Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
There was a time during high school & college, back in the ‘80s, when I would have ranked The Kinks among my Top 10 favorite artists. This was the era of “Destroyer,” “Come Dancing,” “Do It Again” and numerous other FM radio hits that had them at the peak of their commercial powers, especially in the US. Until the release of the Low Budget album in 1979, though, I was completely unaware of The Kinks, even though they were rock ‘n roll legends and one of the few bands that challenged the Beatles for pop supremacy throughout the ‘60s. It took artists like Van Halen and The Pretenders covering “You Really Got Me” and “Stop Your Sobbing,” respectively, to help raise their profile after a number of lean years when the hits had dried up, and by 1979 they had revamped their sound to become one of the biggest arena rock bands of that era. Although I was focused on their more recent material back then, I also picked up the Greatest Hits LP that collected the best of their ‘60s recordings, and the 1980 live album, One For The Road, presented many other songs that preceded their late-‘70s comeback, giving me a decent overview of their career. It wasn’t until the late-‘80s that I finally collected the rest of their catalog on CD, from their 1964 debut through the records that preceded Low Budget. Several of their albums, especially the ones released between 1966 & 1970, are now regarded as classics, and although I’ve listened to them all many times, I don’t think I know any of them as well as I should.
Last year I picked up the excellent Ultimate Music Guide on The Kinks from the publishers of UK magazine Uncut. Like a similar issue that focused on David Bowie, which was incredibly helpful when I wrote my series on his catalog, this magazine includes vintage articles & interviews from various British publications like Melody Maker and NME, as well as 2-page reviews of every album in their discography. I read it cover-to-cover last summer and it reminded me (a) how much I love The Kinks, (b) how long it’s been since I played their records on a regular basis and (c) how many of their songs I’ve forgotten. With the 50th anniversary of their debut album approaching, this seemed like the perfect time for me to revisit their catalog & reinvigorate my passion for their music.
When their recording career began in 1964, the band consisted of Ray Davies (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, keyboards & principal songwriter), his younger brother Dave Davies (lead guitar, backing & occasional lead vocals), Pete Quaife (bass guitar, backing vocals) and Mick Avory (drums & percussion). There would be a few lineup changes over the years, but this was the classic (and most beloved) lineup, and that core of the Davies brothers & Avory would stay together for more than 20 years. As with many British artists back then, their early discography is often difficult to tackle because of differences between UK & US releases, as well as a number of hits that only appeared on singles & EP’s. Since the UK versions have become the standards, I’ll focus on those while also mentioning the differences between them & the US releases (which are the versions I’ve owned the longest). Hopefully it won’t be too confusing. The bottom line is that they recorded a lot of excellent music right from the start of their career, and it’s worth the effort to learn how those songs were originally presented in the two countries where they had the most impact.
In the UK, their debut album was simply titled Kinks (1964), and in the US it was titled You Really Got Me after the hit single of the same name. Ray Davies, who was only 20 at the time, wrote 6 of the album’s 14 songs, with the remainder consisting of covers (including songs by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Slim Harpo & others) and a couple that were credited to their producer, Shel Talmy (both of which were filler material, and curiously included the word “bald” in their titles: “Bald Headed Woman” and “I’ve Been Driving On Bald Mountain”). For most of the album their sound isn’t terribly distinctive, owing a lot to The Beatles & The Rolling Stones, and at times they could be confused with many of their British Invasion contemporaries like The Animals, The Hollies, Gerry & The Pacemakers, The Yardbirds, etc. Of course like most young pop & rock groups back then, record companies weren’t looking for anything unique; they just wanted something the kids would spend their money on, usually surrounding a couple of hit singles with a number of forgettable tracks. After giving Kinks a number of listens this past week, I think it has a lot more to offer than that even though only one of the songs was actually a hit. Of course, that hit is one of the defining records of that era; a song which many writers have credited as the birth of heavy metal &/or punk. But there’s plenty more to enjoy here.
♪ “You Really Got Me” – An all-time rock & roll classic, with a unique fuzzy guitar tone & a perfectly loose arrangement. If this was the only song they recorded, they would still be legends. Years later Van Halen recorded their own version, which became a definitive hard rock track.
♪ “Just Can’t Go To Sleep” – Super catchy tune with creative drumming from Avory & strong backing vocals. I especially love the way they sing the title, which sounds like “every night I just can’t go-sleep.”
♪ “Cadillac” – A swinging version of the Bo Diddley song from a few years earlier. It’s a blast of fun, especially those “C-A-D-I-L-L-A-C” backing vocals.
♪ “Stop Your Sobbing” – Shows a lighter side to the group, and Ray’s voice is more unique than it is on the majority of the album. The bridge (“Each little tear that falls from your eye…”) is especially noteworthy, and showed that he had a special way with melodies. Fifteen years later The Pretenders would strike it big with their version, which might even surpass the original.
[The Kinks – “Just Can’t Go To Sleep”]
Other Notable Tracks:
The current CD version of Kinks features 12 additional tracks, most of which were only released as singles or EP’s. Three of them also appear on the You Really Got Me CD, while the others showed up on the next couple of American CD’s. While many CD reissues include bonus tracks that are only worthwhile to obsessive fans, a number of those included here are among the all-time great Kinks tracks.
The Essential Bonus Track:
♪ “All Day And All Of The Night” – Who cares if they were trying to re-write their first hit? This has a classic guitar riff, Ray’s unique voice & I love the backing vocals. This song is an example of power chords at their best, and Dave’s guitar solo is ragged perfection.
Other Notable Bonus Tracks:
Their sophomore album, Kinda Kinks (1965), was rush recorded in-between world tours, and the band (especially Ray) was not pleased with the results. Shel Talmy once again oversaw production and made some choices that they weren’t happy with, notably the double-tracked vocals. I don’t think it sounds bad, but the hit-to-miss ratio is slightly lower than its predecessor. The US & UK versions each included the same 12 songs, although with different running orders. It’s not a classic by any definition, but there are enough great songs here to make this album a must-listen (especially when taking into account the numerous bonus tracks, which I’ll discuss below).
♪ “Tired Of Waiting For You” – Another classic that showcases Ray’s early songwriting brilliance. I love the song’s simple yet effective structure: “I’m so tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for you.” Again he’s showing some vulnerability, not typical for a rock singer.
♪ “So Long” – Not sure if they were influenced by Simon & Garfunkel, whose debut album was released the previous year, but there are similarities to that legendary duo in the folky fingerpicked guitar & subtly propulsive rhythm. It’s tender & lovely, with tight harmonies. A special song.
♪ “Nothin’ In The World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl” – The long title shouldn’t scare listeners away from this outstanding moody folk song, in the Bert Jansch vein. It’s slightly jazzy with pretty fingerpicked acoustic guitar.
♪ “Something Better Beginning” – I love the atmospheric, haunting guitar & Ray’s hushed vocals. It’s softer but still rockin’, and features a great chorus: “Is this the start of another heartbreaker, or something better beginning?”
[The Kinks – “Something Better Beginning”]
Other Notable Tracks:
There are 11 bonus tracks on the UK version of Kinda Kinks. Of these, the first 10 appear on the US Kinks-Size Kinkdom CD, and there are enough great songs included to make either of these CDs an essential purchase. There are also a handful of tracks on Kinks-Size Kinkdom that appear on two later releases. Since I’ll be discussing those albums in my next post, I won’t include them in my discussion here.
The Essential Bonus Tracks:
♪ “Set Me Free” – One of many early Kinks classics. I especially love the way the off-kilter rhythm works in conjunction with the killer guitar riff, and it’s interesting how the words “set me free” are sung differently in the verses & choruses.
♪ “See My Friends” – The Kinks dabble in early psychedelia, with hints of Indian music in the drone-y vocals giving it a hypnotic vibe. Apparently written about Ray’s older sister, who died when he was a youngster. This one is certainly ahead of its time.
♪ “A Well Respected Man” – One of the earliest examples of Ray’s character portraits focusing on British society. A brilliant social/political commentary with biting lyrics (“And his mother goes to meetings, while his father pulls the maid…”), especially impressive considering Ray was only 21 when he wrote it.
I probably could have mentioned a few other songs, since not every remaining track is forgettable filler, but the songs I’ve chosen to highlight above are the ones that stood out from the others, and are the most representative of the best The Kinks had to offer at the start of their career. They would begin adding new elements to their music & songwriting beginning with album #3 (which will be included in my next post), as they developed their own inimitable sound, but on these first two releases (and related singles & EP’s) they were still finding their way while simultaneously delivering a handful of the most noteworthy songs in rock & roll history.
I’m very excited about this series, and I look forward to hearing from other Kinks fans, many of whom will be much more knowledgeable about the band than I am. Feel free to share your thoughts on their music, let me know if you agree with the songs I’ve chosen to highlight, and talk about anything related to The Kinks in the Comments section. Thanks for joining me on this journey. It should be a lot of fun.