In some ways, the story of the Kinks feels familiar: In 1962, four working-class London teenagers besotted with American R&B and country music unite. Their initial creative exertions hold a thrilling mirror back to their inspirations overseas, supercharging the sounds of Little Richard, Hank Williams, and the Ventures with the riveted anxiety of a post-war youth culture on the brink of full-blown combustion. Then there is the indelible, Old Testament-worthy tale of the Brothers Davies — Ray and Dave — two extraordinary talents whose nearly diametrically opposed personalities frequently brought them to blows or worse. These are the origin stories, the mythic ones, which condense real truths into easily accessible shorthand. However, as with everything pertaining to the Kinks, the actual truth is far weirder and more fascinating. It is a thirty-year story of personal and creative highs and lows worthy of the Dickens characters they often dressed as. It is replete with astonishing displays of depravation, cruelty, love, compassion, and need. Most of all, it is the strange, ever-contradictory tale of a band with a legitimate claim to being rock and roll’s all-time best, but who are rarely included in that conversation. In the fifty years since their inception, there is essentially no rock and roll-adjacent genre or subgenre over which the Kinks do not possess a legitimate claim as crucial progenitors: punk, heavy metal, American indie, Britpop, alt-country, glam, pub rock, you name it. Every last one owes a massive debt of gratitude to the boys from Muswell Hill.
Even during their seemingly out-of-nowhere flirtation with the American charts in the 1980s, the Kinks never approached the Stateside level of popularity achieved by the British Invasion Big Three of the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who. And yet, it is difficult to imagine any of those groups reaching their respective creative heights minus the inspiration provided by Ray Davies and company. The brash, stripped-down desperation of the Kinks’ classic early singles raised the bar for primal aggression in rock and roll, giving a green light to the Stones’ most lurid impulses. Meanwhile, Ray Davies’ fascination with the fading mores of Britain’s declining empire and sharp satirical pen pre-dated the Lennon-McCartney fancy for English picaresque. Pete Townshend is often credited (if that is the right word) with marrying rock music to long-form narrative, but in reality the Kinks got there first, and often more effectively, on their series of plot- and concept-driven records beginning with Village Green Preservation Society released months before the Who’s rock opera Tommy. Townshend himself, not a man lacking in self-regard, commented to Uncut magazine in 2004, “People in America talk about ‘the Beatles, the Stones, the Who.’ For me it’s ‘the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks.'”
But for moptop-crazed America during the middle ’60s, the version of Cool Britannia presented by the Kinks was a bridge too far — a confusing mélange of roughnecked working-class rage and foppish, pansexual dandy-ism that was as unkempt as the group’s thrillingly rambunctious live shows. Following a disastrous 1965 tour, the Kinks were functionally banned from the US for the better part of a decade, robbing them of the untold spoils of their contemporaries and perhaps further inculcating the deep, proud provincialism that would come to define the best of Ray Davies’ writing.
National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr. once famously described the function of political conservatism as standing “athwart history, yelling stop!” While Ray Davies would certainly feel little in common with Buckley’s blue-blooded economic values, there is perhaps not a greater description available for the overarching themes of his songwriting. As the ’60s progressed and Swinging London became an ever more fertile playground for balls-out hedonism of every sort, Ray famously remained a sideline observer: the gently mocking scold of “Dandy” or the hand-wringing Cassandra of “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” Nearly every musical figure associated with the free-love and Utopian antics of the mid to late ’60s eventually turned their attentions away, disillusioned and embarrassed. Ray Davies was a different sort, circumspect from the start, nostalgic and traditional by his nature.
By the time San Francisco’s acid rock scene had become the full-fledged vogue of the day, Ray had lost interest completely, instead moving purposefully backwards in his brilliant Victorian evocations of Village Green and the poignant tales of familial dislocations of Arthur. In many ways, his retreat mirrored Bob Dylan’s similarly disaffected reaction to psychedelia — Ray’s music hall-era musings echoing Dylan’s return to American folk and C&W on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. Whatever its source, Ray’s extraordinary penchant for evoking wrenching, complicated sentiments from sepia-toned days of yore is a linchpin for understanding this most complex of performers. That specific gift is perhaps best exemplified on his perfect song “Waterloo Sunset,” 3:16 of poignant reverie that gradually takes on novelistic weight, touching on fear, loneliness, love, nature and London’s decaying beauty, all with the subtle touch of an unreconstructed master. It is all too Kinks-ian to consider that while “Waterloo Sunset” has become a kind of second national anthem for the British — something like “This Land Is Your Land” — it remains largely unacknowledged in America to this day.
Upon his inevitable emergence as an avatar of the ’90s Britpop movement, Ray Davies was dutifully unimpressed, commenting to author Nick Hasted in his fine overview of the group The Story Of The Kinks: You Really Got Me that Blur, Oasis, and their cohort had succeeded in creating only “a Legoland version of the ’60s.” But to the extent that he had a point, Davies had only himself to blame. Much as is the case with Merle Haggard and his powerful, largely fictional recollections of a pre-Kennedy America filled with hard working men and scarlet temptresses, the post-War England of Ray’s imagination was so compelling as to displace reality with the fantasy he had so forcefully furnished. No wonder that Damon Albarn — Ray’s most obvious successor as Britain’s pop laureate — sometimes appeared reluctant to embrace the new. He was too busy trying to get back to the Village Green.
Despite the emphasis on tradition, something in the Kinks remained so determinedly modern that when both the Jam and Van Halen covered Ray’s songs to great effect in 1978, neither felt remotely out of place. Even as the group crested into highly unforeseen levels of popularity in the early 1980s, they remained largely untamable, a clear cousin to the American indie rock scene that birthed the Replacements, Royal Trux, and similarly unrepentant hellraisers. The Kinks, even ostensibly buttoned up, remained something like a genuine mess. That underdog spirit has made them less well known across a wide spectrum, but better loved by their truest fans than maybe any group in history. As decorated journalist and obsessive Kinksman Geoff Edgers, star of the indispensable fan’s journey Do It Again, puts it: “Loving the Kinks is about loving the imperfect and the self-destructive, about longing for a return to a world that may not have ever existed, and never, ever getting your teeth fixed.”
2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Kinks, and to celebrate, two impressive compilations will be released over the next two months: In October, Legacy will give us the two-disc The Essential Kinks, featuring liner notes by David Bowie, and in November, BMG/InGrooves will release the five-CD The Anthology 1964-1971, which contains more than 100 songs. More exciting still, rumors abound that next year, the Kinks will actually reunite. So this seems an especially apt time to revisit the band’s monstrous, massively influential catalog. Shall we?
Start the Countdown here.