In July of 1964, The Kinks guitarist, Dave Davies, was angry. He was also feeling experimental, both of which were common mindsets for the 17-year-old guitarist. Having attempted to liven up his bright and clean guitar tone with several unsuccessful alterations to his amplifier, Davies decided to go with more drastic action. Out came a razor blade, and Davies began mutilating the speaker cone of his Elpico amp. As soon as he began to play, the results were captivating.
If one was feeling so bold, it could be said that several genres were born right then and there: heavy metal, punk rock, psychedelic rock, power pop. What isn’t so bold to say is that never before had pop music heard that pairing of pop hooks and unbridled aggression. It might sound quaint, especially after almost 60 years of loud and confrontational music that followed, but the distortion used on ‘You Really Got Me’ was nothing short of revolutionary.
Of course, since the technology didn’t exist at the time, Ray Davies didn’t write ‘You Really Got Me’ with the distorted riff in mind. Originally the song was closer to a big band blues number, something akin to Big Bill Broonzy or, more contemporarily, Fats Domino (think ‘Aint That A Shame’). The elder Davies brother wrote the song at the Davies family home in early 1964, the same house in north London where he and Dave were raised along with their six elder sisters.
By this time, Davies was a college student and was frequenting the bars and clubs around his home in Fortis Green. The origins of ‘You Really Got Me’ were simple, direct, and appropriately horny: Davies saw a girl dancing at one of these clubs where an early band of his was playing. “When we finished, I went off to find her, but she was gone and never returned to the club,” he said. “She really got me going.” No one knows for sure who that girl actually was or the impact she would eventually have on popular music.
Davies elucidated on the subject when speaking to Q in 2016: “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.”
By then, The Kinks, less than a year old and still primarily a covers band, had flopped with their first two singles. Pye Records, the band’s label, were threatening to drop them if they did not produce a hit. Ray brought in his jazz-blues number, and the band recorded it dutifully in that style – but something felt wrong. It didn’t have the raw, animalistic power that the Davies brothers thought it needed. The record company insisted that the band not waste any more resources on recording, but Ray stood his ground and demanded it was re-recorded. Pye complied, but there was a clear understanding that this was to be the band’s final shot.
Maybe it was the desperation of their situation, maybe it was the lasciviousness of the inspiration, maybe it was the wild-men attitudes that the Davies brothers carried with them to every aspect of life, but whatever it was that got them going, The Kinks souped-up ‘You Really Got Me’ and produced a frantic, emphatic final product.
The lack of subtlety behind lines such as “you got me so I can’t sleep at night” wasn’t exclusive to the song’s lyrics. With a live-performed recording for the ages, the band captured all their manic energy in just over two minutes. In what would become a signature for the band, the brief drum breakdown is interrupted with some impromptu screams, including what is allegedly some offensive language. But the most shocking aspect of ‘You Really Got Me’ is Dave’s guitar solo: utterly devoid of technique and good taste, Davies lets loose in a flurry of notes that feel every bit as lust-filled as the lyrics.
For years there was an unverified rumour that Jimmy Page, then a top-tier session man in the London music scene, had been the actual performer of the guitar solo. Like many other musicians for hire, Page did play on a few early Kinks tracks, but ‘You Really Got Me‘ was not one of them. With nearly 60 years passed, it’s clear that the solo’s uncouth and deranged style could only be played by one person: Dave Davies. As if to punctuate how unique the playing style was to him, Dave replicated it on their next single, ‘All Day and All of the Night’, just for good measure.
‘All Day and All of the Night’, recorded a few months after ‘You Really Got Me’, already showed the quick progression The Kinks were experiencing. The two songs have similar compositions and sound styles, but Dave had already found a way to make his guitar sound even more distorted, the band found a way to make their vocals even more harried, and Ray found a way to be even less subtle about wanting to get a girl into bed.
‘You Really Got Me’ wound up topping the UK singles chart, providing The Kinks with the career boost they needed to continue. Ray had found his voice as bandleader and songwriter, Dave had created his signature guitar tone, and The Kinks established their reputation as a frantic youthful group of rock and rollers who could be dirtier, heavier, and cooler than any band around.
The proof is in the pudding: after nearly six decades, ‘You Really Got Me’ has easily become one of the most influential rock and roll songs of all time and, as ever, it was all because of a pretty girl.