As speculation mounts about the content of the Olympic closing ceremony, it’s an open secret that Ray Davies will be there on Sunday playing Waterloo Sunset, the dreamlike tale of Terry and Julie’s romance in which London has never sounded more beautiful. Our interview is delayed because he’s in rehearsals, although his schedule says he’s not playing live again until the end of September. But it’s unwise to attempt to get him to admit as much: “I can’t talk about it. I’ll have to terminate the interview if you’re going to ask about it.”
Not that Davies is that keen on his finest moment today, in devilish mood as we sit on a bench in a park not far from his Highgate home. “It’s a nice tune,” he admits grudgingly. “I don’t get why it’s considered my best work. I still want to rewrite the words ‘And I don’t need no friends’. It sounds like a Marlon Brando line.”
He goes on to explain: “Waterloo has been an emotional terminus in my life. My dad took me there during the Festival of Britain, I was in hospital at St Thomas’, and I used to walk there with the woman who became my first wife, but it’s not me in the song. It’s them holding hands together walking across the bridge into the future. I’m the outsider, which I still am — the perennial outsider.”
As one of English rock ’n’ roll’s great lyrical observers, he’s an obvious choice for a ceremony entitled A Symphony of British Music. The songs of the Kinks frontman have chronicled the British way of life for decades, depicting the world of the Carnaby Street dandy on Dedicated Follower of Fashion, the demise of the dancehall on Come Dancing and proclaiming, “God save Tudor houses, antique tables and billiards” on possibly the most English song of all time, The Village Green Preservation Society.
He’s strict about refusing to detail his involvement, but hints darkly that all is not going smoothly. “I’ve had a couple of frequencies that have irritated me in the last few weeks,” he says, taking a pair of fluorescent yellow earplugs in and out of his ears throughout our conversation. “That’s why I can’t make any promises about where I’m going to be. But I’m sure it’ll be okay.”
When the eyes of millions aren’t upon him, he barely turns a head as he shuffles across the park to meet me. Hair thinning severely on top, haphazardly shaven, in a UPS delivery man’s T-shirt and silver running trainers with his Ray-Ban shades his only concession to fashion, he seems to like the bench as an interview spot as the sitting position requires less eye contact than a café table. He’s a rambling interviewee, frequently interrupting my questions with one of his own, such as “Do you find as a reporter that you’re influenced by the political preferences of the people you work for?” or the somewhat harder to answer: “What’s that great writer who was a friend of Ned’s who’s just died, who I met at a dinner party?” (Gore Vidal, we finally deduce).
Even if, for the sake of argument, he is at home with his feet up all weekend, he’s about to make a watertight case for his medal-winning status as London’s foremost bard on the second disc of a new hits collection, 22 tracks all about the city where he has resided almost all his life. There have been stints in Surrey, New York and New Orleans, which he left in 2004 after being shot in the leg while chasing street thieves, but today he lives just a couple of miles from the place of his birth 68 years earlier in Fortis Green.
“It’s a drag,” he says of remaining in the same area for so long, “because all the people have gone. When I was a kid, I always walked around the streets wondering what the future would hold. Now I walk around the same streets — I would drive but I don’t want to give up my cherished parking space once I’ve found one — and the buildings are the same but it’s all different now.”
On his London Songs selection there’s a notable shift from the excitement of new possibilities in the earlier Kinks material to a lamenting for a disappearing city in his later solo work. On Denmark Street, from 1970, “The street is shakin’ from the tappin’ of toes”. On his 1966 song Big Black Smoke, a runaway girl, “sick and tired of country life”, “slept in caffs and coffee bars and bowling alleys/And every penny she had was spent on purple hearts and cigarettes”.
More recently, in 2009, there was Postcard from London, in which he sang: “I will always yearn for the great city we used to know/We were so innocent back then when we played in the winter snow.” And in 1998 he released London Song, an almost rapped list of old characters including “William Blake, Charles Dickens, Dick Whittington, pearly kings, barrow boys, Arthur Daley, Max Wall, and don’t forget the Kray twins.” It earned him a phone call from Reggie Kray in prison when the gangster heard it on TV.
It’s not nostalgia, he insists. “My songs can have a plaintive quality, they can be fun and happy and throwaway. There’s humour, there are memory songs — notice I’m omitting the word ‘nostalgic’.” Nevertheless, he seems painfully aware that things ain’t what they used to be. On his 2007 song, Working Man’s Cafe, he complained that “Everywhere I go it looks and feels like America”, and today he says, “You go in the West End and you could be anywhere in Europe with all the same superstores.”
Despite his claims to be “an absolute sports fanatic”, the thrill of the Olympics seems to have eluded him. “I’ve just been to America, Canada and Japan. To tell the truth I couldn’t wait to get away from London and all that pre-Olympic euphoria. But when I landed I couldn’t wait to get back. You miss a good cup of tea, all the simple things.”
He says he’s barely watched the Games, a failure to do anything about the digital switchover having left him with just two channels on his television. “My concern is that people are only interested in winners. That bothers me but let’s enjoy this brief flourish that we’re having,” he says. “With the Kinks we took chances and had a lot of defeats, but we bounced back. We were always trying to do something different.”
The traditional line on the Kinks’ story is that all those proudly English songs about Empire and strawberry jam emerged because the group was banned from touring America by the American Federation of Musicians in the second half of the Sixties for fighting on stage. “It did us a favour,” he says. “I was talking to [Kinks drummer] Mick Avory about it in the pub last night and we came to the conclusion that if we hadn’t been banned from there we all would have died of excess. I think I would have trodden the same path, though.”
It’s hard to imagine Davies singing about a Liverpool Sunset, as he claims he nearly did. His music shows a lifelong love of his home city, even if it doesn’t always come across in conversation. At one point he announces: “I think this city is the most corrupt city in the world”, before backtracking slightly. “If I lived in Tokyo I’d probably think the same thing about there. But I see a no-win situation for a lot of people here. All the people on TV who were celebrating winning the Olympics bid seven years ago — will they be able to afford to live there when it’s gone?”
Negative about the bigger picture, I think this old pro will nevertheless turn on the celebratory mood on the big stage. And if he still feels wary of the London Olympics after Sunday, he can always write a song about it.
Ray Davies plays the Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (020 7589 8212, royalalberthall.com) on October 4.
Waterloo Sunset: The Very Best of The Kinks and Ray Davies will be released by UMTV, and The Kinks at the BBC box set by Sanctuary, on Monday.