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Liner Notables: Ray Davies – See My Friends

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Note-perfect liner notes: garnering an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits from album commentaries and remarks…

Everybody’s a star, according to Ray Davies. But in the Kinks tribute album See My Friends, no matter the caliber of the Davies-enlisted collaborator — most that you recognize, a few you may hardly even heard of — it’s the songs that shine the brightest.

And in the Kinks’ 32-year career beginning in the mid-‘60s British Invasion, it’s Davies’ influential songcraft – widely encompassed in and a catalyst for such varying styles as pop, power-chord hard rock (thanks too to lead guitarist brother Dave), British music hall, rock opera, concept albums, poignant social satires, and arena rock – that no doubt became the main draw for an array of artists clamoring to be included in this current song-centered project.

Offering his services as curator and contributor, Ray, as one of rock’s most insightful, witty, and literate songwriters — Pete Townshend believes “He invented a new kind of poetry and a new kind of language for pop writing…” — implements See My Friends’ well-structured liner notes to comment upon the “Then” of each of the 14 melodic gems and all-out rockers, ranging from monster hits to more obscure album tracks, from “Lola” to “A Long Way from Home.” In the “Now” half of the equation, we see his friends in a better light, as Davies explains the how of the hook-up with each song’s recording cohort, a roster that includes Bruce Springsteen, Alex Chilton, Lucinda Williams, Black Francis, Metallica, Mumford & Sons, Jackson Browne, Paloma Faith, Billy Corgan, and Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora.

It’s also illuminating not only for the tidbits you pick up along the way – Davies and Paul Weller wrote some songs together 20 years ago but Ray “can’t find the demos anywhere”! – but also for the meticulous insight some seemingly disparate artists have into each other’s work history. It’s a bit heartening, for instance, to know that, stirred by Mumford & Sons choosing to do “This Time Tomorrow,” Davies “always gets pleasantly surprised when people pick little-known songs.”

The whole project got rolling in the summer of 2009, when Davies chose to record a version of “Till The End Of The Day” with the late Alex Chilton, who had recorded it with Big Star for Third/Sister Lovers, issued in 1978. The idea of collaborating with more artists was then further sparked as opportunity kept knocking: Davies performed “You Really Got Me” and “All Day And All Of The Night,” with Metallica in New York City at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Anniversary party in October 2009, and more occasions cropped up and studio time arranged as he kept encountering other “chord progres-she-ons and top mu-sish-eans.” And not just his friends, but their best friends too.

In a preamble of sorts for See My Friends, Davies creates a mission statement of sorts, and explains what really got him goin’, what really got him now: “I write songs. Originally it was a way to express myself and give my band the Kinks material to record. After a while the songs took a life of their own as the world discovered them. Now when I meet other artists most of them who know my work have a favourite Kinks song. I decided it would be a natural progression to collaborate with some of these artists.”

And what’s more natural than to jump-start the album with the glass-half-full wallop of infectiousness? “Better Things,” (from Give the People What They Want, 1981), is a tuneful song that Fountains of Wayne covered and kicked up a couple notches more for a manic pop thrill on a previous tribute album, 2002’s This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies and the Kinks. On See My Friends, Davies matter-of factly explains that the song was written for a friend going through a divorce. Says Ray: “…some people say it’s tinged with sadness. I feel it’s a celebration – overcoming tragedies that we all go through, personal crises…” Indeed, as Davies sings, “Here’s wishing you the bluest sky/ And hoping something better comes tomorrow, ” it never falters from its ring of sincerity.

Going from Then to Now, it might have been that genuineness that urged Bruce Springsteen to request “Better Things” for his collaboration with the head Kink, after they met at a concert at Madison Square Garden. Otherwise, it’s not necessarily the first song to spring to mind for a Springsteen styling, though he could’ve chosen something even more unlikely or even Brit-centric, such as the daffy “Ducks on the Wall, or “Harry Rag.” Davies even admits “This is not an obvious song for someone to do,” and I wasn’t initially hearing the affirming, collective, deafening “BRUUUUUCE!” howling in my head. But in place of the original Kinks’ bittersweet but sprightly earnestness a majestic and audacious arrangement and instrumentation takes hold that’s just as befitting, and full-throttle vocal trade-off from both Davies and Springsteen instills the song’s optimism and heartfelt assurance that “I know tomorrow you’ll find better things.”

And when all is said and done, “It’s really good to see you rocking out / And having fun, / Living like you just begun.” After Ray describes the New York to New Jersey which-track-went-which-way recording process, he talks about wrapping up and shooting the breeze at Bruce’s studio, where ”We sang for half an hour and talked for what seemed hours. He’s a very knowledgeable guy, had done his research, he knew my stuff and I felt flattered by that. It was a very enjoyable afternoon.” I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall as they’re lazing on that sunny afternoon.

Springsteen would have been a choice partner for “A Long Way From Home,” (off of Lola vs. the Powerman & the Money-Go-Round, Pt. 1, 1970 — though there is no Pt.2), giving a plaintive resonance to what we learn is a song originally written for Ray’s younger brother Dave, “warning him of the dangers of being successful, and never losing touch with your roots … You think you’re successful but basically you’re the same person.” It’s a cautionary tale:

You’ve come a long way, you’re self-assured and dressed in funny clothes
but you don’t know me.
I hope you find what you are looking for
with your car and your handmade overcoats
But your wealth will never make you stronger
‘cos you’re still a long way from home
Yea, you’re still a long way from home

As it so perfectly turned out, the story of a rough-and-tumble climb to the “Top of the Pops,”(a hard-hitting song on this often cynical concept album about the music biz) is well suited to the hardscrabble voice of Lucinda Williams, who Davies had been a fan of since his days living in New Orleans. He met her about 10 years ago at SXSW in Austin, Texas where “She actually came up to me at a radio station – she was wearing a little cowboy hat — and said ‘do you want to sing a duet with me?’” Though it didn’t work out that time, years later they met again at one of her concerts, set up studio time at the Kink’s Konk Studios “and she had learnt the song overnight. Still didn’t know it properly! We went through it line-by –line, then after about three or four takes she had the whole thing … And it worked out smoothly.”

In another explanation for Lucinda’s appeal, that just might be a mutual reason, Davies points out that “[Lucinda] has this great accent. I love accents. … it’s the way she says certain words. It’s almost as if I’d written the song for her.”

The melancholic and elegiac “Waterloo Sunset” has been described as one of the most beautiful songs in rock – if not the most beautiful. (Ask Neil Sedaka – he had a hit with it too, though he changed the words and renamed it “Laughter in the Rain.”) Davies’ attention to craftsmanship, songwriting detail and  melodic tenderness is complemented by wistful ruminations as a couple is observed amid the far-from-Edenic urban environs of the “dirty old river” and the “Millions of people swarming like flies ’round Waterloo underground”:

Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station
Every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don’t want to wander
I stay at home at night.
But I don’t feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset
I am in paradise.

“[Before I wrote it] I saw several Waterloo sunsets,” Ray remembers. “I was in St. Thomas Hospital when I was a kid, quite serious injury. And I remember looking at the river then.” Ray goes on to describe how the river was a part of the surroundings when he went on to college, and then “the real event” with his first real girlfriend, who became his wife. “But then I’m detached from the song itself,” he goes on to explain. It ended up that Terry and Julie are two characters, probably my two sisters – I was writing it for them and the future I saw for them.”

Davies initially thought the involvement of Jackson Browne in “Waterloo Sunset” as “unexpected casting” but, after Ray’s agent encouraged the idea instead of in “one of the West-Coast sounding songs I’d written,” the results actually comes off with the warmth of Browne’s 1973 For Everyman, containing some of See My Friends’ most complementary harmonies and pleasing vocal interplays between the two, plumbing new richness.

Indeed, “the track “made me realise the songs’s got a lot of soul to it,” writes Davies. “But what the combination of [Browne’s] voice and style of playing and my song has made it a unique duet. It’s one of the most un-complicated arrangements on the record.”

Rounding up some of the factoids and miscellaneous morsels can be just as rewarding as a more methodical reading of Davies’ See My Friends’ liner notes. For example, on Metallica’s “You Really Got Me” commentary, we get the how-to of the original record’s trademark distorted guitar sound, beyond the knitting needles or razors in the speakers. When Davies also writes about Alex Chilton, he mentions the intriguing fact that, in addition the album track “‘Til the End of the Day,” the two had also recorded “’Set Me Free,’ “but we didn’t use it” – can we expect its eventual inclusion on a “Great Lost Alex Chilton Album” someday? A speculation just as captivating – head-scratchingly so — comes with the revelation in the remarks about “This Is Where I Belong,” where we find out that Black Francis once asked Ray to write for him. Before we can riddle us thusly about the the possible results, Davies puts a slight damper on our imaginations: “But it never materialized.” But we can dream can’t we?

And in the observation made for the Spoon session and the title song – originally a mid-‘60s record that was as trippy as the Kinks ever really got (except perhaps for the droning “Fancy,” which declares that “No one can penetrate me”) — we get Ray’s protestations that “See My Friends” “wasn’t meant as a hippie anthem.” After all, and refreshingly so, “I didn’t buy beads and follow the Maharishi and all that,” Ray says. “I picked up on the atmosphere, and that’s how I write.”

As for me, I picked up right away on the advantageous atmosphere surrounding the recording of this album, and the positive reinforcement as reflected by Ray Davies’ songcraft . And because that’s how he writes and collaborates, I feel like I’ve heard some friends, and in reading Ray’s words, learned about them, too.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch