‘Just who’s fooling who’: is Ray’s humility completely disingenuous?

We’ve all got our wishlists of what we’d like Ray Davies to play on his 2012 tour. Here’s one of mine –

  • Last of the Steam Powered Trains
  • A Gallon of Gas
  • The Real World
  • Let It Be Written
  • Yo-yo
  • Art Lover
  • All Night Stand
  • To the Bone
  • Working Man’s Café
  • One More Time
  • I’m Not like Everybody Else
  • The Informer
  • Get Back in the Line
  • Creatures of Little Faith
  • The Letter
  • The Storyteller
  • Till the End of the Day
  • A Better Thing
  • Skin and Bone
  • Big Black Smoke
  • Little Miss Queen of Darkness
  • Sunny Afternoon
  • Dead End Street
  • Alcohol
  • Lola
  • Well-respected Man
  • Waterloo Sunset

But let’s face it, I could come up with a different desired setlist every night and not repeat anything, there are so many songs I’d love to hear.

I expect to be totally OD’d on RD by the end of the year.

My very first experience of Ray Davies live came in the form of a tantalising morsel at the Big Star/Alex Chilton tribute at the Barbican. I’d been prepared for disappointment as some doomsayers had insisted beforehand that he was unlikely to turn up. When he failed to feature on the programme sheet, I suspected they might be right.

But he had mentioned on Facebook that he would be there. And he proved true to his word.

After an evening of mostly rather beautiful and haunting renditions of songs from Big Star’s Third, performed by a stellar cast of musicians, the organisers surely saved the best till last.

‘You always played the best records’: Big Star’s Third album.

And announced someone who needs no introduction. Cue unbridled excitement from some quarters,  disgruntled and grudging acceptance from others and the biggest cheer of the night.

Ray appeared, in a dark jacket and trousers, white shirt and trainers, a more ragged, prickly-looking figure than his softer-edged brother Dave now, his hair sticking out all over like the fluffy feathers of a baby bird that’s been unceremoniously chucked out of the nest. And you can imagine you might cut yourself on him if you got too close.[1] He briefly put on glasses only to take them off after about one line of the first song.[2] Perhaps he didn’t much like the look of us.

There was nothing haunting about the infectious immediacy of  ‘Till the End of the Day’ (covered by Big Star on Third) as Ray took the stage, shaking a tambourine. But its raw energy and lust for life were indeed beautiful, bursting with an overwhelming and irresistible sense of the promise of life and what the future holds. On an evening of quiet, elegiac reflection, it completely changed the tone, its message of hope so undeniable, uplifting, celebratory, that in one fell swoop it switched the points and diverted the night onto a different track.

Between songs, the erstwhile Kinks frontman talked about his time as a neighbour to Alex Chilton while recuperating from a gunshot wound in New Orleans. Alex lent him his guitar but Ray pointed out, ‘He charged me for it.’ Adding that the night was emotional for him as he’d been asked to write some songs for the next Big Star album but, he confessed, with a rueful shake of the head:

‘I didn’t deliver. So this is for Alex and this wonderful band. Great spirit here tonight. Thank you very much. It’s an honour to do this.’

Then ‘The Letter’, the 1967 Box Tops hit, written by Wayne Carson Thompson, was an absolute tour de force, just an injection of pure adrenalin. Ray set his seal on that classic for all time with a rollicking, growly, somewhat threatening version, so committed that you felt sorry for anyone who might stray into his path on his way to the airport. He owned the song, he owned the stage, hell, he owned the night.[3]

And, seeing the YouTube footage afterwards, I can relive that moment, which seemed slightly surreal at the time, unable to shift that uneasy feeling of dislocation, like I couldn’t quite believe I was there. Not to mention watch the other performers registering his presence among them in downright awestruck appreciation, Robyn Hitchcock wielding that hairdryer with true aplomb. And Ray just seemed so vital and alive, despite actually apparently not feeling that good on the night.

He was intrinsic in making the evening a hugely memorable one. A revelation. Although the majority of the people on stage alongside him were probably younger, none set the place alight like him.

Simply intoxicating.[4]

‘Wide boys, hoods and spivs’: Come Dancing evokes a bygone era.

The next time I saw him live[5] was a whole other story. The gentler-voiced Ray came to the fore, playing the role of the storyteller in a concert of his musical Come Dancing at Theatre Royal East in Stratford.

In a blue pinstripe suit, he looked like some 50s wideboy morally dubious musical manager, but sometimes sounded frail when speaking, rushing and even slightly slurring his words like he was worried he might not pronounce them right. I wondered if he wasn’t a little nervous.

Here, instead of the raucous rock delivery of the previous gig, his voice became a fragile, delicately nuanced, yearning instrument, with a touching vulnerability as it found its way around a melody.

Loosely based on his memories of his older sisters, this is a deeply evocative piece showcasing some stirring and moving songs performed with gusto by an excellent cast. It’s been extensively reviewed elsewhere[6] but a definite highlight is ‘A Better Thing’, in which Ray duets with Alasdair Harvey, the younger man’s vocals getting stronger as his character Frankie seems to take on board the elder’s advice.

I felt transported back to a more innocent bygone era, in fact to the time when the great musicals thrived in the London theatres and in starry cinematic Hollywood versions. And it seemed a fitting tribute to someone who loved life and dancing, Ray’s sister Rene, who, just after presenting thirteen-year-old Ray with the birthday present of his first guitar, tragically yet appositely died in the arms of a stranger on the dancefloor of the Lyceum Ballroom.

The only slightly sour note was the strange hot drinks moratorium at the theatre, which we twice fell foul of, once before the performance and once after our meal in the bar. There’s a strict (and nonsensical) ban on the serving of tea between certain hours, which the bar staff enforced with some relish.

These two brief but satisfying encounters with Ray Davies live illustrated the breadth of his talent, both as songwriter and performer and prepared me for his bravura set at the Hop Farm Festival at the end of June.

On that occasion the setlist was

  • I Need You
  • Good Times
  • Everybody Else
  • Sunny Afternoon
  • Come Dancing
  • All Day
  • Waterloo Sunset
  • Dedicated
  • Dead End
  • End of the Day
  • Victoria (only a snatch)
  • 20th Century Man
  • Lola
  • Days
  • Got Me

Which amounted to a pretty good choice of material too. But Ray was an utterly different animal when on stage in his own right and, despite loving it, at one point he made me so irritated that I turned to the person with me and pronounced ‘Bastard!’

He’s an endlessly enticing yet exasperating conundrum, there’s no doubt about that.

And, talking of animals, my misheard lyric of the day comes from ‘Animal’ in which I thought ‘Sometimes there were sunsets on the sands’ was ‘Sometimes there was some sex on the sand’.

But to return to wishes, I guess my ultimate wish of the moment is that Dave reunite with Ray for the Olympics closing ceremony. I know, no chance whatsoever. As we trailed out of Wimbledon after watching Brits Laura Robson and Heather Watson lose a tight Olympics doubles, however, the fact that ‘Waterloo Sunset’ started playing throughout the grounds did vouchsafe some slight consolation.

Thanks to kindakinks.net for lyrics and tumblr.com for pictures for the most part.


[1] His girlfriend Karen Eyo is rather lithe and angular too so I imagine they’re careful with each other when they embrace.

[2] Dave wears glasses too now occasionally, plastic-framed reading ones from the £1 shop.

[3] He may have stolen the show but he appeared humble, at no time acting at all like a star. Since then I’ve seen footage of him trying (unsuccessfully) to sidle shyly offstage after singing with Jon Bon Jovi.

[4] As he said before another performance, ‘Ragged and inspirational, the spirit of the Kinks lives on.’

[5] Just six days later. I think the rehearsals for Come Dancing only began the Monday of the Big Star show so he was probably rushing from one side of town to the other. It’s impressive how they managed to perfect the performance in such a short space of time.

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2 responses »

  1. Bernadette says:

    Loved reading and listening to this. I’ve seen Ray in concert two times – the second was during my recuperation from a stroke in 2007 ( he was playing in Sheffield) which had rendered me paralysed down the left side. It was that night I finally got feeling back in my lips as I would so have loved to snog the face off him. Ye gods but I envy you having that opportunity.

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