Interview: Dave Davies (part 2)
Published on October 9th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Was “Mr Reporter” aimed at anyone in particular – a specific incident, even – or was the broadside a general one?
In those days, the media were crap. If they didn’t like you, they would be scathing. If you weren’t flavour of the month, they could be pretty horrible people. Well, they still can be now, but it was more black and white in those days. For some reason, a lot of people didn’t like The Kinks. Probably because we were a bit scruffy, I don’t know. People wanted it all poppy and nice and “everybody’s happy” but unfortunately life isn’t like that. We sang more about real life, like “Dead End Street” and stuff like that. Musicians weren’t supposed to sing about real life, they were supposed to sing about meaningless stuff (laughs). “Mr Reporter” would have been based on a scathing article or something, you know, about how crude my guitar sound was or how primitive we were, that we couldn’t sing. People can be really horrible. People with no imagination, who don’t understand inspiration.
Maybe some of those critics were failed musicians themselves.
Yeah, there were a lot of music journalists in the 60s and 70s that were failed musicians, so there was an element of bitterness there, thinking that someone could have a hit record with five chords but they could play six chords without any success! It’s like throwing craps: you win some, you lose some.
Do you feel underappreciated in the pantheon of great guitarists? You never seem to feature towards the top of any polls or lists, whereas many would argue that you should do.
The people who put the polls together are prats. You can’t compare, say, Eddie Cochran with Gary Moore [Thin Lizzy]. I go for my personalities – I think Pete Townshend is much more inspiring than Gary Moore, who was more flashy but had less substance. Bless him, I’m sorry that he passed away recently, but I never liked his playing. I prefer musicians that construct something more meaningful. Anyone can learn the guitar if they have enough money to get someone good to teach them but it’s not about what the instrument does so much as it is about the person behind it and what it makes them feel like. Music’s not about loads of flashy scales, it’s about soul and inspiration. That’s why I thought Townshend was underrated. I think Eddie Van Halen was better when he was drunk and didn’t know what he was playing. When he was sober, it was more like a mathematics exam (laughs). I don’t like all that. The punk thing was more about feeling and attitude rather than “hey, is my hair looking good today?”
I agree, although some of those punks had good hair.
(Laughs) If you’ve got it, flaunt it!
Now, I know you’ve been asked many, many times about the legendary “little green box” that was your Elpico amp but it’s just so fascinating that I just have to bring it up.
Yeah, I loved that amp, with all my razor slashes all the way around it. Some bastard pinched it! But when I did that BBC4 film with Julien Temple [Dave Davies documentary Kinkdom Come – click here to watch it in full], he found one that was very similar and we mocked up a scene of a hand slashing a speaker. That all came out of that Sue thing as well – I didn’t know whether to slash my wrists or the speaker’s!
It’s fair to say you made the right choice!
I like accidents. Sometimes in the studio you get happy accidents – you don’t know what it is but it sounds good so you keep it. When you work things out too much, it can lose its drive and energy, its spontaneity. I found it quite refreshing in the late seventies when everyone started to record with out-of-tune guitars again. Thank god! When you were on the road in America at that time, you’d listen to other dressing rooms and you could hear perfectly in-tune guitars playing fiddly scales. Save it! We just used to tune up and plug in. It’s very American to have technique. Although you do need some technique – you can’t cross the road without knowing which way to look first (laughs). But there’s technique and there’s technique.
I read you saying that when you were tampering with the amp, it gave you an electric shock that flung you to the back of the room…
What I did was I got a speaker lead with a jack at one end and two lead bits at the other end, and I put them on the speaker terminals. Maybe I thought I knew more than I did because I tried to put them on the transformer terminals (laughs). So you can imagine what happened. I was thrown across the room! But it worked, so then I had to plug it into a bigger amp.
Did you have any idea of what you were hoping to achieve?
No, not a clue. I was hoping it would be good, or different. You just don’t know, do you? When I first started painting, everything ended up abstract because I can’t paint (laughs). But then I thought, hang on, that looks pretty good. Especially with oils, you can get blends of colours and layers that look quite good and you think, maybe that is art. It’s hard to identify what is art and what isn’t.
How did the rest of the band react at first when you presented them with this wild, distorted sound?
Everybody wanted to do it. It was one of those instant things, we all knew. A lot of people hated it because it was quite an aggressive sound. We’d do a gig and I’d see the sound guy sneering at me: “What’s that? You can’t play that.” But, when it was a hit, everyone was: “Yeah, that’s pretty cool. How do you do that, man?” It’s the same thing with fashion; you could go out and buy an old lady’s hat from the lady’s hat shop and put it on your head, someone took a picture of it and it would be in a magazine the following week. “Hey, that’s cool, man!”
Half the time I used to wear stuff just out of bravado. For a piss-take, really, tongue-in-cheek. The campy thing was very prominent in the sixties because there were so many gay people in the music business. I’d never seen so many homosexuals in my life because it was still illegal in those days. You could go to prison for being a homosexual. So we used to play on that as well, campy singing and all that. It was just kids having fun.
So did Ray write “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” about you?
Yeah. I used to love all that. My girlfriend – a different girlfriend – was into bouffant hair and wearing PVC. I used to wear her clothes and she used to wear mine. We must have been one of the first bands to wear makeup and eyeliner. Because I always had really long eyelashes, my girlfriends always used to put on mascara. My girlfriends were always jealous of my eyelashes (laughs). We experimented with all sorts of things. Before the mid-50s, working class people weren’t really allowed to be that artistic, to express themselves in that outward way. The 60s was quite a revolution in that sense. Working class people started to appear more in films – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with Albert Finney was an epic film. Albert Finney was a lovely guy and, when he came in, he was like the rock and roll of actors.
I like the bit in Kinkdom Come where you talk about people in America giving you stick for your long hair, asking you if you were a boy or a girl, to which you replied that you were both.
(Laughs) I was so surprised by how backwards some Americans were at the time. It wasn’t like that in Europe. Copenhagen was so ahead of the game; Paris, London and Manchester were also key cities. America got hold of it all very late. When we went on our first tour of America, I thought I was going to this amazing country but the music was very old-fashioned, very poppy, and the people were so bigoted. I was scared to go out to the shops in places like Detroit or Kansas, with all the glaring people.
Was the drony guitar tuning on “See My Friends” your idea?
I can’t remember how that came about, really, but both Ray and I were big fans of Davey Graham. He’s got to be one of the most underrated musicians in rock and roll and in folk, because he brought that Indian influence to folk music. We used to listen to Davey Graham and think, how does he do that? He was a wonderful guitar player and he had that beautiful, nonchalant, half-sung voice; he influenced us and a lot of other people, just coming out of skiffle and all that. I think he was the first really important English guitar player. He went to Morocco and studied all this music first-hand, so he was indirectly influential on stuff like “See My Friends”.
How come you wound up singing lead on Ray songs like “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”, “Party Line” and “Wicked Annabella”? Were they just more suited to your register?
Certain keys sounded better with me and some with Ray, although I’ve got the vocal range to sing most everything. But I found as I got older, working on The Aschere Project, Fractured Mindz and this new stuff I’m working on now, that your voice does get a bit deeper so I’m kind of enjoying that as well.
I was amazed how similar your voice sounded on your 2002 album Bug to how it sounded but in the heyday of The Kinks. It had that rasp about it.
I tried a few things on Bug, like using cheaper mics. Those really expensive valve tube condenser mics are so sensitive that I used to keep blowing them out, and there was so much air coming out of the channels. I had better luck, a flatter response, with cheaper mics. It depends what sound you like. You can spend a month trying to choose a microphone but sometimes it’s better just to use the one at hand.
Hidden Treasures will be released on October 31st through Sanctuary Records. For more information, please visit davedavies.com