Ray Davies & The Kinks

1996 was a banner year for Ray Davies—one of the most talented writers and conceptualists rock has ever produced. After more than 30 years with The Kinks, the group he has led off and on along with his younger brother Dave, Ray was enjoying a new career as a solo artist. His keen wit and storytelling ability enabled him to take his remarkable one-man play, 20th Century Man, to packed houses and critical acclaim all over the United States. The play, based loosely on his equally remarkable fictionalized autobiography, X-Ray, provided a unique insight into the forces that have shaped Ray Davies's long, prolific career as a rock songwriter.

As if that weren't enough, two of his classic songs—"Tired of Waiting" and "You Really Got Me"—were turned into soundtracks for ubiquitous television commercials for, respectively, a cold remedy and an automobile.

The best news for fans of Davies's work, however, is that he has been encouraged to reassemble The Kinks for a 1997 tour in support of the band's current two-CD live retrospective release, To the Bone.

Davies's solo success is ironic in the light of his desperate efforts to keep The Kinks going in the face of general disinterest from the record industry. Despite Davies's own well-documented talents, a track record of hit singles over more than 30 years and the continuing support of a hard core of fans who have faithfully followed The Kinks from the start, the group has been roughly treated by a series of record companies, and found itself in the mid-1990s without a major-label deal.

The fact is that The Kinks have created one of the most important album catalogs in rock history, and yet it is in shambles. None of the major labels that have released the band's albums over the years has treated this body of work with much respect. The only company that has served The Kinks well is the specialty reissue label Rhino, which has actually enhanced the part of the catalog it controls.

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Conceptually, Ray Davies has consistently been one of rock's true visionaries. The Kinks more or less accidentally invented heavy metal with the monster riff that powered the band's #1 1964 single (1965 in America), "You Really Got Me." That was the loudest, rawest piece of primal rock to ever top the charts at that point, and its echoes are still being heard in the countless generations of bands that have followed the noise:

• Before George Harrison introduced sitars into the Beatles' music, The Kinks used a droning, Indian-music modality on the eerie single "See My Friends."

• A year before the Beatles incorporated sound effects to help fashion a series of unrelated songs into the concept album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Ray Davies had applied the same techniques to the making of Face to Face, an album that has been out of print for so long it's become one of the true "lost" albums of the rock era.

• Before The Who assembled the "rock opera" Tommy, Davies had written the album-length story Arthur, performed by The Kinks as part of a British television special that was never aired.

• A decade before MTV debuted in 1982, Davies tried to get his record company to finance a series of multimedia rock stage plays featuring videos as an essential part of the concept. The record company rejected the idea, but Davies went ahead anyway and produced Soap Opera, Preservation, and Schoolboys in Disgrace.

The Test of Time
The Kinks had the essential combination of elements necessary for a rock band to achieve greatness over an extended period of time: a songwriter of extraordinary skill and imagination, and a group sound developed and sustained by a virtuoso instrumentalist. The two elements will inevitably come into conflict over the course of a long career; the test of a truly great rock band is to transcend or even feed off that conflict in order to maintain its creative edge. The fact that these two key elements of The Kinks' identity are represented by brothers makes the initial bond and subsequent conflict all that more intense. Ray and Dave Davies can create together or war with each other, but they can never stop being brothers. That bond has been the secret weapon that has made The Kinks one of the most important bands in rock history.

"Before we even had a band, me and Ray used to play together," recalled Dave. "Ray was very much the instrumentalist and I was the rhythm guitarist, but when we formed a band it changed. My playing was more aggressive, and it seemed to fit better when we had drums in the band.

"Ray and I have a very special relationship; it's been terrible at times, and yet we are still trying for something. We have the same goal but different methods of getting there. We're both fighting against each other and with each other. It's a fusion of tension that makes something real. Ray is an intellectual person, whereas I'm not, and I've gotten into a lot of emotional difficulties with people because of that. He's stimulated my intellectual part and I've stimulated his feeling part."

96kinks.xray300.jpgRattle and Hum
Ray's remarkable description in X-Ray of the band's early days reveals an awful lot about what makes The Kinks tick, as well as what the forces were that produced the golden age of British rockers who emerged in the 1960s.

Few groups of popular musicians were as unanimous in their influences as the English rockers of the 1960s. They were all well-versed in American blues and roots music. Like the Rolling Stones, Animals, Who, Them, etc., the early Kinks were a blues band capable of delivering a fast-paced backbeat and a particularly raunchy guitar-driven sound. These bands understood the importance of distorting the guitar tone at the center of the sound. The rattle and hum of rock guitar, which set it apart from the "clean" tones used by most country and jazz guitarists, are traceable back to the secondary ambient sounds that are a central part of the African musical aesthetic.

Early rock bands had to be pretty innovative to come up with the appropriate distortion techniques. Dave arrived at his distinctive instrumental voice during jam sessions with Ray in the family sitting room. Dave had a little green 10-watt Elpico amplifier whose tinny sound the brothers hated. Dave ran the Elpico amplifier's speaker output leads through a Vox AC 30 amplifier, then slashed the speaker cone of the Elpico to produce a buzzing, distorted sound. The boys christened this piece of custom equipment "the fart box."

Blues Covers
The earliest Kinks albums, made before Ray developed his unique songwriting voice, are studded with blues covers and '50s rock songs culled from a variety of black American sources, some fairly obscure: "Milk Cow Blues," "Long Tall Shorty," "I'm a Lover Not a Fighter," "Cadillac," "Long Tall Sally," "Beautiful Delilah," "Too Much Monkey Business," etc.

Ray enthusiatically admits to the blues influence, tracing it back to his first glimpse of Big Bill Broonzy on a British television documentary. Ray began his professional career playing rhythm guitar and harmonica for the Dave Hunt band, whose residence at the Crawdaddy club in Richmond was later taken over by the Rolling Stones.

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Meanwhile, Dave had formed an instrumental band called the Ravens, with his friend Pete Quaife on bass, and the band recruited former Rolling Stones drummer Mick Avory. Ray joined in 1963. Rechristened with the attention-grabbing (they hoped) name The Kinks, the Davies brothers and friends cut their first single, a remake of Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," for producer Shel Talmy. The session, which also yielded "I Took My Baby Home," "You Do Something to Me," and "You Still Want Me," was an uneventful start for The Kinks, but better days were ahead.

Talmy had been pressuring Ray to write some Beatles-type tunes, but during a package tour of England the band was getting its best response from another of Ray's songs, "You Really Got Me." Though he wrote it, Ray attributed its sound to the whole band, describing it as "a sort of Ventures-like instrumental track with a vocal line on top."

The band went into the studio to cut "You Really Got Me," didn't like the way it was produced, and insisted on re-cutting it with a sound closer to the live performances. Dave pulled out all the stops on the second take, even adding the doctored "fart box" to his gear for its peculiar distortion, and proceeded to record a milestone in rock history.

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The Idea, Not the Instrument
There has been much subsequent speculation as to whether it was actually Jimmy Page who played the dexterous guitar solo on "You Really Got Me." (Page was a session guitarist at the time and was used extensively by Talmy.) Page was also rumored to have played some trademark guitar parts on the recordings of another of Talmy's famous clients, The Who. Session musicians standing in for bandmembers was common practice back then. Nicky Hopkins also did a lot of uncredited keyboard work on Talmy-produced albums—You Really Got Me, Kinks-Size, Kinda Kinks, The Live Kinks, Kinkdom, The Kink Kontroversy, Face to Face, and Something Else—as well as on various singles appearing on The Kink Kronikles.

Popular music history has since proven that the idea is more important than the instrument. The use of samples and other sonic prosthetics has become standard practice in the studio. It doesn't matter so much who actually played what on early Kinks records as much as it matters that the band came up with the ideas in the first place.

The first seven Talmy-produced albums collect a wildly inconsistent bunch of songs ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Ray Davies's Tin Pan Alley–level writing discipline enabled him to churn out an enormous quantity of work, some of it obviously made to order but much of it superb, while Dave sang most of the reconstituted blues tunes.

Reissues
You Really Got Me and Kinda Kinks are packaged together as a Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab gold disc; Kinks-Size and Kinkdom are collected as a Rhino twofer. The best way to approach the early material, however, is to head for the collections—the Rhino Greatest Hits disc, or the quirky, lovable Kink Kronikles.

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The Rhino collection is without question the best-value Kinks release on the market: 18 tracks of hits and essentials. The set starts off with the rip-roaring noise of the early singles, including "You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night," "Set Me Free," "Who'll Be the Next in Line," "Come On Now," "Everybody's Gonna Be Happy," "I Need You," and "Till the End of the Day."

But as early as "Tired of Waiting for You," it was obvious that Ray was not simply going to churn out a series of soundalike songs. The complexity of his vision as a songwriter and the torrent of influences he was drinking in led him to write a series of more thoughtful singles for The Kinks in a quieter, folk-rock style—closer to what Bob Dylan was doing than the metal crunch of "You Really Got Me." The Rhino Hits package backs up the folk-rock singles "Tired of Waiting for You" and "A Well Respected Man" with the little-known "You Do Something to Me" and "You Still Want Me."

"Stop Your Sobbing," originally written in response to Talmy's request for Beatles-style material and one of the earliest manifestations of the emotional delicacy Ray could wrap into a lyric, went on to become an integral part of Kinks legend when Chrissie Hynde recorded it with the Pretenders. "Something Better Beginning" also looks forward to Ray's later writing with its interesting melody and a well-developed story line with a barbed edge.

Ray continued to pursue the role of social critic he first took on with "Well Respected Man" in the arch "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," a manners-skewing caricature that reportedly delighted no less a wit than Noël Coward. The rest of the album contains Ray's dramatic self-description "I'm Not Like Everybody Else," the strangely prophetic lament "Where Have All the Good Times Gone," and one of his greatest songs, the languorous #1 hit from the summer of 1966, "Sunny Afternoon."

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"Sunny Afternoon" was the centerpiece of Face to Face, an album that marked a dramatic change in Ray's songwriting. He extended the conceit of "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" into "Dandy," a song covered by Herman's Hermits for a #1 hit before Ray could release it himself. Ray dealt with the peculiar difficulties of the deteriorating British class system in "Sunny Afternoon," "House in the Country," and "Most Exclusive Residence For Sale." He languished in exquisite solipsism on "Fancy" and "Rainy Day in June," and began to turn out a series of cameo tunes on such odd subjects as studio musicians ("Session Man"), rude neighbors on the telephone ("Party Line"), and extraordinary vacations ("Holiday in Waikiki").

Ray was turning into nothing short of an eccentric whose songwriting vision was sharp as a tack, still capable of producing hit singles yet focused on a series of themes about which no one else in the rock pantheon would dream of writing—with a few exceptions. The Rolling Stones later did songs apparently fashioned after "Dandy" ("I'm Just Sitting on a Fence") and "Party Line" ("Connection").

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Shahram's picture

It's sad to say that the Kinks were largely overlooked by the American audience (their ban has a lot to do with it). There is a treasure trove of great, witty, cheeky songs from albums Face to Face to Lola, my favorite period of kinks material (1965-1970).

Thank you for re-posting this excellent write up of one of the greatest bands ever!

Allen Fant's picture

Nice pics! JS

dalethorn's picture

While much Kinks material was probably unavailable in the U.S. way back when, I still remember a string of great singles played on the air. We purchased their LP's from the Kent Community Store near the Kent State campus, from circa 1970 on. Given all of the projects shown in this article though, I'd say that the biggest impediment to the public being able to access much of this material was lack of delivery systems like we have today. Before circa 1990, many musicians would go unheard in most of the country because the distributors didn't want to be bothered by things that didn't have widespread appeal. That especially affected so-called "indie" artists. The original Napster was the Great Equalizer, because it offered something no service has ever offered since: You could search for a music track, and when a list of users who had that track was returned by Napster, you could then directly browse the collections of those users and sample their other tracks. As far as I'm concerned, we are still in the Dark Ages, not being able to browse the music collections of like-minded individuals, and listen to what they listen to.

joshua simons's picture

Pleased to reread this article from way back when. Yes, for many years, many, many compilations form several different record companies we produced and released. But now, between Universal Music and Sony Music Legacy, all of the Kinks albums are in place, the original recordings + additional tracks added to each album release. So boxed set CD's, Vinyl and many more to come are now available to purchase. And even solo albums like "Return to Waterloo" are just being put into place. Then Ray and Dave have new albums this year. Dave is putting out new product about every 15 months. Ray, put four albums out over six years, then now, after 9 years, "Americana" is do on April 21, 2017. There is some new talk about a Residency bookings at three venue in the US for The Kinks considered Reunion. Significant money has been offered. There are truly the only original British Invasion Band that could come back and sell out multiple night at MSG or Staples Center as examples. As the old adage goes, "God Save The Kinks" which he has and they will live on forever.

BDP24's picture

When Clive Davis was trying to sign the ghastly bad Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten mocked him by laughing that he had just signed The Kinks, saying it was too bad he didn't do so while they still had something to say. I love it that now Johnny is but a forgotten relic of a bygone era, while Ray, Dave, and The Kinks are still very much of interest.

dalethorn's picture

John Lydon is far more famous IMO than Ray Davies. The Pistols are the quintessential punk rock group, having defied Her Majesty with political ridicule, as well as a call for anarchy. The Pistols and Johnny followed on to a famous move by the Beatles, who once suffered a huge radio ban due to the 'Jesus' statement by John Lennon. Where the Beatles got big revenge on the media with Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (LSD), rubbing it into the media's faces with absurd denials, Lydon did likewise with the anarchy denials.

The Pistols were so feared when they first arrived that many people thought the world was coming to an end. Sid Vicious carried the anarchist image to new heights, and his rendition of My Way is considered to be one of the greatest punk themes ever. People who are not fans of punk rock wouldn't understand any of this of course, but comparing them to the Kinks is a non-starter. The Pistols defined their genre in a way that only a handful of artists ever could.

BTW, I have the original 'Lola' that says "...tastes just like Coca-Cola".

BDP24's picture

Gee, you make quite a case for The Pistols ;-). Did you read what Cyril Jordan said about the single real Pistols album? Oh sorry, it doesn't matter because Cyril too is less famous than John Lydon. I'm a big fan of Punk, but consider The Pistols vastly over-rated. A re-reading of my post will demonstrate the fact that I made no comparison between The Kinks and The Pistols. That would be silly---it would be like comparing Oasis to The Beatles.

dalethorn's picture

The Pistols are somewhat overrated as musical influences, true. But as original influences in the punk genre, they are no less than gods.

BDP24's picture

My beef is not with The Pistols, but with Rotten's snarky comment about The Kinks. Ray, Dave, and The Kinks have a LOT more bragging rights than does Rotten.

dalethorn's picture

Bragging rights are apples to oranges. While the Kinks certainly have superior bragging rights in overall output, quality of output etc., don't forget that punk doesn't aim for progressive or "high quality" sound of great musical merit. That's why I say that the Sex Pistols stand out as much more dominant in their genre (punk) than the Kinks in whatever genres they are classed in. Besides, I wouldn't want to give up the music tracks I have by either group, since they're unique. Rock-n-Roll, British Invasion, Psychedelia, Glamrock, Progressive Rock, Punk, Disco, Grunge, Shoegaze, GirlRock, Riot Grrrl - all have their respective niches, but the thing they most have in common is originating as music that inspired and entertained the youth who brought them about. When we get older, our tastes (us audiophiles or avid music-lovers) broaden and become more sophisticated, but we also are less connected to the inspiration and energy that we experienced in our youth (our "musical generation"), never mind any connection to the genres that we didn't listen to avidly in our youth.

BDP24's picture

This feature article is about The Kinks, written way back in 1997. My point was that here we are twenty years later, still interested in and discussing them. How many are still interested in John Lydon, let alone The Pistols? My point was, and is, that though JL dismissed The Kinks as hasbeens in 1976 (or was it '77?), it is, ironically, JL that could be viewed as the hasbeen. I mean, this story that we are so interested in is about The Kinks, not JL or The Pistols. God Save The Kinks! If I wanna hear some Punk, there are a lot of records I would play before The Pistols. You may feel differently, that's fine by me. ;-)

dalethorn's picture

Well, it looks like someone here just has to have the last word. What I said about youth and energy and the attachment to different genres based on the crowds one hangs out with in high school etc., followed by the broadening and sophistication with age for most people, is highly relevant. I agreed that the Sex Pistols aren't as musically interesting as the Kinks, but I still feel a similar energy listening to them (the Pistols) and Sid Vicious as I did in the 1970's, because I'm still the same person with the same rebellious attitudes. Maybe you should pull one of those Sex Pistols CDs out of the closet and have another listen - you might be surprised by what you hear. Don't forget that Bach, Beethoven and others walked the streets at times and listened to street musicians, to get new ideas for their work.

BDP24's picture

"I" have to have the last word? Okay, it's all yours.

dalethorn's picture

And thanks for proving my point.