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Story Teller

Ray Davies: The undisputed king of the concept album.

It has been less than a week since the terrorist attacks, and Ray Davies just doesn't have his mind on music. "I…I can't really see the value in performing or doing interviews now. It just pales in comparison," the co-founder of the Kinks says from his Konk studio in London. He planned to be in New York on this day, preparing for a U.S. leg of his Storyteller concerts, but he was unable to get a flight. "I was shocked by what happened. I've been following it closely on CNN, and people here are generally very upset about it. It's just so…numbing."

But most of the tour will go on as planned, with Davies and an accompanist delivering a show whose impact on the industry is still reverberating. The impetus came from a series of book readings Davies gave to promote his 1994 autobiography, X-Ray; instead of merely reading excerpts, Davies also performed acoustic versions of his songs, old and new, and discussed their origins. VH1 used the tour as the basis for its own hugely successful Storytellers series -- hence Davies's credit at the end of each episode.

"When I wrote the book, I thought about researching myself with paper and getting diaries out, but I realized that it was all in the songs, everything I was feeling and going through during that period," says Davies, who also released a live record, The Storyteller. "So this [format] was natural. It's taught me a lot about what I was like, what the band was like, and the time."

The time was 1963 when, in their parents' home in Muswell Hill, North London, teenagers Ray Davies (vocals, guitar) and younger brother Dave (lead guitar) formed the Ravens with friend Pete Quaife (bass) and Mickey Willet (drums). Willet was destined to suffer from Pete Best disease -- he was replaced by Mick Avory after the group landed a record contract and changed its name to the Kinks.

Presented as another cookie-cutter British R&B band, one whose first two singles stiffed, the Kinks announced their presence with their next effort, "You Really Got Me." Dave's distorted two-chord blast is one of the most instantly recognizable intro riffs in rock history, while the single has been named by some as the first heavy metal and first punk record -- an ancestor of both Black Sabbath and Black Flag. "I had no idea that little piece of plastic would live on and on, and be playing some 30-odd years later," Davies says.

The band quickly followed up with Top 10 smashes like "All Day and All of the Night" and "Tired of Waiting for You." As the group's songwriter, Ray Davies felt the most pressure to produce, and often what he produced was colored with his own satiric glee. "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" skewered the Carnaby Street crowd; "A Well-Respected Man" tweaked the noses of the proper British middle class. There are also a load of true pop gems like "Sunny Afternoon" and things you'll rarely if ever hear on American oldies radio, like the gorgeous "Waterloo Sunset," "Autumn Almanac," "Days" and "Dead End Street."

While the band was hugely popular in England, it didn't make as many waves in the States as the Beatles, the Stones or the Who. Of all the British Invasion bands, the Kinks were perhaps the most British, and were definitely the most identifiable as Londoners, as Davies's broad accent name-checked places and sociology unfamiliar and nigh impenetrable to Yanks. There was also a ban from the American Federation of Musicians, which kept the Kinks out of the United States for almost four years after a disastrous 1965 tour.

Davies himself is sketchy on the details and enforcement but says that Avory summed it up best during the band's 1990 induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, noting that it was a combination of "bad luck, bad management and bad behavior." Still, he says the ban wasn't such a bad thing, and it contributed to the Kinks' niche as a cult favorite. "We missed Monterey Pop, Woodstock and the whole West Coast hippie explosion. But I think we would have burned ourselves out if we had been in the U.S. then," he says. "My music would have gone in a different direction."

It was only natural that Davies, one of rock's most literate and intelligent songwriters, would try his hand at a concept album, and he managed to produce one masterpiece in 1968's The Village Green Preservation Society.In it, the increasingly nostalgic Davies bemoaned the loss of English traditions in a series of picturesque sketch songs. However, the self-indulgent Davies went on to produce five more concept records -- enough to make Pete Townshend, Roger Waters and evenDennis DeYoung cringe. And despite the fact that "Lola," that charming 1970 song about a man and his transvestite, became a huge hit, the Kinks were not to crack the charts again for nearly a decade.

The group's resurgence started in 1979 with the appropriately named Low Budget and continued in 1983 when "Come Dancing" became a hit single on the fledgling MTV network. "That video was very important to us. If we hadn't made it, the record would have never come out in the U.S.," Davies laughs. "Luckily for us, MTV didn't have that many videos at the time, so it ran over and over!"

But for most of the '90s, the Kinks -- with just Ray and Dave left from the original lineup -- became inactive, mostly owing to bad brotherly blood. The brothers' always tempestuous relationship was exacerbated by Dave's 1996 autobiography, Kink, in which Dave paints Ray as selfish, egotistical and cold. Dave also accused Ray of blatant thievery when it came to songwriting credits.

Ray claims not to have read the book. "It's…it's a difficult thing, really," he says. "With Dave coming in so late with that…it's an issue that he should have dealt with at the time if he had a gripe about it. I don't know the precise songs Dave feels that he's been badly done by, but I think the [existing] songwriting credits accurately reflect our individual [contributions]."

An item on his Web site (www.raydavies.com) says the brothers had dinner together last year, but there was no talk of music or reviving the Kinks. Still, Ray says any group that would tour under that name in the future would have to include both brothers. Dave is currently on tour with his Kink Kronikles show.

"I'm trying to contact Bill Gates to see if he can invent some kind of artifact to do my brother's work!" Davies says. "The thing about Dave, he's a great hooligan, a real wild card. I'd come in with a careful plan for each song, and he would deliberately do something outrageous…But I always tell [the engineer] to press the record button. Because no matter how outrageous his playing is, it will be usable -- and it will be better than any other guitar player can do."

In addition to Storyteller, Ray has been busy directing films and documentaries. He's also writing -- plays, a book of short stories, a choral piece and a full-blown musical loosely based on the video for "Come Dancing." His better-late-than-never debut solo studio record is also in the works.

Meanwhile, a new generation of Britpop stars have been singing Davies's praises, much as he once did for Chuck Berry and James Burton. It's clear the Kinks' impact has resounded long after those of more successful contemporaries have been forgotten. After all, there's a reason you find the Kinks -- and not Herman's Hermits or the Dave Clark Five -- in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


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