Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Flashback: The Kinks
Written by Phil Gallo
Cover of eponymous 1964 debut album shows the original and best-known Kinks lineup (from left), Ray Davies, Mick Avory, Dave Davies and Peter Quaife.
Perhaps the most British of the British Invasion acts, the Kinks created an enormous hit-filled catalog from the early 1960s to the mid-1990s, and the band’s especially colorful and prolific 1960s-1970s output is one of the most influential bodies of work in rock history. The music of the Davies brothers and their many bandmates over the decades was a starting point for glam, punk, heavy metal, garage and Britpop. They went from hitmakers to cult heroes to arena superstars and back to cult heroes, all the while crafting gem-like songs that ranged from hard rocking to wistfully sentimental to wryly intelligent and socially observant. And all while fighting among themselves—the Davies brothers in particular—to an extent that became legendary.
The Kinks produced some of the most unconventional hits in pop and rock history, starting with the infectiously distorted one-two punch of “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night,” and continuing with a long string of stylistically varied hits including “Tired of Waiting For You,” “Set Me Free,” “See My Friends,” “Stop Your Sobbing,” “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” “Waterloo Sunset,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Lola,” and many others. Elder brother and chief songwriter Ray Davies crafted some of rock’s most compelling lyrics, from outright barn burners (“You Really Got Me,” “All Day and All of the Night,”) to tender love songs (“Shangri-La,” “Waterloo Sunset”) to biting social commentary (“Celluloid Heroes,” “A Well Respected Man”) to nuanced character studies (“Lola,” “David Watts”).
Ray Davies shaped the band’s sound by combining U.S. R&B with traditional U.K. pop and dance hall styles. Although the Kinks established a promising foothold in the United States in 1964, the group was slapped with a four-year U.S. touring ban by the American Federation of Musicians labor union in mid-1965 (the reason was never clearly enunciated), preventing the group from returning to the Unites States until 1969. Unable to soak up U.S. influences firsthand as did contemporaries such as the Rolling Stones and the Animals, the Kinks remained in England and created their own decidedly British rock music, with abundant country and folk influences.
Ray (born June 21, 1944) and his younger brother, lead guitarist Dave Davies (born Feb. 3, 1947), also provided an especially vigorous model of sibling rivalry, although infighting often encompassed the entire band. The Kinks were in fact the first act to achieve widespread notoriety for battling within the ranks.
Ray and Dave Davies started performing skiffle music in the Muswell Hill section of London where they grew up. Schoolmate Peter Quaife joined them as bassist. First named the Bo-Weevils, they soon became the Ramrods and then the Ravens. With the change to the Ravens came a new drummer, Mickey Willet, and their first demo tape led to a deal with Pye Records in 1963.
By the time the group recorded a cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and Ray’s “I Took My Baby Home” in January 1964, they had made two more changes: a new drummer, Mick Avory (fresh from the fledgling Rolling Stones), and a new name—the Kinks.
“Long Tall Sally” and second single “You Still Want Me” failed to chart. Ray Davies-penned third single “You Really Got Me,” however, not only became a significant hit, but also defined the band’s raw, frenzied early sound. It topped the U.K. charts and reached the top 10 in the United States.
Two of the most famous Kinks albums from the group’s more artistic mid-1960s period, 1966’s Face to Face, which boasted one of Ray Davies’ most famous songs, “Sunny Afternoon”; and 1968 masterpiece The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (below).
Fourth single “All Day and All of the Night” continued in that raucous vein, hitting number 2 in the U.K. and number 7 in the States. That year the Kinks recorded two albums (The Kinks and Kinda Kinks) and several EPs, and did a package tour with the Dave Clark Five and the Hollies.
Relentless touring continued into 1965, with the band’s fractiousness becoming increasingly apparent—Dave Davies and Avory even got into a fight onstage at one memorable gig. In Hollywood, the band lip-synched a television appearance and was asked to sign a union contract. Ray Davies refused despite warnings of “repercussions.” The Kinks performed at the Hollywood Bowl, and were then informed that they were banned from performing in the United States for undisclosed reasons. The ban would not be lifted until early 1969. The same day of the Hollywood Bowl appearance, the Kinks’ manager quit.
Around that time, Ray Davies was starting to develop a more sophisticated compositional style. 1965 album The Kink Kontroversy included another riff-rocker, “Till the End of the Day,” but also featured songs with greater lyrical introspection and improved production, including “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” “The World Keeps Going Round” and charmingly sardonic hit “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.”
Ray’s songwriting was even sharper on the next release, 1966’s Face to Face. “Sunny Afternoon,” one of his strongest satirical pieces yet, was the U.K.’s biggest hit that summer, and foreshadowed changes in the Kinks style. Face to Face was also the first Kinks album recorded over a couple months rather than a single week.
Stylistically, the Kinks enhanced the styles found on Face to Face over the next several years. Gorgeous hit single “Waterloo Sunset” reached number 2 in the U.K. in May 1967, but new album Something Else by the Kinks was released that fall to mediocre reception. Released on the heels of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Something Else had an old-time quaintness that rock fans were not quick to embrace at the time. History has been kinder to the album, though, and songs such as “David Watts,” “Death of a Clown” and “No Return” have elevated its stature in the Kinks canon.
October 1967 single “Autumn Almanac” briefly returned the Kinks to the charts, but spring 1968 follow-up “Wonderboy” became the group’s first single since 1964’s “You Still Want Me” not to crack the Top Ten.
By then Ray Davies had taken full control of all things Kinks (Dave had contemplated and even planned a solo career in late 1967, but decided to stay with the band). His vision was fully realized with late 1968’s The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, an album that elevated Ray into a sort of pop poet laureate, but made his record companies (Pye in the U.K. and Reprise in the United States) wonder if he would ever again produce a hit. Like the tepid initial response to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, so too was Village Green received with more commercial bewilderment than massive sales. In the era of The Beatles (the “White Album”), Jimi Hendrix and the Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet, Village Green was an oddity, both for its folksy sound and nostalgic lyrical content. Once again though, history vindicated Davies in later decades as more and more critics and listeners hailed the album as a masterpiece.
Original bassist Quaife left the band in 1969, replaced by John Dalton. The U.S. touring ban was lifted that year, and the Kinks promptly returned to live performances in the United States just as they were releasing the extremely British Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). Conceived as a musical television drama for the U.K.’s ITV, Arthur included songs that were recorded and ready for release when the producer backed out. Without its visuals, Arthur was greeted as an imitation of the Who’s Tommy, despite boasting two fine singles in “Shangri-La” and “Victoria.”
For the first time in the band’s history, the Kinks expanded to include a fifth member, keyboardist John Gosling. With the United States once again open to them, Davies then made a more commercial and harder-rocking album in fall 1970, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. Controversial single “Lola” went top 10 in the U.K. and the U.S., making the album one of the Kinks’ most popular ever and making them one of the hottest U.S. concert draws. The timing couldn’t have been better, as the band’s contracts with Pye and Reprise were about to expire.
The Kinks then signed a five-album deal with RCA Records in 1971, the first of which was Muswell Hillbillies. Not only did the album flop, but it was also outsold by double compilation album The Kink Kronikles. A double album split between live and studio recordings, Everybody’s in Show-Biz followed in 1973, a live/studio double album yielding minor hit “Celluloid Heroes” but racking up otherwise disappointing sales. At the same time, Davies’ rock opera Preservation: Act 1 was heavily criticized; it too sold poorly, as did 1974’s Preservation: Act 2.
Ray Davies in early 2010.
Unfazed, Davies continued to explore the rock opera format. He started work on another musical, Starmaker, for the BBC that eventually became Soap Opera, a spring 1975 release that was again critically dismissed. A third rock opera, 1976’s Schoolboys in Disgrace, found the band trying a harder rock sound but to little notice.
The Kinks then moved to Arista Records and continued to develop a hard-rock edge, but Arista insisted on one big rule—no more concept albums. Dalton departed, replaced by Andy Pyle. 1977’s Sleepwalker returned the Kinks as to the charts, reaching number 21 and launching the band into arenas.
Dalton returned for 1978’s Misfits, which included “A Rock & Roll Fantasy,” a Kinks concert staple for two decades. After a British tour, Dalton and Gosling departed, replaced by bassist Jim Rodford and keyboardist Gordon Edwards. The Kinks sound became even more commercially oriented on 1979’s Low Budget, their biggest U.S. album (reaching number 11).
1981’s Give the People What They Want scored another top 20 appearance, and after a yearlong tour in 1982, the Kinks proved their popularity with a new generation when “Come Dancing” became an MTV hit. The oft-played video drove the single up to number 6; their biggest U.S. hit since “Tired of Waiting for You” in 1965.
While new songs such as “Destroyer,” “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” and “Do It Again” defined the sound of the Kinks in the 1980s, legions of younger musicians showed their allegiance—and scored hits of their own—by mining the early Kinks catalog. Van Halen scored big in 1978 with a wild version of “You Really Got Me”; the Pretenders recorded a faithful rendition of “Stop Your Sobbing,” and U.K. upstarts the Jam were noted for a frenetic cover of “David Watts.” These presaged a flood of bands that seemed to suddenly rediscover and revere the Kinks; England’s huge mid-’90s Britpop wave—spearheaded by Davies devotees Blur and Oasis—practically owed its existence to the Kinks. Davies himself commented during this period on the acts that embraced the Kinks with the satirical “Prince of the Punks” and “Permanent Wave.”
While the band was thus peaking, Ray Davies turned his attention to a film project, Return to Waterloo, which reinvigorated tensions between him and Dave. They agreed to reform the Kinks lineup, replacing longtime drummer Avory with Bob Henrit. They recorded 1984’s Word of Mouth with the new lineup, but the album failed to crack the top 40.
Ray and Dave Davies continued to record and tour as the Kinks until 1996, but never again scored a hit album or single under the band’s name. The original lineup of Ray and Dave Davies, Peter Quaife and Mick Avory was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. The night before the induction ceremony, Ray said, “The Kinks have always been outsiders. I’m an outsider. To be accepted is unique for us. I’m pleased for the people who believed in me all along. It’s nice for them to know that their faith wasn’t misplaced.”
Since the Kinks disbanded in the mid-1990s, Ray Davies has embarked on a successful solo career, recording albums and touring extensively with his acclaimed “Storyteller” program of music and anecdotes. Dave Davies has also occasionally toured, although health issues have proved troublesome. Avory subsequently toured with other British Invasion musicians. Quaife moved to Canada and worked as a political cartoonist and airbrush artist before passing away on June 24, 2010.