The Kinks’ story is a messy one, because they’ve been so many different bands: British Invasion mods, art-school jesters, Seventies stadium hounds. But over the years, Ray Davies built his legend as one of rock’s great eccentric wits, the poet laureate of England’s dead-end streets, rooting for the losers and outsiders, always feuding with his kid brother Dave on guitar. Not exactly a cozy family relationship: the Kinks had a infamous history of onstage fisticuffs. The hits are just the beginning — they made classic albums as well as disasters, creating one of rock & roll’s most gloriously weird songbooks. So here’s a guided tour to their music — the absolute kream of the krop. God save the Kinks.
These lads practically invented punk and metal with their 1964 blast “You Really Got Me.” But just two years later, they found their own mature style with Face to Face, one of the great albums of the Sixties. Ray Davies took off as a songwriter, satirizing Swinging London’s bright young things and exposing their scared, isolated secret lives. The Kinks dabble in old-time music-hall shuffle (“Sunny Afternoon”), psychedelic drone (“Fancy”) and brooding doom (“Rainy Day in June”), with a wit so sharp it took years for the audience to catch up. Best moment: “Too Much On My Mind,” an airy ballad that’s full of harpsichord and acoustic guitar, yet a vocal that’s pure dread. But after all the darkness on Face to Face, it ends with the open-hearted “I’ll Remember.” It was a map to everything the Kinks would ever do.
Ray Davies’ answer to Pet Sounds: a delicate, compassionate portrait of everyday loneliness lurking in the hearts of people pretending everything’s fine on the surface. And like Pet Sounds, it was a commercial flop that almost killed the band. He serenades housewives with curlers in their hair (“Two Sisters”), aging dandies (“Afternoon Tea”), Cockney nicotine junkies (“Harry Rag”). “Waterloo Sunset” is his “God Only Knows”—a gorgeously chilly ballad about a solitary man watching two lovers from his window as they meet at a dismal train station. Terry and Julie will never meet this guy, or know he exists, but nobody will ever care about them this much. You’d never guess from this song what a dump Waterloo Station is—the ultimate tribute to Davies’ power to find romance in the mundane.
The Kinks retreat to the English countryside, which turns out to be just as twisted and frightening as the city. While other bands were getting far out, man, the Kinks were singing pastoral reveries like “Animal Farm.” “Big Sky” is an unsentimental ode to a Mother Nature who doesn’t care if you live or die; “Picture Book” is the best photo-album song of the pre-Taylor Swift era, except it’s a cheerful ditty about how we all grow old and die alone. “With ‘You Really Got Me’ and ‘All Day and All of the Night,’ we were saying, ‘We’re here, we’re gonna grab you,’” Ray told Rolling Stone’s Kory Grow last year. “The music on Village Green says, ‘Come find us.’” Village Green was an obscure cult item until the 1990s, when indie rockers discovered it and made it a template as influential as The Basement Tapes. It’s now the cornerstone of the Kinks’ legend.
The perfect place to explore Kinkdom: a couple dozen or so brilliant tunes from the band’s golden era. Kronikles has hits, flops, deep cuts, B-sides, mod ravers like “She’s Got Everything” and morose ballads like “Days,” for a full picture of Ray Davies’ world. He’s obsessed with London, in sordid urban tales like “Dead End Street” and “Big Black Smoke.” He’s obsessed with wild girls. He relates to dotty old folks. He’s got a thing for queens, especially a pair of dominatrixes named “Victoria” and “Lola.” And Dave nearly steals the show with “Susannah’s Still Alive,” a tribute to a tough old war widow who still wears the locket of her dead soldier, refusing to let the modern world grind her down.
The crude, brutal sound of the young Kinks, with Dave’s power chords and Mick Avory’s violent drums. Ray begins to explore his introspective side, from “Something Better Beginning” to “Tired Of Waiting For You.” Like all their early albums, it’s best heard in the expanded reissues, adding crucial singles like “I Need You” and “Set Me Free.” Dave shows off his awesome wobble of a voice in “Wait Till The Summer Comes Along.” “See My Friends” is their hugely influential electric-raga drone about sex and death, exploring Indian textures before the Byrds or Beatles—at the dawn of psychedelia, the Kinks were already leaving it behind.
Subtitle: The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. A rock opera about working-class family life, inspired by the Davies’ big sister Rose, who got married and moved away. “I think melancholia is part of the generation before me, because they fought in the war and missed their youths,” Ray told Rolling Stone last year. Arthur was his tribute, with laments like “Young and Innocent Days.” Ray originally planned it as the soundtrack to a U.K. television drama. “Victoria” became an unlikely hit, mocking centuries of English imperialism in a sarcastic rockabilly ode to a bloodthirsty queen who wanted to rule the world: “From the West to the East / From the rich to the poor / Victoria loved them all.” Of all the Kinks’ political tunes, it’s the meanest and funniest—not to mention the best.
After four years of commercial failure, Ray finally scored a hit: “Lola” was decades ahead of its time, a gender-bending sing-along pub anthem about a country boy who heads to the big city and meets his true love. The punch line: “I’m glad I’m a man and so is Lola.” (It might be the last time he wrote a love song with a happy ending.) Ray whipped up a concept album skewering the music biz, with poignant interludes like “Get Back In Line,” Dave’s “Strangers” and “This Time Tomorrow,” immortalized by Wes Anderson in The Djarleeling Limited.
A London country-rock version of Village Green, with the Davies brothers recalling their native Muswell Hill as a place where the neighborhood misfits drown in “Alcohol,” suffer from “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues,” watch TV and dream of escaping to “Oklahoma U.S.A.” “Have A Cuppa Tea” is a jolly music-hall knees-up around the joanna with a mug of Rosie Lee. The Kinks were proudly out of step with the rest of the music scene in 1971—it was the year their peers were making grand statements like Sticky Fingers, Who’s Next and Led Zeppelin IV. But Muswell Hillbillies capped their historic seven-year run.
Impossible to find for many years, this became a koveted kollector’s item for kultists. When the band switched record companies, their old label punished them by rushing out this ragbag of unreleased treasures: the Dave ballad “There Is No Life Without Love,” the wistful “Rosemary Rose,” the proto-punk rant “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” Plus a send-up of English anti-Semitism called “When I Turn Off The Living Room Light.” The band had no idea this album got released until they noticed it was in the Billboard charts and sued to get it pulled. Typical Kinks—even when they fluked into a hit, it meant something was wrong.
Dave Davies was just a lad of 17 when he changed the sound of guitar forever with his pioneering noise eruption in “You Really Got Me,” jamming knitting needles into his cheap amp to get feedback. As Ray said, “The sound was created in our parents’ living room and ended up being copied by nearly every rock guitar player in the world.” For their quickie debut, they basically remade “You Really Got Me” a few times with a few different titles. “Stop Your Sobbing” became a new wave classic when the Pretenders covered it in 1980—Chrissie Hynde and Davies were a couple for years.
Who else but Ray Davies would celebrate turning 21 with a song called “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” It’s the plaint of an art-school boy who finds that fortune and fame just makes him more of a neurotic wreck. (Van Halen’s version might be the funniest Kinks cover, with the possible exceptions of The Fall’s “Victoria” or Weird Al Yankovic’s “Yoda.”) The Kink Kontroversy peaks with the surprisingly upbeat “Till The End of the Day.” The Nineties riot-grrrl rebels Sleater-Kinney remade the cover art on their groundbreaking 1997 Dig Me Out, as a salute to one of their key influences.
Davies piddled away most of the Seventies doing cornball theatrical pieces like Preservation Act II and The Kinks Present A Soap Opera, driving off whatever was left of the audience. But the band had a strange comeback as mullet-mongering arena rockers, aiming squarely at the American mainstream, specializing in smarmy novelty hits. Sleepwalker is erratic, but it peaks high in the rueful groove of “Jukebox Music.” In the fantastic title track, Ray impersonates a night-crawling vampire, over a slick drum hook nicked from Steve Miller’s “Take The Money and Run.” Hey, anything to keep him from singing more songs about the decline of England.
Their last gasp of greatness, as Ray tried to adapt his sensibility to meathead AOR bluster. It made a companion piece to the Stones’ Tattoo You, which came out a few days later—for a weird moment in time, in the fall of 1981, these two Swinging London bands ruled U.S. rock radio, blasting out of bitchin’ Camaros all across the heartland. “Around The Dial” is a bizarrely moving ode to a vanished radio DJ—a template for how the Replacements would sound on Tim. It also has “Better Things,” a generous farewell to their young and innocent days. Ray tells his fans, “I hope tomorrow you’ll find better things,” and no doubt he means it.
Like any self-respecting rock pros of their era, the Kinks routinely cranked out half-assed concert albums—Live at Kelvin Hall has the cheeky young lads, One For The Road has the old hambones. But BBC Sessions is the place to experience their prime live power. It’s bracing to hear the 1964 performance where a snooty radio host dismisses them as “representatives of the shaggy set,” and the Kinks lash back with the pure electric aggression of “You Really Got Me,” all rage and defiance.
Dave made a few stabs at a solo career in the late Sixties, including this fab Village Green outtake—a faux-country hoedown about hopping the train home from jail. The single flopped everywhere except the Netherlands, where it somehow became a hit.
An achingly romantic ballad, hidden on the soundtrack to a godawful English sex comedy. Davies sings over hushed piano and strings, promising a secret lover they can both slip away from the crowd and find a place where they belong.
One of the odd things about Ray Davies: it never entered his mind you could possibly write enough songs about being an alienated rock star on the road. (Limos? No fun!) “Sitting In My Hotel” is one of his best, especially when he admits he looks silly trying to rock a bow tie.
The Kinks’ ornate operettas still had flashes of the old tunecraft, but only the hardest of hardcore fans bothered to search for them. “Sweet Lady Genevieve” came six minutes into Preservation, which was six minutes too long for some to wait, but it’s an all-but-unknown tale of a roving cad who realizes (too late?) he’s in love with the woman he left behind.
The good news: this was merely their second-worst concept album of 1975. (Soap Opera takes the prize.) But this humiliating gaffe of an LP was a sorry place to stash this tune—on Side Two, no less—with a piano hook and a plot that (for once) makes sense: “I’m in disgrace / Because I fell for your pretty face.”
“I went to a Peter Frampton concert, came home, Elvis had died,” Ray recalled. His response: this elegy for rock believers on the run in the 1970s. He broods on the passing of youth, the death of the King, the struggle to hold on to the long-term bonds that matter—maybe even his band.
How zany was the music biz in the early Eighties? “Long Distance” was a bonus track on the album—but only on the cassette version. It’s a strange imitation of Mott the Hoople’s Dylan imitation—Ray might have been the first touring star to grumble, “My per diem’s getting low.”
An eerie Dave tune that went unnoticed at the time, tucked away on one of their cheesiest Eighties albums. Nobody knew this song existed until David Chase rescued it for a 2001 episode of The Sopranos, where it became the ominous theme song for a doomed Bada Bing dancer.
Ray must have heard the Smiths on the radio and thought, “Bloody hell, they sound just like we used to. What happened to us?” “Lost and Found” swipes its guitar flutters straight from “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side.” It might have made a graceful goodbye single—yet astoundingly, the band limped on for another decade.
After the band split, Ray moved to America, got shot by a New Orleans mugger in 2004, got knighted and battled Dave in the press. He also made his first proper solo album in Other People’s Lives, with this tale of an aging drunk deciding it’s not too late to get clean and start over. A welcome shot of late-game inspiration from one of the all-time great rock cranks.
Ray Davies called his 1995 book X-Ray an “unauthorized autobiography” — he writes from the perspective of a kid interviewing a rambling old rock star. It covers the Kinks’ first decade, venting bitterly about his mistreatment by the music biz. (A topic he’s already covered in a song or two.) Most charming moment: He confesses “Two Sisters” is about feeling jealous of his kid brother. Naturally, Dave published a competing memoir at the same time, Kink. It’s far more candid and compelling — especially when he recounts the sad tale of his first love, who inspired tuns like “Susannah’s Still Alive” and “Mindless Child of Motherhood.”