The first time The Kinks kicked my ass was somewhere around the early '80s. I must've been about 10, and the youth-gone-terrorist film Over The Edge was all over HBO. (We couldn't afford cable, but there was always one guy in every white-trash apartment complex who could pirate the signal for you in exchange for a case of Busch. I sometimes wonder if this had any effect on my current views concerning illegal downloading.) One of the great songs from Over The Edge is "You Really Got Me," which sounded then like the most crazed, rebellious, illicit thing I'd ever heard. (The movie, by the way, was shot in the soul-killing suburbs of Denver–which, unknown to me at the time, was exactly where my family would move in 1985.) Of course I'd heard "You Really Got Me" hundreds of times as a little kid throughout the '70s–my mom was and is a huge rock fan–but something about the way it was used in that film made it sound as tough and ominous as KISS or Sabbath, at least to my tender, untrained young ears.
(I wouldn't realize until years later that the version of "You Really Got Me" in the movie was Van Halen's, not The Kinks'. Don't ask me how I ever wound up a paid music journalist.)
Over The Edge had a small but sort of important impact on music, inspiring everyone from Nation Of Ulysses to Nirvana, and it surely turning more bored, glue-huffing teens onto The Ramones than Rock 'N' Roll High School ever did. But–at least a year before the relatively tame "Come Dancing" blew up on radio and MTV–the movie drew me in a roundabout yet inescapable way to the raw, archetypal snarl of The Kinks.
1964's "You Really Got Me" and 1983's "Come Dancing": My knowledge of The Kinks remained frozen on those two songs for years. When I was 16 and got a summer job pulling orders in a warehouse, my crusty coworkers listened exclusively to classic-rock radio, and I got laughed at one day for thinking "Lola" was a Rod Stewart song. (Again, how they hell did I ever get this rock critic gig?) I'd wised up a bit by 1993, though, and was in the middle of a huge punk and garage-rock phase; I had acquired a healthy stack of LPs by The MC5, The Velvet Underground, The Seeds, The Sonics, The Stooges, The Who, The Troggs, and most of the other Lester Bangs-approved '60s bands. I bought an early "best-of" by The Kinks, but I was clueless about what came after that first furious spurt of singles. I had, however, just met a new emigrant to Denver named Robert Schneider–his band The Apples (pre-"In Stereo") had just played their second or third show, and I fell instantly in love–and he told me there were two '60s albums I absolutely HAD to own: The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and The Kinks' The Village Green Preservation Society.
Bluntly put, Village Green blew me the fuck away. Pet Sounds did too, of course, but I had a bit more of a history with The Kinks. The sinew of those early singles like "You Really Got Me" was still evident in Village Green, but there was so much more: Harmony, wit, cynicism, sophistication, heart-piercing beauty. I was 21, and in retrospect I suppose I was looking for music that was more, uh, intricate and dignified than my high-fiber diet of punk and grunge. Next I tracked down The Kink Kronikles, the double-album compendium covering the group's undisputed Golden Age of 1966 to 1970. From there I filled out my Kinks collection obsessively, finding nuggets from the early days (Kink Kontroversy) and beyond (Muswell Hillbillies) to augment those late-'60s masterpieces like Something Else and Arthur. And I finally got to hear the original version of "Victoria" after singing along with The Fall's version for years, scarcely realizing that it was a Kinks cover.
During the winter of '93, I appeared as a "live musician" for the first time–at a shitty dive bar called Cricket On The Hill, and naked save for a pair of boxers–as the bassist of a joke-band called The Elves, which we'd envisioned as some poor man's, Christmas-themed Dwarves. We played one song: "Father Christmas," The Kinks' punky, backhanded ode to Yuletide materialism. (Needless to say, we failed to make a significant dent in the Denver music scene.) Around that time I also picked up a new album called Modern Life Is Rubbish by a British band called Blur, whom I'd previously dismissed as a lame Stone Roses knockoff. But Blur had somehow radically morphed into a distinctly Kinks-influenced outfit, full of complex chord progressions, lush yet manicured arrangements, and lyrics crammed with clever, slashing satire. Within two years a slew of Britpop groups had hopped on the bandwagon, and I wound up DJing a Britpop club night every week–and in the midst of all that Pulp and Supergrass I'd throw on The Kinks' "She's Got Everything." Most kids couldn't tell the difference and danced on, oblivious.
Roughly around that time I met another huge Ray Davies fan, a friend of Robert who had just moved to Denver. He was a tall, sweet guy name Jeff, and I'd known him for weeks before I found out he made music himself. He gave me a 7-inch single titled "Everything Is" by his project Neutral Milk Hotel; it was the first thing he'd officially released. I thought the name was ridiculous. I thought the single was brilliant. Years later a clear if contorted Kinks influenced popped up on his album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. (Jeff, however, was just as likely to gush about the songwriting prowess of The Specials as The Kinks–and sure enough, when I pulled out my copy of the first Specials record and listened to it with fresh ears, I heard Ray Davies all over it.) At a barbecue at Robert's house a couple years later, I met another friend of his with an even bigger Kinks fixation: Kurt Heasley, whose Philadelphia group Lilys had released a record called Better Can't Make Your Life Better, one of the quirkiest, most lovingly reverent tributes to The Kinks ever made.
When a band randomly pops up at pivotal points throughout your whole life–in essence becoming part of the fabric of your brainpan or whatever–it's hard to yank that music back out, isolate it, and dissect it. And yet I'm currently working on exactly such a task, an A.V. Club Primer on The Kinks, to coincide with the U.S. release of Ray Davies' new solo album Working Man's Café next week. It ain't been easy. One of the toughest things the Primer format calls for is a rundown of the subject's 20 essential songs and five essential albums. Granted, no one really expects a major artist like The Kinks to be comprehensively represented by such a puny list. At the same time, I feel obligated not to piss off fans of, say, Face To Face or Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, two amazing Kinks albums that are nonetheless teetering on the edge of my top five. And with tracks like Moneygoround's poisonously sad, morally complex "Get Back In Line" I'm flip-flopping like a motherfucker.
I also want to at least try to avoid glib, endlessly regurgitated Kinks clichés, like the theory that Dave Davies singlehandedly created heavy metal with his riffs on "You Really Got Me" and "All Day And All Of The Night." I've always felt that was kind of an oversimplification, one that harmfully reinforces the stereotype of Dave as just some Neanderthal axe-basher in comparison to his brother Ray's cerebral refinement. Putting The Kinks in neat little boxes, I'm finding out, is as unfair as it is impossible. To get all emo for a moment: I've been scarred by these songs, and whispered softly along with them, and defiled them criminally onstage, and made people dance like coked-out monkeys to them. I've forgotten them and remembered them in rushes of nostalgia more times than I can count. And, yes, I've sat in my apartment drunk at four in the morning listening to "Waterloo Sunset" until I cried like… well, like a total lonely drunken "Waterloo Sunset"-listenin' idiot.
One of many great things about "Waterloo Sunset"–a song often and quite correctly labeled the best pop single of all time–is its ending. Right when it seems like Ray Davies can't scrunch himself into a tighter bundle of honey-dipped neurosis and longing, the song spirals upward into a cosmic reverie that's some eerie pop approximation of the last page of James Joyce's "The Dead." Here's a hilarious story: During a particularly low point in my life a few years back–girls, booze, bills, the works–I ran my turntable through a glued-together sampling delay pedal and recorded a cruddy remix of "Waterloo," one that stretched its short, angelically morose coda out to a full 30 minutes. I sat and listened to it over and over and chugged cheap beer all night. That Ray Davies… Even when he's being a total pussy, he packs one hell of a left hook.