Naive, Yet Revolutionary: Ray Davies On 50 Years Of The Kinks

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The Kinks in 1970. (Courtesy of Sanctuary Records)
The Kinks in 1970. (Courtesy of Sanctuary Records)

The Kinks were part of the '60s British Invasion, but the band had too many diverse sounds and styles to fit comfortably in any one category. The Anthology 1964-1971 box set collects many of The Kinks' songs, along with rare demos, session outtakes and 25 previously unreleased tracks including the band's first hit, "You Really Got Me," which is seen as a predecessor to punk rock.

"My brother Dave and I played records so loud it made the speakers distort," Ray Davies tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross of the 1964 hit, "and we thought it'd be a nice idea to make the guitar sound that distorted, and we cranked up the amplifier and I stuck a knitting needle in it."

Davies joins Gross to talk about the band's "pigheadedness," his older sister's parting gift to him before she died, and his own near-death experience at 13, nearly suffocating during surgery to repair damage from a fall when he was 6.


Interview Highlights

On why "You Really Got Me" is seen as a predecessor of punk

I think if I had been an accomplished songwriter I wouldn't have written "You Really Got Me." There's something naive about it and basic about it. People forget: The important thing in it is the key shift halfway through. A normal blues goes [from] G [to] C to D to C to G, but I took it up to A on the piano, which, then, was quite revolutionary. But if I had really thought and analyzed it, I probably wouldn't have done that. It's a very naive track that — by just persistence, belief and pigheadedness — got me a record that went to No. 1.

On the story behind "Dedicated Follower of Fashion"

At art school I used to draw characters on the street — cartoons and illustrations of people. And I think I took the character studies over into my music. The actual song "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" itself [is] the result of an argument with a fashion designer who came to my house. This fashion designer accused me of wearing flares, like Sonny & Cher type-flares. Mega flares. It was a fashion dispute, and he accused me of being dull because I didn't go into the high society of Carnaby Street, particularly The King's Road, anymore. It was after an argument about style, really; in a sense it was a protest song.

The vocal is very affected, I think, because the key we recorded in — you know, we had no opportunity to re-record stuff because we didn't have the budget, so the key was not my range. So I formed a character for this song. I became the character. That's why it's extreme enunciation: "They seek him here. They seek him there."

On his near-death experience at age 13 and how it led to "Waterloo Sunset"

I seem to remember lots of colors. It's partially because I was suffocating. I was sinking down and there were two horses with no flesh, just muscles and bone colliding. I remember lots of colors as they merged into one another. That's the only way I can describe it. Then I felt terrible pressure on my chest. The doctor was banging my chest. I think everybody experiences these things in different ways. That was my recollection of what happened to me.

I was very lucky. Ironically, the hospital was called St. Thomas' and it was right by Waterloo Bridge, and Waterloo has played a very important part in my life — it's a district in London where they have a big train station. It's in the middle of London, near the Houses of Parliament, a beautiful spot. When you romanticize it, it's a wonderful place to be, seeing people going in different directions. Then I had the experience in the hospital when I was being operated on. And then I wrote a song years later called "Waterloo Sunset."

The experience I had at the hospital was probably almost 10 years before I wrote "Waterloo Sunset," but I remember the moment they wheeled me to the window with my stuff I was plugged into and stood me on the balcony — it's a beautiful balcony at the hospital, it looks over the river. Probably I drew on that experience and put it in the song, "Waterloo Sunset," which is about a man watching two people, a young couple, walking across a bridge to their future.

The couple, to me, represented my sisters who, amazingly, they enjoyed their [lives]. They lived through the Second World War; they remember the blackouts and the bombs and having to hide in shelters in the back garden, going in the subway when there were bombing raids in London. But yet, they loved it. They wouldn't have exchanged that time, amazingly, for any other reason. So the two characters in "Waterloo Sunset" were that generation going to the future and I was the person observing from this window.

On the untimely death of his older sister, Rene

She also gave me my first guitar on my birthday as a present. We played it. It was quite a surreal scene, almost. It was a sunny day. I was born on a mid-summer day, so the 21st of June. And she was told she had severe heart problems, but she loved to dance and the doctors told her if she walked down the road, she'd probably have a heart attack. So she bought me this not very expensive Spanish guitar [and] gave it to me on my birthday. We played a few songs. She played a song on the piano and I tried to play with her and she said she was going out now and I watched my sister go out. It was a sunny afternoon. She walked down the road and my mother stood at the gate and that was it.

The next morning we got a call from the police. She had died dancing in a ballroom in London in the arms of a stranger. They came to break the news to my parents. The birthday was forgotten, but that's irrelevant. It was the whole sequence of events. Coming back from Canada where she'd emigrated [from the U.K.] to die, really, and again, being a source of inspiration. She was an artist herself and seeing her go that way and the impact it had on the family, I didn't realize what a watershed it was. She gave me my first guitar, which was quite a great parting gift. On the piano she played, the day she died — I wrote most of my early hits in that same room. It's where I was born, in that room.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED HOST: You're tuned to Britain's grooviest radio show, Top Of The Pops. And here come those four lads from North London called The Kinks. The song you've heard before, as it's the one that Kink Ray Davies wrote especially for Dave Barry. And it's called, "The Strange Effect."

THE KINKS: (Singing) You've got this strange...

GROSS: That broadcast recording is included in a Kinks five-CD box set, collecting the band's recordings from 1964 to '71. It includes their hits, like "You Really Got Me," "All Day And All Of The Night," "Tired Of Waiting For You," "Who Will Be The Next In Line," "A Well Respected Man," "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion," "Sunny Afternoon," "Lola" and "I'm Not Like Everybody Else," which has recently been used in an Acura commercial. The box also includes lesser-known songs as well as outtakes, demos and remixes. It's a reminder of how great The Kinks were. My guest, Ray Davies, is the group's lead singer and songwriter, who has also recorded solo albums. His brother, Dave, is the band's lead guitarist. The Kinks first came to the U.S. in 1965 and were considered part of the British Invasion. They're now seen as one of the forerunners of punk rock, although the Kinks had too many sounds and styles to comfortably fit in any one category. They drew on rock and roll, folk, blues, British music hall and theater music. Let's start with their first hit. From 1964, this is "You Really Got Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU REALLY GOT ME")

KINKS: (Singing) Girl, you really got me going. You got me so I don't know what I'm doing. Yeah, you really got me now. You got me so I can't sleep at night. Yeah, you really got me now. You got me so I don't know what I'm doing. Oh, yeah, you really got me now. You got me so I can't sleep at night. You really got me. You really got me. You really got to me. See, don't ever set me free. I always want to be by your side. Girl, you really got me now. You got me so I can't sleep at night. Yeah, you really got me now. You got me so I don't know what I'm doing. Oh, yeah, you really got me now. You got me so I can't sleep at night. You really got me. You really got me. You really got me. Oh, no.

GROSS: Ray Davies, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you on the show. And as I was telling you before we started, I've been a Kinks fan, like, since I was 12. But I've never sat down and listened to album after album after album the way I did with this new, five-CD anthology - and what an extraordinary volume of work. And that only takes us to, like, 1971 - the new album. So wow is all I can say. So let me ask you about "You Really Got Me." Is that how you heard the song in your mind when you wrote it?

RAY DAVIES: Well, "You Really Got Me" is a strange one because I went to art school, studying - I was doing a five-year degree course as a painter, a sculptor and filmmaker. And music was my hobby. But at college, we had lots of great bands playing. And it was early days of R&B in Great Britain. I wanted to be a sideman, basically - just play along with other people because I hadn't really written songs. I was more interested in painting. But I played in a few bands. The great Lol Coxhill, who not many people in America know, but he was kind of legendary mentor and inspiration for a lot of musicians in the U.K. - Lol was an improvisational jazz guy. And I was an upstart R&B player. And we sat down jamming one night. It was to a song called "Da Doo Ron Ron," by The Crystals. But Lol was improvising in the most incredible jazz style. He looked at me. And he said, you should do this R&B music and write your own songs because he felt that I could write riffs. And I went home. And I was trying to write country blues. I was very influenced by a lot of American music and - it's a mixture of a Gregorian chant because I sang in the choir at school. If you think of it as, (singing) girl, you really got me going.

So, it's that to a Big Bill Broonzy phrase, which is basically G-7. So it evolves through a mixture of blues and my sort of English, quirky, subliminal influence of being in a choir during Gregorian chant, which definitely comes through if you really think about it.

GROSS: Wow, I never would've thought that "You Really Got Me Going" was inspired by a Gregorian chant. That never, ever...

DAVIES: Well...

GROSS: Would have occurred to me.

DAVIES: You know, being - what was I? - 16, 17 at the time, you experiment at that age. And I kind of - then the riff came to me (humming) da da da da da. And I played it to sort of a country riff, to begin with. Then I thought it would be good to just have power, of course. I also then went to the piano to write the rest of the song. And the piano changed the dynamic a little bit.

GROSS: But there's something so raw about the track. A lot of people see it as the kind of predecessor of punk. What did you hear...

DAVIES: Well, that...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

DAVIES: Well, that came about because we - at home, we had a record player the family played records on. My brother Dave and I played records so loud, it made the speakers distort. And we thought it would be a nice idea to make the guitar sound that distorted. And we cranked up the amplifier. And I stuck a knitting needle in it. And I think legend has it that Dave tried it with a razor blade, although I wasn't present. But eventually, we used that as a distorted little preamp and plugged it into a regular amp. That gave it what is a very distinctive sound on the record.

GROSS: What did you want for yourself back then, in 1964? Did you want a life in music? You saw yourself as an art student, not necessarily as a musician.

DAVIES: Yeah, well, when you're 16, 17 years old, you're not sure what you want. I still don't know what I am and what I want. Again, it was probably the third or fourth song I had ever written. I wrote a couple of bad pop songs. The very first song I wrote was a country and western song. It was more for someone like Roy Rogers, you know, Gene Autry.

GROSS: Oh, Eugene Autrey. I love Gene Autry. (Laughter).

DAVIES: He's great.

GROSS: Yeah, he's great. I know. I know. Oh, you wouldn't sing a few bars of that would you?

DAVIES: I can't remember it. Something to do with rocky skies above and the worst rhyming couplet ever, just made for love.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: You know, I never thought - it wasn't until "You Really Got Me" became a number one record in most of Europe that people actually thought that I knew what I was doing. And that's quite scary because like I said, I wanted to be an artist. So I had to learn how to write songs. I think if I had been an accomplished songwriter, I wouldn't have written "You Really Got Me." There's something naive about it and basic about it. People forget the important thing in it is the key shift halfway through.

GROSS: Right.

DAVIES: A normal blues goes through the track of G, C, to D, to C, to G. We took - I took it up to A on the piano, which is quite - well, then, was quite revolutionary, took it up one step. So - but if I had really thought and analyzed it, I probably wouldn't have done that. So it's a very naive track that by just persistence and belief and pigheadedness, got me through a record that went to number one.

GROSS: My guest is Ray Davies, the lead singer and songwriter of The Kinks. Let's hear another early track from the new box set, "The Kinks: The Anthology 1964-1971." This is "Stop Your Sobbing," recorded in 1964. This was later covered by The Pretenders.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP YOUR SOBBING")

KINKS: (Singing) It is time for you to stop all of your sobbin'. Yes, it's time for you to stop all of your sobbin'. There's one thing you've got to do to make me still want you. You've got to stop your sobbing now. Yeah. Stop it. Stop it. You've got to stop your sobbing now. It is time for you to laugh instead of cry. Yes, it's time for you to laugh, so keep on trying. Ooh. There's one thing you've got to do to make me still want you. You've got to stop sobbing now. Yeah.

GROSS: That's The Kinks, recorded in 1964. And it's called "Stop Your Sobbing." And it reminds me a little of the Beatles in the harmonies. But it heads into a more, you know - it's like a very Kinks record but with Beatles-ish harmonies. Do you think of the Beatles as having influenced the song?

DAVIES: I think the distinctive thing about the later Kinks music is that Dave, my brother, had a very high voice. And he could sing an octave above me, which was - gave it quite unique - but you're talking about simple, two or three-part harmonies. You don't have to be coming from Liverpool to know how to do that. It's not a typical Kinks-sounding harmony part. But it's a - it has a melodic feel to it. But listening to the rhythm track, it was very rooted in what we thought was American soul music from the South - the chink chink. It was nice hearing it. And listening to the reverb on the focal, it's quite...

GROSS: It's really a great track.

DAVIES: Oh, it's a great track.

GROSS: Yeah. So let's talk a little bit about coming to America to tour. You were still in your teens?

DAVIES: Yeah. In my final year as a teen.

GROSS: OK. And so what was it like to come to America and be seen us part of this, like, British invasion? Like, suddenly you were British, as opposed to just British. Do you know what I mean? (Laughter). It was, like, a big deal to be British at that time in America.

DAVIES: I think listening to "Stop Your Sobbing," if it had been, say, the Beatles or another Merseybeat band, it would be more well-produced, more refined. And there was a raw edge to The Kinks. And I think, you know, you're talking America, '65, still quite conservative in most places. And I think The Kinks were just the thin end of the wedge, you know? Just couldn't really - we didn't have a publicity machine that could deal with our idiosyncratic ways. And my brother was 17 and did what 17-year-old people do. And I was kind of - I'd just got married. My first daughter had been born, I think, two weeks before I went on tour. Our managers were in dispute. Our royalties were frozen because of a dispute with the publishing company. And as a result, royalties were frozen. So it was not a great time to embark on this immense continent, which is an inspiration for lots of my music - in fact, the reason I became a musician.

GROSS: Right.

DAVIES: And it was - it ended up in a union ban. I think I refer it, a mixture of bad management, bad luck and bad behavior resulted in a union ban. We couldn't work in America for nearly four years.

GROSS: Wow. So you were married by the time you came to America. I remember, you know, when John Lennon was married to Cynthia early in the life of the Beatles, he was told not to let on. And she had to kind of, like, trail on back of the band because, you know, the Beatles management was afraid that girls wouldn't see John as this, like, romantic object of fantasy if they knew he was married. Did anybody tell you to hide the fact that you were married and a father?

DAVIES: No because we were The Kinks, you know? We didn't really - again, I said, we - our publicity the machine was not well-oiled like the Beatles. We didn't have any, you know, agenda. We were what we were. You know, the Beatles to us were establishment figures and were very well respected for their songwriting and records. And they broke the mold of pop music from the U.K. But we didn't really care about that. And that's the thing about The Kinks. I think the reason we endured when we came back from the three-and-a-half-year ban, we just played clubs. Our last gig in America, I think, before the ban was Hollywood Bowl and a big festival in Seattle playing in front of, like, 20,000 people. When we came back, we played clubs that held 200. But it was just an intrepid desire and pigheadedness that kept us going. And by this time, I've been writing songs for two or three years. And I was actually beginning to like it. So I had a lot I wanted to write about.

GROSS: My guest is Ray Davies, the lead singer and songwriter of The Kinks. The new, five-CD Kinks box set will be released in December. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Ray Davies, the lead singer and songwriter of The Kinks. A new five-CD box set will be released in December in celebration of the 50th anniversary of their first recording.

What about some of the music you grew up with? You had, what, eight siblings? I think your father played banjo?

Do I have that right?

DAVIES: Yeah, I had six sisters much older than I. The youngest nearest in age to me is Gwen and Gwen is, I think, seven years older than I am. So it was a generation gap almost between my brother and our sisters and they - of course we were exposed to music of their era, big band music, a lot of jazz, a lot of '50s bebop and early rock 'n' roll that we wouldn't have been - had found accessible to us without them and they were incredible dancers. They used to go dancing. The dance hall was called the Palais and I wrote a musical about seven years ago called "Come Dancing" about my sisters and it was - we actually made a record called "Come Dancing," as well. So they're a very big influence and we used to watch them dance with their boyfriends, look through the keyhole when we shouldn't be looking. They're a vital part of our musical education.

Dad was into Dixieland. In many respects, he was sort of an early bluesman in sort of many ways. He moved brilliantly. The dance halls' start of dancing, as you probably know, heard about, was very rigid and formulaic, but Dad's dancing was very loose, almost like he was from Louisiana or somewhere.

And so it was an oddball family. We always had a sing-song every weekend. My parents encouraged the girls to bring back their boyfriends and play records and play the piano. All my sisters played the piano, they had piano lessons.

GROSS: So when you started recording, you didn't think of yourself as a songwriter or necessarily as a singer? Did you think of yourself as having a good voice?

DAVIES: No. I've got one of the most probably unorganized voices imaginable.

GROSS: What does unorganized mean?

DAVIES: I'm not conventional in the studio. I didn't think I was a singer. I always thought my brother was a singer because he had a good look and - that's Dave - had a good look and he could reach the notes and sing the Gene Vincent part, some "Be-Bop-A-Lula" and the Eddie Cochran parts. There was an energy in Eddie Cochran's playing and singing that Dave really caught well, but I was just sort of the guy that played guitar and it wasn't until we made our first recording sessions that people said - I think they felt I could enunciate better. So I don't know, I fell into singing by accident.

GROSS: I want to play another track. This is another famous "Kinks" track and "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion"

and I want to play this because it has, you know, unlike "You Really Got Me" and some of the early hits, which are very proto-punk, this is more kind of like, dance hall with like, a two quarter-beat like an oom-pah, oom-pah kind of beat to it and I'd like you to talk about the musical influences behind the song and also what you were thinking about when you wrote the lyric.

DAVIES: After "You Really Got Me," people thought I knew what I was doing and I pretended to know what I was doing, and I made "All Day And All Of The Night" and other rock songs. At art school I used to draw characters on the street, cartoons and illustrations of people and I think I took character studies over into my music. The actual song "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion" itself was inspired more as a result of an argument with a fashion designer who came to my house. You know, because I got married when I was 20 I think, I was a home suburbanite while my brother and the rest of the band went to London played around in clubs - and this fashion designer accused me of wearing flares when they were not.

GROSS: You mean like, bellbottoms?

DAVIES: Yeah, like, Sonny-and-Cher-type flares.

GROSS: Right, OK.

DAVIES: Mega flares.

GROSS: OK.

DAVIES: And it was a fashion dispute and he accused me of being dull because I didn't go into high society of Carnaby Street and particularly the King's Road anymore, and it was after an argument about style really, in a sense it was a protest song and the vocal is very affected I think because the key we recorded in, you know, we had no opportunity to re-record stuff because we didn't have the budget. So the key was not my range so I formed a character for the song. I became the character and that's why it's extreme annunciation - they seek him here, they seek him there. And but basically it's a good rock track. There is an oom-pah feel, you're right. Maybe it's the Lithuanian influence. I don't know.

GROSS: Lithuanian influence?

DAVIES: My first wife was a Lithuanian refugee, which is not different from Polish music and oom-pah music. Also the oom-pah feel is very British, very English. At school I did English country dancing and they're all traditional songs and dance around the maypole and all that stuff and I think there's an element of English culture in the song. It has an oom-pah feel to it which is pure folk, really.

GROSS: Ray Davies will be back in the second half of the show. Let's hear the song we've been talking about, "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion," but we'll hear an outtake from a recording session in 1966. It's included in the new Kinks five-CD box set that will come out in December. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEDICATED FOLLOWER OF FASHION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through megaphone) Follow-up session one.

KINKS: (Playing guitar).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Why don't you wait 'til we start the second verse? Try that. Just try that. One, two, one, two, three, four.

KINKS: (Playing guitar).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Speed it up.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through megaphone) Actually, you started out slower than you have been.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You know, I think it sounds better with it slow.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Through megaphone) Well, it was swinging before, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: One, two, one, two, three, four.

KINKS: (Playing guitar).

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Ray Davies, the lead singer and songwriter of The Kinks -one of the most important bands to come out of the British invasion era of the '60s. Davies was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame this year. The Kinks' first hit, "You Really Got Me," was released in 1964. In celebration of the band's 50th anniversary, a new five-CD box set will be released in December. It includes outtakes, demos and remixes.

I want to play another track that's included on this. And it's a demo called "I Go To Sleep." It's from 1965. And it's Ray Davies singing and at the piano. It's a demo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GO TO SLEEP")

KINKS: (Singing) When I look up from my pillow, I dream you are there with me. Though you are far away I know you'll always be near to me. I go to sleep, sleep and imagine that you're there with me. I go to sleep, sleep and imagine that you're there with me. I look around me and feel you are ever so close to me.

GROSS: That was Ray Davies singing and at the piano a song that he wrote called "I Go To Sleep." It was recorded in 1965. And it's featured on the new Kinks anthology, which is a five-album collection. That's really a terrific song and really interesting demo. And I think that piano playing is really interesting on it, too. So would you tell us a little bit about writing that song, which, again, is something that doesn't sound like what The Kinks were best known for in the '60s.

DAVIES: Yes, that song is exploration - learning how to do it. The piano playing is very basic. You know, mostly great song. I was a big friend of a man called Mort Shuman, who wrote with Doc Pomus lots of hits for the Drifters. And he said a lot of great writers aren't good piano players, which helps the writing. And you're too virtuoso. You make the song too overwhelming complex. So that's the joy of listening to demos. I wish - I've got a whole slew of demos in various boxes. It shows the process - the unexplored possibilities. And it allows our listeners to imagine what could be better, where I can be implemented. But it shows a process. It shows a writer trying to explore new territory in this wonderful art form that's being - not thrust upon me, but put in my direction. And it's not a love - I don't think it mentions love in it. That was another thing with The Kinks. Think back to the early songs, and even past "You Really Got Me," "All Day And All The Night." The word love never occurs.

GROSS: But it's about obsession with a girl. I mean, they both are.

DAVIES: They are, yes. But "I Go To Sleep" is about someone on a journey and missing somebody. And sleep has always been a big issue in my life because I'm a very bad sleeper even since I was a baby. I was born just postwar. And there were still what they call doodle bugs being sent from Germany to bomb England. So it was the tail-end of the Second World War, 1945. So - and apparently, I was a really bad sleeper. And so sleep is a constant recurring theme in my music.

GROSS: Do you have insomnia?

DAVIES: (Singing) Insomnia. Yes. I don't know what causes it. I won't bore the audience with all my insomnia problems, but it's an issue I have since childhood. I really admire and am jealous of people who just fall asleep. And that's a real talent or a blessing.

GROSS: Definitely. It's a gift. Yeah. Definitely a gift.

DAVIES: Yeah.

GROSS: So another track I want to play that's included on the new anthology, and it's "Dead End Street." And this is a good example of just kind of, like, a working-class reality songs about, you know, like, this song is about people in a dead-end street, about people who have no chance to emigrate and who are stuck. Does this relate to the neighborhood you grew up in at all?

DAVIES: "Dead End Street" came about - we had this massive hit called "Sunny Afternoon." And everyone said, oh, it's great. England had just won the World Cup - world soccer cup at the same time "Sunny Afternoon" was a hit. And everything seemed centered. But I didn't feel that. Being kind of - I'm not morbid, but I'm a realist to the extreme sometimes. I saw - it was inspired by a leak in the pipe I had. Winter was coming on. And I realized all was not good in Swinging London. It was a time when we devalued our currency. We had terrible immigration issues. And culture was changing in England because England went through a tremendous - like so many places did after the Second World War - of austerity. And the '60s were meant to be the revival the joy. But I was not of that belief. I think the '60s were, in many respects, diverged in Swinging London and all of that. So I wanted to write a follow-up to "Sunny Afternoon," which it was a celebration really of the time. And "Dead End Street," I think it came out in '67 or '66. It was almost written like a Dixieland song about hard times and depression - financial depression. And all is not well. But we are strictly second-class, and we don't understand. Because in the '60s - and the revolution occurred with working-class culture prior to that - everyone seemed to be classless. But for some reason, I felt I knew - instinctively knew - that it was not strictly speaking that way. So how do you make a pop song out of that? We managed to do it. We had an out-chorus and some interesting chord changes. And I think it exemplified a period in England where people were thinking, hang on a minute, what's really happening here?

GROSS: So this is "Dead End Street," 1966, The Kinks. And it's included on the new five-volume Kinks anthology.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD END STREET")

KINKS: (Singing) There's a crack up in the ceiling. And the kitchen sink is leaking. Out of work and got no money. A Sunday joint of bread and honey. What are we living for? Two-roomed apartment on the second floor. No money coming in. The rent collector's not trying to get in. We are strictly second-class. And we don't understand. Dead end. We should be on Dead End Street. Dead end. People are living on Dead End Street. Dead end. Going die on Dead End Street. Dead End Street. Yeah. Dead End Street. Yeah. On a cold and frosty morning, wipe my eyes and stop yawning.

GROSS: That's The Kinks, recorded in 1966 - "Dead End Street." It's included on the new anthology "The Kinks: The Anthology 1964 to 1971." It's a five-album set. And my guest is Ray Davies, the lead songwriter and singer of The Kinks who, of course, also records solo albums. So I have to say that really sounds great, and it sounds really raw, too. I love the - how all the backup vocals are really just, like, shouting in the background (Laughter).

DAVIES: The interesting thing about the record, though, is that the ending needed a - I wanted something other than a guitar solo. I wanted to be in traditional jazz. And we went - there was a pub. It recorded at Pye Studios, which is in London - the center of London. We went to the local pub and saw a musician who had just been on a session who played trombone. We dragged him and just asked him to come and sit and play on it. We just grabbed him from a bar, put the solo on the end, and we mixed the record that night. So it's all chance. But I love things like that when they happen.

GROSS: My guest is Ray Davies, the lead singer and songwriter of The Kinks. The new five-CD Kinks box set will be released in December. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Ray Davies, the lead singer and songwriter of The Kinks. A new five-CD box set will be released in December in celebration of the 50th anniversary of their first recording.

You were hospitalized as a child and ended up having to have an emergency tracheotomy when you were 7, I think it was. Is that right?

DAVIES: No. I - let's back up a bit.

GROSS: Yes, let's.

DAVIES: I had an accident when I fell off a wall. I was trying to fly. I didn't realize the wall was, like, 12 feet high. And I fell and broke my jaw and busted my nose and lost lots of teeth when I was about 6 - 5 or 6. And I had to have a restorative operation just to re-engage my bite, and my jaw didn't set properly. So they put me in a hospital. I had a tracheotomy because of my breathing and had a near-death experience because of it - bad tracheotomy.

GROSS: What do you remember from the...

DAVIES: No, but it's...

GROSS: ...Near-death experience?

DAVIES: Oh, do you really want - need to know that?

GROSS: I don't need to know that, but if you wanted to share it, I would be interested in knowing it.

DAVIES: I think it's - I seem to remember lots of colors. It's partially because I was suffocating. I was sinking down and had - there were two horses with no flesh - just muscle and bone colliding. I remember lots of colors as they merged into one another. That's the only way I can describe it. And I felt terrible pressure on my chest. The doctor was banging my chest so - I think everybody experiences these things in different ways. That was my recollection of what happened to me. I was very lucky.

And ironically, the hospital was called St. Thomas'. And it was right by Waterloo Bridge. And Waterloo has played a very important part in my life. It's a district in London where they have a big train station. It's in the middle of London near the houses of parliament. It's a beautiful spot. You know, when you romanticize it, it's a wonderful place to be - seeing people going in different directions. Then I had the experience in the hospital when I was being operated on.

And then I wrote a song years later called "Waterloo Sunset." To me, it's - I think most people have this in their lives. To me, it's a blessed spot. You know, as a moment, it's a truthful spot where I can get centered. And it's by the River Thames. And it's near Waterloo.

GROSS: So in the song, the character is basically gazing out the window looking at other people - looking at the sunset. Was that inspired by when you were in the hospital, and you had to look...

DAVIES: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Out the window, and you couldn't go out?

DAVIES: Well, that's the way I think a lot of writers work, particularly me as a songwriter. The experience I had at the hospital was probably almost 10 years before I wrote "Waterloo Sunset." But I remembered the moment of looking out. They wheeled me to the window with my stuff I was plugged into and stood me on the balcony - this beautiful balcony at the hospital - looks over the river. Probably, I drew on that experience and put it in the song "Waterloo Sunset," which is about a man watching two people - a young couple walking across the bridge to their future. And the couple, to me, represented my sisters who amazingly - they enjoyed their life. They lived through the Second World War. They remember the blackouts and the bombs and having to hide in shelters in the back garden - going in the subway when there were bombing raids in London. And - but yeah. They loved it. They wouldn't have exchanged that time - amazingly - wouldn't have exchanged that for any other reason.

So the two characters in "Waterloo Sunset" were that generation going to the future. And I was a person observing from this window. And probably, I thought of that experience years earlier when I stood at the window in the hospital. But that's the way, I think, a lot of writers work. You know, I've got a saying, my subconscious is smarter than I am. I write - I have drawn many emotions and memories from my past and present. And sometimes as in "Waterloo Sunset," it's about the future - so all elements are there. And that's, I think, the magical thing you can do with song.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Waterloo Sunset." This is The Kinks and this track is included on the new Kinks anthology.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATERLOO SUNSET")

KINKS: (Singing) But I don't, need no friends. As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise. Every day I look at the world from my window. But chilly, chilly is the evening time, Waterloo sunset's fine...

GROSS: That was "Waterloo Sunset" written by my guest Ray Davies, who also sings lead on that. It's included on the new Kinks anthology which covers the years 1964 to 1971. You know, we were talking about how you were in the hospital when you were, how old - 7?

DAVIES: No. I had the accident when I was 6 - between 6 and 7. And they did the operation when I was 13 or 14.

GROSS: Oh. I see. I see. OK.

DAVIES: It was a repair job. (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: So that year that you had the accident and you were hospitalized, I think that was the same year that your older - one of your older sisters died of a heart condition.

DAVIES: Yeah, she died on my 13th birthday. So it's around that time. Yeah.

GROSS: Did that whole, you know, confluence of things - you being really sick and nearly dying and then your sister actually dying - make you feel very vulnerable or make you afraid of or at least reflective about death?

DAVIES: When you're 13 years old - as it was my birthday - also she gave me my first guitar on my birthday as a present. We played it. It was quite a surreal scene almost. It was a sunny day. I was born mid-summer day, so the 21 of June. And she was told she had severe heart problems, but she loved to dance. And the doctors told her, she walked down the road, she would probably have a heart attack. So she bought me this not-very-expensive Spanish guitar and gave it to me on my birthday. And she - we played a few songs. She played a song on the piano. And I tried to play with her. And she said she was going out now. And I would watch my sister go out.

It was a sunny afternoon. And she walked down the road, and my mother stood at the gate. And that was it. And the next morning, we got a call from the police. She'd been - she had died dancing at the ballroom in London in the arms of a stranger. And they came to break the news to my parents. So it was - the birthday was forgotten, but that's irrelevant. Seeing - it was the whole sequence of events - her coming back from Canada where she had emigrated to die really. And again, being a sort of inspiration being - she was an artist herself and seeing her go that way and the impact it had on the family. So I think anyone - teenager experiences, that situation has emotions attached to it doesn't even realize what a watershed it was. She gave me my first guitar, which was quite a great parting gift. On the piano she played the day she died, I wrote most of my early hits in that same room. It's the front room. The front room is where we had the parties, where the girls brought their boyfriends home and their husbands. It's where I was born in that room. My brother was born in that room 'cause in that - from our generation, people were born at home more. And my sister's parting gift was given to me in that room. So it's all very symbolic which I think is quite beautiful, really.

GROSS: My guest is Ray Davies, the lead singer and songwriter of The Kinks. The new five-CD Kinks box set will be released in December. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Ray Davies, the lead singer and songwriter of The Kinks. A new five-CD box set will be released in December in celebration of the 50th anniversary of their first recording. So a Kinks song that a lot of people have been hearing lately is "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" because it's used on an Acura commercial - on a TV commercial.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

GROSS: And I'm wondering...

DAVIES: Really?

GROSS: Oh, you don't know?

DAVIES: I had no idea. I mean, that's great. You know the great thing about it if it brings music to a new audience, it's fine. I love that song. And I still do it in my show - my sold-out shows.

GROSS: Oh, I love that song, too (Laughter). Yeah, and you wrote it (Laughter).

DAVIES: Yes. I'm proud to have written it. Sometimes I don't write the songs, the songs write me. But it was written - curiously enough, it was written for my brother to sing. And it's a song about being angry. And I cast the song for him. I do that sometimes . Now, I've said this before - this analogy. Mick Jagger, to his credit, has always - you know what you're getting is "Jumpin' Jack Flash" all the time and his wonderful character. With me, my impact it has on The Kinks, I'm a different character sometimes when I sing songs. The man who sings "All Day And All The Night" is it really the person who sings "Waterloo Sunset" and "Days?" So but with - - I'm not like everybody else. I noticed a rebellious streak in my brother that was beyond my own. Let's put it politely. And I wrote a song about anger for him to sing. And he sings, I think, on the original Kinks recording.

GROSS: So here's "I'm Not Like Everybody Else," recorded in 1966. It's from the soon-to-be-released box set "The Kinks: The Anthology 1964 - 1971."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M NOT LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE")

KINKS: (Singing) I won't take all that they hand me down. And make out a smile though I wear a frown. And I'm not going to take it all lying down 'cause once I get started, I go to town. 'Cause I'm not like everybody else. I'm not like everybody else. I'm not like everybody else. I'm not like everybody else. And I don't want to ball about like everybody else. And I don't want to live my life like everybody else. And I won't say that I feel fine like everybody else. 'Cause I'm not like everybody else. I'm not like everybody else. Darling, you know that I love you true...

GROSS: That's The Kinks, recorded in 1966, from the new Kinks box set. My guest is the bandleader singer and songwriter Ray Davies. I want to play one more recording, and this is not something you would have expected from the guy who wrote "All Day And All Of The Night" (Laughter). Like you say, you have so many different personalities in your songs and so many different styles. This is almost Kurt Vile-ish. It sounds like theater music. And it's from an album that's not included on the new anthology. It's an album called "Muswell Hillbillies." And the song is called "Alcohol." And there's, like, there's horns and an accordion, I think, is on this, too. Would you talk just a little bit about this song? It's really terrific.

DAVIES: As I said in this interview earlier, my father was influenced by Dixieland and the Music Hall. And I think before he died, he took me - when I was a child, he took me to see one of the last musicals. And it instilled some sort of understanding of the culture he came from. "Alcohol," though was written in the tradition of trad jazz - Dixieland jazz. And we had a horn section at the time. It was a story about (inaudible) used to be a winner. And I wanted it to be - it's almost like a religious anthem, you know, the perils of drink. You know, get behind me, Satan. And it's a very apocalyptic in its origins. And the "Muswell" album itself was - there was a lot of that language - sonic language. The greatest compliment I ever had is years after "Alcohol" came out, we toured in America. And we played in New Orleans. And our trombone player said - he said, you won't believe this. I just came from a club, and they were playing "Alcohol." And to me, that was the ultimate accolade - hearing the music that inspired me to write the song in England a few years before finally performed in New Orleans by a trad bar band. Life is wonderful when that happens.

GROSS: Thank you so much for doing this interview. It's really been a pleasure to talk with you and to listen to so many of your recordings, which are so terrific. Thank you again.

DAVIES: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Ray Davies is the lead singer and songwriter of The Kinks. The new five-CD collection "The Kinks: The Anthology 1964 - 1971" will be released in December.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALCOHOL")

KINKS: (Singing) Here's a story about a sinner. He used to be a winner who enjoyed a life of prominence and position. But the pressures at the office and his socialite engagements and his selfish wife's fanatical ambition, it turned him to the booze, and he got mixed up with a floozy. And she led him to a life of indecision. The floozy made him spend his dole. She left him lying on Skid Row - a drunken lag in some Salvation Army Mission. It's such a shame. Oh, demon alcohol, sad memories I can't recall. Who thought I would say damn it all and blow it all. Oh, demon alcohol...

GROSS: In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we want to thank you for listening to our show. And you know how I say thank you at the end of every interview and then the guests usually thanks me back? We've put together a short collection of some of the most surprising - by which I think I mean awkward or funny - end-of-interview thank yous. You can hear it on SoundCloud at soundcloud.com/freshair. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a happy Thanksgiving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.