Book reviews: God save the Kinks by Rob Jovanovic

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IN THE foreword to his thoroughly researched biography of one of Britain’s greatest bands, author Rob Jovanovic argues that, despite their lofty reputation, The Kinks remained curiously under-appreciated for much of their career.

God Save The Kinks

by Rob Jovanovic

Aurum, 336pp, £20

Never as hip as their enduring peers The Rolling Stones and The Who, they were always a square peg, even during their first flush of chart-topping fame in the 1960s.

Led by enigmatic contrarian Ray Davies, they famously pilloried Swinging London in Dedicated Follower of Fashion, harked back to music hall following an opening streak of pioneering proto-punk/metal hits, and retreated into more parochial musical pastures just as their rivals were tuning in and freaking out. A decade later, when they were being embraced by the New Wave bands they influenced, they did the naffest thing imaginable and became unlikely stadium rock stars in the US.

But as God Save The Kinks makes clear, it’s that very refusal to play the game, that single-minded, unfashionable vision played out over 40 years of fluctuating fortunes, which made the band so special. Years before Pulp prevailed with a similar shtick, The Kinks were the original misfit underdogs: fey eccentrics with a savage bite. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1990s emergence of Britpop, just as The Kinks – with typical rotten timing – fell apart, that their importance was finally recognised.

The most overtly English of all the British Invasion bands, their acute character portraits of class strife and urban malaise were an obvious influence on the likes of Blur’s Damon Albarn. Suddenly Ray was the godfather of Britpop.

In the years since, The Kinks have been canonised via the usual flurry of lovingly rendered reissues, documentaries and music magazine features. As evinced by his touching appearance at the Olympics closing ceremony – a symbolic event which bookends Jovanovic’s account – Ray has attained National Treasure status, a position he’d doubtless profess to hate, but probably secretly enjoys.

However, their critical resurgence also means that several fine books have already been written about them. The problem Jovanovic faces is whether he can inject fresh insight into a narrative which will obviously be familiar to anyone interested in buying his book in the first place.

“Their little known tale can now be told,” he claims, somewhat disingenuously, “in the words of those who were there.” Unfortunately, the words of the leading players, notoriously inimical siblings Ray and Dave Davies, have been culled from pre-existing interviews and the pages of their respective memoirs (he quotes huge swathes from Dave’s in particular). Nevertheless, he’s obviously immersed himself in the archive, and pilfers from it wisely.

While their often violent love/hate relationship understandably takes centre stage, Jovanovic makes sure to give other key members their due. The often unfairly overlooked bassist and founder member Pete Quaife, who died in 2010, is given satisfying prominence via a revealing interview with his brother.

Elsewhere, in-depth interviews with various engineers, journalists, photographers and musical collaborators provide an often dispiriting illustration of what it was like to work with the band. Ray’s egocentric petulance makes for exhausting reading.

Yet one also finds renewed appreciation for his dazzling talent, and the pressure he was under during the manic 1960s and self-indulgent 1970s. Here was a sensitive young man blessed with genius yet cursed with restless ambition, who endured nervous breakdowns and at least one suicide attempt. Despite these darker depths, Jovanovic provides a shaded portrait: a complex character, Ray can switch from wicked prima donna to self-deprecating charmer in the space of a paragraph.

Dave also comes across as a sensitive soul, whose exasperation at Ray’s undermining behaviour is mirrored by an obvious desire for his approval. Truth be told, his constant whining palls after a while: then again if you were stuck in a band with a sibling who once threatened to cancel a tour because someone spilled his backgammon set on the floor, you’d be whining too. “Dave,” sniffs Ray at one point, “I’m a genius, a perfectionist.” Dave sighs wearily, “No you’re not, you’re an arsehole.”

A tragicomic epic of triumph and dysfunction, this is a highly readable account of a unique career. Although a self-confessed worshipper, Jovanovic never fawns over his subject, writing instead with a clear eye for detail and context. Despite a few niggling factual errors, it’s a fine retelling of a very British legend.