“There was a time when it was hip to write about Route 66; I was writing about a suburban street in London. I didn’t envisage my music ever being heard anywhere else.”
—Ray Davies

It begins, as most rock songs do, with a riff. There is an organ in the background, and a rapidly strumming acoustic guitar. The riff repeats. It has a countryish flavor, as does the voice that then chimes in, despite the singer’s obvious English accent:

Well, I said good-bye to Rosie Rooke this morning

I’m gonna miss her bloodshot, alcoholic eyes

She wore her Sunday hat so she’d impress me

I’m gonna carry her memory til the day I die

The voice belongs to Raymond Douglas Davies of Muswell Hill, England, the frontman and primary songwriter of the Kinks. It was 1964 when his band had its first hit, the seminal rocker “You Really Got Me.” Since then, they’ve been through almost all the changes—from rock opera to, er, MTV—but no one has ever mistaken them for trendchasers. Indeed, few bands have ever seemed so bent on staving out of step with their peers, with occasional stops back in the Top 40 every five or ten years.

Their early hits were loud, raw singles powered by the guitar of Ray’s younger brother, Dave; without them, there may well have been no punk revolution a decade later. Then came a series of quieter, satiric songs—”A Well-Respected Man,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”—obvious but fairly funny takes on the foibles of the superficial. Had the band broken up then, that’s how they would be remembered: four proto-Ramones who took a sudden turn toward Randy Newman territory at the end. Instead, Davies’ songwriting deepened, and there came a flurry of witty, well-observed snapshots of ordinary people’s lives, each taken from an angle few had considered before. Though snapshots may not be the best word, as Davies distrusted photography:

People take pictures of the summer

Just in case someone thought they had missed it

And to prove that it really existed . . .

People take pictures of each other

And the moment to last them forever

Of the time when they mattered to someone

A picture of me when I was just three

Sucking my thumb by the old oak tree

How I love things as they used to be

Don’t show me no more, please

Motifs began to emerge. There were political songs, voicing the complaints of every nonruling class under the English sun, from upper-middle (“The taxman’s taken all my dough / And left me in this stately home . . . All I’ve got’s this sunny afternoon”) to lumpen (“I’ve got no home, I’ve got no money / But who needs a job when it’s sunny?”). There were songs of odd beauty, like “Waterloo Sunset,” with its unexpected declaration that paradise consists of watching dusk fall over London’s Waterloo Station—by most non-British accounts, one of the ugliest sights in the world. There were songs defending the particular, be it individualist and extraordinary (“I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” “Misfits”) or communal and ordinary:

I like my football on a Saturday

Roast beef on Sundays, all right

I go to Blackpool for my holidays

Sit in the open I sunlight

This is my street, and I’m never going to leave it

And I’m always going to stay here

If I live to be ninety-nine

‘Cause all the people I meet

Seem to come from my street

And I can’t get away

Because it’s calling me: “Come on home”

“Come on home”—another Davies theme. There were the disappointing vacations of “Holiday in Waikiki” and “Holiday.” There were the lonely rock tours of “Motorway,” “Sitting in My Hotel,” and “The Road.” There were tales of young men (in “Village Green”) and young women (in “Polly” and “Big Black Smoke”) who left their villages, only to miss the smaller world they left behind. And there were tales of those who were forcibly removed from their homes, to be sent overseas to die in some politician’s war (“Yes Sir, No Sir,” “Some Mother’s Son”); or whose homes were forcibly removed from them. Which brings us back to that riff, that voice, and those bloodshot, alcoholic eyes. The song is “Muswell Hillbilly,” the final cut on the band’s best album, Muswell Hillbillies (1971). The narrator is being uprooted, his neighborhood redeveloped, long before the singer was born—

They’ll move me up to Muswell Hill tomorrow

Photographs and souvenirs are all I’ve got

They’re gonna try to make me change my way of living

But they’ll never make me something that I’m not . . .

They’ll try to make me study elocution

Because they say my accent isn’t right

They can clear the slums as part of their solution

But they’re never gonna kill my cockney pride

—leaving the singer to dream of a past he never experienced but faintly remembers; a past he thinks he recognizes in garbled images of America:

I’m a Muswell Hillbilly boy

But my heart lies in old West Virginia

Never seen New Orleans, Oklahoma, Tennessee

Still I dream of those Black Hills that I ain’t never seen . . .

Though my hills are not green, I’ve seen them in my dreams

Take me back to those Black Hills that I ain’t never seen

Muswell Hillbillies is a dark album. It depicts an England in which liberty and community have been almost completely effaced, leaving Davies’ characters isolated and confused (“I’m too terrified to walk out of my own front door . . . we got acute schizophrenia, paranoia too”), powerless before the authorities (“I was born in a welfare state, ruled by bureaucracy / Controlled by civil servants, and people dressed in grey”), left to live in dreams manufactured by others:

She lives in a house that’s near decay

Built for the industrial revolution

But in her dreams she is far away

In Oklahoma, U.S.A.

With Shirley Jones and Gordon McRea

As she buys her paper at the corner shop

She’s walkin’ on the surrey with the fringe on top

This is the totally administered society of the Frankfurt School—in Davies’ words, “the mechanical nightmare.” But there is hope, perhaps even salvation, in little traditions (“Have a Cuppa Tea”) and inchoate but angry insurgence (“Muswell Hillbilly”). Davies’ respect for the traditional emerges even in the musical genres he deploys on the album—shards of country, of blues, of old music-hall styles, of ancient jazz. “Bless you, Uncle Son / We won’t forget you when the revolution comes.”

Those little signs of life figure prominently in Davies’ most recent project, The Storyteller: An Evening with a Twentieth Century Man. This began as a simple series of readings from Ray’s “unauthorized autobiography,” X-Ray, and gradually evolved into a well-honed one-man show. (Two-man, if you include Ray’s accompanist, guitarist Pete Mathison.) It includes songs, of course—some old hits, some unjustly neglected album tracks, some other artists’ tunes (at one point, Davies croons his way through “That Old Black Magic”), and some new pieces written specifically for the program. And between the songs, there arc stories, about Davies’ childhood and adolescence and the band’s early days. Listening to Davies, it’s clear that Muswell Hill isn’t just the bureaucratic fiefdom of Muswell Hillbillies, but a unique place with a particular culture after all—a culture centered, from young Ray’s point of view, in the front room of his parents’ home, “where everything important happened.”

“An evening with . . . ” usually signifies a figure at the end of his career, mining his name for some easy and undeserved dollars: one thinks of the final scene of Raging Bull, or the pointless Evening with Groucho album that occasionally creeps into one’s local used-record pile. The Storyteller rises above that, especially when taken together with X-Ray and the newest Kinks album, To the Bone, with its reinterpretations of older Kinks songs. Davies isn’t living in his past. He’s returning to his roots, and finding, to crossbreed cliches, that those early creative wells have not vet run dry.

Nor have those early concerns. If it’s wrong to wipe a house or a neighborhood from the map, imagine all the homes and neighborhoods that would be lost if an entire nation were erased. In 1973, the Kinks were invited to play a special “Fanfare for Europe” concert honoring the United Kingdom’s entry into the Common Market. And since Ray, as he put it in The Storyteller, “could give a toss for the Common Market,” the band performed a selection of songs from their 1968 album The Village Green Preservation Society and their then-forthcoming rock opera Preservation. Songs such as “Salvation Road”:

Hear me brothers, hear me sisters

Citizens and comrades, hear my song

The old life’s dead, the order’s changing

It’s time for all of us to move along

Got no time to live a life with old worn-out traditions

Swallowed my pride, changed my ways

And found a new religion . . .

Goodbye youth, goodbye dreams

The good times and the friends I used to know

Goodbye freedom, hello fear

A brave new world has suddenly appeared . . .

And we’ll all join hands

And we’ll all march along

And we’ll all mark time as we go

Yes, we’ll all walk along

And we’ll all sing a song

As we walk down Salvation Road

The European Economic Community survived the affront.

By the 1980’s, the band was increasingly concerned that, in Dave Davies’ words, “there’s no England now.” With 1989 came the anti-Thatcher, anti-EC U.K. Jive, an angry album bearing a burning Union Jack on its cover. Artistically speaking, it wasn’t one of the group’s better efforts, but it was unmistakably shot through with Ray and Dave’s anger at the direction their country was taking. (Well, almost unmistakably. One track, “Down All the Days to 1992,” was adopted by some irony-challenged EC bureaucrats as the European Commission’s unofficial theme song.) In 1992 itself, the Kinks performed at Fete d’Humanité, a communist-sponsored anti-European festival in Paris. By this time, Ray was also writing X-Ray, half memoir and half science fiction, a book that posits a totalitarian world in which all nations have merged into a single corporation, in which “a country called England” is only a fading memory.

But such visions, like those of Muswell Hillbillies, are affectations, exaggerations. A man like Davies, able to discern beauty even in a dirty, crowded train station, need never search long for small signs of vitality. “They’re trying to build a computerized community,” he sang in “Muswell Hillbilly.” “But they’ll never make a zombie out of me.” So far, he’s right.