With a discography that evolved and spanned over many decades, The Kinks have become known as one of the most influential bands of all time, and rightly so.
Despite a 1965 touring ban in the United States that came about because of the band’s wild backstage conduct, they persevered by continuing to express their creativity through the recording process.
From their formation in Muswell Hill of north London in 1964 to their last studio album release in 1993, they’ve experimented with everything from British invasion mod rock to essentially a theatrical troupe and everything in between.
Although some of the band’s members switched throughout their impressive 33-year run, brothers Ray and Dave remained staple players throughout it all. With a career that long, the discography—and the hits—are equally as extensive. But, to narrow it down, here are six songs that best capture the essence of The Kinks.
Six definitive songs of The Kinks:
‘You Really Got Me’ (1964)
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. 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.”
The now-iconic Dave Davies dirty guitar sound was produced by slashing a razor blade on his amplifier, producing an effect known as “fuzz,” which later became a staple when electronic devices were invented. But the innovative Davies used what he had, and set the tone for the band’s willingness to try just about anything to get a good sound.
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.
‘Waterloo Sunset’ (1967)
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’. But throughout the years, the meaning of the song 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, but 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.
‘Lola (“Coca Cola” Version)’ (1970)
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, regarding 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.
Off of the same album Lola vs. Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part 1, came the fan-favourite and likely The Kinks most remembered ballad, ‘Strangers’.
One of two songs written by Dave Davies on the album, he later revealed that he wrote the lyrics when he was reflecting on human connection and the meaning of life. “I was going through a lot of change, personally – spiritual stuff and getting into different philosophy,” he recalled. “I was 15 at the time when we first started. And we had success, we were touring, and it doesn’t really give you a chance to grow up.”
He explained it was written at a time when he was thinking, “What’s going on? What are we doing? Why are we here?”
Although never released as a single, ‘Strangers’ has remained a staple in the Kink’s discography and shows off their ability to be sentimental as well as hard-rocking.
‘Come Dancing’ (1983)
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.
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 to ever do it.