Caught by the River

Music Book Reader Bulletin

Andy Childs | 4th October 2011

Reviewed by Andy Childs.

As far as I’m aware there hasn’t been, until now, an online site that concerns itself solely with books about music and music-related subjects. It seems to me that a lot of very good music books, deserving of wider praise and attention, are left to their own devices, floundering unappreciated in a sea of otherwise mediocre titles. Several magazines, notably The Wire and Record Collector, carry extensive book reviews but inevitably there are a fair number of tomes that slip through the net or are in need of more comprehensive coverage. I hope that The Music Book Reader will come to fulfil the role of review and resource for those interested in that area where good writing and music overlap. Every month I will be choosing a title for the main review as well as recommending and listing current and forthcoming titles. We will also be refreshing the ‘archive’ section of The Music Book Reader on a regular basis as well, adding more personal favourites from various musicians, writers and friends.

by Nick Hasted Omnibus Press 305 pp hardback.

Anyone who has immersed themselves in X-Ray : The Unauthorised Autobiography – Ray Davies’ ‘fictional’ autobiography, and Kink, Dave Davies’ more orthodox memoirs in an effort to glean the inside story of one of our most revered sixties bands would, I suggest, emerge none the wiser as to the true story of The Kinks. Such is the deep-rooted antagonism that exists between the Davies brothers – which often sees them deliberately offering entirely different accounts of the same incidents – and the hazy, patchy recollections of the other Kinks and those surrounding them, that an accurate perspective on their achievements over their thirty two year life-span would seem to be impossible to reach, leaving the band somewhat short of the acclaim and level of prestige that many see as their deserved legacy.

In this new and thorough biography respected music journalist Nick Hasted combines a brisk run through their recorded work and a blow-by-blow narrative of the touring, mismanagement, business disputes, breakdowns and other assorted mayhem that rendered their career so turbulent and hapless with an attempt to analyze the creative/destructive relationship that existed between Ray and Dave and that fuelled every turn of this tumultuous story. Relying on quotes from the aforementioned books, his own lengthy interviews with both brothers and a good deal of other interview material he tries valiantly to construct as accurate and plausible an account of events as possible. Even though the monotony of the one-fact-after-another syndrome is never fully avoided and the writing style is sometimes as convoluted as the plot, the result is the most satisfying and convincing appraisal of The Kinks as we’ve had so far.

The Kinks career can, roughly speaking, be divided into two distinct, very unequal phases – the astonishingly prolific, albeit brief period between 1964 and 1968 with the classic four-piece band of Ray, Dave, Peter Quaife and Mick Avory that produced a string of hit singles that is arguably unsurpassed by any comparable run of creativity – and the drawn-out, troubled, and under-appreciated times since, when the often great records they produced were either deemed out of step with the times or lost in a fog of general incompetence and destructive behaviour. For four glorious years their fourteen singles – from ‘You Really Got Me’ to ‘Days’ – pretty much defined pop culture in London at that time, and songwriter Ray Davies established himself as an enormously gifted and idiosyncratic social commentator drawing on the traditions and values of his North London working class roots in combination with an outsider mentality that yielded so many uncompromising songs of acute perception. Those times weren’t without their ups and downs – sibling rivalry and occasional lawsuits – though it would appear to be a less cynical time when Ray can claim that The Kinks survived because of “my mum making me a sandwich and saying ‘eat that and shut up’”. Uncompromising is probably the key word in any story of The Kinks and especially in Ray Davies’ attitude to authority and any perceived artistic interference whether it be from record companies, managers or other members of the band. This and the heroically hedonistic, resentful and at times brutal behaviour of Dave Davies, the often confused management situation, and banishment from touring the U.S. at a time when the Beatles and Stones were quickly establishing a sort of global pop duopoly eventually caused events to turn increasingly sour and chaotic. At the end of the sixties, seemingly unable to capitalize on their own success and make a lucrative transition to the emergent album market they appeared content to stay in their own-back yard, cancelling shows and watching and playing football instead while the world passed them by. Dave’s abusive and unpredictable behaviour resulted in Quaife’s departure from the band in March 1969 and Ray’s writing had become more insular and complex resulting in two albums, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur that although now considered important works were completely out of sync with the prevailing fashion. When their U.S. ban was lifted in 1969 they were at least able to resume touring and indeed spent a good deal of (lost) time there where they were marketed and accepted as an ‘album’ band – a concept that their singles-obsessed UK record company Pye were unwilling or unable to grasp. Belated success in the States came at a price though. Dave had what appears to be a drug-induced breakdown and contemplated suicide, personal relationships cracked and broke, Ray actually tried to end it all after announcing he was leaving The Kinks in 1973 (subsequently retracted), and the strained interdependancy within the band threatened to wreck everything at any moment. When The Kinks, to all intents and purposes, finally became Ray’s backing band with less permanent personnel and increasing strife the end was in sight and in June 1996, they played their last show.

Since then Dave Davies has suffered a severe stroke and all but completely recovered, Ray was shot in the leg whilst chasing a mugger in New Orleans and has seemingly far from recovered, and Pete Quaife has sadly passed away. Ray’s reputation as a songwriter and the enduring appeal of his best work (of which ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is arguably the most iconic) has kept him in the spotlight recently but as the two Julien Temple films aired on BBC4 in the last few months showed there is a melancholic, resigned and perhaps even regretful air to both Ray and Dave’s characters now. Their story is a classic, one of not inconsiderable success and acclaim gained despite themselves, their single-minded self-destructive behaviour and the events that conspired against them. It’s a riveting and entertaining tale and Hasted tells it as plainly and truthfully as his material allows.

One significant gripe – there is no index to the book, and with a cast of so many characters weaving in and out of the narrative, it needs one.

New & Noteworthy :
As the ‘holiday season’ starts to loom and publishing activity moves up a gear there are already several new books worthy of close attention. Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge by Mark Yarn (Faber & Faber pbk) is a 550-page tome made up of interviews with over 300 people who were involved in the emergence and development of the Seattle grunge scene in the 80s. If you want a reliable history of grunge then you should look elsewhere, but if an entertaining, sprawling, unreliable and opinionated mash of conflicting views that make the Davies brothers seem harmonious is how you like your history then this is for you. A more ordered yet nonetheless complex historical narrative is to be found in John Szwed’s The Man Who Recorded The World : A Biography of Alan Lomax which has just been published in paperback (Arrow Books) and is essential reading for any sort of understanding of how the origins of popular music were crucially preserved and nurtured for future generations to benefit from. Lomax was a true hero. Two very interesting-looking books which I will be looking at in greater depth next month have just been published by the Oxford University Press in the U.S. – John Swenson’s New Atlantis : Musicians Battle For The Survival of New Orleans which looks like it might be an ideal companion read to last month’s Devil Sent the Rain, and Louis Niebur’s Special Sound : The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Also new but so far unread is Daniel Wolff’s biography of Sam Cooke titled You Send Me : The Life and Times of Sam Cooke (Virgin Books pbk). Quite how it will compare with Peter Guralnick’s masterful Dream Boogie : The Triumph of Sam Cooke will be interesting to see. Watch this space. Regular visitors to Caught By the River can’t fail to have missed the two extracts from the Andrew Loog Oldham book Rolling Stoned which is only available as a Kindle and ebook and is basically all of his reflections and hugely entertaining anecdotes about the Stones culled, with some new added material, from his two previous memoirs Stoned and 2Stoned, both of which I’m sure will at some point find a place in the Music Book Reader proper. Absolutely essential. Jeff has pointed me in the direction of two recent books that should probably be checked out – Nile Rodgers’ Le Freak : An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny (Sphere) and Tom Doyle’s The Glamour Chase : The Maverick Life of Billy MacKenzie (Polygon Books). And lastly, for those in-between-books moments there is the latest music issue of The Believer magazine – – which comes with a totally insane 17-track compilation CD.

Forthcoming :
Way Down That Lonesome Road : Lonnie Johnson in Toronto 1965-1970 by Mark Miller (Mercury Press).
Murder on Music Row : A Music Industry Thriller by Stuart Dill (John F.Blair)
Fresh at Twenty : The Oral History of Mint Records by Kaitlin Fontana (ECW Press)
Pop Song Piracy : Disobedient Music Distribution Since 1929 by Barry Kernfeld (University of Chicago Press)
The Strangest Tribe : How A Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge by Stephen Tow (Sasquatch)
Sweet Judy Blue Eyes : My Life In Music by Judy Collins (Crown Archetype)
Antonio Carlos Jobim : An Illuminated Man by Helena Jobim & Dario Borim (Hal Leonard Corporation)
Crow On The Banjo : The Music Life of J.D.Crowe by Marty Bodbey (University of Illinois)