In suburban North London circa 1960, two talented brothers, Ray and Dave Davies, taught themselves guitar so they could play skiffle and rock and roll. In high school they formed the Ray Davies Quartet, which performed in and around London for a few years. When Ray went to art school, he started making connections in the music scene and playing with other bands.
But he kept the quartet going, and a few name-changes later they became The Kinks. Pete Quaife was on bass guitar and Mick Avory on drums.
They signed with Pye Records and put out a few singles in 1964, all of which tanked. The record studio’s skepticism evaporated, however, when “You Really Got Me” made it all the way to No. 1 in the U.K. later that year. Kinks (1964) was their first LP, and the band would go on to release 23 more studio albums. Since the Kinks released so many, it’s impossible to cover them all, so I’ll touch on some highlights.
They scored another U.K. No. 1 single with “Tired of Waiting for You,” from Kinda Kinks (1965). A little-known track from those sessions was “Never Met a Girl Like You Before,” which was eventually released as a bonus track with a 1998 digital remaster of the album.
There’s evidence here of what would become the classic Kinks love of uneven rhythms inspired by the rhythm of the words. Not that the meter is irregular, but the lyrics come tumbling out in fits and starts. What’s missing is the quintessential Kinks wit, which would start showing up very soon. What they do have is a slightly wild, unkempt sound, which some critics refer to as their “raunchy” period. This ain’t the smooth-groove Everly Brothers.
In 1966, the single-only song “A Dedicated Follower of Fashion” brought humor and keen social commentary to the front and center. Later that year, Face to Face became arguably the first-ever concept album, with Davies’ observation of his fellow humans providing the theme. The band had toned down its rough edges and was going for a softer, gentler style that was also more intellectual.
One of society’s more dismal aspects – falling back down life’s ladder after you’ve made your way to the top – is the topic of the grimly humorous “Most Exclusive Residence for Sale.” Davies, who was recovering from a nervous breakdown as he wrote this album, had become the band’s voice, not just through his songwriting but through his plaintive solo singing. Gone are the days of the ragtag skiffle quartet sound. The term “baroque pop” shows up in descriptions of this Kinks period.
The non-album single “Autumn Almanac” came out in 1967 and did very well in the U.K., if not the U.S. The British pressing had a song called “Mr. Pleasant” as its B-side. It’s another quirky character study, this one about a man who can afford to keep a smile on his face because he’s got plenty of money. But dig a little deeper into his life, and maybe things aren’t so pleasant after all. The relentlessly cheerful barroom piano is the crowning touch.
Because the band wanted more control over its sound, Ray Davies became The Kinks’ record producer starting with Something Else (1967). However, Davies has since expressed his chagrin at his own novice work on the album and wonders if someone should have stopped him from taking over before he was ready. Nevertheless, this fan favorite supplied the beloved Kinks track, “Waterloo Sunset.” Brother Dave provided another hit with his song “Death of a Clown.”
While “Waterloo” was an exercise in urban nostalgia and “Clown” a cry of desperation, Ray Davies’ bizarre touch for characterization makes a solid showing with the song “David Watts,” a half-joking homage to a schoolboy who seems to be perfect in every way. How about that rhythm section’s opening riff! Avory rolls out a huge range of sounds and patterns as the song progresses, but then, stunningly, stops playing at around 1:52, letting Quaife’s bass take over as percussion for a while. Those are distinctive and unpredictable textures worthy of The Who.
Soon after they completed Something Else and before the release ofThe Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, the band released Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), a concept album for a TV show that was never produced. It had disappointing sales but met with critical acclaim. [Small wonder, thanks to songs like the single “Shangri-La,” a brilliant commentary on middle-class life in 1960s Britain and the human condition in general. – Ed.]
Davies was already starting on what Davies called his “village green” project, a set of songs portraying vignettes of small-town English life. It turned into The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, released in 1968 and disappointing the band with its low sales.
The single “Village Green Preservation Society,” which failed to chart, rekindles the quartet-vocal sound of the earliest albums. The big difference, though, is that this later effort is no boiler-plate love song. The distinctively Davies-style lyrics presents in a litany of specific details to illustrate a particular slice of old England.
And that was the last time Quaife recorded with The Kinks. He was replaced by John Dalton, who stayed through 1976. John Gosling also joined on keyboards, making a memorable first outing on the hit single “Lola,” a song that daringly broke ground for its exploration of gender fluidity.
From the album Lola vs. Powerman and the MoneyGoRound, Part One (1970) comes “This Time Tomorrow,” a wistful and imaginative number with a meandering vocal that might be mistaken for Jefferson Airplane. Gosling’s Hammond organ, layered against quick arpeggios on the electric keyboard, is a wonderful contribution.
In 1973, Davies turned the “village green” concept into two theatrical albums, which he then turned into a touring show, replete with costumes, a dozen actors, and a horn section. The albums flopped, but the U.S. tour of the show got good press.
Unfortunately, depression and drug problems plagued Davies at this time, which can’t have helped – or been helped by – the band’s struggles to sell albums and tickets. RCA declined to renew their five-album contract. They signed with Arista, and the prog rock went out the window, as did all the horns and actors. It was now just five men, rebranded for arenas. The gambit worked for quite a while, and they slid successfully into the MTV era.
After the 1983 hit “Come Dancing,” the band’s luster inevitably started to fade, although they released four more records. Their final album, Phobia, from 1993, yielded no U.S. singles, so folks who weren’t hardcore fans might have missed it altogether. This is the only record made with a different player on drums (Bob Henrit), although Avory did play on a couple of tracks.
“Hatred (A Duet)” has a fast southern-rock energy and a non-stop, wordy lyric style reminiscent of early Dylan.
The Kinks officially broke up in 1996. One of the saddest moments I’ve ever seen in a rock star interview was Davies telling a reporter that he still dreamed that a limo would someday pull up to his house and take him to one more gig. For a long time, it was only a dream. Now there’s reliable word that there might be a new album coming soon!