By: Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Despite being one of London’s most exciting new bands in 1964, the Kinks were off to a rocky start. After releasing two singles which flopped, Pye Records was threatening to drop the band if their next single wasn’t a hit. At this pivotal moment, the Kinks recorded “You Really Got Me” – saving their careers and creating their most iconic track. More than that, the song’s revolutionary sound and attitude would forever change the course of rock history.
The Kinks were founded in North London in the early sixties by brothers Ray and Dave Davies, along with their schoolmates Pete Quaife and John Start. The Davies brothers had grown up in a music-loving family where they were exposed to a wide range of musical styles. Ray explained: “My dad taught me about music. He used to tap dance. He loved Jack Buchanan, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Max Miller, and he’d seen Al Bowlly sing at the local pub.” Likewise Dave recalls: “My sisters all played piano and my old man played the banjo, so there was always music around. My sisters’ influence was very important. Dolly used to play Hank Williams and Slim Whitman records, and the younger ones used to play the Teddy Bears, Perry Como and the Crew Cuts — whatever was popular at the time.”
At first the band performed under the name “The Ray Davies Quartet” or, alternatively, “The Pete Quaife Quartet” – depending on which member was able to secure the gig. They went through several lead singers in their early days briefly including a young Rod Stewart (who was one of their school classmates). Eventually the band settled on Ray as lead vocals, and began to perform under the name “the Ravens”. They attracted the attention of producer Shel Talmy, who helped them get signed to Pye Records in early 1964.
Shortly after getting picked up by Talmy, the band changed their names to the Kinks.
The origin of the band’s new name has been told through various conflicting stories. Some called the name a gimmick, aimed to attract attention through outrage (certainly the name carried some innuendo). But Ray Davies credits the name to their band manager Larry Page who used the term to describe the band’s fashion: “The way you look, and the clothes you wear, you ought to be called the Kinks.” But it wasn’t just the fashion that set the Kinks apart from the bands around them – they played with an aggressive edge that captured something of early rock ‘n roll’s rebellion.
The band’s first single, a cover of Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally, channeled those early rock ‘n roll roots, but its release attracted very little attention. Their second single “You Still Want Me” similarly struggled, never even charting. At this point, Pye was threatening to annul their contract if things didn’t turn around, placing immense pressure on the band’s next single.
The Kinks were in need of a hit, and they found it when Ray Davies came in with a new song he had just written – “You Really Got Me.” He had written the song at the piano in his parents’ home while the rest of his family was sitting down to dinner:
“I sat down in the front room one day and started to write a song on the old upright. I thumped out those crude fifths with my left hand, and Little Richard-style eighth note chops with my right. I thought of a melody to go with the phrase I’d come up with…: ‘Yeah, you really got me going, you got me so I don’t know what I’m doing.’ When I called Dave in from the kitchen where he was having dinner with the rest of the family, he picked up his guitar and plugged into the green amp. […] As the amp warmed up I heard that wonderful distorted sound. It was a perfect representation of my anger, and yet beautiful at the same time.”
The band first recorded “You Really Got Me” in Pye’s Studio 2. Originally the song was recorded in a slower, blues style. Ray later explained: “When I wrote ‘You Really Got Me’, I wanted it to be a blues song, like a Leadbelly or a Broonzy song. But because I was a white kid from North London, I put in certain musical shifts that made it unique to what I did.” When they finally finished the track, they decided they wanted a faster, more raw sound, but the record label refused to let them re-record.
Talmy put his own finances on the line to make the second recording happen, moving the band to his preferred studio of IBC. He explained: “We wanted to get away from Pye Studios, where [the execs] would have been breathing down our necks….IBC, which had the deserved reputation of being the progenitor of most of England’s best engineers, was probably my favourite studio there. The live area had very good acoustics and great natural echo chambers, while the upstairs control room had IBC’s own 24‑input board, Altec speakers, an Ampex three‑track machine and an Ampex mono machine.” The second recording of “You Really Got Me” occurred on July 12th, 1964. This was the session that produced the track we now all know and love.
In the newer recording, the band not only revved up the tempo, they also shifted to a more raw, aggressive sound, epitomized by Dave’s guitar. To modern ears, the distortion on his Harmony Meteor guitar sounds exciting, but not shocking. For decades, we have heard guitarists and producers explore countless distortion effects. However, in 1964, Dave was creating a sound that few musicians had ever touched. To get that now-iconic effect, he actually slashed the speaker on his Alpico ACC55 “Little Green” Amp. Dave remembered:
“I bought this in a radio spares shop in Muswell Hill in 1962. I couldn’t afford a Watkins Dominator or a bigger posher amp! I went home and plugged the Elpico loudspeaker’s output leads into the input of the AC 30, in effect using the smaller amp as kind of a pre-amp.
It sounded great but I wasn’t satisfied. The crowning glory of my simple yet effective experiment was to slash the speaker cone of the Elpico with a razor blade so that the material, although now shredded, still remained intact with the outer side of the cone. As it vibrated it produced a distorted and jagged roar. In fact, the original set-up was so crude that the main amp’s hum was almost as loud as the sound I had created.
A sound was born, but I didn’t know it at the time.”
In addition to the guitar’s phenomenal energy, the drums also drive the song’s excitement. However, while the band had already met drummer Mick Avory by this time, his role in the band was not yet formalized. Thus, he did not play on “You Really Got Me” Instead, Talmy brought in seasoned studio drummer Bobby Graham.
The song was released on August 4, 1964 and immediately began to climb the charts. It hit number 1 in the UK and was successful internationally, including hitting number 7 in the US Singles Charts. More than that, the song was incredibly influential on the entire rock music landscape. Musicians and fans were drawn to the Kinks’ aggressive, distorted sound. Pete Townshend of The Who even composed their first single, “I Can’t Explain” inspired by “You Really Got Me”. The band has been credited for pioneering the harder rock, power-chord sound that would dominate rock music for decades afterwards.
In 1999, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2005, Q magazine named it number nine on their list of 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks. Rolling Stone listed it number 82 on their list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and number 4 on their 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time. It is without a doubt, one of rock music’s most influential and foundational tracks – having inspired generations of musicians to rock louder, harder and faster.
Watch the video to learn more about The Kinks and their iconic song ‘You Really Got Me’!