Interview: Ray Davies

On singing in the choir, his American experience, and who’ll play Dave  
By ELIZABETH GEHRMAN  |  November 6, 2009

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In 1964, the scorching five-chord chorus of “You Really Got Me” changed rock music forever. Written by Kinks front man Ray Davies but transformed by the then-shocking carnality of his brother Dave’s distorted guitar sound, “You Really Got Me” has been called both the first punk song ever recorded and the track that invented heavy metal.

The Kinks played together for three tumultuous decades, a period that included not only the requisite sex and drugs of the rock and roll lifestyle, but also legendary battles, both offstage and on: one intra-band fight knocked Dave Davies unconscious during a concert, while the band’s dispute with the American Federation of Musicians led to a four-year ban from the United States.

Throughout it all, and in his 13-year solo career since the band split up, Ray Davies — whom many consider the godfather of Britpop — has written some of the most enduring tunes and memorable character portraits in rock and roll. His new album, The Kinks Choral Collection, grew out of a performance Davies did with the 65-member Crouch End Festival Chorus for the BBC’s 2007 Electric Proms, a London music festival that seeks to create “new moments” in music. He’s performing at the Berklee Theatre on November 17.

It's a bit strange interviewing someone who has written several songs about not liking reporters.
I don’t know if I ever really disliked reporters. There were some run-ins in early days. I came into this when I was a kid, and I didn’t understand why they had to ask about your private life.

I’ll try to avoid that. Will there be a choir at the Berklee show?
No. Logistically, we couldn’t work it out. But I’ve just done a European tour — Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium — with the five-piece band I’m bringing to Boston, and I think it’s the best band I’ve worked with in a long time.

What prompted this new direction?
I’d written a choral piece 10 years ago, a commissioned work called “The Flatlands” — a 50-minute piece with a symphony orchestra. I performed it three times, and left it at that. Then for the Proms, I thought of a choir, and thought it would be nice to incorporate some of those people on Kinks songs. It was an amazing success. One thing led to another, and now we have this album.

Is there a religiosity you're exploring? Your last album, Working Man's Cafe, was a bit heavier than previous work, with “Hymn for a New age" and “Imaginary Man” seeming to reflect on your life.
I recorded Working Man’s Cafe in Nashville. I wanted to use a choir on “Hymn for a New Age” and went with my producer every Sunday to hear different choirs in churches. I thought of it, but to do it on just one song would have been out of context with the record. I rediscovered something within myself, because the world is challenged now about religion. Western cultures are losing it. In “Hymn,” the first line is “I don’t believe that God is a man with white hair, sitting in a big chair.” It says I won’t become a born-again preacher. I believe if you’ve got a message, use Western Union. I’m proud of it, in many ways. It touches on sparks of religion, but says you should go find it within yourself.

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