There’s no getting around the fact that Ray Davies is a classic-rock godhead on a level with Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend, even if he doesn’t necessarily pull in their kind of cash. So it’s understandable that he required about a decade after the Kinks collapsed before launching a full-fledged solo career, with Other People’s Lives in 2006, following it up in ’07 with Working Man’s Cafe. However, once you’ve given birth to epochal songs like “You Really Got Me,” “Waterloo Sunset,” and “Days,” it’s got to be tough to walk away from them completely. So now, rather than roaring into a third Ray Davies album, he’s reinventing his legacy with The Kinks Choral Collection, offering new adaptations of classic Kinks tunes with, you guessed it, choral accompaniment. We talked with King Kink during the European leg of his current tour to find out where his work has led him and how he feels about revisiting it now.
How did the idea for the Kinks Choral Collection come about?
It’s a strange journey. Eleven years ago I was commissioned to write a choral piece of music, for a music festival in the East of England. I used the Symphonia Orchestra, so it was quite a big deal. And it went very well, and I stayed in touch with the people. And about two years ago, when Working Man’s Cafe came out in England, the BBC were doing their Electric Proms series of concerts, and they invited me to come on, but everybody had to collaborate or do something different with their music. And I remembered the chorus I worked with and used them to play on a few songs. It was the success of the whole series on TV, and consequently the new record company I was with asked me to do an album.
What was the working process for creating the choral arrangements?
First off, I’d just like to say this is not a re-recording. I’ve never wanted to re-record the Kinks’ hits, because I think things like “You Really Got Me,” all those songs, stand as great records in their own right. So this is more of an adaptation than a re-recording. I had the colors in my head, and I’d go on my laptop and put charting ideas down. I’d do my own little demos and have an idea for an arrangement in my head, then I’d meet with the choirmaster and the local arranger who works with the choir, and they would say, “That’s too ambitious.” And then we’d just adapt what I thought of in the first place, and we’d work as a team.
Were you exposed to much choral music growing up?
I went to a Church of England school when I was 5 till I was 11. The headmaster of the school was also the choirmaster, so we all had to sing in the choir. So I was exposed to a lot of English choir music. But in secondary school I rocked out more, and left that to one side. So there was some foundation for that.
Some of the songs seem like no-brainers for a choral approach, like “Days” and “Celluloid Heroes,” but how did you approach arranging the rockers?
I think sometimes it’s good to leave something to the imagination on records. Like whenever I play Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” I still hear a string section somewhere. It’s not there, it’s in my head. But [the choral version of] “Celluloid Heroes” probably crosses the T and puts in the dots where people imagined things to be. But I know what you’re saying about being a no-brainer. The secret is to occasionally tilt that over and do things like “See My Friends.” It was meant to be a continual droning drum-and-guitar riff, but we’ve done that one a cappella, so it’s nice to break the pattern sometimes. There’s a sense of humor to it.
The one thing I’d like to say particularly about “You Really Got Me” is I always envisaged that big key shift from G to A where it goes, “Yeah, you really got me,” and in the beginning, when the choir do that in the chanting, it’s what I always wanted to do. It’s one of the things that I always heard on the [original] record, but we just had a few voices doing sustained notes. So it’s an opportunity to me to adapt a song and put those little finishing touches to it. It was difficult paying respect to the songs and utilizing what could be done with them and also trying to be as adventurous as possible. I think that’s paid off more in the Village Green selections; I’m very pleased that we did that. Because there’s certain songs there that a lot of people haven’t heard before.
Most of the album features the best-known Kinks songs. Why did you decide to include a whole batch of tunes from the Village Green Preservation Society album?
I wanted to do music that wasn’t an obvious, like you say, no-brainer, because these songs are not obvious hits. And obviously the record company would have loved to have every hit we’ve ever written, but I tried to balance it out by having something that people who knew more about my music would enjoy.
What do old Kinks fans seem to think about the Choral Kinks tunes?
I think for the people that know the records, like every little gliss, every little twang on, say, “You Really Got Me,” it might be nice for them to hear it slightly different.
Do you expect that an album like this will bring new fans into the fold?
It would be nice to do that, to have new people latch onto what you’ve done. I’ve been trying to broaden the palette of what I do. I might revive this piece I wrote 11 years ago, which was a very ambitious piece, and finish that now. It’s just another step in the creative process, really. It was called “Flatlands,” because the area that it was written about was Norfolk, Norwich — and East Anglia is very flat. I wrote a myth about the legend of St. George and the dragon; it’s based loosely on that. A very English topic.
It’s been said many times that your songs bear something inherently British.
When my songs are more lyrical, like “Well Respected Man,” I use English language more, and I think each language has its own meter and its own way of expression musically. I think of a writer called Malcolm Arnold, who’s one of my favorite English writers, and people like [1920s/’30s composer] Percy Grainger, who was Australian but wrote lots of songs in England. And there is a definite musicality to the English language. What fascinated me when I tried to move to the [American] South is the different accents in America, how diverse the American language is. So a lot of it has to do with the way people speak; that probably has an influence on my music. Which is probably why they say there’s an Englishness to it.
A lot of these songs have taken on a life of their own, but when you created them, did they come together quickly or did you labor over them?
“Waterloo Sunset,” the song idea came very quickly, the lyrics came very quickly, but the record was recorded in four sessions over a month, because I wanted to be precise about the arrangement. If you listen to “Waterloo Sunset,” the original one, I think there are only four instruments on it. And there’s this one piano note at the end that I put on. That was very sparse but tightly arranged. “You Really Got Me,” I started writing the riff when I was 15 and finished the song for real when the band went on tour when I was 18. So some things stay in the head longer; I carry lots of ideas around in my head. “Tired of Waiting” was written the same time as “You Really Got Me.” When we recorded “Tired of Waiting For You,” I hadn’t written any lyrics. I pretended I had a sore throat, and could I do the vocal tomorrow? That night I wrote some lyrics. “Tired of Waiting” is one that we tried, and I decided not to use it on the choir record. I just didn’t think it worked.
“Waterloo Sunset” in particular has been singled out as a favorite by so many people. Why do you think it affects people so powerfully?
I can’t work it out. I look at the lyrics, and I want to rewrite the lyrics, but you put them together with the music and it works. Tonight, I’ll be doing it acoustically, just me and my guitar player, and it seems to work in different ways. I think that’s a good key to a song. George Martin — I met him years ago when we were starting out — said when he was recording the Beatles he’d get them to do a song as a bossa nova, then try it as a waltz, or whatever, to try different ways of doing it. And if it’s a good song it can survive anything. With this song, it’s a song about an outsider, and it’s first-person, so he’s not connecting to the action. Probably that’s what appeals to people, because maybe there’s a lot of shut-ins or outsiders out there who watch the world go by, and they’d like to get on it but they just sit back and watch it. I think that’s one of the appeals of the song, possibly. And also, as much as I love the choral version, nothing can recapture the original record. On that original Kinks record, when my brother’s guitar comes in, it’s something magic that happens.
You seem to have concentrated more on your solo work over the last few years than ever before. In the midst of that, why revisit the Kinks catalog now?
It’s been a kind of a strange year for me, because I was commissioned to do the album last year and I started recording it in January. The fact that I could challenge myself a little bit and make the arrangements slightly different kept me together, so it wasn’t just a re-recording, but it’s nice to get it done and get it out there and get new life into the songs. But I have to keep writing new songs, and I’ve just recorded a new song that they’re gonna put out as some sort of charity thing at Christmas. It’s nice just to get something new done.
You were quoted not too long ago as saying you could envision the possibility of working with your brother Dave on Kinks material again at some point. What’s your outlook on that now?
My brother is a perfect foil to me. If nothing else, he has great ideas, and I love talking to him. When I see a great movie I think, “God, I wish I could watch this with Dave.” No Country For Old Men, I went to see that, and I just said to the person I was with, “I wish Dave was here.” I enjoy going to the movies with him, I enjoy listening to records with him, and making music with him. We’ve had our fallings out, very over-exploited rivalry, I guess, the media thrive on that, but he is a very intelligent man. But the Kinks became this image, this animal, this being. While I was doing the choral record, just to get in to do some new stuff, I did some demos and I used Mick Avory and Ian Gibbons, who played in the last Kinks band, [and Kinks bassist] Jim Rodford, just to see what it was like. And there’s some good new stuff that could emerge. It would be nice to have Dave on board, because he just puts the icing on the cake.
What’s the likelihood of that happening?
Today, it’s very remote, but I’m in Norway [on tour]. If I can get in the same room as Dave, I’ll soon work out what the problem is.