Ray(mond Douglas) Davies Critical Essays

Introduction

Ray(mond Douglas) Davies 1944–

British songwriter, singer, musician, and actor.

Davies is a founding member and lead singer of the Kinks, a rock group which achieved success during pop music's "British Invasion" in 1964. Davies writes nearly all of the band's material, and his blend of catchy melodies and uniquely British subjects has established a cult following for the Kinks which continues to grow. Davies has gone through various stages in his songwriting career. He has written top 40-oriented pop songs, social satires, concept albums, vaudeville-type stage shows, and New Wave music with topical overtones. Through all of these changes, Davies has maintained the stance of a loner, and his songs most often reflect the alienation and unfulfilled aspirations of the lower middle class.

Davies first became involved in music while an art student in England. With his brother Dave, Peter Quaife, and Mick Avory, Davies began a rhythm-and-blues band called the Ravens. Soon after changing their name to the Kinks, the group signed a recording contract. After releasing two cover singles with little success, the Kinks recorded Davies's composition "You Really Got Me," which was highly successful worldwide. Davies continued to write popular hits through the mid-sixties, including "All Day and All of the Night," "Tired of Waiting for You," "Set Me Free," and "Till the End of the Day." These songs feature a basic beat embellished by distinctive guitar work and repetitive lyrics which reflect the experiences of young people. The Kinks's early albums were overshadowed by these singles, however, since Davies rarely surpassed the lyrical and musical limitations of his hits. Nevertheless, listeners were intrigued by Davies's quirky songs about aggressive women and passive men. The best example of this type of song is "Set Me Free," in which Davies, unlike other pop songwriters of the time, asks the girl to set him free. This sexual ambiguity is apparent both in Davies's soundtrack for the English television movie Percy, which concerns a homosexual, and in "Lola," a song about a person who "walked like a woman but talked like a man."

The release of the single "A Well Respected Man" in late 1965 saw a marked shift in Davies's song topics. This song centers on the themes of corruption and appearance-and-reality rather than love relationships. From this time on, Davies's work began to depict "serious" situations which are felt to be related from a specifically British viewpoint. These works include "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," "Sunny Afternoon," and "Deadend Street," and the albums Something Else and The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Village Green is seen as a "concept album" with a surprising theme for a rock group: the preservation of traditional ideals and morals. The Kinks's next album, Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), is considered the most successful of Davies's concept works. Written for an English television musical, Arthur shows the decline of English values through the life and views of one character. The Kinks's popularity in England reached its peak with Arthur, but the British nature of Davies's writing alienated American fans, and the Kinks were regarded in the United States as an eccentric cult band.

The Kinks had a hit single in 1971 with "Lola," a Davies song with a typically offbeat theme: transvestism. However, "Lola" is not representative of Davies's work in the early seventies. Davies continued to rely on specific themes for his albums, but his songs veered more toward music-hall vaudeville routines. Beginning with the album Muswell Hillbillies, Davies incorporated brass and a distinctly un-rocklike sound to many of the group's songs. The album was a popular success, but it proved to be the last one the Kinks would have for a few years. Davies's Preservation trilogy, Soap Opera, and Schoolboys in Disgrace are the most theatrical Kinks albums, and Davies took his ideas one step further by acting out his stories in elaborate stage shows. These shows were highly regarded by fans and critics, and were likened to Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill themes and productions. However, the albums are felt to be little more than soundtracks for the stage musicals and were not commercially successful. Also, there was dissatisfaction among other members of the band toward the direction Davies's music was taking; this resulted in some halfhearted performances and caused Davies to reevaluate his songwriting theories.

Sleepwalker, released in 1977, showed distinct changes in Davies's work. He was no longer writing theater pieces, opting instead for the Something Else/Village Green idea of individual songs working toward a collective theme. Critics heralded Davies's creative rebirth on Sleepwalker and the next Kinks album, Misfits. Misfits is considered to be one of Davies's most personal works, and the title song and "Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy" are felt to be among Davies's most beautiful and significant lyrics. The Kinks achieved commercial success with Low Budget, which was recorded while Davies was living in New York and contains lyrics which reflect American society much more than previous albums. The music on Low Budget has a harder edge to it, and Davies's topical themes and pessimistic viewpoint seems influenced by the songs of numerous new wave bands. Accordingly, the Kinks have attained a greater level of popularity in the United States than at any time since the years of their first albums, and they have become more popular in America than in England. This American resurgence proves that Davies still speaks to young people with his songs while working with the ideas and problems that have become his trademark.