“I’ve never heard a Kinks song that I didn’t like. Of course, from their noisy and brash beginnings, the Kinks have come to stand for some of the most enduring and heart-clutching pop of all time. They are in the gut of every British song-writer who followed them and are indisputably a cornerstone of everything pop and rock. I love ‘em. The world loves ‘em.”
— David Bowie, Essential Kinks liner notes, 2014
You may have missed them along the way, because in the pop pantheon of the swinging Sixties this most English of bands always seemed second fiddle to the likes of the Beatles and the Stones, often utterly unfairly. But The Kinks have survived 55 years in the music business not just because they are talented, but because they are eminently versatile. While few could have predicted their transformation from a derivative beat group to the godfathers of Britpop, even more surprising was their successful stint as arena rockers in the late 1970s, even if the creativity was waning.
During that wave of like-sounding garage whimsy of 1990s Britpop – constant name checking by Blur et al – the reputation of The Kinks was reassessed in purely artistic terms. Bloody good job too, because their early singles, and the run of albums from 1966’s Face To Face through Something Else and Village Green Preservation Society to 1969’s Arthur, or the Decline And Fall of the British Empire, is spectacular as any, establishing Ray Davies as one of the strongest songwriters in Britain and keenest observers of British society, cementing the band’s indelible influence and legacy.
And their output is as intriguing as any in the rock landscape. From their jagged full length debut in 1964, through unimpeachable catchy hits, buzzing distillations of sneering vocals and strutting riffs, blown-out distortion, fuzz boxes, to perfect English pop and misguided conceptual fluff, through to new wave reinvigoration records all without UK chart success; owing considerable charm less to originality than to pure guts and pop vigour.
Long before Noel and Liam Gallagher were slinging insults at one another, Ray and Dave Davies beefed as only British brothers can. Following a successful four-decade partnership in The Kinks, the siblings spent the last two decades trading barbs through the press. Dave called Ray a narcissist vampire who “sucks me dry of ideas, emotions and creativity. It’s toxic for me to be with him.” Ray stomped on Dave’s 50th birthday cake.
In recent years, however, the bros have seemingly reconciled to the point where they’ve considered a reunion. In 2015 they shared the stage together for the first time in 20 years, leading Ray to predict that a reunion “definitely” happen. Whatever the future, witness the Davies brothers continually changing and writing new material to create a varied but distinctive place in rock history in this 20 track countdown.
The challenge is adequately representing each phase while balancing considerations of what’s worthwhile. So this is not an authoritative overview of The Kinks, about 500 compilations have already covered that, rather a closer look at twenty Kinks Klassics from their vast prolific catalogue.
Happy 77th birthday Ray.
20. Everybody’s A Star (Starmaker) (1975)
Lifted off a dreary concept album called Soap Opera but don’t let that put you off, not in the click-u-like Spotify era. This opening track however finds Ray Davies nailing early ’70s Ziggy Stardust glam Bowie, complete with a Dave Davies sharkfin buzz guitar. The fact that thelyrics were also a cutting satire on The Dame and his alter egos was seemingly lost on many.
19. Dedicated Follower Of Fashion (1966)
Another in the long line of classic Kinks singles and something of a musical expansion within the tried and tested British music hall tradition, peaking at No. 2 in the UK. A pre-born Damon Albarn was taking notes.
18. Celluloid Heroes (1972)
A certified masterpiece and one of the Kinks finest RCA moments, Celluloid Heroes was inspired by Ray’s sojourn in LA while strolling down the Hollywood Blvd. Taken song taken from the flawed sprawling elpee Everybody’s In Showbiz, Everybody’s A Star, its witty melancholia runs through a roll-call of famous actors of 20th century film — among them Bette Davis, Bela Lugosi, and Marilyn Monroe — immortal fixtures of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where “if you walk down Hollywood Boulevard, their names are written in concrete.”
17. A Well Respected Man (1965)
Originally released on the band’s most important EP Kwyet Kinks and as a successful single in the US, a stylistic change away from R’n’B with Ray providing a class-conscience character study with shades of music hall that would go on to dominate his writing and the Kinks output throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s.
16. See My Friends (1965)
To my ears, not only a hit single but a work of true transcendent genius with its droning eastern guitar sounds and evocative lyrics. A bright and bold step in a different direction at the time, and all these decades later it still sounds fresh.
15. Autumn Almanac (1967)
Another orphaned non-album 45 and another finely observed slice of English custom, the harmonic scene is set when the dawn “begins to crack” and a breeze blows leaves of “a musty-coloured yellow” before being swept up in Ray’s sack – that’s his autumn almanac. The spirit of The Lion And The Unicorn lengthens like the shadows over a Friday evening where “people get together, hiding from the weather.”
14. Where Have All The Good Times Gone (1965)
In the midst of a breakdown, Ray Davies finds his true voice with this all-time classic song lifted from The Kink Kontroversy, and near to the ultimate peak of British pop, melting the essence of electric Dylan via every previous Kinks hit. David Bowie tackled it on his covers album PinUps but it wasn’t nearly as good.
13. Death Of A Clown (1967)
Another Dave Davies masterpiece and an enormously successful (solo) single. Capturing the essence of the Kinks in the mid to late ’60s and the mad Carnaby Street days on a Saturday afternoon in swinging London. Incongruously, it appears on one of the band‘s best albums, which was Something Else.
12. Dead End Street (1966)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0WPC-N3UYE
Released as a non-album single, amazing considering it’s a song good enough to be the thematic centrepiece of an album. It eventually appeared as bonus track on Face To Face and has more than stood the test of time.
11. Stop Your Sobbing (1964)
Appearing on their first LP Kinks, this accomplished track displays, at this early stage, what a great writer Ray Davies was. It would later find favour in the singles charts via the Pretenders’ memorable hit version in 1979.
10. David Watts (1967)
“He is the head boy at the school/He is the captain of the team/He is so gay and fancy free/And I wish all his money belonged to me/And I wish I could be like David Watts.”
At the end, we don’t know if confirmed bisexual Ray really wants to be Watts or just be in him (or simply wants to usurp his privileged place in society). The beauty of this sharply homoerotic song is that all the possibilities could be true. The Jam had a minor hit with it in 1978, just before Paul Weller’s even angrier tale of class resentment that was The Eton Rifles.
9. Come Dancing (1983)
Found on the album State Of Confusion, Come Dancing freely indulges in 50s dance hall nostalgia, somewhat bittersweet but ultimately uplifting. It was born from a tragic incident: the death of older sister Rene of a heart attack at age 31 on the same day she gave Ray a memorable 13th birthday present. It proved to be the band’s biggest hit of the 1980s.
8. Sunny Afternoon (1966)
All of the ingredients for an all time Kinks classic are here: deep melodic sound, acoustic guitars, gorgeous harmonies, music hall piano and Pete Quaife’s descending bassline. It’s also concurrently a lazy yawn of resignation and an impeccable portrait of urban life in technicolor nostalgia. This track can be found on the deftly essential audio visage that is Face To Face.
7. Tired Of Waiting for You (1965)
The follow up single to You Really Got Me and All Day And All Of The Night sees the Kinks staking their claim as a band more flexible than the Stones and more vulnerable than the Beatles with an equally nagging and addictive riff but placed within a quiet and reflective mood. The song appeared on Kinda Kinks.
6. Victoria (1969)
Arthur was a return to guitar driven rock, none more so than rousing opener Victoria which appears to celebrate the queen’s name while delivering a seething indictment of everything her reign upheld. Notably covered by Manchester miscreants The Fall.
5. You Really Got Me (1964)
A key moment in rock history. Such proto-punk primal energy, it still sounds like it has touched down from another planet. The distorted guitar tone is perfect, the key shifts propulsive like no other, and a sound that would become the epitome of hard rock inspiring the likes of Jimmy Page through Eddie Van Halen. Lifted from their first LP Kinks.
4. Lola (1970)
“Girls will be boys, and boys will be girls.” A huge turn of the decade switch-hitting hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the enigmatic Lola gave the Kinks a second career and the dispossessed and different a crucial platform. The song is a shining gem in the Kinks entire catalogue. Melodically and lyrically, it’s perfectly constructed. And so is Lola.
3. All Day And All Of The Night (1964)
Hastily written, rehearsed and recorded after the huge success of You Really Got Me, it’s equally great with the snarling guitar and soaring chorus articulating youthful lust and angst. One of the greatest singles of the ’60s and even the Stranglers’ version, which took the track back into the Top 10 in 1987, was pretty damn spiffing.
2. Days (1968)
This most elegiac of hit singles recorded during the Village Green sessions but inexplicably left off that album. It’s a great song, the reflective melody/lyric, particularly on the bridge section: “I wish today could be tomorrow/The night is dark/It just brings sorrow, let it wait, it’ll bring a tear to your eye.” Kirsty MacColl’s version in 1989 was just as lovely.
1. Waterloo Sunset (1967)
And remember this: a moving and nostalgic character study of two lovers meeting at Waterloo Station every Friday night, the melancholic writer staring out the window watching busy London life pass by grey and unhappy. ‘Terry and Julie’ however find each other, and time exclusively for themselves, while the city bustles on around them. Complex in arrangement yet simple in execution (it took only 10 hours to record) it was a huge hit in the UK for the band, and is simply one of the greatest songs ever written. It can be found as the closing number on the very fine Something Else.
Bringing things full circle, David Bowie’s version from 2003 wasn’t that amazing. Oh well.
BONUS BEATS: Bowie’s cover was dashed away after an impromptu duet at a Tibet House benefit concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall where he duetted with Davies himself. It’s kinda kooky.