For this edition of Dusting ‘Em Off, staff writers Henry Hauser, Stevie Dunbar, Ryan Bray, and Nina Corcoran revisit The Kinks’ self-titled debut album, which turns 50 years old this week. To celebrate, they dissect the band’s underlying sibling rivalry, Ray Davies’ crafty vocal melodies, and the enduring brilliance of “You Really Got Me”.
Henry Hauser (HH): Ray Davies penned nearly 200 tunes for The Kinks, but he wrote less than half the tracks on his band’s 1964 self-titled debut. Like the the early offerings of The Beatles, Stones, and Dave Clark Five, the nascent Kinks leaned heavily on covers of American blues and rock ‘n roll acts like Chuck Berry (“Beautiful Delilah”, “Too Much Monkey Business”), J.D. Miller (“I’m a Lover Not a Fighter”), Bo Diddley (“Cadillac”), and Slim Harpo (“Got Love If You Want It”). Five decades later, these songs come off corny and contrived, more cultural theft than creative revolution.
But when Ray takes the reins with rowdy rocker “You Really Got Me” and tender tearjerker “Stop Your Sobbing”, something truly amazing happens. Distorted guitars, quirky vocal melodies, and ebullient energy prevail over rehashed rockabilly, as the Davies brothers craft a unique and distinctive sound.
“You Really Got Me”, the band’s breakthrough single, marks the moment when four scrawny teenagers from North London transformed into The Kinks. Mick Avory’s jangly tambourine and a skittering piano slide over lead guitarist Dave Davies’ fuzzy riffs, as session drummer Bobby Graham and bassist Peter Quaife lay a thick foundation for Ray’s angsty, restless vocals. The lustful singer, so consumed by desire that he “can’t sleep at night,” has lost control of his body and mind. Frustrated and alone, Ray lets out an anguished yowl as Dave’s scathing Harmony Meteor forces its way to foreground: “Owwwww noooooo!”
What separates The Kinks from other ‘64 releases like A Hard Day’s Night and The Rolling Stones is Dave Davies’ distorted guitar riffs, which he crafted by slashing his “little green” Elpico amp with a razor and feeding it through a robust Vox AC30. Most great achievements are the result of fortuitous accidents, and the birth of The Kinks’ signature sound was no exception. Sure, Ray Davies is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, but shouldn’t Dave get his due?
Stevie Dunbar (SD): Oh, I absolutely agree. That brotherly love/hate relationship between Dave and Ray was key to so many good (and bad) moments in their career. Apparently they were intensely fighting during the recording of “You Really Got Me”, and Dave took that piss and vinegar and poured it into the riff. He took a great riff and made it a legendary riff, and it’s probably tied with “Louie, Louie” in terms of widespread influence. I mean, less than four months later you got The Who drawing heavily from it for their own classic, “I Can’t Explain”.
“You Really Got Me” is seven songs into the album, and it’s absolutely searing compared to the rest of it. When Dave (yes, it was Dave and not Jimmy Page as the rumor goes) launches into that gloriously messy solo, you can hear the foundations of proto-punk bands like the Stooges and the MC5.
And, while Shel Talmy’s songwriting on this album may be suspect, his production is spot-on. Apparently he used 12 mics on Graham’s drums to get that massive sound that powers the short breakdown between the first chorus and second verse. And I’m sure most producers during that era wouldn’t even allow such a noisy guitar part to be recorded (ex: The Beatles had to pretend the opening feedback to “I Feel Fine” was an accident to get it past Parlophone judgement), so massive props to Talmy for having such an open mind.
I know this is supposed to be about the album as a whole, but “You Really Got Me” is such a great example of everything good about rock. Absolute raw power.
Ryan Bray (RB): Truth be told, there’s a part of me that loves these early documents of soon-to-be great bands. While they pale in comparison to the masterworks bands go on to make their name on, it’s interesting to start at the beginning and see where and how they started to put their sound together. I doubt anyone out there is going around talking about how Kinks is their favorite Kinks album, but it’s a cool listen if for no other reason than you know you’re hearing the beginning of something huge. Even though the band is playing it straight through much of the record, sticking closely to the mercy beat and R&B sounds that were in vogue at the time, there’s still something feral about how the band approaches these tunes. Right off the top, “Beautiful Delilah” starts off innocently enough before Dave Davies just throws an absolute guitar fit (at least by 1964 standards). Going back to my original point, it’s cool to see that the band had this wild side that was just dying to fight free of its cage, even from square one.
I like Stevie’s point about the tension between the Davies brothers, because there’s no doubt that that drove the band in the decidedly aggro direction some of these early songs took. Not to flog a dead horse by jumping on “You Really Got Me”, but that song didn’t come out of thin air. Rather, it’s a tune that carries the weight of the turmoil that famously served as the foundation for Ray and Dave’s creative relationship. If their relationship wasn’t as volatile as it was, would that song even have existed? Maybe, but it no doubt would have been knocked down a few pegs on the rancour scale. To answer your question, Henry, Dave Davies definitely deserves his due. We can all bow to Ray (and rightfully so), but every musical genius needs a foil to work off of, and he got that and so much more in Dave.
Nina Corcoran (NC): It’s especially interesting to head back and revisit the group’s first record to see how it fits in with their later sound and, more importantly, their later friendships. Presumably, bands’ first albums should catch them before any beef has formed, but for the Davies, it’s comically always there. From the onstage fights to the in-studio quarrels, they couldn’t keep their voices down, and their music benefited from it as a result.
Even from the start, Dave Davies is looking to get some equal spotlight attention. How can you blame him? Ray Davies is a natural born leader. Even though he gets those powerful first gritty riffs that open up “You Really Got Me”, Dave has to watch as Ray lets his voice rip during the chorus, giving it this pent-up fury that immediately caught the media’s attention. Dave’s solo in “Beautiful Delilah” that Ryan mentioned, too, is a great look at what happens when the two are caught dancing for the light. This bright, rigid toying goes back and forth between the two. It’s an undercurrent on their first record, for sure, but definitely noticeable when you’re listening with a close ear. Whenever “I’m a Lover Not a Fighter” comes up, it’s hard not to laugh. You know they’re gritting their teeth behind sealed lips.
I wish we could look inside the diary Ray Davies kept at the time, both for the notes on feuding and the fuel for notes. It’s so vital. Getting to hear about their brotherly tension from a perspective not yet drowning in their more intense anger (i.e., Ray stabbing Dave in the chest with a fork for stealing one of his chips at a restaurant) would shed some light on what their original goals were. Oh, to hear some in-the-moment reflection from the two. We can dream, can’t we?
HH: Ryan and Nina are right on target. The Ray-Dave sibling rivalry sparked many of The Kinks’ most spontaneous (and brilliant) musical moments. The Storyteller, Ray’s riveting account of early life in the Davies household and his band’s rise to prominence, has him describing how he and Dave exchanged scornful looks while recording “You Really Got Me”. The elder Davies swears that if you listen closely, you can actually hear Dave yelling “Fuckkkoffff” right before his guitar solo. Ray salvaged the track by covering up Dave’s profane exclamation with his own unscripted outburst (“Owwwww noooooo!”), and the impromptu rock scream turned into one of the most memorable quirks in Kinks history. It perfectly captures the animalistic agony that accompanies hopeless infatuation. Without the Ray-Dave rivalry, it would never have happened.
The Davies brothers set the stage for a slew of sibling feuds, from Gregg and Duane Allman to Liam and Noel Gallagher. Often, the results are fantastic; apparently creative breakthroughs are forged in the fires of familial turmoil. Maybe the HAIM sisters should dig up some bad blood before recording their sophomore album?
SD: Indeed, the fires of familial turmoil is an excellent way to describe it. I’m a big Oasis fan, and there are definitely some odd similarities that the Davies and Gallaghers share. That sibling turmoil cost both bands their big break in America. For Oasis, it was a cancelled 1996 tour at the height of their worldwide success following (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?. For The Kinks, it was an early ban from touring in America in 1965 until the turn of the decade.
Nina brought up a great point about looking back at debut albums in a historical context. With 20/20 hindsight, we can see how that initial tension would lead to their ban from America, which, ultimately, resulted in Ray penning some of the most quintessential and influential songs in the British pop songbook. We wouldn’t have songs like “Waterloo Sunset” or albums like The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society if it wasn’t for the Davies’ fractured relationship. All of it spiraling out of fist fights that were probably happening from the moment the two could walk and talk.
Anyway, back to the album at hand. Can I just take a second to point out that Jimmy Page and Jon Lord both played on this album? Sure, they are among a handful of ’60s session musicians who eventually went on to find their own success, but how amazing is it that two future hard rock legends assisted in the genre’s birth? While Page didn’t play on “You Really Got Me”, according to Talmy he did play rhythm guitar on a handful of tracks. Lord, on the other hand, played some smoldering keys on the influential song, his Little Richard-esque two-note stabs giving the song some historical context while Dave blasted the song into the future.
RB: It’s hard to underestimate that rock and roll sound, especially since those rough edges largely define Kinks. But while I personally love the grittier, ’60s R&B stuff as much as anything else the band did, it’s interesting in retrospect to see how one-sided the record is. For a band that built a brilliant career out of being able to juggle solid rock songs with more introspective singer-songwriter fare, “Start Your Sobbing” is the only track of Kinks’ 14 songs to dabble in something softer and sweeter. Amazing track, but it’s one that makes you hunger for a little more balance. But hey, you’ve got to start somewhere, no?
NC: I like to think the lack of tender tracks on Kinks is part of a bigger scheme. Clearly the band was preoccupied with making the “right” introduction. If five of your debut record’s songs are covers, there’s some undeniable apprehension shaking in those second-long gaps between tracks. Yes, throwing multiple covers on your album was popular at the time, but it goes to show there’s this nervousness when it comes to proving your worth as a well-respected man (nyuk, nyuk). Showing too much of your heart when no one cares about you in the first place sets yourself up for disaster, and the Kinks knew that.
Don’t forget that “Stop Your Sobbing” is the first time we get to hear Ray’s wife Rasa Didzpetris-Davies singing. Her sweet, gentle vocals are best known for their appearance on “Waterloo Sunset”, an often debated topic about the importance of having effeminate backing vocals, where the back and forth between Ray and his wife is easy to miss. In “Stop Your Sobbing”, though, she’s giving softer padding to an otherwise melancholic hit. She doesn’t have the voice of an angel or a distinct twist that’s recognizable, but Rasa was the one singing this part instead of a dozen other vocalists. With Dave’s quick trills dispersed throughout and Ray’s lackadaisical vocals on this one, she’s the one who brings the Davies together.
It’s impossible to bring this song up without talking about The Pretenders. Their cover of the song, which is introduced on their debut LP, too, is more popular than The Kinks’ version, hands down. Die-hard fans of both bands would argue in favor of their team, but the truth is The Pretenders have given “Stop Your Sobbing” more playtime onstage than The Kinks ever did. Given Chrissie Hynde’s romantic ties to Ray (like their now 31-year-old daughter), the song’s arrow continues to get blown in the wind, making it hard to know who, exactly, is crying the hardest. Both The Kinks and The Pretenders have reached huge levels of fame while simultaneously not getting the fame they deserve, so hearing Hynde cover it decades after it first dropped makes it seem like The Kinks penned it as a preemptive lullaby for none other than themselves.
HH: I’m glad someone finally mentioned “Stop Your Sobbing”. Aside from “You Really Got Me”, it’s the only track that’s really stood the test of time. Here, Ray’s unconventional delivery hints at the ingenious vocal melodies he’ll spend the next half-century crafting and honing.
When Ray segues from verse to chorus, he garbles his lyrics as if his mouth is packed with peanut butter. What he’s saying is so tricky and awkward that he can’t even get the words out. Counseling a lachrymose lover to shape up or ship out, Ray cruelly chides: “GottaSTOP sobbin’ NOW/ Yeah, Stop-IT, Stop-IT.” Hearing your sweetheart snivel and whimper is tough to endure, and the urge to yell out “JUST STOP IT!” can be very tempting (albeit counterproductive). “Stop Your Sobbing” is far from The Kinks’ most empathetic song, but Ray does manage to capture a very real emotional pitfall that’s hastened the demise of countless relationships on both sides of the pond.
SD: To me, “Stop Your Sobbing” is a song of its time, but a good one nonetheless. I also think it’s worth mentioning “All Day and All of the Night”. While it wasn’t on the album proper (at least not until the 2011 reissue), it literally came out a few weeks after. It’s very much “You Really Got Me” Part Two, right down to the slippery, distorted riff and messy, guitar-falling-down-the-stairs solo. In fact, I’d argue that “All Day and All of the Night” is a better song. “You Really Got Me” set the groundwork, but “All Day and All of the Night” perfects the formula. There’s something about that riff that just sounds right. It’s like the difference between The Stooges’ sludgy “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and more refined “Search and Destroy”, but in the span of only a few weeks!
RB: Yeah, those reissues really open things up a bit. The record’s first 14 tracks whiz by pretty quick, and while the super deluxe version (56 tracks!) gives fans more than they could reasonably be expected to work through, it’s a fun listen. The band’s decidedly Kinks-ish take on “Louie, Louie” is pretty cool, especially the way they bring a little more clarity to The Kingsmen’s famously indecipherable lyrics. And to pick up on Stevie’s point about “ All Day and All of the Night”, I really liked the BBC version, which gives a song I’ve probably beat mercilessly into the deepest recesses of my brain a fresh spin. Ray describing “You’ve Really Got Me” as a “love song with a beat” is pretty priceless, too.
Overall, it can be hard to look at Kinks without some sort of anthropological lens. It’s their first record, and as such it’s difficult to listen to it without sizing it up against “Lola”, “Waterloo Sunset”, “A Well Respected Man” and the boatload of other treasures they’d drop on the world a year later. But if you try and dig it on its own merits, Kinks is a pretty promising debut, even if it’s a conservative one.
NC: Absolutely. Getting to hear a band lay down so many covers on their debut makes it a worthwhile revisit, too. Once you finish up Kinks in a quick sit-down session (because really, it flies by), checking out the reissue tracks — especially “All Day and All of the Night”, as Stevie mentioned — makes the experience complete. “Little Queenie” sees Dave giving it his all, whipping out another soulful solo that picks up for Ray’s decent delivery on the Chuck Berry classic. Once the two simultaneously get into the R&B grooves, the song finds its stride, Ray screaming in the background as Dave gains momentum.
The same is true for the BBC take of “You Really Got Me”. It sounds like Dave and Ray are still both getting equal spotlight time. Dave’s solo is a jangly slide that has him pulling his strings, getting a bent sound out of his guitar, and Ray is pretty lax in his delivery until halfway through where, to me, it sounds like Dave’s on-point playing shakes Ray up, and he starts laying down his quintessential vocals for that track.
Kinks certainly doesn’t highlight The Kinks at their finest moment because they’ve only just begun, but for a debut, it reveals more about that band than a slew of covers and crackling R&B tracks would usually admit to. They’ve started to untie their shoes to get a bit rowdy, but halfway through the album, they kick them off with full force. It’s a reveal that never gets old.