Revisiting Those Early “K” Albums

The Kinks are an elusive quarry. They are probably the fourth-greatest British-Invasion band, after the Beatles, Stones and Who. But few of their ’60s albums sold very well in the States, where a mysterious ban by the musicians union barred them from live performance for four long years at the height of their fame. By the time they broke through again with “Lola,” in 1970, the Beatles had broken up, and an astonishing songwriting run by Kink Kaptain Ray Davies was nearing its end.

Your typical Kinks fan of the ’70s and ’80s did not own a stack of their albums. Only one or two of their 1960s LPs scaled the upper reaches of the Billboard album chart. Vintage Kinks albums were downright rare in record stores, new or used. The 1970 comeback, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, reached No. 35 and long stood as their acknowledged classic.

And then, a funny thing happened. The great, lost Kinks albums of the late 1960s gained a new and passionate following, ultimately eclipsing even Lola in renown. Today, a younger generation of music fans embrace The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society – Sheesh! These titles! – with the same reverence allotted to rediscovered LPs by Big Star, Nick Drake and Judee Sill.

Upon its original U.S. release in 1969, Village Green did not chart. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an original copy in an American record store. Nowadays, it is reportedly the best-selling studio album in their catalog. Well-schooled music fans speak of the “Waterloo Sunset”-era Kinks, a span of extraordinary albums that starts with Face to Face, in 1966, and ends in 1971 with Muswell Hillbillies, the last very-good album before a string of disappointments.

But the Kinks had accomplished a lot before Face to Face: three long-playing studio albums in Britain, five or six in America, and a string of singles that more or less established power-chord rock and set the stage for the hard stuff a few years later. (Not for nothing did Van Halen cover “You Really Got Me.”)

Responsible fans might seek out a greatest-hits collection, but even that gesture sells the band short. Ray Davies was a great songwriter, as prolific and talented as Peter Townshend or any Beatle. From the first original track on You Really Got Me until the last one on Muswell Hillbillies, the guy could not write a bad song. Those early, hard-to-find albums are worth seeking out.

Here’s an overview. I’ll focus on the band’s American catalog, on the theory that you’re really better off with the vinyl, and you’re not likely to find used U.K. pressings in American stores. (And no, not all of them start with K.)

You Really Got MeYou Really Got Me, 1964

Of the early Kinks albums, this one most closely resembles a standard-issue British-Invasion LP, stitched together from covers, instrumentals and one or two hits. Even here, though, Ray Davies reveals depth. “You Really Got Me” launched a new sound by building its central riff – nah NAH NAH nah NAH — out of full chords rather than individual notes. But Ray could also do single-note riffs, and he turns in a great one on “So Mystifying,” the album’s second track, ascending the G chord and then tumbling back down. “Just Can’t Go to Sleep” is a good love song. “Stop Your Sobbing” is a great one. Both Davies compositions pay homage to the great American girl groups: the man was obsessed. No less than Chrissie Hynde covered “Stop Your Sobbing” with the Pretenders. Demented covers of Chuck Berry‘s “Beautiful Delilah” and Bo Diddley‘s “Cadillac” bristle with energy, making the Kinks debut a potent listen, nearly as powerful as The Who Sings My Generation.

Kinks SizeKinks-Size, 1965

The band’s Reprise Records label rushed out Kinks-Size in grand American cash-grab fashion, pasting together an EP, singles and scraps. As anyone familiar with the practice will tell you, this butcher-block approach was both a blessing and a curse. You got fewer songs on the American albums than the British ones, but the extra albums delivered choice cuts left off the British albums. Kinks-Size scored big in the States, charting at #13. Ray contributed two titanic tracks. “All Day and All of the Night,” an epic power-chord explosion, proved a worthy successor to “You Really Got Me.” “Tired of Waiting for You” was a superlative love song, built around a gentle power-chord riff topped with a delicate arpeggio and boasting a complexity that must have impressed even the great McCartney. What makes Kinks-Size a great album, though, is the strength of the other Davies originals: the melodic “I’ve Got That Feeling,” the minimalist “I Gotta Go Now” the propulsive “I Gotta Move,” and the edgy “Come On Now,” built around another great single-string riff. The only real stinker is a pointless cover of “Louie Louie.”

Kinda KinksKinda Kinks, 1965

This marvelous album, released as the second proper Kinks LP in Britain, marks the pinnacle of the band’s girl-group fixation, and it is strong from start to finish. Ray Davies wears his influences on his record sleeve: If you want to know the inspiration for the joyous opener, “Look for Me Baby,” look no further than the side-two cover of Martha and the Vandellas‘ “Dancing in the Street.” Davies pays further giddy homage to his Motown idols in the raucous “Ev’rybody’s Gonna Be Happy,” the jubilant “You Shouldn’t Be Sad” and the stately “Don’t Ever Change.” Ray reveals yet another songwriter persona on a pair of delicate acoustic tracks. The wistful “So Long” sounds autobiographical. The haunting “Nothin’ in the World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl” glides on a delicate acoustic riff, menacing and bluesy. Ever thoughtful, Davies tosses in a lovely song in the style of “Tired of Waiting,” and “Set Me Free” is nearly as good, a triumph of melody, descending basslines and rich power chords.

KinkdomKinkdom, 1965

This is another America-only release, cobbled together from EP tracks, singles and flotsam. The American producers must have known what they had, because the very first track unveils a new Ray Davies, troubadour, storyteller, unspooler of tales. “A Well Respected Man” is perhaps the first in a long and celebrated string of Ray Davies songs that explore the British bourgeois psyche and the struggles of her ‘umble working class. Davies observes their comings and goings with a fascination born of his growing pop-star remove: He would never get up in the morning and go to work at nine. The second track, “Such a Shame,” ranks with the finest Ray Davies compositions, perching a sturdy Motown melody atop an angular chord progression and a tumbling drum figure. “Wait Till the Summer Comes Along” reveals brother Dave as a songwriting threat all his own, an evolution that would yield real treasures in a year or two. “I Need You” is yet another power-chord anthem, less manic than its forebears but more mature. “Who’ll Be the Next in Line” shows Ray’s easy fluency with the single-string guitar riff, not to mention his romantic cynicism. The real jaw-dropper on this collection, though, is “See My Friends,” an early, majestic experiment (mid-’65) in raga rock. The song had a potent impact on the Beatles, Stones and Who, all of whom adopted its hypnotic, droning rhythm in subsequent recordings. (E.g., “The Good’s Gone.”)

Kink KontroversyThe Kink Kontroversy, 1966

The record labels synchronized the U.S. and U.K. track lists on this, the third proper Kinks album, bring order to the Kink Katalog more than a year before the Beatles would reap the same courtesy. I don’t think many music writers or fans include Kontroversy among the great Kink albums of the exalted “Waterloo Sunset” era, but they should. The vicious opening salvo, Kokomo Arnold‘s “Milk Cow Blues,” is a bluff, a misdirection: The Kinks were heading away from gut-busting rhythm and blues. The rest of the album explores the full range of Davies songcraft. “Ring the Bells” gives a lovely parting nod to the girl groups. “When I See That Girl of Mine” is simple, melodic pop. “I Am Free” flexes Dave Davies‘ songwriting muscles to fine effect. Ray contributes two more power-chord classics in “Till the End of the Day” and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” the latter number poking impish fun at McCartney and the Beatles, who must have been out-earning the Kinks a thousand-fold at this point: “Yesterday was such an easy game for you to play/But let’s face it, things are so much easier today.” Most intriguing, though, are the pair of songs that open Side Two. “The World Keeps Going Round” waxes philosophical, anticipating the lyrical heights Davies would scale with “Big Sky” and “Waterloo Sunset,” proving him perhaps Lennon‘s equal among wordsmiths of the first Invasion.

Great Lost Kinks AlbumThe Great Lost Kinks Album, 1973

This entry doesn’t really fit with the others, but it deserves a mention, because fear it has fallen through the cracks of Kinkdom. I picked it up for two dollars in a used record back in the ’80s, and I learned from the liner notes what it was: One more collection of scraps, assembled by Reprise Records for release after the Kinks had decamped to another label. Despite the mongrel pedigree, it’s a great album, most of it recorded during the band’s peak era of exile from the States. Some of the songs rival actual album tracks from that era in songwriting quality, and the album as a whole falls just a notch or two below the great ones. In sound and mood, the collection most closely resembles Village Green; dreamy, poetic and whimsical. The opener, “Til Death Do Us Part,” ranks among Ray’s strongest music-hall pieces. “Rosemary Rose” is a tiny masterpiece. “Misty Water” and “Mister Songbird” are contagiously catchy. Side Two offers the classic “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” with an acerbic Dave Davies vocal. Dave’s own “This Man He Weeps Tonight” is a majestic song and one of his best. “Plastic Man” should have been a hit: apparently the BBC banned it over the word “bum.” All in all, The Great Lost Kinks Album is a near-masterpiece, a compilation of also-rans as mysterious as VU, the superb, posthumous Velvet Underground set, and just as rewarding.

Daniel de Visé is an occasional AllMusic contributor and author of King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King.

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