In their first two decades, the Kinks went from playing raw, R&B-influenced Rock and Roll to recording nuanced, experimental concept albums to becoming arena rockers, along the way wracking up numerous hit singles and cementing their status as one the most influential bands to emerge from the British Rock scene of the 1960s.
The Kinks formed in the suburbs of London as brothers Ray Davies (lead vocals/guitar) and Dave Davies (lead guitar) moved from family sing-alongs to playing Rock and Roll and Skiffle at school dances and eventually gigs in local pubs. After various name changes and short-lived lineups (including one with Rod Stewart as lead vocalist), Peter Quaife (bass) and Mick Avory (drums) joined the band and the quartet was dubbed the Kinks.
The band landed a recording contract in 1964, and struck gold on their third single, “You Really Got Me.” With its hammering, two-note riff, distorted guitar tone, and frenzied solo, the song – which has been hailed as a precursor to Heavy Metal and to the Hard Rock of the late 1960s – was their breakthrough, hitting No. 1 in the U.K. and No. 7 in the U.S. The follow-up singles “All Day and All of the Night” and “Till the End of the Day” followed a similar template and helped establish the band as one of the leading exports of the British Invasion.
In the latter half of the 60s, principle songwriter Ray Davies began to branch out, moving away from heavy Rock and toward a quieter sound that incorporated Pop, Folk, and British Music Hall influences. He also broadened the range of his subject matter with sharply observed songs that reflected social themes and told stories of changing life in England. “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” poked fun at 60s fashion culture and “A Well Respected Man” took on the British class system, while songs like “Days” and “Waterloo Sunset” presented melancholic, poetic slices of life. These idiosyncratic songs helped earn Davies a reputation as one of the best songwriters of his era.
Through the late 60s and early 70s the band released a series of concept albums and Rock operas that struggled to find commercial success. 1968’s Village Green Preservation Society reflected on Britain’s identity crisis as traditional and contemporary values clashed; 1969’s Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) extended that theme. Although not a success at the time the former album has become a popular and critical favorite. One highlight of this lean period was the 1970 single “Lola,” a tale of a night of romance with a transvestite that reached the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic and became one of the Kinks’ most enduring songs.
The Kinks spent the late 70s and the 1980s releasing a series of radio friendly albums – Low Budget, Sleepwalker, Give the People What They Want — that did particularly well in the U.S., where they toured frequently, filling arenas. Their final chart success was the 1983 single “Come Dancing,” which was a smash in both the U.S. and U.K.
Although not officially broken up, the Kinks have been inactive since 1996 – though they got a profile boost during the 90s from the Britpop bands Blur and Oasis, who both cited the Kinks as a key influence. Both Ray and Dave Davies – whose relationship is famously combative – have sporadically performed and recorded solo; Ray has also written for musical theater. The brothers have spoken of reuniting to record and tour in connection with the Kinks’ upcoming 50th anniversary.