Sure, Ray Davies seems bitter, but if you'd had to put up with the kind of abuse that Ray and his band have for the last 30 years, you wouldn't be all smiles either. Squirming through the occasional melodramatic excesses of X-Ray, "The Unauthorized Autobiography," is a small price to pay to finally hear the Kinks' story from Davies' own mouth.
X-Ray is a memoir wrapped in a science fiction story not unlike the hokey rock operas Davies was writing in the mid-seventies. In it, The Corporation, which controls the world and has effaced all traces of individuality and personal freedom, sends a cub writer to get the life story of Davies, now a sad and hermetic old man. Their real intention, of course, is to destroy the former Kinks frontman, who, powerless and forgotten as he is, still possesses knowledge, memories, and dreams whose very existence pose a threat to the sterile New Order. As the young writer hears Ray's story, he comes to the unavoidable conclusion that The Corporation is evil, and in the end resolves to work against it.
This rather thin meta-story doesn't intrude much on Ray's reminiscences (which don't go very far beyond the late sixties, to the undoubted relief of Kinks fans everywhere), and ends up being a clever vehicle for Davies to speak in both the first and third person, making observations about his own personality that would be impossible in a straight autobiography. Still, the main thrill is having the normally reticent Davies spill the details on Kinks mysteries that have been the subject of speculation for years: his childhood, his nervous breakdown(s), the band's notorious management problems, and most of all, their years-long ban from America.
An outsider even when the Kinks were the toast of the pop scene, Davies never cared much for the modern world, and held political views that were, unfashionably, neither left nor right. His childhood experiences with doctors, shrinks, and unsympathetic teachers led him to distrust authority early on. The terrifying primal experience of finding out that his father had lost his job, and then spying him at the labor exchange collecting his unemployment check, left a lasting impression on him; so did an early stint in the printing shop of a magazine, where his crochety unionist co-workers spent their days bitching about the management and lecturing him for working during his tea breaks. (He eventually began pretending not to work so they wouldn't give him a hard time.) In time he learned, to his dismay, that even pop stardom and a string of number-one hits wouldn't free him from the con-men and gangsters who really run the world. He grew to detest not only the nameless aristocrats in the City who wrecked people's lives by moving slips of paper around, but also the sham socialism of England's Labor government--and the modern Welfare State in general, with its hatred of individuality, its bureaucracy, and its "people in grey."
After a few years producing hugely popular anthems like "You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night," and "Where Have All the Good Times Gone," reinventing rock and roll along the way (thanks in large part to brother Dave's proto-punk guitar style), Davies began aiming his chainsaw wit at various deserving social targets, establishing himself as a kind of modern-day Oscar Wilde. He skewered foppish Carnaby Street fashion victims ("Dedicated Follower of Fashion") and upper-class twits ("A Well-Respected Man," "Mr. Pleasant," "House in the Country") to the delight of everyone, including--in the spirit of the free and jocular sixties--foppish Carnaby Street fashion victims and upper-class twits. He mocked session musicians (and by implication, modern capitalism, with its emphasis on efficiency and rationalism) in "Session Man," and ridiculed America's conversion of paradise into a commercial theme park in "Holiday in Waikiki." The Kinks were probably the first pop group to record a song with openly gay overtones ("See My Friends"), and the first to use Indian drones on a rock record (ditto).
But deep down, Ray was hopelessly out of step with the sixties youth culture. In the pre-Sgt. Pepper days of September 1966, the Kinks released (as a single, no less) the bleak "Dead End Street," an almost morbid piece of social realism about cracked ceilings, rent collectors, and the meager prospects that the future held for most British citizens--Peace, Love, and Mary Quant notwithstanding. While Swinging London was in full bloom, Davies committed the hipness-crime of getting married, moving into a modest bedsit a short walk from where he grew up, and voluntarily spending time wheeling a baby carriage and doing household chores. On the Village Green Preservation Society LP, he pulled out all the stops, devoting the whole record to attacks on the modern world and reminiscences of the pre-industrial age ("We are the Office Block Persecution Affinity. God save little shops, china cups, and virginity..."). In the song "People Take Pictures of Each Other," he even ridiculed photography: "People take pictures of the summer, just in case someone thought they had missed it, and to prove that it really existed. Fathers take pictures of the mothers, and the sisters take pictures of brothers, just to show that they love one another. You can't picture love that you took from me, when we were young and the world was free..." This was obviously light-years beyond the quaint nostalgia of "Penny Lane."
Unfortunately, not very many people got to hear it. Thanks to a performing ban on the Kinks in the U.S., courtesy of the American Federation of Musicians, the band was rendered effectively invisible in this country throughout their most creative period. The reasons for the ban have always been cloudy at best, and Davies himself has avoided talking about it, but in X-Ray, he grudgingly broaches the subject, revealing that...he never quite knew the reason himself. Among the many enemies the Kinks made on their early U.S. tours, the most likely candidate seems to be a patriotic jerk who worked for a TV show that the Kinks appeared on. He accused the band of being late, and after several "Commie wimp" and "limey bastard" jibes that made it clear he was holding the Kinks personally responsible for the entire British Invasion, he threatened to show "just how powerful America is" by filing a report on the band and "making sure they never worked in the USA again."
While losing a fortune by having America closed off to the band, Ray also had to contend with years of litigation, trying to extricate the group from the usurious recording and publishing contracts they had signed when they were still teenagers. These nightmares, combined with the hell of touring, the band's off-and-on battles with the press (who preferred more media-friendly groups like the Beatles), and the tremendous pressure exerted on Davies to keep producing hit records, caused him to have at least one full-fledged nervous breakdown. He seemed constantly on the brink of others--as, for example, when his wife Rasa (who can be heard singing on most of the Kinks' early records) left him--but ultimately survived even his creative nadir in the seventies, when, by his own admission, he "shouldn't have been allowed to make records."
The years have been extremely kind to Ray Davies' songs and the Kinks' records, and if Davies hasn't quite gotten over the mistreatment he has had to endure from managers, lawyers, TV producers, redneck sheriffs, and the press over the years, there aren't too many people more deserving of the right to whine a little. X-Ray is one of the most sincere and compelling rock and roll memoirs I've read (and I haven't even mentioned any of the sex stories). While it may be hard to appreciate for those who aren't familiar with Davies' work, this can be easily rectified with a couple of weekends listening to Face to Face, Something Else, Village Green Preservation Society, The Kinks Kronikles, and Muswell Hillbillies. Which you should be doing anyway.
[Previously published in "Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed"]