10 Essential And Brilliant Kinks Songs

The Kinks Songs

Photo: By Yves Lorson from Kapellen, Belgium (Ray Davies) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The double edged sword of brotherly love and sibling rivalry propelled the Kinks through three decades of on stage violence, performance bans, and pure brilliance. Initially part of the British Invasion, the Kinks were banned from the United States in 1965. Yet the maelstrom of bad behavior, bad management, and bad blood would fuel the Kinks into becoming an innovative cornerstone in British rock that trickled into America despite the union’s wishes.

In the northern London suburb of Muswell Hill, Frederick and Annie Davies raised Ray and Dave, the only boys out of eight children. Surrounded by the music hall favorites of their parents, big band sounds and early rock and roll of their sisters, the family proved to be fertile musical soil even as some of the relationships were tested.

The Ray Davies Quartet was formed while Ray and Dave were still in school. Ray played rhythm guitar and provided lead vocals. Dave played lead guitar and also provided vocals. Dave’s friend Pete Quaife was on bass and John Start, later replaced by Mick Avory, on drums. Well received at school dances, they began to play local pubs and bars. Evolving and performing under names like the Ramrods and the Ravens, the band would land a contract with Pye Records in early 1964.  Renamed the Kinks, the band covered Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” in February 1964, followed quickly by “You Still Want Me”. Both singles were tremendous flops and Pye Records drew a line in the sand. The third single would be a hit, or the Kinks could hit the road.

Pye wanted to release the first take of “You Really Got Me” and be done with the band. Ray hated it and stood his ground, but Pye wouldn’t let them re-record. The stalemate was broken when it was recorded again with the band’s management financing the project. By standing their ground and producing what they wanted instead of the studio, the Kinks were truly born.

With commercial success coming quickly, the band packed their gear and egos for the road. Starting 1965 on tour in Australia and New Zealand, tensions began to grow. By May they were back in England. At the Capitol Theater in Cardiff, Wales, Dave and Mick boiled over in an onstage brawl. Dave kicked over Mick’s drum set and in return, Mick gave Dave 16 stitches to the head courtesy of his high hat. The dark cloud of sibling rivalry grew overhead and Ray and Dave later admitted to hating the sight of each other during this period. Nevertheless, the tour of America was approaching.

The trip to America was like a nightmare family road trip. The Kinks were billed erroneously as the Kings in places and marketing suggested they were a Beatles knock off. Several advertisements even proclaimed “Straight from Liverpool!” Onstage performances were forced, angry affairs in front of empty seats.  On July 2, backstage at Dick Clark’s “Where the Action Is” a staff member accused them of being late for taping. Insults (including anti-British comments) grew to shouts that grew to shoves that grew to punches. Two days later, at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, the promoter was unable to pay the band in cash as promised so they refused to play. Complaints were lodged to the American Federation of Musicians.  The end result was an outright ban. Without the union, work visas would be denied and the Kinks couldn’t play in America.

Social commentary and satire would find an easy pen with Ray’s songwriting as the Kinks stayed focused on English life. Nervous breakdowns, physical altercations (including one with a fashion designer where Ray would brag, “I kicked him, and I kicked his girlfriend up the arse”) and frantic schedules would continue to take their toll. Yet some of their most iconic tunes were written and recorded through the late sixties as the band moved through experimental projects.

In early 1969, Pete Quaife left the band and was replaced by John Dalton. The ban on America was lifted later that year, thanks in part to a signed confession that “everyone signed and no one read.” Tour dates were booked. But between lackluster sales and illnesses of various band members, few gigs were played. A second tour faced the same problems the following year but in the downtime Ray would pen their next single, “Lola.”

Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (Pye in the UK, Reprise in the US, 1970) would be the Kink’s biggest success since the mid-60’s. It would chart on both sides of the pond and bring the Kinks back onto the America’s radar. Yet the follow up album, Percy in 1971 would not be released in the United States. The mostly instrumental album would finish out the Kink’s contract.

Flush with a brand new contract and a million dollar advance from RCA, the Kinks broke ground on Konk, their own recording studio. While finding success with the new studio and label, the usual egos and outside problems plagued the Kinks. Ray’s marriage crumbled and he would suffer another breakdown and period of depression. John Dalton said that Ray was never the same.

But the Kinks would soldier on, finally cracking the American stadium concert threshold. In 1990, the Kinks would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite talk of reuniting, the Kinks played their last performance together in 1996.

#10 “Come Dancing”

The childhood memories of the Davies’ home provide the background and inspiration of “Come Dancing” (Arista, 1982). Ray and Dave’s older sisters were known to frequent the local dance halls and it was a tribute to his sister Rene. On Ray’s 13th birthday, Rene visited from Canada and gifted him his first guitar. Later that night, Rene suffered a heart attack and died on the dancefloor of the local ballroom. The Kinks songs music video was a mainstay for the fledgling MTV network, introducing millions of new fans to the Kinks. MTV propelled the song to #6 on the Hot Billboard 100 in the US. Though the first release of the single had failed to chart in the UK, it was re-released after the American buzz and went to #12 on the UK Singles chart.

Ray had mulled over the idea of “Come Dancing” for years before writing the song. Ray’s storytelling lyrics accompany the musical journey through time. The result is a heady cocktail of musical styles through history. The horns bring forth the big band feel of the older sisters, giving way to the bridge with its mid-50’s doo wop backing vocals, which is followed by Dave’s classic Kink’s powerchord riffs.

#9 “See My Friends”

Jetlagged and unable to sleep, Ray found himself on the early morning beach in Mumbai (then called Bombay) during a tour of Asia. He encountered two fishermen chanting their way to work. The chant, when coupled with spiritual beliefs of the soul crossing rivers inspired Ray to write this earlier tribute to his sister Rene. In the studio, the backing tracks were slowed down before the vocals were added. The raga feel of the music and the drum rhythm makes “See My Friends” almost a meditation. Ray held the Kinks song in close enough regard to be disappointed and angry when it was not highly received.

Released as a single (Pye Records) in July, 1965, “See My Friends” ignited a wave of what would be “Raga rock” though the term (coined by the Byrds’ publicist) would not be used for almost a year. Upon hearing the single for the first time, Pete Townsend of The Who would say, “‘See My Friends’ was the next time I pricked up my ears and thought, ‘God, he’s done it again. He’s invented something new.'” The Yardbirds would release “Heart Full of Soul” the next month and The Beatles would release “Norwegian Wood” in December of the same year.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCSzxkbMri8

#8 “Strangers”

The second track on Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One is one of the most powerful Kinks songs ever written by Dave Davies. Though never released as a single, the song quickly became a fan favorite off the album. While Dave is mostly associated with heavily distorted fuzzy sound and other hard hitting electrified guitar lines, he opted for an acoustic, folksy vibe on “Strangers.”  The lyrics, especially the line “If I live too long I’m afraid I’ll die,” were inspired by Hank Williams’ song “I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive.” While Dave wrote the song about his school pal, the underlying theme of the lyrics can be seen as summing up the relationship between Ray and Dave and the Kinks journey.

#7 “Victoria”

“Victoria” was released as a single from the concept album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (Pye in the UK, Reprise in the US, 1969).  The album itself was to be a soundtrack for a television program that never was completed. Melody Maker would call the album “…beautifully British to the core.” Ray’s lyrics and music are a blend of imperfect nostalgia. Thanks to Ray’s brilliant duality, for years fans have differed on whether the lyrics were pure patriotism or pure satire. Musically, the Kinks blend rock and roll with the backing of horns for a touch of regal, ceremonial flare with great guitar riffs.

#6 “Powerman”

No strangers to label strangulation, Ray set his eyes on the recording executives and management with “Powerman.” While Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One was well received by music journalists, the buying public largely ignored it. It was the last album released by Reprise in the United States (Pye Records would release Arthur in the UK, but it was never released in America).

Revisiting the Raga rock feeling the Kinks started earlier in their career for the opening strains, it soon gives way to heavy, driving guitar. When the bass and drum lines kick in, the result is as greedy and hungry as the lyrics subject matter. The heavy drive would make “Powerman” a fan favorite off of the album. Thirty-seven years down the road, it would introduce a new generation to the Kinks after it (along with “Strangers” and “This Time Tomorrow”) was featured in Wes Anderson’s film, The Darjeeling Limited.

#5 “Celluloid Heroes”

The second single to be released from Everybody’s in Show-Biz (RCA, 1972), the UK single would include the entire album version, while the American version stuck to the more corporate (cough-cough-powerman-cough) radio friendly four minutes. Ray wrote the song while he was living in a seedy apartment in Hollywood. Always one to recognize stark contrast around him, Ray was inspired by the stars (known and unknown) on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as the grit and litter on the sidewalk itself.

The poignant, enchanting tale of the silver screen is one of the most moving Kinks songs written by Ray. The ballad is as simple and wistful as it is complex. The poetic lyrics and the melody could each stand alone in the halls of greatness. Put together, Ray penned a masterpiece. With almost as much irony as displayed in the song, “Celluloid Heroes” remains to be one of the all-time favorites by fans, yet receives almost no radio airplay. It is usually only heard when an aging movie star passes away.

#4 “Lola”

“Lola” (Pye Records in the UK, Reprise in the US, 1971) has as much conflict and controversy as the Kink’s first American tour. Ray would claim it was based on an incident involving their manager Robert Wace. Mick Avory said it was based on frequenting the trans bars in west London and a specific fan that would turn up at all the Kinks appearances. Musically, Dave would claim in his book, Kink: An Autobiography that he wrote the music while Ray added lyrics after he heard it. Yet seven years earlier, Dave said it was a collaboration, with Ray already having the musical bones in place before Dave got involved, much like “You Really Got Me.”

The song was banned in Australia due to its gender bending subject matter and across America, some radio stations would end or dim the song before Lola’s true gender was revealed. The BBC banned it outright, not because of its subject matter, but because the original single had “Coca-Cola” in the lyrics, violating their product placement policy. Despite censorship issues, “Lola” hit #2 on the UK Singles Chart and #9 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Destined for greatness, “Lola” danced and drank her way into the hearts of fans. The iconic guitar opening was created by combining the sound of a Martin guitar with a vintage Dobro resonating guitar. The result is one of the most recognized riffs in rock and roll. In true Davies (both of them) fashion, the song grows in intensity as the infatuation grows in the lyrics.

#3 “Sunny Afternoon”

Ill and at home, Ray wrote the opening riff on his upright piano. He told Rolling Stone he had spent the time before writing it listening to Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, and Bob Dylan. He said they provided the chromatic part in the back of the song. “Sunny Afternoon” spent two weeks at #1 on the UK Singles Chart and #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in America. The song shares its name with the stage musical that opened in London on May 1, 2014. The musical tells the story of the Kinks, though many fans find parts to be more fictional than factual.

With the ironic trademark style of the band, the Kinks shot a promotional video of “Sunny Afternoon” (Pye in the UK, Reprise in the US, 1966) amongst clouds and snow. Guitar aficionados will recognize Dave’s 1959 Flying V (also referred to as the Futurist) in the video. Dave acquired the Flying V when his Gretsch was lost by the airline on the way to Los Angeles. In a panic, they stopped at the first shop they saw and Dave spied the “funny looking case” in the corner. The shopkeeper did his best to talk Dave out of purchasing it, but $200 later Dave would fall in love with “this lovely, strange, space-age looking guitar.”

#2. “You Really Got Me”

Released as a single on August 4, 1964, after a hard won battle with Pye Records (later released on the album Kinks on Pye Records in the UK and the album You Really Got Me on Reprise Records for the US) the Kinks took to the charts in Britain and abroad. One of the first songs Ray had written, it started as a light, jazzy tune. Ray envisioned opening piano riffs and a saxophone line, Dave disagreed. With circular moons and pin pricks carefully place in the speaker cone of the Elpico amp that was used as a pre-amp for his AC 30, Dave’s interpretation of the song is guitar brilliance.

As if the defining sound and history isn’t enough, the song spurred several urban legends. People claim that fuzz guitar effect pedals were born after this recording, though the Rhode’s fuzz box was used as early as 1961 in California studios. Other people claim that Jimmy Page (who did work as a studio musician with the Kinks and others at the time) played guitar on the song, a claim even Page has denied. Decades later people would stand by the fictionalized account of the Elpico’s modification by knitting needle that was put forth in Ray’s stage musical Sunny Afternoon. Strip away the egos, legends, and stories and the simple “bloke’s love song” has one of the most exemplary openings of all time. The instantly recognizable hit would launch the Kinks career. Fourteen years later it would do the same for Van Halen.

#1 “Waterloo Sunset”

Written after one of his breakdowns, Ray felt vulnerable and wouldn’t show the lyrics to the band. Instead he tested them out on his sister Rosie and niece Jackie. From the album Something Else from the Kinks (Pye Records in the UK, Reprise in the US, 1967), Ray initially did not want to release the song as a single. When the single was released it reached #2 on the British charts and climbed into the top 10 in Australia, New Zealand, and most of Europe, but failed to chart in North America. Rolling Stone placed the song at #42 on “Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, the highest rated song for the Kinks. David Bowie said, “There’s something so anchored about that song. It’s inherently… English… there’s something so deeply moving about the song, so timeless. [It] couldn’t be set in any other place or any other country in the world.” And England would thoroughly agree. Londoners adopted the song as their unofficial anthem.  When the world came to London for the 2012 Olympic Games, Ray sang the Kinks song during the closing ceremonies.

 

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