The Story Behind The Song: How Bob Dylan helped create The Kinks’ classic track ‘Sunny Afternoon’
The Kinks were one of the most influential English rock bands of the 1960s and were a part of the British Invasion in the United States. Formed in 1964 in Muswell Hill, North London, by brothers Ray Davies and Dave Davies, the band was influenced by a variety of genres ranging from R&B and rock and roll to British music hall, folk and country. Unlike their contemporaries, their music was drenched in the English culture and their lyrics reflected the English lifestyle.
The Kinks may not have gained the glamour and the mammoth riches of The Beatles and Rolling Stones, but they did gather up more critical appreciation than everyone else. By using the Davies brothers’ pop sensibilities and caustic wit, The Kinks forged a career not built out of marketing or clever promotion but of authentic and sincere songs. One such track is their iconic number ‘Sunny Afternoon’.
The central figures of the Davies brothers remained members of the band throughout its 32-year long career. Other members over the years included the likes of Mick Avory, Pete Quaife, John Dalton, Andy Pyle, Jim Rodford, Ian Gibbons, Bob Henrit, and others, and major contributors included Bobby Graham, Nicky Hopkins and so on. The Kinks were active for more than three decades between 1964 to 1996 and released 24 studio albums and enjoyed a number of major commercial and critical successful single releases. It’s a career that many hope for but few ever attain.
Some of their greatest albums included Face to Face in 1966 and Something Else by the Kinks a year later in 1967. While the world of popular culture entered massive change between the 1960s and ’70s, The Kinks remained at the peak of the powers and, in 1978, released Misfits and were greeted by yet more success. Not content with resting on their laurels, the band were able to prove their worth across three decades when they released in State of Confusion in 1983 to yet more acclaim. Despite all the success, it is in the late 1960s that most fans of The Kinks hark back to in nostalgic celebration. In 1967, following the release of Sunny Afternoon, an album shared just two months after Something Else by The Kinks, the band found themselves flying high at number two on the UK charts. The album consisted of some of the most popular singles by the band and, of course, the title track ‘Sunny Afternoon’ was one of their top successes.
‘Sunny Afternoon’ was written by Ray Davies when he was tired, sick and lonely in London. Given the chance to write some music to express himself, there was only one track that would come out. He once said, “I’d bought a white upright piano. I hadn’t written for a time. I’d been ill. I was living in a very 1960s-decorated house. It had orange walls and green furniture. My one-year-old daughter was crawling on the floor and I wrote the opening riff. I remember it vividly. I was wearing a polo-neck sweater.” The Kinks had been gaining huge success and, while they continued to live in Britain and maintain their citizenship, Davies was not happy about his situation.
The song’s lyrics referred to the high levels of progressive taxes that the British Labour Government of Harold Wilson used to levy on high earners — something The Kinks had just become. While the backstory to the track was more political than it led on, with its breezy music and poppy rhythm, it came out of how poorly Davies felt when he was sick. Davies felt screwed by his government, having worked up the ladder to reach unchartered heights only to have his account ransacked. “The only way I could interpret how I felt was through a dusty, fallen aristocrat who had come from old money as opposed to the wealth I had created for myself.”
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 he wanted them to be expressed but, 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 may also have hinted to the simpler joys of life, like “lazing on a sunny afternoon in the summertime.”
Ray Davies was always a man who worked far beyond his years and it seemingly drifted into his vocal tone too. “I did it in one take and when I heard it back, I said, ‘No, let me do it properly,’ but the session was out of time. So that was the vocal,” he explained. “I heard it again the other day. I was 22 but I sound like someone about 40 who’s been through the mill. I really hang on some of the notes. A joyous song, though, even if it’s suppressed joy. I had real fun writing that.”
He said, “I once made a drawing of my voice on ‘Sunny Afternoon’. It was a leaf with a very thick outline—a big blob in the background—the leaf just cutting through it.” The song may well have some complex originations but it is also one of the most sincere and authentic cuts from the band. Much of that may be down to the song’s spontaneous recording sessions: “‘Sunny Afternoon’ was made very quickly, in the morning, it was one of our most atmospheric sessions. I still like to keep tapes of the few minutes before the final take, things that happen before the session. Maybe it’s superstitious, but I believe if I had done things differently—if I had walked around the studio or gone out—it wouldn’t have turned out that way.” The singer speaks candidly about the circumstances surrounding the studio at the time.
“The bass player went off and started playing funny little classical things on the bass, more like a lead guitar: and Nicky Hopkins,” continued Davies, “Who was playing piano on that session, was playing ‘Liza’—we always used to play that song—little things like that helped us get into the feeling of the song. 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 its 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.”
‘Sunny Afternoon’, which was released as a single on June 3rd, 1966, was the third and final number one hit for The Kinks in the UK. More than that, it remains one of the go-to songs for any lazy afternoon, sunny or otherwise.