It is ironic that one of Britain’s most enduring and respected groups spawned from the beat boom of the early 60s, received, for the best part of two decades, success, adulation and financial reward in the USA. This most ‘English’ institution were able to fill stadiums in any part of the USA, while in Britain, a few thousand devotees watched their heroes perform in comparatively small clubs or halls. The Kinks is the continuing obsession of one of Britain’s premier songwriting talents, Raymond Douglas Davies (b. 21 June 1944, Muswell Hill, London, England; vocals/guitar/piano). Originally known as the Ravens, the Kinks formed at the end of 1963 with a line-up comprising: Dave Davies (b. 3 February 1947, Muswell Hill, London; guitar/vocals) and Peter Quaife (b. 31 December 1943, Tavistock, Devon, England; bass), and were finally joined by Mick Avory (b. 15 February 1944, London; drums). Their first single ‘Long Tall Sally’ failed to sell, although they did receive a lot of publicity through the efforts of their shrewd managers Robert Wace, Grenville Collins and Larry Page. Their third single, ‘You Really Got Me’, rocketed to the UK number 1 spot, boosted by an astonishing performance on the UK television show Ready Steady Go . This and its successor, ‘All Day And All Of The Night’, provided a blueprint for hard rock guitar playing, with the simple but powerful riffs supplied by the younger Davies. Over the next two years Ray Davies emerged as a songwriter of startling originality and his band were rarely out of the best-sellers list. Early in 1965, the group returned to number 1 with the languid ‘Tired Of Waiting For You’. They enjoyed a further string of hits that year, including ‘Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy’, ‘Set Me Free’, ‘See My Friend’ and ‘Till The End Of The Day’. Despite the humanity of his lyrics, Davies was occasionally a problematical character, renowned for his eccentric behaviour. The Kinks were equally tempestuous and frequently violent. Earlier in 1965, events had reached a head when the normally placid drummer, Mick Avory, attacked Dave Davies on stage with the hi-hat of his drum kit, having been goaded beyond endurance. Remarkably, the group survived such contretemps and soldiered on. A disastrous US tour saw them banned from that country, amid further disputes.
Throughout all the drama, Davies the songwriter remained supreme. He combined his own introspection with humour and pathos. The ordinary and the obvious were spelled out in his lyrics, but, contrastingly, never in a manner that was either. ‘Dedicated Follower Of Fashion’ brilliantly satirized Carnaby Street narcissism while ‘Sunny Afternoon’ (another UK number 1) dealt with capitalism and class. ‘Dead End Street’ at the end of 1966 highlighted the plight of the working class poor: ‘Out of work and got no money, a Sunday joint of bread and honey’, while later in that same song Davies comments ‘What are we living for, two-roomed apartment on the second floor, no money coming in, the rent collector knocks and tries to get in’. All these were embraced with Davies’ resigned laconic music-hall style. Their albums prior to Face To Face had contained a staple diet of R&B standards and comparatively harmless Davies originals. With Face To Face and Something Else, however, he set about redefining the English character, with sparkling wit and steely nerve. One of Davies’ greatest songs was the final track on the latter; ‘Waterloo Sunset’ was a simple but emotional tour de force with the melancholic singer observing two lovers (many have suggested actor Terence Stamp and actress Julie Christie, but Davies denies this) meeting and crossing over Hungerford Bridge in London. It narrowly missed the top of the charts, as did the follow-up, ‘Autumn Almanac’, with its gentle chorus, summing up the English working class of the 50s and 60s: ‘I like my football on a Saturday, roast beef on Sunday is all right, I go to Blackpool for my holiday, sit in the autumn sunlight’.
Throughout this fertile period, Ray Davies, along with John Lennon Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend, was among Britain’s finest writers. But by 1968 the Kinks had fallen from public grace in the UK, despite remaining well respected by the critics. Two superb concept albums, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire, failed to sell. This inexplicable quirk was all the harder to take as they contained some of Davies’ finest songs. Writing honestly about everyday events seemingly no longer appealed to Davies’ public. The former was likened to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, while Arthur had to compete with Pete Townshend ‘s Tommy. Both were writing rock operas without each other’s knowledge, but as Johnny Rogan states in his biography of the Kinks: ‘Davies’ celebration of the mundane was far removed from the studious iconoclasm of Tommy and its successors’. The last hit single during this ‘first’ age of the Kinks was the glorious ‘Days’. This lilting and timeless ballad is another of Davies’ many classics and was a major hit for Kirsty MacColl in 1989.
Pete Quaife permanently departed in 1969 and was replaced by ex- Creation member John Dalton. The Kinks returned to the UK best-sellers lists in July 1970 with ‘Lola’, an irresistible fable of transvestism, which marked the beginning of their breakthrough in the USA by reaching the US Top 10. The resulting Lola Vs Powerman And The Moneygoround Part One was also a success there. On this record Davies attacked the music industry and in one track, ‘The Moneygoround’, openly slated his former managers and publishers, while alluding to the lengthy high court action in which he had been embroiled. The group now embarked on a series of huge US tours and rarely performed in Britain, although their business operation centre and recording studio, Konk, was based close to the Davies’ childhood home in north London. Having signed a new contract with RCA in 1971 the band had now enlarged to incorporate a brass section, amalgamating with the Mike Cotton Sound. Following the interesting country-influenced Muswell Hillbillies, however, they suffered a barren period. Ray Davies experienced drug and marital problems and their ragged half-hearted live performances revealed a man bereft of his driving, creative enthusiasm. Throughout the early 70s a series of average, over-ambitious concept albums appeared as Davies’ main outlet. Preservation Act I, Preservation Act II, Soap Opera and Schoolboys In Disgrace were all thematic, and Soap Opera was adapted for British television as Starmaker. At the end of 1976 John Dalton departed, as their unhappy and comparatively unsuccessful years with RCA ended. A new contract with Arista Records engendered a remarkable change in fortunes. Both Sleepwalker (1977) and Misfits (1978) were excellent and successful albums; Ray had rediscovered the knack of writing short, punchy rock songs with quality lyrics. The musicianship of the band improved, in particular, Dave Davies, who after years in his elder brother’s shadow, came into his own with a more fluid style.
Although still spending most of their time playing to vast audiences in the USA, the Kinks were adopted by the British new wave, and were cited by many punk bands as a major influence. Both the Jam (‘David Watts’) and the Pretenders (‘Stop Your Sobbing’) provided reminders of Davies’ 60s songwriting skill. The British music press, then normally harsh on 60s dinosaurs, constantly praised the Kinks and helped to regenerate a market for them in Europe. Their following albums continued the pattern started with Sleepwalker, hard-rock numbers with sharp lyrics. Although continuing to be a huge attraction in the USA they have so far never reappeared in the UK album charts, although they are regular victims of ruthless ‘Greatest Hits’ packages. As Ray Davies’ stormy three-year relationship with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders drew to its close, so the Kinks appeared unexpectedly back in the UK singles chart with the charming ‘Come Dancing’. The accompanying video and high publicity profile prompted the reissue of their entire and considerable back catalogue. Towards the end of the 80s the band toured sporadically amid rumours of a final break-up. In 1990 the Kinks were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, at the time only the fourth UK group to take the honour behind the Beatles, Rolling Stones and the Who. During the ceremony both Pete Quaife and Mick Avory were present. Later that year they received the Ivor Novello award for ‘outstanding services to British music’. After the comparative failure of UK Jive the band left London Records, and after being without a recording contract for some time signed with Sony in 1991. Their debut for that label was Phobia, a good album that suffered from lack of promotion (the public still perceiving the Kinks as a 60s band). A prime example was in ‘Scattered’, as good a song as Davies has ever written, which when released was totally ignored apart from a few pro-Kinks radio broadcasters. Following the commercial failure of Phobia the band were released from their contract and put out To The Bone, an interesting album on their own Konk label, which satisfied long-standing fans. This unplugged session was recorded in front of a small audience at their own headquarters in Crouch End, north London, and contained semi-acoustic versions of some of Davies’ classic songs. Both brothers had autobiographies published in the 90s. Ray came first with the cleverly constructed X-Ray and Dave responded with Kink, a pedestrian, though revealing, book in 1996. Whether or not they can maintain their reputation as a going concern beyond the mid-90s, Ray Davies has made his mark under the Kinks’ banner as one of the most perceptive and prolific popular songwriters of our time. His catalogue of songs observing ordinary life is one of the finest available. A long-awaited reissue programme was undertaken by Castle Communications in 1998; this was particularly significant as the Kinks’ catalogue has been mercilessly and often badly reissued for many years. The additions of many bonus tracks for each CD make their first five albums essential listening. Much of the Britpop movement from the mid-90s acknowledged a considerable debt to Davies as one of the key influences. Bands such as Supergrass, Oasis, Cast and especially Damon Albarn of Blur are some of the Kinks’ most admiring students.