Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and a compelling story to tell. In this essay, I examine the long, strange career of one of the most British of Britain’s great rock bands: The Kinks.
A solid case can be made that the sub-genre of rock ‘n’ roll known as hard rock got its start in early 1964 from one impulsive act by a rebellious British teenager named Dave Davies.
Davies and his band, The Kinks, had twice failed to record a hit single and were in danger of losing their record contract if they didn’t come up with one on their third try. He was frustrated that the sound he was getting from his electric guitar plugged into a standard amplifier-speaker wasn’t sufficiently coarse and scratchy. So he took out a razor blade and slashed a deep cut through the speaker cone, which caused a dirty, distorted howl when he played.
“That’s it!” he thought triumphantly, as the group launched into a fresh take of “You Really Got Me,” and the result was two minutes and 14 seconds of raw energy that paved the way for an entire genre of power chords and frenetic guitar solos in the five-plus decades since.
The Kinks released 24 albums between 1964 and 1994, have sold more than 50 million records worldwide, and were inducted early into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And yet, they never achieved the kind of stratospheric success of their British Invasion peers nor their many imitators in the years since.
Ray Davies — Dave’s older brother and The Kinks’ frontman, singer and primary songwriter — thinks he knows why.
“We were fighters,” he said in a 1998 interview. “We fought amongst each other, we fought with our managers, we fought with anybody who looked at us the wrong way. We wrote and recorded some pretty great music, and we had a lot of fun, but all the fighting really cost us dearly, and we only have ourselves to blame.”
Specifically, Dave Davies and drummer Mick Avory had an infamous battle in front of a stunned audience at a concert in early 1965 in Wales that put Davies in the hospital and
sent Avory into hiding. Davies soon healed and no charges were filed, but The Kinks had established a reputation for being difficult and a little dangerous.
During their first American tour a couple months later, a verbal flareup between the band and members of the union crew working the set of Dick Clark’s “Where the Action Is” caused The Kinks to be slapped with a four-year ban against further U.S. appearances when the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists recommended, and the feds agreed, to deny the necessary working permits.
“It’s all so silly, in retrospect,” said Ray Davies. “Some guy who said he worked for the TV company walked up and accused us of being late. Then he started making anti-British comments — things like, ‘Just because the Beatles did it, every mop-topped, spotty-faced limey juvenile thinks he can come over here and make a career for himself.’ A punch was thrown, and by the next day, we were on our way back home.”
As The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and other acts of the time knew, the American market was critical to their success, and The Kinks, by not being able to perform there during their initial creative period, were denied the exposure they needed to reach the heights they deserved.
In my view, another contributing reason for The Kinks’ second-class status was the decidedly inferior production values on their early recordings. The group was signed with Pye Records, who lacked the financial and professional resources to turn the band’s rough demos into the kind of polished work The Beatles and others were releasing.
Thirdly, as much as I enjoy and respect the group’s entertaining repertoire, they needed a better lead singer. Ray Davies had a distinctive voice, but not a great one (like, say, The Who’s Roger Daltrey), and I think adding a better lead vocalist would’ve helped them immeasurably.
Still, none of this stopped the band from enjoying some solid success in England, and a few of their ensuing singles made their way onto the US charts anyway. Ray Davies began to experiment much more broadly in his songwriting, and for the remainder of the Sixties, he came up with an impressive palette of songs that tapped into his early influence from British music hall traditions. The arrangements used more piano and harpsichord, and they utilized the efforts of the great British session keyboard man Nicky Hopkins to expand their sound. There was still rock music in the mix, but The Kinks’ repertoire offered more alternatives, from blues to jazz, from baroque to folk.
Readers may be familiar with minor hits like “Tired of Waiting for You,” “Set Me Free,” “A Well Respected Man,” “Till the End of the Day,” “Who’ll Be the Next in Line,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and “Sunny Afternoon,” and their albums offered plenty of other hidden pop gems like “See My Friends,” “Session Man” and “This is Where I Belong.” Davies, still only 23 in 1967, came up with one of his most evocative songs, the highly praised “Waterloo Sunset,” which reached #2 in the UK and was described by AllMusic editor Stephen Thomas as “possibly the most beautiful song of the Sixties rock and roll era.” In the States, it was inexplicably ignored, fizzling at #111.
Davies’ lyrics had begun to explore the simple aspirations and frustrations of common working-class people, with particular emphasis on the psychological effects of the British class system. Sounds like heavy stuff, but Davies used the distinctive elements of glib narrative, astute observation and wry social commentary as he took aim at his subjects, which sometimes included the music business itself.
He helped pioneer the idea of the concept album, assembling such grand song cycles as “The Village Green Preservation Society” (1968) and “Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire)” (1969). These preceded The Who’s celebrated rock opera “Tommy,” and it must have been a big frustration to Davies when Pete Townshend’s work got all the attention. British critics praised these Kinks LPs, and diehard fans enjoyed them, but they sold poorly, despite including great songs like “Animal Farm,” “Days,” “Big Sky” and “Victoria.”
Davies was probably at his most endearing when he wrote about giving up worldly ambition for the simple rewards of love and domesticity. Most Kinks albums include one or two of his tender, bittersweet odes to what he wistfully considered “a vanishing, romanticized world of village greens, pubs and schoolyards.” Despite all the stories of Davies being an irascible grump who was unpleasant to be with, there is plenty of evidence (in his songs, anyway) to indicate he was at heart a nostalgic softie with an abiding passion for traditional English culture, pastoral countrysides and storybook relationships.
Then came “Lola,” which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.
Davies recalled how the song, like many of his creations, sprang from a real-life experience. “We were in some strange London clubs at the time, and our manager was very attracted to one rather forceful woman, and danced with her all night. He got pretty drunk, and didn’t realize until much later that the object of his attentions was actually a transvestite. I thought it was hilarious, and decided to write a song about it.” He kept the lyrics just cryptic enough for it to slide past the censors and become an international hit in the fall of 1970.
(Ironically, it was deemed controversial in England not for its sexual content but for the use of the brand name “Coca-Cola” in the first verse. The BBC had a strict ban on any commercial product mentions, so Davies had to return to the studio to re-record the vocals to change the wording to “cherry cola.”)
While “Lola” gave the group a boost commercially, it did what many radio hits have done to many rock bands over the years: It saddled them with a song they quickly tired of but nevertheless had to perform night after night. As Dave Davies put it, “‘Lola’ was a lark, a fun little song, but good God, it wasn’t all that bloody good, was it?”
Perhaps in response to all that, Ray Davies dove deeper and deeper into more conceptual projects as the 1970s progressed. First came a quirky turn toward bluegrass and country music, of all things, entitled “Muswell Hillbillies,” a reference to Davies’ childhood suburban home in Muswell Hill, outside London. It never even made the charts in England.
Five more concept albums — “Everybody’s in Show Biz,” “Preservation Act 1,” “Preservation Act 2,” “Soap Opera” and “Schoolboys in Disgrace” — followed in rapid succession in the 1972-1976 period, and a handful of stellar tracks can be found if you dig deep enough: “Celluloid Heroes,” “Motorway,” “Sweet Lady Genevieve,” “Sitting in the Midday Sun” and “Education,” among others.
Something very curious was happening by then. The Kinks’ British audience had effectively abandoned them, pushing them aside, and their albums from the mid-Seventies on have never made a single ripple in the charts there. But in the US, suddenly record buyers were paying attention. Beginning with “Schoolboys in Disgrace,” Kinks albums started reaching the Top 40 on Billboard’s album charts, and then the Top 20. The more theatrical period that had included horn sections and multiple backup vocalists had given way to what pundits refer to as “stripped-down arena rock,” and the US rock audiences of the late ’70s and early ’80s ate it up.
The band had switched to Arista Records, and opted for slickly produced but defiantly performed hard rock: “Sleepwalker” (1977), “Misfits” (1978) and particularly “Low Budget” (1979) reached as high as #11 on US charts, and just like that, The Kinks were a major concert draw. The excitement of these shows was captured on the great 1980 live LP “One for the Road,” and that momentum continued with the excellent “Give the People What They Want” (1981) and “State of Confusion” (1983).
In the height of the MTV music video era, the effervescent hit “Come Dancing” put The Kinks back into the Top Ten in the US, Canada and even England, followed by the lovely ballad “Don’t Forget to Dance,” which reached the Top 20 here. A few more studio albums were to follow — 1984’s “Word of Mouth” (with Dave Davies’ best song, “Livin’ on a Thin Line”), 1986’s “Think Visual” and 1989’s “UK Jive,” but by the 1990s, they fell out of favor once again. Their 1993 swan song, “Phobia,” charted at #166.
Funny thing is, Ray Davies, and occasionally brother Dave, wrote a lot of exceptional songs, more than 400 in total, and it’s a shame only a few dozen achieved anything close to proper recognition. Their British roots have served them well, though, writing with humor and a satirical wit on many dozens of topics in many dozens of musical styles. As one critic put it, “If you’re a fan of The Kinks, it’s as if you’re a fan of a hundred different bands.”
Dave Davies offered this view: “That’s the great thing about the Kinks, I think. You got a chance to do heavy rock, and you got a chance to do lighter things, and period pieces with droll lyrics. That’s what I always found stimulating about being a member of the Kinks, all those different styles. When Ray and I grew up, we were in quite a big household with six older sisters, and they all sang and played piano, and my dad played banjo and stuff. There were so many different kinds of music around, and I think we were very fortunate to have so many influences.”
And what about that moniker they chose for themselves? Why Kinks? Various explanations of the name’s genesis have been offered, such as this one from author Jon Savage: “They needed a gimmick, some edge to get them attention, and here it was: ‘Kinkiness.’ Something newsy, a bit naughty, but still on the borderline of acceptability. In adopting the ‘Kinks’ as their name at that time, they were participating in a time-honoured pop ritual — fame through outrage.”
Robert Wace, their first manager, recalls it differently. He said the group had “a rather kinky fashion sense, as did many Brit pop groups at the time, but Ray and Dave and the others were especially conscious of their look. I told them they should call themselves The Kinks.”
Ray said recently, “We were horrified at that prospect. We said, ‘We’re not going to be called kinky, for bloody sake!’ But even though we never really liked the name, it somehow stuck. And now you can listen to 25 albums by The Kinks.”
Ray had hoped to rekindle The Kinks about ten years ago, but Dave wasn’t keen on the idea, so Ray put out a few solo albums instead. “Other People’s Lives” (2006) and “Working Man’s Cafe” (2007) went by unnoticed, but 2017’s “Americana,” an impressive set of songs about US culture and history, turned a few heads as it reached #15 in the UK and #79 here.
Now, in 2019, there’s news that both Ray and Dave Davies have at long last agreed to a long-hoped-for reunion for a new album and a tour. Is this for real this time? Is it just because they’re hurting for money? At age 74 and 71 respectively, can these two produce anything worth rivaling their best days? The odds are probably against them…but I’m among those who are very eager to find out.
I hope you enjoy my subjective playlist of great songs from The Kinks’ catalog!