‘Only connect’ said E.M. Forster; and there are connections galore to be discovered between the careers of Ray Davies and the young actor slated to play him in the upcoming Kinks movie.
I became a fan of the mild-mannered, sweet-natured Johnny Flynn’s folk music after checking him out when he was cast as Ray.
Here is my blog on the initial casting announcement in case you missed it.
You Really Got Me, the planned band biopic, is still listed in the catch-all category of ‘in development’ on IMDb so I’ve no real notion what stage it has reached. I’ve a sneaking suspicion this might be a step backwards and that at one point it had reached ‘pre-production’. Whatever, it has been at a hiatus for rather a long time, perhaps to be expected with such a momentous undertaking, while other projects involving the actors have come to fruition. We can only hope it is making steady progress behind the scenes.
Whatever, Flynn seems to me a good fit for Ray. I first thought this was some pretentious art school graduate – his band is called ‘The Sussex Wit’ and songs include ‘Churlish May’ (a song disproving my sister’s theory that folk songs never just say ‘May’ but always ‘the month of May’) and ‘Barnacled Warship’ but this half-brother to Ripper Street’s Jerome Flynn is in fact quite down to earth.
Here is a first link between the two. Both artists’ bands feature their younger siblings. Johnny’s sister Lillie is part of The Sussex Wit although I haven’t heard any reports of big bust-ups à la The Kinks. The Flynn clan seems a lot more civilised than the Davies in that respect. She also plays the flute and the keyboards. But Lillie’s angelic harmonies could also be paralleled with those of another family member, Ray’s first wife Rasa and her contribution to seminal Kinks track ‘Waterloo Sunset’.
Of Flynn’s music, I initially really liked only a couple of tracks, liltingly captivating ‘The Water’ and ‘Bottom of the Sea Blues’ but I did like them a lot. On repeat listening, others grew on me, like ‘Brown Trout Blues’, ‘Wayne Rooney’ and the end of ‘Gypsy Hymn’ is magical and uplifting (but only from about 2.15 in, the beginning is a bit unbearable).
Flynn himself is supremely likeable, a gifted songwriter, engaging performer and talented actor. You have to hand it to someone who effortlessly manages to transcend the dodgy material and daft premise in the time-travel children’s adventure Crusade in Jeans. (Yes, it is every bit as daft as it sounds – Emily Watson, what were you thinking?)
And it’s also hard not to warm to someone who commands attention by shyly delivering corny cheese jokes to an enraptured US audience, as he does in this footage, almost as if he’s whispering them across the table to a dinner partner in a favourite restaurant. He has the whole room eating (the cheese jokes) out of the palm of his hand.
The young Davies may not have had the same posh accent as Flynn but I think he did boast a similar self-effacing charm, at least in interviews and often in live performance. He’s always possessed the ability to laugh at himself and recognise his own shortcomings, as illustrated by the sometimes painful self-awareness evident in his lyrics.
He is similarly entrancing in this set for the BBC, blessed with an undeniable charisma and watchability. You can’t take your eyes off him (except perhaps to look at Dave, equally mesmerising) and strain your ears to catch his (almost sotto voce) patter between songs although the audience present don’t seem that bothered in a too-cool-for-school way typical of the Beeb.
Talking of art school, Ray attended this himself in the early 60s, namely Hornsey College of Art, so has always been something of a l’uomo universale, although I don’t think he lasted long as a student.
He penned the hilarious ‘Art School Babe’ in 1998, lampooning his younger self’s attempts to woo such a hippy chick in the 60s.
‘But there was one chick in particular. She was in the sculpture
department. She was a complete goddess. She was like one of these
continental film stars.’
The lyrics run thus:
‘My art school babe with your palette-knives and brushes,
painted face, Egyptian eye-brows and bright red lips
Pale white make-up, tight black skirts like Juliette Greco
And there’s me quoting pretentious chat up lines
from Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre.’
You may recall that Jarvis Cocker also had experience of a sculpture student, this at another London art school, Central St Martin’s, remembered in ‘Common People’:
‘She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge
She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College.
That’s where I caught her eye.
She told me that her Dad was loaded
I said in that case I’ll have a rum and coca-cola.’
I’ve remarked on the similarities between Ray and the Pulp frontman before. It’s easy to identify with the figures in such confessional but self-deprecatory songwriting. Their lyrics often betray a wryly honest and darkly humorous outlook on life, appealing to the misfits among us (and referencing a well-known brand of fizzy drink).
A selection of Cocker’s lyrics and poems have been published in book form in Mother, Brother, Lover but on a brief browse they don’t represent his talent in that regard all that well.
Johnny Flynn (also reputed to write poems) actually went one better and married his art school babe, Beatrice Minns, confiding:
‘It’s funny because she always took the piss out of me for being kind of folky. She was an art student and real highbrow, and the worlds I was part of seemed really crass to her.’
But, although with pretensions to be working class, Johnny won a music scholarship to Winchester College, where he sang in the chapel choir, and perhaps his success in fitting in there meant he was more likely to win the fair art school maiden than the secondary modern schoolboy from Muswell Hill.
Both singers suffered anxiety in early fatherhood when touring tore them away from their spouses and newborns.
Ray had married 17-year-old Rasa Dicpetri rather hurriedly in November 1964 after she became pregnant, or so the story goes. Ironically, she had not been a particular fan of The Kinks when a friend persuaded her to bunk off school and hitchhike to a show in a Sheffield club. Rasa’s chum knew drummer Mick Avory, ensuring them entrance through the stage door at Esquire and entry into a different world from any the Bradford schoolgirl had ever known.
She recalls that ‘everyone was very excited, shouting and screaming’ and that the band were clad in stage costumes of red hunting jackets and frilly white shirts. Ray would appear to have been smitten and renewed contact with Rasa when she travelled to London to visit her sister.
In Jon Savage’s official biography of the group, she reports,
‘I didn’t feel the pressure because to me it was very exciting, like a whirlwind.’
However, it would seem awfully strange to try to return to normality once ‘You Really Got Me’ hit no. 1 and the teenage Lithuanian immigrant ended up being expelled from convent school due to her association with the band, following a near-riot in a park where she had arranged to meet her new squeeze.
This was a difficult time for Ray, with the onus of trying to write hits, front the band, keep Mick and Dave from killing each other, satisfy fans and tour Australia, Europe and the US. On top of that, he confesses that being married freaked him out a little.
Fatherhood would only add to the pressure on the young man, who resolved to improve matters for his family, moving Rasa and the baby, born in May 1965, out of a small flat whose front door had just fallen off its hinges.
Ray’s alter ego in X-Ray (autobiography he calls ‘the tormented rantings of a sex-crazed rock’n’roller’), R.D., recalls,
‘from the day Louisa was born until the day we had to take off for America, it was a crazy, thoughtless time …. I promised that when I returned … I’d find us a house to live in with more space and in better shape.’
The accounts of that time make it sound as if everything was happening so quickly that it almost seems speeded up like in one of those old-time film reels, and totally chaotic. Everyone was getting swept up in the momentum of the group’s meteoric rise.
Ray was extremely reluctant to embark on a stateside tour but by then was just one of the cogs in the ‘money go round’ and had to play his part.
Attempts to procure Rasa a visa to fly out to join him initially failed due to her Russian parentage but these obstacles were eventually overcome. However, it’s hard to believe Ray was that glad to see her, considering what he’d been getting up to on tour. Let’s just say that matrimony didn’t seem to instil in him any strong compulsion to keep it in his pants. Rasa was still suffering the after-effects of the traumatic childbirth. R.D. remarks, ‘It was like she had been mauled by a butcher … Her stitches had hardly healed.’ Although overjoyed to be reunited with her, Ray’s elation was tempered by his spouse’s gentle evasion of physical intimacy.
This enforced separation from wife and firstborn daughter Louisa precipitated a profound depression and in the end a breakdown of sorts. He penned the touchingly aching ‘I Go to Sleep’ (probably more famously covered by one-time fan and short-time squeeze Chrissie Hynde with The Pretenders, mother of Ray’s admirably activist daughter Natalie) during this period, pining for his wife and child. ‘Sitting in My Hotel’ also recounts the self-imposed isolation the alienated homesick musician underwent abroad (when not busy getting his end away, one presumes).
In a poignant parallel, Flynn recalls experiencing panic attacks on a US tour after his son was born:
‘When Gabriel arrived there was a couple of weeks of confused bliss, then I had to go on tour. I was pressured to do it; we hadn’t toured the album in America and risked losing our record deal.’
This could be a good way into the character of Ray, faced with a similar career imperative at a similar turning point in his life.
Often driving through the night, Flynn’s memory of the 8,000-mile tour is of
‘Not sleeping, driving shitloads. I’d just had a kid and was really worried about missing that time with him. I started having quite severe panic attacks.’
He identifies these as
‘a welling up of big changes that needed working out: having a child, getting married. I think lots of people go through similar things around these junctures in life.’
The birth of his son and death of his father Eric also prompted a preoccupation with ageing, often discerned in Kinks lyrics too, in songs from ‘Autumn Almanac’ on. Flynn declares:
‘I always looked forward to being older and being able to better inhabit my thoughts.’
Hm, just wait till you’ve tried it – you might change your mind.
In addition to his incredible musical pedigree, having written some of the best-loved songs of the 60s and 70s, Ray writes books (Americana being his latest publishing venture) and musical theatre (Come Dancing was another success) and, like Johnny, has not been averse to a bit of acting either, starring in a BBC TV play, The Long Distance Piano Player, in 1970.
He appeared in the less than successful Absolute Beginners in 1986, alongside such luminaries as the late great David Bowie and James Fox, as well in as a weird type of TV stage show drama called Starmaker, a curiosity worth checking out on YouTube just for the strangeness factor if you’re a dedicated follower.
The lead Kink is a dream of a role for Johnny, given name Joe, who’s already appeared as a musician in the film Lotus Eaters. Its IMDb synopsis reads:
‘A group of young Londoners struggle to find meaning in their lives while masking their discontent with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.’
And here is Johnny singing the rather sweet ‘Papa Was a Rodeo’ to the fabulously beautiful Antonia Campbell-Hughes.
In Song One in 2014 he also plays a musician, this time opposite Anne Hathaway.
Flynn has also starred in an ill-fated sitcom, Brotherhood, shown on Comedy Central to general opprobrium. It only scores 3.9 on IMDb.
I didn’t think it was nearly as bad as all that and found some episodes quite amusing. You can check them out on YouTube if you’re so inclined. The setup seems similar to the US’s Two and a Half Men, although I have never watched this so can’t confirm.
Johnny plays inveterate philanderer Toby, a charming child-man with absolutely no sense of responsibility and a rampant desire to bed all available women. He is as camp as Ray Davies in drag. At Christmas. Or even Ray Davies dressed up as Father Christmas.
His acting career may have perhaps surpassed Ray’s but the latter has undoubtedly enjoyed more success in the music business, not only in the charts but even in turning the early days of The Kinks into theatre. His recent musical purporting to tell the story of the band, Sunny Afternoon, is reviewed here. The production is touring the UK as I write and you could do a lot worse than seek it out if you want a rip-roaring slice of 60s entertainment.
In another parallel, both Davies and Flynn have penned themes for TV sitcoms, Ray for Till Death Do Us Part and Johnny for The Detectorists.
Incidentally, Ray had long ago composed a song (currently familiar from TV adverts for a bathroom supplier) on the subject of Queen Victoria. The period drama recently shown on ITV of a Sunday night about the monarch is notable for also starring Tom Hughes as the queen’s paramour Albert. He is making an admirable job of it and I had picked him to play Mick Avory in the movie. But I fear the part would have to be bumped up from ‘also ran’ status to satisfy the actor now.
And all Kinks blogs thus far are listed here.