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.

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