Dave Davies: Astral Warrior and Proto Punk on ‘Open Road’

Founding member of legendary band the Kinks still gaining steam at 70

Dave and Russ Davies. Martin Davies

Dave Davies is delicate and visceral, an astral explorer and a proto punk. He is a spiritual warrior and a gentle and wise man.

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He is also one of rock n’ roll’s great living treasures.

Among so many other things, when he was barely 16 he translated Bo Diddley and Eddie Cochran’s barre-chord crank into a stuttering garbage-barge full of diamonds, virtually discovering the modern guitar riff. Dave Davies and his talented and complicated older brother, Ray, went on to help define the idea of British Rock in the 1960s and forever after, and Dave created his own fierce, witty and heart-baring persona within the Kinks.

David Russell Gordon Davies turned 70 this year. After a profound stroke in 2004, he battled back to health, continued his investigations into the magic of the universe and the highways of the soul, and released music that underlined what an utterly unique voice he is, both within and without the extraordinary band that bought him fame. And he still sings, speaks and performs like music is a map of the soul, and a pathway to the mysteries of the stars.

Like a handful of older artists—Scott Walker, Hans Joachim Roedelius, Colin Newman and occasionally Paul McCartney—Dave Davies is always moving forward, seeking challenges, chasing revelation and reinvention, and investigating the potentialities of each new recording project. And like certain veteran musicians (Ian Hunter, and again, Colin Newman spring to mind), when you unpack each new album you have to be prepared that it might contain the song, a composition or a recording that may be as good as anything they’ve ever done.

I strongly suggest listening to three Dave Davies’ albums from the current decade: The very recently released Open Road (done in collaboration with Dave’s son, Russ Davies) is a deep wisp of arpeggios, emotions, intricacy and simplicity, joy and questions; it has a blend of power and intimacy that resembles the rawness of John Lennon mixed with the hushed heart-shiver of Nick Drake or Alex Chilton. If you haven’t followed Dave’s solo work with any regularity, Open Road is a terrific place to start, revealing a singer and songwriter willing to build castles out of tightropes and hope, and whose very power is his vulnerability.

2014’s Rippin’ Up Time is soulful and Kinks-ish, full of the rootsy, raunchy spirit of Dave’s most famous riffs mixed with something very sensitive and very British. To be honest, it’s the album I wish Ray Davies would make. Like Open Road, there are moments when the album seems like it’s going to fall to pieces, yet Dave Davies’ continually takes the elements of classic British rock and uses them to self-investigating, even self-eviscerating ends.

The final essential album Dave Davies made in the last decade was 2010’s The Aschere Project, also done in collaboration with his son Russ. This was a wholly unexpected voyage into emotive ambience and space age landscapes, often accompanied by absolutely gorgeous and affecting melodies, the vocals frequently altered by technology. This album is a little known treasure, taking Dave’s heart-on-sleeve melodic and lyrical sensibility and setting it in a planetarium. “Love Will Change” (off of The Aschere Project) is one of Dave’s most beautiful recordings, even if it sounds like nothing he has made before or since.

Listen, he’s Dave Davies. He was the founding member of The Beatles of Outsiders, the Kinks. A generation of disenfranchised, effeminate, geeky, over-sensitive, proto-metallic, Anglophilic people turned to this band in order to fill the long afternoons when we knew cheerleader and quarterback dreams were not our speed. The Kinks defined the raucous collapsing buildings and bruised hearts of British rock perhaps better than any other band; but unlike the other classic statues and legends of British rock, who are remote and godlike, the Kinks are gloriously flawed, full of strange corners of their catalog still to be celebrated, still chasing their art and their hearts instead of reunion paydays.

In 2017, Dave is an elfin-eyed elder. He is wise and wide-minded, and there’s an almost Yoda-like quality to him. He has a speaking voice like tea pouring into a beautiful, slightly imperfect china cup, and sometimes you have to lean in and listen very closely to his words, which often have great spaces between them, and you attend to these words like you’re piloting a satellite through the planets; you sense he will give away everything he knows, everything he suspects, and everything he has ever experienced. He is so generous with his mind.

Observer: I keep on thinking of “Trust Your Heart,” off of the Misfits album. That’s one of those songs that has followed me my whole life—it just tears through you. I think it’s emblematic of the idea that you are the emotional heart of the Kinks’ music.

DD: I started to feel that in later years. Passion was always really important to me. I found early on that if it didn’t feel right, it wasn’t right. I’ve always been very governed by what I feel. Sometimes you can vanish off the face of the planet seeking some sort of perfection that, I think, does not exist. So you get to a point, emotionally, where you feel inspired, and that’s it —that’s it.  

I have spent some time analyzing the Kinks music, and I noticed this: Outside of writing within the voice of a character —which, of course, he did a lot—after 1965, Ray Davies didn’t write a single true first person love song. I thought to myself, this is terribly interesting: Ray doesn’t confess; he describes. You, however, confess.

There’s a lot of truth in that. Ray finds it easier to write about someone else’s problems then to confront his own. We all have something different to learn from—and about—life, and our environment, and our family. We all have different points of view, and different ideas about how to work through things, and I think Ray has often struggled with confronting himself, whereas I have always found it to be a release and a relief to find out and explore what is really going on. I’ve never been shy about confronting things about myself that were problems to me. Getting out your emotions, tears, these are all tools that help us learn. Ray tends to use characters to come to terms with how he feels about himself. Which is, like, acting! It’s what actors do.

In your music—especially in the last 10 or 15 years or so—you seem to be engaging in a real and active quest to investigate who you are and what more you can find out about yourself.

I think that’s because that’s the most comfortable place for me to be. I feel safe there. It’s not everyone’s idea of a safe place, but it’s definitely mine. I think coming into a big family, as a little boy, I’d see someone really upset, I’d see my auntie crying, and I’d always be the one who was trying to uplift people.

So did you think of yourself as an empath? As someone who had to help other people reach and understand their emotions, their feelings?  

I’ve always been like that. As a kid, even five or six, I was always concerned over how so-and-so was doing, or worried if my brother had sorted a problem out he was going through. My mother used to say, ‘David, you were born old.’ And I always got on really well with old people! And I realized I had a sensitivity to things—that’s kind of a bit of a curse, a curse and a blessing, to be able to share people’s feelings. At the same time, it can drag you down as well. We can’t fix everyone we want to fix. It’s not always a good idea to go there. If you’re strong enough I think you should take on that responsibility, though.

I get the sense that you actively consider music a healing place.

That’s what I’d like to think. With the right thought and feeling, maybe we can heal others. There’s this character in a Star Trek film (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), he says he’s a healer, ‘I can heal your pain, I can take it away,’ and Dr. McCoy falls for it, and of course Spock is very cynical about the whole thing, but he says to Captain Kirk, ‘Let me take your pain!’ And Kirk says ‘I need my pain!’ (laughs). And that struck a chord with me. We have to accept our pain. You can’t wave a magic wand and make people’s misery and torment and anger go away. It’s a process, and one we all have to work on. The way we interact with each other, as people, is the way forwards. I do believe in divine ideas and the cosmic and the one-ness of the universe and all that, but we are on earth, we have to keep our feet on earth, and I think we have to use whatever tools we can muster within ourselves to help and support people. Sometimes, a smile at the right time with good intent can do wonders. To me, music has always been about healing, certainly, because even science has proved that everything is energy. I come from this place—some would call it mystical, or as my mum would call it, common sense. What we think can actually change our environment. We don’t really know, science doesn’t really know, but if you think it can, why not try it?

Dave Davies. Al Pereira

One of the first lyrics on the new album is, “In my heart I am just a boy” and in a number of places you seem to be singing, or writing, from a child’s perspective.

Russ (Davies) is responsible for a lot of that, too. It’s a true collaboration. What helped me was one thing he wrote, on the very first track that opens the album, “Path Is Long.” Before we had even half finished the song—we were still trying to figure out where we were going with it, the song and the whole project—he wrote a line that goes, ‘You and I, we need to trust.’ And that hit me. That’s the underlying energy of the album; not the theme, but the energy.

But ‘In my heart I am just a boy,’ that’s a thing I’ve always had. I think it’s important for us, somehow, to hold on to some kind of innocence. I think we should all give the innocent part of us a chance to explore. In my heart of hearts, I think it’s how we learn. I’ve always tried to hold on to that innocence. Innocence is not the same as naiveté. It’s wonder! When I was ill, years ago—2004—when I got that stroke I had—I realized that none of us are in control of anything (laughs). One minute you’re out to conquer the world, the next minute you’re flat on your back. I think that was important, to realize that we’re at the mercy of the universe…and I think the universe is a compassionate universe.

Did your stroke lead you to a place where you were willing to take more creative chances?

It’s quite possible. When I was ill, one of the first things that hit my consciousness was the fact that everybody seemed connected. They were all on the same set. The same film set. They had done rehearsal, now they were filming. This was it. That’s it. It was like I had seen all these people before, I recognized them, and I felt a link to everybody involved in this ‘film’—it was extraordinary. The past overlapped with the present, and the future crept in as well.

But even before that, I was always interested in alternative ideas. As a young man, when my first son Martin was born, the first thing I did was study astrology and the Tarot. I wanted to find out, who is this baby going to be? Why do people do the things they do? Astrology gave me a lot of ideas about the world, about people, how people interact or don’t interact. I found it really helpful. I was really deeply interested in the Tarot, because, all these symbols—it’s a language, and it’s a language to me that is much more important than our verbal language. I think we need to find out how to tap these other languages. The human body is ancient. When I was in hospital, I found out a lot about people talking to their bodies, people who had terrible illnesses, and they talked with their body in order to enlist it’s help. Our minds are young in comparison to our bodies. Our bodies have all the tools you need, really. It’s connected to nature, and the earth. There are all these links that we need to find out about, rather than try to explain everything. Modern man has to explain everything, chop everything up, and he still never finds out what it really is! Sometimes we just need to trust. You and I we need to trust what’s going on within ourselves, even if we can’t articulate it or write about it. We need to trust each other emotionally and psychically, because we are psychic beings, really, whether we say we are or not. These are energies that science is starting to realize are real.

You always seem to be exploring, investigating, moving forward. With this in mind, would the idea of going back to the Kinks seem like a step backwards?

That has occurred to me. If it felt emotionally sound to me, I’d do it. When we first started recording all those years ago, Ray would play a little phrase on the piano, and I’d say, ‘Fuckin’ great,’ or playing guitars together, that feeling, not knowing exactly where it’s coming from but it feels good. That’s something that helped me a lot, it’s intangible, you can’t measure it, but you know it’s right. For instance, I knew that “Tired of Waiting” was going to be massive when we did that recording, we put that heavy guitar on it, and I just knew. I had that feeling. If there was a feeling like that again with Ray, I’d definitely have a go. But that feeling has got to be there. If that feeling isn’t there, it’s kind of like….ughhhhh…how do you create that feeling? I just don’t know.

I’ve worked with Ray on a few songs, just prior to me and Russ getting together for Open Road, and, um…some of it was kind of going well, some embryonic ideas, some were fun…but then it started going a bit flat, and I thought, “Is that him? Or is that me?” Or maybe it was just me being eager to begin the project with Russ? I don’t know what it was.

In your head or in your dreams, when you think of the Kinks, or you think of the idea of the Kinks, who do you visualize? Is it you and Ray and Mick Avory and Pete Quaife, or do you see Bon Henrit or John Dalton or Jim Rodford? Who, or what, is the Kinks to you?

Good question, because there have been so many lives of the Kinks, every decade is different personnel, John Gosling in the ‘70s, Henrit in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and different bass players. But I suppose if I was being really honest, it all came from Ray, Pete and me. That feeling, that essence, what that is, or was or is. Because I often think Pete has gotten written out of the story. But if you go back to when we were children, when this started, and observed the terrain, you can see Pete. It was kind of the balancing act, Ray on one side, me on the other side, Pete in the middle, balancing. He was so helpful to me as a kid growing up.

Many years ago, Ray told me that the Kinks, in essence, broke up when Pete left. That after that it was never really the same.

I can see that. It’s very valid to say that. It’s certainly true in a sense. But we had the name, so we had to keep going. What do you do?

Something that’s interesting about what you’re saying—that you, Ray, and Pete were the core of the band—is that when I listen to the early stuff, the classic early singles, I think one of the defining elements is (session drummer) Bobby Graham. I really hear him punching and driving those songs—

Kick ass. Kicking ass.

—in a way that, to be honest, I’m not sure Mick could have.

Bobby Graham really did do something for our music. That scruffy guitar sound that I had…who could play with it? (laughs) Bobby Graham was a great guy. He was older, obviously, and he had some great stories, and I feel really privileged to have known him. We were just these scruffy kids and he came in and glued these, these feelings and this wildness together. He forced it together in a sense. That’s why those early records are extraordinary.

I feel Bobby Graham had the same effect with the Dave Clark Five.

He was the Dave Clark Five.

Were you aware that you, and I mean you personally, were inventing something on “You Really Got Me” and those early recordings?

I did! I felt more like an inventor with sound than a musician. I’m self taught, so any attempt to “learn” music felt like school again, and that really put me off it. So I thought I’ll do what I can with what I’ve got. I’d rather learn that way, and if it feels right, it must be right. I think we were lucky, the people around us were fantastic—my family, my sisters…growing up in that matriarchal system, that matriarchal way of living, is very inspiring. You can try things! My mother or my sisters would say, ‘Oh, alright, David, try that!’ It’s not like that paternal, ‘Oh, David, you can’t do that! It doesn’t work that way!’ At that time, it was a very transitional time in the 1960s. It was one of the first times when working class people could do a lot, the first era in which they were really taken seriously. None of that, ‘Oh, it’s just working class boys, and they’re just making pub songs.’ People were starting to take that culture seriously, in films, writers, poets. It was an interesting breakthrough time.

There’s this incredible film of the Kinks playing the Olympia in Paris in 1965. One of the amazing things about it is that you are clearly the co-frontman of the band. In fact, when you sing lead—and you sing lead a whole bunch—it’s almost like Ray is ‘just’ the rhythm guitarist in your band.

Well, you and I were talking just now about me and Ray and Pete, and when I think back, it did seem like the essence of the energy, the connection, was those three guys. It’s interesting. Things change. If I were to try to draw a graph of the Kinks’ career—it’s fucking all over the place.

But I’ll tell you this: As a young man, I always thought that me and Ray would last forever.

I keep on talking about these words, words like love and trust, but they’re energy. It’s magnetism. It’s that sort of energy that helps you get out of and above problems, helps you do something new or try something you wouldn’t have otherwise tried. I think that’s what runs rights through whatever the Kinks made, in the 1970s, the 1990s, 1964…and I think the beauty of it is that we’ll never really know how. Maybe it’s ended. Maybe it did all end when Pete left the band.

Certainly reforming the Kinks would be ‘easy,’ and maybe even what would be ‘expected’ of a 70-year-old Dave Davies. But you seem to actively keep on moving, as a person, as an artist.

Thank you very much. It’s interesting, the older you get—the older I get—I feel like I’m going faster as I get older. It’s funny. I feel like a guy in a space suit. It’s like those great scenes in 2001 of going through time and space. I feel like the older you get, the faster you get. Maybe it’s an illusion. Maybe it’s like a wheel, a wheel with spokes, the faster it goes, it begins to look like it’s going backwards. Maybe that’s happening.

Dave Davies: Astral Warrior and Proto Punk on ‘Open Road’