Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Dave Davies: Unsung Guitar Hero

An appraisal and appreciation of Dave’s untrammelled and unparalleled live performances with the Kinks, with examples of how his playing expands the horizon of a song until the possibilities seem limitless at which point he’s able to bring it home to a flawless finish, like allowing a wild pony to have its head, run free, all the time keeping a hold of it so that he can rein it back in when it’s time. 

‘Davies' guitar was the dynamo that drove the Kinks. Brash, aggressive and entirely unforgettable, his chord progressions on their early hits have become a rock & roll rite of passage for any aspiring guitarist; "You Really Got Me" has alone launched countless garage bands.’ (Rolling Stone)

I’m not a muso, never learned an instrument, never had a piano in the house or all that jazz. For me, having a piano rather contradicts the Davies' working-class roots.[It reminds me of what a friend once said to me. Her grandparents had servants. I expressed surprise, thinking they must have been rich but she averred that her background was working class and that ‘everyone had servants in those days’. Anyone see anything wrong with her logic here? She certainly didn’t. My grandparents were her grandparents’ servants. Oh dear, starting to sound like one of those Monty Python sketches, 'You were lucky...'.] My parents thought a useful extra-curricular activity would be getting us to drag the washing down to the launderette every Saturday and bring home fish and chips for lunch. Forget about doing something we enjoyed or acquiring a useful skill. Anyway, I’m only trying to explain that I love music while not always understanding how particular effects are achieved, or which guitar is which (although the names are so evocative – Harmony Meteor – who wouldn’t want to take that home?) and I can distinguish a guitar from a bass guitar (even though Dave thinks I can't count beyond three, that’s only when breathing) and recognise a Flying Vee. I respond to the emotion generated by how the instrument is played. But even I can tell that Dave is something of a virtuoso. Shel Talmy, interviewed recently, agrees.

FZ: How would you rate Dave [Davies] as a guitarist?
ST: I think he’s one of the more underrated guitarists there are. He was an extremely good guitarist.
FZ: He doesn’t quite get the credit that he deserves.
ST: Never, I don’t think he ever got the credit. His inventions of the solos and stuff, I mean, Jimmy Page did not play the solo on 'You Really Got Me’ which I’ve said about 5,000 times to people who insist that he did. The reason I used Jimmy on the Kinks stuff is because Ray didn’t really want to play guitar and sing at the same time. In fact, Jimmy was playing rhythm guitar.

(The more people mention this, even to deny it, the more robust the myth becomes somehow. And what did I just do?)

Ray admits that Dave’s contribution was vital, saying:
‘If Dave never plays another note, his performance on “You Really Got Me” will always give him a special place among guitar players. The sound was created in our parents’ living room and ended up being copied by nearly every rock guitar player in the world.’

And Ray asserts that what Dave brought to the band was ‘the angst, the energy and an incredible right hand’.

But it’s as if Ray’s always sidelining Dave’s influence to one particular song, or sound, suggesting by this quiet insistence that that was the only thing he ever did. What about the electric guitar riff on ‘Lola’? Then, when the Kinks went ‘rock’ in the late 1970 to 1980s, a move that attracted a whole raft of new fans, particularly in the US, it was Dave’s playing that led the way and his charisma as a guitarist that helped to make the Kinks such a terrific experience live. And it sounds like it was also his initiative – he says in ‘Mystikal Journey’ that he wanted
‘to get back to a more fundamental basic rock thing’
and this was seconded by their new record label honcho, Clive Davis, who advised Ray that
‘Sometimes to move forward you have to take a step backwards.’

This was after the concept album shows, which looked like great fun to me. Ray has said:
‘Oddly enough on the shows that had themes to them, the band was much tighter as they were playing to cues’
but unfortunately there’s no good footage of these shows on YouTube.

To begin with, discovering them in the 2010s, I thought the 80s songs were too generic, too obvious, but a few listens down the line, I now appreciate all the layers of influences, irony, humour, intensity, the riffs that sound vaguely familiar, as if they’ve always existed, have entered your subconscious via some other means and can recognise that they’re still imbued with Ray’s idiosyncratic inventiveness. Perhaps it was a direction that appealed more to Dave than Ray but it became another means to demonstrate Ray’s versatility as a songwriter. And popularity in the US is really what kept the Kinks going despite NBC’s recent shameful omission of Ray at the Olympics closing ceremony. You only have to watch Ray’s ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’ speech to see how important this support was to them.

But, more than providing the band with rock credibility, Dave’s enthusiasm was infectious, even when he and Ray were having difficulties, the enjoyment he exudes when on stage playing, is almost tangible (witness he and Jim Rodford dancing, running and jumping about as they play in this version of ‘Catch Me Now I’m Falling’, they’re so obviously having the time of their lives), his extraordinary talent and innovation added depths to songs live that were never reached in the studio versions. Unlike (the) Eagles, for instance, whose concerts sound just like the recordings, with the Kinks, nothing is ever that set in stone (except some of Ray’s jokes – bless, ‘If you don't know it, learn it’). Dave hardly ever plays the same solo the same way or even the same solo, if you know what I mean because he can do anything with a guitar. His ability means that he’s spoilt for choice. Why stick to the same old thing? He constantly improvises and invents so that every song played live is a work in progress. Fluid. Unrepeatable. Inimitable. He can make it scream, sing, cry, take us in any direction. Dave plays the guitar like it’s an extension of his body, like it’s completely natural to him. It doesn’t ever look like something he has to work at.
It makes each concert an adventure into the unknown as Dave is constantly upping the ante. In the 90s, his guitar work rejuvenates, transforms and beefs up ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’ for a new generation. It sounds like a completely new song. Perhaps that’s why Ray sings the lead although he originally wrote it for Dave’s voice.

[Admittedly, I’ve never been to a Kinks concert, having only liked them a year or so; I can only judge from videos on YouTube and people’s recollections. With the Kinks, I didn’t so much come late to the party as turn up not only after it had finished but when the people holding it had got married, had kids, watched these kids grow up, moved into a retirement community and sold the house to fund their care in old age. I arrived in time for the new owners’ housewarming do.]

This mutability might also hint at a lack of discipline, another recurring feature of some Kinks gigs. A friend saw them at a festival in 71 I think and they only played three songs before Ray poured beer over the musicians at the front and then stormed off stage. In the Jon Savage biography, he mentions a gig in the US in 1965 where the Kinks
‘played one song – ‘You Really Got Me’ – for the whole act’.
You take the rough with the smooth. No wonder their managers were sometimes at their wits’ end.

In 1979, Dave invests ‘Superman’ with rock kudos, conducting a guitar masterclass from about three and a half minutes in, fleshing out a fairly ordinary pop song so that it sounds entirely different, he and Jim on backing vocals. (I always thought the female backing vocalists were unnecessary.) There’s nothing better than hearing the counterpoint of the brothers’ vocals. It’s even better when they share the lead, changing for the verse, the chorus or the bridge, as on ‘Arthur’ or ‘Artificial Man’. Dave’s vocals on the latter (very Ian Hunter-ish) surpass Ray’s, the aural equivalent of a colour segment in a black and white movie.

The dual vocal on this version of ‘Jukebox Music’, with Dave singing the lead works in a similar way, his pitch suiting perfectly and contributing that emotional edge. There’s something very special about the combination of their voices when they come together, blended like a good malt whisky, like on the chorus of ‘Hatred’ in this live rendition; Ray’s smile (2.09), Dave’s quick solo (3.25), a certain relish in the delivery of
‘Why don’t you just drop dead and don’t recover?’
(at 3.40) create utter magic.

‘Life Goes On’ 1977. How difficult it must be for Dave to accompany Ray’s vocal, its phrasing always changing, on guitar but he manages it, again with exquisite touch, so we can forgive a little ‘guitar face’.

When Dave is told to run with it, he extemporises with such talent and virtuosity, you wish all this was in the studio version. Thank God for YouTube. Rockpalast shows seem to bring out his inner guitar god, investing ‘Yo-Yo’, for instance, already a delicious diatribe, with an extra dimension, effectively changing the whole character of the song. The original’s relative resignation and restraint are ratcheted up to rage, with both Ray and Dave totally focused and committed. If they can play like this together, why would they ever want to stop? The whole climactic crescendo of sound is simply magnificent.

If looks could kill
But after watching this interview at the time of 'Scattered' (1993), I can see how Dave would never want to put himself in a similar situation again, where he’s literally frightened to speak, even to interject a frivolous comment, that it’s not worth the risk of Ray’s wrath, that look he gives him is so cutting and demoralising (see 1.17 to 1.29 for their awkward interaction). And yet, there’s affection there, in the video of the same song, when Ray sings
‘I feel older, I feel fatter’
and their exchange of smiles around two minutes in looks genuine but is it only for the benefit of the camera?

They would have to be willing/able to put aside their own past personal grievances and behave respectfully towards each other if there were ever to be a Kinks reunion. Although Dave is all about forgiveness, it’s one thing to forgive and another thing to put yourself in a position where you know you will have to exercise the muscle of forgiveness in advance.

Everybody’s waiting for the blog on Satsang 3 but I left everything I wrote in the hotel and have yet to get it back. It’s in transit. The gigs were great and we got to hear some tracks off Dave’s new album, very interesting, very varied – the five tracks we’ve heard so far (either live or as album mixes) are quite different. Dave still rocks, still emotes, still surprises. I don't know whether I’m allowed to divulge track titles yet.