One of the finest pop lyricists of his generation, the work Ray Davies completed alongside his band The Kinks will rest wonderfully in the crown jewels of the British Invasion forevermore. The band, sharper than The Beatles and savvier than the Stones operate as the thinking man’s preferred band of the decade. Of course, the other two giants would become stadium-selling behemoths of rock and roll and while The Kinks have certainly had their fair share of success, they remain a cult classic.
That’s because to know The Kinks; one must have a little more than a surface knowledge of the time. To love The Kinks, one must be completely and utterly captivated by the nuance of modernism, the grandeur of traditionalism and be enthralled by the marrying of those two opposites. For it is within that crucible of cultivated style, controlled poetic verse and a rip-roaring appreciation for riffs that Davies and The Kinks cultivated some of the most compelling pop songs of all time. Below, we’re paying special attention to one vital aspect of their appeal: the lyrics.
Ray Davies was always the leader of the band. Known by many as the Godfather of Britpop, Davies sharp wit and nuanced demonstrations of sincere emotion made him one of the few pop music lyricists of the day that seemed wholly cemented in the world around him. With the advent of the teenager, the music world was given a brand new subset of audience to aim record sales at, and they rarely aimed anywhere else. It meant songs were dripping in the kind of rock tropes that many believed teenagers to be obsessed by. So, sex, cars, dances and any other kind of unrequited love quickly became the name of the game. Unless, of course, you were Ray Davies.
As The Kinks main lyricist, Davies took these ideas and placed them within a framework that average kids in Britain could relate to. The years of singing about picking up your high school sweetheart in a big Cadillac, on your way to grab a shake before hitting the dance, were well and truly gone. Bob Dylan had proved that the new generation wanted to hear songs directly from the hearts and minds of the singer at hand. Whereas Dylan had prompted John Lennon and The Beatles to make pop music more personal, Davies always seemed in tune with his surroundings.
That’s not to say Davies couldn’t create a universal classic, though. With the Kinks’ third single, ‘You Really Got Me’, they achieved an international hit that shot them across the globe. Despite this, the band never received the same acclaim as the aforementioned acts. Instead, Davies and the Kinks operated as the subtle undercurrent of influence for a whole group of great artists. Bands like The Fall, the Jam and the Pretenders have all covered their songs, while later, in the 1990s, Oasis and Blur both cited Davies and the Kinks as a major inspiration for their own work.
With time to revise their back catalogue, it is easy to see how and why Ray Davies and the Kinks should be considered some of Britain’s finest cultural exports. One perfect way to see this is by revisiting some of Davies’ finest lyrics.
Ray Davies 10 best lyrics for The Kinks:
“Dandy you know you’re moving much too fast
And dandy, you know you can’t escape the past.
Look around you and see the people settle down
And when you’re old and grey you will remember what they said
That two girls are too many, three’s a crowd and four you’re dead.”
The third track on the band’s 1966 album Face To Face, ‘Dandy’ was supposedly a reference by Ray Davies to his brother Dave’s wild lifestyle. Ray later revealed more details about the ‘Dandy’ character, stating: “I think it was about someone, probably me, who needed to make up his mind about relationships. Also, about my brother, who was flitting from one girl to another. It’s a more serious song than it seems. It’s about a man who’s trapped by his own indecision with relationships and lack of commitment. That’s the way I’d write it now, but when I was twenty-two or twenty-three, I wrote it about a jovial person who’s a womaniser.”
The song remained as a staple in their live shows until 1969 and is now referenced as a stunning representation of the band’s ability to build characters within their songs.
‘All Day and All of the Night’
“I’m not content to be with you in the day time
Girl, I want to be with you all of the time
The only time I feel alright is by your side
Girl, I want to be with you all of the time
All day and all of the night.”
One of The Kinks’ undoubted classics, ‘All Day and All of the Night’, was a signifier to Britain’s youth that The Kinks were hip. The band made not-so-subtle references to sexual encounters with their girlfriends, which not only made the kids go wild but also provided a searing pop song.
We’re not going to sit here and proclaim that this is necessarily some of Davies’ most poignant or purposeful work. But to ignore the potency of his lyrics as well as the subversive subtext is not only to forget the time and place in which they were written but how simply universal they were.
‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’
“And when he does his little rounds
‘Round the boutiques of London town
Eagerly pursuing all the latest fads and trends
‘Cause he’s a dedicated follower of fashion.”
What Ray Davies did better than most artists of his time was create simple and plain pop songs that felt tangible and attainable without being boring – and that’s no mean feat. To see the world around you and put it out in front of an audience in no uncertain terms is one thing, but making an entire audience dance to it is quite another. Lyrics don’t have to be complex to make your heartbeat and your feat shuffle.
‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ is one of The Kinks’ later hits and is therefore imbued with the simplistic tone Davies put on the bands’ recordings. On this track, the band play into their own image as sharp dressers to offer a crystalline image of a fashion-loving dandy. “Nobody’s here for art,” says Davies during the live performance of the song and we think that perfectly sums up why the song should be considered one of his best.
“Days I’ll remember all my life
Days when you can’t see wrong from right
You took my life
But then I knew that very soon you’d leave me.”
Many have misinterpreted The Kinks song ‘Days’ as a poignant song about the final moments of a relationship that is going up in smoke. But, later, Davies confirmed the track was actually written about his band, who had equally caught fire a few years prior and now threatened to torch their legacy.
Davies is famed for his sardonic use of wit and a scything tongue that few avoid a lashing from. But on ‘Days’, he delivers one of his most authentic refrains and accurately captures the bittersweet tension of an ending relationship, whether it’s your significant other or, indeed, your band.
All her boyfriends used to come and call
Why not come dancing?
It’s only natural.”
In the last phase of The Kinks’ long-spanning career, their 1983 release State of Confusion proved to be full of gems. But although the melody is upbeat and reggae-inspired, the lyrics were inspired by Ray Davies’ older sister, Rene, who died of a heart attack while dancing at a dance hall. It’s a song drenched in rose-tinted nostalgia and a hue of regret that we all must bear.
The song became a staple of Kinks’ live performances and a song Ray Davies connected with the most. He said that of all the songs he’s written, the lyrics in ‘Come Dancing’ are the ones he’s most proud of. In July of 1983, the song reached its US chart peak of number, and at the time, half of the top 40 was taken over by primarily British bands, leading some to believe the “Second British Invasion” was happening. This unexpected rebirth proved not only that the band’s ability to reinvent themselves was still as strong as ever—but that they were quite possibly the best ever to do it.
“I am a dull and simple lad
Cannot tell water from champagne
And I have never met the Queen
And I wish I could be like David Watts.”
If there’s a song to capture the turmoil of a rival teen, then ‘David Watts’ is most certainly it. In revisions, the song can be seen as a little petty or immature, but, in fact, the track was simply dripping in the class divides that Davies had witnessed for the majority of his life.
The rich and popular boy in school is always destined to receive a scathing retort or a black eye from kids like Davies was, and he delivers in spades on this one. A song full of bitter venom is only made a little sadder when one understands the lack of self-esteem that can go into such feelings. Davies later suggested that the real David Watts, a school friend, had a crush on his brother Dave, which certainly makes some of the lyrics a touch questionable. But we’ll move along.
‘You Really Got Me’
“Yeah, you really got me now
You got me so I don’t know what I’m doin’, now
Oh yeah, you really got me now
You got me so I can’t sleep at night.”
After releasing two singles that failed to chart, the band’s record label threatened to annul the group’s contract if the third single wasn’t a success. ‘You Really Got Me’ was released in August of 1964 and proved to be an instant hit thanks, in no small part, to Davies’ vibrant and frenetic lyrics. They confirmed that The Kinks weren’t just smiling mop tops; they were the real deal.
In a 2016 interview, Ray Davies candidly shared: “I was playing a gig at a club in Piccadilly, and there was a young girl in the audience who I really liked. She had beautiful lips. Thin, but not skinny. A bit similar to Françoise Hardy. Not long hair, but down to about there (points to shoulders). Long enough to put your hands through… (drifts off, wistfully)… long enough to hold. I wrote ‘You Really Got Me’ for her, even though I never met her.”
“My girlfriend’s run off with my car
And gone back to her ma and pa
Telling tails of drunkenness and cruelty
Now I’m sitting here
Sipping at my ice cold beer
Lazing on a sunny afternoon.”
There aren’t many people who can write a song about tax relief and have it become a huge hit. In fact, even fewer of those have written songs from the perspective of a rich man trying to keep hold of all his money. However, that’s exactly what Ray Davies did with his and The Kinks song ‘Sunny Afternoon’.
It’s not just a track about a rich man becoming slightly poorer; the song also mocked the affluent sections of the society and their lifestyle. This is where the brilliance of the song lies. Davies didn’t want his audience to sympathise with the misfortunes of the protagonist of the story (largely considered to be himself); having been a working-class lad himself, he knew he’d find no empathy in his audience.
So, he portrayed him as “a scoundrel who fought with his girlfriend after a night of drunkenness and cruelty.” Referring to the line in the song, “I got a big fat mama trying to break me”.
Davies said, it “alludes to the government, the British Empire, trying to break people. And they’re still doing it. How are we going to get out of this f—ing mess?” On the contrary, the song hinted at the simpler joys of life, like “lazing on a sunny afternoon in the summertime.”
“Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world, except for Lola
After moving away from their English, music hall-inspired sound, The Kinks became one of the successful cases of a band attempting to shake off the mod ’60s and dive into the slow-flowing ’70s. This all began with their 1970 album Lola vs Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part 1. After releasing the song ‘Lola’ as a single, The Kinks revived themselves in America, where they hadn’t had a top 40 hit since ‘Sunny Afternoon’ in 1966.
In a 2016 interview, Ray Davies revealed the song’s meaning: “The song came out of an experience in a club in Paris. I was dancing with this beautiful blonde, then we went out into the daylight, and I saw her stubble.” He added, “So I drew on that but coloured it in, made it more interesting lyrically.”
Although controversial at the time, ‘Lola’ proved that the band was evolving in subject matter as well as image and opened the door for artists like Lou Reed and David Bowie to explore gender fluidity in songs that appealed to rock fans of all kinds. It also included one of the most pointless aeroplane trips of all time as Ray Davies was once flown 6,000 miles so he could re-record one litigious line.
“But I don’t feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset
I am in paradise.”
When he was a student at Croydon Art School, Ray Davies used to cross Waterloo Bridge every day, which is said to have been the inspiration behind the band’s smash hit ‘Waterloo Sunset’. Despite being some of Davies’ most beautiful lyrics, throughout the years, the song’s meaning has been confused by even the band itself.
Initially, it was rumoured to have been inspired by the romance between British actors Terence Stamp and Julie Christie. Still, Ray Davies revealed that it was “a fantasy about my sister going off with her boyfriend to a new world and they were going to emigrate and go to another country.” He later contradicted himself again in a 2015 interview, stating that Christie and Stamp might’ve been the influence because they were “big, famous actors at the time.” But the film that supposedly sparked their romance didn’t come out until six months after the single’s release, further complicating the matter.
Even with its ambiguous meaning, the song is still deemed one of their most popular releases and was even chosen by Ray Davies as the song performed at the closing of the 2012 London Olympic Games.
The track remains a rich piece of the band, the city’s and the country’s iconography.