Saturday 13 October
Live at Birmingham Symphony Hall
It's 1974 or thereabouts and I've been playing guitar now for about four years. Chris fancies himself as the lead vocalist in our ramshackle band but he sings like a choirboy. Still, we don't object because Chris knows some girls who he reckons might want to be backing singers. I hadn't considered backing singers but now I can see us being the next Mott the Hoople.
My mates are assembled in our front room and are keen to learn some cover versions. Luckily, my brother-in-law Geoff, has an extensive collection of sheet music which he's let me plunder merrily. There's Light My Fire and Paint It Black and The Sound of Silence. Loads of hits from the 60s, the sheet music (priced in old money, 2 shillings and 6 pence or 3 shillings each) and among them The Kinks' Waterloo Sunset and Autumn Almanac. The Kinks songs are credited to one Raymond Douglas Davies. Kinks songs? No problem. I know these songs well from my brother Phil's Golden Hour of The Kinks LP. But I quickly realise Kinks songs are far from simple, straightforward pop. For one thing, the music publishers have seen fit to transpose Waterloo Sunset into a really awkward key. Without a capo, the chords of E flat and A flat test the limits of the 13 year old Tony Gillam's virtuosity. But then, even in an easy key, lyrically and musically, Autumn Almanac is a fiendishly complex little ditty. The alliterative and assonant splendour of its opening line single it out as an extraordinary pop song:
From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar,
When the dawn begins to crack.
It's all part of my autumn almanac.
Breeze blows leaves of a musty-coloured yellow,
So I sweep them in my sack.
Yes, yes, yes, it's my autumn almanac ...
This is no Twist and Shout - more Edward Lear, John Betjeman or ... Arthur Askey. The fact that there's a chord change on almost every beat - Yes- yes - yes - it's my - autumn alma- nac ... is enough to make a young guitarist drop his plectrum into his soundhole. And then there's the structure of the song - one middle eight is not enough; first, there's the bit that goes: "I like my football on a Saturday ..." but then, instead of going back to the main theme, the song takes off in yet another direction: "This is my street and I'm never going to leave it ..." This kind of variation and layering is less Dave Clarke Five, more Dvorak.
So, yes, I've always admired Ray Davies as a pioneer of the serious business of writing pop songs, fusing social commentary and poetry with exquisite melodies and rip-roaring riffs.And when my friend Phil invited me to join him to see Ray at the Birmingham Symphony Hall I was delighted to go and expected to see the grand old gentleman of English pop perched on a stool with an acoustic guitar. The gig began just so, Ray Davies and a second guitarist on the stage that, a few days earlier, had been graced by Boris Johnson as he wowed the Tory Party Conference. Ray worked his way through his opening songs including Autumn Almanac and delivered them in a cheeky chappy, music hall kind of way. But then, towards the end of Dead End Street, the band arrived on stage which meant, by the end of the evening, we would see the 68 year old Ray leaping around with an electric guitar like the rock n roll legend he also happens to be.
The set included several songs that began like quiet acoustic folk songs and ended up in full rock band versions, Waterloo Sunset among these. Other highlights were an unaccompanied Days and a heart-rendingly perfect See My Friends. Apart from the sheer musical enjoyment of the evening, there was something life-affirming about the fact that Raymond Douglas Davies the man continues to exude all the good humour, warmth, energy and authenticity embodied by his remarkable catalogue of songs.