Ray Davies finds paradise beneath a Waterloo Sunset
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
As I change tube trains at Kings Cross en route to the Festival Hall, a poster advertising orchestral Dire Straits floats past me, and it’s difficult to stifle a smile. Why are rock musicians drawn to work with orchestras when, let’s be honest, the success rate of such projects bottoms out somewhere below the Sinclair C5?
But there are rock musicians and then there’s Ray Davies, whose concert on Sunday night with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Crouch End Festival Chorus ended this year’s Meltdown festival with an atmosphere approaching a revivalist meeting. Davies, with brother Dave Davies, formed a band called The Ravens in 1962, which played the circuit around their local neighbourhood in Muswell Hill, until they were signed to Pye Records in 1964 and rebranded The Kinks.
And The Kinks were always a bit different, a bit aloof. When The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society was released in November 1968 the record got starved of publicity by that year’s other must-have listens: The Beatles’ White Album, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills and The Rolling Stone’s Beggars Banquet. Pop now meant psychedelia, pot and protest. But The Kinks? Their new album positioned itself in calculated opposition to the party line. As The Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards found art meeting life by getting busted for drugs, the title track of Village Green Preservation Society invoked an idealised England that, if it ever did exist, was a world of simpler pleasures. A lyric like ‘Twas there I met a girl called Daisy /And kissed her by the old oak tree is so brutally archetypical of finger-in-the-ear folk singing that it sounds brutally mint-fresh dropped inside a pop album, an album more Tony than Herbie Hancock, more Harold than Brian Wilson, an album haunted by Sherlock Holmes, Desperate Dan, strawberry jam, custard pies, cats, old acquaintance not forgot and dewy-eyed emotions stirred by family photos.
But that Davies decided to frame this vision of Albion as a pop album, during the late sixties still an evolving form, shows The Kinks were looking two ways at once: pop is of the moment and Davies knew there was no point in waiting for nostalgia to make a comeback. The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society was entirely a product of its time, and like great art must, plundered past histories to explain the present and ask – what next? Its core message is best explained by these lines taken from the title track: Preserving the old ways from being abused /Protecting the new ways for me and for you/What more can we do.
After it bombed in the charts, The Kinks cherry-picked a few numbers for their live shows – “The Village Green Preservation Society”, “Johnny Thunder”, “Picture Book” – and the album marinated while no one was listening until, suddenly, everybody was listening and recognising it as cult intelligentsia pop. Until Sunday evening Village Green had never been played live in its entirety, but was it a good idea to bolster Davies’ vision with orchestra and choir? That’s a complex question, but the compositional integrity, and ingenuity, of Davies’ material – his ruminative song structures, his keen awareness of timbral colour and trademark chromatic slithers – lend themselves more than most.
Arranger/orchestrator Simon Hale’s task was to erect a new orchestral thatch, but without trampling over our halcyon memories of the essential Village Green experience – his orchestration needed to be heard and felt, but also be incidental, discreet and not heard; no one wanted Village Green: The Musical. Only during “Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains”, which trashes Davies’ rural idyll with raw-boned electric blues, did I wish his band had been given space to stretch, to play. Otherwise Hale’s strategy of allowing the original album’s nascent orchestration – hints of folksy double-reeds, the jingle-jangle of harpsichords and massed flutes – to blossom was a masterful piece of compositional keyhole surgery, sensitively carried out.
Making studio albums work effectively in a concert hall is a perennial problem. The recording studio is, by definition, a contrived and artificial sound environment. Those busy, static-filled silences (on vinyl) between tracks are not equivalent to the warm ambience of a concert hall; they are simply a way of demarcating one track from another, like a frame that tells you where the wall stops and the painting begins. Making an album work live requires a rethink of its emotional trajectory and form. To mould Village Green into a live experience “The Village Green Preservation Society” was flipped from its position as the opening title track to the end, where it became a cathartic point of arrival; Hale’s instrumental linking passages were an unnecessary trimming; simply segueing between numbers proved a better way of keeping the impetus on a roll.
After the interval, Davies dipped into his matchless back catalogue of Kinks hits and solo material. The raw carnal desire of “You Really Got Me” roared past the choral and orchestral setting – it’s Ray’s voice that counts and he still sings it like a randy teenager. And how much the evening meant to Davies personally became clear as he broke the fourth wall of “Waterloo Sunset”, telling us “me too”, as he sang the line about Terry and Julie “being in paradise”.
The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, circa 1968, ended with “People Take Pictures of Each Other” and four decades on Davies encouraged us to take a souvenir snap with our smart-phones mid-song. Mine's above. Ray’s the white blur standing centre-stage.