By Gordon R. Thompson
In the opening months of 1964, The Beatles turned the American popular music world on its head, racking up hits and opening the door for other British musicians. Lennon and McCartney demonstrated that—in the footsteps of Americans like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry—British performers could be successful songwriters too. In the summer, “A Hard Day’s Night” would prove that their success had not been a winter fluke or a momentary bit of post assassination frenzy.
It wasn’t that the Brits had been absent from the very profitable American market: Joe Meek had had success with the Tornados’ “Telstar” at the end of 1962. But before The Beatles, few in America cared much at all about what the British recording industry released. Indeed, British irrelevancy lay behind Capitol’s decision not to release recordings by The Beatles until news coverage got ahead of them.
In the wake of the Beatles, some of the evolving diversity of British songwriting emerged and the first stage came from composers associated with the heart of London’s music publishing world: Denmark Street. Publishers and musical instrument stores still call that short stretch of pavement home, but in the early to mid-sixties, everyone from the Beatles to the Kinks had been there. You could record at Regent Sound Studios (as did The Rolling Stones and The Who), you could grab a coffee with session musicians at Julie’s Café, or buy an ad at either Melody Maker or The New Musical Express. Indeed, The Beatles had gotten a huge break through publisher Dick James whose offices were at the corner of Denmark Street and Charing Cross Road.
In 1963, Lennon and McCartney’s major competitor was Mitch Murray who had had a string of hits with Gerry and the Pacemakers (“How Do You Do It?”) and Freddie and the Dreamers (“I’m Telling You Now”). Murray’s forte was the simple, catchy lyric and tune, purchased and consumed in an instant, paid for by happy teens who eagerly waited for the next release. His songs had proved so successful in 1963 that John Lennon jokingly (perhaps) suggested that another challenge to the Lennon-McCartney catalogue could result in bruises for their competitor. Notably in this period, both the Liverpudlians and this Londoner published through Dick James Music.
However a particularly interesting composition emerged from the pen of another Denmark Street songwriter, this time associated with Southern Music. The twenty-nine-year-old Geoff Stephens was never much of a musician, but he had an ear for lyrics and tunes and “The Crying Game” had begun as a title and a premise. The title “seemed the perfect seed from which to grow a very good pop song,” he recalled. “We all know what it’s like to cry and have deep feelings.” Still, the song’s convoluted melody and irregular prosody made it an unlikely hit for 1964, but succeed it did.
A winning interpretation would come through Dave Berry whose breathy and exposed voice served as the perfect instrument for the melody, even if he initially thought the music inappropriate for him. (He saw himself as a rhythm-and-blues artist.) Decca producer Mike Smith (who had auditioned the Beatles back in 1962) brought in Reg Guest to serve as music director who, in turn, hired guitarist Big Jim Sullivan to complement Berry’s emotive interpretation. Employing a foot pedal meant for a steel guitar that controlled both tone and volume, Sullivan put the musical equivalent of crying into the recording. The result deeply impressed Beatle George Harrison who sought to find out how to recreate the sound (something he would accomplish the next year on songs like “I Need You” and “Yes It Is”).
Not all non-performer songwriters in this era had deep ties to Denmark Street. Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley had met at University College School as teens, sported proper academic degrees, had worked at the BBC, and were active participants in the intellectual world of late fifties and early sixties London. In 1964 they collaborated on the song “Have I the Right” and in a tavern found the Sheritons whom they believed were perfect to deliver their plea for love. The musical and lyrical materials are simple, but catchy, and demanded a distinctive sound and interpretation.
No one could better create a distinctive sound in London at the time than the enigmatic Joe Meek in his home studio on Holloway Road in North London. In order to create a sound around the band and the song, Meek turned to the four-on-the-floor musical grooves that had been popular that year (notably heard on recordings by another North London group, the Dave Clark Five). Meek recorded clipped microphones to the stairs outside his studio and had the band stomp in time with the music, perhaps in imitation of the Dave Clark Five’s “Bits and Pieces.” Next, he repeatedly overdubbed a guitar part and played with the tape speed to give it a wavering bell-like quality.
Howard and Blaikley would lease the recording to Louis Benjamin at Pye Records, who thought that the Sheritons needed a new name. Seeing the band’s female hairdresser-drummer Honey Lantree as its visual distinction and marketing hook, he renamed the band, The Honeycombs. The song topped British charts late in the summer and successfully climbed American charts that fall. The songwriters would become the band’s managers and continue to write music for them, although they never quite duplicated their success.
But where were British songwriters who also performed their own material? Jagger and Richards of The Rolling Stones had written “As Tears Go By,” but had decided to give it to Marianne Faithful. (They didn’t think it appropriate for themselves to release, at least as a single.) The band had also recorded a demo of another Jagger-Richards tune, “Tell Me,” at Regent Sound Studios in Denmark Street, only to discover that their manager Andrew Oldham had released it in America. Despite its modest success, Richards has since cited this recording as evidence of how little control they had over their career at this stage. They wouldn’t record their first real self-penned success early the next year with “The Last Time.”
More significantly during the summer of ‘64, one of the most important British artists of the era woke up every garage band on both continents, simultaneously frightening parents and the custodians of culture.
In July 1964 at IBC Studios in London, Shel Talmy prepared to give an unlikely group of musicians their last chance to have a hit. Talmy was a Los Angeles transplant, an outsider to the London recording scene who preferred to work as an independent artist-and-repertoire manager. Through hard work, good luck, and a bit of bluff, he had managed almost immediate success, much to the jealousy of the locals.
The group on whom he was gambling had the Davies Brothers as its leaders who had beaten the odds to get a recording contract, but who had struck out with their first two releases. The Kinks’ version of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” had the misfortune of comparison with The Beatles, who were now using the tune to close their shows and who would soon release their own version of it. Their next attempt was a composition by Ray Davies. “You Still Want Me” carries all the hallmarks of early sixties British pop and, consequently, had very little that would distinguish The Kinks from everyone else.
“You Really Got Me” would be the song that lifted them to success. They arrived to record it at IBC Studios in July 1964 after already taping a slower and more bluesy version. Davies and Talmy (although they might disagree about the process later) agreed that a faster version could be more successful and booked time at the studio late at night. To insure success, Talmy had engaged session drummer Bobby Graham, who was already known around professional circles as at least one of the drummers on the Dave Clark Five records. He also brought in the veteran bandleader Art Greenslade to play piano.
Graham and Greenslade had been at a previous recording session earlier that night where a contractor had asked them to do a second session. After a pint or two and a bite to eat, they showed up at IBC for a date with the Kinks. Their first reaction, according to Greenslade, was a one of slightly restrained horror at the sight of the band; but, after a short rehearsal, they settled into a good working relationship. The band’s drummer, Mick Avory, settled into playing the tambourine.
Knowing full well, that you get six sides to get a hit, Ray Davies remembered years later the tension that night. “When that record starts it’s like… doing the four-minute mile; there’s a lot of emotion.” He remembers shouting at Dave, “willing him to do it, saying it was the last chance we had.” Brother Dave apparently responded with an expletive and launched into what must be one of the original punk guitar solos played through a ripped speaker. Talmy, for his part, tried to capture the sound and to shape it in a distinctive way, employing the young Glyn Johns and Bob Auger as his engineers.
The recording of “You Really Got Me” would establish The Kinks as one of Britain’s most important bands and Ray Davies as a songwriter to be watched.
Gordon R. Thompson is Professor of Music and Chair of the Department 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. Check out Gordon Thompson’s posts on The Beatles and other music.