“The wonderful thing about making records is something comes out you never expected,” explains Ray Davies, who knows of what he speaks. In nearly five decades as leader of one of rock’s great bands, the Kinks, and as a solo artist, Davies has been involved with more than 30 LPs, helped innovate the concept album and created classic-rock staples such as “You Really Got Me” and “Lola.”
“Ray’s one of the greatest pop rock songwriters of all time,” says Britt Daniel of acclaimed indie-rockers Spoon.
“He’s a legend,” Metallica drummer and co-founder Lars Ulrich says.
Metallica and Spoon contributed to the most unexpected record of Davies’ career, “See My Friends,” a new solo effort featuring Davies collaborating on his most distinctive songs with Bruce Springsteen, Mumford & Sons and Jon Bon Jovi, among others. The album moves from obscure gems such as “This Is Where I Belong,” a beloved B-side performed by Pixies frontman Black Francis, to well-known Kinks classics such as “All Day and All of the Night,” a duet with the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan.
Davies crisscrossed the globe for the project. He traveled to Oslo to record a storming version of “You Really Got Me” with Metallica backstage at one of the band’s arena shows. “When Ray asked if we’d contribute to his record,” Ulrich says, “that was what we call a ‘Metallica no-brainer.’ ”
Metallica first played with Davies during 2009’s 25th anniversary celebration of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; at the same event, he also bonded with Springsteen, venturing soon after to Springsteen’s New Jersey studio for a jovial crack at the Kinks’ 1981 hit, “Better Things.” “We ended up talking forever about our influences,” Davies says. “We discussed how we both love Buddy Holly, and Bruce knew so much about the Kinks.”
Davies has made an art of turning snapshots of English life into classic songs and concept albums, like 1968’s “The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society,” and his way with narrative and character has drawn the attention of not only musicians but also respected writers.
Notable fiction authors Zadie Smith, Bobbie Ann Mason, Salman Rushdie and Audrey Niffenegger have made numerous homages to Davies’ work in their books.
His mark can be heard in British acts Madness, Elbow, the Jam, Oasis, Suede, the Smiths and Pulp; in fact, Davies could arguably be considered the father of the ‘90s Britpop revolution. “The bands that influenced me to start songwriting, like Blur, were influenced by the Kinks,” says Ted Dwane of Mumford & Sons. “Ray stays true to his roots: He’s heralded as the great British songwriter because his songs come from that genuine experience. Someone from Nebraska can still relate to “Till the End of the Day,” but if you’re British, it’s a treat to really understand the references.”
“See My Friends” began during a trip Davies took to Los Angeles to write songs with Garbage chanteuse Shirley Manson.
“The experience made me feel I could work with other people in a collaborative manner,” he says, so in summer 2009, the album’s first recording session took place in London with Alex Chilton. There, the iconoclastic solo artist and singer for the Box Tops and Big Star turned “Till the End of the Day” into a blazing rave-up. (Chilton died eight months later.)
Such collaborations gave Davies new insights about his own material. “Lucinda Williams picked ‘Long Way From Home,’ which I wouldn’t have thought of, and turned it into her own song,” he says. “Jackson Browne wanted to do ‘Waterloo Sunset,’ which I wasn’t sure would work; it’s such an English song, but he was great. Likewise, Jon Bon Jovi made ‘Celluloid Heroes’ more dynamic: The way I sing it, the chorus withdraws, but Jon’s voice makes it jump at you.”
For some “See My Friends” collaborators, their song choice proved deeply personal, as was Francis’ selection of “This Is Where I Belong.” “I learned it to sing at a friend’s wedding,” says Francis. “I had the lyrics taped to the back of my guitar for years after, leaving the title phrase on there as a kind of mantra. It always relates to what’s going on in my life, like a little passage from my holy book.”
“The Kinks mixed intellectual bravado with primal rock ‘n’ roll, and that dichotomy appealed to me,” Daniel explains. “It was liberating to hear Ray make even the smallest details into a song.”
“A song doesn’t have to be about a big event,” Davies says. “What I do is like a musical camera, taking snapshots of life. The listener then visualizes who would be cast in those roles.”
Davies’ songwriting also receives praise for its sophisticated literary quality, inspiring artists even outside of music.
“Ray Davies is an extraordinary storyteller; his lyrics have the compression and power of poetry,” Niffenegger says. “The song I imagined playing in ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ was ‘You Really Got Me’ -- I was looking for a group that would make the reader think ‘1964,’ and the Kinks debuted that year. My second book, ‘Her Fearful Symmetry,’ is set in London. Whenever I am crossing Waterloo Bridge, my favorite Kinks song, ‘Waterloo Sunset,’ plays in my mind.”
His song craft also exudes a cinematic scope that’s influenced directors, including Wes Anderson, who has prominently featured Kinks’ songs in films “Rushmore” and “The Darjeeling Limited.” “Ray Davies’ music is one of the greatest inspirations in any medium for my own work -- as much as any book or movie, ever,” says Anderson.
A Kinks reunion, meanwhile, remains elusive. The group’s 66-year-old frontman has been famously estranged for years from his younger brother, Kinks’ guitarist Dave Davies (who hasn’t performed since suffering a stroke in 2004). “I would be happy to do a reunion if the intention was to do some new music and not just revisit the past,” says the elder Davies, who is busy regardless. This year, he will serve as curator for London’s prestigious Meltdown Festival (previous curators include David Bowie, Massive Attack and Richard Thompson).
There’s also the possibility of a “See My Friends 2.” Additional songs from the Alex Chilton session remain unreleased, and Davies maintains a list of potential collaborators, including the Who’s Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, Paul Weller, Nick Lowe, Ron Sexsmith and Blur/Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn. “Like all sequels, it will have a different curve,” Davies says. “It’s a blessed thing to be able to create an image in one’s mind. I still haven’t worked out how it’s done, but it’s always very rewarding when I finally make it happen.”