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With all the tone-chasing we guitarists do today, you hear a lot of talk about how certain things are going to make some magical difference in our sound. We’ll argue endlessly about whether class-A amps, new-old-stock tubes, germanium transistors, and countless other minutiae are superior to their alternatives. But rarely do you hear us talk about getting that perfect sound by purposely ravaging the structural integrity of our gear. Perhaps that’s a shame—because when former Kinks lead guitarist Dave Davies turned visceral in his tone pursuits back in 1964 while recording the band’s seminal hit “You Really Got Me,” he single-handedly changed the sound of rock ’n’ roll forever.
“I always wanted to write a song about that period in my life and what was going on,” Davies recently told Premier Guitar. And with “Little Green Amp,” the lead single from his new solo album, I Will Be Me, he did just that. Back when Davies and fellow Kinks—older brother Ray (vocals and rhythm guitar), bassist Pete Quaife, and drummer Mick Avory—were recording their eponymous debut, Dave couldn’t get a sound that he liked out of his tiny green Elpico amp. It was either too bassy or too bright, but never right. So he decided to slash the speaker with a Gillette razor blade. The result was a raw, ragged, primal distortion that went down in history forever. “In all modesty,” says Dave, “I think that sound changed an awful lot of people’s values and ideas about guitar playing, and music in general.”
It’s a bold claim, but it really is no exaggeration. Dave Davies is the guy who introduced the glorious mayhem of the distorted power chord to the guitar vernacular. Popular music has never been the same since. Artists as disparate as the Ramones, Van Halen, Metallica, Green Day, and, well virtually anyone who’s hit a power chord owes a debt to Dave.
“You Really Got Me” hit No. 1 on the U.K. charts and put the Kinks on the map the same magical year that saw the Beatles heralding the British Invasion with their legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. It seemed the Kinks were poised to follow suit as the next British superstars, but the band had a reputation for violent in-fighting—incidents like Avory sending Dave to the hospital after flinging a cymbal at his head, and Ray getting into a scuffle with a union member during a 1965 American tour were the norm. These incidents and other missteps got the Kinks banned from performing in the States for four years—well past the peak of the Invasion. Nevertheless, Dave and the Kinks made their mark as an iconic band with hits like “Waterloo Sunset,” “Lola,” “All Day and All of the Night,” and “Come Dancing.”
But the Kinks’ legacy has long been marred by acrimony between Dave, the extrovert, and Ray, the more introspective one. They were the last of eight children, and they’ve had a career-long feud that went beyond simple sibling rivalry. The sheer animosity between the two is at a level that makes Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth seem like best friends. While the tension made for many incredible moments onstage, the band disbanded in 1996 and never looked back. To this day, it seems the war may never end. Even after bassist and founding member Pete Quaife passed away in 2010, Dave refused Ray’s proposal to play at the funeral.
That’s not to say Dave is musically inactive. In addition to the recent creative surge that sparked I Will Be Me, he has released several solo albums since 1980. And with its impressive assemblage of guests—including Anti-Flag, the Jayhawks, and Geri X, among others—Dave’s latest effort showcases a broad range of stylistic influences that go way beyond just three power chords.
We recently caught up with Dave, who was fresh off his stint at New York City’s City Winery, to discuss I Will Be Me, get new perspectives on that ravaged little amp, and see what it would take to get him to reunite with Ray.
What ignited this period of creativity that culminated with I Will Be Me?
Lots of things—everything from the economic situation of the world to the political situation across the board to my first grandson being born. And I was happy with the songs I was writing. I felt like I was in a good space in my head with the songs, and that’s always a good place to start. I felt motivated to write. Once I got one song together, the other ones kind of crept out. The first one I wrote was “Living in the Past”—that kick-started the writing.
What’s that one about?
It’s basically about a character who’s confronted with the world falling apart. He kind of tends to look back but he can’t ignore the future. He’s reminded on a daily basis that the future is here to stay. When we get confronted with strange world conditions we tend to try and stick our heads in the sand sometimes.
The intro sounds a bit like “Sunshine of Your Love.”
I don’t know. Everything sounds like something. What I wanted to do was make it like a Kinks riff—like something I would do on a Kinks record. [Sings “Sunshine of Your Love” riff.] Cream was really inspired by “You Really Got Me”—they copied the riff.
So they owe you for that.
They owe me something, I think [laughs].
Congratulations on becoming a grandfather. Is that what inspired “The Healing Boy”?
Yes, it’s about him. It changes the way you feel about the world and injects more optimisim into your life.
That song starts off with an eclectic, almost classical vibe, and then veers off into something of a country-folk style when the vocals enter.
Yeah, I like a lot of classical music. I like to cross-pollinate with classical, techno, rock, and all sorts of things when the mood is right.