As Johnny Rogan notes in this new biography of Ray Davies and the Kinks, it is almost 50 years since the term ‘Swinging London’ was first used by a newspaper to describe ‘the most exciting city in the world … all vibrating with youth’. Those smashing times may not have lasted long but the vibrations carry on to the present day. Happily, many of the protagonists are still with us — David Bailey, Mary Quant — and so is Ray Davies CBE, part of the swinging city scene but apart from it too.
The Kinks were a superb proto-rock group but they were also, in the words of George Melly, ‘brilliant piss-takers’. And as the 1960s wore on, in songs like ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and his masterpiece ‘The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society’ Davies articulated a very English strain of melancholy in a manner quite unlike his contemporaries. He recently celebrated his 70th birthday and can still be found on the road, entertaining crowds with the songs he wrote when he was barely out of his teens – ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, ‘Sunny Afternoon’ et al. To borrow the title of a later and lesser-known Kinks single, what must it be like to be One of the Survivors?
In his preface, Rogan calls this ‘both the curse and the triumph of the heritage act, forced by marketplace conditions and public expectation to confront their past at the expense of their present’. Of course, it is also the dilemma of the heritage-act biographer: if your subject is reckoned by both critics and public alike to have done his best work by the age of 30, how should you deal with the subsequent decades of perceived underachievement? Rogan chooses to delve deep into the period that will most interest potential readers of this book. A Complicated Life is a big book — over 600 pages, plus a further 100 pages of notes and discographical information — nearly two-thirds of which takes place before 1970. In other words, Give the People What They Want (Kinks LP, Arista, 1981, has its moments).
Rogan has written and then rewritten biographies of Neil Young, Van Morrison and the Smiths, amongst others. He habitually returns to pick up his subjects’ stories where he left off, sometimes after intervals of a decade or longer. A Complicated Life is his third book on the Kinks since 1984; and despite its nominal title, it is very much a history of Ray Davies’s work rather than his life — or at least an account of his life seen through the prism of the group’s activities, his principal creative outlet for many years (the Kinks’ last public performance was in 1996). This seems reasonable. After all, as Rogan notes, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ will ‘transcend the turbulence of the Kinks and the vicissitudes of Ray Davies’s life’. It is a defiantly non-sensationalist way of going about a biography, though that did not prevent the Mail on Sunday serialising the few juicy parts recently under the headline FIFTY SHADES OF RAY.
As a chronicler, Rogan is dogged, even-handed and punctilious in his research. He interviews not only Ray and his brother Dave but also former band members, associates, managers, even Ray’s first wife Rasa, whose distinctive voice features on many famous Kinks hits. A Kinks fan since his schooldays, Rogan recalls hearing and revering those classic singles and LPs ‘during the week of release’ and one may interpret his respectful biographical approach as loyalty both to the man who created those extraordinary records and the author’s own rapt teenage self.
He is, I think, scrupulously fair in his assessments of his subject’s work and character, while also conceding that, in several ways, Davies remains an enigma — the champion of the ‘ordinary’ man in song, with a reputation for being high-handed and manipulative in his dealings with
others; the canny music-business survivor who often presents himself as a helpless victim of the industry. In its depiction of the Kinks’ Sixties heyday and its problematic aftermath — problematic for all involved — A Complicated Life may not provide all the answers but it is a valuable account of the working life of a complicated man.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033