The Kinks, circa 1965

God save The Kinks

How did four ornery lads rearing up from the post-war English underclass become national treasures?


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Kinks are no strangers to our national conversation. Having played their last note in 1996, they’ve now been defunct for nearly as long as they were together. Yet their stock continues to rise. At the 2012 London Olympics, their signature song “Waterloo Sunset” was given a place of honour in the closing ceremony. Five years later their main songwriter and singer, Ray Davies, was knighted for services to the arts. Meanwhile Sunny Afternoon, a West End musical based on their career, picked up a clutch of Olivier awards.

Regularly cited today as the third wheel in a Sixties pop holy trinity completed by The Beatles and Stones, and regarded as hugely influential on subsequent musical generations, The Kinks have joined the likes of Judi Dench and Alan Bennett as national treasures — or, in the more euphonious words of their fellow Londoner William Blake, “jewels of Albion”. So how did all this happen?

Ray Davies of The Kinks in 1972

I was there, aged nine, at their eruption in July 1964 when my mum allowed me to have my tea in front of the TV for Ready Steady Go! The moment I was pinned to the wall by the bulldozer riff and unhinged vocal of “You Really Got Me”, I took The Kinks’ shilling. Within three months they’d unleashed the frenzied “All Day and All of the Night”. Then with their next chart-topper, “Tired of Waiting for You”, they slowed the whole thing down and made menace beautiful.

The Kinks’ music is often touted as quintessentially English, but that opening salvo contained little in the way of George Orwell’s “solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes”. As with their brilliantly feral young peers — Animals, Yardbirds, Them, Who — future national treasurehood didn’t then look likely. “The Rolling Stones are not the people you build empires with,” journalist Maureen Cleave noted. Well, no, but could Clive of India have come up with “Get Off Of My Cloud”?

These bands soon undertook their own form of outreach work, the mid-Sixties “British Invasion” of the USA in which The Kinks’ part fell somewhere between 1854’s Charge of the Light Brigade and a topless Erika Roe’s Twickenham pitch invasion in 1982. Bad management, bad luck and bad behaviour meant they were prevented from performing Stateside again until the end of the decade.

It was during this enforced hiatus that their music truly “went native”, their British profile kept high by a string of witty, melodically inventive, utterly inimitable story-singles such as “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and “Sunny Afternoon” reaching a Kinksy zenith with “Waterloo Sunset”.

Once readmitted to the US, The Kinks fell out of favour here, and for their last quarter-century they earned virtually all their success in American charts and arenas — firstly with pop-operatic stage shows derived from a run of mid-period concept albums, then with a barrage of MTV-friendly rock.

Throughout this long stretch in the domestic wilderness (turned down as insufficiently famous to appear at 1985’s Live Aid, booed offstage at a Barnsley club in 1993) they remained my personal pop touchstone. Whilst I liked a lot of their newer material, with each passing year the more precious their older, canonical songs became to me — a process which has yet to stop. I don’t know to what extent I’m speaking for the broader hardline fanbase, but The Kinks got tied up with my identity.

I think this went beyond the songs. In July 1964, for instance, I’d also been quickened by Cliff Richard’s “On The Beach” whilst feeling no sense of affiliation with Cliff himself. Not irrelevantly, there were four of the Kinks, and their original line-up’s raw, working-class gang aspect was intensely alluring. For five sublime years from 1964 they comprised slaughterman’s son Ray Davies on rhythm guitar, younger brother Dave on lead, Mick Avory on drums and the late Pete Quaife on bass. Only the two Davies boys would be present from start to finish, but this was the gang that drew me in.

Six decades of biographies and interviews establish conclusively that for all their wit, they were a curmudgeonly bunch who didn’t seem to like anything much: their name (imposed by management), their rivals (“a load of rubbish,” Ray said of Yellow Submarine), pop fans (“What do they want to buy that crap for?” Ray commented regarding Elvis and Connie Francis) and, infamously, one another.

Dave and Ray’s sibling rivalry has long been a tabloid staple, but Mick and Dave had their moments too, the former inflicting on the latter a fearsome onstage head injury in 1965. “Sixteen,” the deadpan drummer corrected a TV interviewer who’d said the wound had required 18 stitches. When it all got too much for Pete, he left in 1969, saying he’d “rather go to prison than play with them any more”.

The Kinks’ English contrarianism seldom looked simply performative. With Ray, Dave, Mick and Pete perpetually at each other’s throats, their default disaffection couldn’t help but subvert the catchiness of their sound. So if the Sixties swung for The Kinks, it was often with the air of the gibbet. “What are we living for?” they sang on “Dead End Street”, to no reassuring reply, whilst in a singalong chorus on the 1971 album Muswell Hillbillies, they gave it to us straight: “Life is overrated.”

Even their most radiant songs could harbour darkness. Why might one narrator be “afraid” unless he gazes on that sunset at Waterloo? Why does another insist he isn’t “frightened of this world” in the paean “Days”? I’m never wholly convinced by the declaration “Baby, I feel good from the moment I rise” at the opening of “Till the End of the Day” — not least because that single’s flipside, “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” asks, “Will this depression last for long?”

Ray Davies today
Kinks frontman Sir Ray Davies

When the critic Edna Longley finds “characteristic notes of nostalgia, desire, ironic distaste, elegy … and neurosis” in the coruscating earlier poetry of T.S. Eliot, she could equally well be making a Kinks’ song checklist as, increasingly, the group hymned a world defined by loss.

Lost relatives, lost communities, lost traditions, lost eras — some knowingly illusory. “Take me back to those black hills that I ain’t never seen” is a lyric just post-dating their Sixties golden era which would come to haunt them as their new work fought a losing battle with their endlessly re-packaged and re-imagined back catalogue.

It could be the hobbyist historian in me that’s responded to this sense of a longer perspective. Having measured out the better part of my life in Kinks tracks, returning to them is akin to revisiting my own back pages. But whenever I hear their music — still pretty much on a daily basis — it’s no easier to classify than it was on its release. I mean, what is “Kinksy”?

A roll call of other artists an act has performed with often indicates some musical affinity. But this lot have all shared a stage with The Kinks, and if you spot a common thread, please let me know: Sonny & Cher, The Beatles, Blondie, Steely Dan, Bill Haley & the Comets, Yes, Goldie & the Gingerbreads, The Supremes, Aerosmith, The Dubliners, Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry and Screaming Lord Sutch. (And Felix Mendelssohn once composed in the outbuilding of Ray’s Surrey home.)

“I think if you listen to those records,” Dave said of The Kinks’ Sixties legacy, “you can’t analyse it.” Attempts at objective analysis are indeed as tricky for me as deciding which songs I like best. It’s the fact that they could create such ostensibly disparate gems as “You Really Got Me” and “See My Friends” and “Days” that makes me a devotee, blissfully sliding time after time into the trance-like state of exuberant desperation they all induce.

You could say pop doesn’t really matter, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But the pop made here over the last 60 years has been at least as good as anyone else’s. (Surely The Kinks’ “Lola” trumps Barry Manilow’s?) So whilst they might not have been the people you build empires with, they’re exactly the sort you might turn to as your empire fades away, and you’re looking for something to feel good about. Fragments shored against our ruin perhaps, but oh how those fragments glow.

The Kinks’ pre-reputational-rehab era now seems a long time ago. Back then, I saw them more as a private hoard, but today I’m delighted to share them whilst striving to define just where I stand in relation to a band I have always felt was “mine”. Which returns me to a word I used earlier, “affiliation”.

It derives from the Latin for adopting a son, and at some level I did feel adopted by The Kinks. A hellishly dysfunctional family, true, but an awful lot of fun. Six decades later, recalling those four ornery lads rearing up from the postwar English underclass, the affiliative boot is on the other foot: I have adopted them. Not that my real family has been left behind. In the care home when I say, “Alexa, play The Kinks,” my 92-year-old Mum smiles to hear Ray singing once again, then murmurs to me, “His lovely old voice … ” Affiliation.

Of all the groups this country has produced, The Kinks are maybe the likeliest to have broached the A-word themselves. It’s there on track one of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, the 1968 album that makes a perfect entry-point for the uninitiated: “We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate/God save Tudor houses, antique tables and billiards.” Now that’s a Kinksy couplet. Whichever way the affiliation runs, all I can say from this vantage point, with undying gratitude, is God Save The Kinks!

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