Semi-Detached: Ray Davies, The Kinks, and Not-so-Swinging London by Mark Doyle (expected 2018)
Of all the great British rock bands of the 1960s, none had a stronger sense of place than the Kinks.
The core members of the group grew up in what George Orwell once described as the “inner-outer suburbs” of North London, a safe, unexciting land of launderettes and lace curtains, the kind of place to which working-class families moved once they could afford to escape the East End. They were part of a postwar generation of working-class English kids excited by the raunchy energy of American rhythm and blues, and after a few years of global success with hits like “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All Of the Night” the Kinks seemed destined to leave their humble origins far behind. Instead, lead singer and songwriter Ray Davies retreated from the swinging world of rock stardom into an England of semi-detached houses and afternoon teas. It was an unlikely setting for pop music greatness, but from 1967 to 1971, with the London suburbs acting both as muse and base of operations, the Kinks created some of the greatest albums in rock and roll history.
This book will position the Kinks, and Ray Davies in particular, as poets of twentieth-century English suburbia. Like George Orwell, J. G. Ballard, and Charles Dickens, Davies both satirized and empathized with the plight of the ordinary people of England, depicting them as essentially decent (if occasionally indecent) folk fighting against a host of powerful, inhuman forces. Davies understood their struggles – against bureaucracy, conformity, technology, and so-called progress – because he was struggling right along with them, only his foes took the specific forms of record companies, family obligations, financial turmoil, and his own bandmates (especially his unruly brother Dave).
Uncomfortable with rock stardom, uneasy in his marriage, and unimpressed with the swinging London of Soho and Carnaby Street, Ray always seemed to be a step or two removed from whatever was swirling around him. The songs he wrote from this position of semi-detachment abound with wit, anger, and humanity. They offer up paths of escape (to the English countryside, to Oklahoma, to the jungle), find fleeting comfort in nostalgia, and confer a touch of nobility upon little suburban men who catch trains and pay down their mortgages. In their very precision – in their very Englishness – Davies’ best songs from this period achieve a kind of universality. His characters’ struggles are not just the struggles of men and women in England in the 1960s and 1970s, but of anybody who’s ever tried to live like a human being in the this modern world of ours.
The book covers the period of the Kinks’ early success in 1964 to their creative peak in 1967-71, focusing especially on five albums: Something Else (1967); The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968); Arthur (Or, the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (1969); Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (1970); and Muswell Hillbillies (1971). It will also contain an epilogue that compares the Kinks’ development to that of other English rock acts, concluding with a discussion of the Kinks’ sonic and thematic influence on the punk scene of the late 1970s. It draws upon a growing body of academic and non-academic writing about the Kinks, including two memoirs by Ray Davies and one by Dave Davies, as well as press interviews, album and song reviews, concert films, and other materials from the popular media. The discussion of the band’s social and cultural contexts will draw upon Mark Doyle’s expertise in modern British history, historical scholarship on postwar consumer culture and suburbanization, and the writings of other astute observers of suburban England, especially George Orwell, whose influence on the Kinks (and many other British rock acts) was profound.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MARK DOYLE is an Associate Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University who specializes in the study of British Imperial History. He is the author of Communal Violence in the British Empire: Disturbing the Pax (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016) and Fighting Like the Devil for the Sake of God: Protestants, Catholics, and the Origins of Violence in Victorian Belfast (Manchester University Press, 2009).