The Kinks were one of many British Rock bands that made an immediate impact on popular music around the world in the early nineteen sixties. Famous for the wonderful warmth of their sound, their often humorous songs celebrated both the important and trivial sides of life. Although not as commercially successful as giants like Led Zeppelin, The Who and Queen, they’re no less important in the story of Rock music.
Like many groups of their era, they began as a ‘rhythm and blues’ band in 1963, playing American-influenced music. However, within four years they had become the most staunchly English of all their contemporaries, drawing heavily from traditional English music, as well as incorporating elements of country music, folk and blues. At the centre of the band were two brothers, Ray and Dave Davies, born and raised in London. Ray was the lead vocalist, songwriter and rhythm guitarist, while Dave provided lead guitar and backing vocals. In their teens, the brothers began playing rock’n’roll music together and recruited a mutual friend, Peter Quaife, to play bass guitar. By the summer of 1963, the group had a new drummer called Mick Avory, and soon began to get commercial success.
There’s a theory that the band’s very English feel comes from the fact that unlike their counterparts such as the The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, The Kinks did not tour the United States to play concerts there in their early days, so were never immersed in the American sound. Guitarist Dave Davis agrees, saying that this made them look closer to home for inspiration. “Yes, it had an affect on our music,” he told UK Lao Mao. “It internalised us and made us look more about where we lived and came from. The blues guys had their roots, but we decided to look at ours and our own culture…”
Songwriter Ray Davies began focusing on traditional British village life as subjects to write songs about, and also became fascinated with a famous and much loved playwright and dramatist from the previous generation, Noel Coward. He had written a number of songs, often very funny, satirising the behaviour of English people, and you can see this in Kinks songs. They may have loved American blues music, but they were smart enough to realise that it was not their own, and unlike many other bands of the nineteen sixties, they didn’t pretend it was.
This lead to the band’s masterpiece, 1968’s The Village Green Preservation Society, which humorously lamented the passing of old-fashioned English traditions. With this album, The Kinks created a series of stories, sketches and characters about a romantic and picturesque England that perhaps never really existed. This beautifully melodic and gentle piece of music documents a lazy English town full of people obsessed about small things like “strawberry jam and all the different varieties”, while, “preserving the old ways from being abused, protecting the new ways for me and for you…”
One element of the band’s appeal was its strong family orientation. The Davies brothers wrote the words and music, and performed it, and came from a very musical family with their mother, father and sisters all playing instruments, and filling their house with music as they grew up. This gave an comforting ease and flow to their sound; it was so soft and seductive that their songs seemed able to sneak inside your head but would then never leave! Their live performances were mesmerising too; unlike many of their peers they didn’t go for gimmicks or over-the-top stage effects, preferring to stand up straight and sing direct to the audience.
“Some days we’d be miserable but we’d also generate an energy, without realising it,” said Davies. “There were times on stage and in the studio and you’d get a feeling. It was a sort of psychic interaction between people. People who are in total harmony with each other. You’d be playing a song and it would return back at you. The family aspect and empathy that Ray and I had for each other and still have – it doesn’t go away – it was crucial how The Kinks’ music evolved. There’s an energy but also an unspoken love and respect. There’s a lot of humanity in there.”
The band sold millions of records all around the world, and were a big part about what Americans called “the British invasion” of music and culture in the nineteen sixties. Their first hit came with the catchy You Really Got Me and sixteen more hit singles followed including Lola, Sunny Afternoon, Dedicated Follower of Fashion and perhaps the song they’re most famous for, Waterloo Sunset released in May 1967, which describes two lovers walking over a London bridge, and their hopes and dreams. It sums up The Kinks music – sweet and lilting, romantic and affectionate, yet raw and rousing. Although they strongly influenced nineteen seventies bands like the The Jam and nineties British music like Blur and Oasis, there will never be anything quite like them again.