If there is one musician who can be said to embody the startling creativity of the punk era, it is Mick Jones. As the lead guitarist and co-vocalist of The Clash, Jones bought a sense of integrity to punk, a new kind of gritty experimentalism that continues to echo through the landscape of British pop music.
Few guitarists would have had the courage to bring the jazz flavours of Django Reinhardt to punk, as Jones did with ‘Spanish Bombs’. Nor would many have bought extended Raga-esque structures to songs like ‘Straight To Hell’. In his heyday, Jones was outward-looking, always searching for a way of revitalising his medium. At the same time, he had a firm grasp of pop songwriting, something he possibly picked up from listening to the classic acts of the 1960s.
Glen Matlock may have been booted from The Sex Pistols for liking The Beatles, but The Clash were clearly a little less absolutist. During a 2004 interview with Observer Music Monthly, Jones was asked to select ten of his favourite albums. In doing so, he revealed a very counterintuitive image of punkdom. Rather than fixating on records by Trojan and Rough Trade, Jones’ selection included the likes of Disraeli Gears by Cream, Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones and several other albums that would have seen him dunked into a puddle of gob back in ’77. Of all those albums, one in particular stood out: Sunny Afternoon by The Kinks. “On the budget-priced Marble Arch Label,” Jones said. “The title track is my favourite song ever.”
Released in 1966 and later featured on The Kinks‘ second compilation album in 1967, ‘Sunny Afternoon’ might sound breezy and carefree but it was actually written at a time of significant hardship. Due to their sudden rise to fame, The Kinks found themselves divided by group tensions, plagued by lawsuits and shouldering an immense workload. Davis, who had just become a father, decided to leave the band for a while a regenerate.
While recovering, he wrote ‘Sunny Afternoon,’ embracing the alter ego of a fallen aristocrat who comes from old money, a stark contrast to Davies. Fearing listeners might sympathise with this dusty, decadent fop, Davies turned him into a ” scoundrel who fought with his girlfriend after a night of drunkenness and cruelty.”
Tracks like ‘You Really Got Me’ would form the blueprint for British punk, but this single, far woozier than those early singles, simmers with the balladry of crooners. As Davies once confessed: “At the time I wrote ‘Sunny Afternoon’ I couldn’t listen to anything. I was only playing The Greatest Hits of Frank Sinatra and Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’ – I just liked it’s whole presence, I was playing the Bringing It All Back Home LP along with my Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller and Bach – it was a strange time. I thought they all helped one another, they went into the chromatic part that’s in the back of the song.”
Today, ‘Sunny Afternoon’ remains one of the most beloved songs of the 1960s, and for Jones, it was clearly very formative. Thank you, Ray Davies, that’s all I can say.