One of the Internet’s favourite things, it seems, is finding and celebrating The Woman Who Was Really Responsible For Work For Which A Man Took Credit. Sometimes, as with Delia Derbyshire on the theme from Doctor Who, Rosalind Franklin and the discovery of the structure of DNA, or Harriet Taylor and the work credited to John Stuart Mill, the evidence seems pretty unassailable for their having been denied credit they deserve. Other times, unfortunately, the evidence is rather slim.
But there’s one example that I’ve never seen anyone point out. It’s one I suspected for some time, but last night I happened to stumble across something which confirmed my suspicions:
A woman may well have been responsible for much of the Kinks’ best material. In fact, she was a teenager when she made her contributions.
Ray Davies’ career as a songwriter follows a definite arc shape. He starts out in early 1964 writing the odd very good track, and a lot of crap. From late 1964 on he keeps hitting greater and greater heights, and getting more consistent, for several years — the run of albums from 1966’s Face to Face through 1969’s Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire, is pretty much perfect and as solid a run of albums as anyone has ever made, though in retrospect Arthur is a little less good than the albums before it.
After 1969, his songwriting becomes a little more erratic. The next few albums — Lola vs Powerman and the Moneygoround, Muswell Hillbillies, and Everybody’s in Showbiz — are all fine albums, but nowhere near the same quality as the four albums that came before.
And then, in 1973, the songwriting ability just falls off a cliff. Preservation Act 1 is half a really good album and half a sloppy mess, and after that… well, there are individual good songs, but if you collect together a single CD of the best work Ray Davies did in the ensuing forty-five years, it wouldn’t match up to any one of the 1966-71 albums. There are gems on even the worst album, but the gems are of lower and lower quality. Some Kinks ultra-fans will make cases for some of the later albums, but even those cases tend to be things like “well, the live shows at the time were really good” or “if you listen past the production, there’s a few really quite nice songs”. I’m someone who has bought every pre-1974 Kinks album multiple times and owns multiple box sets of the band’s music, but I could hum the melodies of… maybe ten Davies songs from after 1974. If that.
Now, there have been a lot of attempts to explain Davies’ songwriting ability going downhill, and some of them have a certain ring of truth to them. For example, the slight decline between Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur might be put down to the departure of bass player Pete Quaife and session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins (who played on all the Kinks’ records prior to that, but refused to work with Davies ever again after Davies took credit for his playing on Village Green). In 1969 a ban on them playing the US was lifted, and they started to concentrate more on the loud, less-nuanced, sound that was popular in America. And in 1973 Ray Davies had a nervous breakdown after his wife left him. All of these things may have played a part.
But one thing always seemed very suspicious about the timings to me — something I alluded to in passing, but never really talked about much because it was just a coincidence of dates.
You see, in mid 1964, Ray Davies began dating a woman called Rasa Didzpetris. Well, I say woman, she was a teenage girl at the time — aged only 17 (Davies was only twenty, so this wasn’t the kind of sleazy thing one might normally expect from a rock star dating a teenager). They married in December 1964 and divorced in 1973.
Even before their marriage, Rasa started singing on Kinks records — her first recording with the band was “Stop Your Sobbing” in August 1964 — and she can be heard on many of their best records singing backing vocals. Hers is the high voice singing the “sha la la” on “Waterloo Sunset” or the “la la la” part on “Death of a Clown”. While she never performed live with the Kinks, on record she was at least as important a part of their sound as the band’s rhythm section, possibly more so. Her vocal contributions were never given credit on the records (some recent CD reissues have rectified that somewhat) and she’s been largely ignored, I suspect because of rock fans’ refusal to think anything but the worst of their idols’ wives. She doesn’t even have her own Wikipedia page, and on the band’s Wikipedia page she’s mentioned in two sentences (“Backing vocals by Dave Davies, Pete Quaife and Ray’s wife, Rasa, were laid down first, followed by Ray’s lead vocal track” and “Ray Davies’ marital problems during this period began to affect the band adversely, particularly after his wife, Rasa, took their children and left him in June 1973.”)
She stopped performing on the records around the time of Arthur (no-one’s exactly sure when, because she was never credited, but I don’t hear her on anything after that album — she might be buried in the mix on some tracks, but she’s nowhere near as prominent) — which is also around the time her marriage to Ray started to deteriorate. And when she finally left him, during the early stages of recording Preservation Act 1, is the point at which Davies’ songwriting, which had been on a gentle slope downwards for several years, finally fell off the cliff edge and never recovered.
That coincidence in timings, along with the fact that Davies was at that time an inveterate taker of credit for other people’s work, led me to suspect that maybe she had something to do with the songwriting. There’s also the interesting fact that around the same time Davies started to get more secretive about his songwriting process, only telling the band members the chords to songs, but not letting them know the words or vocal melody until the records came out, in case someone stole the songs.
But I’d never seen any claims that Rasa Davies had any songwriting input, not in any of the several books I’ve read on the band, and not even any speculation on the Internet other than my own, so I mentioned the interesting coincidence, but decided it was probably me just seeing patterns that aren’t really there. The only songwriting or arrangement contribution I’d heard of from her was Ray crediting her with coming up with the idea to have the harmony vocals peak at the end of “Waterloo Sunset” (which is, in itself, an idea that added a lot to that song).
But then, last night, while looking on the Internet for confirmation of a minor fact I wanted to mention on Twitter about the band (and as a sidenote, it’s *really* weird to go looking for some fact or other on Wikipedia and find yourself quoted. It’s happened to me a few times, and it freaks me out no end…) I found this, which is literally the only interview I’ve ever seen with Rasa. (She was apparently also interviewed by Johnny Rogan for his book on Ray Davies — I’ve not yet read that book, as it came out just after my own book on the Kinks, and I was a little burned out on the subject).
And it says:
Rasa, however, would sometimes take a very active role during the writing of the songs, many of which were written in the family home, even on occasion adding to the lyrics. She suggested the words “In the summertime” to ‘Sunny Afternoon’, it is claimed. She now says, “I would make suggestions for a backing melody, sing along while Ray was playing the song(s) on the piano; at times I would add a lyric line or word(s). It was rewarding for me and was a major part of our life.”
So… that looks to me like confirmation of my hunch. Rasa Davies contributed both lyrically and melodically to the songwriting during the time of the Kinks’ greatest records. And once she stopped doing that, Ray Davies never wrote another truly great song again.
I think that’s enough evidence for me to say that the Kinks’ greatest records weren’t written by the genius Ray Davies, but by the genius songwriting team of Ray and Rasa Davies.
Note that I’m *not* saying that Ray didn’t do most of the writing — there is a very clear stylistic line between the music Ray was writing before Rasa, the music he wrote when they were together, and the music he wrote afterwards. His melodic and lyrical fingerprints are all over those records.
But what I *am* saying is that a talented collaborator is a valuable thing, and can turn a good artist into a great one. I don’t know what the split was in their writing partnership — I don’t know if it was 90% Ray and 10% Rasa, or a fifty-fifty split, or what. No-one but the two of them know, and no-one but the two of them is ever likely to.
But even if Rasa only contributed ten percent, that seems likely to me to have been the ten percent that pulled those songs up to greatness. Even if all she did was pull Ray back from his more excessive instincts, perhaps cause him to show a little more compassion in his more satirical works (and the thing that’s most notable about his post-Rasa songwriting is how much less compassionate it is), suggest a melodic line should go up instead of down at the end of a verse, that kind of thing… the cumulative effect of those sorts of suggestions can be enormous.
So I think it’s safe to say that a teenage girl from Bradford helped write the greatest songs ever written about London, and that the “quintessentially English” songs of the Kinks, during their most “quintessentially English” period, were co-written by a Lithuanian immigrant. I think that Rasa Didzpetris Davies deserves credit, morally if not legally, for that music, and in the same way I try to talk about On Liberty as having been written by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, I’m going to try to talk about the Davies/Davies songwriting team rather than the songwriter Ray Davies.
This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them? And if you’re interested in more of my thoughts on the Kinks, check my book on them out (Amazon US) (Amazon UK).