The top three bands of the British Invasion are: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and…tied for third, The Who and The Kinks? In articles like these where you are supposed to project a voice of authority, you’re not supposed to speak in subjective, first person terms. However I find this an impossible strategy. Although history has seemed to devalue the legacy of The Kinks, I can’t go along with it. Depending on the day, The Kinks are far more influential to me than The Who, which may be an act of rock sacrilege. On better days, The Kinks beat the Stones too.
Ray and Dave Davies, and the men who served their years in the group always had a firm sense of Britishness about them whereas the Stones, God bless them, idolized American R&B. That’s a difficult claim to make when surveying the Kinks debut album released October 1964, with sturdy covers of tunes from Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and others. The undeniably big hit from the record, “You Really Got Me” has more than a little R&B in it, but it also presages punk. Another single, recorded around the same time, “All Day And All Of The Night” virtually notarizes the assertion with an imprint seal.
The band was shepherded by producer Shel Talmy, who also provided a couple of songs for the band, “Bald Headed Woman” and “I’ve Been Driving On Bald Mountain” (a curious, almost Freudian thematic thread there), but it would not be long before Ray Davies was firmly commanding the lyrical direction of the group. A footnote: perhaps Ray’s prodigious rise as lyricist came from the critical drubbing Talmy’s compositions provoked. Reviewers found them uniformly awful. Authorship would be a massive point of contention between Ray and brother Dave in subsequent years, leading to legendary anecdotes of their familial squabbling on this and almost every other subject. Yet the two remain brothers before bandmates, and when it was suggested that the guitar solo on “All Day And All Of The Night” must have been from the album’s session player, one Jimmy Page before his years with The Yardbirds, Ray has firmly defended Dave. “It is absolutely (Dave) on that track.”
Page wasn’t the only session man on the album that would break out later on. Keyboardist Jon Lord, future organ maestro for Deep Purple, also was on hand as was drummer Bobby Graham. The bass guitar spot in the group would see plenty of modulation from this current lineup with Pete Quaife. Mick Avory would be able to hang on to his sanity and the drum stool until 1986’s Think Visual, on which he played on one last track, Dave Davies’ “Rock and Roll Cities.”
None of this was really evident in ’64. The band was gaining momentum with “You Really Got Me” and another track, “Stop Your Sobbing.” That second song is a glimpse of the Britishness that made The Kinks one of those quintessential British Invasion bands. In later years the band The Pretenders, run by Ohio expat Chrissie Hynde, would adopt the track into their repertoire. A track that came a couple of albums later from The Kinks, “Dandy,” would be a hit for Herman’s Hermits, and the Eurocentricity of that song is by no means vague. I think it is this track that truly draws the line of demarcation between the real crest of this music movement and those who rolled in on the wake. It’s not a slag against Herman’s Hermits or their affable lead singer Peter Noone, but The Kinks “wore the outfit” of their homeland because those were their clothes. Bands like Herman’s Hermits, Freddie And The Dreamers, and so forth “wore the outfit” because that costume was a signifier.
This has little to do specifically with song quality and more to do with authenticity. “There’s A Kind Of Hush All Over The World” is a lovely song. “I’m ‘Enery The Eighth, I Am” isn’t, even though some people like it. Neither reaches the peaks The Kinks would, and would in record time. The longing for different times that come through on The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, or “Waterloo Sunset,” or on Dave’s “See My Friends” come from a place that just seems a little more honest. One of their greatest achievements, Muswell Hillbillies, would find them looking “across the pond” to the illusion of America “with Shirley Jones and Gordon McCrae.”
So why do they get b-listed so often? The Kinks existed much longer than The Beatles and had some of their biggest hits, being “Destroyer” and “Come Dancing” many years on. Although their last couple of records lacked the essential spark that girded their mid-career material, few would rank them under some of the lazier efforts of late-period Stones. Aside from a recent, rather delusional PBS documentary about them, what recommends The Dave Clark Five to any place near the top of the list? While I genuinely love the band The Zombies, as a body of work, there simply isn’t enough to compare in regard to blunt quantity. The Hollies have the quantity, but they were an excellent singles-oriented group, whereas The Kinks would soon explore the possibilities of the full album canvas. And where all these bands were content to do their specific thing until the gas ran out, The Kinks were constantly mutating. Comparing them to The Beatles is a stretch in all but this creative restlessness.
Why should they be as far up the chain, and looking eye-to-eye, with The Who? This may be strictly a matter of taste. Anyone who discounts the impact The Who had on the legitimacy of rock as a musical form isn’t paying attention. Anyone who would see Pete Townshend as just a songwriter and not the librettist he has, again and again, proven himself to be is already predisposed to ignore them. Alongside of Neil Young, the band was a key parent of ’90s alt rock, but rarely were they “pop” in the same vein as The Beatles, or large parts of The Stones. “My Generation,” “I Can’t Explain,” perhaps even reaching back into the history of The High Numbers, then perhaps there’s a case. By the time we get to Tommy, all bets are off. When speaking of The Who, you almost have to elevate them to the next decade with Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and other rock-oriented, album-oriented peers. There is no discredit to be found in making that chess move.
I highly encourage those who incessantly make lists like these to reconsider The Kinks’ place on that chart. If that encourages people to reevaluate the body of work that has been offered up for a half-a-century, that alone is a worthwhile goal. Year in and year out there are rumors that the battling Davies will see the clock on the wall, put aside the differences, and get on with one more round before it is too late. As (potentially) one of the top three British Invasion bands of all time, it feels like a necessity.