What would the ’60s sound like without the music of The Kinks? There’s no denying that the decade had its fair share of bands who helped shape the direction of modern music. Just look at the work of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or The Beach Boys for evidence of that. But for many people, The Kinks are just as relevant as any of those other bands, and with a history that includes records such as “Something Else by The Kinks,” “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society” and “Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire),” their contributions to the genealogy of contemporary music shouldn’t be underestimated.
There was a joyous looseness to their music, a spontaneous creativity that took on the visage of different pop forms and textures. They made it seem so simple, even as their arrangements grew ever more complex and unpredictable. Pop music rarely felt as subversive as this, but they managed to discuss ideas of the U.K. working class and social strata without sacrificing the universal themes and emotions that pervaded their songs. From their more folky experiments to the rockier tracks, they evinced a heedless range of musical motion, a blur of influence and rural experience that felt familiar but was always one step ahead of our expectations.
Ray and Dave Davies were born in suburban North London, the only boys of eight children. When they were still quite young, their parents moved the family to the neighboring community of Muswell Hills, and there, the brothers were surrounded by a wealth of musical sounds. Their mother and father inculcated them in the joys of music hall traditions, while their sisters introduced them to early rock ‘n’ roll records. It was in this environment that Ray and Dave learned to play the guitar and began to experiment with skiffle and classic rock styles.
While attending William Grimshaw Secondary Modern School, they formed the Ray Davies Quartet with Pete Quaife and John Start. They began playing around town at local pubs and clubs, and at one point, they even counted Rod Stewart among their numbers. But toward the end of 1962, Ray left home to study at Hornsey College of Art. He was inspired to seek out former Yardbirds manager Giorgio Gomelsky after speaking with Blues Incorporated guitarist Alexis Korner. After running with a few bands, Ray settled in with both the Dave Hunt Band and the Hamilton Kind Band—although he was still officially a member of the Ray Davies Quartet.
After those bands disbanded, the quartet went through several name changes before becoming The Ravens. The band hired former pop singer Larry Page as their manager and got acquainted with producer Shel Talmy, who would shepherd some of their most influential songs. After unsuccessfully auditioning for numerous labels, Talmy eventually secured them a contract with Pye Records in the U.K. and Reprise in the U.S. At this point, the band consisted of Ray, Dave, Quaife and Mick Avory, and they would soon change their name to The Kinks.
Their first single was a cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” although their first huge hit came in the form of “You Really Got Me” in 1964. The song is often seen as a precursor to hard rock and metal, with its lacerating guitar riff and raw sound. Subsequent hits would follow, such as “All Day and All of the Night” and “Set Me Free,” and the band attempted to harness that success on their self-titled debut record later that year. Their next few records found them rolling through a dense blues-rock template, even as their songs became more story-centric and less mired in the beat sound of their youth.
Starting with 1966’s “Face to Face,” the band began their upward spiral to global fame, creating a sound that played to blue-collar workers, the poor and those working too long for too little. They weren’t necessarily interested in highlighting specific social causes, but their music seems predisposed toward certain subjects. After a run of certified masterpieces, they got to work on their first album for RCA Records. “Muswell Hillbillies” was released in 1971 and instantly felt like one of the band’s most mature and innovative releases.
Named after the neighborhood where they grew up, the record found the band making music that is indebted to country, classic blues, British folk and even a little ragtime for good measure. Centered on themes of poverty and the struggles of the working class, it is a testament to those whose tireless work keeps society going. Songs such as “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” and “Complicated Life” are rife with complex arrangements and long stretches of boundless energy. The twang of their country influences comes through clearly, as does the band’s penchant for surrounding the everyday poetry of the lyrics with familiar sounds that often feel completely devastating.
The album’s standout track, “Holloway Jail,” is a riotous, bluesy stomp that sounds as though the band is carrying the weight of their own history on their shoulders. There is a darkness that mirrors the airy compositions of their earlier records. Country, rock, blues and folk music have always been close musical cousins, and The Kinks show just how interconnected all these sounds are with their work on “Muswell Hillbillies.” It is both a repudiation and acknowledgement of their earlier pop genius, a collection so determined to strike out on its own that the band was simply pulled along in its wake, battered and bruised and loving every minute.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.