Dave Davies is Happy, Healthy and Back on the Open Road
One might call guitarist Dave Davies an under-appreciated legend. Sometimes credited with the earliest use of guitar feedback on record – though many other including Link Wray lay claim to that innovation – as lead guitarist, harmony vocalist and occasional songwriter for The Kinks, Davies was a key part of the impressive body of work created by the quintessentially British group. The Kinks had their share of ups and downs; they fell in and out of critical favor (and commercial success) multiple times, and are notable as one of the few bands founded in the 1960s that were able to make the transition to the MTV era with their dignity intact (no Jagger/Bowie styled “Dancing in the Street” videos for The Kinks, thank goodness).
While The Kinks seemingly called it quits for good in 1996 – though hope springs eternal among their legion of fans – both Dave Davies and his brother Ray (the latter ostensibly the band’s leader) have remained quite busy, and in the news.
That news hasn’t always been about music. Ray made headlines in 2004 when he was shot on a New Orleans street; happily, he recovered. That same year Dave suffered a stroke, and entered a long period of convalescence and physical rehabilitation. While the Davies brothers are famously combative (they established the template for sibling conflict, one employed years later by Oasis’ Liam and Noel Gallagher), in recent years they seem to have mellowed a bit toward each other.
Now at age 70, Dave Davies remains quite active; his current tour brings him to Atlanta’s City Winery on April 29. Ahead of that tour, I spoke with the guitarist about his old band, his solo career, and the tour.
I first saw The Kinks at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre in 1980, not long after One for the Road came out. When I first heard the live album – and then again at the show – I remember that you opened the song “You Really Got Me” with a long and kind of uncharacteristically … for lack of a better word … wanking guitar solo. I remember thinking it was really funny. I was sure it was just you taking the piss out of Van Halen, as they had released a cover of “You Really Got Me” in 1978 as their debut single. Was it a piss-take?
“No, we did it to surprise people. The instrumental version of ‘You Really Got Me’ was just a bit of fun at the beginning of the show.”
You released your first solo record “Death of a Clown” in ‘67, and that came out as a Dave Davies single rather than a Kinks record. Was that because you felt The Kinks were primarily a venue for Ray’s voice, or was there some other reason?
“No, I think the reason that came about was the fact that our managers at the time – Robert Wace and Grenville Collins – thought it would be exciting if I put out a solo record. We did, and we didn’t know what to expect. It became a huge hit worldwide, and The Kinks musicians were all playing on the record, same as they did on Kinks records as well. Robert really wanted to push me; that’s really what was behind that.”
For quite a few years, especially in the early days The Kinks worked with producer Shel Talmy, and you would go on to do a number of productions yourself. What if anything would you say that you learned as far as production skills and techniques from working with Shel?
“I think what Shel was good at … he’s very personable; he is very good with people. And sometimes all that you need is someone who makes you feel good and makes you feel like everything’s going well. It’s like the A&R people inside the music business. I used to like that idea of A&R people who would help with a project. Shel was very supportive of our work.”
Something that I find interesting, especially in light of your studio skills, is that more than half of the records that you’ve released on your own are live albums. Are you one of those people who thinks that studio recordings, no matter how well they’re done, don’t quite capture the essence and energy of a live performance?
“They’re two very different areas, and they’re both interesting in their own right. A studio album often has a kind of introversion to it, but a live show always have that more open feel about it, so each requires a different approach. But I like both; I like recording and I like going up on the platform.”
To my mind you’ve always been pretty solidly on the rock end of the musical spectrum. When The Kinks went in that sort of theatrical direction in the ’70s, did you personally have any misgivings about that?
“Yeah, I did. You know, I wasn’t really that keen on it, but I knew it was an area that Ray needed to explore. So I was getting more involved in getting into the studio together and getting more into engineering and production and that side of things. And then I saw the benefit of that theatrical approach when we went on tour with Preservation . I realized that it gives you a chance to express yourself differently. When you dress up and you take on other characters, it helps, I think.”
The Kinks released more than two dozen studio albums and covered a whole lot of different styles. Looking back on that material, do you have a favorite Kinks album?
“Oh, man … it’s hard. I’ve grown to really appreciate all of our music, whereas at one time I couldn’t bear to hear some of it. But I think every album has its own little important spot in our career. Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)  has always been a personal favorite of mine, but I love them all.”
Did you ever feel held back or boxed in by of people’s expectations of “Oh, The Kinks should sound like this” or “they should sound like that”?
“I think we were lucky because nobody could pigeonhole The Kinks, especially in the ’80s when there were a lot of bands that were making a certain type of sound. We always fought against that; we thought it was important to touch on different genres of music and different styles. Because humor was a big force of creativity to us; it really helped us a lot, and so it came through on so many records.
“And then that eclectic feel came about because we grew up in a big family where everybody liked different things. You know, I had sisters that liked Fats Domino, Hank Williams, Dean Martin and such a collection of different artists. So we kind of grew up with all that eclectic sort of music.”
In the late ’70s and early ’80s there was a British group who – to my way of thinking, anyway – very, very closely followed The Kinks’ style. The Fabulous Poodles … were you familiar with them?
“I’m familiar with their name, but I can’t say that I remember the actual music. I’ll have to Google them.”
The funny thing is, one of their albums was produced by [Who bassist] John Entwistle, of all people. It was very much in a Kinks style. They just added a fiddle; that was the thing they did differently. But the first time I heard them, I thought it was a new Kinks single; this would have been 1978 or so.
“Hmm … the Fabulous Poodles … I’m going to Google them later.”
You suffered a stroke about 13 years ago now, but obviously you worked your way back to health. Was there any point at which you thought “I might not be able to play guitar again,” or was that not the biggest thing on your mind at the time?
“I just had times when I thought that might be the case but I was just concerned with getting as better as I could, getting well. I had a really good rehab team around me – really good people – so that helped. I always felt that I would get back in shape. But it’s hard work.”
Tell me about Open Road, the new album featuring you and your son Russ.
“Me and Russ recorded together before, but those were a bit more experimental and conceptual. We wanted to make an album of rock or pop songs, based on songs rather than experimental music. So we got together about a year or so ago, and we decided to put some of his ideas together with bits of mine. We worked very closely on a variety of ideas, and we’re very happy with it. I’m very excited about it.”
Can you tell me about the first experience that you had when you felt like you had “made it”?
“Heh … that’s a funny question. I think the first time when I was a kid when I heard ‘You Really Got Me’ I had that feeling that maybe we are doing something. That was the first time. I’m just so glad we had such a great career. For myself, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of something … we had our ups and downs, but it’s pretty cool.”
It was some 20 years ago that Ray did that VH1 Storytellers to great acclaim. You and he have both written autobiographies – although X-Ray is only sort of an autobiography – and clearly you and he have different perspectives on things. Have you ever considered doing that kind of thing where you tell stories between songs?
“Yeah, I guess so. But it has to feel natural. Even now when I’m playing live, I don’t want to damage a solo by talking through it, telling the backstory behind it. But it’s something I do try to touch on. Obviously I’ve got a lot of stories to tell. Hopefully I’ll come out with another book; I hope that happens.”
You’ve worked with drummer Dennis Diken both live and in the studio. He’s one of my all time favorite drummers. His name often comes up when I ask people to name their favorite all-around rock drummers. How did you come to initially work with him?
“I knew Dennis from way back. Me and Ray did some shows with The Smithereens, just as impromptu guests, really. I’m very impressed by his style, his attitude and just him in general. He’s a real classy drummer; he knows all the moves and he’s great and instinctual. He’s got to be one of the world’s top-class rock ‘n’ roll drummers, I think; he has to be. It was great when we got together, when he started to tour with me and Mike Mesaros. I love touring with him; it’s great. We have a good time.”
Who else is in the band?
“Well on this tour we’re doing a three-piece. It’s me, Dennis and a longtime friend of mine, a producer and bass player called David Nolte. He produced or co-produced a couple of my albums, and so we’ve worked together a lot. So I’m looking forward to the next couple months or so.”
Ray joined you on stage a little over a year ago. Has there been any talk of you and he doing anything together?
“Yes, after that we got together and we put some ideas together in song. We had three or four ideas that we were going to record, but we didn’t quite get ’round to it. I went into the studio, and he was working on his Americana album. So all that kept us from pursuing it, really. But the songs are still there, so I’ll touch base with him at some point.”
Photo by Al Pereira.