Swerving between huge commercial success and public indifference for most of an intermittent 35-year career, The Kinks – and, in particular, chief songwriter Ray Davies – could never be accused of having taken the easy path. Approaching burn-out after an incendiary run of early singles (‘You Really Got Me’, ‘All Day and All of the Night’), Davies led the band away from the mainstream into an unlikely backwater where it was possible to indulge all manner of lyrical obsessions in a way that only occasionally attracted the interest of a wider audience.
Its trademark, scuzzy riff having been plagiarised so many times over the 40 years since it was released this very month, ‘You Really Got Me’ somehow remains impervious to the usual laws governing pop standards – chiefly, it has lost not one iota of its power after all this time. Not surprisingly, it served to break the band – then consisting of Ray Davies (guitar/vocals), his brother Dave (lead guitar), Peter Quaife (bass) and Mick Avory (drums) – on both sides of the Atlantic. Somehow both detached and oddly intimate, ‘You Really Got Me’ defined Ray Davies’s songwriting style and began a run of phenomenal singles that would capture a Britain on the brink of profound political and social change.
For a while, it seemed as if every new release went a little bit deeper than its predecessor. ‘All Day and All of the Night’ and ‘Tired of Waiting For You’ surely chimed with restless kids trying to shake off the torpor of the sleepy ‘50s. If the Who and Small Faces reflected how this pent-up energy found expression in Mod-ism, then ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ caught the moment when all eyes turned towards Carnaby Street for the lead on the next pop-cultural movement.
Peerless singles all, of course, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more impressive one-two punch than the consecutive release – during late ‘66/early ’67 – of ‘Dead End Street’ and ‘Waterloo Sunset’. While the former illustrated that Davies was entirely aware that there were those for whom ‘flower power’ meant damn-all in the face of an everyday struggle to survive, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ was universal, constructed from a gorgeous, fragile tune and a cluster of unforgettable images. Suffused with both melancholy and wonder, it has survived over-familiarity and a Cathy Dennis cover version to remain its author’s greatest single achievement. Possibly sensing that this would be very difficult to top – although he would come close shortly afterwards with ‘Autumn Almanac’ and ‘Days’ – and almost certainly looking to work on a broader canvas, Ray Davies began to change tact as the ‘60s drew to a close. Incorrectly viewed by some as harbouring after a bygone England, Davies knew that his whimsical Albion had never actually existed. Nonetheless, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society – the first of the band’s full-blown concept albums – did express a longing for a simpler time, its vision of a rural idyll finding resonance with those who saw through the more hollow elements of ‘60s idealism.
Of course, it helped that such unfashionable sentiments were, by and large, still welded to great tunes. These proved to be in rather shorter supply as the ‘70s dragged on, Ray and the band almost conceptualising themselves into oblivion (Lola Versus Powerman & The Moneygoround, et al). Inevitably, there came a time when the band had no choice but to reconsider its direction, and late ‘70s albums like Misfits and Low Budget showcased a more muscular sound, shorn of conceptual excess. The latter returned them to the top 20 in the US and pre-empted a second lease of life as a stadium act. Sadly, with the exception of 1983’s ‘Come Dancing’, renewed commercial success was paralleled by a long-term creative decline never fully arrested during the remainder of the band’s career.
Never the most stable of groups – the two brothers’ violent bust-ups were legendary even during their mid-‘60s peak – the Kinks finally ran out of steam in the mid-‘90s (although they have never formally announced their dissolution). While Dave toured successfully in his own right, Ray embarked on a successful series of one-man shows and published X-Ray, an unusual autobiography in which he explored his own life as if he was a visiting alien. What was that about taking the easy path? His recent detour into literature should not, however, give the impression that his days as a musical creator are over. A recent South Bank Show on Ray Davies portrayed him at work on his first-ever solo album and in the early stages of a musical based around the song ‘Come Dancing’. Given his astonishing career – both with the Kinks and in his own right – you would not put it past Ray Davies to shake up the West End as he enters his seventh decade. David Davies