Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Yesterday he puzzled us all with this month’s masterful riddle, below he explains the answer. Were you able to solve it?
Riddle me now, riddle me then,
Can you tell me what again?
Brothers rage against the right,
But this song came before the night.
Not quite crooked, and not perverse;
Replace with “girl,” improve the verse.
Proto-punk, a random slice,
A wild guitar, a roll of the dice.
Forty-five years ago, the summer of 1964 saw the peak of Beatlemania with the release of the film A Hard Day’s Night and its title song. (See last month’s riddle.) Every record producer (called “artist-and-repertoire managers” in the sixties) and would be manager in the United Kingdom scoured the numerous clubs and dance halls looking for the next big act. The previous year had seen bands like Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Searchers rise to prominence along with singers like Billy J Kramer and Dusty Springfield. More acts arrived from the counties almost every week and that summer the Animals from Newcastle (even further north than Liverpool) had a hit with their version of “House of the Rising Sun.”
Nevertheless, everyone had to come to London, the cultural heart of the Isles. To make it, you had to be in the Big Smoke. Not surprisingly, London and vicinity produced its own stars first produced Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, the Dave Clark Five, and eventually the Rolling Stones, the Nashville Teens, and the Zombies. But perhaps the most English of all these groups, with the songwriter who would come to most confidently speak for the working class suburbs emerged onto the scene in the summer of Beatlemania.
Pye Records had already released disks by one local band, but without much success until 4 August 2009 when the Kinks released “You Really Got Me.”
“Brothers rage against the right,
but this song came before the night.”
The radioactive core of the Kinks, Ray Davies, had had a revelation about songwriting, a burst of insight that left football and art as hobbies. The band’s first release of one of his songs (“You Still Want Me”) had failed miserably, which is unsurprising given that Davies seems to have written it as a kind of imitation of the Beatles. “You Really Got Me” materialized in the front room of his parents’ house when he and his brother Dave began jamming on a two-chord riff, Ray pounding on their piano and Dave playing his guitar through an amp with a ruptured speaker. What began as a kind of shuffle soon clotted into a raw ostinato of such powerful simplicity that the brothers knew immediately they had something that could drive the dancers who came to their shows.
The Davies Brothers came from a working-class family in the North London suburb of Muswell Hill where Ray Davies had his artistic conversion. All he needed to do was find his muse. That muse turned out to be London and the suburban community in which he still lives. At one point in the mid sixties, frustrated by the greed and obfuscations of the music and publishing industries, Davies contemplated abandoning music, only to have his father fly into a rage over his perception that his son was letting the upper class (the “right”) destroy him too. Ray Davies channeled this contempt for class privilege into a celebration of British life, in both its tender moments and its vicious competitiveness.
His producer, Shel Talmy, helped Davies to select his best work and to capture the band’s sound and the American (Talmy came from Los Angeles) and he says he knew “You Really Got Me” would be a hit. With the success of “You Really Got Me,” he wanted another song that sustained that mood. Davies had written “Tired of Waiting,” but Talmy wanted to defer releasing it until that had capitalized on their first success. Thus, “You Really Got Me,” came before the follow-up release, “All Day and All of the Night.”
“Not quite crooked, and not perverse;
Replace with “girl,” improve the verse.”
The band’s name came in part from their appearance. They had played under names like “The Ray Davies Quartet” and “The Ravens,” but sometime in late 1963 they adopted the name “The Kinks,” probably as a description of the leather and high heels that some of the members wore. One of their managers, Larry Page, may have made the name change decision looking for a way to capture audience attention better.
In 1964, a promoter who had signed the Kinks for his shows sought to improve their stage presentations by asking entertainment veteran Hal Carter to coach them. The Kinks had been including an early version of the song in their stage repertoire, but Carter, perhaps confused by the band’s long hair, wondered whether Davies was singing to a male or female: “Jane, Carol, Sue, bint, tart—even jus plain ‘Girl.’ Whatever you do, you have to make it personal.” Davies recalls in his semi-fictional autobiography that “‘Girl instead of ‘Yeah’ mean a lot to me…’”
“Proto-punk, a random slice,
A wild guitar, a roll of the dice.”
Part of the distinctive guitar sound on “You Really Got Me” came because of brother Dave’s tiny Elpico amplifier acting as a preamp to his Vox AC 30 amplifier. Of course, he did not think of it as a “preamp”; he just tried to run a lead from the Elpico’s tiny speaker and plug it into his Vox. In combination with another amplifier, he nearly electrocuted himself; but after replacing the fuses in the family home and some rewiring of the wires connecting the amplifiers, he arrived at a nearly marvelous sound: “nearly marvelous” because he was still dissatisfied. He had no doubt heard of how American blues musicians played with ripped speakers and resolved to get the same sound by using a blade to put a “slice” into the Elpico’s cone. He could only guess at where to put the cut in the speaker paper, but the result—the consequence of a slice rather than a rip—gave his guitar a unique sound that Shel Talmy captured for posterity.
Dave Davies’ fingering technique—in contrast to his brother who had been getting second-hand classical guitar lessons—sought out the most simple of solutions and helped to popularize a style of playing that punk music later championed. Compared to other guitarists playing in London (such as Eric Clapton of the Yardbirds or session musician Big Jim Sullivan), Dave Davies’ approach was primitive. When the time came for his solo, he thrashed away of barely a half-dozen notes, but with all the aggression he could muster as his brother yelled encouragement at him. This recording represented their last best chance of holding on to a recording contract. Their first two releases had been flops. If this third release similarly failed, they might easily have been looking for another record contract, if not careers in commercial art. Instead, “You Really Got Me” rose steadily in first Britain’s charts and then, North America. Within weeks of its release, the recording sat at the top of most pop recording lists, forty-five years ago.