Messing Up in Public

In its September 11, 1964, issue, the British pop magazine New Musical Express featured an article on the Kinks underneath the headline "This week's chart-toppers." Each member of the band, which had just stepped into the limelight on the strength of its third single, "You Really Got Me," was asked, among other things, to name his best friend. Three members -- singer-guitarist Ray Davies, his younger brother and lead guitarist Dave Davies, and bassist Pete Quaife -- chose "me." Drummer Mick Avory responded: "Money (in my pocket)."

That's about all you need to know really. Here, clearly, were the prime ingredients in a recipe for self-destruction. And sure enough, even as they sent a string of hits into the English Top 10, the Kinks were coming apart at the seams, establishing themselves as their own worst enemy and probably the most combustible band of the Sixties -- if not all time. Verbal and physical confrontations -- with each other, with their managers, with concert promoters, with disc jockeys -- were as much a staple of the band's repertoire as "All Day and All of the Night" and "Tired of Waiting for You." No wonder Ray Davies and company were written off almost from the start.

And yet, 32 years and many personnel changes later, the Kinks still haven't flamed out. Even more astonishingly, the Davies brothers seem to be aging with remarkable grace, particularly when compared with many other members of the pop world's ever-growing 40-plus set. A new double-CD of 29 mostly live tracks, To the Bone (Guardian), includes some extraordinary reworkings of both familiar and unfamiliar selections from the band's vast catalogue.

As for 52-year-old frontman Ray Davies, his latest self-reinvention has come in the form of a small solo show that evolved out of the publication of his book X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography in 1994. Giving readings in small bookshops, Davies found he liked these intimate venues and crafted a mix of old hits, new songs, and spoken remembrances into a performance he originally titled 20th Century Man, and currently calls simply Storyteller, that's now playing halls and theaters across America.

And for a guy whose creative output has been almost singularly shaped by his own considerable fear and self-loathing, Davies sounds rather well-adjusted about the way things have turned out. Critical response has been warm, and Davies seems almost relieved to be holding center stage in smaller, quieter venues.

"The whole thing with touring in the conventional sense is to cram as many people as possible into one place in one day, and then get out of there," he says now. "But this show is a building process. The first night you always get, you know, the fans. Then after that, when we're doing a run somewhere, you get people who aren't so familiar with you and new people who are just curious. And then reviews come out, and we get the people who've heard about the show."

And for Davies, that search for new listeners, a different audience, is still paramount. The Kinks, for example, "couldn't have played Stockbridge in Massachusetts. I did that last week, and that was amazing. I loved that. It was more of a theater audience. We had people who had probably hardly ever heard of the Kinks. I look forward to playing out in the Midwest, where people wouldn't normally come to this sort of show. Get into the little nooks and crannies, rather than just go for the places that've got the big ice rinks."

Despite all this, Storyteller is less a distancing from what the Kinks achieved than a full-on embrace of it. As in X-Ray, the primary subject matter is the band's Sixties incarnation -- and near-incineration. And why not? The band was at ground zero of the total remaking of pop music. To quote from critic Jon Savage (author of 1984's The Kinks: The Official Biography), the Kinks and a handful of other British bands in the mid-Sixties took "the coded sexual and social assertiveness of black R&B and invested it with a white neuroticism and a superhuman drive, replacing the often subtle rhythms of the originals with monolithic blocks of sound."

To the Bone, which also relies much more on highlights from the band's original heyday than its Low Budget "Destroyer""Come Dancing" resurrection in the late Seventies and early Eighties, makes for an interesting counterpoint to Storyteller. About half the tunes here are from a 1994 acoustic set performed for friends and fans at the band's Konk studios in North London. Most of the others are highlights from what were in all likelihood the band's final tours through the arena circuit.

The Konk set, frankly, is much more interesting. (Did we need another version of a big crowd singing along with "Lola"? I don't think so.) It's impossible to listen to these clean, tight renditions of such unheralded tunes as "Apeman," "The Village Green Preservation Society," "Muswell Hillbillies," "See My Friends," and "Do You Remember Walter?" and not be speechless at Davies' biting, trenchant songwriting skills -- and how little recognition he's ever gotten for them. And of the two new studio offerings, the title track and "Animal," the latter makes a convincing case that he still knows how to look back in angst.

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