennial themes that concerned him: Englishness, class, displacement and freedom.

He acted in plays got felt-up by a transvestite called Lola, set up his own recording studio called Konk and then when he was allowed into the USA the band conquered it with a brand of rock that alienated many of the original Kinks’ fans. Davies wrote stage musicals and concept albums before embarking on an American that lasted something like 15 years.

By the eighties he was appearing in the Julian Temple directed film adaptation of Colin MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners and releasing the sublime Come Dancing single.

In the 1990s the Kinks were inducted into the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the Who and Davies was winning an Ivor Novello back on home soil.

He was directing and producing Weird Nightmare - a portrait of Charles Mingus for Channel 4’s jazz series that featured the likes of Elvis Costello, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts before publishing his bizarre but brilliant "unauthorized autobiography", X-Ray where fact and fiction is not so much blurred as put into a food mixer and mashed up.

The Kinks played their last ever concert in Oslo in 1996 and despite rumours of a reunion surfacing every other week Ray Davies has led a solo life that has only been interrupted when shot and wounded in the leg by a mugger in New Orleans in 2004. Something he seemed to brush off in his usual blasé way refusing to say much about it and just getting on with his life.

In recent years he has been prolific. His 2007 highly acclaimed Working Man’s Café album saw him mining his usual subjects in a beautifully mature way and two years later he hooked up with The Crouch End Festival Chorus to re-imagine and re-work some Kinks classics. Last year he had a bunch of mates – including Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne - around to again rework some classic resulting in the See My Friends collection.

He’s about to go back into the studio to record some new material but before that he’s the curator of this year’s Meltdown Festival with guests as diverse as Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

It is another addition to his CV for the man that can still be found wandering around Highgate and Muswell Hill or down at the Arsenal. The complex man that documented a decade with his witty and sharp pop songs that were never quite as they seemed. Even Waterloo Sunset is steeped in mythology. It could be about the celebrities of the time, actors Terence Stamp and Julie Christie. Or it could about one of his sisters and her boyfriend then again Ray himself has recently said it was written about Liverpool and was originally called Liverpool Sunset.

Who knows? But whatever goes on inside Davies’ mind doesn’t matter. He has given us some of the greatest sounds and most enduring songs of the last fifty years and for that we should rejoice. He is a national treasure. Arise Sir Raymond Douglas Davies!

Ray Davies’ Meltdown Festival celebrating the Festival of Britain will run from Friday 10 to Sunday 19 June at the Southbank Centre

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