Chief Kink Ray Davies on his Olivier Award-winning musical
16:44 05 January 2017
All images are copyright Dan Wooller, 2015
As his musical hits Brighton, chief Kink Ray Davies describes its genesis to Duncan Hall
Even at the height of his fame, when the single Lola was in the top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic, songwriter Ray Davies was railing against what he saw as the corrupt music industry.
The accompanying Kinks album Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround attacked the power of song publishers, agents, unions and the music press on songs like Top Of The Pops and Denmark Street. Title track The Moneygoround followed the royalties from a successful single into the pockets of Robert, Grenville, Larry and a foreign publisher who “don’t know the tune and they don’t know the words/But they don’t give a damn.”
That experience as a young songwriter clearly still rankles with Ray, and forms part of Sunny Afternoon, his Kinks-soundtracked musical of four friends in the early 1960s who take on the world. “Bands like the Kinks were thrown to the wolves,” he says. “Bands now have more protection. We had no experience whatsoever, we were making it up as we were going along. We weren’t like our contemporaries, The Beatles or the Stones, who had good management and a press machine.”
What the Kinks had was great songs – with the creation of Ray’s distortion-driven calling card You Really Got Me forming a central part of Sunny Afternoon. “It’s like a nuclear bomb in the show,” he says. “It explodes. In real life we connived to get it to sound how we wanted it to sound – not how the producers wanted it to sound.”
Part of Ray’s unique songwriting style, which went on to influence the Britpop boom of the 1990s, rose from a mysterious three-year ban from touring the US, despite a successful initial jaunt in 1965. While his contemporaries were dashing around the States in tour buses, Ray wrote about the dedicated followers of fashion and well-respected men he witnessed roaming the capital, as well as the poverty of inner London in Dead End Street. “There’s a line from X-Ray [The Unauthorized Autobiography from 1994] and in the musical where I say I write songs about England because I’m stuck in England,” he says. “It felt personal – the first few years we had been having hits, and then our career was taken away, just like that. We had no MTV or cable television network, no digital downloading. We put records out but people didn’t play them on the radio. We had three years where our music wasn’t heard in the US.” That frustration came out in the song Sunny Afternoon – also a dig at the high taxes in the UK at the time – with its protagonist targeted both by the taxman and a “big fat mama” trying to break him. “I’m not sure about the actual date, but we were number one during the World Cup,” says Ray. “It’s central to the final act of the musical – it’s about Englishness and Britishness.”
The musical isn’t just Ray getting back at those who wanted to keep him down though. It is also a snapshot of a colourful, exciting period in British history, and an uplifting tale of four friends who battled to the top. “People are laughing at the end and dancing,” says Ray. “You do see people crying too. It’s important to touch a nerve with people. I don’t think you have to be a Kinks fan to like the show. Many of the songs are known, but not many people know about the band which recorded them. I find that uplifting – it brings a new audience to the music. When the musical kicks off it’s about people who are desperate to be somebody.”
Working with director Edward Hall, associate of the National Theatre and The Old Vic, and scriptwriter Joe Penhall, author of the multi-award-winning Blue/Orange, Ray has ensured the story stays as true to the Kinks’ formative experience as possible. “It was a collaborative thing,” says Ray. “The songs were the driving force. We were careful to choose the songs that kept the story going along. Some people think some of the songs were written for the show, but they’re all from the Kinks canon. The hits are all there, but in the right place and appropriate for the story.” And it has clearly worked as Sunny Afternoon scooped four Olivier Awards in 2015 including Best New Musical and a special award for achievement in music for Ray.
This is not the first time Ray has dabbled with the musical form – in fact he has been familiar with it most of his life. “I grew up in a family of sisters,” he says. “They used to take me to see musicals like Oklahoma and Showboat when I was a toddler.”
Ray combined theatre and music in the live presentations of his two Preservation Act albums from 1973 and 1974, and 1975’s albums Schoolboys In Disgrace and Soap Opera, the latter of which started life as a special entitled Starmaker on Granada TV. “I’ve always had my eye on that part of creativity,” he says. “I went to art school and did painting and theatre work – designing and directing, film editing. It was there in me to begin with.”
The idea for Sunny Afternoon was sparked by Ray’s 2005 stage show Come Dancing about his elder sister Rene’s love of big bands and ballrooms. “I felt it was a great follow-up story, following this working class family from North London and their journey from being innocent to being thrown into this corrupt world with shadowy characters.” he says. “I also had my journey as a writer and the connection with my brother. I did the first treatment in 2005, before Come Dancing was produced, and turned my attention to Sunny Afternoon between tours and making my own music. The show is a musical, it’s an entertainment, but it is true to reality. It’s almost like a documentary in places.”
There is more new music to come from Ray, inspired by his return visits to America – including one unforgettable night in New Orleans in 2004 where he was shot in the leg during a mugging. His stories of the US were collected in a 2013 book and stage show entitled Americana. Many of the songs on the new album were premiered in stripped down style on the tour – which took in Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion in January 2014. “I’m not a good communicator apart from in song,” he says. “I heard the first mixes of the new album yesterday – I’m deciding which record company to go with and when it should come out. I’m excited about it – there’s an element which has a real haunted quality about it.”
The Kinks broke up in 1996 following 24 studio albums and 19 UK top 10 singles. Despite their well-documented fractious relationship Ray and his brother Dave were the only remaining founder members. “I had a drink with my brother at Christmas,” says Ray. “We sat down, looked at one another and said: ‘Did we do all that? It’s amazing!”
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