MINNEAPOLIS — He wasn’t as cute and playful as Paul McCartney, as sexy and dangerous as Mick Jagger or as handsome and wholesome as Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits.
But the Kinks’ Ray Davies was the most gentlemanly rocker in the first wave of the British Invasion, an introspective soul who celebrated whimsy, nostalgia and Englishness.
Five decades later, he remains a well-respected man for his sharp social satire and often cinematic songwriting. While critics and fans are fond of his songs (“You Really Got Me” and “Lola” are the best known), he’s fond of his travels. In fact, he’s writing a book about his good and bad times in the United States.
After performing chiefly solo since the mid-1990s, Davies, 67, hit the road last week, backed by the 88 — a Los Angeles rock quartet — to promote a new all-star album. On “See My Friends,” Davies revisits Kinks songs with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Mumford&Sons, Spoon, Lucinda Williams and Bon Jovi.
“The secret of this was that it was collaborations, not covers,” said Davies, who is proud of the project. “Everybody put their 10 cents’ worth and in some cases even more.”
For example, with Springsteen on “Better Things,” there were eight bars of musical fade-out that weren’t in the original arrangement. Davies recalled the session: “I said, ‘I’ll throw out a line and you call back.’ He said, ‘OK.’ That call and response is one of my cherished moments on the album. It lasted 16 bars.”
Jackson Browne lobbied to do “Waterloo Sunset.”
“I said, ‘This is a very English song,’” Davies recalled. “He did his version and it was a pleasant surprise. With Mumford&Sons, they wanted to do two songs (‘Days’ and ‘This Time Tomorrow’) and we spent four or five hours in the studio. That came together because they had a great band ethic. Billy Corgan surprised me; he wanted to do ‘Destroyer’ and we stuck it together with ‘All Day and All of the Night.’”
Davies said he and the Boss even started writing a song together. “We had a break and I started strumming a song I was in the process of writing. Bruce heard it and came over and picked up a guitar and started joining in with me. He said, ‘I want to be part of this.’ It may evolve into something.”
Davies never shied away from experimenting, whether it was the mocking social satire of the 1966 hit “Sunny Afternoon” or a trio of ‘70s rock operas.
“The thing with the Kinks is, we were never ashamed to be bad or afraid of being bad,” he said. “As long as we developed and evolved the creativity, that was what was important.”
His next project could be a Kinks musical. He recently met with a writer who might pen the book. No, it won’t be a jukebox musical. “This is going to be dark,” he said. “It’s a mixture of ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Mary Poppins.’”
That’s the kind of pronouncement one might expect from the witty Brit, who describes himself as unpredictable and self-deprecating. What makes the thrice-divorced father of four daughters happy?
“Having a good night’s sleep. I’m a terrible insomniac. And I do seminars for new writers. There were two 17-year-olds writing great songs. And there was a 50-odd-year-old couple writing songs that all came together. That made me really happy. The creative process really energizes me.”
What music does he listen to when he’s sad?
“I don’t play songs when I’m sad. You know what I’ve got in my head? I’ve got incomplete songs so I’ve got this soundtrack running in my head all the time.”
Still, he said, “records can be therapeutic. ‘Sunny Afternoon’ makes me laugh. There are some album tracks by the Kinks that really make me feel bad. I don’t talk about those.”
Davies grew up in a household with six older sisters. “My clothes were most definitely not hand-me-downs,” he said.
But the girls passed on music that few of his generation knew — bebop and big-band jazz, combined with the music-hall tunes his parents loved. Then along came the last child, Dave, three years younger than Ray. In 1964, they formed the Kinks, with Dave developing the signature distorted power chord on the debut hit “You Really Got Me,” which influenced many generations of rockers.
While the Kinks had a revolving door of bassists and a change of drummers, the Davies brothers pressed on despite their lifelong bickering. In 1996, the band stopped but never officially broke up.
What’s the state of Ray’s relationship with Dave?
“The last time we spoke on the phone was May,” he said. “We’ve emailed each other since then. We usually talk about business. When we work well together, Dave is very insightful, has good ideas. Yes, we have friction. Out of that friction comes real great music.”
Any chance of any future Kinks projects?
“I was in the studio with (founding Kinks drummer) Mick Avory two weeks ago, and we did about four of five tracks together. That was good. We’ll see what happens.
“I don’t know what my brother’s current plans are, other than making my life as miserable as possible. He kind of revels in that, really. It would be great to do another couple great tracks with him, not a whole album. Because he’s a great player, a powerful player, and I can write stuff that brings him out. I like writing for Dave.”
Any chance of a Kinks tour?
“It’s unlikely right now. But you just never know the way the world changes.”