A biblical downpour is making its way through Highgate Village, but Ray Davies’s beetroot barnet is safe beneath the awning of his local Cafe Rouge. Your correspondent hasn’t been quite so lucky. Despite agreeing to his date with Q over 48 hours ago, the venerable Kink has been reluctant to confirm his preferred time and place. Finally, 25 minutes before the interview is due to begin, Davies’ “project manager” summons your correspondent to the bistro in question. As the heavens open, Q dons waterproofs and cycles with manic gusto in order to get there on time. In the event though, Davies is 15 minutes late. In dress-down Sunday mode, North London’s 68 year-old pop laureate is not a dedicated follower of fashion. Attired in casual threads and springy white trainers favoured by retired cab drivers when popping out to buy The Sun, he folds down his brolly and orders a white Americano. We have barely taken our seats before Davies feels he needs to get something clear. He’d rather not be here.
“It’s frustrating,” he begins, wearily, “I’ve got three new projects I’m trying to develop and doing this – no disrespect – takes up so much time.” By “this”, Davies is referring to the business of promoting an imminent box set comprised of Kinks BBC sessions. Though he doesn’t mention it again, this is the apparent raison d’etre of our encounter. But if walking 400 yards from his house to a cafe to talk about himself over lunch is such a drag, why does Davies go through with it? “Unfortunately, because I wrote the songs, it involves my input. People wouldn’t appreciate it if I delegated it to someone else.”
Still, now we’re here, let’s make the best of it, eh? What would Ray like to eat? “Oh, I wouldn’t want to eat anything here,” he says. Q urges Davies to reconsider. After all, this slot is predicated on the experience of having lunch with a celebrated pop singer. This, it turns out, was the wrong thing to say. “I never thought of myself as a pop singer,” says the man who sang You Really Got Me, Waterloo Sunset, Lola and several other peerlessly splendid pop songs.
A waiter arrives. Ray will eat after all. He asks for poached eggs, but a strained atmosphere deteriorates further when we’re told that it’s now lunchtime, which means that the water used to make the poached eggs has been “thrown away.” I order the Fromage Souffle, which affords Davies the time to choose a mushroom omelette with a cup of hot water. Things go from bad to worse, however, when our waiter returns with a tiny jug of hot water. This is terrible. Davies looks at it despondently. In the end, he picks it up and takes a sip out of its little spout.
This, of course, has long been his patch. Down the hill is the Archway Tavern, immortalised on the sleeve of 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies. Muswell Hill itself, just a mile away, is where he grew up. The Odeon, where his sisters worked, is still standing. So is the Broadway Cafe which was where, as schoolchildren, Ray and Dave Davies would eat lunch in the years when their mum ran it. Between bites of omelette, Davies also points out that we’re a stone’s throw from his sister’s house where – as a teenager – he wrote You Really Got Me and Tired Of Waiting. “There’s probably a tape somewhere,” he ponders, “featuring those demos.”
Does he often get recognised? “Yes. Usually on the days when I don’t want anyone to see me.”
And what do people say? “They say, ‘Who are you?’ They know me, but they don’t know my name. I tell them I’m Damon Albarn and put on a cockney accent.”
I point out to Davies that Albarn lost the cockney accent several years ago. “He’s probably got a Jude Law accent now,” he jests drily.
The food arrives. Within earshot of the waiter, Davies looks at it, then looks at me and says, “Be careful what you order. You might get it.”
He picks at his omelette. How is it? “Nice corporate cooking.”
Like a tormented beat-boom Eeyore, Davies’s glass seems perpetually half-empty. He likes the cakes in the tea shop across the road, but “it’s so difficult to get a table I’m comfortable with there.” Later this afternoon, Andy Murray will take on Roger Federer in the Wimbledon men’s final but, alas, he won’t be watching it. “I’ve got this lovely TV, but I can’t get it to work. It needs re-tuning.”
There’s also the matter of an upcoming CD, Waterloo Sunset – The Very Best Of Ray Davies & The Kinks. His project manager explains that this will be different to other compilations because it will include material from Davies’s solo albums and even one song from the brother with whom he barely speaks these days. All this, however, is scant consolation for Davies. “I can never agree with what should be on… It’s always the hits.”
Well, you have to sympathise. Perhaps more than any of his peers, chunks of The Kinks’ history remain overlooked. The group’s 1978 album Misfits is a case in point. Although successful in America, impeccably observed vignettes such as A Rock And Roll Fantasy and the record’s title track are overdue wider reappraisal (though one would be hard pushed to extend such reappraisal the album’s disastrous race-relations paean Black Messiah. “Good record, good memories” he nods, and for a moment his features soften. “I don’t care what Damon does… I care about real people. Misfits is about a friend of mine who passed away recently. I’m just trying to celebrate people like that.”
Onto Davies’ Glastonbury appearance two years ago, in particular another moment which celebrated one of Davies’s contemporaries: a version of See My Friends dedicated to Kinks’ bassist Pete Quaife, who died the previous week. That was poignant, I suggest. Davies now looks as bored as it’s possible to look without actually being asleep. “Well, I never phone in a performance,” he says finally, before adding, “Who was it that closed Glastonbury last year? Attractive-looking girl. She had all these pyrotechnics. Was it Rihanna?”
It was Beyonce. “Ah, Beyonce. That made me laugh. How can you read an audience when you’ve got to think of the next light blowing off?”
The waiter returns with the bill. Before we say our goodbyes, any chance of a quick picture of the artist on his home turf? He grabs my phone and shoots about three seconds of video footage, mostly of his hand next to his leftover chips. That’s your lot. Beyond the awning, Highgate is now enjoying the sort of afternoon sunshine which inspired another one of The Kinks best-loved songs. Ray Davies looks relieved to be back out there, but you suspect the weather has little to do with that.