Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#5)


Welcome to another installment of the Top 100 Artists of the last fifty years. Check out #5 below.

And in honor of reaching the exclusive Top 5, I'm kicking up the Ultimate Mix section: now two complete albums can be kept in steady rotation while the mix CD spins in the first/third slot.

Six weeks later Robert and Grenville and Larry
Were sitting in their office in Carnaby Street
And the letter came from the American government
It was from the American Federation of Musicians Union:
“A band known as the Kinks,
The English beat group known as the Kinks,
Are banned from America.
Their license to perform has been revoked indefinitely”
Yeah, all the same f-ck off
In the land of the ice cream and apple pie, guns and the Wild West
--from “Americana”

kinks1Of all the hugely influential artists and groups of the 1960s, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Kinks always get shafted the worst in widespread recognition. It’s not that big of a surprise, really—they were getting shafted in their heyday, too. Aside from the odd single or easily marketable album, the Kinks didn’t exactly set fire to the charts, especially in the US following their ban by the American Federation of Musicians during the mid-to-late 60s. It was a time when the British Invasion had finished their infiltration and were now standing proud as foreign land occupiers (ahem, I mean liberators…liberators) and the Kinks didn’t get a whiff of the US Top 40 for more than four years. The reasoning behind the ban remains unclear, with speculation running the gamut of refusal to join a union and pay unsavory fees to Ray Davies cold-cocking one of the AFM reps, but whatever ultimately led to the license-denying decision, its roots came from the fact that the Kinks were simply too rowdy, raucous and “rocking” for American audiences. Thank goodness our dignified American sensibilities weren’t spooked during the quiet, harmonious times of the 1960s (but more on that later).

The Kinks lived in the large-scale public consciousness in fits and starts, brief and rapid, and nothing ever caught on for extended periods. They were huge for a matter of months in 1964, found a quick and even more ephemeral comeback in the summer of 1970, an unforeseen small-scale revival in the late-70s, and surprised even their longtime fans with a major blip in the 1980s, but otherwise they were always lingering just out of the spotlight. Which would make sense if they produced an unusual soundtrack for the times, lived on the cutting edge of the avant-garde, or failed spectacularly at making accessible singles. But the Kinks specialized in pop music in a way that almost no peers or contemporaries could even fathom, and Ray Davies isn’t merely one of the most underrated songwriters of his time—he’s one of the absolute greatest songwriters in the kinks3history of pop music. I am not stretching for hyperbole here; he belongs in the same conversation as Lennon/McCartney, Pete Townshend, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, etc. And I wouldn’t even dismiss an argument placing him ahead.

Beginning in 1962, brothers Ray and Dave Davies and friend Pete Quaife formed a band with several short-lived incarnations and names, including the Ray Davies Quartet, the Pete Quaife Band, and the Ravens. After going through a series of drummers, they finally found jazz drummer Mick Avory, and eventually became known as the Kinks (a name that Ray has never liked). With the lineup intact (and with three different managers trying to get them work—Robert and Grenville and Larry), they set out to make a dent in pop music. And they came around at the perfect time—despite the best efforts by the Beach Boys, the American music scene was becoming stale and needed a major jolt.

When the British Invasion happened, it was at a time when music crossing international borders was still fairly uncommon. And if the Kinks were the ones leading the way, who knows if it ever would have happened? Most of those English groups (especially the Rolling Stones) were obsessed with American styles and sounds, so the kids in the States had a smooth transition. The Kinks didn’t operate “smoothly.” When they came out, they came out hard. After two unsuccessful singles, including a cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” the band was on the verge of losing their recording contract when Dave made a cut in an amplifier cone that created a gritty, raunchy distortion for the guitar, allowing for one of the all-time signature guitar riffs in history. Originally written on the piano, the proto-punk classic “You Really Got Me” turned them into sensations on both sides of the Atlantic.

kinks2Hard rock, punk and heavy metal all owe “You Really Got Me” an enormous debt, and the Kinks carried on with more single releases built around the same garage-grunge sound, including “All Day and All of the Night” and B-Side “I Need You,” as well as nods to the sweeter harmonies of the time for hits like “Tired of Waiting for You.” Their early albums fared well in but the UK and US, but even when they kept churning out popular hits like “Til the End of the Day,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” and “Sunny Afternoon,” album sales started dropping. Their first top-notch long player, 1965’s The Kink Kontroversy, barely scraped the bottom of the Top 100 in the US. Face to Face and Something Else by the Kinks, while showing respectably in their homeland, couldn’t even climb as high as that. And the group’s first indisputable masterpiece, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, didn’t chart at all in either country—in fact, alarmingly, they’d never release another album (besides hits compilations) that would sell well enough for such a distinction in England.

So what happened? How could one of the era’s preeminent rock bands keep improving as the 60s pressed on yet practically fall off the face of the Earth in commercial popularity? That ban certainly hurt them, unable to tour or promote their music, as did the fact that they were one of the most “British” of all of the British Invasion (making it a little unusual that the Kinks are one of my all-time favorite bands seeing as how I’m American and have never even left the continent). But that wouldn’t explain why they’d sink in the UK—when Ray was hoisting the Union Jack with his observational affection and critiques of rural England, singing about the English countryside on tunes like “Autumn Almanac,” and painting understated lyrical landscapes over quaint, bouncy melodies like on “Village Green,” shouldn’t the nostalgia-hungry English have been champing at the bit? It’s not like they were paying attention when Davies dissected the concept of nostalgia’s grip on society in “Village Green Preservation Society.” Or maybe it’s because the Kinks started sacrificing the instant appeal of the pop single in favor of more subtle and mature songcraft for their prominently conceptual albums Village Green and Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire).

Whatever happened, time has been kind to them, and they’re frequently celebrated as an accomplished, important act today, but it’s still not enough. Likely because of their peers’ immortal ubiquity and commercial smash success, I’ve never felt the itch to praise the Stones, Who, Beatles, and others with the same fire as the Kinks. But it’s only partly because those groups have been kinks6“done to death” in the cycle of commemoration; the Kinks matched any of them as creators of both perfect pop songs and brilliant full-lengths. Yes, they have several classics that still get a wide share of fascination and attention, like “You Really Got Me,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Waterloo Sunset” and “Lola,” all among their finest and all richly deserving. But you need a deep (and I mean deep) hits collection to reveal just how amazing they were at making a three-minute masterpiece. They incorporated unusual bits of music hall, ragtime, trad jazz, vaudeville, Caribbean/reggae and more into songs ranging from “Mr. Pleasant” to “Apeman,” and they sounded just as immediate and prescient as the heavy English blues, psychedelic experiments, and baroque pop that defined the times. They were equally adept at a bittersweet ballad as an infectious “novelty” number, as marvelous at being subversively tart yet amusingly charming in two minutes (“Dandy”) as staying wistful and bittersweet for more than six without dragging for a second (“Celluloid Heroes”). Like most people of my age group, my first Kinks purchase was a hits package so I could collect those few hugely popular numbers I’d memorized that still get play on more than just the oldie stations. I ended up wearing out that double disc bastard like no hits compilation I’ve ever owned.

But the Kinks also mastered albums, as I’d soon discover with the purchase of Face to Face and Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. The former is in the fine tradition of hit-busting packages (though only “Sunny Afternoon” would prove to be a legitimate hit) where nearly every song, from “Little Miss Queen of Darkness” to “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home,” is a wonderfully catchy slice of life teeming with pleasure. And the latter was as loose as loose concept albums got, with romantic songs—one set in 5/4 time, “Strangers” (written by Dave), and another involving a transvestite, “Lola”—knocking boots with snarky (but not overly hostile) attacks on fame, the biz, managers, accountants, and society in general. Face was one of the earliest indications of Ray’s artistic capabilities, and some critics and historians have posited it as a loose concept album of its very own, one of rock n’ roll’s very first. And then there’s Village Green and Arthur, rarely listed alongside the great late-60s albums (a period when many of the all-time greatest LPs were being produced), but deserves them as company.

kinks4If being tragically underrated hitmakers and album architects was the end of the story, their overlooked legacy would be unbreakable. But they had to just keep going. The mid-70s was an ugly time, especially for Ray when he flirted with a rock opera, suffered marital problems that led to a divorce, and spiraled into depression that led him to reportedly attempt to take his own life by downing a bottle of pills. The group had been spending their time as a virtual theatre, but then Van Halen released a hit cover of “You Really Got Me,” further covers from groups like the Jam and the Pretenders followed, and interest in the Kinks picked up again. And off they went, touring like an arena rock band, incorporating synthesizers and heavy metal into their new material with deftness that should be stunning to anyone who didn’t “know” Ray. They even managed a Top 10 hit in the US with “Come Dancing” in 1983, nearly twenty years after first making a splash. Though they’d begin a steady decline after that, the Kinks lasted until 1996, long enough to see Britpop steal/homage them nearly as often as the much more famed and beloved Beatles enterprise. In fact, if Oasis was the 90s answer to the Beatles, then both Blur and Pulp were the 90s answer to the Kinks.

Since the Kinks have been so important to musicians and avid music lovers, there are no genuine secrets left about Ray’s lyrics—witty, wistful, satirical, clever, melancholy. The so-called “miserablism” method can be traced back to him, and as far as “turning a phrase” is considered, no one besides Dylan could compete with him during the height of his powers. But don’t overlook the Kinks’ value as influential music writers. Besides Dave “inventing heavy metal” with his guitar kinks5sound on “You Really Got Me” and almost singlehandedly launching the proto-punk movement as well, their English musical style was almost as poetic as the words, florid and understated but with a lot of things happening under the surface. Their folk was breezy and stately enough to give one the sensation of living alongside the Thames or in a bustling village green even without the words. Their fascination with “dead sounds” like music hall and ragtime gave them an unusual but classic bent that proved influential on the development of modern styles. And Dave, in addition to being a great guitarist, proved to be a fine songwriter in his own right, penning several Kinks klassiks including “Strangers,” “Love Me Till the Sun Shines,” “I Am Free” and “Death of a Clown.”

The Kinks were also very influential on the psych-rock scene, which is particularly strange and graciously flattering since the Kinks never really had a dalliance with psychedelic movement. How many long-lasting groups from the 60s can even make that latter claim? While most were experimenting with mind-altering drugs, droning and jamming on endlessly, and believing themselves to be above and beyond the “normal” world, the Kinks stayed put and embraced a picturesque vision of life that either never existed or vanished before their very eyes. Listen to the sadness that colors the sweet hope in “Waterloo Sunset.” Scour their canon for multiple songs that celebrate the simple English tradition of having tea. The Stones never did stuff like that. And despite the common claim that the Beatles were the ones bringing Eastern music and the sitar to kinks7the music community, it was actually the Kinks playing with exotic drone first (“See My Friends,” “Fancy”), providing the inspiration for “Norwegian Wood.”

Many people like myself wonder if our affection for certain under-celebrated acts is elevated because they feel more “personal”; that because so few others trumpet their irreproachable stature with the same enthusiasm, we’re enjoying some little secret and get a big head “knowing” how right we are and how wrong (or unenlightened) most others are. And the thing is, the Kinks are well-liked by many (they’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, after all); even if someone’s knowledge is limited to “Lola” and “You Really Got Me,” those are some unanimously beloved songs right there. But listening to nothing but the Kinks for hours and hours while writing this made me realize that maybe I still don’t give them enough credit. During their peak in the 60s, the quality of their albums and the excellence of so, so many of their treasured songs…I dare say they hold up as well as any other group’s anthology during the same period. What a truly kinky statement.

You Really Got Me
All Day and All of the Night
Tired of Waiting for You
I Need You
See My Friends
Till the End of the Day
Where Have All the Good Times Gone?
Dedicated Follower of Fashion
Sunny Afternoon
Mr. Pleasant
I’m Not Like Everybody Else
David Watts
Waterloo Sunset
Autumn Almanac
Here Comes the People in Grey
Celluloid Heroes
Supersonic Rocket Ship
(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman
Better Things
Living on a Thin Line
…and the albums The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur

Also endorsed: The Raspberries, the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits

[Intro & Runners Up] [100-91] [90-81] [80-71] [70-61] [60-51]
[50-46] [45-41] [40-36] [35-31] [30-26] [25-21]
[20] [19] [18] [17] [16] [15] [14] [13] [12] [11]
[10] [9] [8] [7] [6] [5] [4] [3] [2] [1]


Matt Medlock


New Reviews