By 1976, the Kinks appeared washed up. Critics either ignored or derided them. Every year, they released another elaborate rock opera that flopped and returned to the United States to run the same circuit of cramped buses, budget motels and modest venues, where they played for their most loyal fans and netted slight, if any, financial return. RCA cut them loose as soon as their contract ended.
A few years later, the Kinks were one of the biggest bands in America, packing stadiums and shifting millions of units. They had come back with a new sound, devoid of nostalgia, that won them a new generation of young fans. Their videos became a staple on MTV and new singles flooded radio, bounding up the U.S. charts.
Although the Eighties Kinks (79-84) never gained much traction in England, they fit in neatly among the populist, guitar-based, new wave bands of America, like the Romantics or the Knack (who did a mean cover of “The Hard Way”). Without question, the band that did the most to break the Kinks in America was Van Halen, whose debut 1978 single was a titanic cover of “You Really Got Me.” The denim clad youth that packed U.S. arenas and bought new Kinks albums were typically unfamiliar with the illustrious back catalog. Professional rock critics, who had spent years bonding with The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, were mortified.
Rock critics tend to look down on the band’s material from this period. British rock critics (who write the most about the Kinks) are always disparaging of the Eighties run and can be counted on to bemoan the band’s 1980’s “metal excesses,” as Rob Jovanovic does in his recent biography God Save the Kinks (2013). Resentful of the success in America, British rock historians have spent decades maligning the great run of 1980’s albums and portraying the American fans as hicks who drove the band to create dreadful music, far below the quality of songs like “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” “Days,” Sunny Afternoon,” “Well Respected Man,” etc.
Rock critics got it wrong. The conquest of America coincided with a musical zenith for the Kinks that had lasting influence. During this short, fecund period, Dave re-emerged as a guitar-shredding hero and Ray went on a run of excellent songs: tender, tortured, funny, and very dark.
The belated triumph was the culmination of a long, hard-fought campaign. Victory was brought about with no small amount of assistance from Clive Davis, a titan of the music industry, who is worth a word or two.
Before being appointed vice president of CBS-owned Columbia Records in 1965, Clive Davis never cared much about pop music. He considered rock and roll to be kids’ stuff, akin to hula hoops and coonskin caps, not something that an ambitious adult took seriously. Music was never a passion or hobby for the thirty-two year old corporate attorney, whose personal taste ran to conventional fare, like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, and the Broadway theater albums and shows like “My Fair Lady” that Columbia had pioneered under the leadership of its sophisticated, eloquent president Goddard Lieberson.
Born into a tight-knit, working class, Jewish family in Brooklyn in 1933, Davis had been a disciplined and bright kid, quick with numbers, who excelled at getting elected class president. He received full-tuition scholarships to NYU College of Arts and Science and Harvard Law and was twenty-eight years old and married with a family when he got shanghaied into the music business. Goddard Lieberson hired him as assistant counsel from the law firm where Davis had been handling contracts for Columbia. Davis was thrilled with his new job and its accompanying leaps in salary and continued to yield his typical excellent results. In 1967, Lieberson appointed him president with a mandate to increase the label’s presence in the rock market.
With the exception of Bob Dylan, Columbia Records had spent the Sixties ignoring rock and roll at significant cost. To make up for lagging sales, Davis successfully lobbied for a higher price-point on popular albums and killed mono sound. He expanded Columbia’s roster with new acts like Janis Joplin, the Mamas and Papas, Sly & the Family Stone, Simon & Garfunkel, and Chicago. Not a lifelong music aesthete like rivals Ahmet Ertegun at Virgin or Jac Holzman at Elektra, Davis developed a fine ear and perhaps keener sense of the mass market. Early in his tenure, he began a still ongoing habit of taking home all the major records in the pop charts every week and listening to them over the weekend.
Even though Davis made it a rule to never have personal friendships with artists on his label, the former corporate attorney turned out to have excellent rapport with performers and musicians, who remained loyal even after their contracts ended. Unlike David Geffen, Davis is not despised by bands he made rich. Even the cantankerous Miles Davis called him a “great man” in his autobiography. Affability and sound counsel would benefit Davis as he moved further into A&R and took a more active role in determining the recorded output of artists.
Without doubt, many talented musicians and singers have benefited from Davis’ input and the choices he’s made for them. Conversely, the greatest and least known American punk band was Death, a trio of black teenage brothers from Detroit who were improbably creating visionary punk rock music in 1974 from pieces of the Who and Alice Cooper. Somehow, Davis got wind of Death and paid for a seven song demo. He made a once-in-a-lifetime offer for the unknown band to sign to Columbia, but it came with a non-negotiable term that was completely wrong: change the name. The group’s uncompromising leader refused and that was that.
After restoring Columbia to profitability, Davis was suddenly fired in 1973 under the flimsy pretext of charging personal expenses to the company. A couple years later, he launched Arista Records, which went on to enormous success and reaped him a fortune (between 2004 and 2008 alone, the Sony BMG merger netted him over $100 million). Always aware of the changing market, Davis was central to the mainstreaming of hip hop music in the Nineties by partnering with Babyface and L.A. Reid to launch LaFace Records and co-founding Bad Boy Records with Sean Combs, aka “Puff Daddy.”
With the publication of his autobiography The Soundtrack of My Life in 2013, Davis announced that he had become bi-sexual after his second marriage ended in 1985. He made the media rounds and insisted that he wasn’t gay, although he admits that he hasn’t been with a woman for decades. In the book, he writes: “My two marriages had failed, but neither failed for sexual reasons,” the type of stipulation that sounds inherently dubious. The powerful mogul claims that he never had a gay impulse in his life before hooking up with a twenty-five year old that he met at Studio 54 as a recently divorced fifty-something year old.
Davis’ most infamous moment occurred in the year prior to his book’s publication. On February 11, 2012, he hosted his annual, star-studded pre-Grammys party at the Beverly Hills Hilton as Whitney Houston’s lifeless body lay on the bathroom floor a few floors up in a hotel suite he had paid for. As detectives investigated and the singer’s teen daughter wailed in grief, the assembled celebrities and performers (including Ray Davies) partied the night away.
The decision to proceed with the party exposed a chilling disregard toward the iconic artist he had mentored and with whom he had formed his most successful and enduring partnership. Subsequent justifications that Houston’s shattered family members gave their consent or that Houston would have wanted it that way rang hollow, as Chaka Khan made clear to Piers Morgan when she appeared on his show.
The strange circumstances of Whitney Houston’s ugly demise – drowning face down in a few inches of scalding water after a purported drug overdose – gave rise to rumors that she was killed in a fit of rage or targeted over titanic debts to drug dealers. More exotic theories that she was slain in some Illuminati blood ritual were lent greater credibility by the proximity of the inscrutable Svengali in whose honor the party went on. For any adherent of Illuminati theory, it goes without saying, Clive Davis is certainly connected.
In 1976, the astute A&R man was a great fan of Ray Davies’ past work, but also had good reason to see commercial potential. Schoolboys in Disgrace had been more radio-friendly than previous concept albums and enjoyed some rare (albeit moderate) success in the States. Despite the drunken tours and fistfights, the band were workhorses who had sharpened into a stellar live act. More important, Ray and Clive got on well from the start. Clive would make a rare exception to his rule against personal friendships with artists on his label and hang out with Ray regularly after Ray moved into a brownstone nearby. Ray, for his part, would accept input from A&R for the first time since former manager Larry Page advised him to write a song similar to “Louie, Louie.”
Friendly as Clive was, the deal came with terms, which he made clear from the the start: no more concept albums. No more music theater revues or funny costumes. Ray was alright with it. He still seethed over the lost opportunities in America and was ready to devote all his energy to conquering the U.S. market.
After the band signed to Arista in June, 1976, Ray left his home in Surrey (and second wife) for a bolt-hole apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in a building next door to John Lennon’s much more luxe spread at the Dakota. He never saw the reclusive ex-Beatle, who had tried to rattle him the first time they met when the Kinks opened for the Beatles in 1964. Ray never warmed to Lennon after that, but he didn’t socialize with other rock stars in general or listen to their music. He wrote, jogged, and plotted the Kinks’ conquest of America over meals at Elaine’s and Tavern On The Green with Clive Davis or the Arista promotional team of Michael Kleffner and Bob Feiden.
It took the Kinks an unheard of six months to finish recording Sleepwalker (1977) at their Konk studios in London. Clive consulted with Ray daily over the phone and was very involved in the production, calling for strings on “Brother,” which he misheard as a ballad like “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” With unlimited studio time at his disposal, Ray ordered exhaustive retakes, scrapped the album after it was finished and started all over again. After it was finally finished, John Dalton decided he’d rather run a transport cafe than continue on as bassist in the Kinks. Keyboardist John “The Baptist” Gossling would have a similar change of heart after an onstage spat with Dave resulted in Ray clocking him when Gossling refused to come out for the encore.
For all the effort and cost, the Arista debut was a bland slab of slight Seventies AOR rock, but it wasn’t another rock opera, the band was down to a five piece and un-costumed. Critics welcomed it as a return to form and Arista’s strong promotional efforts helped propel Sleepwalker to twenty-one on the U.S. charts.
Misfits (1978) took nearly a year to complete and relied on a similar, grueling patchwork production, as well as session men for the drum and bass tracks (Mick Avory resumed full duties with the tour). The slick sound incorporated some new wave echo and featured a few nervier choices than its predecessor. The lovely “Misfits” ballad got some radio play, but the album stalled at forty on the charts.
The first two Arista efforts raised the band’s profile in America but accomplished nothing in England. Musical Express described a rare concert in London, sandwiched between U.S. tours in 1978, as a “ travesty of rock and roll.” The reason for the antipathy toward presumed rock and roll dinosaurs like the Kinks was that U.K. rock journalists were completely enamored with the confrontational new music and fashion of punk.
During the summer of 1977, punk rock exploded out of London and scandalized the U.K. Much of the aesthetic represented in epicenters London and Manhattan was drawn from a gay sub-culture that embraced trash culture, black humor and outré style. A few years earlier, the greatest and least respected rock and roll band in America had been the New York Dolls, denizens of this scene. The Dolls took the stage in women’s clothing with teased out hair, lipstick, and mascara and were hugely influential, despite their poorly produced studio albums and tragic career trajectory. Future members of the Ramones attended their shows at Max’s Kansas City before adopting a uniform similar to the clothes worn by male prostitutes hustling on a corner near Times Square where bassist and songwriter Dee Dee Ramone had, in fact, occasionally turned tricks.
In the U.K., the provocateur behind the flagship band of punk anarchy was Malcolm McLaren, a fashion-designer entrepreneur who briefly had a stint in the States where he attempted to revive the disintegrating career of the New York Dolls by dressing them in red leather and putting them on stage in front of a Communist flag. In 1975 at CBGB’s, he saw performances by the Ramones and Richard Hell, the lead singer of Television, whose personal style and anthemic song “Blank Generation” inspired McLaren. Upon returning to London, he concocted the Sex Pistols as a vehicle to promote the clothing and bondage gear for sale at “Sex,” his shop on King’s Road.
Seventies rock idols reacted in different ways to finding themselves suddenly reviled by a large segment of the British youth market. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page attended a show by the Damned, but found no favor among the punks. The Rolling Stones professed disinterest, as did the ex-Beatles, whose bands were anathema. The Who, however, were well regarded for their achievements in music and destruction, as well as their centrality to the mod movement, a clear precursor to punk that was enjoying a revival.
The mod Kinks were also highly esteemed by the punk bands, probably more so because they had never surpassed cult status, a necessary step before any band can become uncool. Their early catalog provided impeccable proto-punk credentials and they had dressed sharp and looked cool throughout the Sixties. Even at their most grandiose, the Kinks avoided pretentiousness and Ray’s songs, like his voice, had an unaffected working class inflection.
The greatest factor, however, to the Kinks’ high compatibility with the punk genre was their shared roots in gay sub-culture. Since their earliest days, the Kinks had maintained a strong gay following that grew implacable after “Lola.” Ray told interviewers the song was based on an encounter with drag queen Candy Darling, a long-standing muse to Lou Reed and star of the influential Andy Warhol crowd that the band often ran with when they were in New York.
In short, punk rock didn’t phase the Kinks. Dave was particularly energized by it and liked the Sex Pistols immensely, as well as the Damned, X-Ray Spex, the Clash, and the Jam. He responded to the new music’s vitality, aggression and politics and appreciated its contrived aspects.
Ray gravitated to punk rock as well. In February of 1977, he saw the Ramones at the Whiskey in Los Angeles and was soon catching new acts at CBGB’s when he was in New York. By the end of the decade, he was listening to American post-punk bands like Devo, Pere Ubu, and the Residents.
The Kinks responded promptly to the punk gauntlet in December of 1977 with “Father Christmas” an awesome punk-pop single about poor kids mugging a department store Santa. Clive loved it and put it out as a 12 inch in the States, but despite the dark humor, chimes, and perfect buzz-saw guitar, the single went nowhere on the charts. Its blend of punk aggression with tuneful melody, however, had lasting influence, as shown by the list of (mostly) punk bands from the Nineties to present that have covered it: Green Day, Man Overboard, Bad Religion, Lit, Bowling For Soup, Gigolo Aunts, Smash Mouth, Cary Brothers, Action Action, Everything, Deer Tick, OK Go… and Warrant.
The B-side was an amped-up takedown of a talentless hack who drifts from scene to scene until he makes it in punk. The portrait of a punk poseur by the thirty-something year old Kinks frontman came about as a result of the small record label that Ray and some partners were running out of Konk. They signed Cafe Society, whose lead singer Tom Robinson was widely believed to hold promise and reportedly got to thinking of himself as the next Ray Davies. Production of their sophomore album underwent extensive delays, however, as the current Ray frequently bumped scheduled bands to make time for the Kinks. Robinson got into a snit, quit the band and the album got shelved. One night, Ray went to a club in London where Robinson was playing a solo set. The singer spotted Ray and broke into a mocking cover of “Tired of Waiting For You,” an unwise move.
In response, Ray immortalized the aspirant in “Prince of the Punks,” which ridiculed the wanna-be for lacking musical talent and being a secret queer, trying to act tough. After the evisceration, Robinson went on to write minor hit “Glad To Be Gay” before proceeding to obscurity.
Low Budget (1979) was written by Ray in his Upper West Side apartment over the spring of 1979, right after finishing the Misfits tour. The U.S. was beset by gasoline shortages, chronic inflation, unemployment, and shrinking international stature. The songs delineated these circumstances through the eyes of regular people or assumed the voice of “Captain America” himself, uselessly calling Europe for help.
In May, 1979, the rest of the band abandoned the comforts of home and unlimited studio time at Konk to record at Power Station studios in Manhattan and stay at the ratty Wellington Hotel, inhabited by shambling drunks and giant cockroaches. Reduced hotel accommodations were a consequence of both thrift and necessity (Ray and Dave were both notorious tightwads).
The return to the rapid recording style of early days paid off. They blasted out ten songs in twelve days, often finishing rhythm tracks in one or two takes, and improvised “Destroyer” as members of Blondie watched from the control booth. Tracks were crisply mixed by Konk engineer John Rollo with the guitars loud and drums big. The band were absent from the generic hard rock image on the album’s cover, a marketing move intended to draw younger purchasers.
Low Budget did nothing in England, where it was panned, but it went to #11 on the U.S. charts, the biggest selling album they’d ever had. Opening track “Attitude” was a pissed face-off with nostalgia (“The Eighties are here / I know ‘cos I’m staring right at ’em / But you’re still waiting for 1960 to happen”) that rode Dave’s hard rock riffs. The excellent title track was similarly propelled by his deliriously scuzzy Southern Rock riffs and high harmonies, which gave it a distinctly country sound. “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” ventured into disco territory with dignity intact due to prudent guitar overdubs and became a club hit, while “Pressure” raced like the Buzzcocks, and “Moving Pictures” glided on new wave bounce.
They hit the road for a year of triumphant concerts to packed venues. A landmark was reached when they played to a crowd of over 16,000 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. The shows were taped on a mobile studio, then sifted through by John Rollo and painstakingly mixed for aural consistency. The resulting live double-album One for the Road (1980) came with a poster and quickly sold over a million copies in the United States. The magenta, green, and yellow toned cover became a mainstay of teen record collections. So many units were shifted that it is impossible, to this day, to walk into any used record shop in the United States and not locate a copy.
The double-album introduced the back catalog to a new audience and furthered the band’s musical makeover into a leaner, more hard rock style. It was also the first rock concert on video cassette (and Video Disc) exclusively for sale in stores. The One for the Road video, released by Time-Life, documented the band’s frenetic and tight performance before an exuberant audience in a dark, smoke-filled, metal and concrete indoor arena in Providence, Rhode Island.
The song selection was a repudiation of the “Sunny Afternoon” sound as “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and its ilk were all jettisoned in favor of earlier singles and more recent material. Even “Waterloo Sunset” is omitted in favor of songs recently covered by the Jam, the Pretenders, and the Knack, as well as less celebrated tracks like “Prince of the Punks” and “Celluloid Heroes.” “Victoria” cast aside its ironic distance and soared as anthem, while “20th Century Man” was remade as a stripped-down, angry lament with a powerful loud/soft dynamic. “Attitude” was sped up into a raw version that the Melvins covered with their full-throttle version in 2013 with Clem Burke of Blondie on drums. Frontman Buzz Osbourne (punk mentor to Kurt Cobain in Aberdeen, Washington in the early 1980’s) credits the live track of “Attitude” as a formative influence.
The Kinks were in top form when they cut Give the People What They Want (1981), a staggering album inspired, in part, by early reality-TV spectacle That’s Incredible! It was recorded quickly at Konk for a tour already booked to sold-out stadiums that the new songs were designed to be played in. To approximate the mix of sonic punch and ambient echo best heard in the 50th row, Ray had the studio walls covered with corrugated metal that reverberated and amplified the drums and gave the album a raw, compressed tone that suited its dark heart. The lyrical tone was caustic, preoccupied with man’s ability to inflict and tolerate cruelty. Domestic violence, sociopathic killers, mental illness, monotony, and the public’s hunger for depravity are the chief subjects of the songs Ray wrote for the first album after the Kinks finally conquered America.
“Destroyer” copped the bass line from “All Day and All Night” and took the “Lola” troubadour from wide-eyed ingenue of the campfire sing-along to a bugged-out neurotic, slinging raw riffs and punk choruses about mental illness and self-destruction. The sweetness of “Art Lover” masks its ambiguous narrator, who is either a pedophile or a father grieving his lost daughter. The ferocious title track, inspired by a line from Quo Vadis, featured martial drums, hard riffs, and an escalating run-up to Ray yelling about pieces of Kennedy’s brain before the incendiary solo, nothing dignified about it. The album ended with the incongruously sunny “Better Things,” which seemed like a joke after everything that preceded it.
Dave’s guitar was central to the new sound. His signature is all over the album; from the opening, guitar-heavy “Around the Dial,” which melds hard rock riffs to Ray’s quest for the last radio DJ, to the loose, meandering leads on “Little Bit of Abuse,” the cold, descending guitar-line, crunching riffs and evocative fills on the astonishing “Killer’s Eyes,” and the swaggering aggro on “Back to Front.”
Give the People What They Want went to #15 in the States and remained in the charts for nine months, bolstered by the strong material and vigorous touring. Four music videos from the album went into rotation on the recently launched MTV channel, including an excellent video for “Predictable,” featuring Hippie Ray.
For the first time, merchandising became a major revenue stream as the Kinks transitioned into a stadium act. In October, 1981, Ray and Dave flew their widowed mom to New York to attend the Kinks concert at Madison Square Garden. The next week, they played “Destroyer” and “Art Lover” on Saturday Night Live. The next summer, they would headline the Us Festival at Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernadino, California and play to a crowd of over 150,000.
Despite the massive turn-around, commercial success brought little stability to either brother’s life. Ray’s marriage ended soon after he met Chrissie Hynde, the intrepid and beautiful leader of the Pretenders, in May, 1980. Hynde was an avid Kinks fan going back to her teenage years in Akron, Ohio. After putting “Stop Your Sobbing” back on the U.K. charts in 1978, she sought a meeting with Ray, who tended to keep rock star admirers at a distance. By the summer of 1981, they were a public couple in New York. No one outside Ray’s inner circle knew he was married.
Dave also faced marital problems after he fell in love with his American mistress Nancy Evans and got her pregnant. An attempt to integrate her into his family under the same roof was unsuccessful and awkward for all involved. He resumed hostilities with Mick Avory, who he had grown to resent for not backing him up with Ray and acting like a “buffoon,” despite the fact that Avory was a drummer.
Then things got weird.
Dave Davies did plenty of drugs in the Sixties and early Seventies. He tried acid and mescaline a few times, coke, angel dust, but after the horrible experience in 1972 when voices nearly drove him to suicide, he quit all hallucinogens. Never fond of marijuana, his favored drugs were the mod’s signature of stiff drink and uppers. By 1982, he hadn’t done hallucinogens in ten years, was deep into yoga, and averse to narcotics and drug users in general (though still partial to Remy Martin). That’s the weirdest thing about what happened on January 13, 1982.
Dave and Nancy were unpacking their things in a room at the Sheraton Hotel in Richmond, Virginia before a Kinks concert that night when Dave felt a tightening band around his forehead. Suddenly, his entire head was overtaken with explosive sensation and he found himself in the psychic grip of five intelligences. They communicated with him in calm, comforting tones and overtook his senses with fragrant smells like jasmine and magnolia when he started to panic. Everything in the room looked different, as though it were covered in some fine gauze. Dave looked at Nancy. She had no idea anything was going on. He tried to explain to her what was happening. Surprisingly, she readily accepted all of it.
A blue-grey paste grew out of the TV and formed into weird-looking, but alluring creatures; lower-level astral entities that malevolently transfer bad energy into people. Dave discovered how to dissipate them with his own concentrated psychic energy. With expanded senses, he saw the thrush of raw psychic energy that flows around us unnoticed.
The intelligences identified themselves by origin. Two said they were his spirit guides and had always been with him. Two were not of this planet and said they were watchers and nurturers of humankind. The other intelligence was the astral projection of someone on Earth. The intelligences showed him proof of the etheric planes and how they interact with the physical world. They told him about spacecrafts that sometimes orbit the planet with crystal computers that record the minutest details of every thought and action of every person on Earth, every detail of their lives.
The experience lasted for six days. Dave was fully functional during all of it. He made sound check in Richmond and the Kinks performed an incredible show. As he played, Dave felt energized with white light pouring from his body. He spotted the malevolent astral creatures forming on the crowd and blasted them to bits with light that ricocheted in waves across the stadium. He felt an ecstatic unity with the audience, like they were all family.
After the show, buzzing with excitement, he rushed back to his room, where Nancy was waiting. He got inside and was hit with a wave of grief that brought him to his knees. He was suddenly filled with love and understanding of Jesus and felt his presence. Dave saw Jesus as a great spiritual master, someone who had been sent to Earth on a misunderstood mission. He also gained drastic awareness of hidden intelligences, shrouded in the etheric planes, that have manipulated and abused mankind throughout history and look upon us as children.
After the communications ended, he was back to the new normal, armed with terrible knowledge and an experience that sounded (as he was well aware) like a sci-fi movie. Ray remains dryly dismissive of his brother’s claims, but the experience was real for Dave.
He became friends with Sir George King, a mystic and founder of the interstellar UFO cult Aetherius Society, but never became insufferable, or lost his sense of humor and perspective. “We may encounter madness,” he later told a biographer, “but if we allow madness to take over, that is when we get into problems.”
By the time the Kinks convened to record State of Confusion (1982) at Konk in September, 1982, a good deal of rot had set in between Ray and Chrissie Hynde. The relationship that triggered a costly divorce was growing irredeemably toxic, a fact apparent to all outsiders. Violent fights left hotel suites wrecked as the couple accompanied each other on tours, irritating their respective bands. After Hynde fell pregnant, they tried to marry, but only got as far as the registry office. The popular and oft-told story is that they started arguing and the official refused to see them. It’s also reported that Ray slipped out the building after excusing himself to use the bathroom.
It ended badly after Hynde gave birth to their daughter in January, 1983. Ray spent a lot of time being put off by Pretenders personnel as he tried to reach Hynde every night on the phone while she toured overseas. It was over, but he didn’t let go. Although the writing was on the wall, the Kinks leader was wrecked when Hynde married Jim Kerr, the lead singer of Simple Minds, while on tour in Australia in May, 1984. In the aftermath, Ray had a psychiatric nurse staying with him 24 hours a day.
The cover art on State of Confusion displayed the rest of the band joining Ray to sprint from graffiti, framed by extremely Eighties typeset. Ray opted for a warmer, more traditional production and less severe tone than Give the People What They Want, but the heartbreak of his domestic life showed on the ruefully comic “Labour of Love,” the jangly country “Heart of Gold,” “Yo-Yo,” and the polished “Property,” where he ruminates over the artifacts of a broken home and hits a soulful falsetto to Dave’s rhythm track amid synths and vocoder inserts.
“Come Dancing” was another masterful pop song and became a worldwide hit that finally put them over in England. It was all about the older sisters who loved going out swing dancing when he and Dave were kids. None of them loved dancing more than Rene, who gave Ray his first guitar and died at the Lyceum ballroom the same night. Amid the song’s fairground calliope, she was “married and lives on an estate.” Julien Temple directed the excellent video, which became a staple on MTV and was soon followed by “Don’t Forget to Dance,” a love song to middle-aged women that got played at junior high proms.
Before recording began for State of Confusion, Ray invited Dave over to help work out arrangements on songs, including “Don’t Forget to Dance,” “Property,” and the great “Clichés of the World (B Movie)” whose initial devastating riff breaks into sweet shredding as Ray cinematically relays the bleak, empty life of an escapist who doubts his own existence.
In the past, Dave had co-written or arranged many songs (including “Lola”) and received no acknowledgment beyond “performer.” Resentful of dwelling in Ray’s shadow, he was determined not to let it happen again and secured promises from management that he would receive proper credits on the liner notes. When the album came out, he was floored to discover that his contributions were again uncredited. He later found out that Ray had called Arista the night before printing and changed the liner notes. The label told him they couldn’t do anything about it, now or later. His brother had done it to him again.
After the first leg of the U.S. tour wrapped up, Ray returned to England to work on his musical film Back to Waterloo (1984) and Dave flew to Los Angeles to start promoting his excellent solo LP Chosen People, whose video for lead single “Mean Disposition” he had paid for out of pocket. Unfortunately, the promo tour became a disaster when Dave spoke openly about his beliefs in telepathy and extraterrestrials and became an object of ridicule in the press. After one interview, he overheard the reporter mocking him as she spoke with her editor on the phone. An MTV interview focused entirely on Dave’s association with the Aetherius Society.
Chosen People flopped. The video was probably played once on MTV.
Dejected and hurt, he flew back to England. Another tour of the stadiums of America was looming, two sold-out at nights at Madison Square Garden. He decided he couldn’t face it and canceled the tour, a huge blow to the band’s commercial momentum. The drastic move caused another rift with Ray and pissed off promoters and the label. Newspapers reported that Dave had been committed to an insane asylum. Fans called the studio asking for the address.
The Kinks wouldn’t play another concert until December, 1983.
Word of Mouth (1984) was their last contracted album for Arista. After twenty years, Mick Avory was out. Touring with Dave had become unbearable. On the heels of another fist fight with the guitarist, Avory retired from the Kinks but continued to work at Konk, which was not uncommon among ex-Kinks, as both Davies brothers were much more tolerable when they weren’t touring and you weren’t in their band.
Dave brought in Bob Henrit, who’d drummed on his solo albums and was a more precise, power hitter, but lacked Avory’s loose swing. Ray tended to favor the original drummer’s style and the subtle signatures he dropped into songs, like a secret conversation. The mercurial Kinks lead-guitarist would soon cool to Henrit as well. On his first U.S. tour, the new drummer asked why the band insisted on being provided with Indian curry after shows when promoters sometimes had to drive hours to find an Indian restaurant. They had to hold Dave back.
The Word of Mouth cover design is the nadir of Eighties-styled art, but the music is excellent with great tracks like “Do It Again,” (repeat offenders Green Day lifted the riff for “Walking Contradiction”), “Word of Mouth,” “Sold Me Out,” “Going Solo,” and “Living on a Thin Line,” Dave’s piercing lament for the dashed hopes of the 20th century. Performed live, it was riveting and razor sharp (starts at about 40 seconds in).
“Living on a Thin Line” was picked up by U.S. radio and got strong airplay. Promo copies went out to stations, but it was never released as a single. As it turned out, Ray had a clause in the contract whereby the first three singles of every Kinks album had to be his songs. Because of the stipulation, the album’s most popular song was denied a shot at the charts. Even if it had come out as a single, however, there wouldn’t have been much record label support.
Shortly before Word of Mouth
was released, the band ditched Arista and signed with MCA Records. Arista was left with little incentive to promote
Word of Mouth since the benefit would flow to a rival.
Clive Davis had delivered on all promises and fully supported the Kinks. He’d been instrumental to the conquest of America and wanted to keep going. He made a generous offer to re-sign the band and met with Ray in New York. After some negotiation, they struck what appeared to be a deal. Within a week, however, MTV reported that MCA had signed the Kinks. Arista’s lawyers immediately broke off negotiations with the band’s legal representatives in London, who were then sliced up by the more savvy corporate attorneys from MCA.
It was a bitter end to the fruitful Davis/Davies partnership. In Americana: the Kinks, the Riff, the Road: the Story (2013),
Ray writes that he had no idea that any other negotiations were occurring and blames Dave and management for taking a deal from Irving Azoff, the new president of MCA, who offered a higher advance. In Kink
(1996), Dave wrote that Ray was in on the negotiations from the start and hoped to drive Arista up, which sounds more plausible given the tight control that Ray had maintained over the band’s business for over a decade.
If Clive Davis felt betrayed, he doesn’t mention it in his memoir, which is circumspect and ambiguous about the Kinks’ departure. Ray writes that he heard Clive was upset, which makes sense considering everything he did for the band. Their friendship ended after Ray lied to his face (although Ray’s rare appearance at the 2012 pre-Grammys party indicates amends have been made).
The last blast of the great Eighties Kinks vanished from the U.S. charts shortly after reaching #57, lower than any album going back to Preservation: Act 2 (1974), but higher than any Kinks album that would follow. Arista promptly forgot the band ever existed. Without their safe harbor, the Kinks lost balance. Ray reverted to constructing overproduced albums that relegated the input of his younger brother. The lifelong feud escalated as the music suffered.
The first album on MCA was the synth-laden, anemic Think Visual (1986), the worst Kinks record imaginable made real. Next came a weak live album (supplemented by stellar new track “The Road”) that featured the bewildering inclusion of “Cliches of the World (B Movie)” minus Dave’s lead guitar runs, replaced, appallingly, by piano. The following year, the brothers had a vicious fight at Konk that left a manager in tears after Dave learned that Ray had scrubbed all of his guitar-playing from U.K Jive (1989), a lousy album that took forever to complete. They rallied on Phobia (1993), the final studio album of new Kinks material, with its apt single “Hatred (a Duet).” Ray and Dave performed it on the Tonight Show. Afterward, Jay Leno ignored the Davies brothers seated next to him to chat with the actor who played “Bull” on Night Court.
After the Kinks called it a day in 1996, acclaim gradually set in. In England, they’re revered for their early work and heralded for representing a particular strain of Britannia. Ray received an OBE from the Queen in 2004 for “Services to Music.” In the United States, the remarkable 79-84 run is still highly esteemed by fans. Despite its lasting impact on American rock and roll, the Eighties renaissance faded from popular memory, aided by the Davies brothers’ abiding lack of interest in mining their archives of unreleased Kinks music and filmed concerts. They preferred to pursue their own varied solo projects and interests.
The feud continued with periodic, brief rapprochements. Both nearly died in 2004 (Ray was shot; Dave had a stroke) and that wasn’t enough to settle it. So far, neither is the fiftieth anniversary year of the Kinks, 2014. Despite optimistic talk from both sides at the start of the year, no project or concert has been announced.
The comeback of 1979-1984 was an artistic and commercial triumph, but conquering America dissolved the raison d’etre that had held the Kinks together. It was crucial to their early entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, the same year as the Who. Yet in this semicentennial year, the Kinks iTunes profile ranks them as less innovative than the Beatles and dismisses the 79-84 run as “blatantly commercial.” Rock and roll tends to forget.