To Ray Davies, America is a ‘beautiful but dangerous’ place
“Sorry, I’m chewing gum,” says Ray Davies five minutes into our interview, before extracting the offending substance from his mouth.
It’s a fitting interruption. We’re here to talk about his latest album, Americana, which charts his love-hate relationship with the US – and there’s nothing more American than chomping on a stick of Wrigley’s.
Of course, our most recently-ennobled rock star is best known for his writing about England on songs like Waterloo Sunset, Muswell Hillbilly, Sunny Afternoon, Dedicated Follower of Fashion, but his obsession with the States started early.
As a schoolboy, he was captivated by black and white cowboy movies and the be-bop records his older sisters would bring home.
After receiving a guitar for his 13th birthday, he devoured records by Muddy Waters and Slim Harpo. His love affair with the blues was so strong that when he wrote The Kinks’ first hit single, You Really Got Me he intended it to be “a blues song”.
“Then it turned out to be a pop hit.”
Somewhat disingenuously, he tells the BBC You Really Got Me was supposed to be The Kinks’ only song (even though it was their third single).
“I wanted that to be a hit and then I was going to get out of town,” he says.
“Unfortunately they asked me to write another one, and another one.”
The Kinks’ success meant Ray and his younger brother Dave could finally visit the Land of the Free – but things didn’t go entirely to plan, as he describes on the new album.
“They called us The Invaders, as though we came from another world,” he sings. “And the man from immigration shouted out, ‘Hey punk, are you a boy or a girl?'”
The band could have overcome the prejudice if they weren’t already in disarray – prone to fighting on stage, and let down by a promoter who refused to pay them in cash.
Things came to a head while taping Dick Clark’s TV show Where The Action Is in 1965.
“Some guy who said he worked for the TV company walked up and accused us of being late,” Davies wrote in his autobiography X-Ray.
“Then he started making anti-British comments. Things like ‘Just because the Beatles did it, every mop-topped, spotty-faced limey juvenile thinks he can come over here and make a career for himself.'”
A punch was thrown, and the American Federation of Musicians refused to issue the Kinks permits to perform in the US for the next four years.
“It was a terrible blow to our career,” says Davies. “We couldn’t tour. We couldn’t play Woodstock.
“Being a bolshie 21-year-old, I said, ‘Let’s make records and tour the rest of the world’.
“But deep down I was really hurt, because America was the inspiration for much of our music.”
When the band were finally allowed back, in 1970, they had to start from scratch, plying their trade in tiny clubs and high school gymnasiums.
“It was quite a humbling experience after being really successful before,” Davies recalls.
Yet the US became the band’s lifeline in the 1970s, providing adulation, success and financial reward as interest dwindled at home.
“We ended up playing Madison Square Garden in 1980, which is a sign you’ve made it back. So it was a 10-year programme. It was hard work but, in a strange way, we built a loyal fanbase in that time.”
So perhaps it’s no surprise that Davies sings “I want to make my home/Where the buffalo roam” on the title track of his new album.
Indeed, he moved to the US for several years, finding his spiritual home – and sanctuary – in New Orleans.
“I’m just another person there, which is really nice,” he says. “And I fitted in with the music scene.”
Living across the road from a church, he would frequently witness the city’s brass band funerals, which stretch through the streets in celebration of local musicians and dignitaries at the end of their life.
But his sojourn in the city ended badly one Sunday evening in January 2004.
Davies was strolling along an unusually deserted Burgundy Street with his girlfriend Suzanne Despies.
A car pulled up alongside them, a young man got out, and demanded Despies’ purse. She handed it over without any resistance, but Davies suddenly decided to give chase.
His assailant was armed, and shot Davies in the leg, breaking his femur.
“Why did I do it? That’s the unanswerable question,” he says.
“I’ve never really been the sort of person who would chase a man with a loaded gun. But I did. Foolishly, perhaps, and irresponsibly. But I did it.
“It was one of those heat of the moment situations, and I have no explanation other than that.”
He ended up in hospital, heavily drugged and, for the first 24 hours, an anonymous “John Doe”.
The experience informed a song – Mystery Room – in which the star faces his mortality for the first time: “My brain’s hit a brick wall / My body’s in free-fall.”
It’s partnered with another track, Rock ‘N’ Roll Cowboys, which equates ageing rock stars with gunslingers about to hang up their holsters.
“Rock and roll cowboys, where do you go now?” asks Davies. “Do you give up the chase like an old retiree? Or do you stare in the face of new adversaries?“
It’s a question that’s flummoxed many of his 60s contemporaries. Has he ever contemplated giving up?
“Every writer who’s written and toured for more than five years reaches a point where they think, ‘Do I keep going?’ or, ‘Where do I go next?'” he says.
“Every day I wake up and say, ‘I love writing songs but do I want to do this?’ and the answer is I do.
“I love making records. I love playing in front of people.”
America is ‘off-kilter’
For the new record, he sought the help of alt-country stalwarts The Jayhawks, whose deft arrangements provide a rich backdrop to Davies’ wry and incisive lyrics.
Was it challenging, I wonder, for him to walk in and take charge of an already-established band?
“It was a diplomatic situation,” he says… well, diplomatically.
“At first, they were trying to sound English in their backing vocals, but I deterred them from that.
“The reason I picked them is because they just play the songs. They don’t embellish too much unless I ask them to, which is great.”
The Americana sessions went so well that there are “another 20” songs waiting to be finished and released, all derived from Davies’s 2013 book of the same name.
“It’s a big work, but I hope it’ll be put together for a deluxe record later on.”
Is he tempted to write something more topical for that record, given the ongoing political turmoil in the US?
“Everyone who knows my work comes up to me and says: ‘It’s time to revive Preservation,'” he says, referring to The Kinks’ 1973 concept album and tour, in which a comedian becomes a dictator, funded by big business and using the media as a tool of control.
“It was a fun show but it had quite serious undertones,” says Davies, “and I think that sums up America at the moment: it’s a fun show with very serious undertones.
“I do hope America balances itself out. It’s slightly off-kilter at the moment.
“He [Trump] has still got to face Congress, and it’s still a democratic country. I think the will of the people will be heard, and America’s constitution is strong.
“It’s a difficult time of re-adjustment for them – but I think in time it’ll balance itself out.
“It’s a beautiful place but a dangerous place, as I found out.”