Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Ray Davies Mastertapes BBC Maida Vale

(Further to my JR/Bobby Dallas analogy from the last blog, here’s a quote from Bobby: ‘I’ve got unfinished business with you, JR’. Strange coincidence that Dave has an album called Unfinished Business. Very sad to learn that Larry Hagman has died. Rest in peace.)

Leafy Maida Vale
The Place
Doesn't Maida Vale sound magical and romantic? Its name holds some kind of Arthurian or mythological connotations; it conjures up a more gallant time. Maybe that’s just me. Always interesting to get off at tube stops I’ve never visited before. Tall buildings, tall trees: leafy and affluent. Jackie Leven used to live in a squat here (one year since the great man passed, sorely missed, RIP). Went to one of the memorial concerts and was very moved so will blog later.

The trouble with the Old Boys’ Network is that it engenders a culture of benign incompetence. Everyone is very nice but no one knows what they’re doing. This is the impression I’ve always had and my experience at the Ray Davies Mastertapes recording simply served to reinforce it. The fiasco over Newsnight, Jimmy Savile, Lord McAlpine and George Entwistle is typical. Where else could someone do a job badly for 54 days and get a payout of £450k? Please employ me – I can do that too.

Muswell Hillbillies era Kinks
We’d been asked to supply questions to put to Ray; each questioner has to give their profession so they can be introduced as ‘Wilfred Hood, Chartered Accountant’ or whatever. Why? Do they think we’re defined by what we do? It would be more interesting if we were asked our pornstar names (a friend of ours has a great one – Scottie Old Farm – sounds like she caters for a niche market, let me know if you don't know how to work yours out and I’ll tell you). They also require surnames. Sister is down without a surname although she has supplied it on email when asked and three times since arriving; she is still ‘Belinda, self-employed’. She might as well just add ‘Mistress’ before this and perhaps substitute dominatrix for self-employed. It sounds, as Rylan might say, ‘Well dodge’. A good 50% of people have put ‘Songwriter’ down as their metier. I speculate that they’ve been on Ray’s course and this is part of his credo, something he’s taught them, call yourself a songwriter and you’ll be one. If I’d had to give a career, I would have made something up, like Session Man, Art Lover, Celluloid Hero, Headmaster, Young Conservative?

BBC Rant
In the aftermath of the BBC crisis, some old toff (wish I’d got his name) said:
‘The BBC is loved universally by everyone’.
Speak for yourself, mate. I’ve long lost any respect for a corporation that steals ideas from other channels (and often not very good ones) and regurgitates them with a non-populist stance (let’s face it, the BBC is an arm of the establishment) So, instead of Pop Idol, Fame Academy, where the judges get the final say, instead of The X Factor, The Voice. And what about all the dire cookery/home-improvement/antique/gardening programmes? Aren’t there enough of them already ? I only watch BBC4 for the music shows and The Killing. Why does the BBC waste money remaking a series such as Wallander, when the original was far superior? And those endless geodocumentaries, where some idiot is sent all over the place, up in a helicopter, down a mine, to Death Valley or the Arctic, to illustrate something that could have been shown just as easily in someone’s back garden. At our expense. Plus they’re responsible for the preponderance of Jamie Oliver, the original Mockney. The Reithian ideal of public-service broadcasting, which I always thought condescending, the rich and the titled educating the huddled masses, is completely anachronistic. It’s had its day.

Lola Vs cover
Anyway, back to the day
The tickets say there is disabled access but to call beforehand to ensure they can provide what you require. One of us has broken her leg so did this, was told there’d be no problem, just to make herself known on arrival. Having done so, is told that the studio is downstairs and there is no lift. As it is, it’s all eventually resolved (there is a lift) but it makes you wonder why they ask you to call in advance if nothing ever gets passed on? It’s as if each staff member exists in their own little vacuum.

Eventually we’re taken in, a lift materialises (thanks to Maureen for all her help by the way – she was the only one who knew where the lift was) and are placed in a room to wait. We have to be accompanied everywhere, even in the tiny elevator. Much better than being outside as it had just started to rain and our friend needed to keep her plastercast dry in a binbag.

Almost Famous
When the others are allowed in (there's a long delay while sound problems are sorted out), they crane their necks to see us, thinking they’re going to get genuine celebrities chilling out in the green room (maybe with Ray); they’re so disappointed when all they get is us ordinary mortals. It’s like being in a goldfish bowl or rather a fancy aquarium; they expected to see exotic fish but got only tadpoles and pond scum.

The host, a personable chap called John Wilson, explains the programme format. It’s a reconsideration of two albums, Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part 1 and Muswell Hillbillies.

Ray will be called upon to play certain songs or parts of songs throughout to aurally illustrate what they’re discussing. This entails Ray swapping seats continually and the stage is very small so almost immediately Ray knocks his ‘gargle’ over and has to ask for another. With all the shifting about, I can't help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been a better idea to record some songs in the first half and do the interview afterwards. Or, as they all have mikes, to address questions to Ray where he was.

Ray has his usual pulled-through-a-hedge-backwards look, or just-got-out-of-bed rumpledness. Skinny jeans and a baggy cardigan he might have borrowed from his girlfriend, with buttons he keeps fiddling with.

Ray and Bill 2012
‘Day after day I get up and I say, do it again’ (Do It Again)
They keep re-recording a promo for the Radio 4 website. Isn’t this something that they could edit in afterwards? And it seems a little silly that they should produce this retrospective on two albums and not even mention the Kinks BBC boxset. So, as is the nature of these things, we have to keep re-applauding as none of the staff seems capable of letting others know what they need or when. John Wilson fails to notice Ray putting his fingers in his ears and grimacing each time we clap. Songs/intros have to be played time and again and near the end, Ray and company (the ever ready, ever genial Bill Shanley and James Walbourne from the Dead Flamingoes) perform the whole of A Long Way from Home with the BBC not ready as they thought they were only rehearsing the beginning – luckily in this particular instance, the tape was left running although, as far as the music goes, we wouldn’t mind hearing this several times.

I can only compare this experience to an ITV show recording I went to a year ago, also a music performer, with a band, complicated choreography for at least eight dancers, different camera set-ups, interview segments.  Hardly anything went wrong despite all the tricky visual business.

(Having said that, just got back from a BBC Radio 2 show, showcasing the compositions of Marvin Hamlisch (again RIP) with an orchestra, singers, presenters, interviews and a host (Ken Bruce) and it ran like clockwork so perhaps it’s only certain parts of the organisation that need an overhaul.)

‘I got acute schizophrenia, paranoia too’ (Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues)
During the interview, Ray comes up with what he thinks is a great title for a song but as usual plays his cards close to his chest and won't divulge it despite JW’s urging. 

So what do we learn?
Ray insists that he wasn’t the most visually appealing member of the Kinks, that Dave was prettier. It’s much of a muchness, babe. He says that Dave was also a better musician but being the principal songwriter brought him (Ray) to the fore.

Writing songs for other people
Ray confesses he’d like to do more of this and says that I Go to Sleep was commissioned for Peggy Lee. Her version (not my favourite) is on YouTube and when asked again, Ray explains that the bridge was written for her voice ('I was wrong, I will cry, I will love you to the day I die/You alone, you alone and no one else, you were meant for me'). All I know about Peggy Lee is that she voiced the female stray in The Lady and the Tramp, the shaggy one who sings He’s a Tramp. My Dad told me that. Oh and Fever, of course.

Perhaps John W should have read the Record Collector article. They unearthed this gem: Oh What a Day It’s Going to Be by Mo and Steve and mentioned the Cascades, Dave Berry and Barry Fantoni numbers, as well as some of the TV and film themes.

Ray’s favourite cover of a Kinks song
Stop Your Sobbing by the Pretenders.

A Long Way from Home
Ray pretends he can't remember who sang original lead. Slyly disingenuous as usual. Reading the Record Collector article (very well researched except that it does imply that John Dalton was one of the original Kinks), it’s apparent that Ray’s recall of detail is incredible.

John W has done his homework on the albums under consideration and asks which order the songs were written in although Ray has already told him by this time that Lola was written last. Inevitably he has to query the whereabouts of Part 2, and Ray admits to have various bits and pieces of songs on different formats somewhere, which will all need work to be retrieved, converted, played, altered. (A different answer to the one given in Record Collector.) Ray claims he needs the journalist character from X-Ray to sort it out for him. I’m sure people would be volunteering all over the shop but then he might lose control.

Ray and Dave Prizefight
Disappointingly, he has to ask those questions that Ray must think are inevitable. You know the ones: What was the genesis of Lola? Will he and Dave be working together again? Ray’s responses get ever more inventive. It's as if the interviewer is forever trying to take the main line while Ray is there to throw him off track, lead him down some delicious, derelict culvert. To the latter question, he says it’s like a boxing match between two great rivals – he names Sugar Ray (Leonard?) and someone else (sorry, this is from memory and mine is evidently not as good as Ray’s), that they could always go another round.

Just garnered the actual quote from the BBC website:
‘It’s like Rocky Graziano coming out for one last round with Sugar Ray Robinson.  You’ve gone fourteen rounds, you’ve got to come out for the fifteenth. You glaze over at the prospect but it’s the one round you just might win.’ John W then asked Ray when the bell might ring. The brothers are still, he said ‘in that long minute’ between rounds. Wonder what Dave would make of that. Maybe I can guess.

I’m reminded of something Dave said when asked if he could have seized control of the band from Ray at any point:
‘That’s the whole problem: I don't want control. He's the way he is, and I'm the way I am, and we're very different. My concepts about work, life, family and relationships are so much broader than Ray's. He's very suspicious of the way I think, and I'm very suspicious of the way he thinks. The idea of seizing control - it's so counter-productive.’

As you can see, it’s not so much that they’re not on a level playing field (is that a British phrase that means nothing to non-Brits?), it’s that Dave isn’t even on the field. Fighting for power doesn’t interest him. The problem is that Ray’s nature means that he has to take complete control when allowed a free hand. In order to have any say at all, you can't dip in and out, you have to commit if you're in a game or a match with Ray. Dave is not as competitive so he ends up opting out altogether but it seems unfair that, according to the rules of Ray’s game, he shouldn’t have any say at all when Dave not only fails to acknowledge the rules of the game but even that he’s in a game at all. It must be very frustrating for Ray. It reminds me of a line from Jackie Leven’s song of self-realisation, epiphany in Kilkenny, ‘Marble City Bar’: ‘Oh, don’t pick me cause I’m not playing’. I realise that I'm mixing my match metaphors here.

So, what I’m saying is, Dave would probably forfeit the fight.

It always makes me uncomfortable when someone tells Ray what he meant when he wrote a certain song or album. It just seems so presumptuous and I sense Ray is not sure about John Wilson’s theory that Muswell Hillbillies was written from the perspective of people in suburbia peering out from behind net curtains and he thinks it’s a really dark album. I never thought of it like this but will resist the urge to interpret.

Which song best represents Ray?
The Hard Way. No details are supplied but I bet numerous folk would agree.

Waterloo Sunset
Part of him would like to go back and correct the grammar of ‘I don’t need no friends’ but he realises that the song is perfect as it is.

Some of the questions from the crowd are silly, some insightful.

One claims that a Noah and the Whale (Life Goes On) song is a total rip-off of Lola. Ray says he’ll take action if necessary. It won't be. It sounds nothing like it. Ok, there are some minor Kinks connections – it has the same title as a Kinks song, it includes a lyric about a ‘rocknroll survivor’, they spell out the title as part of the chorus and perhaps it could be described as having a similar vibe but that’s really all.

Exterior of Archway Tavern, interior gatefold Muswell Hillbillies
Another asks why they used the Archway Tavern for the album cover, aren’t there any good pubs in Muswell Hill? Ray, rather than listing his favourite pubs in the area, explains the significance of the Archway being on an island and midway between where he and the rest of his family lived.

Is his writing influenced by film at all?
Ray talks about how he once went to see The Crimson Pirate (Burt Lancaster movie) five times in one week, as chaperone to one sister or another. He says he probably would not have come across the word ‘contender’ except for Marlon Brando’s character, Terry, in On the Waterfront, saying ‘I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.’ Ray used it in the title of The Contenders. Another movie reference, although these days Ray seems to favour ‘film’ not ‘movie’, is in Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues: ‘I’m lost on the river, the river of no return’, as well as the aforementioned Oklahoma USA.

Best moment of his career
Playing Madison Square Garden after the US ban and years in the wilderness. Validation. Vindication. Like Take That’s glorious return to Number One with their comeback single, Patience.

There must be some kind of way out of here …
I’m sure Ray wonders this several times during the interview and says something similar at one point.

In response to an enquiry as whether he ever worries that he won't be able to top a previous song (hmm, surely the breadth of his output has answered this already? He didn’t stop after Waterloo Sunset), Ray reveals that he embraces anxiety, saying: ‘Don’t be afraid of anxiety’ and the advice he gives to songwriters is ‘Don’t be afraid to fail’.

John W is astonished by Ray’s ability to remember the words to songs like Muswell Hillbilly and Twentieth-century Man, obviously unaware that Ray has been playing them almost nightly on the tour that he’s just completed. RD simply accepts the kudos here. In fact, the whole attitude is that Ray is someone who no longer writes, performs, tours, as if he’s been put out to pasture some time ago. We all know that Ray has a new album in the works (except for Ray who refused all my requests for a song from the new album on the tour, perhaps not ready to share any yet).

Complete tracklist, many of which we only heard part, in no particular order
This Time Tomorrow
A Long Way from Home
Muswell Hillbilly
Twentieth-century Man
Here Come the People in Grey

Heard later that the four people remaining outside after the others had given up, were sent away. I’m sure it wouldn’t have contravened any H&S rules to bring in four extra chairs. Have a heart next time, Auntie.

Just heard that the A side of the show will be broadcast on Monday 3 December 11.00 pm GMT.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Ray Davies: 'It's really been quite a trip': Life on the Road 2012

In a Moment at the Fairfield Halls

Is this really it?/Is this the final station?/It's really been quite a trip (Imaginary Man)
So, Ray's UK tour is over, the dates have had him zigzagging all over the country, back and forth, coming back to the London area three separate times. I would be exhausted but Ray seems to thrive on this frantic schedule and have boundless energy and adrenalin. 

And still all the critics keep saying/Are they still around?/When are they gonna stop? (The Road)
I’ve been moved to respond to some reviews of Ray’s gigs because it seems that we’re being infiltrated by incredibly shallow people who want us to follow some code of what is/isn’t appropriate, some kind of Style Stasi. And isn’t this the exact antithesis of what the Kinks and Ray were always about? These criticisms often relate to age and often to fashion, something I consider the biggest waste of time ever. Wear whatever suits you and what you’re comfortable in. For a non-Kinks-related example, when the Olympics were on, I read a whole article in a daily paper bemoaning the fact that gymnasts still thought it was ok to wear scrunchies, which went out with the 80s. Let’s not concentrate on their extraordinary talent or ability, let’s worry about what they put their hair up with. Could it be any more fatuous? 

Underneath this crude exterior/She knows I got something superior (Hidden Quality)
Apparently when you get to your late 60s, it’s unseemly to wear trainers or do star/scissor jumps on stage. You should really mellow out and sit on a stool and wear a cardigan. Well Ray Davies does all of the above (except he saves the cardigan till later). Some people break the mould. I’m the same although my experience has led me to believe that I’m a lot less like everybody else than everybody else is. I’ve done some pretty strange things in my time (exorcised a TV cabinet, made an in-flight announcement on an aeroplane, been stranded in New Jersey with only one odd shoe and $13.50) and have failed to do many things my contemporaries have, such as acquire a taste for red wine or even beer, start to hold dinner parties, care about home décor and cooking. Not yet domesticated. I still dance although no longer a teenager. Actually teenagers are way too cool to dance, unless it’s affected with extreme irony.

Ray's response to the critics: 
But I won't give it up/As long as I can make the bread/When I do, I shall stop/Close my eyes and go to bed. (All Night Stand)
From a blog review:‘His white trainers suggest that he isn’t the Dedicated Follower of Fashion he once was.’
This rather misses the whole point of the song. Ray wasn’t the dedicated follower of fashion – he was affectionately taking the piss out of him (and possibly brother Dave although both have worn some outlandish but still appealing ensembles in their time, Ray’s outfit in this version of Skin and Bone a case in point). In fact, Dedicated started out as a riposte to a designer who criticised Ray’s flares. As usual, he answered with a song.

Spotlight: Oklahoma USA
She walks to work but she's still in a daze/She's Rita Hayworth or Doris Day/And Errol Flynn's gonna take her away. 
The story behind this song, described in my last blog reminds me of my Mum. I think she believed that one day a great romance would find her, à la Some Enchanted Evening, that she would catch the eye of Rossano Brazzi across a crowded room. And I can't be the only person who watches a movie and walks out of the theatre imagining for a few minutes that I look like one of the protagonists. I used to be a great proponent of escapism, a devotee, fantasy has reality beat every time but now I wonder if cinema in the old days was ‘the opium of the masses’, how it unwittingly kept everyone in a drudge-like job in their Dead End Street.

Royal Albert Hall 4 October 2012
Bashful has blogged on this so I haven’t much to add. When we get up to dance, no one stops us but when people move to the front, the security men are determined to make them sit down again, courteously tapping people on the shoulder one by one; they win a few skirmishes but they don’t ultimately win the war. Great sound at the concert. I’ve only been to the RAH once before, when we bought our Dad and a friend tickets to see the Moody Blues and we were so high up and over to the side that it actually gave you vertigo to look down and we couldn’t see all of the stage. This time we're in the second row right at the front.

Extras: Paul Weller joins Ray for Waterloo Sunset, which seems to be in the wrong key for him. Starts off shaky but sounds better by the end. I never noticed that his voice is a little like Grant Hart’s before. Ray plays Twentieth-century Man and includes Days in the encore so we can't complain. The same T-shirts as at Canterbury cost £5 more. How’s that for London weighting?

Ray at Fairfield Halls
Fairfield Halls, Croydon 10 October 2012
Here, after we’ve navigated the urban wasteland (well it wasn’t but I like that term), crossed the tram tracks, and traversed the car-park and met some fans in the bar, we discover that there’s a long queue to get in to see the support act. I start to worry that there’s going to be airport-type security checks and that my camera and water bottle will be confiscated. My camera is large and professional-looking (unlike me) but no more powerful than that on most people’s cell phones. I couldn’t tape a whole song even if I wanted to because the files are too huge to upload anywhere. However, my fears are unwarranted; the delay was due to a late sound-check.

James and Kami seem very relaxed tonight. They’ve got married (to each other) since we last saw them. But at the next gig, he’s by himself … Hope Kami's not honeymooning alone.

Decide to risk the paper plates but stage is too far to spontaneously throw them on during the performance so I neatly place them around where I assume Ray will be (by the cup of tea or voice-saving concoction in the cup-holder on the mike stand – does everything have cup-holders these days? Perhaps we should genetically engineer children to come with them? How handy would that be?) The security man wanders past twice to check what I’ve done but decides they pose no viable threat. He must think I’m simply some harmless nutter who randomly dispenses disposable picnic-ware at rock gigs. Perhaps he thinks I’ll be back later with sandwiches.

Ray at Fairfield Halls
So the gig proceeds much as Canterbury and the RAH except that we get up to dance, and the people in the front row (friends from the Kinkdom), arise too. They move to the front of the stage. This precipitates our ungainly scramble over the seats in front to join them.

Special treats: Ray opts to play Apeman, which he says he might not have played live since the last time he played Croydon. Croydon does tend to bring out the Neanderthal in all of us. When in Rome … only kidding, guys. So infectious and I was really longing to hear it. We also get Tired of Waiting for You, which he didn’t play at the first two shows we went to and the whole of ‘Victoria’ instead of just a snippet. Excellent.

No scissor jumps tonight – just upward leaps, legs together. Hope Ray hasn’t given himself a groin strain.

More enthusiastic but unfortunately also more out-of-key and out-of-time singing here than anywhere else so far. One lady doesn’t know the words so just about picks up the lyric at the end of each line and I hear the last word repeated a beat after in a flat echo.

Ray at Nottingham
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham 14 October 2012
Our non-Kinks friends seem a little frightened of meeting our Kinks friends for some reason. Have we made them sound like raving lunatics? I don't think so. And one of the non-Kinks ones collects Action Men and is in the process of swapping some hands for some feet in the post. Miniature body parts in little plastic bags. Who has the most to fear?

Undeterred, I recycle the paper plates (surely Ray would approve) and add another one, hoping to hear Celluloid Heroes as it has surfaced at other shows. We get I Need You instead. Does Ray look at my request and think ‘Hmm. What can I play that’s the total opposite of that?’ 

Let's sing it loud with feeling/Come on, one more time (One More Time)
By the time Ray reaches Nottingham, his voice is a little hoarse and there are a couple of slightly off-key notes right at the start but he’s able to compensate by altering the key or taking the pitch down or just changing the phrasing so a long note becomes a short one, or simply encouraging the crowd to sing all of the chorus, etc. A master at work.

Misfits at Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury 
Now you're lost in the crowd/Yet, still go your own way

Ray mentions that Mick was a boy scout and still has his uniform. Mick wasn’t a boy scout; he was a sea scout. I love the way Ray’s always slightly misinformed. I get the idea that he’s deliberately imprecise about things, or rather precise in his errors (like in ‘X-Ray’ when he insists that Dave was caught in flagrante by his headmaster rather than the truant officer) because he perceives his alterations strengthen the story or make the joke funnier. Weirdly, tonight he misses out You Really Got Me. Plus there's the mystery of the reappearing lisp.

So to summarise, we did get variations in the set over the course of the tour. Some nights Ray played Celluloid Heroes but I never got to hear it. This and other songs that were played at some shows but not all, were Tired of Waiting for You, Too Much on My Mind, Victoria, Apeman, Full Moon, Misfits, I Need You, Twentieth-century Man.

I think it’s curious which Kinks songs Dave and Ray opt to play – some are the same, especially the early ones. Dave tends to leave out Waterloo Sunset, Autumn Almanac and Lola. Ray doesn’t play any Dave songs though I’m sure he could do a creditable version of Strangers or even Living on a Thin Line, which Dave originally wrote for him. Neither plays Well Respected Man. Dave will do Get Back in the Line but Ray won't.

Although both have assembled great musicians to back them, who know the catalogue really well, there isn’t that sense that anything might happen, that I think people experienced at a Kinks gig. Of course this could be good or bad but always memorable I'm sure. Dave says in Kinkdom K/Come:
‘Ray and I were magicians without realising it’ that they could look at each other on stage and ‘the whole atmosphere will change’. You can see this in some YouTube clips. They play off each other, wind each other up, piss each other off and spur each other on. Ray admited at the recent Radio 4 Mastertapes recording that he would deliberately antagonise Dave and then Dave would play something exceptional, on stage and in the studio.

He also talked about how the Kinks were like family (one of them was of course), how they had one another’s backs. It reminds me of my family when we were growing up. We would argue with each other a lot, maybe appear to hate one another but when it came down to it, it was always us against the world.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the ideal, if we assume that Ray and Dave playing together is far less likely than Bobby and JR ever seeing eye to eye (maybe scratch that analogy after this week's episode of Dallas), would be to see one play one night and one the next. Dave is much more likely to deviate from the list than Ray is, attempting a song without rehearsal, without remembering the lyrics, so there’s still an element of surprise.

[All 2012 images and video are mine.]