Today I'm happy, because for the next two days, we'll be discussing two of my all-time favorite groups. We'll begin with the Kinks.
The Kinks were a great group, but, more than anything, it was the group's frontman and main songwriter, Ray Davies, that gave the band its special quality. An absolutely gifted storyteller, one only has to listen to his solo live album The Storyteller (1998) to be captured by this man's magic, even by the way he introduces his songs. Also one shouldn't forget his incredible sense of humor. However...
... The people who have known him well have quite a different story. His brother and guitarist Dave Davies says he has "vampire qualities … it's like having a big sucker on you". His ex Chrissie Hynde simply calls him "a nut". Larry Page, who managed the Kinks in two different decades, concludes that "Ray was as big an arsehole in the 80s as he was in the 60s", while a former bandmate says that he's so tight he "squeaks when he walks".
It's hardly a shock to learn that artists can be difficult, but over 40 years the Kinks have left a trail of wrecked hotel rooms, irate ex-wives and lovers and former bandmates driven to – and indeed over – the brink of a nervous breakdown. To pick one example from this biography of the band, on a US tour in 1987, the fractious Davies brothers set aside their usual differences in order to beat up the sound engineer. While peers such as Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney live like kings on the proceeds of long, mega-selling careers, the Kinks always managed to commit harakiri at the most commercially inopportune moment, despite having in Ray Davies a songwriter as good as any Pop music has produced, as one listen to Waterloo Sunset will prove.
Thoughout their career, the band's motto seems to have been "if it ain't broke, break it". As a look at their history makes clear, their most dramatic disasters have been self-inflicted. A 1965 Cardiff gig almost ended in decapitation when drummer Mick Avory threw a cymbal at Dave Davies's head after being informed by the guitarist that "your drumming's shit – they'd sound better if you played them with your c*ck". Three years later, Ray's refusal to hand over the sublime album Village Green Preservation Society to the record company on time ensured that it tanked.
However, let's rewind to the beginning: The Davies brothers were born in suburban North London on Huntingdon Road, East Finchley, the youngest and only boys among their family's eight children. Their parents, Frederick and Annie Davies, moved the family to 6 Denmark Terrace, Fortis Green, in the neighbouring suburb of Muswell Hill. At home they were immersed in a world of varied musical styles, from the Music Hall of their parents' generation to the Jazz and early Rock and Roll that their older sisters enjoyed. Both Ray and his brother Dave, younger by almost three years, learned to play guitar, and they played Skiffle and Rock and Roll together.
The brothers attended William Grimshaw Secondary Modern School, where they formed a band, the Ray Davies Quartet, with Ray's friend and classmate Pete Quaife and Quaife's friend John Start. Their debut at a school dance was well received, which encouraged the group to play at local pubs and bars. The band went through a series of lead vocalists, including Rod Stewart, another student at William Grimshaw, who performed with the group at least once in early 1962. He then formed his own group, Rod Stewart and the Moonrakers, which became a local rival to the Ray Davies Quartet.
In late 1962, Ray Davies left home to study at Hornsey College of Art. He pursued interests in subjects such as film, sketching, theatre and music such as Jazz and Blues. After stints at several groups, playing side by side with musicians such as Charlie Watts, later of The Rolling Stones, he ended up in a band called the Ravens, whose lineup included his brother Dave on guitar and his old friend and classmate Pete Quaife on bass guitar. The fledgling group hired two managers, Grenville Collins and Robert Wace, and in late 1963 former Pop singer Larry Page became their third manager. American record producer Shel Talmy began working with the band, and the Beatles' promoter, Arthur Howes, was retained to schedule the Ravens' live shows.
The group unsuccessfully auditioned for various record labels until early 1964, when Talmy secured them a contract with Pye Records. During this period they had acquired a new drummer, Mickey Willet; however, Willet left the band shortly before they signed to Pye. The Ravens invited Mick Avory to replace him after seeing an advertisement Avory had placed in Melody Maker. Avory had a background in Jazz drumming and had played one gig with the fledgling Rolling Stones.
Around this period, the Ravens decided on a new, permanent name: the Kinks. Numerous explanations of the name's genesis have been offered. In Jon Savage's analysis, they "needed a gimmick, some edge to get them attention. Here it was: 'Kinkiness'—something newsy, naughty but just 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."
Ray Davies recalled that the name was coined by Larry Page, and referenced their "kinky" fashion sense. Davies quoted him as saying, "The way you look, and the clothes you wear, you ought to be called the Kinks." "I've never really liked the name", Ray stated.
The band's first single was a cover of the Little Richard song Long Tall Sally. Bobby Graham, a friend of the band, was recruited to play drums on the recording. He would continue to occasionally substitute for Avory in the studio and play on several of the Kinks' early singles, including the early hits You Really Got Me, All Day and All of the Night and Tired of Waiting For You. Long Tall Sally was released in February 1964, but despite the publicity efforts of the band's managers, the single was almost completely ignored. When their second single, You Still Want Me, failed to chart, Pye Records threatened to annul the group's contract unless their third single was successful.
You Really Got Me, a Ray Davies song, influenced by American Blues and the Kingsmen's version of Louie Louie, was recorded on 15 June 1964 at Pye studios with a slower and more produced feel than the final single. Ray Davies wanted to rerecord the song with a lean, raw sound, but Pye refused to fund another session; Davies took an adamant stand, so the producer, Shel Talmy, broke the stalemate by under-writing the session himself. The band used an independent studio, IBC, and went in on 15 July, getting it done in two takes. The single was released on August 1964, and, supported by a performance on the television show Ready Steady Go! and extensive pirate radio coverage, it entered the UK charts on 15 August, reaching #1 on 19 September. Hastily imported by the American label Reprise Records, it also made #7 in the United States. The loud, distorted guitar riff and solo on You Really Got Me was played by Dave Davies and achieved by a slice Dave Davies made in the speaker cone of his Elpico amplifier (referred to by the band as the "little green amp")— helped with the song's signature, gritty guitar sound. You Really Got Me has been described as "a blueprint song in the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal arsenal", and as an influence on the approach of some American Garage Rock bands. 2 minutes and 14 seconds of Rock 'N' Roll Heaven.
Their follow-up, All Day And All Of The Night made #2 in the UK and #7 in the US. It was also a great single, the only negative thing about it was that it was a little too similar to You Really Got Me.
They needn't have worried: Their next single was a melodic departure: the lament of a guy who, as the title says, is Tired Of Waiting For You. The single made #1 in the UK, #3 in Canada and Ireland, and #6 in the US.
Set Me Free was another successful attempt at a softer, more introspective sound. It peaked at #2 in Canada, #9 in the UK, #12 in the Netherlands and #23 in the US.
See My Friends was released in 1965 and reached #10 on the UK Singles Chart, but flopped in the US. A rare foray into Psychedelic Rock for the group, it is credited by Jonathan Bellman as the first Western Rock song to integrate Indian raga sounds, being released four months before the Beatles' Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).
Ray Davies has been heard to say the song is about the death of his older sister, Rene, who lived for a time in Ontario, Canada. Upon her return to England she fell ill due to an undiagnosed hole in her heart and died while dancing at a night club. Just before she died, he has said, she gave him his first guitar for his 13th birthday.
Inspiration for the song came from a stopover in Bombay during The Kinks' 1965 Asian tour, where the jetlagged Davies encountered fishermen chanting on their way to their morning work. He also incorporated into the song the significance of the Ganges river in the Indian death ritual. (The lyric "See my friends layin' 'cross the river" as a metaphor for death).
Ray Davies, at the time of the song's release, expressed disappointment toward the single's lukewarm reception, saying "[It's] the only one I've really liked, and they're not buying it. You know, I put everything I've got into it ... I can't even remember what the last one was called - nothing. It makes me think they must be morons or something. Look, I'm not a great singer, nor a great writer, not a great musician. But I do give everything I have ... and I did for this disc."
The Kinks familiar brand of biting, yet funny social commentary began with A Well Respected Man. Davies composed the song based on a negative experience with upper class guests at a luxury resort where he was staying in 1965. He crafted the song to mock what he perceived as their condescension and self-satisfaction. It was released as a single in the United States during October of that same year and reached #13.
Till the End of the Day was a return to the raunchier sound of their first hits. It peaked at #6 in the Netherlands and at #8 in the UK.
Dedicated Follower of Fashion, the first single in 1966, was a return to social commentary songs. Uproarously funny, it lampoons the contemporary British fashion scene and mod culture in general. It peaked at #1 in the Netherlands and New Zealand, at #4 in the UK, at #11 in Canada, and at #36 in the US and Australia.
1966 and 1967 were the years that the Kinks reached their creative apex: after Dedicated Follower of Fashion came Sunny Afternoon. Like its contemporary Taxman by The Beatles, the song references the high levels of progressive tax taken by the British Labour government of Harold Wilson, even though Davies' approach is gentler than that of Harrison. Its strong music hall flavour and lyrical focus was part of a stylistic departure for the band (begun with 1965's A Well Respected Man).
Davies said of the song's lyrics, "The only way I could interpret how I felt was through a dusty, fallen aristocrat who had come from old money as opposed to the wealth I had created for myself." In order to prevent the listener from sympathizing with the song's protagonist, Davies said, "I turned him into a scoundrel who fought with his girlfriend after a night of drunkenness and cruelty."
The song was a big hit for the Kinks: #1 in the UK, Canada, Ireland, and the Netherlands, #2 in New Zealand, #7 in Germany, #13 in Australia and #14 in the US.
Dandy, another great song, was a hit in Continental Europe, reaching #1 in Germany, #2 in Belgium and #3 in the Netherlands.
Dandy became a hit single in North America in 1966 as recorded by fellow UK group Herman's Hermits in that same time frame, reaching #1 in Canada and #5 in the US. It also made #3 in New Zealand. This version was not released as a single in the UK.
Dead End Street deals with the poverty and misery found in the lower classes of English society. The song was a big success in the UK, reaching #5 on the singles charts, but only reached #73 in the United States.
Mister Pleasant satirizes the heedless complacency of a nouveau riche who, for all his newfound worldly success, is but a foolish cuckold. Musically, the song has strong English Music Hall influences and a "Trad Jazz" backing that features a trombone and ragtime-style piano (played by Nicky Hopkins).
Due to the Kinks' absence from American touring and the single's noncommercial sound, Mister Pleasant did not fare well in the US, only managing a peak of #80 - their poorest showing since See My Friends failed to reach the Hot 100 in 1965 - despite being tapped as likely Top 20 material by Billboard magazine. Mr. Pleasant was much more successful in Europe, particularly the Netherlands (where it reached #2) and Belgium (#3).
Their first single for 1967 was perhaps their best: Waterloo Sunset belongs up there with Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever as the three most effective lyrical evocations of the British landscape in Pop song.
The song was rumoured to have been inspired by the romance between two British celebrities of the time, actors Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, stars of 1967's Far from the Madding Crowd. Ray Davies denied this in his autobiography and claimed in a 2008 interview, "It was a fantasy about my sister going off with her boyfriend to a new world and they were going to emigrate and go to another country." In a 2010 interview with Kinks biographer Nick Hasted, he said Terry was his nephew Terry Davies, "who he was perhaps closer to than his real brother in early adolescence." Despite its complex arrangement, the sessions for "Waterloo Sunset" lasted a mere ten hours; Dave Davies later commented on the recording: "We spent a lot of time trying to get a different guitar sound, to get a more unique feel for the record. In the end we used a tape-delay echo, but it sounded new because nobody had done it since the 1950s.
The song was a big hit for the Kinks, peaking at #1 in the Netherlands, #2 in the UK, #4 in Australia, and #7 in Germany and New Zealand.
Death of a Clown was one of the few Kinks' songs to be co-written by brother Dave, who also sings lead vocals. A #2 hit in the Netherlands, #3 in the UK and Germany.
Autumn Almanac followed suite. It has since been noted for being an "absolute classic", "a finely observed slice of English custom", a "weird character study" and for its "mellow, melodic sound that was to characterize the Kinks' next [musical] phase..." Some have placed this and other Davies compositions in the pastoral-Romantic tradition of the poetry of Wordsworth, among others. A #3 hit in the UK and #5 Germany.
Their next single was a song by brother Dave Davies. Davies was expelled from school at the age of fifteen after being caught having intercourse with his girlfriend, Sue Sheehan, on Hampstead Heath. Shortly thereafter, they were forced to separate by their respective families after Sue found out she was pregnant. Their relationship had a profound impact on Davies, who wrote a number of songs about their separation. One of them was Suzannah's Still Alive (#10 in the Netherlands, #20 in the UK). Dave did not meet their daughter, Tracey, until 1993.
Dave Davies published an autobiography, entitled Kink, in 1996, in which he discussed a brief period of bisexuality in the late 1960s, which included a brief relationship with Long John Baldry and music producer Michael Aldred. He also wrote of the tense professional relationship with his brother over the Kinks' 30-year career.
Their best single in 1968 was Days. The song was an important single for Davies and the Kinks, coming in a year of declining commercial fortunes for the band. It had been intended as an album track but after the relative failure of the previous single Wonderboy (which only reached #36 in the UK), Days was rushed out as a single. It reached #12 on the UK chart, but failed to chart in the US.
1969 came and went without big hits, but not without good songs. Shangri-La was one of those:
Victoria was another:
They returned in a grand style with their first single in the 70s, which is also of particular significance to us. Lola details a romantic encounter between a naive young man and a transvestite named Lola. The story is expertly told, with gradual reveals that climax with the triumphant "Well I'm not the world's most masculine man,/But I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man,/And so is Lola."
For a 1970 song, it was way ahead of its time: there was no hate or resentment, no drama or tragedy, just a glorious celebration of the power of love and lust.
The addictive guitar riff, the chorus of "lo lo lo lo Lola" and the ingenius lyrics made sure the song became a big hit, even though it received backlash and even bans in Britain and Australia, due to its controversial subject matter and use of the brand name Coca-Cola. The British version of the song was obligated to use the phrase "cherry cola" instead of "Coca-Cola", which was used in the US version. Peaking at #1 in the Netherlands and New Zealand, #2 in the UK, Germany and Canada, #4 in Australia and #9 in the US, it has since become one of The Kinks' most iconic and popular songs, later being ranked number 422 on "Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time" as well as number 473 on the "NME's 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time" list.
Their follow-up, Apeman, was also a big hit, but not in the US (#45). It peaked at #5 in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, #8 in Germany, #9 in the Netherlands and #19 in Canada.
The Kinks only seemed to feel at home on a sinking ship. After Lola returned them to the charts in the early 70s after a series of flops, and it was followed by another hit, Apeman, the Davies brothers were positively displeased to find themselves back on Top of the Pops. "It did have that smell of: 'Oh blimey, not that again,'" Dave Davies said. Happily, several catastrophes were around the corner, though the Kinks did become huge in America in the 70s and 80s, something often overlooked by British fans, who always associate them with their 60s run of era-defining singles, from You Really Got Me to Days.
Celluloid Heroes wasn't a hit in 1972, but it's one of the Kinks classics. At the time of its release, the song was one of the longest for the band, peaking at six minutes, while most of Davies' songs had rarely surpassed four minutes. The song was a standard in their concert playlists until they disbanded in 1996; appearing on the band's live album One for the Road (1980). This live version featured a lengthy instrumental intro, a rare occurrence in the Kinks commercial canon. The song continues to be featured in Ray Davies' solo shows, and was chosen to be re-recorded for the 2009 album The Kinks Choral Collection.
In 1973, Ray Davies dived headlong into the theatrical style, beginning with the Rock Opera "Preservation", a sprawling chronicle of social revolution, and a more ambitious outgrowth of the earlier Village Green Preservation Society ethos. In conjunction with the Preservation project, the Kinks' line-up was expanded to include a horn section and female backup singers, essentially reconfiguring the group as a theatrical troupe.
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. Davies became depressed; during a July gig at White City Stadium he told the audience he was "f*cking sick of the whole thing", and was retiring. He subsequently collapsed after a drug overdose and was taken to hospital. With Ray Davies in a seemingly critical condition, plans were discussed for Dave to continue as frontman in a worst-case scenario. Ray recovered from his illness as well as his depression, but throughout the remainder of the Kinks' theatrical incarnation the band's output remained uneven, and their already fading popularity declined even more. John Dalton (Pete Quaife's replacement since 1969) later commented that when Davies "decided to work again ... I don't think he was totally better, and he's been a different person ever since."
After a number of unsuccessful releases, and following the termination of their contract with RCA, the Kinks signed with Arista Records in 1976. With the encouragement of Arista's management they stripped back down to a five-man core group and were reborn as an Arena Rock band.
John Dalton left the band before finishing the sessions for the debut Arista album. Andy Pyle was brought in to complete the sessions and to play on the subsequent tour. Sleepwalker, released in 1977, marked a return to success for the group as it peaked at number 21 on the Billboard chart. On the Outside, recorded for Sleepwalker, but only released later as a bonus track on the CD version of the album, was the Kinks second song with LGBT content, encouraging a closet queen to step out of the closet. Some of the lyrics:
You think you're a freak
And you're afraid to compete
In a world that you think's got it down on you
You're a closet queen
You think it's obscene
To let the people see what's deep inside of you
I know what you're going through
But what you are is nothing new
So don't feel ashamed
'Cos you're not to blame
Role up the blinds and let the sun come shining through
Hey baby blue
Don't hide your troubles inside
You should be glad in the gay
Nobody cares anyway on the outside
After the release of Sleepwalker and the recording of the follow-up, Misfits, Andy Pyle and keyboardist John Gosling left the group to work together on a separate project. Dalton returned to complete the tour and ex–Pretty Things keyboardist Gordon John Edwards joined the band. In May 1978, Misfits, the Kinks' second Arista album, was released. It included the US Top 40 hit A Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy (#30 US and Canada), which helped make the record another success for the band.
A Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy is a beautiful song and deserved an even bigger success. Still, it kept the Kinks commercially alive.
From the same album comes a third song of LGBT interest by the Kinks. Out of the Wardrobe is about a married man who is a closet transvestite. Here is how the song starts:
Has anybody here seen a chick called Dick
He looks real burly but he's really hip
He's six feet tall and his arms are all brown and hairy
He married Betty Lou back in '65 when you had to be butch to survive
But lately he's been looking at his wife with mixed emotions
You see, he's not a common place closet queen
He shouldn't be hidden, he should be seen
'Cos when he puts on that dress he looks like a princess
And this is the final verse:
He's out of the wardrobe and he's feeling alright
He's out of the wardrobe and he's feeling satisfied
Now it's farewell to the past
The secret's out at last
He's out of the wardrobe and now he's got no regrets
The album Give the People What They Want was released in late 1981 and reached number 15 in the US. The record attained gold status and featured the UK hit single of sorts (#46) Better Things:
In spring 1983, the song Come Dancing became their biggest American hit since Tired of Waiting for You, peaking at #6. It also became the group's first Top 20 hit in the UK since 1972, peaking at #12 in the charts. The accompanying album, State of Confusion, was another commercial success, reaching #12 in the US, but, like all of the group's albums since 1967, it failed to chart in the UK.
Come Dancing was a true return to form for the Kinks. It wasn't unlike things that Paul Simon would do later in the 80s. It also was an obvious inspiration for the Talking Heads' late 80s works.
The follow up, Don't Forget to Dance, was as good and also a sizeable hit. (#20 in Canada and #29 in the US.)
During the second half of 1983, Ray Davies started work on an ambitious solo film project. The film gave actor Tim Roth a significant early role. Davies' commitment to writing, directing and scoring the new work caused tension in his relationship with his brother. Another problem was the stormy end of the relationship between Ray Davies and Chrissie Hynde. The old feud between Dave Davies and drummer Mick Avory also re-ignited. Davies eventually refused to work with Avory, and called for him to be replaced by Bob Henrit, former drummer of Argent. Avory left the band, and Henrit was brought in to take his place. Ray Davies, who was still on amiable terms with Avory, invited him to manage Konk Studios. Avory accepted, and continued to serve as a producer and occasional contributor on later Kinks albums.
Meanwhile, the band had begun work on Word of Mouth, their final Arista album, released in November 1984. As a result it includes Avory on three tracks, with Henrit and a drum machine on the rest. Word of Mouth's lead track, Do It Again, was released as a single in April 1985. It reached #41 in the US, the band's last entry into the Billboard Hot 100.
The Kinks gave their last public performance in mid-1996, and the group assembled for what would turn out to be their last time together at a party for Dave's 50th birthday. Kinks chronicler and historian Doug Hinman stated, "The symbolism of the event was impossible to overlook. The party was held at the site of the brothers' very first musical endeavour, the Clissold Arms pub, across the street from their childhood home on Fortis Green in North London."
US Rock critic Greil Marcus, in his landmark book Mystery Train, discusses only five acts that he felt were special in that they were hugely important in the history of Rock, yet not easily classifiable, if at all. They were also absolutely original. These acts were Elvis Presley (the Sun years), The Band, Sly & The Family Stone, Randy Newman and the Kinks. He's got a point.