The Kinks - Biography

By Bob Fagan


             The Davies brothers, Ray and Dave, grew up in a large working class family in Muswell Hill, North London, England. They began performing in skiffle groups in their early teens. Pete Quaife, who attended the same school as the Davies brothers, began to play with the brothers at about this time.  Ray, the elder brother by three years, entered Hornsy Art College, where Rod Stewart was a fellow classmate. The brothers and Quaife were joined on drums by Mick Avory, a one-gig member of the fledgling Rolling Stones; they called themselves, The Ravens. Signed in early 1963 by Pye Records, they changed their name to The Kinks; the name came from the so-called “kinky” fashions – leather jackets and boots – popular at the time. Their self-titled (released as You Really Got Me in the US) first release for Pye was released in 1964.


            Their first single, a cover of The Beatles’ version of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” failed to chart. Producer Shel Talmy believed that a song with the words “you” and “me” in the title had a better chance of charting; hence their unsuccessful second try, “You Still Want Me,” and the flipside of their first 45, “You Do Something to Me.”  Written by Ray Davies, who would quickly become the primary songwriter in the band, “You Really Got Me,” their third stab at the formula, reached #1 in England and #6 in America, making them pop stars. An instant and enduring classic, the song remains a garage band staple, performed and recorded by artists from the 13th floor Elevators to Van Halen. The song has been called a forerunner of metal, hard rock and punk, and, with it’s heavy distorted guitar sound, riff-based arrangement, and sneering, snotty vocals, was arguably the first British invasion release to move beyond both the derivative R&B stylings of the Rolling Stones and the Buddy Holly-influenced lyrics of the Beatles. Ironically, Davies claims to have written the song as a traditional blues song that borrowed its primary riff from a song performed by the Jimmy Giuffre 3, in the Monterey Jazz Festival documentary, Jazz on a Summer’s Day.


            “All Day and All of the Night”, the follow-up single, was another monster riff and classic tune, if anything more potent than the earlier song, and worth it alone for Dave’s  maniacal cackle an instant before his frantic, almost atonal guitar solo.  Their third hit, “Tired of Waiting for You,” showed the more melodic side of the band. 


            They toured ceaselessly in Britain, Europe and America. A live performance at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow reveals a raucous, enthusiastic band playing songs barely recognizable for the screaming of hysterical fans. Some of the band’s energy was said to derive from the sibling rivalry between the Davies brothers.  Fisticuffs between the two were not uncommon, and offstage tensions and rivalries sometimes erupted onstage as well. Nor were the rest of the band immune. At one performance in Cardiff, Wales, Dave Davies kicked over Avory’s drum kit. Avory responded by knocking Dave unconscious with his drum stool. Thinking he had killed the lead guitarist, Avory fled the hall and was found by the local police weeping in a local cafe. He spent a few anxious hours in jail before being released.


            In February of 1965, The Kinks released their second album, Kinda Kinks (Pye UK/Reprise US--released with an altered track list as Kinks Kinkdom in the US). That summer, the band also released the Kwyet Kinks EP, which showed the band rapidly maturing from their R&B roots and branching out in a multitude of directions. “See My Friends” was the first pop song to utilize the drones of Indian music; The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” wouldn’t be released for another six months. “Well Respected Man" was a finely detailed dissection of an entitled upper class snob. The Kink Kontroversy (1965 Pye UK/Reprise US) found them torn between powerful rockers (“Til the End of the Day,” Sleepy John Estes’ “Milk Cow Blues”) and more reflective, humorous and often cynical material (the tragic-comic calypso of “I’m on an Island” and I-give-up ethos of “You Can’t Win.”)


            Although The Kinks would never have a #1 hit in America, the band toured the states successfully several times, and did land several songs in the top 20. But in 1966, they found themselves banned from appearing live in America, for reasons that still are not fully explained 40 years later. Ray Davies has noted that The Kinks encountered a great deal of hostility from the Musicians Union, who resented the English bands coming to America and profiting, they believed, at their expense. Alternately, rumors of a backstage assault on a union member by one or both of the Davies brothers, have never been fully substantiated nor explicitly denied by the band.


            Cut off by the ban from the fame and fortune other British invasion bands were experiencing in America, The Kinks retreated lyrically and musically to England – it’s idiosyncrasies, rain and grey skies, characters and indigenous music – English dance hall and the pre-war English big bands such as Ray Noble Orchestra, and the witty, world-weary lyricism of Noel Coward. Ray Davies' songs had evolved from simple riff-based rockers to finely detailed character studies, rich fantasies of an England nearly gone and gloomy observations of the present.  Face to Face (1966 Pye UK/Reprise US) included “Sunny Afternoon,” which would reach #1 in England and #11 in America, and another Indian-influenced song, “Fancy.”  A year before The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Davies was already attempting something of a concept album – the original release called for the tracks to be connected by a series of sound effects and dialogue. Some of these remain, e.g., the ringing telephone and operator at the beginning of “Party Line,” and the twittering birds of “Rainy Day in June.”  Musically, the band had grown enormously as well, with Ray’s vocals achieving a new sensitivity, Dave’s guitar playing progressing light years from his early frantic riffing, and Avory revealing heretofore-unknown jazz chops on “Little Miss Queen of Darkness.”


            The band’s next release, Something Else (1967 Pye UK/Reprise US) was a wealth of riches seen by many fans as a highpoint of the band’s career. The album featured Dave Davies’ “Death of a Clown”, with a Dylanesque lyric married to an out of tune tack piano and beer hall sing-along chorus. The song was co-written with Ray but released as a Dave Davies single, his first. The centerpiece of the record is “Waterloo Sunset,” in which Ray perfects his role as the detached and cynical outsider/observer. The song’s narrator is torn between his affection for the lovers he sees crossing Waterloo Bridge from his window (The lovers, “Terry and Julie,” were inspired by Terence Stamp and Julie Christie’s roles in the contemporary film Far From the Madding Crowd) and his own self-mocking cynicism. Featuring one of The Kinks’ trademark descending baselines and the ethereal high harmonies of Ray’s then-wife Raisa, the song is cinematic in its scope, a 3 minute movie about love, loneliness and regret.


            What is likely The Kinks greatest work – The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968 Pye UK/Reprise US) - failed to chart and was their worst-selling LP to that point. It is now almost universally acknowledged as their masterpiece; perhaps the quintessential British pop record. The band’s exile from America is mirrored in the album’s lyrical and musical retreat to an imaginary village populated by the inimitable creatures of Davies imagination. While the title track finds Ray seeking God’s salvation for little shops, china cups and virginity, “Do You Remember Walter?” skewers such nostalgia in it’s dismissal of childhood friends and dreams. “Last of the Steam Powered Trains” chugs along on a borrowed Howlin’ Wolf riff, while “Sitting by the Riverside” manages to make an accordion psychedelic. Although not included on the original version of the LP, the single “Days” also stands out for its elegiac lyric, as Ray lavishes praise on a departing lover while pondering the dark night of his sorrow between the compliments.


            Arthur: Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1969 Pye UK/Reprise US) was a soundtrack to a television production that never aired. Original bassist Quaife had left the band prior to recording the album. He was replaced by former Mark IV member John Dalton. Rocking harder than the past few records, the album showed the band at perhaps the height of their musical powers. Held back from release for several months after completion, the record, perhaps the first rock opera, was overshadowed by the hype accompanying the Who’s Tommy and predictably sank without a trace. Undeterred, The Kinks toured behind the album, and finally returned to America following the lifting of the three year ban. Unlike their contemporaries, The Who and the Stones, who had become arena-rock’s first superstars, The Kinks found themselves playing small halls and ballrooms, often second-billed to acts of lesser quality.


            The new decade saw the release of what is likely their last truly great album, Lola vs. Powerman & the Moneygoround Part I. (1970 Pye UK/Reprise US). A concept album based on the band’s experience with the business end of rock n roll, the album featured the standout cut “Lola”, an ambiguously worded tale of an encounter with a woman who may or may not have been a man. The song went to #9 in America, the follow-up single, “Apeman” reached the top ten in England. The album also featured the debut of keyboardist John Gosling. Prior to Gosling joining the band, keyboards had been played by either session man Nicky Hopkins, or Ray himself.


            Leaving their longtime US label Reprise, the band signed to RCA and released Muswell Hillbillies (1971 RCA), a concept album marrying The Kinks’ working class origins in Muswell Hill, London, to the working class ethos and styles of American country and western music.


            Everybody’s in Show Biz (1972 RCA) was a double album with one LP containing new songs, and the other a live set gathered from their most recent American Tour. The live set revealed a fun, if more than slightly inebriated, Kinks putting on a chaotic and sometimes out-of-tune performance, including joking covers of “Baby Face” and Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song,” as well as a brief parodic imitation of Noel Coward. The studio sides featured the FM radio standard “Celluloid Heroes,” which questions why people seek fame and the famous, and “Sitting in my Hotel Room,” which finds Ray contemplating the distance fame had taken him from his friends.  Both LPs also featured the addition of a horn section featuring musicians from British trad-jazz band, The Mike Cotton Sound.


            Ray Davies next set out on a deliberate return to the rock opera idea, releasing Preservation Act I (1973 RCA) and Preservation Act II (1974 RCA) over the next two years. The storyline was a return of sorts to the Village Green, now being threatened with rampant development and beset by moralizing socialist politicians. The live shows were great fun, with cheap props and silent move era styled heroes and villains portrayed by various band members. The LPs themselves were stiffly played, and Ray’s lyrical brilliance seemed to have largely vanished, aside from the lovely “Sweet Lady Genevieve” from Preservation Act I. Undeterred, Ray continued to work in the rock opera vein for the Kinks' next two releases – Soap Opera (1975 RCA) and Schoolboys in Disgrace (1975 RCA). Again, a few fine songs here and there only served to underscore the banality of the rest. Ray, who invariably took the lead “roles” in these rock operas, seemed to grow more distant from the rest of the band, who were often relegated to one side of the stage, like orchestra musicians in a pit. Live performances of Soap Opera also saw them forced to wear ridiculous Day-Glo afro wigs for no relevant reason.  Schoolboys in Disgrace, the last of the concept LPs, did at least show a renewed interest in tight rock n roll. And a few cuts, notably the Steely Dan-like “No More Looking Back,” rose above the concept and could stand on their own as good songs, something that couldn’t be said of most of Soap Opera and virtually all of the two Preservation albums.


            In 1976, the Kinks signed with Arista, convinced by label president Clive Davis’ vow to make them major American hit makers once again. The result was Sleepwalker (1977 Arista), a fine collection of songs that dropped the theatrical conceits of the previous four records in favor of short, tight, radio-ready songs. It also featured, for the first time in many albums, a Dave Davies vocal performance (“Sleepless Nights”). The album also marked the departure of both the horn section as well as bassist Dalton, who was replaced by interim session bassist Andy Pyle, formerly of Blodwyn Pig. Pyle was gone by the release of the next album, Misfits (1978 Arista) replaced by former Argent bassist Jim Rodford, who would stay as bassist until the band ended in 1996. Gosling also left the band at this point to work on a project with Pyle. He was replaced by former Pretty Things keyboardist Ian Gibbons.


            With the rise of punk and new wave music in the late 70s, Kinks covers – mainly of the early, “You Really Got Me “era material -  became popular and were featured on LPs by bands as diverse as Van Halen, the Pretenders, The Jam, The Fall, Camper Van Beethoven and even post-punk icons the Raincoats, whose gender-bending cover of “Lola” has been cruelly overlooked.


            Low Budget (1979 Arista) rose to #11 in America, the Kinks highest charting album ever in the states; the single from the record, the disco-tinged “Superman” just barely missed making the top 40. In that year, the Kinks sold out Madison Square Garden for the first time. Unfortunately, all this latter-day fame came at the cost of quality material – the songs on Low Budget, consciously engineered for arena-rock acceptance, were clumsily played and lyrically undistinguished.  Ray’s vocals were blunt-macho shouts utterly lacking in nuance. The Kinks had dumbed themselves down for fame and would never really recover.


            A double live album drawn from the Low Budget tours – One From the Road (1980 Arista) – was released as both LP and VHS – a first at the time.  If the title of Give The People What They Want (1981 Arista) mocked the price of the Kinks renewed popularity, the album itself offered up little besides “Better Things,” a return to a more melodic approach with a lyrical update of “Days.” State of Confusion (1983 Arista) was largely another dismissible effort, with the exception of another great Davies breakup song, “Property,” and the surprise hit single, “Come Dancing,” which mixed a steel-drum-driven melody with a nostalgic Davies lyric written in homage to a long-gone dance hall from his childhood. It was a song that could have come off any of the Kinks best 60s-era efforts. It reached #6 in America, and was probably the last great Kinks song recorded. Fans who bought the cassette version of the LP were also treated to a bonus track entitled “Long Distance,” a lovely, lonely Dylanesque ballad that displayed the feeling absent for too long in The Kinks’ recordings.


            The Kinks were riding high again, but the tensions that fueled the band had begun to reach the breaking point. Ray issued a solo album – Return to Waterloo (1885 Arista) – that featured all the Kinks except Dave, who refused to allow The Kinks’ name to be attached to the project. Decades of simmering antipathy between Dave and Mick Avory reached the boiling point during the recording of Word of Mouth (1884 Arista). Forced to choose between his brother and their long time drummer, Ray fired Avory from the band. He was replaced by Bob Henrit, who had drummed for Argent and on several tracks on Dave’s solo albums.


            The band was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.  A live album, The Road (1988 MCA) made no commercial or critical impact. UK Jive (1989 MCA) met a similar fate. Phobia (1993 Columbia) was mostly notable for the Ray and Dave duet “Hatred” which semi-comically delineated their long-term adversarial relationship within the band. It also would turn out to be the band’s final studio album. The Kinks continued to tour sporadically, largely in Europe. A final release, To the Bone (1994 Guardian UK/ 1996 Capitol) featured the Kinks performing some of their lesser known material (and two new tracks) before an invited audience at their Konk Studios. A final tour, with the Davies brothers backed by Argent's rhythm section (and occasionally performing the latter band’s “Hold Your Head Up”), ended with a performance in Oslo, Norway. It was the last show the Kinks would perform, breaking up shortly thereafter.


            Both Ray and Dave went on to write autobiographies and present shows that were half music, half spoken word. Ray has released two so-so albums whose critical acclaim was more likely driven by nostalgia rather than the actual quality of the work. He toured the US in 2007, with a full band, in support of Workingman’s Café (2007 V2). Dave has released a series of albums on small labels, but his solo career was brought to an abrupt halt by a severe stroke suffered in 2004. He has since recovered to the extent of being able to record and released a new CD, Fractured Mindz (Koch) in 2007. Jim Rodford currently plays in The Zombies. Mick Avory continues to run the Kinks recording studio, and plays in the Kast-Off Kinks, a bar band that also numbers Gosling, Dalton and (occasionally) Quaife among its members. The band is popular at British and European Kinks fan club conventions, and Ray has occasionally joined them for a few songs. Considering the state of Dave’s health and the undiminished animosity between the Davies brothers, these shows are likely to be the closest thing to a real Kinks reunion. The band’s influence remains huge in the rock world, and their critical stock continues to rise with each reissue. They are, and will remain, an absolutely essential band in rock history; a band which, although they never quite matched the commercial success of their British Invasion peers, may have been the best of all.


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