The Kinks Biography

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It is ironic that one of Britain’s most enduring and respected band spawned from the beat boom of the early 60s, received, for the best part of two decades, success, adulation and financial reward in the USA. This most ‘English’ institution was able to fill stadiums in any part of the USA, while in Britain, a few thousand devotees watched their heroes perform in comparatively small clubs or halls.

The Kinks is the continuing obsession of one of Britain’s premier songwriting talents, Ray Davies (Raymond Douglas Davies, 21 June 1944, Muswell Hill, London, England; vocals, guitar, piano). Davies was raised in a large family in Fortis Green in the London borough of Haringey. He studied at Hornsey College of Art and gained a start in music as a guitarist with the Soho-based Dave Hunt Band. Originally performing R&B cover versions as the Ravens, Davies, his brother Dave Davies (b. 3 February 1947, Muswell Hill, London, England; guitar/vocals) and Peter Quaife (b. 31 December 1943, Tavistock, Devon, England; bass) formed the Kinks at the start of 1964, taking their name from the ‘kinky’ leather capes and boots they wore on stage. The trio was subsequently joined by Mick Avory (b. 15 February 1944, Hampton Court, London, England; drums). Their first single ‘Long Tall Sally’ failed to sell, although they did receive a lot of publicity through the efforts of their shrewd managers Robert Wace, Grenville Collins and ex-50s showbiz star Larry Page. Their third single, ‘You Really Got Me’, rocketed to the UK number 1 spot (and into the US Top 10), boosted by an astonishing performance on the UK television show Ready, Steady, Go! This and its successor, ‘All Day And All Of The Night’ (UK number 2/US number 7), provided a blueprint for hard rock guitar playing, with the simple but powerful riffs supplied by the younger Davies and fed through his home-made ‘green amp’.

Over the next two years Ray Davies emerged as a songwriter of startling originality and his band was rarely out of the bestsellers list. Early in 1965, the Kinks returned to the top of the UK charts with the languid ‘Tired Of Waiting For You’. Over the water, the song climbed to number 6 on the US charts. The Kinks enjoyed a further string of UK Top 20 hits that year, including ‘Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy’, ‘Set Me Free’, ‘See My Friends’ (which introduced a new drone-like sound to the band’s canon and featured daring, sexually ambiguous lyrics) and ‘Till The End Of The Day’, and a further US Top 20 hit with ‘A Well Respected Man’. Despite the humanity of his lyrics, Ray Davies was occasionally a problematical character, renowned for his eccentric behaviour. The other members of the Kinks were equally tempestuous and frequently violent. Earlier in 1965 at a gig in Cardiff, Wales, events had reached a head when the normally placid drummer, Mick Avory, attacked Dave Davies on stage with the hi-hat pedal of his drum kit, having been goaded beyond endurance. Remarkably, the band survived such contretemps and soldiered on. A disastrous US tour the same year saw them banned from that country by the American Federation of Musicians, however, amid further disputes. The lengthy ban did little to help further the Kinks’ career, and by the time the band was let back into America at the end of the decade other UK acts including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who had stolen their spotlight.

Throughout all the drama, Davies the songwriter remained supreme. He combined his own introspection with humour and pathos. The ordinary and the obvious were spelled out in his lyrics, but, contrastingly, never in a manner that was either. ‘Dedicated Follower Of Fashion’ brilliantly satirized Carnaby Street narcissism while ‘Sunny Afternoon’ (another UK number 1 and a US Top 20 hit) dealt with capitalism and class. ‘Dead End Street’ at the end of 1966 highlighted the plight of the working class poor: ‘Out of work and got no money, a Sunday joint of bread and honey’, while later in that same song Davies comments ‘What are we living for, two-roomed apartment on the second floor, no money coming in, the rent collector knocks and tries to get in’. All these songs were delivered in Davies’ laconic, uniquely English singing voice.

The Kinks’ albums prior to 1966’s Face To Face had contained a staple diet of R&B standards and comparatively harmless Davies originals. With Face To Face and Something Else, however, he set about redefining the English character, with sparkling wit and steely nerve. One of Davies’ greatest songs was the final track on the latter; ‘Waterloo Sunset’ was a simple but emotional tour de force with the melancholic singer observing two lovers (many have suggested actor Terence Stamp and actress Julie Christie, but Davies denies this) meeting and crossing over Waterloo Bridge in London. It narrowly missed the top of the charts, as did the follow-up, ‘Autumn Almanac’, with its gentle chorus, summing up the English working class lifestyle of the 50s and 60s: ‘I like my football on a Saturday, roast beef on Sunday is all right, I go to Blackpool for my holiday, sit in the autumn sunlight’.

Throughout this fertile period, Ray Davies, along with John Lennon / Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend, was among Britain’s finest writers. His brother Dave also enjoyed a brief period of solo stardom, reaching UK number 3 in summer 1967 with the plaintive ‘Death Of A Clown’ and the Top 20 with the follow-up ‘Susannah’s Still Alive’. But by 1968 the Kinks had fallen from public grace in their home country, despite remaining well respected by the critics. Two superb concept albums, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire), failed to sell. This inexplicable quirk was all the harder to take as they contained some of Davies’ finest songs. Writing honestly about everyday events seemingly no longer appealed to Davies’ public. The former was likened to Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood, while the latter (which was inspired by Davies’ sister Rose and brother-in-law Arthur) had to compete with Townshend’s Tommy. Both were writing rock operas without each other’s knowledge, but as Johnny Rogan states in his biography of the Kinks: ‘Davies’ celebration of the mundane was far removed from the studious iconoclasm of Tommy and its successors’. The latter album was originally intended to be the soundtrack to a Granada-commissioned television musical, but true to the band’s recent fortunes the company backed out at the last minute. The last hit single during this ‘first’ age of the Kinks was the glorious ‘Days’. This lilting and timeless ballad is another of Davies’ many classics, and was a major hit for UK artist Kirsty MacColl in 1989.

Pete Quaife permanently departed in 1969 prior to the recording of Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) and was replaced by ex-Creation member John Dalton (b. 21 May 1943, Edgeware, Middlesex, England). Keyboard player John Gosling (b. 1948, Paignton, Devon, England) was also added to the line-up to flesh out the band’s sound. The Kinks returned to the UK bestsellers lists in July 1970 with ‘Lola’, an irresistible fable of transvestism, which marked the beginning of their breakthrough in the USA by reaching the Top 10. The resulting Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part One was also a success there. On this record Davies attacked the music industry and in one track, ‘The Moneygoround’, openly slated his former managers and publishers, while alluding to the lengthy high court action in which he had been embroiled.

The Kinks now embarked on a series of huge US tours and rarely performed in Britain, although their business operation centre and recording studio, Konk, was based close to the Davies’ childhood home in north London. Having signed a new contract with RCA Records in 1971 the Kinks had now enlarged to incorporate a brass section, amalgamating with the Mike Cotton Sound. Following the charming, country-influenced kiss-off to the Davies brothers’ roots, Muswell Hillbillies, the band suffered a barren period. Ray Davies experienced drug and marital problems and their ragged half-hearted live performances revealed a man bereft of his driving, creative enthusiasm. Throughout the early 70s a series of average, over-ambitious concept albums appeared as Davies’ main outlet. Everybody’s In Show-Biz (1972), Preservation Act 1 (1973), Preservation Act 2 (1974), The Kinks Present A Soap Opera (1975) and Schoolboys In Disgrace (1976) were all thematic, and Soap Opera was adapted for British television as Starmaker. Nevertheless, there were still a few songwriting gems on show, notably ‘Celluloid Heroes’, ‘Sweet Lady Genevieve’ and ‘Sitting In The Midday Sun’.

At the end of 1976 John Dalton departed, as the Kinks unhappy and comparatively unsuccessful years with RCA ended. A new recording contract with Arista Records engendered a remarkable change in fortunes. Both Sleepwalker (1977) and Misfits (1978) were excellent and successful albums; Davies had rediscovered the knack of writing short, punchy rock songs with quality lyrics. The musicianship of the band improved, in particular, Dave Davies, who after years in his elder brother’s shadow, came into his own with a more fluid style. Andy Pyle played bass on Sleepwalker while the returning Dalton was back in the line-up for the recording of Misfits, alongside new keyboardist Gordon Edwards. Although still spending most of their time playing to vast audiences in the USA, the Kinks were adopted by the British new wave, and were cited by many punk bands as a major influence. Both the Jam (‘David Watts’) and the Pretenders (‘Stop Your Sobbing’) provided reminders of Davies’ songwriting skill. The UK music press, then normally harsh on rock ‘dinosaurs’, constantly praised the Kinks and helped to regenerate a market for them in Europe. Their following albums continued the pattern started with Sleepwalker, hard rock numbers with sharp lyrics.

Further line-up changes saw the recruitment of ex-Argent bass player Jim Rodford (b. 7 July 1941, St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England) and new keyboard player Ian Gibbons. Although continuing to be a huge attraction in the USA where the albums Low Budget (1979), One For The Road (1980), Give The People What They Want (1981) and State Of Confusion (1983) all reached the Top 20, the Kinks’ UK career remained stubbornly moribund except for regular ‘Greatest Hits’ packages. Then in 1983, as Ray Davies’ stormy three-year relationship with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders drew to its close, the Kinks unexpectedly returned to the UK Top 20 with the charming ‘Come Dancing’ (the song was even more successful in America, reaching number 6). The accompanying video and high publicity profile prompted the reissue of their entire and considerable back catalogue, but following the release of 1984’s Word Of Mouth the band was released by Arista. At the same time, Avory’s long-standing feud with Dave Davies finally resulted in the drummer’s departure from the Kinks - he only played on three tracks on Word Of Mouth, with another ex-Argent member Bob Henrit (b. Robert Henrit, 2 May 1944, Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, England) taking over his duties.

The band signed a new recording contract with London Records in the UK and MCA Records in the USA, but their late 80s releases proved disappointing and towards the end of the decade the Kinks toured only sporadically amid rumours of a final break-up. In 1990 the band was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, at the time only the fourth UK band to take the honour behind the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who. During the ceremony both Pete Quaife and Mick Avory were present. Later that year they received the Ivor Novello Award for ‘outstanding services to British music’. After the comparative failure of UK Jive, featuring new keyboard player Mark Haley, the band left London Records, and after being without a recording contract for some time signed with Sony in 1991. Their debut for that label was Phobia, a good album that suffered from lack of promotion (the public still perceiving the Kinks as a 60s act). A prime example was ‘Scattered’, as good a song as Davies has ever written, which when released was totally ignored apart from a few pro-Kinks radio broadcasters.

Following the commercial failure of Phobia the band was released from its contract and put out To The Bone in 1994 on their own Konk label. This unplugged session was recorded in front of a small audience at their own headquarters in Crouch End, north London, and contained semi-acoustic versions of some of Davies’ finest songs. Later in the year the Kinks played together for the final time. Both brothers had autobiographies published in the mid-90s. Ray was first with the cleverly constructed X-Ray, and Dave responded with Kink: An Autobiography, a revealing if somewhat pedestrian book. A long-awaited reissue programme was undertaken by the Castle Communications label in 1998; this was particularly significant as the Kinks catalogue had been mercilessly and often badly reissued for many years. The addition of many bonus tracks on each CD helped make their first five albums even more essential. A bumper three-disc edition of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society was released in 2004.

Ray Davies has made his mark under the Kinks’ banner as one of the most perceptive, prolific and popular songwriters of our time. His catalogue of songs is one of the finest available, and he remains one of the most acute observers of the quirks and eccentricities of ordinary life. Much of the Britpop movement from the mid-90s acknowledged a considerable debt to Davies as one of their key musical influences. Bands such as Supergrass, Oasis, Cast, and Damon Albarn of Blur, freely admitted to being the Kinks most admiring students. Fortunately, the reputation of one of the greatest and most important bands that rose to prominence in the 60s is growing not diminishing. Face To Face, Something Else, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) and Muswell Hillbillies are indispensable classics.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.